Coach Dan Bell

Rubber City Weightlifting

Month: April, 2013

Where the Jump Cue Takes You Off a Cliff

If you can’t see the problem, there won’t be a problem. Some nuances of technique are difficult to detect if you aren’t looking for them, but they can make a huge difference in how much weight ends up over your head. One important nuance is when and how to open the torso, and this is where the “jump” cue can cause havoc.


In the photo above, Kat Lee of Rubber City Weightlifting is in the vertical shin position that good lifters strive to hit when sweeping the bar off the floor. The bar is just above her kneecap, her weight shifted slightly to her heels, her shoulders a bit in front of the bar. Draw a line straight down from the end of the bar and notice where it is over her base; it is right over the instep strap, or dead center. Given that the lifter has reached this point on good shape, where we go from here can in large part determine the fate of the lift. If the lifter has learned to finish this pull with the “jump” cue, they will leave their shoulders over the bar and drive their hips forward, up and under the shoulders. The picture below exaggerates this a bit, but for a lot of lifters, not by much.


The bar is still over her base, but the position in which she’s left herself, it won’t stay there long. If she’s going to “jump,” she has to get up on the balls of her feet. That means her hips continue to travel forward to get under her shoulders and drive up. The finish, far too often, looks like this:


If you jump forward in your lifts, and you check yourself on video frame by frame, you’re going to find some version of this position. Again, draw a line straight down from the end of the bar. For lifters who “jump” the bar will often be out in front of the ball of the foot, or at best over it. Even at that it is too far out front. That was once considered ideal, as this is still found in textbooks sometimes:


There is not a single world class lifter who does this. None. But I still see the illustration below being passed around, part of a series of stills demonstrating “correct” technique. The bar is at mid-thigh, but the shoulders are still over the bar and the heels already off the ground.


If you follow through as this series of pics suggests, You can still extend up and behind the bar as you should, but even in this instructional pic, notice where the bar is–too far away already and moving away from the lifter.


So what should we think if not jump? Stand up. Just stand up. From the bar position just above the kneecap, instead of leaving your shoulders forward and driving your hips forward to the bar, simply stand up and watch the bar come right back to your hips. (Or upper thighs in the clean)


In the photo above, Kat is beginning to raise her torso, thinking “stand up” rather than jump. The bar continues to track backward, deeper over her base, rather than being driven forward. Below she is near the finish of the pull, bar still over her base, her torso nearly vertical over the back half of her foot.


From the above position she’ll extend up and slightly back to finish the pull. Now, I can hear the howls of protest now, “How can you just stand up and get any upward momentum on the bar at all. That’s just a deadlift!” No, it isn’t. It’s just a deadlift if you do it slowly. As you may know, we don’t do an Olympic lift slow.

If you’ve been in the sport for a even a little while, you’ve no doubt heard of the double-knee-bend. The knees extend in the first pull, then as the torso extends in the second pull, the knees flex again, pushing forward under the bar. This is supposed to happen automatically, and it does if you focus on extending the torso. The two strongest muscles in the hamstring group cross both the hip, where their job is to extend the hip, and the knee, where they act to flex the knee. With the bar just above the knee at the end of the first pull, the hamstrings are stretched near to busting and ready to fire. When you attempt to rapidly extend the torso–that is, stand up–the hamstrings flex hard to extend the hip. But they are also flexing the knee and, if you do it right, you end up here:


and very shortly thereafter, here:


The double knee bend happens automatically; so too, I believe, the initial drive upward from the quads. That upward drive can and should be emphasized. How? Think stand up, punch up. Or punch hips up. Or punch feet down. Anything that gets you driving your hips up with your legs.

Pulling this way keeps the double knee bend short and sharp. It puts you just a little out of balance backwards and forces you to withdraw your hips before they can drive too far forward. You’ll end up jumping backward and inch or two at most.

So the lesson is this: Do not jump up. Stand up. Then pull down. Stand-up, pull-down. If you can get yourself doing that, the rest is cleaning up details.


