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A Simple Tip for Olympic Weightlifting Training Robert A. Panariello MS, PT, ATC, CSCS Professional Physical Therapy Professional Athletic Performance Center New York, New York
When instructing the non-Olympic Weightlifting athlete who has never performed Olympic Style Weightlifting (OSW) exercises or exercise alternatives (i.e. pulls), one error often observed occurs during the athlete’s upper extremity involvement during the exercise execution. Inexperienced athletes will often excessively pull the barbell with their arms instead of allowing a proper lower extremity contribution for vertical barbell velocity and successful exercise performance. This instructional exercise offered to me years ago by my good friend Al Vermeil will provide feedback to the athlete and assist in ensuring an appropriate lower extremity contribution for proper technical exercise performance.
The Exercise Starting Position
The athlete assumes a “hang” position exercise posture while holding a wooden dowel positioned against the popliteal fossa at the posterior aspect of the knee. A clean or snatch grip is incorporated upon the dowel depending upon the specific exercise of instruction (Figure 1).
The Exercise Execution
The athlete slowly extends their body vertically while allowing the wooden dowel to rise against the posterior aspect of their legs, concluding in a position of triple extension on the balls of their feet with their shoulders shrugged (Figure 2). The exercise is then repeated at faster tempos to generate a greater exercise velocity performance via the lower extremities.
Figure 1 The Starting Position Figure 2 The Exercise Execution
The position of the wooden dowel offers a “bar pathway” posterior to the body thus eliminating the upper extremities from the exercise equation. Since the arms are not a contributing factor to the exercise performance, the athlete is now provided with feedback as they sense the lower extremity involvement during the exercise performance. This is the same lower extremity sensation that should occur during the actual OSW exercise performance with a barbell positioned anterior to the body.
The following is an excellent guest article by physical therapist and strength coach Rob Panariello.
Eight Considerations for Weight Room Training
Robert A. Panariello MS, PT, ATC, CSCS Professional Physical Therapy Professional Athletic Performance Center New York, New York
Throughout my 35 year career in the related professional fields of Sports Rehabilitation and Strength and Conditioning (S&C) I have been witness to hundreds of presentations, have read thousands of books/research articles/blogs and had an abundant number of conversations with regard to weight room training and program design. Although all of this information has been enlightening, the lessons from my friends and mentors Hall of Fame S&C Coaches Al Vermeil, Johnny Parker, Al Miller, Don Chu, elite coaches Charlie Francis, Derek Hansen, former Olympic Weightlifter and Weightlifting Coach Gregorio Goldstein, and former Olympic Weightlifter and present day Olympic Weightlifting Coach Stan Bailey have all provided me with instruction, lessons and information that in my opinion, is second to none. It should be noted that this dialog is based on the application of weight room principles and training to enhance the physical qualities that are necessary to improve their athleticism for optimal athletic performance. The S&C program design should not intend to create weightlifters, powerlifters or bodybuilders of the athlete unless they partake in these specific competitive sports.
1. Prepare the athlete for the weight room program
Prior to the athlete’s participation in a “formal” weight room training program it should be determined if the athlete exhibits the physical ability to withstand the eventual high levels of applied stress necessary for optimal adaptation. An evaluation will determine both the strengths and weaknesses (deficits) of the athlete to assist in an appropriate program design. If it is determined the athlete is unable to withstand the high stresses of training, a preparation training period of training may be necessary.
One effective preparation training method is the utilization of “Javorek Exercise Complexes”. These complexes, developed by S&C Coach Istvan “Steve” Javorek, are employed to enhance joint mobility and soft tissue compliance, exercise technique, strength levels, and work capacity. The utilization of Javorek’s exercise complexes are beyond the scope of this commentary, however this information may be found in Coach Javorek’s books and website.
I’ve also read and witnessed conversations how certain exercises should be avoided as they may cause injury to a particular anatomy of the body. One may question why there is less concern with possible injury during the execution of other commonly prescribed exercises? Why is there such concern for stressing the low back during the back squat exercise performance but little if any concern with the SI joint stresses that occur during exercise execution with a split stance, as approximately 30% of all low back pain is due to SI joint pathology? Why is there such concern with overhead pressing while the lat pull down exercise and pull-ups are commonly prescribed? All exercises stress the body and in our 42 physical therapy clinics we treat a variety of injuries that occur from the performance of various exercises utilizing assorted implements of training. Instead of abandoning a valued exercise, why not prepare the “stressed” anatomy for the eventual safe application of the exercise(s) in question and take advantage of its benefits?
2. Be careful of what you “correct” with your athlete
In recent years there appears to be an affinity for the “correction” of athletes to eliminate their asymmetries. Certainly there are times where a “correction” is appropriate, as these “corrections” should be performed by a qualified professional. However, it should be considered that all athletes (and all individuals) are asymmetrical, if this were not true why does right or left hand dominance exist? Why do anatomical variants exist? These asymmetries are frequently contributing factors that result in optimal levels of performance i.e. increased external rotation of the dominant throwing/racquet shoulder for optimal ball/racquet velocity. I recall particular conversations with both Charlie Francis and Derek Hansen as they both discussed a world class sprinter that Charlie had trained. This particular sprinter had scoliosis and was treated by a healthcare professional to correct the “functional” (soft tissue) component of their scoliosis. The healthcare professional succeeded in this “correction” resulting in the athlete never running at the same world class velocity again.
