Mobility: beyond the squat

There’s a common understanding that weightlifters, powerlifters and those involved in sports need to maintain a baseline of functional mobility. However, in a majority of discussions regarding mobility the focus is strongly placed on squatting – whilst this is totally understandable (the squat is a key movement for everyone), this results in a lack of focus for the various applications of mobility in other body parts and in other movement patterns. Today, we’re going to work our way from the top of the body down, and explain why any strength or power athlete should really focus on universal joint health and mobility.

Shoulders

The shoulder girdle is notorious for injuries and complicated mobility demands: the rotator cuff takes a severe amount of punishment in weightlifting (the overhead movements), Powerlifting (bench, especially) and most field and team sports through various mechanisms. The number of small muscles, coupled with the fact that the joints are so complicated, results in an increased likelihood of RC injuries, shoulder impingement and other conditions. Excessive tightness through the chest, anterior delts and smaller stabilising muscles will result in the production of a rounded upper back, increased stress on the shoulders and the weakening of the scapular retractor muscles.

For those involved with Weightlifting, Powerlifting and Sports training, such a condition is unacceptable since these overhead movements are a fundamental demand of most sports. To suggest that an individual athlete could be an effective weightlifter whilst suffering from shoulder impingement or a full rotator cuff tear is to hugely underestimate the pain, discomfort and mechanical severity of these conditions. Thus, to even continue competing in sports, it’s important to avoid structural injuries – this will require the adequate stretching and mobilisation of the chest (Through stretching [here], foam rolling and generally focusing on full-ROM movements), continuous strength of the scapular retractors (see here) and ensuring that programming includes a good balance of retraction to counter any protraction of the shoulders (especially for powerlifters, this will mean achieving a healthy push/pull balance in your training).

Additionally, balancing the training and mobility of the elevation and depression of the scapula will be essential to achieve the positions necessary in strength and power sports, as well as reducing the negative results of failing to do so. Tight scapular elevators (particularly the traps and neck muscles) will result in headaches and an inability to properly retract/depress the shoulder blades – an essential movement as the lats perform a secondary function of stabilising the spine and maintaining proper positions in the snatch, clean, jerk and bench press, as well as improving performance in a variety of other strengthening movements (such as the back and front squats, and the deadlift).

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During the second pull of the snatch, the lats are used to keep the back stable, but also to keep the bar close to the body. Inhibition of the scapular retractors/depressors makes this impossible (Credit: Hookgrip)

The finish of the pull also demands a lot of mobility through the upper body – during the final portion of the snatch, particularly, good technique is characterised by remaining close to the bar, allowing the shoulders and elbows to rise with the momentum of the leg’s drive against the floor. This position, demonstrated often by the Chinese style of pull (below), requires mobility through the traps, chest and upper back more generally – the longer the athlete can pull (either pulling the bar up or themselves down), the more effective the lift. Needless to say, inhibition in the shoulder joint will result in a short pull or looping of the bar away from the body: in athletes demonstrating these problems, there are often more fundamental problems with the pull, but where everything else is equal, the athlete with greater shoulder mobility will have a more effective transition between the hips and the catch.

 

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Shoulder mobility is essential to achieve a proper upwards movement of the shoulders and elbows, which is essential to lifting maximal weights (Photo: Rob Macklem)

 

The applications continue into the clean – during the pull, the same lat involvement mentioned above is key, but during the turnover into the catch and squat portions of the lift, shoulder mobility takes on new roles. During the transition, the mobility afforded through the shoulders will determine the athlete’s ability to maintain grip on the bar and the positioning of the elbows in the receiving position. Both of these play monumental roles in maintaining upper back tightness, connection to the bar and ultimately make or break a clean. They also determine how effective an athlete will be coming into the jerk portion of the lift: tight shoulders will pull the weight of the barbell-athlete complex forward during the dip portion of the lift. If the athlete demonstrates good mobility through the shoulders, it will be much easier to keep a full, relaxed hand on the bar whilst keeping the elbows high and not compensating through the T-spine, hips or weight distribution.

 

Thoracic spine

The thoracic spine has become a bit of a star in recent times: through the involvement of CrossFit in the weightlifting world, it has become common to see individuals with poor overhead positions claiming that the thoracic spine is the key to improving their lifting, when the reality is that their pull is flawed in some fundamental way. As a result, there has been a lot said about the thoracic spine that has obscured the real role that it plays in the development of proper technique.

