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The Training Spectrum

The selection of exercises in a weightlifter’s regimen can be compared to a spectrum; one end of the spectrum contains assistance exercises and remedials with little to no inclusion of the full competition lifts, while the other end contains the competition lifts and front/back squats. Each extreme has its flaws. Most routines rightfully fall in somewhere between these ends, but nonetheless certain individuals choose to advocate their extreme as THE way to train.

In the incipient stages of a lifting career, one should primarily perform the full lifts along with front and back squats. After a month or so, the athlete can incorporate assistance movements based on their needs. This can include: Targeting an identifiable weakness in one phase of the lift, reduce taxation of the muscular and neurological system by only completing partial movements of the full lift, training around injury. As the athlete’s career progresses and they begin to work with heavier poundages, the significance of the aforementioned points become more and more apparent.

Exclusively performing assistance movements can leave the athlete an unfamiliarity of the full lift. The amount of force generated at various phases of the full lift differ from the assistance movements, no matter how much one strives to keep the two the same. For example, when performing a hang snatch, the athlete must lower the barbell to snatch it, in which an amortization (transition) phase occurs. The direction of force on the barbell shifts from downwards to upwards, in contrast to a snatch off the floor which is almost directly upwards throughout the duration of the pull. The athlete may use the oscillation or whip of the bar to generate enough force to complete the lift, but this is different from the full pull from the ground.

The biggest detriment of the assistance movement filled routine is the neglect of the timing component of the full lift. Looking strictly at from the full extension of the pulling phase to when the weight is secured in an overhead or front squat, the athlete must become familiar with their self under the bar in harmony as it rises then lowers. This must be done in such a way that the barbell will not ‘crash’ on the athlete. Pulling under will feel different if the athlete is performing a lift from the hang as opposed to a lift off the floor. Some believe the full lifts are dangerous and may only prescribe the power versions of the lifts, in which no practicing of pulling under and meeting the bar for the full lifts occurs, and as a result the full lift feels foreign.

In contrast, the biggest flaws of exclusively performing the lifts and squats are failing to remedy specific weaknesses and subjecting the athlete to overtraining. There may be a need for the athlete to train a specific muscle, or a particular weak phase of the lift. Either will hinder and limit the athlete, as the cliché goes “you are as strong as your weakest link.” For example, my spinal erectors were so weak that I couldn’t keep a flat/arched back during the pull, which limited how much weight I could pull to my shoulders to clean. It made no difference how much I performed the lifts, and until I addressed the issue with assistance and remedials, I continued having the same problem.The inclusion of some assistance movements will also prevent overuse injuries. Say if an athlete’s just completed a heavy squat workout the day prior, then they could perform power clean & jerks to allow the neuromuscular pathway of standing up out of a squat to recover.

Further out from a contest, more assistance and less full movements can be performed, and as the contest approaches, more of the full lifts should be performed, particularly the last 4 or 5 weeks. For this sport, I am a strong believer in the mantra, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” What yields the greatest training benefit is the full competition lifts, however due to the nature of a complex multi-joint exercise, they can be very taxing and must be performed in controlled doses. Some can handle more of the full lifts than others; it is the mission of the athlete and coach to find the ideal mix of the full and assistance movements.

- Edward Baker

by Edward Baker
 
   Let me first say that my deepest condolences go to Kevin Ogar and his family; out of respect I wanted to remain quiet about the unfortunate accident altogether, but it has come to my attention that a misinformed individual is using this event to label the snatch, or Olympic lifting in general as dangerous. Follow the link to donate to his recovery! https://fundly.com/kevin-ogar-s-recovery
 
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This article is in response to the article by Nolan Hamilton, link here:
http://gawker.com/there-are-some-exercises-you-dont-need-to-do-1504988837

Hamilton states:

“It (The Snatch) is also one of the most dangerous exercises that you can do in the gym.”
 
