Coach Dan Bell

Rubber City Weightlifting

Month: January, 2014

Don’t Mistake the Effect for the Cause

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Cause-and-effect seems a simple enough concept to grasp: this happens and makes that happen. It’s amazing to me how often athletes (and too many coaches) in the sport of weightlifting confuse the effect for the cause. What is most obviously wrong about a missed lift is rarely the cause of the miss.

Have you ever pulled a snatch to your eyeballs and your body refused to get under it? Looped the bar around you and missed behind? Deadlifted–or Clarked–the bar? What you assume was a technical failure at one point in the lift probably happened much earlier. What you assumed a lack of guts or commitment to the lift was likely a technical mistake.

For example, take balking at going under the bar. I’ve worked a lot recently with a lifter named Eileen who powered everything. Just could not move under the bar for a full lift. She could pull the bar eyeball high and still not move under it. She’d try to pull down, only to pull her chest and shoulders down and forward and stop, letting the bar fall to the floor in front of her. She was frustrated almost to the point of giving up the sport. She thought it a failure of will, lack of courage or even some esoteric nuance she could not grasp. It was none of these. She simply did not get the bar deep enough over her base in the first pull, then tried to drive up over the balls of her fee in the second pull, leaving the bar out front, where she simply could not do anything with it. A lack of courage or will was not the cause of her misses. It was bar location. Eileen is a realtor, and would tell you now that in lifting as in real estate, it’s location location location.

We worked a few drills to get the bar deeper over her base and finish the lift driving UP with her legs rather than forward with her hips. After a couple days, she was moving under the bar effortlessly because the bar was over her base of balance, where she could easily interact with it.

How about banging the bar away from you? You’re standing up with a snatch that seems to be going well and then you bang it away from you and loop it. Your training partner says, “Don’t swing your hips at the bar!” Was driving your hips at the bar too much the cause of the miss? Maybe not. It may well have been the effect of something that happened earlier. If the bar wasn’t swept close to the front of your body right off of the floor, it will be too far forward, leaving a gap between the front of your body and the bar. The bigger this gap, the more you’ll have to chase the bar with your hips at the top of your pull. You are trying to get your hips on the bar as you should, but again, the bar is too far out front already to do anything useful with it. By the time your hips reach forward to get to the bar you’ve already lost the lift. Looping the bar may look like the cause, but the miss happened as soon as the bar moved vertically off of the floor rather than back over your base.

One more example: A lifter’s hips pop up faster than the shoulders, leaving the bar swinging away from the lifter right off of the floor for a miss. The usual advice is, “Keep your hips down,” the assumption being that the hips coming up too quickly was the cause of the miss. Yes, the hips came up too fast and the bar moved away from the lifter. Were the rising hips the cause of the problem? Again, maybe not. Many lifters, especially newer lifters, do not know how to engage their upper backs for a solid starting position. Their upper backs not being locked in and solid means their upper back gets soft right off the floor, their chest falls, their lats lose engagement and the bar swings away. Like the bar swinging away, the rising hips are an effect, the poor upper back engagement the cause.

It often pays to look away from what appears to have gone wrong to find the real reason. A decent rule of thumb is to look as early in the lift as possible for the cause of the miss. I can usually tell by the time the bar reaches the knees if the lifter has a chance, and often within the first two inches of a lift. If things go wrong right off the floor, they don’t usually get better as the lift progresses.

Having instant access to video tools aids in this process greatly. If things are going wrong, it is no shame to pull out that iPhone or iPad and get some slow motion video to better analyze the lift. Even this takes practice and some experience to be as useful as it can be, but even beginners will spot basic flaws they can’t feel or see full speed. Be careful, though. Don’t assume the first glaring mistake you see is the cause of the problem. A little digging and nuanced thinking goes a long way.

Heel Height and Position

New lifters and CrossFitters are often frustrated by their bottom positions in cleans, squats, and especially the snatch. They see pictures of national or world class weightlifters and wonder why they can’t hit positions like this:

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Through discussions with those familiar with the Chinese program and my own observations, it is clear the Chinese coaches emphasize position before all else. Lu Xiaojun’s bottom position in this snatch is the result of many factors, some under the lifter’s control, some not. In the not column would be structure: femur length relative to torso and lower leg length. Most people, however, do not have a structure ideally suited to weightlifting. Their thighs (femurs) are too long in relation to their lower legs and/or torsos. When sitting in a full squat with proper back position, their torso angle is leaned too far forward from vertical.

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This can place a lot of stress on the shoulders and low back, especially in the snatch. The standard pieces of advice to address this problem work well: increase ankle, knee, and hip mobility and buy weightlifting shoes. The raised heels of weightlifting shoes allow the knees to travel farther forward over the front of the foot, allowing the hips to be closer to the heels, thus bringing the torso angle more towards the vertical. Just doing these things is effective for most, but there are people with very long femurs who still cannot hit ideal or close to ideal positions, even implementing the usual advice to the best of their ability. What to do, then?

