June 22, 2017

USA Weightlifting – Beyond the Basics

Over the course of the last couple of years, I have dabbled in the Olympic moves (snatch, clean, and jerk) with limited success, frequently getting discouraged by the difficulty of these seemingly simple moves (I have preferred to read about these movement patterns rather than incorporate them into my ongoing training programs).  I mean you look at a clean, and you go, “Ok, I can move this bar from the floor to my shoulders.”  In practice however, it is much more difficult than it looks.  This year I decided to get serious and change from a bystander to a participant, no longer  content to look at movement “theory,” I wanted to begin formal practice.  To that end I calendared the USA Weightlifting, Level I – Sports Performance Coach Certification and made learning and teaching the “O-moves” (as they are affectionately know by those who run in weightlifting circles) a priority.  My rationale for wanting to learn more about these movement is fairly straightforward, these moves are “functional” in the broadest sense—they are ground based (as are the majority of sports and activities), they can offer a wide variety of clients an efficient workout with tremendous training adaptations (e.g., increased power, development of kinesthetic awareness, increased muscle fiber density, increased intramuscular/intermuscular coordination), and they introduce clients to fun and challenging movements—these reasons, laid out in the USA Weightlifting curriculum, are the very reasons I wanted to attend this certification course.  Over the third weekend in April, I found myself at Red Rocks CrossFit in beautiful Colorado Springs, CO.   Along with some 25+ others from both Colorado and a few from beyond Colorado’s borders, Paul Fleschler introduced both “theory and practice” and then took me way beyond the fundamentals as both an athlete and a coach.

Olympic reminders that adorn RedRocks CrossFit (many of these athletes have trained with Paul at his facilities or at the USA Olympic training center).

The Venue: Red Rocks CrossFit occupies an old trolley car building that offers the essentials and then some.  Power racks, barbells, and lots of bumper plates adorn the floors of a facility, that by both its design and decor feels “serious.”  From its high ceilings hang multiple iron rings and suspended braided ropes.  Rowing machines are the only “cardio” equipment (a frequent hallmark of CrossFit gyms).  But beyond all the necessary equipment, e.g., medicine balls, plyo boxes, PVC dowels, the thing that stands out and sets it apart from other CrossFit gyms are the large-scale tributes to the USA Olympic weightlifting athletes.  As it turns out, much of the equipment in use at the facility came directly from the USA Olympic weightlifting center, also located in Colorado Springs.

Paul Fleschler, a coach and trainer with 30+ years of experience, exuded enthusiasm for this “lifelong” sport.  Over the course of his career, Paul has competed at a national level, worked with Olympic and collegiate athletes (he was a strength coach at Indiana University in the days when Bobby Knight reigned supreme), and, like so many other coaches and trainers that I admire, he has managed to find a way to progress the health and fitness with the “everymen” of the world—average men and women who are interested in learning knew skills and increasing their fitness levels.  Oh, and I failed to mention that he represented the USA in the sport of weightlifting in the ’92 Barcelona Olympics (see more about Paul and his credentials here)!  At the outset, Paul affirmed what I have long believed, the Olympic moves should be a part of my training routine.

But you can’t just start with the clean.  One should walk before he or she runs.  And the progression of learning these hallmark O-moves, based on some 30 years of practice within the USA Weightlifting organization, begins with a general physical preparedness regimen (a general warm-up) followed by a minimum mobility assessment.  For the sake of expediency, I will pass over the details of a warm-up, just know that the completion of a comprehensive dynamic warm-up is a prerequisite for performing these movements well (as well as serving to reduce the possibility of injury).  The minimum mobility assessment, consisting of an overhead squat, straight leg raise, front squat (in “receiving” position), and an upright row with a PVC bar/stick provides a look at an athlete’s readiness to attempt the Olympic moves.  This short assessment identifies potential structural and flexibility restrictions that can be addressed with specific warm-up and even corrective techniques.  By way of personal example, I have tight latissimus dorsi muscles (upper back) and pectoral muscles.  I also perform the majority of my squat movements in the “low bar” position.  As a consequence, my overhead squat presents significant forward lean—not a problem if you wish to squat large amounts of weight, but a significant problem for getting in the proper position for the Olympic moves.  Add some decreased mobility in my hip joint and tight hamstrings and I have some work that needs to be done before I will be able to progress to higher levels of Olympic lifting!  My ongoing exercise prescription will be to work on progressing my flexibility and gradually transitioning to the “high bar” position back squat.