     The writer goes on to say that the fact that the snatch is fast is what makes it dangerous, and it can happen to anyone. It is true that lifting a heavy barbell overhead poses a risk for injury, but so does any everyday activity. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, there is a 1 in 100 chance that a person will die in an automobile accident in their lifetime. 
     Lebanese weightlifter Jamal Traboulsi became paralyzed at the 1991 World Championships in Donaueschingen Germany. Traboulsi was attempting to jerk 175 kg when his toe caught onto a crevice in the platform. Traboulsi was unable to get out from under it and the barbell struck him on the shoulders, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down. In weightlifting, this is the last and one of the only instances I can cite as leaving an athlete paralyzed. 
     Kevin Ogar’s injury was done under the circumstance that he was in the middle of a CrossFit (not Weightlifting) competition. A few hours prior to the accident, competitors ran three miles, holding 2 36 pound kettle bells the first mile and 1 36 pound kettle bell the second mile. The day prior competitors had to complete other events that certainly would be enough to fry someone’s nervous system (which takes longer to recover than the muscular system.) 
     I do maintain that there are disparities between how I believe the Olympic lifts should be integrated into the grand scheme of CrossFit and how others believe, but let me make manifest that I think overall it is evolving towards the right direction. Explosive multi-joint exercises like the snatch and clean & jerk need to be performed in a rested state as they are more demanding on the neurological and muscular system; the incidence of injury is greatly increased when these movements are performed in a state of fatigue. If multi-joint exercises are to be performed in a circuit, the exercises need to be performed for fewer repetitions as performing each sequential repetition will deviate more and more from the first few reps. 
     My coach John Coffee will have us do triples on the snatch further out from meets, sometimes 4’s if we’re able to maintain an arched back. When lifters get fatigued from the snatch or clean, the spinal erectors are typically the first muscle to lose the ability to maintain contractual pattern of movement and lumbar flexion (rounding of the back) will occur, which puts more stress on the spinal column and poses a risk for disc herniation. WODs like Grace or Isabel need not be done in training at all, they may make you breathless but poses an unneeded risk and yields little to no training benefit.
     Notice that I said “need not be done in training”. If I were to say disparaging things about CrossFit competitions, then I would need to remark about weightlifting, powerlifting, and strongman, as these sports aren’t 100% safe either. Even sports outside of the strength world have great risks (gymnastics, cheerleading,) but that doesn’t stop people from participating. There are instances of individuals going into cardiac arrest from running, but this shouldn’t stop people from running to promote cardiovascular health. 
I end with saying that the sport of weightlifting can be dangerous. The true danger of the sport are people that deem themselves to be authorities on the sport and advise others on the sport when they have no business doing so. 

By Edward Baker

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- Robin Goad, the last American to hold a world record in the snatch, never performed overhead squats in her training.

“The overhead squat is a means to an end rather than an end in itself.” – John Coffee

Recently, a misconception has prevailed, that increasing one’s overhead squat will increase one’s snatch. Other than being used to teach the snatch or as an occasional assistance exercise, the overhead squat has little importance in a weightlifter’s training compared to the full lifts, front and high bar back squats, and pulls. Furthermore, there is no need to try and establish a one rep max overhead squat at any point in a lifter’s career.

As a result, there are numerous scenarios in which the athlete will get to where they’re overhead squatting 100 pounds or more than what they’re capable of snatching. One justification I’ve heard is that “You overhead squat more than you snatch the same reason you front squat more than you clean.” This justification is invalid as the primary determinant on a made or missed snatch is the execution of the pull. If the bar is pulled to an inadequate height, the barbell loops, or the athlete does not set themselves in a position to receive the barbell overhead then the lift will be missed. A very common limiting factor on a clean is leg strength, so leg strength must be developed in order to stand up and then complete the jerk. Soviet studies elicit that the rate of successful jerks increase if one’s front squat is increased. In other words, the easier an athlete can stand up out of a clean, the greater possibility they’ll make the jerk. Leg strength is seldom a limiting factor in standing up out of a snatch.

Of course this is with exception; my friend Rachael Bommicino is very hypermobile and will hit a deep, mechanically disadvantageous bottom position she receives the bar in a snatch. Therefore she includes overhead squats and drop snatches in her routine to accommodate this. This is the very rare exception.

I do use the movement to teach the snatch, or when I’m warming up with the bar before a workout, or I may just throw it in a workout if I get bored. I have no idea who the first to suggest that this was a movement that should ever be maxed out on and kept up with along with one’s snatch, clean and jerk, and squat max. It should never be considered an end. I’m well aware that the overhead squat is a popular exercise to show up in CrossFit competitions, so naturally one would want to practice the movement to some extent if this is your situation. I’m simply trying to dispel the myth that a greater overhead squat yields a greater snatch when it has very little carryover.

By Edward Baker

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When I was first around John, I’d ask him various questions about optimizing my training, like “Would there be any big benefit to me doing plyometrics at the end of the workout?” “What kind of assistance movements can I do to help me get stronger at the lifts?” Coffee would give me a response along the lines of “You know, the lifts themselves are plyometric. You also get stronger by doing the lifts!” I feel the need to elicit both of these points.


The Competition Lifts are Plyometric

The competition lifts are plyometric in nature, whether we choose to define the word as “eccentric immediately followed by concentric contraction” or more liberally as “skeletal muscle exerting maximum force as fast as possible”

A myotatic or ‘stretch’ reflex is the phenomenon that is the basis of plyometric physiology; when a muscle is stretched, it will immediately contract to maintain tonus (partial contraction). This characteristic ‘smooths’ the muscle’s actions, and more importantly it is employed to the athlete’s advantage in various phases of the snatch and clean & jerk.