The overhead position in the snatch is the most common diagnostic for poor thoracic mobility – if an individual can sit low in a back squat with proper positioning, but struggles to perform a snatch, snatch balance or overhead squat without rounding through the back, its obvious that there are some problems with mobility that aren’t hip-based. In this situation, the benefits of proper T-spine mobility are simple: keeping the chest open and the proper alignment of the barbell, shoulders, hips and feet. The same can be said of the clean, however – it is common to see less experienced weightlifters failing to keep the chest high and the back tight through the squat portion of the clean. This is often the result of an inhibition of the muscles of the thoracic spine, but possibly also as a result of poor mobility – if the individual struggles with kyphosis in the upper spine, it is necessary to both loosen the inhibitory demands on the T-spine whilst simultaneously strengthening the erectors and secondary stabilisers (This may also be related to tightness through the shoulder girdle, mentioned above).

Proper mobility and stability through the T-spine are also essential for the setup of the Olympic lifts. In the snatch, a high chest position can be inhibited by poor mobility in the T-spine, resulting in the athlete dropping the chest from the floor, overcompensating through the lift or generally demonstrating poor technique. Whilst the clean is less demanding on the athlete’s mobility, it has similar demands: a failure to keep the chest up decreases efficiency through the pull, ruins the transition to the catch position and, crucially, increases the risk of injuries. Finally, rounding through the T-spine will wreak havoc on a jerk, where the main aims of the athlete are to keep the chest high and avoid displacing the shoulders forwards, backwards or down – a task that becomes almost impossible if the Thoracic spine is stuck in a flexed position.

The hips

The hips are often discussed as an important place for strength in weightlifting – it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that 90% of weightlifting occurs between the knee and the hip – all proficient lifters rely primarily on their quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes and spinal erectors. There is no doubt that the hips and surrounding musculature need to be strong and stable, but there is also a demonstrable need for mobility.

Mobility is necessary in the catch positions, but not JUST the catch positions (Tom Goegebuer, photographed by Keith Levet)

This is where the title of this article is most appropriate: the squat is the most obvious demand for mobility in the hips (and rightly so), but there are various applications elsewhere in the sport. The most fundamental demand that weightlifting places on an individual’s hip mobility is that it be loose enough to establish and maintain a tight back throughout the lifts. This is often the first thing that new athletes will have to work on, and disproportionately affects those who do not have a history in other sports. Maintaining this tight back position is essential for basic force transfer throughout the pull, as well as maintaining a healthy back in the long-term. If there is excessive tightness through the hamstrings, hip capsule and the muscles that attach the hips to the spine, this position will be impossible to hold comfortably.

Additionally, as we transition the new athlete from general movement quality to performing the lifts, it will be necessary to have them establish strong setup positions for both the lifts. In the snatch, this is particularly demanding on the mobility of those individuals who are inflexible or inhibited in the way described in the last paragraph. A strong setup for the snatch requires the hips to be sat low with a tight back, which will ultimately influence the entire lift. This might seem like an innocuous change to those who have a lot of experience in the sport, but to the new athlete it can be almost impossible to achieve the proper position without compromising hip or spinal integrity, and this is not only a problem of kind but degree, also: there is a large difference between the positions that an amateur athlete can make and the position we see below from Artem Okulov. As we loosen the tight muscles, strengthen the weak ones and develop proper strength and technique, the position improves drastically

 

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The stance width, knee tracking and hip flexion in Okulov’s setup position demonstrates the benefit of amazing hip mobility (Credit: All things gym)

 

Fundamental flexibility is also necessary for those in powerlifting and other strength sports – particularly in relation to the setup position. Deadlifting has its own mobility demands, which often present a far more considerable health concern than those seen in the lighter Olympic lifts. Attempting to deadlift considerable weights without sufficient mobility is almost certain to result in injury or degradation over time (just because you can’t feel the disc compression, doesn’t mean it isn’t happening, bro). I’m sure ever individual has a horror story about round-backed deadlifts, and with good reason: the deadlift is an incredibly effective movement and is one of the most widely mal-practiced exercises, which is problematic when we consider that it is the movement through which any well-balanced human can move the most weight.

