24 Feb A Closer Look At How To Teach Olympic Weightlifting
Recently, I’ve adopted a new approach to my own professional education. I used to try to consume as much information as I could as often as I could. I’d switch daily from one subject matter to the next and from one resource to another. I’d read a book on periodization methods in the morning and then watch instructional videos on movement practices later in the day. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this. It gave me a pretty broad base of knowledge fairly quickly.
But I’ve come to realize that the more I learn, the more deeply I want to understand the intricate details of each subject. I want to develop a far greater appreciation and a deeper insight into each discipline. Lack of deep study and focus in a single area is something that is severely lacking in younger strength and fitness professionals and something I wrote about here – http://jdistrength.com/5-lasting-lessons-from-a-master-in-strength-bill-gillespie
So I’ve decided to take my own advice and outline my focus of study for each month. My hope is to develop a beginner’s mindset again and look at everything with a fresh perspective without all of my usual preconceptions, although I’m sure I’ll fail miserably at this. I dedicated this past January to deepening my understanding of the various methods of instructing and cuing the desired technique for the classic lifts of Olympic Weightlifting. I read articles, watched videos, listened to podcasts, and read a book solely devoted to this topic. As luck would have it, before I even decided on this monthly focus, I scheduled a weightlifting clinic at my gym with Max Aita who shared his view on this topic.
I’ve been hesitant to write about Olympic Weightlifting technique and instruction in the past because the industry is so saturated with both good and bad resources on it. My respect for the great coaches with decades of experience who actually choose to share their information has also silenced me on the subject. They are the authorities on the subject and should always be listened to first. Younger coaches with not even half the experience would do better to focus on becoming better coaches through both training themselves and developing lifters instead of sharing their incomplete and regurgitated thoughts with social media.
This post is intended to be more of a public journal entry of my earnest questioning and research over anything else. I’ve taken the last three years, during which I transitioned from a college strength and conditioning coach to solely a weightlifting and powerlifting coach, to just practice and reflect on what’s useful and what’s not. With this experience and focused study, I’d now like to share what I’ve learned with young coaches or lifters who may be just a couple of steps behind me. This may seem rudimentary to some, but I think it’s important to adequately categorize and identify methods to think more critically about them.This will be especially important to newer coaches and those teaching weightlifting in CrossFit settings or those who came from it.
I’ll summarize two main methods of teaching and cuing technique in the Snatch and Clean and Jerk according to how I’ve personally been make sense of it and organize it in my own mind. These two categories come from my own interpretations of what the coaches I’ve listened to, spoken to, or read from have shared. After that, I’ll share what has worked for me according to my own experience coaching and lifting. To wrap up, I’ll discuss some thoughts on how studying this closely has given me a bit more clarity on how to coach and cue going forward. All this may seem rudimentary to some more experienced coaches but I think it’s important to organize techniques and categorize methods to think more critically about them.
Classification of Teaching Methods
After studying as much as I could and observing coaches in person, I summarized two basic methods on how coaches teach and cue beginners to perform the weightlifting movements. This may be an oversimplification for some but it helped me see the big picture.
The first method is what I’ll call positional drilling. Coaches teaching this will most often begin teaching the lift from the top portion. The coach first shows the position, then has the athlete try to imitate it. If the athlete can’t imitate it perfectly, the coach will then verbally cue him or her to move this or that or physically move them to the desired position. Then the coach will show the next position further down and then return to the previous position to hopefully ingrain it in the athlete. This is continued until the athlete is practicing moving in and out of every position from the floor to the top. This isn’t groundbreaking to most reading this and many of you have probably been instructed in this way at some point or another. The basic premise is that by drilling these positions continually, the athlete will instinctively move through them when performing the lift at full speed without conscious thought resulting in a successful lift.
Using the instruction of the Snatch as an example, under this model a coach would first tell a new lifter to stand tall with pvc or barbell in hands sitting in the hip crease. Then the coach would most likely show the athlete the first position. The lifter will keep the torso completely vertical and upright but bend his or hers knees an inch or two. The barbell or pvc would remain in the hip crease. This position has most frequently referred to as the power position or position one by coaches who teach this.
After the lifter feels the correct angles of his or her body and the proper balance and weight distribution, the coach might instruct the lifter to jump from this position or push explosively against the ground extending, as if jumping, but without letting the balls of the feet leave the ground. Some coaches may have their athletes practice a power variation or full Snatch from this position at this point. This can vary greatly depending on both the previous experience of the lifter and the coach’s preference or style of teaching.
Once the lifter consistently demonstrate the position the coach believes is sufficient for a successful lift, he or she then moves down to the next position, usually a hang position. Once the lifter feels this position he will then return to the first position in a slow and deliberate manner to hopefully further internalize these positions. This is continued until the athlete has made their way through all the positions back to the top and reached the floor. These positions are always eventually moved through dynamically but how soon this is done is up to the coach.
Often coaches who teach this way use a good deal of external cueing. They may tell the athlete, for example, to keep their chest or elbow or whatever pointed a certain way. Many very accomplished coaches have used this method or a variation of it very successfully with many weightlifters.