An overview of the weekend’s itinerary provides useful insight into how these moves are taught: Day 1: Two sections: 1) Understanding and Preparing for Weightlifting (introduction, objectives, rationale; safety and evaluation; and basic biomechanics, and 2) Learning and Teaching Techniques: Basic Exercises, Clean Related; Basic Exercises, Snatch Related; and Basic Exercises, Jerk Related and Day 2: Powers Assistance Exercises and Implementing Program Design (Day 2 also included an extended coaching session during which participants worked on the clean, snatch, and jerk movements).

Following a self-guided general warm-up, completion of the minimum mobility assessment, and dividing into small groups, we began working the progression for learning the technique of the O-moves.  First, up the “starting position.”  The starting position sets the stage for a successful moment.  As I frequently share with my clients in the weight room, “Sometimes how you start determined how you will finish!”—this is particularly true to the Olympic movements.  The keys to a good stating position are as follows: 1) all body levers are “tight,” 2) feet are straight (neutral) or slightly turned out, 3) the back is flat (or even concave), 4) the arms are straight (elbows are rotated out), 5) the head is up (again, neutral) and the eyes are focused straight ahead, 6) the hips are higher than the knees, and 7) the shoulders are in advance of the barbell.  Note: the weight is distributed evenly on the athlete’s feet prepared for the changes that take place during the movements (i.e., 1st pull: weight moves toward the heels, and 2nd pull: weight moves toward the toes).  Paul was “hands on” during the practical portions of the training (which made up more the 3/4 of the curriculum), rotating through each group and emphasizing certain critical points to the group as whole as needed.  In addition, Paul was assisted by three experienced assistant coaches, one of which, a 23-year-old female lifter, competes at the national and international level and narrowly missed an Olympic trial spot this year—she is about to begin another 4-year training cycle and dreams of representing the United States in the Olympics.  Each coach offered unique perspectives and cues to the moves that we practiced throughout the weekend.

Me, assuming the proper "start position."

By the lunch break of day 1, I  had performed LOTS of clean and clean related moves.  After lunch and another self-guided warm-up and brief work through a barbell complex, we attacked the snatch and snatch related moves.  But for the difference in the grip (the snatch features a substantially wider grip), these two moves share a great number of similarities.  Note: A surefire way to determine the proper width of the snatch grip is to use a jump rope.  The procedure goes like this: have the athlete stand with her back facing toward you, left arm extended at her side, with her right arm extended away from her hips at shoulder level.  Measure from the top of the left shoulder (the AC joint, or acromioclavicular joint) to the middle knuckle on the right hand—simply transfer this measurement to the bar.  (With the clean, the focus is moving under the bar to the receiving (aka “rack”) position, whereas with the snatch, the barbell moves on a trajectory over the head.  As with the clean, by the end of the day I had performed LOTS of snatch and snatch related, along with a good quantity of jerk and jerk related moves (the jerk features footwork where the feet split underneath the bar).  I said goodbye to my group and Paul, then headed slowly to my truck to make the trip back home to Denver.

Learning from Each Other:

The Level 1 course, in addition to providing instruction from high experienced coaches, facilitated additional learning and coaching opportunities within our small groups.  My group featured a standout named Grant Cahill.  From the moment Grant joined our group, sporting his well-worn Risto weightlifting shoes, I knew that there was something special about this 32-year-old.  Grant is a trainer who has been working through the CrossFit competition ranks, while practicing solo in his garage.  I learned a great deal from Grant as we all learned more about these movements.

Grant Cahill nailing a jerk, "spot on" just like he did on almost every movement that he practiced over the weekend.

Day 2 ushered in the power assistance exercises.  We initially focused on the snatch and clean pulling movements.  With these moves, the goal is to develop strength in the pull.  And, in the case of the Romanian dead lift (RDL), strength in the lower back, glutes, and hamstrings.  The power assistance moves also include overhead pressing and lower body squatting movements.  The overhead movements include the push press behind the neck, power jerk behind the neck, and the jerk behind the neck.  The squat power assistance exercises include the squat (the “high bar” back squat is implied here), and the single leg squat in two varieties: 1) the split squat and 2) the split squat with the rear foot elevated.  Each of the power assistance movements are designed to serve to improve performance in the O-moves.