Healthcare and S&C Professionals should also recognize that an athlete’s participation in an appropriately prescribed training program will often result in a “correction” of the asymmetries observed. The precise technical exercise execution performed repeatedly over time will eliminate many of the physical deficits exposed as “form will follow function”.
3. Do not neglect to incorporate bilateral leg exercises
Single leg exercise testing and prescription has also become prevalent in recent years. Single leg exercises and testing are suitable in the related professional fields of rehabilitation and athletic performance training. However, during the incorporation of single leg exercise prescription bi-lateral leg exercises are often discarded. Bi-lateral leg exercise performance does present with certain advantages. These advantages include and are not limited to the following:
Most athletic endeavors are initiated and conclude on two feet
Most athletic activities occur with a foot position placed outside the midline of the body
Greater exercise weight intensities may be applied in a bi-lateral exercise posture
A greater systemic effect is placed upon the body due to superior weight intensities
Greater exercise velocities transpire from a bi-lateral exercise posture
Greater exercise ground reaction forces result from a bi-lateral posture
Have a greater effect for increasing total energy expenditure/metabolic benefit for stimulating larger increases in work capacity. Higher training loads increase mechanical work performed thus increasing metabolic cost
There is also appears to be a misconception that since the stance phase of running occurs upon a single leg, training should also occur upon a single leg. Ground contact time is a critical consideration in high velocity activities such as sprinting, as well as overall athletic performance. The less time spent on the ground (amortization) the better the athletic performance. The ground contact time for single leg weight intensity exercise execution far exceeds the ground contact time requirement for optimal amortization to occur. Thus single leg strength exercises are just that, a variation of a strength exercise.
Both single and bi-lateral leg exercises provide benefits for the athlete. The exercise selection for the program design should be based upon the needs and goals of the individual athlete.
4. Don’t forget the Olympic lifts
The ability to produce force quickly (power) is critical to athletic performance. The physical quality of strength must be accompanied by the physical quality of explosive strength and/or elastic strength for optimal athletic performance to transpire. The Olympic lifts and their variations i.e. “pulls”, have advantages not offered by other training exercises. These advantages include but are not limited to the following:
Enhanced rate of force development
Greater power and peak power outputs
Greater ground reaction and peak ground reaction forces
A stretch shortening cycle (SSC) transpires during the second knee bend of the exercise performance. A SSC is a critical component of elastic strength abilities
The exercises may be initiated from various exercise (bar) positions placing emphasis on acceleration or starting abilities
Many athletic endeavors require high force output against an external resistance (i.e. an opponent). The Olympic lifts require high force output against an external resistance
A positive enhancement of the co-activation index occurs due to high velocity exercise execution
Exercise execution requires a total body effort
5. When Appropriate Overhead press
When deemed appropriate the overhead press and variations of this exercise should be a consideration for the athlete’s training. Advantages of the overhead press include but are not limited to the following:
The exercise is (should be) performed in the plane of the scapula, a plane of motion that allows for optimal shoulder joint congruency and muscle length tension resulting in ideal force output and strength development
Exercises such as the push press are initiated from the legs, include a contribution of the entire body, and has been recognized to produce more lower body power than jump squats
Appropriate gleno-humeral/scapula-thoracic (GH-ST) neuromuscular timing and joint positioning occurs throughout the exercise performance as use of a bench backing is avoided. Compression of the scapula via a weight loaded exercise execution against a bench backing may have a negative effect upon GH-ST neuromuscular timing and joint rhythm
There appears to be a concern for the possible incidence of shoulder and rotator cuff pathology with overhead exercise performance. As mentioned previously, why is there not the same concern when performing overhead exercises such as pull-ups and lat pull downs where the exercise performance not only occurs overhead, but superiorly and anteriorly directed distraction forces also ensue?
The bench press is also a commonly prescribed exercise where pec tears, osteolysis of the distal clavicle, and rotator cuff pathology have been documented, yet there appears to be little hesitation for prescribing this exercise as well.
6. Avoid excessive exercise volume
With the abundant amount of information available to the S&C Professional it is often difficult to decide which exercises to include and which to exclude from the training program design. Therefore, very often “everything” is included in the program design. This is likely due to the following:
If “everything” is not included the athlete will be cheated
My opponent who does include “everything” will have an advantage over my athlete/team who does not include “everything” in their training
NFL Hall of Fame Coach Bill Parcells and NFL Hall of Fame S&C Coach Johnny Parker have both advised me to “Know what is important and don’t worry about the rest”. One “art” of coaching is to recognize the needs and goals of the athlete and acknowledge the most efficient and effective training methods to achieve them. Programing a greater number of exercises will likely take valuable training time from those that are most beneficial for the athlete. Excessive exercise volumes will likely produce excessive fatigue resulting in the consequences of poor technical exercise performance, lower force output, and possible higher incidence of overuse type injuries.
