Technique happens in the training room, not the competition platform

it’s been a long time, but I’ve finally gotten back behind the keyboard and a little bit of extra time to empty my brain into the webosphere.

Today’s a quick insight to the perils of studying weightlifting through social media and the educational wonder/nightmare that is Youtube.

I already feel like I sound like an old man saying this, some would say I am, but I digress… the main point is not that the videos etc. on social media are bad, or in any way unrealistic; for the most part they’re pretty accurate.

There are videos that are completely ridiculous, and frankly technique that should only be on camera in the form of a blooper reel, but for this segment, i’m going to focus solely on the analysis of competitive weightlifters, top class performers at their sport; away from the weekend workout warriors or text book only teachers.

What is misleading when using top class performers; is basing technical analysis from a 1RM attempt. The weights seen on the platform are the ones used to win, the top end of an athlete’s ability; Ask yourself the question, how good is your technique above 95% of your best weights?

Only the absolute pinnacle of performance athletes maintain really good technique to their maximal lifts.These individuals are the exception to the rule, those that are truly great at their art; beyond which us mere mortals can hope or even strive to attain.

Lu Xiaojun, has impeccable technique, rarely flinching, and rarer still missing. He is one of the greatest examples of technical proficiency, skill mastery and consistency that the sport has ever seen; he is unfortunately in the significant minority.

 

This kind of consistency is the weightlifting equivalent of a blue moon, it happens so rarely and only a handful of generations will ever witness it.

That said, excellent technique, examples of movements worth study are abundant, most who wish to learn from, study and analyse these same athletes are simply looking in the wrong place.

How do the athletes prepare for competition, where is technique borne, honed and practiced at its absolute best?

The answer – The training hall, the warmup room. This small dark annex, mere feet from the biggest stage an athlete will ever grace; this is where analytical cameras should point. The awesome spectacle of the biggest weights on an Olympic stage, so fluidly moved by the best at their game is a sight for spectators, awe inspiring, motivating, and the end result of decisions made and battles won and lost in the training halls throughout years of hard training, sacrifice and physical and mental endurance.

There are countless videos analysing technique, studies and theories on movement skills, biomechanics, and even technical analysis taught, based on principles used when evaluating the technique of top class performers; all when their skill is performed at its absolute worst.

Move away from the lure of the spotlight and isolation of the main stage, cast your gaze, and your lens into the back room. The 50%’s the 75%’s 80%’s & 90%’s. The skill sharpening, Light loading and technical perfection of lifters doing what they do best. Smooth, but challenging weights that sail effortlessly, sub maximal attempts where every fibre of the body is working in unison, and before the weak link in a lifters strength or ability rears its head.

This is where the camera will capture the single best source of visual information. This is where those wishing to truly understand what it takes to lift, what it means to even be selected for the event, a competitor, a contender, can see the fluidity, skill and art that lifters strive for years to achieve.

The lessons learned may only be one small part of what it takes to lift, but when you watch it, when you see what lifters go through in the training hall, when skill, sharpness and proficiency are still on their agenda;

You see weightlifting at its purest, before the yearning, and overpowering desire to grab hold of a bar and rip its head off takes hold, and the physical and mental preparation of a lifter is tested to the limit.

There really is only one place to study technique, at the place it occurs at its absolute best. That only happens before the big stage, before the hot burning lights, and more often than not, before the audience ever knows you were even there…

Why I’m proud to lift like a girl

This week has been a good one, I’ve really enjoyed the numbers of women that have showed a sincere interest in taking up the sport. It surprises me how open, willing and eager they are to really test their strength, get stuck in and mix it up with the guys in the gym.

In typing this, there’s only one thing that surprised me more… and it’s that I still find this hard to believe.

In my last post I talked about the advent of crossfit, the absolute sledgehammer it took to the myths about women lifting weights, and sometimes I think that despite all the awesome people, especially women, I’ve met who relish the challenges, love the training and teach my stubborn ass a thing or two time and again; I’m still amazed by the forward thinking ones that escape the treadmill for a life of ever upward, stronger, faster and fitter.

I’ll not dwell on the positives of weightlifting for women, there’s a million reasons that weightlifting, or even certain aspects of resistance training are not only more beneficial than any other form of training, but that a lot of this is even more important to women.