The mobility demands for deadlifting are, naturally, dependent on the style of deadlifting that an athlete employs: the sumo deadlift requires a much greater deal of adductor flexibility, whereas the conventional deadlift requires a greater deal of hamstring flexibility to achieve an optimal position. While most people find the demands of sumo more difficult, this is not an intrinsic aspect of the movements themselves: people just tend to have really bad mobility through the adductors, even relative to their hamstring mobility. Obviously, the same applies here as in the snatch: those who have an extensive history in mobility demanding sports or high level sports will have much better starting mobility.

The Conventional deadlift (hands wider than feet, but narrower than in a snatch or clean deadlift, performed with a focus on hip hinging) is one of the most common and effective strengthening techniques for Weightlifters, Powerlifters and S&C athletes (As well as general gym-goers). The mobility demands are primarily as stated: tight hamstrings and adductors will pull the hip girdle out of position during the setup, inhibit proper glute functioning and likely result in a compromised spinal position during the lift. This poses a number of challenges for the successful completion of the movement: a round back and inactive glutes will result in poor lockout and a sub-optimal force transfer.

Conversely, the sumo deadlift requires hip mobility through the adductors, used to splay the legs, keep the balance of the athlete and ensure that proper technical positions can be maintained throughout. Inhibition through the adductors will have the same results discussed above: compromised hip/spine positions, failure to generate and transfer force and, crucially, an inability to get the knees out of the way of the lift. This is something that powerlifting and weightlifting are both familiar with: travelling around the knees is always a bad thing. Mobility in the sumo deadlift is one of the key inhibitors to proper technique (not the only one, of course) and is one of the most neglected aspects of training for most amateur powerlifters.

 

Clearing the knees is an essential biomechanical cue for weightlifting and powerlifting (both sumo and conventional), though it is achieved through different methods.

Ankles

It’s fairly easy to overlook the importance of ankle mobility – for those who aren’t noticeably tight through the ankles, it might never occur to them that improved ankle mobility would have the result of improved technical performance. The most obvious benefit of this, as with the hips, is establishing a good position at depth, whether in the squat or Olympic lifts. However, there are some important lesser-known applications.

The start position of the snatch isn’t the most intuitive position to showcase ankle mobility, but for those with excessive tightness it will soon become a real issue. Whilst it’s not incredibly demanding to set up for the lift properly, it does require being comfortable in a low position with a tight back and proper balance. The latter is where ankle mobility is necessary: maintaining good balance and transferring force through the floor will require some fundamental mobility – for those who are new to the sport and don’t have a baseline of flexibility, it is common to see athletes “falling off” of their heels in the start of the lift simply because they lack the mobility to keep their weight back with the knees bent as the start position demands.

Training mentality in weightlifting

I don’t often write about myself, but in my time in the sport of Olympic weightlifting, I’ve made it my purpose to learn as much as I can through whatever means possible. This has meant 100s (or maybe 1000s) of hours reading books, articles, studies and the like trying to learn whatever might be productive for training and coaching. Throughout all of this reading, I’ve gone through countless articles on the importance of mentality in the sport of Weightlifting, though I’ve yet to find one that really describes my reality of training – or one that describes the way that training goes for my athletes, according to their feedback. So, today, we’re going to talk about the mentality we aim for here at CAP, using some of our favourite quotes to discuss what a good approach to weightlifting, and any strength sport, will look like.

Everybody gets this vision of hardcore as just busting the crap out of yourself in the gym with nothing left at all. That’s not hardcore: that’s just stupidity.

Ed Coan (GOAT Powerlifter)

One of the main things that we encounter a lot of is the “working harder = more results” mentality. Naturally, this is a commendable attitude and if you’re not willing to work hard you’ll never get anywhere in this sport – it’s an unforgiving sport where working hard isn’t an option, but a necessity for any sort of progress. Even more than that, working harder than the people around you is a sure-fire way to glean an advantage, but it’s far from the only factor. An approach that focuses on just working hard is one that’s going to drive you into the ground, and fast – this is the kind of thing that causes injuries and ruins the enjoyment of the sport for everyone.

Again, we’re not trying to disparage hard work, but it definitely needs to be applied in the right way. Training hard and smart is how weightlifters and powerlifters become better – you can walk into the gym and perform 100 sets of squats, 66 sets of dealifts and sets of 30 on the snatch, but as hardcore as you want to think that is, you’re training like a damned idiot. Training hard and smart is about directing your hard work towards the things that will really help you improve. For most people this is going to require a lot of work since it actually requires you to know what is wrong with your lifting, which in turn requires you to have a sound knowledge of the lifts themselves or a coach, and invariably a huge amount of humility.

