Common Sense: Approach to CJ Cummings’ Training
by Edward Baker
American Weightlifting is flourishing with talent, and it could be argued that CJ Cummings is the front runner for what appears to be a Renaissance for the sport. My first memory of CJ is him lifting at a meet about four years back in Flowery Branch, Georgia where he Clean & Jerked 96 kg weighing 48 kg (double bodyweight). I had thought to myself, “how would you train someone that young with that much talent”? A couple of weekends ago at the American Open I got the chance to sit down with Ray Jones, who has been CJ’s coach since day one, and want to share bits of his training philosophy that he sums up as: Common sense.
Listening to Your Body
This is commonly overlooked. As Ray said to me, a lifter needs to listen to their body and the signals that it elicits, and this becomes especially important as they start handling heavier weights. “Little things become big things when you try to push through them”.
A question that I’ve heard John Coffee ask his lifters before every workout is “How do you feel today”? The training would then be based on the lifter’s response, coupled with the context of where the athlete was in their training cycle and how the warmups appeared. There is certainly a phenomenon that happens from time to time when a person is feeling completely run down when they enter the gym, but once they start lifting they seem to be in top shape (My best Snatch in training to date was done on a day that I was tired and getting light headed just warming up with the bar) but these days are the exception, not the norm.
When there are aches and ailments, it’s more sensible to train around the injury and to ‘live to see another day’, than it is to push through and possibly worsen the injury to the point that you can’t train at all. Ray is very particular about this, and saves his lifter’s heaviest lifting for the day of the meet.
When I asked Ray how many times per week CJ squats, he stated, “Everyday. He Overhead Squats, Snatch Squats, Clean Squats…” Ray was reinforcing the fact that many of the lifts we perform involve a squatting motion. When deciding the amount of times an athlete Front and Back Squats per week, one should remember that many of the exercises that are performed already involve squatting. Early on I Front and Back Squatted about everyday, and wound up with a bad case of patellar tendonitis (an overuse injury), so much of my training is predicated around limiting the amount of times I perform squatting motions each week.
Later, I rephrased my question to Ray as “How many times does CJ squat after un-racking it from a squat rack?” He replied, “about once a week, as leg strength isn’t a weakness now.” He also has CJ perform complexes involving Cleans and multiple Front Squats.
Snatch and Clean & Jerk Meets
As we were talking about his philosophy regarding squatting, Ray stated that he bases his lifter’s squat percentages off their best Clean & Jerk rather than their best Back Squat. As he sees it, we’re training to compete in the Snatch and the Clean & Jerk, not the Squat, so the training should be reflected as such. He’ll start with 100% of the athlete’s best Clean & Jerk and have them perform 5-6 sets with that weight, and will base a progression on how the squats look each time they’re performed.
Most Important Thing
Before Ray begins coaching a lifter, he prefaces it with telling them the most important thing to remember when doing this sport: Go out and have fun. If an athlete is going into a workout or a competition with big expectations about their performance, they can easily make the scenario into a bigger deal than it is; if you go about this sport by enjoying performing the lifts, and taking time to enjoy traveling, seeing friends, and enjoying the whole experience that competing in this sport entails, then you are much more likely to succeed.
I hope that lifters and coaches can find this article useful. As an athlete and as a pretend coach I can easily over-complicate training, or lose sight of the forest for the trees, as one might say. Go out and have fun, listen to your body, and use common sense.
by Edward Baker
– 70 medals at the Women’s Weightlifting Senior Worlds have been amassed by the United States. John Coffee’s lifters have earned 30 of them.
– The last Senior World Champion for the United States was Robin Byrd-Goad. Robin was coached by John.
– The first Women’s Senior Nationals took place in 1981. Since then there have been 36 Nationals contesting a Women’s division. Coffee’s Gym has won 19 of them.
All of these accomplishments, but after the 6 years I’ve spent with John, a lacking trait has manifested itself. Self-recognition.
Everyone likes to boast from time to time about their accolades, and rightfully so! You should be proud of anything you put your time into. I’ve loved to tell people about PRs that I’ve hit, people that I pretend to coach hitting PRs, it makes me feel good to share and get affirmation that I’m doing a good job. For others I’m sure it’s the same, people love to vocally exclaim how much they love their lifters, and how selfless of people they are, and how much they’ve accomplished in their time in this sport.
This boastful desire is absent in John. I trained at Coffee’s for months before I even learned that he has a women’s team. It wasn’t until a while later that I learned of the Olympians that came through there. None of this came from John’s mouth. Wear a Coffee’s Gym shirt out in public in Marietta and you’re sure to get someone to strike up a conversation, with the typical comment being “That was the place to train back in the day”.