I was devastated, that I was at a national championship event, almost 300 miles from home, and yet couldn’t make it to an osteoporosis charity event (round the corner from the competition venue), where 30 women lifted in excess of a combined 300,000Lb’s. This magnificent feat of strength was to promote the improvements on bone mineral density and reduction in serious afflictions like osteoporosis, resistance training, specifically weightlifting has to offer.

More importantly it involved several of Ireland’s finest examples of technical performance; all of which women.

Many in the gym have heard me harp on about – technique, technique, technique… – but when it comes right down to it, the best movers and shifters in the weightlifting world are the lightest, most efficient lifters there are. They have to be; they have to be that much better technically, as they do not have sheer size, strength or ignorance to power through weights like their heavier counterparts.

Thing is, when you look at the light weight classes, the ones that stand out to me most, are almost always the women’s classes.

The men’s events have excellent displays of technical ability, but as an awful generalisation I’m going to get a lot of abuse for, the women are simply, consistently, and continuously better throughout; More athletes, in more weight classes, performing excellent lifts, technically, and with a huge amount of weight on the line.

I’ve another piece in mind that’ll be with you soon, about where to look for technique, but that’s for another time.

Most lifters look at their class, maybe those around it, they know the best in their groups, best of all time… but I’m a coach. I’ve watched the pocket Hercules lift the only 500+ sinclair in history

I’ve watched in awe as Lu Xaiojun effortlessly breaks world records time and again. But the most breath-taking part was not simply the weight that was lifted, but just how it was lifted. It was fast, smooth, technically unbelievable. It is simply a master class in every aspect, and I’d highly recommend anyone watch it.

 

But more and more I found myself inspired by the technical prowess of the women’s weightlifting teams. The lightest groups are simply fantastic when it comes to the technical execution of the lifts. It is also where you see some exceptionally large weights being shifted by equally diminutive people. I mean this in no way as offensive, I’m barely 5”5 (1.65m) myself and lift at 69kg. I’m by no means the biggest lifter out there. But I do train a lot of guys, rugby players, 2m tall and counting, over 100kg, and their ability for strength, is only usually initially matched by their inflexibility, and lack of movement skills when they start.

Thing is those same light women, outlift the burly men in almost every case. It is not their size that’s important. Their weapon of choice is movement; Quick, explosive, fluid. A symphony of neuro- and biomechanics in action. It’s mesmerising, to see the bar and lifter seamlessly integrate into one, smooth amalgamation of speed, precision and strength.

The skill required is immense, and should those of greater stature not only harness, but fully utilise this potential, the weights lifted would be simply astounding. This is what I strive for in my own lifts. It is this that I hold highest above all other achievements. I can move, I can move well… and I can use these movements to achieve what onlookers see as impossible, until it’s done that is.

My lifts may not be exceptional, but to joe public, they’re numbers that are hard to get your head around, and exercises that are even harder to get your body around. When you tell them, there are women, my weight, lifting the same, in some cases more, jaws hit the floor.

There is no magic to it, simply a long time, honing, training and specifically targeting this aspect of performance; and it cannot be underestimated.

Resistance is important, training the correct muscle fibres to fire, in the right order, for the right result requires it. However, without the skill aspect of weightlifting, this simply wouldn’t happen.

Weightlifting differs from other strength sports in that the margin for error is so small.

In deadlift, it doesn’t matter if you lift with a round back, it’s still possible to lift the weight. I’m not saying this is the recommended approach by any means, I’m simply saying that it’s possible.

Even with mediocre technique, there is a significant amount that can be lifted in deadlifts, squats etc. This does not mean all powerlifters are poor technicians, quite the opposite, the best at their sport are technicians of their craft, no different than the best amongst any weightlifting populous.

What it means in very real terms, is that the difference in returns gained from technique in powerlifting, are nowhere near the returns gained for efficient and effective technique in weightlifting.

In weightlifting, say the snatch, the body moves from fully squatted, to fully extended (triple extension), to fully squatted (catch) to fully extended (recovery) all in under 1.5s.

The bar is moved overhead and caught half way through this process, stabalised overhead, in a window no bigger than the base of your feet to secure the combined centre of gravity of bar and lifter, before recovering to the standing position.