Once you have an idea about what’s wrong with your lifting, the process of fixing it is a laborious one that might take months or years (depending on how deeply ingrained the movement is), but even this isn’t as easy as knowing what’s wrong. We consider there to be 3 main components to coaching weightlifting here at CAP and they’re fundamentally important to improving your lifts:

  1. Knowing what the lifts should look like
  2. Knowing what’s wrong with a lift you’re watching, ideally in real-time (the coach’s eye)
  3. Knowing how to correct the movement

As an athlete, you might well have spent a long time learning what the lifts should look like, and you might even have a coach fulfilling parts 2 and 3. The problem is that stage 3 is only possible if you, the athlete, take the proper approach to the problem.

If you struggle to finish the pull in the snatch, it isn’t enough to know that you need to finish the pull with the legs, know that you’re not and program hang and block work. If you do all of this, you can still fail to address the problem and there are plenty of examples of this in the sport. The athlete has to take the time to implement active technical improvements through their hard work – training your block/hang snatch for its own sake isn’t how you become a good weightlifter – if your block snatch goes up 10kg but you don’t fix the problem with your extension, you’ve simply kicked the can down the road and will have to deal with it again when you inevitably hit another plateau.

What we try to instill in all of our athletes is this: coaching can let you know what you need to do in your training (perhaps to finish the leg extension at the top of the pull) but athletes themselves need to take an active role in this. Every session in which you perform block or hang snatches, focus on actively addressing this problem. We’ve seen plenty of athletes who approach training as a “Get in and do the work” approach, ignoring the fact that every session is fundamentally a chance to improve their technique, if only by 1%. If you improve your technique 1% every session, by working on at least one technical point, within a year your technique will be unrecognisably improved. This, then, is our main point: if you want to get better as a weightlifter, you have to come into as many sessions as possible with a concerted focus on improving something.

Most people have the will to win, few have the will to prepare to win

Bobby “The general” Knight

The hardcore approach we see tends to be confined to the gym, however, and seldom follows the “athlete” out of the gym door. When we see athletes on the brink of becoming proficient in their sport, the most common questions we see from them are “how do I continue to progress?”. This is generally followed by questions about increased volume, loading and frequency in training – whilst these are definitely reasonable questions, the first thing that we want to focus on when an athlete wants to become incredibly serious about their sport is recovery! When we are asked about athletes training full time or near this benchmark (16+ hours a week, primarily in weightlifting), the pertinent question is how many hours a week are they dedicating to recovery, mobility and rehab activities? If the answer is less than 25% of their training hours in a week, the first place to make improvements is in their active recovery. Put simply, if you’re not willing to work on your recovery, mobility and general health, you’re not ready to be an actual athlete.

It seems fair to say that taking the hardcore tact with your recovery is a very rare phenomenon, but there is an increased demand for things like mobility, foam rolling, active recovery, temperature therapy and various other methods as the athlete progresses. Whilst the research on some of these is either controversial or neutral, the cost is usually negligible (we’re not demanding that recreational athletes start paying for cryotherapy) and the possible benefits should be a spur among those who really want to improve. Maintaining a good ratio of recovery:training is essential and handling the loading and frequency of an elite athlete will demand approaching recovery in the same way.

We call these out-of-training factors since the term “Recovery” doesn’t always apply perfectly (ice baths, dynamic stretching and sleep quality/quantity are very different), but they are essential to the proper functioning of an athlete’s training program as they progress through the “sports mastery” process. Whilst there are a variety of options available, our general checklist for optimum recovery is as follows (in no particular order):

  • Minimum of 8-9 hours of sleep every night
  • Eat breakfast every day
  • Stretching/Mobility/Flossing/Movement 1-3 times a day
  • Proper supplementation (Fish oil, Vitamin D, ZMA, etc.)
  • Proper nutrition (Protein intake, Micronutrients, food quality, proper O3/6 intake and ratio, etc.)
  • Napping, where possible
  • Cold or contrast therapy
  • Massage, where possible
  • Rehabilitation or stability work (for small or injury-prone areas, e.g. band pull-apart or external rotations for the shoulders)

 

Being pissed off that you’re not doing as well as you want to be is not the same thing as having the motivation and will to do what it takes to improve.