He’s always so concerned about bettering and taking care of his lifters, and improving himself as a coach, that he has never really stopped to get acknowledged for what he’s done. When any other person would stop after an accomplishment and allow themselves to be recognized, John just goes right back to his obsession of making his lifters better, and becoming a better coach. I call this the Coffee Complex. Even those closest to John know that he isn’t one to proclaim himself as an expert, or elaborate on how much he does for his lifters. He is very much an ‘actions, not words’ kind of guy.
After 50 years of coaching in this sport without taking time off, anyone would agree for you to take all the time you need to recover. You deserve the rest. Please get well John.
Is This Rocket Science?
Recently, I read an opinion on weightlifting technique nomenclature. Here is the truncated position – “the terms first pull, second pull, pocket and triple extension – these terms do not exist in the scientific communities of weightlifting. These are simply pop culture terms of people trying to dumb down weightlifting to the masses”. The author continues by stating that weightlifting is apportioned in phases due to the pull being a continuous motion with no pause, then offers to discuss phases of the pull. At the article’s conclusion is this statement – “weightlifting is all parasympathetic nervous system and fast twitch fibers”. Typically, comments such as this are the author’s attempt to validate themselves by using big words which will undoubtedly be taken as fact by most of the target audience whose expertise lie elsewhere.
At initial glance, the contrasting statements on pull technique seem to be a minor grammatical or semantic error – first pull and second pull do not exist yet phases and periods of the pull do exist. Simple deductive reasoning brings us to the conclusion of a first phase of the pull and a second phase of the pull. I assume the overwhelming majority of true olympic lifting coaches (not the self-aggrandizing internet strength coach) would agree with the previously quoted statement “there is no pause in the pull, it is one continuous motion”. Any pause, no matter how brief, during a competition lift would be counterproductive, not to mention against the rules. We all comprehend the continuous motion of the pull – mention of this point is stating the obvious.
Do terminologies which classify the pull into teaching and training segments exist in scientific weightlifting communities? Absolutely. To argue otherwise exhibits a lack of knowledge or at the very least, a lack of simple research. Alexsei Medvedyev, author of A System of Multi-Year Training in Weightlifting writes “the first period – the pull – consists of 2 phases”. In Managing the Training of Weightlifters, Laputin and Oleshko segment the snatch into 6 phases. The Training of the Weightlifter by Roman utilizes phrases such as “first phase of the pull” and “second phase of the pull”. Tamás Fehér’s Olympic Weightlifting text categorizes the pull into “pull phase I – first pull and over pull” followed by “pull phase II – explosion and maintenance of power”. I assume agreement on the synonymy of “first pull” and “first phase of the pull”.
Now that we have established the use of pull segment terminologies amongst the scientific communities of weightlifting, we will examine the veracity of such practices in other sports.
A previous strength and speed coach whose career stints included an MLB team as well as an SEC football program, explained the segmented mechanics of a sprint – the start which comprises 2-7 steps (most sprinters cover 10m in 7 steps, Usain Bolt covers 10m in 6 steps), the transition which is characterized by a gradually elevating torso and finally the top end.
A former European Cup and American Cup bobsled athlete discussed the various phases of the sled push which can be categorized as a loaded sprint. The bobsled start is the “hit” phase during which contact is made with the sled bars. Alterations in mechanics exist based on position on the sled – brakes vs side. Following the start is the transition and top end.
Not only are movement patterns segmented for teaching and training within weightlifting, they are also segmented for teaching and training in many other sports. A complex movement pattern can be taught by utilizing both the complete range of motion as well as various segmented ranges of motion. One of my graduate school texts, Motor Control and Learning by Schmidt and Lee, validates this concept – “A very common technique for teaching motor skills is to break them down into smaller parts. This would seem to be an effective procedure when the task is very complex and cannot be grasped as a whole.” Examples of such include the separate practice of arm and leg strokes in swimming or performance of specific stunts in gymnastics that will later become part of a more complex segment. Both examples utilize partial movement pattern practice which will eventually become integrated into a more complex movement pattern.
Given the requirement of specific strength in weightlifting performance, the concept of strength gain within the component parts of snatch and clean and jerk is evaluated along with the aforementioned requirement of movement pattern proficiency. A deficit in strength when lifting a static barbell from the floor will render a suboptimal performance even within a highly proficient clean movement pattern. The same suboptimal performance will apply to an individual with an inefficient clean movement pattern who displays superfluous strength in lifting a static barbell from the floor. When faced with the former example (strength deficit), some coaches may prescribe strengthening movements intended to increase the performance when lifting a static barbell from the floor. Transfer to the clean of these strengthening movements will directly correlate with the specificity of joint angles, speed of movement and lifter-barbell center of gravity. Conversely in the latter example, building proficiency within the clean movement pattern may include training segmented portions of the clean in order to optimize the same 3 variables – joint angles, speed of movement and lifter-barbell center of gravity.
