Coach Dan Bell

Rubber City Weightlifting

Month: November, 2013

Summon the Duck!

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Jump. Stand up. Jump down. Shrug up. Shrug down. Pull down. Get under. Move your feet. Chest up. Push the floor down. Hips down. Punch. Reach. . . . That is a very short list of the cues I’ve heard from coaches all over the USA. All of them have worked for some lifters and failed for others. Where they seem to have the greatest effect is starting internet pissing matches over semantics, the assumption by too many being that the exactness of the cue has an exactly corresponding effect on an athlete’s technique.

A cue is an analogy. Most coaches find it more effective to describe an analogous movement the new lifter can more easily understand and apply, rather than use a detailed description of the action they are trying to elicit from the athlete. If the analogy gets the athlete performing the lift as the coach envisions it,  the cue “worked.” So the measure of the utility of a particular cue is how effective it is in eliciting the desired movement pattern.

Every athlete has a different athletic, cultural, and intellectual background. This predisposes each athlete to respond in an individual way to the images and feelings presented to them as words–the cue. The way each athlete understands and translates the cue into action varies, sometimes to a surprising degree. What coaches come to understand as the most common reactions to the most common cues are not universal by any means. Sometimes a coach will exhaust all of her favorite cues and still not get the athlete to move the way she would like. This situation is the Genesis of new cues. The creative coach simply makes up a new analogy on the spot. The new cue may seem in no way like the movement the coach desires, but if the athlete can make use of it, can now move the way the coach wants them to move, it is an excellent cue for that lifter.

A friend of mine once watched a coach cuing his lifter at a meet. As the lifter approached the bar, the coach yelled out a couple of cues totally unfamiliar to my friend. “Shoot the knees!” “Whip the shoulders!” My friend thought these cues so hilariously wrong that he shouted a cue of his own. “Summon the Duck!” And near pants-wetting laughter ensued.

I don’t know what the outcome was for the lifter involved, but what if those uncommon cues worked for that lifter? What if the lifter executed a perfect movement and nailed the lift? Then that cue worked, perhaps only for that lifter, but the cue still worked.

Of course good cues are only helpful if a coach knows exactly what they are trying to accomplish technically. I keep in mind an image of what I want from an athlete, a sort of “Platonic Pull/Lift” that is the template to which I teach. If the coach’s template is fuzzy or wrong, all the great cues in the world will not help. While some very good athletes will fall into efficient lifting based on their own innate abilities, that may not have been the result of anything the coach said. Whatever cues you like to use, they are perfect if you get your lifter doing something like this:

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Dan

Thanks to J.P. Nicoletta for the duck story. Still makes me laugh.

As always, thanks to Nat Arem at Hookgrip for letting me use his excellent weightlifting photos.

Good Enough . . . Isn’t

Anyone who knows me or has read anything I’ve written knows how much I focus on technique. I’ve been part of countless internet debates about technique. At some point I will be told that coaches in the USA focus too much on technique and not enough on strength, echoing Louie Simmons and Mark Rippetoe, the best known proponents of this point of view. I disagree. Strongly. This pernicious meme assumes that weightlifting coaches in this country have no idea how to get people strong. The only reasonable response to that is, “Bullshit.” The only people in weightlifting who buy that argument are newbies and keyboard commandos never seen at national meets. U.S. weightlifting coaches are constantly trying to make their lifters as strong as they can get them. Believe me, if Louie Simmons or Mark Rippetoe had some hugely superior method to get weightlifters stronger, coaches like Kyle Pierce, Tim Swords, Glenn Pendlay, John Coffee, Don McCauley, Mark Cannella, Ursula Papandrea and I would be using it.