Thing is, if even the slightest bit of movement is off, the lift will fail. The bar has to constantly accelerate or it will not gain sufficient height, it has to be kept close to the body to effectively and efficiently add greatest acceleration to it, and this must happen throughout the lift. The lifter must pull hard enough to get the bar to sufficient height, before completely reversing their own trajectory, pulling under, to secure the bar in a full squat position, which must be positioned exactly under the point of the bar, that combines its centre of gravity with their own to ensure that the base is sufficient to support the lift, as well as maintaining a strong enough structure, with hip, knee, ankle, trunk, core, shoulder stabilisation, all taxed to their absolute limits, and working in 100% harmony.

In very real terms, what this means is that those with insufficient technique, simply cannot perform the lifts. Those with poor technique, simply can’t compare, or compete with those who can.

When a weightlifting coach says someone has poor technique, they may in fact be saying that they’re getting about 95% of the lift right. Problem is, due to the nature of the lifts, and to an extent the perfectionist nature of us mere mortals striving for them, 95% is simply not enough. It could easily be that even at 93% of perfect in the snatch, the lifter is still at risk of injury, due to major technical faults, such as a rounded back, which is immediately dangerous, or twisting to secure the bar overhead, which can lead to muscle imbalance and injury long term.

As weightlifters we are intimately familiar with the lifts, the experience gained in their pursuit cannot be underestimated. There is a unique understanding and appreciation of just what it is to lift that comes with time under the bar, in the gym, and in the eternal pursuit of excellence.

Striking that balance of strength and finesse is a lifelong challenge, never completed but thoroughly enjoyed. It is an amazing feeling, the weightlessness of the bar, that first time a lift feels almost effortless in its execution. It’s a feeling you can spend your life trying to recreate, and not feel bad that you couldn’t do twice. It is in itself euphoric when it happens, and one of the greatest reasons we hold our sport in such high regard. Only a weightlifter knows that feeling, the first time it happens, you’re done for. It is an affliction for perfection from which there is no return.

It explains why we get grumpy when we see it done badly; it is infuriating at times when there is simply no intent towards what is almost the definition of perfection when it comes to moving weights in a way that tests every physical and mental components of fitness; speed, power, strength, flexibility, balance, control, coordination, reaction times, concentration, state of mind, and so on. We want people to feel the joy we feel, and it’s not possible when it’s not done right.

After my previous post, I’ve heard the allegory that crossfit specialises in not specialising, this is why the technique is not the same. This I feel is untrue. Crossfit is a pursuit to be the best, same as any competitive pursuit, that’s why there are competitions and leagues. To have it said that avoiding spending time getting better at a very technical exercise, by not practicing technique because it’s not fitness is simply mind blowing. It’s a huge problem.

My basic opinion – If you’re going to incorporate it into your program: Do it right, no excuses!

Thankfully there are a massive amount who share that opinion and do not shy away from the fact that these movements require a lot more than a one day cert to qualify you to teach. This is hotly debated, even internally throughout crossfit.

I’m seriously lucky, all my interactions with the crossfit clubs I have worked with have been massively positive.

They display not only the key movement skills to perform, but also the unmistakable quality of a fantastic teacher/coach/mentor. They want to learn. All of them, the athletes, coaches, owners, everyone. They want to be better, they want to learn, and they’re all more than willing to ask for the help where they need it most.

I applaud this, I love this, it is one of the reasons my interaction, and subsequently view of crossfit as a whole is so positive. I don’t know the videos of the fails, the youtube comments…. I know the people; and frankly the people are great.

Anyway that is a digression to the previous post. This post is about one thing… the unbelievable women of weightlifting.

The pinnacle of those same components of fitness I mentioned earlier; the absolute best the sport has to offer.

The time dedicated to the skills, the programs, gruelling training and, until very recently, the isolation encountered means I have the utmost respect for the women who have perfected their art.

Until very recently, this was exclusively a mens only sport. Weightlifting is the oldest serving sport of the modern Olympics, and even so, the first women’s event actually took place in Sydney in 2000. It took the turn of the millennium to have inclusivity at the Olympic games, the absolute pinnacle of our sport.

To now sit back and see world record after world record tumble in the 2013 world championships, is a testament to the hard work, perseverance and dedication that has been invested. It’s not because they are women; but because, they not only lift incredible weights, but do so, with a technical ability to not only rival, but supersede their male competition.

In short, when I want to see how weightlifting should be done. It isn’t the 105+ men I look towards, jerking 260 and beyond; it is the lightest, most efficient, and to my mind significantly greater achievements of the lightest, efficient and most effective performers of our sport.

