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…

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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.

Semantics & Sports Science; the double knee bend and other taboos

Today I think may just go that extra mile and incite a full-fledged riot in the sports science community. I’m going into dangerous territory, where reputations are on the line, and punches are seldom pulled.

It takes a pinch from my first article, on the myth of the one true path, and gives you a few anecdotes from various walks of my professional career.

Today it’s time to explore commonly held beliefs on coaching, technical skills, try and address the origins and break down the myths surrounding training, coaching and just what it is to lift.

I’ll start with a big difference, found between those who practice “fitness” (or more accurately cardio) and those who practice strength. I make this distinction because fitness encompasses strength, mobility, stability, endurance, power, mental strength, aerobic and anaerobic capacity, and this list in itself is by no means the end of it, but you get the idea.

Thankfully the days of (Fitness=cardio) are becoming a thing of the past, with the advent and influence of crossfit and HIIT. The day of the half hour on the treadmill is being successfully challenged, and there is a wider spectrum of training methods that are now much more commonplace.

When I first became a fitness instructor many years ago (level 2); it was only a means to an end. I’d been involved in strength training and weightlifting competitively for quite a few years, and had racked up a few coaching licenses on my way. I had the basics of anatomy and physiology, as well as fundamental movement skills and strength training.

It struck me as surprising that an entire industry would teach something so fundamentally flawed that went so fervently against everything I’d learnt in strength training; the journals, articles and research I’d read, professionals I’d learnt from, and yet on my assessment day, just like passing your driving test; my blood ran cold as I was forced to utter the phrase “and you mustn’t allow the hips to go below parallel” when teaching the squat in my exam.

My examiner, was also a strength and conditioning coach, we both knew this was incorrect, but he had to “tick that box” despite knowing full well the logic held as much water as your average sieve.

Asking someone who is at the time, bearing load (weights), to decelerate, stop, turn around and apply the forces needed to get themselves moving again, all at the point where there is most sheer force on the knee, greatest strain on the patella tendon is simply madness. It’s asking for injury.

3f711_ORIG-9feb2_ass_to_grassSee, happy as you like

It also promotes muscle imbalance, which is a nightmare to fix in any athlete, client or gym user. The whole idea of going to the gym is that you’re better when you leave, not worse. So not only does squatting to parallel have the highest risk of injury, but prolonged usage of this particular variation of the squat actually systematically increases  your risk of injury in the long run. One quick caveat, I’m not talking about competitive powerlifters here; this is the body pump and aerobics classes of this world that purvey this particular myth. Powerlifters performing low bar squats to move the maximum amount of weight based on the particular rules of their competition is entirely different than saying that this is the one and only way of squatting. That myth is entirely a fitness industry staple.

Breaking parallel is the way to go, transfer the weight to where it should be and build actual movement, strength, balance and coordination. More important for athletes in field and team sports where sprinting mechanics are important; this will reduce quad dominance and decrease the risk of a hamstring tears due to proportional anterior and posterior strength and mobility. No need to take my word for it, this little snippet sums it up beautifully

Image

So why does the partial squat continue to be taught as the required standard in the fitness industry… frankly the only answer I can come up with is laziness.

It’s easier to avoid putting the time and effort into addressing one of the most chronic issues affecting the vast majority of the population, sweeping it under the carpet and pretending it doesn’t exist. This allows people to exercise in their comfort zones, which is pretty much the mantra of almost all major commercial gyms.

A little inside knowledge here…. If I ask you, what is a commercial gym for? The usual thought is, they are there to get you fitter, but the dirty little secret is, that they’re not. If you got better on your own, why would you come back? Fitness gyms, (massive chains, and we all can name quite a few major examples) have almost identical set ups. How they operate, their ethos, it’s really obvious when you look at who gets paid.

There are the reception teams, there to let you in and out, cleaners etc. But the only other people employed and paid are… the management and sales teams.

So your membership, the money you pay, the bottom line. That’s what the gym goes for ten times out of ten. They’ve entire teams dedicated to keeping you coming back, paying memberships, rather than instructing and teaching progressive training principles to help you get better.

Actually taking the time to get the general population flexible enough, stable enough and strong enough to perform the squat (as well as a million other beneficial exercises) properly would be too time consuming, cost too much and ultimately eat into the profitability of the structures that have been put in place. The investment is in a continuous, increasing membership base, not in the improvement of the members they already have.

This ethos of short cuts and quick fixes rather than long term progressive health benefits is rife, it’s even tainted the education process to the extent that a detrimental long term adaptation is taught as standard practice.  It’s pandemically wide spread, with the next fad taking over as quickly as the last one died out.

