Friday, April 27, 2012

A General Philosophy for the Development of Weightlifters

I really like weightlifting.

I think about it entirely too much. It's weird, you guys, seriously. If weightlifting was a chick I would absolutely stalk her on Facebook. The downside of this obsession (or rather, what I assume normal people see as a downside) is that I have no social life at all because I just sit at home, thinking about weightlifting. Really. Take, for example, this 100% completely real text message conversation that happened on a recent Saturday night, while I was at home watching videos of weightlifting on YouTube:

Friend: Dude, there are like 20 of us at CRBC! Come down! (CRBC is a bar right down the street from my house.
Me: Will Klokov be there?
Me: See you Monday.

But the upside is that I think I am starting to understand this whole picking-things-up-and-putting-them-down-thing. So I figured I would write some stuff about it.

Make no mistake: I am at best a mediocre lifter, and a pretty decent coach. None of what is written here is new, and some of it is pretty obvious, at least to anyone who's spent some time training the lifts. Some of the things that I think now may very well change, and I will most certainly have a better understanding of them in five years. I'm also certain that I will add to it over time This writing will serve as an organized reminder to myself of precepts around which to base my training, and the training of my lifters. If I'm lucky, it will help someone else too.

The following concepts are not presented in any particular order, except for #1, because I feel that all the others follow from it. If the first concept presented is assumed to be true and correct, I believe that it is easy to see how the others make sense.

#1: Position Is Everything

If you can put your body in the right positions, with the bar following correctly, with maximal loads, consistently, you will be lifting at the limit of your potential. That's pretty much it.

Oh, right. I'm explaining things.

How far ahead of the bar are the shoulders when the bar is just below the knees? How long can the lifter stay over the bar once it's past the knees? How close to his center of mass can the lifter keep the bar? Beyond the novice stages of learning the lifts and building base strength, the lifters ability to consistently and powerfully transition through the optimal positions will be the determinant factor in how efficient he is.  Everything else follows. Keep this idea in mind when reading the rest.

#2: Mechanics, Consistency, Intensity

I'm sure many people who wind up reading this will be CrossFitters, and thus will probably be familiar with the hierarchy of mechanics, consistency, intensity which is generally presented as a core concept of CrossFit training. It applies to weightlifting too, but it is important to remember that, as a good friend of mine once said, it is a chronological, not philosophical, hierarchy. In other words, the ultimate goal of training is to lift at the highest intensity (i.e., the heaviest weight) possible, ideally in competition. But in order to achieve maximum intensity, we must first achieve consistency with the proper mechanics. And before we can be consistent with the proper mechanics, we must learn the proper mechanics. It's as simple as that: if one does not learn the lifts correctly, he will consistently do them incorrectly, and thus he will never lift at, or likely even near, his potential.

The mechanics, consistency, intensity hierarchy is also how I seek to structure my programming. It is a constant balance between optimizing technique, establishing consistency with near maximal loads, and pushing for new PRs. If one of these three components is missing from a lifters programming, his training will suffer for it.

#3: Regularly train at or near maximal weights

Coach Pendlay is fond of saying "the hallmark of great lifters is consistency." The best lifters usually have nearly identical lifts from 10% all the way up to max. They may have to save a snatch, or struggle to stand up a clean, but the pull itself - the part of the lift that determines whether they will have the opportunity to save or struggle for a lift - is virtually the same. And if you're spending most of your time working with weights which allow, even encourage, sub-optimal mechanics, you will never develop that level of consistency.

The SAID principle (specific adaptation to imposed demands) goes farther than most people think. The body learns what you teach it. Executing the snatch is not the same with 50% of max as it is with 80%, 90%, 100%. The lifter must train, both structurally and functionally, to perform the lift correctly with heavy weight if they wish to be able to do it with heavy weight. Crazy, I know.

Finally, the ability to save a less than ideal lift is a skill in and of itself. There are certain lifts which are not worth saving in training, lest one court injury. However, the ability to make minute adjustments under maximal loads is important, and it will only be developed by allowing oneself the opportunity to practice it.