However, most coaches and lifters who have been in the sport for a while agree that the reason we aren’t as strong as some portion of the foreign lifters we compete against is their use of performance enhancing drugs. These drugs work and give lifters an undeniable strength advantage that is difficult to overcome. The effort to rid the sport of these drugs is ongoing. It will never completely succeed. If we accept that because of PEDs we are not competing on a level playing field when it comes to strength, and despite our hardest work and best efforts we can only get almost as strong as the cheaters, where do we make up the difference? In my view, the obvious place is technique.  Drug users can get away with technique that is adequate to good. Clean lifters who want to beat them cannot. For us to win at the international level, decent technique–good enough–will not do. We have to be the best technicians in the world.

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Yeah, like this.

As it stands now, we are very far from that. At our last National Championships, in Cincinnati, I usually had to wait until the best two or three lifters in each class to see what I consider good technique. In some weight classes not even the winner had decent technique. Outside of a few notable examples, our national class lifters’ technique ranges from flawed to atrocious. We cannot be behind in strength AND technique. We need to relentlessly chase perfect technique. Dismissing technical mastery as a secondary concern is one of the ways we’ve steadily worked our way down the international team rankings. Can you think of a professional athlete who stops working to perfect the technique of their sport to get a competitive edge? If you can, my bet is they are hanging around the bottom of the league on their way out. The real pros are obsessive about perfect technique. To stop at technique that is “good enough” is lazy coaching. To write off constant refinement of skill as an unnecessary distraction from strength work is the argument of amateurs. The amateur approach will not work against professionals any more than a really good weekend-league soccer team will win the world cup. 

I think a big reason technique doesn’t get its due in weightlifting is confusion caused by two widely differing sports using the same implement: a barbell. Powerlifting is not weightlifting. A Venn diagram of the two sports would have the circles barely overlapping at all. In that overlap would be “barbell” and “strength.” The two sports share virtually nothing else. Even the strength component is qualified, in that the summation of qualities called “strength” needed to move a barbell 12″ in a bench press versus the summation of qualities also called “strength” needed to move a barbell the six to eight feet necessary in a clean & jerk is an apples to astronauts comparison. It takes a dull mind indeed to conflate the requirements of the two sports.

Few of our athletes are going to be able to get as strong as the lifters using “restoratives.” When we find them, or lifters close to them, we cannot let that strength be wasted on “good enough” technique. Our coaches have to make highly refined technique a goal from day one and never let up until we are the best in the world at it.

You Can’t Build a Pyramid From the Top Down

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Almost everyone agrees that lack of numbers is one of the biggest obstacles to international weightlifting success for USA Weightlifting. There just aren’t very many junior and open age lifters in the sport. With a small pool of athletes from which to draw, there are fewer lifters with elite level talent to develop. The pyramid analogy has been the most common way of framing the many possible solutions offered to address our international failures. In this analogy a large number of athletes are assumed to be the base of the pyramid, given that athlete numbers are what we need. I disagree. It is the local club coaches that make up the base of weightlifting, not the athletes. Weightlifters are the next course up from the base, for the most part the product of the effort and dedication of the coaches that start clubs, recruit athletes and introduce the vast majority of lifters to this obscure sport. If we are looking for a way to grow the sport, to get more lifters into the sport, why not help the people who actually bring almost every new lifter into the sport? Why not encourage the growth of their numbers and their success?

But what do local coaches need to stay in the sport? Money. Connection. Professional development. A little respect.

A coach has to make a real living to free up the time and resources for success. Don McCauley has argued for years that we need to professionalize our coaching ranks to match the professionals in countries like Russia, China, South Korea, and Iran. Can you imagine Ohio State’s football team run by an unpaid amateur who has a real job elsewhere? Who showed up to practice, but had no time for anything else, like recruiting? Nearly all of the coaches in USAW are trying to do something near to that, find and develop national and world class athletes while working as a lawyer, factory worker, Physical Therapist, or carpenter. Making a real living as a coach means time to focus on recruiting athletes. It means time for professional development through continuing education, including visits to successful programs and coaches. It means freeing up resources to secure a training facility and equipment. It means time to build sponsor relationships. Money is time and how that time is spent can make you a professional.