I don't know who thought this one up... but i see what you did there

I don’t know who thought this one up… but i see what you did there

Just like yo-yo dieting; misinformation, general ignorance and an industry that has let money overtake quality has reached the limits of what was possible. The tipping point has come and gone, and the increased knowledge, results showing from other training is now becoming more and more mainstream.

In a discussion with a prominent strength and conditioning coach I posed the same question about the depth of the hip, and he said thank F*** for the likes of Weightlifting, Crossfit and strength training, which is bringing an end to this dangerous practice.

It isn’t gone yet, but it is thankfully on its way out.

*A side note for anyone interested… the aesthetics of a good squat are a great side effect; Glute activation more than triples during a proper full depth squat. So it does make for a much better derriere.

Sticking with the squat… one other major myth that rears its ugly head is letting the knee track over the toe. Let’s be clear, if you’re knee moves over the toe, That Is FINE…. Hell It’s necessary depending on how long your femurs are. If you’re femur is 2 feet long, then stopping you’re knee from tracking properly over the toe, as in past the end of your foot, is only going to mean you compensate by keeping the bum high, dropping the chest and turning the squat, into a good morning. This places more load on the lower back…. Back injuries in squatting, It’s not the squat that’s the problem, it could very likely be poor form and compensation from tightness around the ankles. So you’re left to compensate with poor form, either that or your unbalanced ass is going to fall over as all your weight will be behind your heels. When the centre of gravity is not over the base, there’s not a lot left to do but fall over.

squat form

The only way to maintain a proper, upright torso, flat back (or neutral spine if you prefer) is to let the knee travel past the toe. The issue with tracking is that the knee is a hinge joint. It doesn’t like to be twisted, so track the knee over the toe, by aiming the knee to travel down the centre of the foot. Aim the knee between the big toe and the second toe and you’re good. The knees will travel in a straight line, and the circumduction, rotation and all those other movements will be taken care of by the hips. They eat that stuff up, they’re designed for it. Everyone wins. Better squat, better weights, better movement and proportionally strong athletes.

The next one is fun, and it comes down to experience and one small tit bit, science Vs Art.  Not nearly as philosophical as it sounds, but just a matter of taking in more variables and not trying to factually and functionally label absolutely everything.

When running coaching courses, I’m often in a room with guys and girls who are doing S&C at university or sports scientists, and they know that weightlifting in general or at least throughout Europe and pretty much everywhere that isn’t America, doesn’t teach the double knee bend. So they love asking me questions, you know, the ones you don’t get asked pretty much every time…. Honest.

For those wondering what I’m talking about, the double knee bend happens in deadlift, cleans, snatches and any exercise lifting the bar from the floor to about mid-thigh or higher.

What happens is that the legs straighten out (how far depends on relative limb length – Arms : Torso : Legs) as you lift the weight, they then re-bend once the bar passes the knees, hence the overly elaborate term double knee bend. It’s right up there for triple extension for its jargontastic properties. Triple extension is a fancy way of saying straight legs and up on the toes, but more on that later.

The double knee bend happens, it’s shown time and again in lifts and is therefore taught by S&C associations and accreditation bodies which is fine, but it’s mandatory to actively teach it on your test, which isn’t. The question is, if it happens, then why is this a problem?

It is yet another “tick the box” moment, which has come by, only this time on something that does actually happen, so less ridiculous than the fitness industry.

The thing is, cleans, snatches, even the simpler deadlift are still all pretty complicated exercises.

In a snatch the human body moves from fully squatted (start), to fully extended (end of second pull), to fully squatted (catch), to fully extended position (recovery), all within 1-1.5 seconds. Hitting a window, about 5 cm’s wide to secure the weight in a position above the base so the athlete can successfully complete and recover with as heavy a load as possible. The margin for error is miniscule.

The trick to performing it well is to be accelerating the bar from the start, you cannot think your way through the lifts, they happen too quickly. You have to practice good motor patterns to perform an extremely complex movement at speed. So giving an athlete more to think about than they actually need at any point is really just showing off that you know something about it, rather than coaching it.

A simple albeit rhetorical question, does the coach need to know…. Yes. Does the athlete…. Not necessarily.

A good sports scientist knows enough about the movements to fully understand them. A good coach knows enough about the athlete to make it both simple and applicable. Unfortunately, most sports scientists, and even S&C instructors in my experience are simply not familiar enough with the movements involved in the snatch and clean, to be both confident in their use, and proficient enough to coach them. This is no sleight against sports scientists, they are a lifetimes’ work in themselves, and it’s hard to be an expert in everything.

This is where being open enough to ask for help would really be beneficial, scientist or coach.