Prior to the final practice session devoted to the clean, snatch, and jerk movements we discussed the essential components of program design.  As with endurance training and traditional resistance training, training for the Olympic movements should be both rational and periodized (note that I frequently make the argument that nutrition should be similarly periodized).  Using the lift related movements (i.e., snatch or clean), the overhead movements (i.e., snatch or jerk), the squat related movements, and pull related movements, a systematic training program can be designed to promote ongoing positive training adaptations—the idea is to manipulate the application of stress over time to elicit consist and ongoing training adaptations.  Paul and USA Weightlifting break the basic training macrocycle into a 12-week block that includes three 4-week periods.  Each 4-week period is respectively devoted to preparation, strength, or competition.  The volume begins high at a relatively low intensity in week 1 (the first week of a 4-week preparation training block) and steadily progresses, via an inverse relationship, to week 12 (the final week of another 4-week “competition”/peak training block) where the volume is low and the intensity is high.  Note also that the number of lifting (e.g., the clean, snatch, and jerk) versus strength related exercises (e.g., pulls, squats, and overhead presses), as well as the repetition count, changes across the 12-week cycle).  Every third week serves as an “unloading” week, where the athlete’s body recovers and adapts to the systematically increasing training loads.  The bottom line is that it is not sufficient to know how to execute the O-moves, the athlete must incorporate the moves into a rational training plan that will serve to consistently advance the athlete’s training adaptations.

Homemade lifting straps fashioned from 1" tubular webbing and athletic tape (used to increase grip with the pulling exercises).

Coaching Tips & Tricks: Olympic weightlifting, by definition, is an international sport.  Consequently, a well-appointed training facility will offer weights labeled in the international standard kilograms and and not US pounds.  Most of us are familiar with the standard conversion of kilograms to US pounds (i.e., multiply kilograms x 2.2 = US pounds); however, there is an easier way to get at the correct conversion in the weight room: simply multiply kilograms times 2 and then add 10%.  For example, 60 kilograms of weight equals 132 (120 + 12) pounds—simple as that!  Also, I discovered a new type of “strap” that can be fashioned out of 1″ tubular webbing (note that this is readily available from an outdoor store or climbing store, e.g., REI).  These straps help overcome the limitation of grip strength (especially in the pulling exercises where grip is frequently a limiter when lifting heavy loads)—note also that this is why the hook grip is preferred.  As Paul pointed out, these straps have the advantage over the store-bought variety since they will not tear as easily.  You know the ones that wrap around the athlete’s wrist and then double back through (see one example, here).  Approximately 18″ of tubular webbing folded over on itself and then joined at the end with athletic tape (this tape may need to be reapplied from time to time) will yield a durable pair of lifting straps.

The entire weekend was a complete success.  Paul provided a wealth of knowledge along with some great stories that served to add a richness and context to the material that we covered in the curriculum.  In addition to the great instruction by Paul and his assistant coaches, the course participants were similarly engaged and eager to learn.  As I left the gym on the final day, the comments flying through the air where uniformly positive.  Through their diversity as trainers, coaches, CrossFit’ers, and competitive athletes, my fellow attendees challenged and progressed my learning.  The bottom line is that the Olympic moves offer the ability to promote tremendous muscular and neuromuscular development.  The snatch, clean, and jerk, along with the related exercises, are challenging and can add variety to your workouts.  Want to know more?  Contact me and I will be happy to share what I have learned (we can learn more together).  Alternatively, make an appoint to see Paul or drop in at Red Rocks CrossFit for one of the monthly “open gym” days—you will be able to joint fellow lifters and coaches in learning more about these great moves (note the upcoming “open gym” days are as follows:  see the Red Rocks CrossFit page for additional information).  Find a local lifting club or a local gym where the Olympic moves are understood and taught: two gyms that Paul recommended include Flatirons CrossFit in (see Randy Hauer for learning the O-moves) and Front Range CrossFit (see Skip Miller for learning the O-moves)—in addition to working with Paul, I will certainly be drawing additional knowledge from these local resources!  For an active blog concerning all “happenings” in Colorado weightlifting, see here.

I have included the core curriculum of the USA Weightlifting progression in the slide show that follows (these slides will hopefully serve to get you thinking about how these movements should be approached, taught, and practiced).  I am extremely grateful to Paul Fleschler and USA Weightlifting for allowing me to include these slides here (note that Paul authored the USA Weightlifting, Level I manual).  Contact USA Weightlifting to learn more (perhaps even take a the Level I certification) … you will not be disappointed!

A review of the “basics”:

As an aside, the majority of this post was drafted at The Coffee Exchange, a quaint and well-appointed coffee shop that is located just beyond Red Rocks Crossfit on Tejon Street in the Springs (click here to view the Yelp reviews of this independent coffee shop).