7. The training difference between large and small athletes
If disparities in physical stature are acknowledged for successful participation in various sports i.e. basketball players vs. jockeys, shouldn’t these physical differences also be a consideration in the program design as well? Considering the execution of exercises as the squat, wouldn’t body weight play a factor in not only the total amount of weight lifted, but the time necessary for adequate recovery as well? There are “absolute” and “relative” strength differences when comparing the large and small athlete. The “absolute” strength is considered the amount of weight lifted as “relative” strength is a “pound for pound” expression of strength so to speak. Generally smaller athletes have greater relative strength levels as large athletes usually demonstrate greater absolute strength levels.
Comparing the back squat exercise performance of a 200 pound athlete who can squat 400 pounds vs. a 325 pound athlete who can squat 600 pounds, the smaller athlete demonstrates a greater relative strength (lifting 2 times body weight) compared to the larger athlete (lifting 1.85 times body weight). However, the larger athlete demonstrates a greater amount (33%) of absolute strength (i.e. 600 vs. 400 pounds).
The athlete must also lift their body weight in addition to the barbell weight, resulting in a “system” of weight lifted. In the fore mentioned back squat example the smaller athlete’s system of weight is approximately 600 pounds while the larger athlete’s is approximately 925 pounds (35% greater than the smaller athlete). Due to this greater system of weight the larger athlete may need to have their squat exercise program design adjusted to perform a greater number of squat repetitions at lower exercise (repetition maximum) percentages. This is necessary for the following reasons:
-The exact program design of prescribed exercise percentages for both the small and large athlete will result in an inappropriate system of load prescribed to the large athlete over the training period resulting in excessive accumulative fatigue
-Larger athletes need appropriate recovery time thus the exact repetitively executed high percentage system of weight may result in overtraining of the athlete.
-Lower prescribed exercise weight percentages correspond to higher exercise repetitions performed. Higher repetitions correlate to increased work performance and body mass. Larger athletes usually need to maintain/improve their body mass for optimal athletic performance
8. Conclude the workout with a high velocity activity
Strength type exercises are performed at slower tempos when compared to higher velocity power/speed exercises. This increased time under tension requires a greater contribution of agonist and antagonist joint musculature to work together to enhance joint stability. This “co-activation index” of the agonist and antagonist muscle groups is close to or at a 1:1 ratio.
The athletic arena requires high velocity performance. High velocity performance is ensured with a greater contribution of the agonist muscle group when compared to the antagonist muscle group, resulting in fluid propulsion of the body in the desired direction of movement. Tudor Bompa and Charlie Francis have both stated that the greatest athletes in the world are those that are able to completely relax their antagonist muscle groups during high velocity performance. Higher tempo activities performed for a short duration at the conclusion of the training session will shift this co-activation index to the one desired for optimal athletic performance.
My friend Eric Cressey of Cressey Performance is currently offering $50 off of hisHigh Performance Handbookprogram until the end of the week. In an effort to help promote his excellent training resource, I asked him to write me a badass guest blog. He definitely didn’t disappoint! I hope you enjoy Eric’s article and videos.
Building Multi-Directional Strength and Power By: Eric Cressey
Sagittal-plane dominant exercises like squats, deadlifts, bench presses, and chin-ups get all the love in the world of strength training, but the truth is that both everyday activities and all levels of athletics require individuals to be strong and powerful in both the frontal and transverse planes, too. This knowledge gave rise to a central tenet of the functional training era: multi-planar training.
Unfortunately, it’s just not as simple as telling folks to train in all three planes, as there is a progression one must go through to stay healthy while reaping the benefits of these new exercises. Otherwise, baseball players (as an example) wouldn’t need hitting and pitching coaches any more than basketball players would need “vertical jump coaches.” Getting outside the sagittal plane is challenging to learn, and complex to train. With that in mind, I thought I’d use today’s post to outline some of my favorite training progressions in this regard. We’ll start with actual “strength movements.”
Building Usable Strength
To the casual observer to exercise science, single-leg drills are sagittal plane exercises. However, what you must appreciate is that while you’re training in the sagittal plane, you’re actually stabilizing in the frontal and transverse planes. It’s important that you master these drills in the sagittal plane before you start experimenting with strength work in the frontal and transverse planes.
In terms of progression, one can start with either dumbbell-at-the-side movements or the goblet position, and then move to scenarios where the center of mass raised by using barbells or holding weights overhead. You could also wrap a band around the lower thigh and pull the knee into adduction/internal rotation to increase the challenge in the frontal and transverse planes.
Alternating Lateral Lunge with Overhead Reach
Also at the basic level, you can work unloaded lateral lunge variations into your warm-up. They might be in place, or alternating. As soon as folks can handle them, though, I like to progress to including an overhead reach in order to challenge anterior core stability and raise the center of mass up away from the base of support a bit. This also gives folks a chance to work on their shoulder mobility and scapulohumeral rhythm.