Here is a good, standard weightlifting shoe:

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Note the elevated heel, usually between a half to one inch high. That works well for many people, but not all. Even elite level athletes with all of the other qualities a coach would look for in a lifter–speed, agility, flexibility–may not have a structure that allows the positions that would result in maximizing the lifter’s talent.

My lifter Kat Lee, a former Division 1 pole vaulter, has all the qualities a coach could ask for in a weightlifter save one: that long femur thing. Here is her snatch bottom position even with good weightlifting shoes. (Note her back angle)

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The heel in the shoes has helped her get to this position, but still not as good as I’d like. She works ankle and hip mobility almost every day. There is not much more she can get out of that. If a raised heel can get Kat better position, but not great, then why not more heel? That is exactly what you see the Chinese do with their lifters. If you look very closely at the Xiaojun pic above, you’ll see the heels on his Nike’s have been raised what appears to be at least 1/4″ or more. That doesn’t seem like much, but even with his ideal structure, either he or his coaches thought it could be a bit better.

So we took Kat’s shoes to a local cobbler. The result:

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Kat is a more extreme example. We added 1/2″ of hard cobbler’s crepe and a 1/4″ of sheet sole to her heel (tapered down to just behind the ball of the foot) for a total additional heel height of 3/4″. Here is the position she can hit with her modified shoes:

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This is a pretty radical change, but the improvement in her bottom position will be worth it in weightlifting results and injury prevention. It is imperative that when adding any heel height that you work back to your best training weights slowly. Drop down to 80% or less and work back up over two to six weeks, gradually growing accustomed to the new positions and feeling. This will help prevent tendonitis or more traumatic injury from using heavy weight before adjusting to the shoes.

You don’t have to modify your $200 weightlifting shoes just to find out if it will work for you. Simply place wood or metal change plates of different thicknesses under your heels and test out your bottom position for a snatch or front squat. See how it feels and have someone check you out from the side for a more vertical torso angle. If you’re serious about results and injury prevention, it may well be worth the $50 or so it costs to modify your shoes.

Fixing the “CrossFit Pull”

That the explosion of CrossFit popularity has been good for weightlifting cannot be doubted. Through CrossFit, more people have discovered our sport and the joy of moving athletically with a barbell than at any time in even the oldest weightlifting coach’s memory. CrossFitters have also discovered the challenges of doing the Olympic lifts well. It ain’t easy, and after they get by light beginner weights, CrossFitters quickly find that out.

The reason so many CrossFitters are driven to fits of apoplexy by the lifts is that many of them have been taught poorly, but more than that, they have been taught incompletely. The typical CrossFitter bar path is too far to the front to make heavy weights consistently. Left to their own devices to fix the problem, and through no fault of their own, CF athletes spawn all sorts of ugly aberrations of the lifts. The way the lifts have been taught by many CrossFit coaches makes the result inevitable.

Here is a pic at the top of a classical pull as used in the old Soviet system:

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It is central to how CrossFit teaches the Olympic lifts, as you can see in a pic from a CrossFit Weightlifting clinic:

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They are taught to pull the bar high and close. By one of the old Soviet teaching progressions, so far, so good. But here is where things can go awry. There is too much emphasis on getting the bar to go up, not enough on how and when to transition down, and little mention of how to keep the bar over the base of balance–the feet. All too often the result looks like this:

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CrossFitters taught this way typically pull too long, arm pull on extension and drive the hips too far forward. The long pull/arm pull destroys the timing moving under the bar (with no arm action left to accelerate the lifter down) and the hips being driven too far forward pushes the bar away from the front of the body, usually forward of the base of balance.

So what do we do to fix this? I use two drills to get and keep the bar deep over the base of balance and make the hips move down in the right timing, keeping the hips back where they should be. One is the Back Half Drill. In this drill the lifter stands at the edge of a platform and lets the front half of the foot float off of the floor. By taking away the ball of the foot, the athlete can no longer leave the shoulders forward too long; they cannot finish the pull with the entire body vertical over the ball of the foot, with the hips and bar too far forward. They are forced to open the torso in the right timing, get the bar deep over the base, and move under in the right timing.

The second drill, the No Hands/No Feet Drill, is from an old Soviet progression and was employed after the lifter learned the classical high pull. Made to leave the feet in place as they move under the bar, the lifter is forced to emphasize coordinated hip and arm action. Especially if the lifter keeps the heels down, the bar gets deep over the base, the hips cannot travel too far forward, thus moving down at the right time, and the arms are active in pulling the lifter down.

This drill has been used by American coaches and lifters recently, but has been used as a drill to improve speed under the bar. It does do that, but I believe its primary importance is in getting the bar back over the base, keeping it there, and correcting the timing of the movement under the bar. I have used it extensively of late, and it has worked wonders on CrossFitters whose pull was, to be blunt, completely fucked up.

Zygmunt does let his heels come up a little in the video of the drill, but again I must emphasize that the No Hands/No Feet Drill works better if the heels remain glued to the floor throughout the drill. With time, talent, these drills, and some luck, maybe you can look like this one day:

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