Natural Flow and Internal Focus
The second method I’m going to label the natural flow and internal focus method. I realize that sounds lame and wordy but it’s my classification and I’ll do what I want. Coaches that teach more in this style will have their athletes practice the feeling and timing of the top portion and/or the pull off the floor to internalize and solidify the feeling of the proper mechanic. How a coach communicates this practice to lifters can vary pretty dramatically. But I’ve personally observed that coaches with this style will often have their lifters practice the final explosion/extension or end of the second pull very often and from the beginning to understand the proper mechanic of the lift specific to their needs and body type.
Coaches who emphasize this model also will have their athletes focus a lot on proper balance of tension and relaxation of tissues and muscle groups. The coach will often make sure that the athlete feels the correct balance and muscular tension of the start position and of the top of the pull. The idea is that if the athlete knows how to create the correct positions at the start of the lift and the top of the pull, the movement from beginning to end will flow exactly as it should and the bar will go through the correct path.
Of course the emphasis on top and bottom position overlaps with the previous method I described but as I mentioned, there is always overlap in these methods and no coach fits neatly and exclusively into one of these classifications that I’ve created. But the basic idea of this method is to not try to force position but rather put the proper tissues on tension in the correct sequence and allow the athlete to practice and make the movement their own. Coaches using this method to teach will often use far more internal cues than coaches who use more positional drilling. The coach will tell the lifter to focus on how a particular body part moves or point to a particular feeling.
Almost every coach I’ve learned from on this side of the spectrum still, at times, use some positional drilling to make a point or correct a movement fault. Sometimes this can take the form of drills, pause variations, or complexes.
Reflecting On What Has Worked For Me
Up until I started coaching big groups of beginner weightlifters out of a CrossFit gym, I had only taught the Snatch and Clean and Jerk to very small groups or to one lifter at a time. Even as a college strength coach, I taught some of my team sport athletes Olympic lift variations in smaller groups.
When I was teaching the lifts to current or former college athletes or coaching already experienced weightlifters that came to me, I was dealing with a pretty athletic population with great movement competency. So of course demonstrating the movement and focusing on internal focus got the athletes to do what I wanted.
But later when I began teaching larger groups, I found it much more helpful to use positional drilling. It was much easier to have large groups all go through and hold positions repeatedly until they memorized them. It was very helpful in introducing the movement to people with no background in weightlifting or without good body awareness. Still I found this to be a disservice for some as they were never able to move fluidly through these positions and their lifts remained very mechanical. Many of these people would be able to perform power or hang variations but fall apart when you asked them to do the full lift from the floor. Forget about asking them to add speed or weight.
Positional cueing and drilling would help some with these problems but not others. Some got worse the more positional work they did. With these lifters, I experimented with using segmented lift variations and complexes like Snatch Pull + Snatch to drill the feeling of the proper movement pattern.
The lesson I drew from working with these large groups of beginner or very early intermediate lifters was that teaching them positions did not guarantee fluidity in movement when done at full speed. Drills that kept their focus on creating balance, appropriate tension, and focus on a desired feeling did however help them improve.
Fast forward to after I opened my gym. I began working with these beginner/early intermediate lifters in much smaller groups again. I continued to use top down position drilling but mostly as a tactic to help the lifters who came to me unlearn bad mechanics that they had picked up from whatever incomplete introduction they had previously had. But this time I was able to see better when it was time to let the lifters transition from positional work to using the full movements and simple cueing their movement so they could create a more internal focus.
Thoughts On What To Do Going Forward
As I mentioned before, no weightlifting coach uses only one method exclusively in cueing and teaching. These methods I’m describing are just labels that I created to differentiate the way in which a coach could potentially speak to an athlete. Some coaches will at times use only positional cueing until the lifter can move in and out of these positions perfectly. Other coaches will allow their lifters to perform the lifts or variations of them to the best of their ability from the very start and cue them until the athlete can feel the proper mechanic and the technique becomes repeatable. But most are pretty moderate in their approach.
After this last month’s study and questioning, I still believe that it is still worthwhile to start beginner lifters out with setting positions. But my opinion has changed about how I handle some lifters that come to me from either CrossFit or from some other background where they may have received just a little instruction on the lifts. I’ve found it far less important to go through every position at the expense of focusing on the practice and timing of the movement with these athletes. If they have never been shown the positions it’s helpful to do so but if they have some idea of where they are, I’ve found it more helpful to begin them with variations and get them to focus on how the movement should feel rather than what it looks like to be in positions. This is going to be different for every lifter of course and I think one of the biggest struggles as a coach is determining where the lifter is on this spectrum. I haven’t had many lifters in the last year come to me with no experience in the lifts, and this is thanks to CrossFit, so to focus more on positional drilling often times becomes a disservice to them. Unless of course they were taught these positions completely wrong.
Of course this is easier to do in these smaller groups that I have now and my recommendation for any coach working with larger groups is of course to start with positional drilling. But as individual athletes come to you, you will need to assess what they need.
That’s all I have to say about that (in Forrest Gump voice).