Bowler squats are also an awesome exercise to begin to challenge control outside the pure sagittal plane:
Plate-Loaded Slideboard Lateral Lunge
I like this as a starter progression because the plate out in front serves as a great counterbalance to allow folks to work on their hip hinge. Additionally, there isn’t a big deceleration challenge on the leg that’s going through the most abduction range of motion; rather, the load is predominantly on the fixed leg, which is resisting excessive adduction (knee in).
Worthy of note: I never load this beyond 10 pounds, as folks tend to become kyphotic if the counterbalance is too heavy. You’re better off loading with #3…
Dumbbell or Kettlebell Goblet Slideboard Lateral Lunge
By keeping the weight closer to the axis of rotation (hips) and minimizing the load the arms have to take on, we can load this up a bit without unfavorable compensations.
1-arm Kettlebell Slideboard Lateral Lunges
This exercise builds on our previous example by adding an element of rotary stability. You’d hold it in the rack position (or go bottoms-up, if you want variety and an increased stability challenge at the shoulder girdle). I’ve tried this with the KB held on both sides, and it’s a trivial difference in terms of the challenge created – so you can just use rotate them for variety.
Dumbbell (or Kettlebell) Goblet Lateral Lunge
You can load this sucker up pretty well once you’re good at it. Just be cognizant of not getting too rounded over at the upper back.
In-Place Lateral Lunge with Band Overload
This is variation that we use sparingly, but it does always come in handy when you have a post-op elbow or shoulder athlete who can’t hold weights in the affected upper extremity. The band increases eccentric overload in the frontal (and, to a lesser degree, transverse) plane, effectively pulling you “into” the hip. You have to fight against excessive adduction/internal rotation, and then “get out” of the hip against resistance. This is something every athlete encounters, whether it’s in rotational power development or basic change-of-direction work.
As an added bonus, using a band actually creates a scenario of accommodating resistance. Assuming the partner stays in the same position throughout the drill, the tension on the band is lightest when you’re the weakest, and it’s more challenging where you’re stronger.
Side Sled Drags
Side sled drags are a great option for integrating some work outside the sagittal plane for folks who either a) aren’t coordinated enough for lateral lunge variations or b) have some knee or hip issues that don’t handle deceleration stress well. As you can see, the exercise is pretty much purely concentric. We’ll usually use it as a third exercise on a lower body strength training day – and as you can see, it can offer some metabolic conditioning benefits as well.
Keep in mind that these are just strength development progressions, and they don’t guarantee that anything will transfer over to aggressive power training in the frontal and transverse planes. That’s where the following exercises come in.
Building Usable Power
1-leg Rotational Med Ball Taps to Wall and Split-Stance Anti-Rotation Scoop Tosses
These are two med ball exercises you have to dominate before I’ll allow you to go to the next level. The 1-leg rotational med ball tap verifies that you have enough static balance to be able to even train dynamic balance. It’s low-level and can be practiced every day. Every single one of our baseball players does this early on in their programs – and there is actually some research to suggest that static balance proficiency is associated with improved pitching performance.
The split-stance anti-rotation scoop toss is key because it introduces the concept of hip/trunk separation through good thoracic mobility (as opposed to excessive lower back motion).
Additionally it teaches athletes to have a firm front side to help accept force.
Rotational Med Ball Scoop Tosses and Rotational Med Ball Shotputs
These are the two “cornerstones” of any rotational power training program. The “separation” sequencing is comparable for the two, as efficient rotation is efficient rotation. However, what is different between the two is the demands on the upper body. Generally speaking, a scoop toss (when done correctly) will be easier on the elbow and shoulder.
Scoop Toss and Shotput Progressions
The progressions of these two “core” drills is primarly focused on playing with rhythm, tinkering with momentum, and increasing eccentric preloading (respectively).
Hops are done on one leg, and jumps are on two legs. However, just to give athletes constant reminders, I always call them 1-leg hops. It’s like saying “side laterals,” but whatever! You’ve got to be able to both produce and reduce force in the frontal plane before taking the next step. I like this drill without a hurdle to start, with a progression to using low hurdles and ultimately a short-response (no pause on the ground between each rep).
Named after speed skater Eric Heiden, these are a great way to build on hopping initiatives in the frontal plane. The most important component is to emphasize good hip force production/reduction and appropriate shin angles.
To progress heidens, you can do a few different things:
a. Change landing positions:
b. Add resistance:
c. Minimize ground contact time: just do a regular heiden, but spring back quickly. We call this a reactive heiden.
d. Increase eccentric pre-loading: Step off a low (12”) box, and go directly into a heiden.
Sprint and Agility Drills
You won’t get a greater plyometric training effect – most of which occurs in single-leg stance – than with sprinting at top speeds and doing change-of-direction training. Beyond the carryover you’ll get to power in the frontal and transverse planes, you’ll also reduce the likelihood that an athlete will get injured during the actual “movement” portions of his/her athletic endeavors.
This certainly isn’t an exhaustive list of our strength and power progressions, but it does offer a glimpse into some of the thought processes of how we bring rotational sport athletes along over the course of time. Hopefully you’ve acquired some new exercises and programming strategies you can apply yourself or with the athletes you coach.