If I needed to learn to swim, I’d go to a swimming coach. To sprint I’d go to a sprints coach, to cycle, I’d hit the velodrome. So where do you turn when you want to learn snatches and cleans… to the people who’ve spent years teaching, performing and perfecting those exercises. Like it or not It’s a really specialist area, and the best people to learn it from are the people who’ve been immersed in that world forever and a day.

That’s not to say weightlifters know it all. Far from it. Without a good grounding in the principles of sports science: periodisation in programming, overload and supercompensation, recovery strategies, biomechanics, energy systems, neuro-muscular incorporation, etc. the technique in itself is only going to get you so far. Just bear in mind if running people down from the lofty heights of academia, that those same principles were born in weightlifting. Thankfully the more people in academia I speak to and work with, the more open minded I find them, which is awesome. Soon we’ll be one big happy family, if only we could get the weightlifting coaches to open up to new ideas as well..

The combination of the science behind the lifts, and the art of their performance, for the right reps, at the right load with the right technique is where the athlete truly gets the best from their coach.

So it’s not that we shouldn’t ever teach the double knee bend, it’s just that teaching it has more often been counter productive to creating the overarching principle that really makes a good performance of the snatch, clean etc.

Which is that the exercise is by definition, – One, uninterrupted, accelerated movement of a barbell, from the ground to the overhead/shoulder position.

Notice – uninterrupted, and accelerated, neither of which is achieved by the psychological effect of actively thinking about re-bending the knees, this actively breaks the acceleration of the bar, and is usually counterproductive.

I can’t say this is always the case, but I can say I’ve never found an athlete where I’ve actively had to teach this movement. If I do ever find an athlete where this is a good coaching que I’ll definitely use it. I’m just saying, after over a decade of coaching, I’m still waiting, which is why I question it as a mandatory element to teach to pass a test. The practical test is the ability to coach, the theory is the time to write down every detail about a subject. Mixing the two is problematic at best.

Not to pick on sports science and fitness professionals, but the levels of semantic back and forth outlined above happen even in weightlifting circles. Athletes have it hammered into them, X is automatic, where Y is something you need to work on without first checking if this is actually true for the athlete.

This time, it’s the turn of the triple extension. I’ve been guilty of going up on the toes early in my second pull, but I’ve learnt from my mistakes, that doesn’t mean I don’t teach athletes to go up on the toes. I do. And I get harpooned by weightlifting coaches who think I’m joking.

Sorry guys and girls. I’m not. It happens in the lift, only this time it’s not counter-productive to teach, if you use experience to que it up properly.

Try jumping standing only on your heels. Then jump normally (going onto your toes) if you got more height with the heels, stop lieing, no you didn’t. It was the toes that got more height, more acceleration, more power.

See, this complaint of other coaches I understand. Athletes who do not drive from a flat footed position, tend to be off balance, on the toes too quickly and there is a loss of power, but that to me doesn’t mean I shouldn’t teach it at all, it just happens to be that it is the timing of this that causes the most problems. Which is exactly why I teach it in sequence. Teaching the athlete to stand up straight (still flat footed with knees and hips fully opened out) before going up on to the toes and then shrugging with the shoulders allows the flat footed pull, transitioning on to the toes, then shrugging the shoulders, which is what happens when performing the lift. The degrees of these contractions will be dependent on the body shape of the athlete, and how they best utilise their own biomechanics. By in large, this method works just as well, if not better than any other I have used.

My personal coaching method involves the movements first, then at speed, then with resistance. The athlete will put these together in the way that best fits their own shape, size and strength, with fine tuning to get the best from the lift in its performance.

I know it’s been a long one, so I hope you brought enough coffee for the whole class; thankfully only two main points to go, so without further ado in this intermission, Static Stretching vs dynamic stretching.

Static, maintenance stretching has its cons, it reduces explosive output, not something that’s great for an explosive exercise. However again the absolute of never do this before exercise comes up. This again doesn’t take into consideration the athlete.

Take one of my favourite athletes, and I’m very happy to say friend. Damon Kelly. When talking to one of Ireland’s leading coaches, he was asked why he was doing static stretches before a competition event, as it would reduce the explosive potential of the muscles.

This is true he said, but what I lose in explosive power, I more than make up for by being able to get into the right position in the first place. I am paraphrasing here, but the lesson was a good one.

Losing explosive power is an acceptable compromise when you have a net gain by having better technique and movement.

Static stretching in this case was more beneficial than detrimental. This isn’t always the case, but the reasons are great words to live by. Use it where it is beneficial, don’t when it isn’t.