Don’t Be a Slacker


Mark Cameron, still the lightest American ever to Clean & Jerk over 500 pounds (227.5 kilos to be exact) told me something over breakfast at Nationals a few years ago that I have never forgotten. “The lift doesn’t start when the bar comes off the floor.” From the moment your hands touch the bar to the instant it breaks from the floor you are engaged in a deliberate process. It may be quick, but it is not sudden.

The process involves going from having none of the weight of the barbell in your hands to all of it as it comes off the floor. The beginning of this is what I call “taking out the slack.” If you pull on any bar loaded with plates, even very expensive and well made bars and plates, you will hear an audible metallic click. That’s the sound of the bar closing the gap between the sleeve and the metal liner of the hole in the plate. You have begun taking the weight in your hands by lifting just the bar. (If you hear that click just as the bar breaks from the floor, you are probably jerking it off the floor and threatening to lose all-important position) The next step is to start tightening your back against the pressure in your hands. If you start with your hips high, you’ll drop your hips, lift your chest and begin arching your back. This will pull more of the weight of the bar in your hands and, if you get your hips as low as they should be, the increasing load will transfer to your legs and put pressure in your feet.

It works more or less the same way if you start with your hips low and back loose, pushing up to get the slack out, then arching your back to take more weight in your hands. In either case, you should look like this just before the bar breaks from the floor.


The important thing to notice about “taking out the slack” is that you are using the weight of the bar to work against while tightening your back. If you simply arch your back against no resistance–no weight in your hands to pull against–your back will not be adequately prepared to hold position when the bar breaks from the floor. Most lifter’s backs will give at least a little as the entire load comes suddenly into their hands and back. That will cause the bar to move straight up or even away from the lifter as it leaves the floor, rather than moving back toward the lifter as it should.

Too many lifters rip the bar off the floor without this deliberate process of preparing the back to transfer the load to the legs and feet. We are taking what is essentially the most flexible part of our frame–the spine–and by properly “taking out the slack” making it into a rigid conduit through which the load in our hands is conveyed to our legs and feet.

You can’t be lazy or sloppy about the process of getting the weight off the floor. If you are it will get back to the floor a lot sooner than you’d like. Maybe your back won’t look like this when you tighten it against the bar, but you should at least have this kind of effort in mind.


Don’t be a slacker; take out the slack.

(I hope Rob Macklem will not mind the use of his photos for this. He’s one of the best weightlifting photographers out there.)

How Do WE Do it?


There has been debate for decades in this country about the best systems to develop and produce world class weightlifters. We’ve had clubs and our training hall at the Olympic Training Center model their training on the old Soviet system, the Bulgarian system that defeated them, and the Chinese system that surpassed the Bulgarians. We’ve looked at second tier systems modeled on those three in the Greeks, the Germans, the South Koreans, Cuba and all the little –stan countries and South American countries that rose to success followed the breakup of the Soviet Union. They all have similar elements that we are always advised to implement: get athletes while they are young; test for those with the highest potential; institute a system of ranking and rewards; better educate our coaches; get better drugs. (Just kidding on that last one USADA) But we lack most of the things that make that advice usable. We cannot “get ‘em young” because more popular sports take the cream of the athletic crop year after year. There’s no point in screening for the best potential because football or baseball or soccer got them when they were five. We can develop a system of ranking, but it cannot compare to the scholastic/college/pro system that develops athletes from pee-wee to junior high to high school to college to the professional ranks. We can’t reward developmental steps because our broke-ass sport can barely pay for what we have now, let alone expand upon that.

Little of the foregoing advice given is helpful because it all looks outside of our own society for models instead of looking at what we have and what we can do with that. We rarely get a ten-year-old who will stay in the sport long enough for development. What we get are college kids who are done with high school football or softball. We get the guy who couldn’t go on to college football because of a knee injury. We get the late-blooming athlete who didn’t develop soon enough to get into tough high school or college sports programs. We get former cheerleaders who discover strength sports after high school. Lately we’re getting athletes who have been exposed to the Olympic lifts for the first time through CrossFit and decided they liked moving heavy stuff more than breathing really hard and puking. So since this is what we get, why aren’t we asking how to succeed with them, rather than waiting for our Soviet or Bulgarian or Chinese Model fantasies to come true? What do the athletes we actually get need to become high level competitors?