Bret: As you can see, Eric puts a lot of time and energy into creating detailed programs that are both backed by science and molded by anecdotal experience. The High Performance Handbook is one such example, and is a versatile program that can be used to accomplish a variety of different athletic and fitness goals. It’s also on sale this week for $50 off; click here to check it out.
Biography:Erin Parker is the founder of Spitfire Athlete, a women’s strength training app that teaches you how to lift weights, and that stands for the pursuit of greatness & badassery. Spitfire Athlete is made by two female engineers who are also competitive weightlifters. Erin is a software engineer, Stanford graduate, and 48kg olympic weightlifter.
I am a weightlifter. I say it with pride. You might not believe it when you see me, because I’m a 4’11” 105lbs woman, and my physique isn’t compatible with most people’s image of a weightlifter. But I am strong and have accomplished a number of physical feats, like lifting over twice my bodyweight, winning a 10,000 push-ups competition (it took me a year), and running multiple marathons.
I started lifting weights entirely for aesthetic reasons. I was phasing out my marathon training, wanted to learn how to squat, and was obsessed with sculpting a six pack, having toned legs, and huge glutes.
“Why didn’t anyone ever tell me this was so effective?” I thought. At the time, I was following Jen Rankin’s Muscle Building Program on Bodybuilding, eating a picture-perfect oatmeal, egg whites, chicken breast diet, and seeing fantastic results. I felt empowered to know that now I have the knowledge and discipline sculpt my body however I like, and I was happily training away at the gym for months.
July 2013: Me taking a progress picture selfie.
Along the way I discovered Bret Contreras and Kellie Davis’s Strong Curves Book. I wanted to improve my glutes and started incorporating hip thrusts and glute bridges religiously into my routine. And then something interesting happened. I was getting pretty good at heavy glute bridges. So, I got into a small competition with myself to lift more and more on the glute bridges.
I started glute bridging around 85lbs, and would add 5lbs each training day. I didn’t realize at the time that I was basically doing a linear progression, but in a few months, I found myself glute bridging a PR of 205lbs at 90lbs bodyweight, and I realized…I am strong. If I can lift over twice my bodyweight in this way, then I must be physically capable of lifting way more than I realize and doing more advanced exercises.
July 2013: My barbell glute bridge PR of 205lbs for reps!
Shortly thereafter, my gym started offering free personal training sessions members who haven’t previously purchased sessions, and I decided this was a great opportunity to learn the snatch and the clean and jerk, exercises which I viewed as advanced at the time, and which I was ready to incorporate into my routine. I didn’t realize that these exercises were part of the sport of olympic weightlifting. I just thought they looked cool. I also didn’t realize that this session would change my trajectory from casual fitness buff to seriously competitive athlete.
My trainer was Larry, a trainer who happened to be a competitive weightlifter and who was previously a competitive powerlifter.
“I see you around the gym a lot,” he said. “You seem to know what you’re doing. Can you tell me more about how I can help?”
“Can you teach me to clean and jerk and to snatch with a barbell?” I asked.
His eyes brightened up. “You want to learn the snatch and the clean and jerk? I can definitely teach the snatch and the clean and jerk. Ok, let’s go. Let’s see what you can do.”
Larry was very passionate about these lifts, and I was lucky to meet him, because he has been one of the most supportive people who would later encourage me to go after bigger goals and who I would see at many upcoming weightlifting competitions. He was the first person who saw and believed that I could be good in this sport.
My first clean and jerks and my first snatches weren’t pretty, but I got the gist of it, and best of all, they were incredibly fun! I felt like such a badass. At the end of the session he said, “Hey, there’s a weightlifting competition in 2 weeks. Want to do it?”
I didn’t even know weightlifting was a sport. I knew about powerlifting…but this was different. This was the snatch and the clean and jerk. Since they were the most badass feeling exercises I had ever done, I decided…I would do it. It couldn’t be harder than a marathon, right?
Two weeks flew by and I was ready as could be for my first competition. In a weightlifting competition, you have three attempts at the snatch and three attempts at the clean and jerk. Your best snatch and your best clean and jerk count towards your total. The lifter with the highest total in their weight class wins. You compete against weightlifters in your weight class, and for women, weight classes range from 48kg to 75kg+. I currently compete in the 48kg weight class.
The competition went really well, and I had a blast. Walk up to the platform and lift heavy shit? I’m all down for that and I would do it again. I even got more excited about the sport of weightlifting after doing some initial research and learning that elite weightlifters in my weight class are actually around my height.
For example, Wang Mingjuan, a badass 48kg Chinese weightlifter who won gold at the 2012 olympics is 4’11”. Hiromi Miyake is a 48kg Japanese weightlifter who won silver at the 2012 olympics and she is 4’9”. In weightlifting, you actually have an advantage if you are short and have shorter limb length proportions because you don’t have to carry the barbell as high to complete the lift.
Here is a chart from Bob Takano’s Weightlifting Programming book showing height ranges for female weightlifters as part of Leslie Musser’s Master Thesis, pulled from the competitors at the 2009 Pan American Weightlifting Championships.
