The diverse results of different nations on the international platform has always been subject to a great deal of attention within the weightlifting community, it is also reasonable to suggest that this topic has gained prominence in the past Olympic cycle. Whether it is in relation to speculation about institutionalised doping, the “correct” age at which to integrate weightlifting into a child’s development or the rarity of English-speaking males on the Olympic podium, people are keen to understand why there are disparities drawn along such national lines.
Surely, the argument goes, there isn’t anything inherently more “talented” about Russian athletes, for example, than British athletes. We might say that one individual is more talented than another, but the consistent out-performance of British athletes by Russian athletes suggests that there are environmental factors at work which are better utilising their athletic potential. One of the most commonly-cited examples of difference between weightlifting in the Anglosphere and the more successful countries (primarily Russia, China, Bulgaria, etc.) is the age at which athletes begin training in a serious sense. Naturally, we are not discussing the possibility of loading the complicated, multi-joint Olympic movements in children prematurely but rather, as Bob Takano points out (in Weightlifting programming, an excellent resource), the General Physical Preparation of children is essential to long term athletic development.
General physical preparation (or, hereafter, ‘GPP’) describes the development of generalised athletic capabilities in children and young adults in order to capitalise on their natural talent and the physical maturation process. This may refer to a variety of things from promoting physical activity and games in children, to the specific development of gymnastic or ballistic movement skills, but the common idea is that maximising potential occurs through a strong foundation of basic movement skills in children who, in all likelihood, will participate in some form of athletic endeavour as they become adults.
What use is GPP for coaching?
“But wait”, I hear you exclaiming, “I’m a 24 year old human, what use is GPP to me? I’m not a child”. The interesting part of this subject (to me, at least) is that a sedentary adult is, in many respects, basically a child. As insulting as that might sound, the fact is that an adolescent who has been training for sport and athleticism for several years will be far easier to coach and, once coached, far more capable than a full-grown adult who has never exerted themselves physically. After all, the trends in World youth/junior records compared to their senior counterparts seem to suggest that an appropriate “training age” (the time one has spent training in a given discipline) is far more important than their actual age in terms of performance in weightlifting. The point of this comparison is that you may not be an actual child at age 25 but you may well be a “training baby” if your training age is less than a few months, at the very least.
The practical applications of this are pretty simple, but as an individual working in the weightlifting community I have seen many examples of other “coaches” attempting to teach adults how to perform the Olympic lifts when they are totally unprepared for the task. The take home point for this article is this: if an individual cannot move their own body in a reliable and controlled manner, they have no business learning and/or loading the Olympic weightlifting movements. This is to say, simply, that there are a variety of necessary conditions that we must achieve before we can consider teaching an individual the rudiments of the Snatch, Clean or Jerk.
What, then, should we require of an individual before they are able to perform these movements? Furthermore, what can we do in order to ensure the individuals are able to develop towards these requirements? Well, to move from more fundamental to more specialised, the following would seem to be reasonable:
- The ability to move
- The ability to move with precision and control
- The ability to move under load with precision and control
- The ability to move powerfully with precision and control
(If anyone thinks that this is an unreasonable list of necessary conditions then I would invite them to email me at email@example.com and make their case, but I suspect this to be an acceptable list)
This list is in part reliant on the “triage method of coaching”, as Dan John calls it. Simply put, this is the principle that we work on here at CAP which says that the first issue that a coach must address is the most severe and limiting one. Just like you wouldn’t focus on fixing the brake light of a car that is missing both its back wheels, we wouldn’t attempt to teach an athlete how to snatch heavy weights if they have a bum knee or poor overhead mobility. Thus, we work from the top of the list to the bottom, not the other way around or in any other order that could be conceived.
The first of these, “the ability to move” describes an individual’s ability to move, without excessive pain or discomfort, without support or assistance. This seems somewhat self-explanatory – if an individual cannot extend their knee joint, there is little worth in attempting to load triple extension as this is more likely to exacerbate the problem.
Adapting to this problem is not the realm of a weightlifting coach, depending on the root cause of the problem, it is uncertain whether this individual could be made ready for weightlifting at all. More than likely, the counsel of a medical professional is necessary if this is a problem – GPP probably shouldn’t be this individual’s main concern.
Moving with precision and control/Moving under load with precision and control
Separating moving with precision from moving with precision under load is difficult – as we are preparing an individual for weightlifting there is a certain necessity to teach them not only to move with balance and control with their own body but also with the barbell-body complex, or at least with some form of external loading. Teaching an individual to snatch with a PVC pipe, for example, may be useful initially to ensure that they understand the concepts behind the movement (using the legs, keeping the bar close, etc.) but it will not prepare them for the adjusted balance necessary when applying additional load to their body, and its centre of gravity. Thus, if an individual is able to move comfortably, we must ensure that they possess sufficient co-ordination to balance and move in controlled, stable manner (with or without external loading). Attempting to perform the Olympic lifts without sufficient balance is likely to end in injury and, of course, impede the athlete’s development. Directing attention towards balance is likely to have an instant carryover to the Olympic lifts and, in particular, the snatch.