CrossFit has been a huge help from a financial point of view, allowing at least some coaches to supplement their income by teaching weightlifting clinics and classes. And as CrossFit grows, those opportunities grow for coaches. But more can be done. That growth in CrossFit has meant growth in USAW revenues from the Level 1 Courses.  Why don’t we start spreading some of that increased revenue to the coaches in the field who consistently produce at the national, but especially at the international level? This help should not focus only at the top, however. Coaches struggling to establish clubs can benefit greatly from what amounts to a small amount of help. It is expensive to start a club: two platforms, two squat racks and two complete training sets with men’s and women’s bars can cost $4,000 at the low end. Equipment–new or used–or small cash grants to mitigate start-up costs could be a huge help. I don’t know a single coach who has been in the sport more than a few years who hasn’t sunk thousands or tens of thousands of dollars into their clubs with little or no hope of ever seeing that money again. They do it out of love for the sport, but should love hurt so much? USAW can help ease that pain a bit and gain many effective coaches and clubs for not much investment.

One of the first things a local coach realizes is how far he or she is from other weightlifting coaches. Except on meet days, we are pretty much isolated from each other. But even at local meets there is little time for meaningful conversation between coaches, with coaching duties taking up most of their time. Many coaches have more free time to talk weightlifting at national level meets, but it is informal and haphazard. Coaches who don’t have lifters qualified for national level meets miss out on even this, as the expense of traveling to national meets without lifters participating is difficult to justify. The growth of internet forums has allowed informal communication between coaches, but without sitting across the table from each other, face-to-face, internet “communication” often breaks down into pissing matches and petty squabbles. There is also the problem of the water being muddied by newbies and trolls. We need an annual gathering of coaches for networking, comparing notes on training, recruiting, and development, continuing education, mentoring, all things that best happen face-to-face. An annual gathering of coaches for the presentation and sharing of information, for workshops, networking, and just for getting to know each other, is essential not only to the individual development of the coach, but to achieve the aims of the greater organization.

I’ve been told by national office employees more than once, “That information is on the website.” Leaving aside just how difficult it is to find anything on the USAW website, searching for scholarly papers, or articles on training, fundraising, starting a club, etcetera, finding information that way does not connect the coach to other coaches. Face to face conversations take twists and turns that lead you down paths you had not considered, to information you didn’t know you wanted or needed. And the need to talk to someone who has overcome similar problems should not be underestimated.

Face-to-face is the way most of our continuing education should be done as well.  Workshops and presentations should be done at the annual coaches gathering.  While the Level 1 course should still be paid for by those taking it (it is a vital revenue stream for USAW and most who take it are enhancing their resumes, not coaching competitive athletes) the coaches who take the Level 2 course are almost always serious about coaching highly competitive weightlifters. Remember when I spoke about respect? Local coaches should be regarded as the vital assets to the sport that they are, not an additional revenue source. The Level 2 Course should be free and travel around the country to the club coaches who need it. It is an investment in USAW success by developing the local level coaches upon which the entire organization depends.

CrossFit has introduced tens or hundreds of thousands of people to the Olympic lifts. Once people do them and understand them, they love them. They want to do more. But that is useless to USA Weightlifting if there is no one to walk up to these people and say, “Would you like to give the sport of weightlifting a try?” That is the local club coach. We need more of them and we need to help them become the best coaches they can be. They find the lifters. They teach them foundational technique. They get them to the national level and sometimes beyond. More coaches equals more clubs equals more lifters equals the numbers we say we need. If we’re serious about growth, about international success, about medals at Worlds and the Olympics, we need to start building the pyramid at the bottom, with coaches.

 

The 3 Most Important Positions in Weightlifting

In all the debate (bitter feuding) over technique in the interwebs, rarely have I read a reference to the position of the bar over the base in relation to the pull. For me it is the most relevant point in the entire discussion. People talk about flat-footed pulling versus driving through the ball of your foot and the effect on bar speed a lot, but in all the caterwauling about catapult, triple extend, jump & shrug, yada yada yada, few have mentioned the effect of a particular technique on the position of the bar over your base of balance–your feet, between the ball of your foot and your heel.