If you have a phenomenally flexible athlete, then static stretching really isn’t going to gain much in their lifting performance. Dynamic movements, increased blood flow, better secretion of synovial fluid. That is where your lifts will benefit most in this case, so it comes down to the coaching skill of knowing and applying the best method for that particular athlete at that time.  Something that may change over time, so too then must the coaching, and the coach.

The last topic is a bit of an insight into training that has always been with us, just more recently structured and defined as a particular branch of training. I’m talking about Plyometrics and when to use them.

The word plyometric, doesn’t actually mean explosive or anything of the sort… it simply means plyo (increase) metric (measurable) or measurable increase if you prefer. It’s been adopted to bring into consideration any form of explosive power or jump based training; which is great. Just avoid getting caught up on the idea that because it has a fancy title it’s somehow a mysterious entity to be revered rather than understood.

Using plyometrics can be beneficial at any stage of a workout or even mesocycle. It’s how you use them that’s important.

I offered up the opinion to use them as part of a warm up, this did not go down well with some. I’ll not go into details but many, many…. many journals were cited to refute this idea as heresy.

Sad truth is, the actual discovery of plyometrics was at a track and field meeting where the Russian team used it as… yep… their warmup routine.

I routinely use them to warm up for weightlifting, which is in itself plyometric training with weights. The increased blood flow, prepping of the motor neurons and usage of the motor patterns involved in the snatch and clean are a great way to prepare for a session.

The main consideration here was that this usage was with well conditioned athletes, who have undergone sufficient anatomical adaptation to handle the high loads and stresses involved with both the plyometric training and the weightlifting training as well.

How and when you use plyometric training is entirely down to you, as long as you know what it’s for… the stretch shortening, (amortisation) and powerful contractions of the muscle fibres to produce increases in explosive power is a great tool for achieving that result. It’s not in isolation in the force generation capability, but it does have prerequisites, such as adequate mobility, adaptation of tendons and ligaments, proprioception as well as stabalisation strength of the limbs and core.

In all of the above, the recurring theme is that coaching as an art form – the use of absolutes to cover every possible body type, learning preference of the individual and life experience, pre-learned conflicts with new teaching are a way of trying to normalise, label and fit the impossible into neat little boxes. The truth is, there’s simply too many variables for only one right answer, what we need to look for is what works for the individual at that time, and how we can best facilitate this stage of their physical, emotional or cognitive learning.

the generic differences within sports science, strength and conditioning, general fitness, and weightlifting methodologies all disappear when the end user is the focus of the training, and not the source of the coaches learning.

Differential of inertia, the importance of pulling under the bar

This one is a topic for the physics lovers and those like myself who have spent far too much time thinking about the Olympic lifts, their movements and just what exactly is happening during a lift.

Let me just start off by stating that this article is a little bit of the science behind an often overlooked area, getting into that lovely full squat position and catching a lift under the bar.

Often times coaches, S&C instructors and even athletes are really caught up in the triple extension, getting the bar high enough to snatch or clean. This in itself is great, getting that powerful pull is absolutely crucial to a good lift, max weights and proper form; but it’s not where the exercise ends.

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A fine example of all of the above from the World Championships ©Neil Dougan 2011

If you’ve been at any of the coaching courses with me as a tutor you’ve probably heard me asking the question, “at what point does the lift finish” the vast majority of the time the answer I hear, is when the athlete is at rest with the bar overhead. For those same people I say what about practicing correctly setting it down and getting twice the amount of work from your lifts, but that’s for another article.

At this point of triple extension, a lot of beginner athletes take the foot off the gas, they think the hard work is done and drop under the bar, floating eloquently into a nice stable position with a comfortable weight.

I call Shenanigans…there’s so much more to be done… your lift isn’t finished yet!

I can almost hear the coaching cries [read excuses] ring out now; Hell we’re doing it for sport, we want good sprints, the triple extension is the most important part… and yes, for power generation that’s true.

Take this picture for example… lovely triple extension on the left leg – Hip, knee and ankle all opened out to drive powerfully and accelerate…

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Now look closer, the right leg is in triple flexion. Toe in dorsiflexion, hip flexor and hamstring all in concentric contraction. Both actions need to be performed fluidly, at speed and with as little lost effort as possible to maximise acceleration.

Nobody sprints with two straight legs after two steps, the sharp contraction of the iliopsoas (hip flexor) mimicked by the squat position, having received the bar, is essential for quick turn around and reutilisation of the limb, it is the second amortisation phase, the second stretch shortening powerful fast movement that is replicated time and again on the pitch, field, track, and yes… in the gym. Weightlifters, for you it’s actually just as, if not more important. If it’s not working at 100%, then nor are you. That 100kg snatch you were looking for when 95 sails into place… that’s only 5% guys and girls, it’s time to get efficient, it’s time to lift big.