When I noticed that in the 48kg class the minimum height was 4’6”, the maximum 5’0” and the mean 4’10”, it surprised me that my height was in this range! I had the misconception that all weightlifters were tall. This data gave me extra fuel and motivation to participate and compete. I no longer had this fear of being the only small person in the room. There is a weight class for me. I felt like I could belong.
October 2013: Me at my first weightlifting competition.
Here is a video of me at my very first weightlifting meet, hitting a PR of 45kg on the clean and jerk:
My first competition was a wonderful experience. I thoroughly enjoyed it and believed I could be good at it. I liked that my training consistently reinforced the feeling that I was strong and very physically capable.
Here is me at my second weightlifting competition, in January of 2014 (about 3 months later) hitting my then all-time snatch PR of 35kgs:
After testing the waters with a couple competitions, and on a beginner’s high, I decided to get serious and set an aggressive goal. After competing and beating personal bests, I could no longer be happy training the way I used to train. I was hungry. I wanted to be great at something, and I believed this was a sport where I actually have a shot at being great.
I joined a weightlifting team and started working with Coach Bram McArthur of SF Iron. He is both a weightlifting and a powerlifting coach who starts all of his athletes with a linear strength progression of squatting, deadlifting, benching, and overhead pressing. Upfront, I told him my goal was to qualify for a national level competition that year, either USA Nationals or the American Open. At the time, Nationals had a 109kg total to qualify and the Open had a 101kg total. My last meet total was 86kg at the time, so I would have to at least lift an additional 15kg, but I was sure that with hard work and consistency I could get there.
To see how well I was progressing relative to performance benchmarks, let’s look at this Weightlifter Classification System (developed in Eastern Europe), from Bob Takano’s Weightlifting Programming Book. There are six levels in ascending order, Class 3, Class 2, Class 1, Candidate for Master of Sport, Master of Sport, and International Master of Sport.
Here is my competition trajectory:
– First competition on October 2013: Sn 25kg, C&J 45kg, total 70kg (Class 3)
– Second competition on January 2014: Sn 35kg, C&J 51kg, total 86kg (Class 2)
– Third competition on March 2014: Sn 43kg, C&J 57kg, total 100kg (Class 1)
– Fourth competition on April 2014: Sn 44kg, C&J 60kg, total 104kg (Class 1) & Qualified for American Open
– Fifth competition on August 2014: Sn 40kg, C&J 55kg, total 95kg
– Sixth competition – American Open – on December 2014: Sn 44kg, C&J 53kg, total 97kg
Like all the athletes who train with Coach Bram, I started with my first linear strength progression, squatting, benching, overhead pressing, and deadlifting three days a week and increasing weights linearly each week. “We need to put some strength on you,” Bram would say…and yeah, he still says this!
After a few months, I couldn’t believe how much I was lifting. Relative to my bodyweight, it was a lot, although relative to competitive weightlifters, my strength numbers aren’t that impressive.
Today, I believe that we all should go through a linear progression at some point in our lives. Regardless of gender, regardless of whether you’re training for health, strength, endurance, or aesthetic reasons, I believe you should go through an LP, because it will make your body stronger, and you will perform better at everything. Of course, there are sports like gymnastics where the athletes don’t lift weights, so in those cases do what your coach says, but if you’re a recreational athlete, a basic LP done in your “off season” to build strength, can transform your body’s ability to move and perform. It’s also really eye opening to see how strong you are in a short period of time. Each training day, you’re lifting more than you ever have before, basically pushing your limits each time. You can literally feel yourself getting stronger.
My numbers when I started:
Squat 1RM 140lbs
Deadlift 1×5 140lbs
My numbers after my first LP:
Squat 1RM 190lbs (1.9x bodyweight)
Deadlift 1×5 210lbs (2.1x bodyweight)
Bench Press 1RM 90lbs
Overhead Press 1RM 80lbs
I had gained 10lbs of bodyweight, so I hit these numbers weighing around 100lbs. Since I was entered the sport weighing 90lbs, I needed to build up to my competition weight at 105lbs, which I had never ever weighed before. In the sport of weightlifting, you want to weigh as close to your weight class as possible, and since I was 15lbs under the lightest weight class, I needed to gain weight to be competitive.
My first linear progression was over, and sure enough, the gains came! Soon after I hit a snatch PR of 45kg. Moving up to the yellow 15kg plates on the snatch felt huge!
45kg Snatch PR:
I competed at the Hassle Free Open and made a competition total of 100kgs, up 14kgs from my last meet.
Here are my lifts from the Hassle Free Open:
57kg Clean and Jerk:
I was 1kg short of qualifying for any national level meets, so I continued my training and a month later, I tried again. I was training 3-4 days per week and my training consisted mostly of snatches, clean and jerks, and squats.
At my next competition, I made a 104kg total, and qualified for the American Open! I graduated to being a “Class 1” lifter now!