They need to learn technique and they need to learn it fast. We have to find a way to instill proficiency in the lifts as quickly as possible. The drills and teaching methods used to teach ten-year-olds who have years to master technique are inadequate. One of our more senior coaches once told me it takes five years to learn the lifts. A twenty-year-old athlete does not have five years to waste. Nor do we have the luxury of dismissing such an athlete and staring wistfully at the horizon waiting for the freakish child athlete of our dreams. We need to find drills and teaching methods that work quickly early on. Two that I’ve found very useful are what I call the “back half” drill (what Don McCauley calls the “over the edge” drill) that teaches a lifter how to use their hips properly and in the right timing. I experiment with it to see how much weight can be used and if that improves the hip movement or not. Another drill I just started using, after a long conversation with Glenn Pendlay, uses light bands on the bar to force the lifter to aggressively pull down to the bar. Glenn has used it successfully in the snatch, but I’m using it on the clean first, until I have a better idea how to utilize it. Initial results are very encouraging. Lifters slow to move under the bar learn in a few reps what they have to do. Glenn told me that he has saved months of teaching with 20 minutes on this drill. From what I saw last night, he is right. That is the sort of innovative thinking and experimentation required for us to work within the limits or our own culture and succeed.

They need to address mobility issues early and often. CrossFit has led the way in this regard. CrossFit gets so many former athletes with old injuries and middle-aged people who were never athletes. Many of them have mobility problems with shoulders, hips, ankles and wrists. Rather than ignore these problems and limit their members, they have tapped the knowledge of innovative PTs like Kelly Starrett at Turns out that big changes in mobility can happen far faster than coaches had thought. That means you don’t have to give up on fine athletes in their late teens or twenties because they can’t get into a decent overhead squat or front squat position. We can fix most of them if we take the time to learn.

They need to push hard. We need coaches to experiment with great volume at heavy weights and cheap, easily accessible methods that speed recovery. Again, Glenn Pendlay leads the way here, pushing his guys hard and daily. He’s found ways to let his lifters attack heavy weights often but still get in quality reps that reinforce good technique. We have to have both and as early in a new lifter’s career as we can. Again, we will get very few young and talented lifters to mold as the Chinese or Russians do. We need to make lifters our way, with the lifters we get. But we won’t find the way that works for us unless we do something different from the programs we cannot emulate.

They need a support structure to keep training. But we do not have and will not have an organized and hierarchical system that finds local kids, teaches them the lifts early, and funnels talent upward to more advanced training at regional and national training centers. We don’t have the money or the will to establish such a system and pay the coaches who make it work. So trying to do what the Chinese do or the Soviets did is a pipe dream. What we have is a group of widely scattered coaches and clubs who have varying degrees of success at finding and developing talent. We do have some models that work on some scale: a couple colleges that offer scholarships for weightlifting; a supported (kinda) national training center; some corporate sponsored clubs who have had success keeping lifters in the game (MDUSA) and some big clubs who do a good job raising money for their lifters (Coffee’s Gym, East Coast Gold). This crazy quilt “organization” is about the best we’re going to do. What’s the key to this “system?” Volunteer coaches who push to create clubs, raise money and try to become professional about it. They need guidance in the form of information, learning opportunities to increase their skills, and some path to making a living as a coach. If they can make a living at it, they can devote more time to seeing if we can make all of forgoing actually work. Here, again, is where CrossFit comes in. Thanks to CrossFit introducing vast numbers of people to the Olympic lifts (as well as basic barbell exercises like the back squat) we weightlifting coaches have been given a two-fold opportunity: make a living and see thousands of lifts to sharpen our coaching eyes.

But all of this only matters if we convince ourselves that it can be done here and develop the determination to find a way. Our way.