This action, of getting quickly under the bar is where the physics comes into play. I use the physics because it so beautifully sums up why it is so important to actively pull under a bar rather than drop or flop; after all it’s the law… so it’s time to dust off the lifting shoes, it’s time to take on physics, and one of the biggest hurdles we face as lifters… Gravity.

The efficient lifter instinctively knows when to use gravity to their advantage; we’ll accelerate from standstill towards earth at 9.81 m/s², but why wait?

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Here at the 2011 world championships, we can see how little movement there is in the bar after the triple extension, but it still moves… it is moving under it’s own momentum at this stage, frame 3 shows the feet off the floor, therefore nothing to pull against to add height but empty space; or is there?

As Jennifer Aniston once said, here comes the science…

[Glossary:  M=Mass,  V=Final Velocity, U= Initial Velocity, F= Force, t= time]

The athlete is moving upwards, driving themselves up and taking the bar along for the ride, accelerating to max velocity a la frame 1. – They now have velocity… to make it simple but roughly accurate, lets call it 2m/s.

When calculating the change in inertia, or impulse Mv-Mu would be different for pulling under the bar, than an object at rest. Basically letting gravity do the work for you, slowing you to a stop, then accelerating you towards earth at 9.81ms² takes too long; bearing in mind… gravity’s doing this to the bar as well, the idea is to be under that bar when it starts plummeting to the ground.

The main difference here is the time it takes to get under the bar, which is directly affected by how much force you put into pulling under the bar once those toes of yours get a sniff of hang time leaving the floor.

If the athlete weighs 50kg (490n mass), reaches the top of their pull moving up at 2m’s and hits the bottom of their squat moving down at 2 m/s the change in speed is 4m/s or: (v-u)=4.

In the above frames, they are shot at 60 frames per second which means that it takes 4 frames to get from [V] to [U] which is 0.07 seconds to get under the bar… trust me when I say, this guy was really frickin quick

So if there is space under your feet, and only air around you, what exactly do you have to pull against? – the only object left is the bar.

The bar is travelling upwards under its own momentum at this stage, so what you in fact do by pulling against it is transfer your upward momentum [V] into the bar, increasing it’s velocity, reducing your own by creating downward impulse in your body. This gets the 2m/s speed under the bar or final velocity [U]

The harder you pull, the faster you decelerate, and therefore transfer more force, and upward momentum into the bar as a result. This is the differential of inertia – you defer your inertia into the bar by actively pulling against it like it was nailed to the damn floor. When those deodorant ads said men can’t help acting on impulse, I wonder if they knew the secret to epic lifts…

This means you accelerate down under the bar quicker, take less time to do it, and there is more upward force going into the bar as a result. All of which means… heavier weights!

Just in case there’s a few thinking… I’ve done the analysis, I have the figures: The bar doesn’t get any quicker after triple extension. This is true, but it will decelerate slower with an athlete pulling under the bar, the actual upward momentum gained by the bar during pull under is very minimal.

In any case, the bar is not what’s important in this equation, but the speed of the lifter, if they are under the bar much sooner, the bar has less time to come to rest and head earthbound under gravity, which means the lifter has a much better chance of snatching or cleaning that weight.

There is also an added benefit to this, the psychological one gained by teaching that this is an active part of lifting rather than an addendum to a clean or a snatch.

When the athlete has to focus on actively pulling under the bar then they’re more engaged, less relaxed and just that little bit sharper when it comes to performing the movements.

The action of pulling under the bar, even the language used, lets the lifter know that they are expected to maintain form, continue to lift until the bar is overhead, and not simply coast after Vmax/triple extension.

There are no thoughts of relaxation, or lesser effort, max effort must be maintained until the bar is secured overhead and successfully recovered.

This translates to faster athletes under the bar, more powerful contractions at the hips (great for sprinters and getting those muscles up to standard for good running mechanics) and more weight being lifted due to the increased efficiency of the lifter.

This minimises the distance the bar drops, lowering the force transferred into the lifter when it is caught as it is moving slower, and allows the lifter to again lift heavier as a result.

So why overlook this one small aspect when even small percentages play such a massive role at the high end of lifting.

The less scientific explanations is simply this;

The harder you pull under the bar once the feet leave the floor, the quicker your momentum is transferred into it, with more force, which gets you under the bar quicker, into a stronger position [psychological effect], and even has the added benefit of scraping that little bit of extra height into the bar.

No matter what way you look at it, the bar will be higher when you catch it, you’ll be under it quicker and therefore able to do heavier weights as a result.