In regards to the comment on parasympathetic dominance during weightlifting (which can be easily invalidated via the Google), we will refer to my medical school text Gray’s Anatomy by Drake, Vogl and Mitchell – “the sympathetic system innervates structures in the peripheral regions of the body and viscera, the parasympathetic system is more restricted to innervation of the viscera only”. Interpretation – the sympathetic system promotes blood flow to skeletal muscle as well as secretion of adrenaline which increases heart rate. Conversely, the parasympathetic system promotes blood flow to the abdominal viscera and decreases heart rate. Draw your own conclusion as to which nervous system is dominant during weightlifting – the one which promotes digestion or the one which promotes skeletal muscle activity and adrenaline secretion.
Reading Louie Simmons’ postings on the internet and reading through his book, it seems like his basic point is that U.S. Olympic lifters spend too much time and energy perfecting their technique with not enough time and energy put into strength building.
This line of criticism of U.S. Olympic lifting is just not true. Of course U.S. Olympic lifters spend lots of time practicing various pull and squatting exercises as well as various hyperextension, good morning, and pressing exercises. Also, it should not be forgotten that snatches and clean & jerks are splendid exercises for developing strength and power themselves. It’s not all technique.
I don’t think there’s much difference in the way U.S. lifters train than the way lifters in Asia, Europe, Latin America, and the Middle east train. The difference in the performance of the top U.S. lifters and the top lifters from many other countries has to do with the way children in these countries are tested and selected for the sports they are most predisposed for. This plus more thorough medical attention for the top athletes from these countries.
Here at Coffee’s Gym, we’ve gotten used to medical personnel showing up at the gym totally unannounced to get urine samples from some of our top ranked lifters over the years. U.S. Olympic lifting is one of the most thoroughly tested sports in the world.
U.S. lifters lift very well considering they are all pretty much drug free. Today, top U.S. lifters lift about the same weights U.S. lifters were able to lift before testing became so efficient.
Last year was one of the rare years when the Senior World Weightlifting Championships was held in the USA. I attended for the whole 10 days it took to run it off down in Houston, Texas. Each day I would spend several hours watching the athletes in the training hall go through their pre-competition routines. I never did see Louie Simmons there. Even an expert like him may have picked up some tips watching these top men and women in the world train.
In particular, he may have wanted to observe the way these world class weightlifters perform their squats: torsos totally erect and perpendicular, chest and head held high, all the way top to bottom, hips on heels. No doubt very different than the way squats are performed at Westside. Almost a totally different exercise. Of course I’ve seen these world class men and women weightlifters train many times before. They all possess very prominent quadriceps development. This is the kind of leg development Olympic weightlifters get doing their squats so upright and deep. When the bar is held low at mid delt, the feet placed very wide apart, trunk inclined forward as powerlifters do, then you get development in the hamstrings and hips, in contrast to the quad and glute development Olympic lifters get squatting the way they do. Olympic lifters get their hamstrings doing various snatches and cleans, pulls, and bend overs with the legs held straight. The quadriceps and the hamstrings are both worked very effectively during the course of an Olympic lifting workout.
Many ex-Powerlifters who become ‘experts’ at various CrossFits and gyms teach this low bar form of squatting under the mistaken impression that this is the way weightlifters should squat. This is incorrect.
Louie brags about how many 1000+ lb squatters he has in his gym and I assume all these men are wearing multi-ply suits, holding the bar at mid delt with feet set so wide that they can only barely break parallel, and it goes without saying that these gentleman are all well-steroided.
In the May June 2015 issue of Power Magazine, Stan Efferding is interviewed by Mark Bell. Mr. Efferding states that squatting with vertical shins would not transfer very well to sprints, “for that you want to be doing things like a front squat or a high bar squat”.
Perhaps Louie having conquered the powerlifting training world now wants to become the strength guru to Olympic lifting. Sorry Louie, this arena is already taken care of.
I did go to the trouble and expense of buying Louie’s book. There is absolutely no useful information in the whole book. Only complaints about how Olympic lifters don’t do strength work in this country.
Doing a classic powerlifting type workout does develop some general strength, but this type of training would have very little usefulness for any athlete including Olympic lifters.
I assume that Louie is angling to become some kind of strength training guru for Olympic lifting. Unfortunately, he will probably succeed in getting some people to take him seriously. Based on what I’ve seen that Louie has posted in the internet, Louie Simmons has absolutely nothing worthwhile to offer to Olympic lifting. Please don’t pay $500 for a weekend Louie Simmons Olympic lifting seminar.