That’s what I strive towards, and why you’ll only ever see me smile if someone says, I lift like a girl.

Crossfit and weightlifting, an objective critique

It’s been a while since my last entry, it was a long one, so apologies if you’re only finally finishing it now.

There’s something that’s been playing on my mind, and it again centres on preconceived notions. Mostly the at the extremes:

crossfitter mentality – Crossfit is epic; we’ve the strongest, fastest athletes etc     Vs       Strength athletes, Crossfit will actually kill you, they’re weak, technique is awful, lets mock them at every opportunity, and so on.

Let me start by putting off basically my entire audience by saying; I’m a strength coach. Specifically a weightlifting coach. I’ve been training for a decade and a half, coaching for almost a decade. The odd thing is… I love crossfit.

The idea of it, the very notion of brining Olympic lifts to the masses and getting some excitement away from the dusty barns and books of yesteryear; It’s awesome to see such excitement, enthusiasm and love for the sport, it’s humbling to think of just how many people now share what has been a massive part of my life, with something that has taken up more than half of my lifetime.

That said, there are dangers with this new found enthusiasm; that being the danger of extremely complicated exercises, being taught by other amateur performers of the lifts.

The snatch as well as clean and jerk, involve some of, if not the highest amount of motor neuron incorporation of any exercises. The amount of muscle that has to be used in a very specific order to get the best effect is staggering.

The main thing that beginners say to me, is how surprisingly difficult the lifts are to perform. Even with light bars and weights, it’s surprising to them just how out of breath they are, and how much there is to get right for the lift to be a success. My usual answer is simply… that’s why we do them.

A weightlifter is an athlete who revels in both the physical challenge of shifting heavy weights, but more than that. It requires technique, finesse, flexibility and a level of control you simply don’t get with other exercises.

We weren’t satisfied that the weights were heavy, they had to be hard to do. In both mental and very real terms, the bar had to be high, or we didn’t want to know.

I think he’s Happy; ok Dimas, you can put it down now

I think he’s Happy; ok Dimas, you can put it down now

Crossfit shares this mentality… The WOD’s are often times brutal, their results are extreme transformations in both physical and mental strength, speed, power, endurance.  The weekly challenge has been both excruciating and mesmerising every Thursday throwdown @Asylum where we take on the local crossfit, resulting in a weekly festival of sweat and tears. We’ve gotten our asses kicked and kept coming back for more.

Like certain countries that won’t let that one victory of yesteryear fade from memory in search of the next big thing, I’ve been heard uttering the phrase, “yea we beat them at fran!” and more than once.

This competitive spirit for exercise is not lost on me, I embrace it. At this point you probably think I’m a convert, I almost did myself, but in actuality, a competitive instinct to be great at something I enjoyed is what brought me to weightlifting in the first place. Through 7 years on a rugby pitch, loving every second of brutal contact, being beaten and broken, I found weightlifting. It was a new challenge, and I threw myself into its world, and before I knew it I was a part of it.

It is this same eager participation I feel when working with crossfitters, they love the sport, not holding it in the sacred halls of austerity; but getting stuck in, training hard and reaping the rewards.

Yes there are a million things going wrong,

Case in point

Case in point

It is at times wreckless with the definitions, performance, and frankly safety of something we hold so close to our hearts.

Weightlifters really care about our sport (don’t tell anyone they’ll think we’re wusses)

it’s like saving up all your hard earned cash, or in our case hours in the gym, to achieve this wonderful thing. Like buying that car you’ve always dreamed of, only now some reckless teenager has borrowed the keys, and you’re petrified they’re going to cock it up for everyone.

Thing is it was never yours to begin with. The exercises are just exercises, they’re fun, challenging, and everyone deserves the opportunity to learn, practice and love them as much as we do.

Like crossfit, weightlifting has its good and bad coaches; with awful technique not limited to the crossfit hall of fame, but littered around each bad coach from weightlifting or crossfit. It’s not the sports fault, we have great programs and great lifters… so does crossfit. A bad coach is a bad coach, I personally can’t blame the sport for that, it’s not the athletes fault they were given dangerous loads too early, by someone who wasn’t competent, that happens no matter where you go, or what sport you do.

Thing is, crossfit was a victim of its success at this early stage. It’s apparent to everyone that it is an absolute publicity and marketing machine.