Developing the necessary balance, rhythm and co-ordination for the Olympic lifts is generally achieved through sheer experience – whilst practicing various movements that carry over to the Snatch, Clean or Jerk are possible, it is likely that this ability will be developed through exposure to any form of exercise. GPP focused on this aspect of athletic development would ideally focus on movement through various spatial fields: to best improve balance we would make the athlete move unilaterally (with one-sided movements such as lunges), transversely (rotational and anti-rotational movements such as Russian twists and side planks) and laterally (sideways movements, such as side lunges).
As it relates to actual accessory work, additional focus is best applied to compartmental movements such as Muscle snatches, push press, press from split, deficit pulls and so forth. These could well be supplemented with cable work on things like woodcutters, landmine presses/rows/rotations, med ball/wall ball movements and dumbbell variations of popular exercises. These all develop complex movement patterns through stable and scalable movements – exactly what we need to teach people to move well!
The key to GPP for movement under control and precision, in whatever exercise is selected, is movement quality – the ability of the athlete to move through the various positions with ease and control. Whilst this can be achieved through GPP, it is also possible to utilise corrective movements to ensure that certain complicated movements are performed correctly. For example, here at CAP we often teach the squat through a progression from the air squat to the goblet squat to the full barbell squat (mobility allowing), but the goblet squat is a useful exercise even for those with more experience, in order to correctly cue the proper balance and posture for a squat in the Weightlifting style. This sort of movement quality is essential to ensure that the individual is not likely to injure themselves or develop compensatory (Read: inefficient/incorrect) movement patterns. This is to say that, if we allow someone with poor balance and co-ordination to load their snatch before they have developed the necessary characteristics, they are likely to develop an exaggerated S-curve bar path, or throw themselves forwards, resulting in missed lifts and stalled progress. As coaches, I think its fair to assume that both of these consequences are highly undesirable.
Moving powerfully with precision and control
It should go without saying that Olympic Weightlifting is a sport requiring the highest possible amount of force: to accelerate an incredibly heavy barbell overhead is no easy feat. Thus, the ability to move powerfully, or at least more powerfully, is important for weightlifters at any level of their development. Much as the hobbyist would benefit from a more powerful extension on their 80kg snatch, so would any elite athlete attempting to snatch twice that amount – more power is better, all things being equal.
Developing power is a controversial subject – it seems to be a persistent belief that one cannot improve or alter their power output in any significant way. This is, of course, not a proper representation of the subject. The most simple manner by which to develop force output is to improve one’s maximal force production – if I can squat 100kg then my snatch at 50kg is not likely to be particularly powerful, but if I can squat twice that amount then I have a far greater force production potential. This is not to say, however, that force production can scale linearly with maximal force output. Humans are subject to what is known as the “Explosive Strength Deficit” whereby we cannot produce maximal force in a short space of time (Zatsiorsky and Kramer, “Science and practice of strength training (2nd ed.)”, 2006, P.27). The explosive strength deficit describes the amount of maximal force that can be exerted in a short space of time and this cannot be increased significantly by the development of greater maximal force output. What this means is that, if we move from a 50kg power snatch with a 100kg squat (ESD ~50%) to a 100kg power snatch with a 200kg squat, we have not significantly improved our ESD but simply improved the top-end numbers of which we are capable (obviously this is a rough and unrealistic example, but it demonstrates the general point).
Whilst the scientific literature has not presented a clear consensus on the best methods for the development of force production, the difference noted between regular individuals and certain elite athletes, with ESDs as low as 5%, suggests that coaches seem to be doing something very correct (Tidow, 1990). The coaching wisdom on this seems to be quite clear cut: athletes become more powerful by moving as powerfully as possible through various movements against some form of resistance. This seems to follow step with other forms of musculo-skeletal development: you improve a given attribute by practicing it and then recovering from it, this is simple supercompensation.
What would the coaching pedagogy suggest about the development of power in terms of GPP? Initially, the key exercises are jumps: the ability to perform a box jump should be achievable for anyone who has passed the 3 previous conditions – if you can move properly and with resistance then you can jump onto a box, even if you have to start with a low one. Beyond box jumps there are various methods: sprints, hill sprints, weighted jumps, jump circuits, banded movements (although this is yet to be proven scientifically, it seems to help in certain circumstances) and so on. Here at CAP we are proponent of taking a wall or medicine ball and throwing it backwards as high/far as possible. If there is sufficient space to perform this kind of movement, do so – it allows the athlete to develop force in an effective manner without excessive loading and also more closely resembles the extension position necessary for the Olympic lifts than sprints or jumps do.
There is obviously no suggestion that GPP will bring any athlete up to par with the international elite – that would be ridiculous – but it has been shown to be an effective method for the beginning of coaching in the Olympic lifts. We can attest to the difference seen between athletes who underwent a foundational GPP block at the start of their training and those who did not, but this sort of coaching experience is necessary first hand. As such, we implore new coaches to respect the time-honoured techniques that have been seen all over the world since the 1960s – it is tempting to push new athletes to perform the classic lifts often, but the course of weightlifting development should always be from more general to more specific. If an individual cannot move well, you cannot expect them to move well through the most demanding barbell exercises in existence.
With these considerations in mind, we’d suggest coaches incorporate a general physical preparation meso/macrocycle into their programming, especially for new athletes, and report back with any findings. Here at Conquest Athletic Performance we are huge fans and have seen great development in our fantastic new athletes.