Here are all my lifts from the CTS Wine Country Classic in April 2014, where I made a 104kg qualifying total:
I could have stopped there and just focused on the American Open, but being the aggressive, ambitious go-getter I am, I decided to try to qualify for nationals. I was only 5kgs away from the qualifying total. USA Weightlifting even sent me this really nice email to encourage me to go for it, which I appreciated, even though it’s likely automated.
So what was next? I had finished my first LP, transferred those gains to my olympic lifts, and added 14kg to my total. I almost made my last snatch and my last clean and jerk (which would have given me the total needed for nationals) but missed by a very close margin.
For my next competition, I needed to continue practicing the olympic lifts with heavy weights, but I also needed to continue making strength gains. So my coach progressed me to an intermediate program, the Texas Method for weightlifters. This type of program is appropriate for an intermediate strength athlete and relative beginner in weightlifting. The focus is to keep driving the strength of the lifter while sufficiently practicing the olympic lifts.
My program looked like this:
Goal: Practice the olympic lifts.
Goal: Volume strength work, to drive strength up.
Sq 75% 5×5
Press 75% 5×5
Goal: Check progress on lifts and overall recovery.
Sn max for day
C&J max for day
F Sq 3×3
Goal: Check progress on strength and overall recovery.
The volume day was by far the most challenging. I had to do 8 sets of 2 snatches at 90%+ range followed by 15 clean and jerk singles also in the 90%+ range, with a maximum of 1-2 minute rests in between each set.
At first I thought, “This is freaking insane! Is it physically possible to make so many lifts at 90%+?” Not only that, I had to increase the weight with each lift, even if I only increased it by half a pound. Practice was long and difficult. I would barely have a chance to catch my breath, I would be dripping sweat, feeling like I barely had it in me to continue…and then I would have to push myself even harder and lift even heavier than my last rep.
My first week, I would miss lifts left and right. When I was “failing all the time” I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing. But I kept on and gave it my all, even if it felt sloppy. Then…something kind of magical happened. After about a week or two of training at this level, my body adapted. And so did my mind. I suddenly started making these snatch double at 90% of my capacity. I also no longer got so tired, mentally, and was able to stay focused through the entire 8 sets of 2. My technique also started improving, probably because of all the practice, and it was an amazing feeling because I started actually making heavy snatches more consistently.
On my heavy strength days, I found myself squatting 180lbs for doubles…like it’s a totally normal thing. I remember sharing a squat rack with a guy when I was at a commercial gym once. I had to do something like 185lbs for a double. He was squatting around 135lbs, and when I started warming up into the 150s, 160s, he started trying to squat way outside of his comfort zone just to try and keep up with me. Why? I have no idea. And then he started really struggling at 165lbs. When I finally did my last warm-up at 175lbs and my work set at 185lbs he said, “Oh my god. I can’t even keep up with you.” He was flabbergasted. I laughed and thought to myself, “Of course you can’t!” 😉
I competed in the Tommy Kono Open that summer. It was my worst competition ever for two reasons: 1) I had to cut weight for the first time and 2) I was a complete nervous wreck. I was very care free with my diet in the months before, using my hard training as an excuse to go all out, and now I was well over my weight class. Darn.
Cutting for the first time was tough because I felt extremely energy-deprived and like there was nothing in my muscles. On top of that, I was a nervous wreck because in my mind, this meet was a really important competition and I didn’t want to fuck it up. I wanted to qualify for nationals. This was my last chance! But I was so nervous that I was basically hyperventilating in the warm-up room and I felt like my heart was going to explode out of my chest. In my mind, I kept worrying, “Oh my god what if I fail my opener? What if I don’t make the total? All my hard work will be wasted!”
I even missed my 35kg warm-up snatch. My coach immediately knew something (more like, a lot of things) were really off. Because of the cut and my mindset at the time, the bar felt really heavy, when it shouldn’t have. I only made my opening snatch and my opening clean and jerk. Even though I ended up medaling at the meet, I didn’t make the total I had wanted, and felt like a failure.
Here is what I learned: First, I want to resume having a great diet and stay close to my weight class, not go over too much, and avoid drastic weight cuts. Second, I want to get my mental game together. I want to learn how to not be panicking on the day of competition, and to stay calm, composed, and ready to perform.
A lot of things happened in the next five months after this meet and before the American Open. My start-up, Spitfire Athlete, received investor funding from one of the top accelerators in the country and my co-founder and I flew over to Boston for three months to aggressively grow and build the company.
We had an aggressive schedule, where I had meetings all morning and would code all night, and work with my co-founder towards shipping an app update every week. We didn’t even lift for the first couple of weeks of the program, because things were so crazy and we were barely sleeping.
When our schedule calmed down just a little bit, we managed to get some time to lift at the MIT gym, basically the only affordable gym in the area that we could reach via public transport that had a platform, olympic bars, and bumper plates. But I really struggled. After not lifting for a few weeks, my technique was all over the place, knees caving in, pressing out, and I felt so weak. I completely deprioritized my health, nutrition, sleep, and weight training in order to hit aggressive goals. I remember lifting on days where we only had 6 hours of sleep and where I struggled to make a 40kg snatch.