It does not matter how high the bar is driven if it is out of position. If you can’t meet the bar in balance and act on it, you’re just treating the barbell like a shot, throwing it up and watching helplessly as it falls. The biggest factor in putting the barbell in the right place to do something with it is the position of the bar over your base of balance, getting it there and keeping it there as long as possible.

You might think the starting position would be big on my list of three, and while I do think there are better starting positions, several variations of the start have been successful, from Norik Vardanian’s high hip start (favored by current USA national team coach Zygmunt Smalcerz) to a standard start to a hip position so low that the shoulders start behind the bar. As long as you can effectively sweep the bar in and over the base, the start works. But you have to hit that first vital position, at the knees. . . .

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I’ve used this sequence before because Darrel Barnes has one of the best pulls of any American lifter–or any lifter anywhere for that matter. Look at the third photo in the sequence. Darrel is able to sweep the bar deep over his base because he got his shins to vertical. His weight is shifted slightly to his heels and he has used his lats to push the bar very close, almost touching skin. That shins-vertical part is essential; the bar is positioned directly over the middle of the base. It cannot go deeper than that as you’d have to go through flesh and bone to get the bar over the heel. Most lifters find that undesirable. Darrel has the bar as far back over his base as it can go.

Okay, the bar is over the middle of the base. It is crucial to keep it there. Even if you got to this point perfectly, you can still screw up. We have to keep the bar over the middle of the base. If at this point you leave your shoulders forward and attempt to drive the hips to the bar, you will drive the bar forward, either to the front of the base (ball of the foot) or beyond it. The effort here must be to raise the torso and get the torso vertical behind the bar. This brings the bar right back to the hips in the snatch or top of the thighs in the clean & jerk; most important is that this movement keeps the bar right over the middle of the base or, for some lifters, gets it even a bit deeper over the base. The knees will be re-bent and in front of the bar. The torso will be vertical and behind the bar.

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Cameron Swart (above) and Caine Wilkes (below) both hit the second vital position pretty much perfectly, Cameron in pic 4 and Caine in pic 6. Their heels are down, although many lifters can hit this position on the balls of their feet. What is critical is that the bar is still over the middle of the base or deeper, and the torso is vertical behind the bar, heels down or not.

From here the lifter’s legs are employed to drive the torso/bar up. Driving up from position 2 will have the lifter finishing the pull in more or less a straight line, shoulder, hip, knee and ankle joints a lining up and leaning back about 5 to 10 degrees–vital position number 3. This angle, too, is vital. The backward lean clears the hips from over the middle of the base so the bar can move more or less straight up, rather than being driven forward. This makes the task of keeping the bar close much easier.

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In pic 5 above (and in all the sequence shots) you will see that same slight lean backwards, all the big joints–shoulder, hip, knee and ankle–lining up in a straight line. The slight backward lean has another positive side effect: it leaves the lifter slightly out of balance backwards, forcing the lifter to reflexively withdraw the hips and begin the descent under the bar in perfect timing, while the bar is still going up.

This backward lean creates a bar path unlike the classic Soviet S-pull of the 70s and 80s. Rather than the bar being momentarily driven forward of the base at the top of the pull, the lean back allows the bar to stay over the base of balance. Forgive my poor art skills, but the drawing below should help illustrate what I mean.

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The net effect of this pull is that the lifter’s feet will move back an inch or two to re-establish the base of balance where he/she has sent the bar. I consider this to be ideal.

I have employed the back-half drill extensively to get my lifters to this kind of pull. Getting a lifter to position 2 with the balls of the feet on the ground is very difficult to achieve, so I take the balls of the feet away. Will that make them “jump” from their heels when they get back to the floor? No, not in my experience. Many still drive through the ball of the foot, or at least have the heels pop up off of the floor at the end of the pull.

Look at each photo sequence and compare your positions to these three. If you aren’t hitting them, I believe you are falling short of your potential.