#4: Everything which is not a competition style snatch or C&J is an assistance exercise

Yes, everything. Power snatches and power cleans. If you are a split jerker, the power jerk. Back squats. Front squats. If it's not what you're doing in competition, it's assistance. I might even go so far as to say that snatching or clean & jerking doubles or triples is assistance work.

Here is how I draw the distinction: often, it is possible to perform certain exercises with heavier weight, when those exercises are done in a way which does not necessarily lead to optimizing position for the full lifts. For example: I have a pretty strong back, and can safely squat more weight if I let my hips rise and "good morning" the weight up. I can keep my back flat and neutral while I do this. But it's not going to help my snatch or clean, because if I let my hips rise that much in a snatch or clean, I am going to a) lose the weight forward and b) look like a real jackass.

When snatching from blocks, it is often possible to lift heavier weight if one initiates the pull by bringing the chest up, rather than pushing with the thighs and using the lats to bring the bar back (which is what should be happening in the full lift.) When power snatching or power cleaning, the lifter may be capable of greater loads if he sticks with the pull for too long and focuses on getting the bar higher, rather than getting under it at the most opportune moment.

Because these exercises can often be performed with heavier weights when executed in a manner which does not produce optimal carryover to the competition lifts, they must be treated as assistance exercises, and thus the focus must not be on using the greatest load possible, but on using the greatest load possible in the way which provides the best stimulus for improving the competition snatch and clean & jerk

#5: Never stop doing the full lifts. Ever.

This might be the most "Thank you, Captain Obvious" moment amongst all the obvious things I am saying here. But it is worth saying, because I see a surprising amount of people letting their frequency with the full lifts drop to near nothing in favor of a ton of assistance work (see above.) The problem is that the only metric by which we can judge the effectiveness of our assistance work, is the regular performance of the competition style lifts to maximum or near maximum.

Sprinters never stop running their competitive distance. Football players regularly scrimmage. Why would weightlifting be any different? You have to practice your sport, and your sport is the snatch and the clean & jerk, at maximum or near maximum load, in the style which you will perform in competition.

I'm sure there are more things which I am either forgetting, or have not learned yet. And it is entirely possible that some of these things will change. However, I feel that these precepts lay an effective foundation for a functional understanding of teaching and programming weightlifting.


The Bear said...

Hi :)

I stopped doing the full lifts after surgery (twice) when I was recovering and wasn't allowed to lift heavy (ear and then appendix surgery) so we drilled technique over and over - it's done me so much good :) I'm more consistent and I'm getting the S curve, Jon's arch-angel and I am getting more consistent. I think in special situations sometimes going right back to basics (we did: from the hip, then the thigh, then the knee, then the floor over a few weeks for both lifts) is the best thing for consistent accurate technique - having said that I am a complete newb so maybe should've started like this in the first place :)

Tsypkin said...


Almost all of my new lifters start their training as such (not including their strength work, etc)

Monday: snatches and cleans from hip, rack jerk
Wednesday: snatches and cleans from just below knee, rack jerk
Friday: snatch and clean & jerk to max

Usually the next step is to add a heavy single from the floor in the snatch and clean on Monday and Wednesday. I am generally in the "from the top down" camp, and I think that performing the lifts with heavy weight from crucial positions, starting from the hip and working down to the floor, is probably the best way to learn them. You have to know where the bar is going before you can put it there.

Thanks for your comment.

JMJR said...

Hi Jacob,

I'm very quickly learning the truth of #1. I've been self learning the olifts for about 6 months, well C%J anyway. currently up to 100kg, but realise my mobility is definitely not up to par. I'm using mobility wod and working hard on flexibility - should I stop olifting in the mean time?

If you can't get into an ideal position should I completely abandon the movement? are there any other olift assistances you could recommend in the mean time?

main mobility problem is ankle dorsiflexion.


Tsypkin said...


Typically, mobility problems in the ankle limit the receiving positions, particularly for the snatch and clean and to a lesser extent for the jerk, moreso than the pull itself. You can probably still learn to pull properly even if you're not catching the lift at the bottom. I would continue to train the lifts and catch them as deep as you can with good position while improving your ankle mobility.

maurice said...

Hi Jacob,

Are you available for online consultations ?