In the last article, I talked about reasons for technical errors in weightlifting, and how to determine if mistakes are made because of something technical, or “Something Else”.
The “Something Else” refers to what I call the Foundation Five. The Foundation Five are the key elements you should be looking for when assessing athletes in weightlifting. They are, in order:
- Asymmetries and Imbalances
Pay attention to the order I’ve given here. Notice how strength is at the bottom of the list. While there’s no doubt you need strength to be a good weightlifter, it’s difficult to generate strength from a suboptimal position (though many have tried). How do we get to an optimal position? We start with mobility.
Mobility is at the top of the list. It’s a hot topic (thanks K-Starr), and if you’ve never done any sort of mobility work in your life, you’ve been living under a rock for the last decade. But I digress. Mobility work is critical for a couple reasons. On a larger scale, weightlifting requires you to get into positions that require excellent mobility (i.e. deep squats and overhead pressing). On a more local scale, having good joint mobility means you’ll be able to target specific muscles to do the job they need in order to support your joints (i.e. create stability). When examining a weightlifter’s mobility, I look for their ability to get into an optimal position.
Once I get an athlete in an optimal position, can they stay there? Do the right muscles turn on, at the right time, to help the athlete maintain this position? For example, having good mid-back strength is critical in keeping a bar stable in the overhead squat. However, if I can’t get an athlete to activate the mid-back area, it’s going to be difficult for them to create stability in this position once it’s loaded. Now, this doesn’t mean I’ll take them through weeks of rehab-style work to get them to turn those muscles on, but it does mean I need to incorporate movements to help teach them to use the muscle properly before I can load it.
Asymmetries and Imbalances
Now that I’ve gotten an athlete into a good position and they can hold it, I look for differences between the left and right sides, and between the front and back of the body. Sometimes asymmetries aren’t seen on standing posture alone, but when we place someone into a loaded position, they become glaringly evident. Perhaps one side turns on, but the other isn’t activated. Or you see compensations happen as the athlete moves in and out of the position, especially as fatigue sets in. The type of correction you employ will depend on the issue and the athlete, of course, but it should be addressed because failing to do so creates a weak structure that can impact the athlete’s stability.
Once an athlete is in an ideal position and there are no obvious imbalances, can they maintain that position over time and under load? This can be a tricky one, because some of this might come down to skill familiarity and acquisition, or overall strength, especially in beginners. But chances are if an athlete is able to stay in a position for a while, they have good stability here. If not, they need to train it. A common one I see is a lack of stability in the bottom of a snatch/overhead squat. Often the lifter wants to stand out of the position immediately upon entering it, instead of taking the time to ensure they have achieved a comfortable, stable base. Rushing out of this position can lead to a missed lift, and training stability can help reduce the chances of this happening.
Last but not least, we have strength. Now that I’ve determined the athlete can move well with no obvious errors, it’s time to load the bar. It’s critical to observe changes in movement here, because throwing weight on a bar can cause someone to change how they lift. We see it all the time in weightlifting; everything was going fine until that last kilo was added, and then it all goes sideways. When I assess athletes, I use loads based on their known “max efforts”: these are not necessarily true 1RMs, but might be the heaviest weight that someone works with regularly, for however many reps. If someone has a 5RM back squat of 60 kilograms, I might start them off with 30 kilograms and go from there. This is where the art of coaching definitely comes into play. The point is, when you load the bar sub-maximally, does the athlete maintain consistent technique throughout? If not, back to the drawing board to figure out what’s happening.
So what does all this mean?
If you’re a weightlifting coach and someone comes to you with zero mobility, does that mean you can’t work with him or her at all until they’ve become a yogi Zen master of flexibility? What if they can’t lift the bar; do you send them home to eat meat and potatoes and squat heavy, and don’t return until they’ve gained 50 pounds? No, not really.
The reality is, not everyone will achieve perfect mobility and movement, and that’s ok. Not everyone will go to the Olympics, either (I’m a dream killer, I know). What you shouldn’t do is overload bad positions. That’s just asking for trouble (i.e. injury). But what you should do is work with your limitations, and do your best to correct things whenever possible. A good coach will know how to pick these things out, and can guide you in the right direction.