– John B. Coffee
Commentary on Louie Simmons Debacle
By John Coffee and Edward Baker
A few weeks ago, powerlifter Louie Simmons released a book providing his interpretation of strength training for weightlifters. This literature is falsely written under the premise that a bunch of random exercises are going to be the answer to make American weightlifting great again. Louie confuses the trend of a routine consisting mostly of the lifts, squats, and pulls to a lack of knowledge, when there is a general consensus that the movements that most similarly mimic the snatch and clean & jerk correlate to improvement of the respective lifts. John Coffee and I felt the need to put out this article to make sure that nobody actually takes this book seriously.
In his book, Louie Simmons writes about how American lifters spend most of their training time on technique and fail to train for strength. Of course this is not true. American lifters spend hours each week doing pulls and squats, also hyper extensions, presses, glute ham raises, ab work etc. Louie fails to realize also that when a lifter does heavy doubles and triples and singles in the Snatch and Clean & jerk, they’re also working strength and power as well as technique. He also seems to fail to realize that when pulls and front squats with the same technique as the classics lifts are done, he or she also is working technique. I’m not sure Louie quite realizes exactly how Olympic lift training is done.
The latest training method seems to include working almost exclusively with low reps in the classic lifts, plus front and back squats. Many of the world’s top lifters seem to be training this way. Although I personally don’t wish to train my lifters this way, it is worth noting that some of the best lifters in the world do. The trend seems to do less variety of exercises rather than more.
“So how do you raise the Olympic style squatting? Simple: by not doing them. Yes, that means following the Conjugate Method” – Louie Simmons
Louie advises people having trouble with squats to not do squats, and to do box squats instead. How about reducing your squat weights so that you do your squats correctly and strengthen the legs this way? Many individuals have weak quads, this can be corrected by doing both front and back squats as upright as possible.
As John stated, when an individual is performing the full lifts, they’re working technique while also getting stronger, and when performing squats and pulls, they’re getting stronger while also working technique; you want to do all of the assistance movements as close to the exact of motion as you can possibly get.
“If you pull your knees inward while recovering from a heavy squat, why do you think more squats will fix the problem? It won’t, of course. If you can’t hold the lockout in your jerk or snatch do you really think it will correct itself? No, you must at the very least do elbow extensions.” – Louie Simmons
If a lifter is performing squats incorrectly as Louie describes, then they would simply focus on squatting without the knees caving in; getting strong in the right movement pattern is the premise of Weightlifting.
Take this comparison for example: Bob Peoples clean & jerked 308 lb and deadlifted 725 lb weighing 181 lb, whereas Isaac Berger clean & jerked 336 lb and never could deadlift 500 lb, weighing 132 lb. Though Peoples deadlifted well over 200 lb more than Berger, he still clean & jerked less than him. Berger was stronger in the right movement pattern. There’s being strong, then there’s being strong in the right movement.
Louie also writes of accommodation:
“When I watch Olympic lifting in its current state, I can only think of one thing: Accommodation. When doing the same training—using the same exercises over and over with the same volume or intensity—a lifter’s performance will slow or even go backwards.”
“In the US, the expectation is that the result of exercise is always an increase in performance, but if nothing in the program is changed, the athlete experiences the principle of diminishing returns. This is a general law of biology and simply means if one does a constant stimulus, that stimulus will decrease over time.”
The principle of accommodation that Louie writes of is absolutely correct; if you do the exact same routine each week with no progression of volume and intensity then your progress will slow and eventually stall. However I know of no coach that has done this. In Vladimir Zatsiorsky’s Science and Practice of Strength Training he writes of accommodation, presumably where Louie got his similar explanation from:
However Zatsiorsky follows up in the next paragraph with (and Simmons makes no mention of):
Everyone’s progress begins to slow as they go further into their Weightlifting career; In the first couple of months of training a Weightlifter can improve their snatch and clean & jerk weekly, sometimes daily, but as they get further and further into their career, personal records become less plentiful. That’s just the way it is. The stronger you get, the harder it is to get strong. Success in a weightlifter’s training isn’t determined by the number of PRs made in a bunch of random exercises, but by what a weightlifter can Snatch and Clean & jerk on the platform. Ultimately, you have X amount of time and want to do the exercises that are the most productive and that most resemble the Olympic lifts.
There is constant mention in his book of American weightlifters being unsuccessful because they’re not doing the exercises he describes in his book; well what about steroids and the talent pool? In other countries, the most genetically predisposed people are picked for weightlifting, in this country, not more than a few percent of people hear about weightlifting much less practice it. It is certainly becoming better known, and hopefully will continue to. However until the United States develops a beat the drug test or WADA manages to successfully eliminate drugs from this sport, then we will continue to be on the outside looking in. (I certainly would prefer the latter method) The writings of Tommy Kono, Bob Takano, Carl Miller, Artie Drechsler, Harvey Newton, and Jim Schmitz, to name a few, have gifted American weightlifting with the knowledge we need to become a dominant Weightlifting power, we just need to keep finding the talent and get drugs out of the sport to do it.