The Unfortunate Guru-fication of Olympic Weightlifting- Putting technique in its place
March 29, 2015
Olympic weightlifting movements (Clean and Jerk, Snatch, and their variations) have become increasingly popular as their benefits have become more widely known and the availability of bumper plates and lifting platforms in commercial gyms has grown. Historically most gyms have several resident meatheads that love to tell every other gym goer about the best exercises to improve the peak of the bicep and how to develop the outer pecs (because of course there is such a thing as the outer pec). Those classic gym memories that we've all grown up with, receiving bad muscle building information from the resident meathead (especially when we don't even ask for it), are long gone. Today in gyms we instead have functional fitness gurus that enjoy telling us all about the Olympic weightlifting movements, or at least as much as their favorite fitness blog and weekend certification has taught them. I'd personally like to see these people go away, but that is unlikely to happen so long as you believe that 1) the gurus know about effective coaching practices, and 2) you need to know what they know in order to be a better weightlifter. In this first of what will end up being several articles on becoming a better weightlifter, my aim is to illustrate why technical proficiency and consistency is more important than chasing technical perfection. My aim for the series of articles is to help you better understand the Olympic weightlifting movements and be empowered to stop listening to the many self-proclaimed Olympic weightlifting gurus that continue to bother us in the gym and post bad information on the web.
Optimal weightlifting technique will make the movements more efficient, safe, and increase your likelihood of lifting more weight. However, an overemphasis on technique at the expense of planned progression can lead to stagnant weightlifting performance. Finding an optimal balance of technique, appropriate load selection, and progression is the only way to be a great weightlifter. Perfect technique alone will not make you a great weightlifter, and the idea that the best weightlifters in the world are the best due to their technique is erroneous. The best weightlifters in the world are the best because they are the most powerful, and they've built that power through many years of appropriate load selection and progression. The other reason they are great is because they are consistent with their technique. Consistency is likely more important than perfect technique and there are countless examples of this very point. Look up Pyrros Dimas, one of the best weightlifters of all time, and you'll see that he shrugs before extending hips. This is opposite of what any weightlifting coach or biomechanist will tell you is ideal. Watch the great Russian super heavyweight, Andrei Chemerkin, and see him loop the bar way out in front of his body to get the bar around his big belly. I'm also pretty sure he couldn't rack a power clean across his shoulders properly with anything less than 180kg on the bar due to poor flexibility. It is pretty easy to assemble an extensive list of great weightlifters that have succeeded despite their technical flaws. The take home message is that these lifters developed a consistent technique that was safe, effective enough for successful lifting, and then applied appropriate load selection and progression over a very long time to become great. I'd suggest that all recreational lifters accept the same less-than-perfect standards so that you don't impede your development by spending too much time searching for technical perfection.
There are a handful of necessities that must be in place to have proficient weightlifting technique. A strong and balanced initial set up, a first pull that keeps the bar tight to the body while maintaining a solid posture over the bar, developing the patience to enter into the power position with the bar high in the pocket of the hip, and achieving complete hip extension during a vertical second pull to name a few. Doing those things will allow you to be proficient. You should never cease trying to improve technique, but beyond proficiency, searching for technical perfection can easily leave you frustrated. Sport scientists aren’t even in agreement on technical perfection. Most lean on biomechanical research to understand what the theoretical “perfect” should be, but recently other scientists are focused on the techniques that the best lifters in the world are using to shape their ideals. In the end, everyone’s “perfect” is probably a little different based on our build and where our strengths and weaknesses exist. Are you even sure bad technique is to blame for so many of your missed reps? If you are already a proficient lifter and the execution of your lifting form is relatively consistent, than technical errors may not always be to blame. In 2009 a team of Greek sport scientists published research looking at seven elite male weightlifters competing at the international level. They conducted a study that aimed to determine what differences existed between successful and unsuccessful snatch lifts. It would be a reasonable assumption that technical mistakes during their lifting accounted for their missed lifts, however the researchers found that there were no significant statistical differences between successful and unsuccessful lifts. They didn’t find differences in the angular displacement and velocity data of the lower-limb joints, the trajectory and vertical linear velocity of the barbell, or the generated work and power output during the first and second pulls of the lift. The general movement pattern of the limbs and the barbell was not modified in unsuccessful lifts in relation to the successful ones either. Sometimes we just miss reps without any good cut and dry reason, so stop getting frustrated and stop always blaming technique. The path to successful weightlifting requires more comprehensive solutions than technique adjustments alone.
If you’ve been frustrated with your Olympic weightlifting performance you should let me know. I can help you figure out what is really to blame for your poor performance, which may run much deeper than your lifting technique. The functional fitness gurus and online bloggers may write about weightlifting, read about weightlifting, or have been taught about weightlifting; but the truly professional weightlifting and strength and conditioning coaches have spent the entirety of their careers coaching weightlifting. Choose your sources of information and coaching wisely.