Stretch Reflexes Through the Lifts

Pull Initiation

To initiate the pull, many lifters will raise their hips and then lower them (or repeatedly do this as shown in the video above) to utilize the stretch reflex of the hamstrings (which are recruited about 0.1 seconds after the barbell is separated from the platform.)

Double-Knee Bend

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When the barbell has reached the height of the knees, another stretch reflex occurs in the hamstrings as the result of the continual contraction of the quadriceps. The hamstrings will contract and ‘double-knee bend’ will occur as the pull progresses.


Exploding or ‘Jumping’ the Weight Up

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From the ‘power’ position, the lifter will fully extend their body or ‘jump’ the weight up before receiving it in the bottom overhead or front squat position.


Jerk Dip

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To propel the bar upward for the jerk, the athlete dips to lengthen the quadriceps before it and the thigh extensors contract.


The Competition Lifts are Strength Movements

This may seem obvious, but sometimes I forget when deciding on workouts that the lifts themselves can be considered strength movements (to a lesser degree). Some circles categorize the snatch and clean & jerk as ‘barbell gymnastics’, separating them from strength movements like squats, presses, etc. “You also get stronger by doing the lifts!”

By: Edward Baker

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One of the first questions I ever asked John Coffee was what lifter’s technique I should emulate. John said “Noone. Everyone is made a little differently, you lift the way you lift.” Anatomical variations dictate that the barbell will be negotiated from the ground to overhead in a different manner from person to person; a coach must be able to recognize that a slight deviation from what is taught in weightlifting videos, seminars, etc. is not necessarily a fault, but a product of this individual difference.

From the ’85 Weightlifting Symposium, Dr. Angel Spassov writes, “We suppose that highly qualified weightlifters have high individuality of technical mastership. This stipulates some deviations from the well-known laws, which can be quite significant, and sometimes can be qualified even as mistakes or errors in the readings.”

Anatomists have concluded that there is on average a 30% variance in anatomical structure between two random subjects, whether it be relative limb length, muscle and tendon origin and insertion points, etc. I’m certainly not trying to quantify an exact variation that is acceptable. I’m trying to say that we’re all different. Some will perceive any variation to a standardized technique as a fault. It is ultimately the coach’s prerogative as to how he distinguishes between faults and variations (if at all).

Let me address just a couple of individual tendencies that I believe are misattributed as faults:

Bent vs. Straight Rear Leg in the Split Jerk

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Many coaches have made their own determinations on whether the rear leg in the jerk should be straight or bent. In the USWF Club Coach Manual, Lyn Jones writes

“A straight back leg causes the hips to be towed back resulting in a forward body lean and all sorts of problems.”

On the opposing end, in Weightlifting: Fitness for All Sports, Dr. Tamas Ajan writes

“If the weight is caught in front, the back leg gets bent and the pelvis will go forward.”

Each of these authors seem to consider what the other is advocating as a technical fault.

What do I believe?

Whatever is more comfortable for the lifter; if the lifter’s natural tendency is to have a straight (knee unlocked) back leg in the receiving position of the jerk, then perhaps it’s alright for them to continue receiving jerks this way. Likewise with a bent leg in the jerk. If the lifter has trouble making jerks or looks unstable, and other technical changes haven’t solved the problem, then it’d be worth experimenting from a straight to bent back leg, or vice versa. When I asked Tommy Kono his thoughts on this, he told me “it depends on the flexibility of the lifter, either is acceptable.” On the International level, both are seen equally.

Jumping Back in the Snatch or Clean

Jumping back when receiving the snatch or clean is a happening that has been accepted more in the past few decades, but I still read and hear of coaches that label this as a fault. In my opinion, jumping back is not something that you would intentionally coach a lifter to do. The bar must follow an efficient bar path overhead, and the jumping back must not be excessive. Angel Spassov attributes jumping back to two points:

“1. Aspiration, striving to use the bodyweight of the athlete also to take part in the power in the execution of the pull exercise.

2. Tendency to achieve the most correct position under the bar, which is raised to a certain height by efforts in the horizontal and vertical direction.”

What do I believe?

From a physics standpoint, a lifter can impart more force on the barbell with the inclusion of a horizontal component to a vertical bar path. It is alright so long as the centre of gravity does not go outside the area of support. The moment it does, the horizontal component creates an inefficiency. If the lifter jumps back a couple or few inches and the bar is still in the correct position to make the lift, then it’s alright to do so. As mentioned before, this is not something one would intentionally teach. If there’s a concern then track the bar path from the side to see that the pull has remained efficient (the bar path of a lifter who jumps back is very similar to one who doesn’t, it is simply rotated back a few degrees).

There are many great minds in this sport (that I have nothing but the up-most respect for) that may think differently, but that’s the beauty of the sport; each individual coach is to decide what technical principles they will abide by or discard, and will truly test his/her beliefs by applying it to their athletes and assessing their performance. “Proof is in the puddin’!”

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