I reasoned that “this was only going to be for three months, I’ll gain everything back when I’m back in San Francisco” but I didn’t realize it would take months to gain back strength that I had lost in a few weeks. If I were to do it again, I would take the more long term approach and better balance my training with more focused company milestones (because really, we didn’t have to do it all, we just really wanted to).
Nov 2014: Me and my co-founder in Boston, celebrating Spitfire Athlete’s 1 year anniversary. Two women on a mission to make strength training a part of every woman’s routine.
As Techstars came to an end, we had achieved some very meaningful goals, like our 50,000+ users worldwide, hitting our engagement goals (did you know that most workouts tracked on our app are over an hour long?) and ranking in the top 10 for App Store search results like “women’s fitness” and “women’s strength”. We had the most fun pitching to a theatre full of investors and ending our presentation with a clean and jerk. When we talk about badassery, we mean it.
It was close to the end of November 2014. I was back in San Francisco, and training at my coach’s shiny new gym, SF Iron. Squat racks, platforms, and barbells for all! The American Open was in less than one month! My coach advised me to start visualizing having successful lifts. He recommended visualizing me getting nervous, and then controlling my nerves and then executing the lifts well. I did some additional research on the subject of athletic performance visualization and found a book called 10 Minute Mental Toughness.
I read it and decided to give it a try. I would meditate every day, either first thing in the morning or right before practice.
In the first part of the meditation, I would start by taking a deep centering breath. Then, I repeat my performance statements to myself. Here is part of my performance statement: “I have what it takes. Today, I am going to give it my all. I am going to give it every single fiber of my being. I am going to finish strong.”
I would repeat this to myself until I started believing it. And then I would imagine myself at the American Open and getting ready to make my opening snatch. I would imagine feeling nervous, seeing the loaded barbell on the platform, and then imagining myself taking a deep breath, clutching the barbell in my hook grip, and then in slow mo, making the lift. I would imagine myself smiling and the audience cheering at the end of the lift. I do this three times for the snatch, three times for the clean and jerk, imagining myself making the lifts, no matter what. I would imagine myself pushing through and finishing strong on the jerk.
I finished by reciting my entire performance statement again, and then taking a few deep breaths, and then I was out.
I did this meditation every day in the weeks leading up to the competition. I started noticing that it also had an immediate effect on my confidence in practice. Within the first week of doing this, I already started making more of my heavy lifts, particularly my heavy snatches which is what I was the most afraid of.
Now that I was actually visualizing making these snatches more than I was visualizing failing these snatches, I actually started making them! It was quite eye opening, actually, to realize that in the past I was actually visualizing failure more than I was visualizing success.
Before I knew it, I was on a plane and flying off to Washington DC for the American Open, my first national level competition! Since I had recently gotten back from Boston, my strength numbers felt nowhere near where they were earlier in the year, so my focus for this competition was to give it my best mental game and to make my openers. Anything after my openers was icing on the cake.
On the day of the meet, I was up at 6:45am, ready to weigh in by 7am. Yes, I was very nervous. But I think the meditation practice really did pay off, because I wasn’t a complete nervous wreck, and my focus was on making my lifts, and nothing else. Mentally, I was unshaken. Yes, I could still feel my heart beating hard, and my breathing was a little fast, but I kept a focused look on my face and I knew I was going to make it through without panicking.
I made my opening snatch – easy. It felt GREAT. It felt light. I felt strong. Then, I made a 44kg snatch and it also felt solid. I could even hear my mom and my grandma cheering me on from the audience. This was their first time ever seeing me lift!
After my snatches were over, I felt a huge sense of relief. I had gotten over the scariest part of the meet! I thought, “Wow. I was able to get control over my nerves and perform when it mattered.”
Although I finished all my 3 clean and jerks, the judges only counted the first one. My last two were disqualified for press-out, unfortunately. However, it was, by far, my best performance ever, because my mind was in the right place. I felt fantastic. I was cool, composed, and when I did my lifts, I felt confident.
One of my favorite parts of going to this meet was getting photographed by Hookgrip. I had dreamt of getting photographed by Hookgrip one day, and here it was!
I’m excited to continue onward with this journey and to push myself year by year. I love this sport and can’t describe how much fun I have.
As I write this, since the American Open, I have achieved new PRs, namely, a 50kg snatch (hell yeah for the beyond bodyweight snatch), a 63kg clean and jerk, and 78kg front squat. If you go back to the chart from earlier, this in-practice total would allow me to graduate from “Class 1″ and make it to “Candidate for Master of Sport”. Now I just got to take this performance to my next competition.
What’s next? Well, this year, I’m going to try to qualify for Nationals and the American Open again, although this time the qualifying totals have increased to 133kg and 123kg, respectively, so I’ve got to keep on training, working hard, giving it my all.
I feel stronger than ever. If you’re thinking about competing in the sport of weightlifting, I say go for it! Give it a try. You’ll never know, you just might fall in love with feeling like badass every day and never go back.
I’ll end this with one of my favorite quotes by Mia Hamm: “Somewhere behind the athlete you’ve become and the hours of practice and the coaches who have pushed you is a little girl who fell in love with the game and never looked back… play for her.”