Frankly I think most were just pissed off that crossfit captured the imagination of the public in a way weightlifting never could. We were too old, a dusty relic of days gone by, mumbling to whoever would listen in our dank and dusty caves where iron, wood and rubber ruled. Suddenly there’s new life in the sport, and more people than ever before dragging us kicking and screaming into the light, and to be honest the fresh air is doing us all the world of good.

Say you do weightlifting or sports conditioning circuits; horrendous visions of sweaty men indoors with med balls and pools of murky sweat you’d need a mop for jump to mind. Call it crossfit, and all the skimpy clothes, great bums and fantastic figures spring out like a bright summers morning (and I never said that wasn’t still the men… perverts)

This same ability to grab the right attention, ensured it grabbed the wrong attention. You only have to google crossfit fail compilation and you’ll see where the snide comments come from.

However, crossfit is fast maturing and accelerating up a steep learning curve.

Weighltifting is not purist, elite and only for strength atheltes. They are high energy, explosive, taxing exercises, something I’ve used to great effect in my personal training for years. The exercises are just that, exercises.

How you use the exercise determines its effect. You want cardio-fitness? higher reps, lower weight (%1RM). You want strong, competitive athletes? more rest, less reps, bigger weights. It’s not set in stone, use them the way you want to benefit most, but please, don’t call yourself strong for doing 50 reps with a light weight, that’s endurance. Most weightlifters joke about their lack of fitness… funny that it’s true, but also a sign they could be missing a trick. A good tolerance to lactic never hurt any weightlifter during a conditioning phase.

When I took the time to step back and really look; the single biggest fault I could see, was how the athletes embrace each other but the coaches didn’t. I decided it was up to me to take the first step, if I didn’t I was only part of the problem.

Crossfit coaches are a fairly open minded bunch if you get the right ones, there are those who are really defensive after enduring a lot of abuse from outside; they’ve every right to be, something they hold dear was getting abused by someone who didn’t know as much as they did (sound familiar?).

The thing is, when it comes to the technique of weightlifting, it takes years of dedication to come to grips with even the basic concepts; that’s where this creeps in…

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But I truly believe it’s becoming less and less common, the more time that better and better crossfitters demonstrate what is possible when you practice good form, and become efficient in how you move. If you move like a weightlifter, you move more efficiently when moving the biggest weights possible. If you move in the same way for lighter weights… you use up less energy, and can move more of them.

I was lucky enough to do my crossfit cert under Mike Burgner, an awesome coach, and an awesome person. He’s forgotten more about the lifts than I’ll probably ever learn; and also happy to call it like it is.

I loved listening to him, the no nonsense approach to weightlifting, the skill and discipline required shone through, and this was a crossfit certification.

So what does this mean for me?

I stepped into the world of crossfit, and I came out loving it. I’m still a weightlifter, I still train for strength, but I’m more than happy to help guide, coach and hone the skills of anyone, and everyone who wants to share in that same love for the exercises I hold so close to my heart.

It’s not that you have to train for strength because “that’s what the exercises are for”… they’re not. They’re exercises, that’s all. It’s just that you have to respect the weightlifter for the time dedication and energy they’ve spent into perfecting how they move, to accelerate a heavy object, into a small window overhead, with such a small margin for error. The tens, hundreds and thousands of hours teaching themselves how to move does in my book earn respect for your own endeavours. What it doesn’t earn you is the right to belittle someone doing the same thing for a different effect.

So how do we solve it… simple, learn from each other. Weightlifting has been a minority for so long that we’ve almost forgotten what it’s like to be interesting, sexy and fun. The midlife crisis is over, and it’s time for the sport to shake off the old, embrace the new and let them learn from us, rather than ridicule.

If we don’t it’s simple, they’ll get better, and soon they’ll be teaching us…. Ok maybe not, but you get the idea.

If weightlifters can embrace the amazing attributes crossfit can bring to an aging sport, teamwork, excitement, fun, we can have better, stronger and amazing athletes handed to us right on our doorstep, all we have to do is open ourselves up to it.

If crossfit can keep those same ego’s in check, embrace the knowledge, time and expertise that weightlifters have to offer in the technical, movement and strength training aspects of crossfit, we’ll both have much better athletes at the end, and everyone who joins in will find they’ve got a much bigger family to be a part of.

A family I’m proud to say I’m part of.