Greg Everett, Catalyst Athletics

Even if you approach your training with a wonderful mentality, as described above, and put in the work both in and out of training, there are going to be bad days. We can hope that they’re in training and not on the platform, but everyone knows that’s not how it works: we all have bad training days, or even longer, and sometimes we have a really bad day when it matters the most – in competition. The way that we react to these awful days is perhaps more indicative of overall character than anything else in this article so far: it’s easy to maintain a good mentality when things are going your way. The way that you respond to setbacks, however, is a “make or break”  part of training – if you’re unable to deal with failure properly, it’ll irreparably change the way that you progress through the ranks as a weightlifter.

Here at CAP, we try to convey that failure is an inevitable part of both progress and success: if you never missed a lift, or had a bad day, you’d not need a coach or to train at all. The fact is, there are really only two ways to deal with bad days in training: you can look at what went wrong and put your  head down in training to improve it next time you’re in training, or you can let it hit you like a freight train and ruin your training in future. The odds are that you think you’re the first one, but really you’re the latter – most of us are. This is one of the hardest mental aspects of training to develop – your training needs to be goal-oriented and forever looking forwards: the focus ought to be on addressing problems and attempting to succeed in future, rather than attempting never to fail.

This probably seems like an obvious statement, but the knock-on effects of bad training sessions can leave athletes in a rut for a long time – the problem is both self-directed frustration and a feeling that what they’re doing isn’t working. With a coach, this isn’t as much of a problem, but it’s hard to avoid regardless. It’s essential to practice being gentle with yourself in these situations: if you’re a competitor, you’ll only exacerbate the problems through stress, but if you’re a recreational athlete you’re missing the point – you’re here to enjoy yourself! When training is rough and you get frustrated, it’s important to stay the course and not try to change things too often – whilst it’s tempting to drop a program after a bad day or few days, this is the fastest way to stall your own progress in the long run. If you’re constantly switching programs because the results aren’t coming fast enough, it shows that you don’t understand the sport, but it also means that you’re going to spend a lot of time on square one.

This highlights our final point: be patient. Whilst there are obvious reasons to ditch a program that isn’t working, if you’re struggling with the sport because you’re not progressing fast enough, it probably makes sense to take a look around. There aren’t many people that progress quickly through this sport naturally, at least as a casual athlete (read: not a professional). This sport is one that requires a huge time commitment before you’re even remotely “good”, even with proper guidance.

Often, the people who like to talk about how hard they’re working are generally exaggerating and want some attention – and that’s probably ok. The fact is, this mentality isn’t what you see in elite athletes – the best approach to show everyone how hard you’re working is how quickly you improve: no matter how many #WorkHARD hashtags you use, it’s undeniable that your hard work is better demonstrated by lifting more weight than you used to.

Athlete update: Justine snatching (the fundamentals of weightlifting)

Justine came to CAP as an individual with a lot of passion for weightlifting but very limited access to coaching. Dealing with considerable time demands and an unfortunate lack of coaching in the local area, we began working together on her overall performance (if this sounds like you, don’t hesitate to get in touch). As ever, the two most important parts of Weightlifting are 1) getting stronger, and 2) improving your technique. With Justine, we are doing both: as someone fairly new to the sport, we can make big jumps in squatting, pulling and the classical lifts all at once.

During the first month of her training with us, Justine is already showing good improvements. At the start of the program we saw some really common technical flaws: the notorious stripper pull was our first concern. As big proponents of triage coaching, the first thing we’ve been working on is really nailing the setup and basic biomechanics of the first pull – if we can’t set up for the lift properly then we’re going to struggle to perform the whole thing consistently. So, with Justine, we’ve really been working on involving the legs and its starting to show – the image below compares the positions adopted at the start of the program compared with those we see in Justine’s snatches now. We think there are some mobility improvements that’ll help in future, but the fundamentals are all there: the hips are slightly higher than the knees, and the shoulders are both above and over the bar – strong!

 

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Its not just her filming technique that’s improved!

The results of this small change are obvious throughout the lift – as we come to the knee the chest now stays tall and the bar comes back, where once the chest dropped and the bar was given space from the body. The next image comparison demonstrates this well – the second photo demonstrates a much stronger, tighter back and a better balance of weight. In this position, the shoulders are still over the bar and the balance allows Justine to keep the tension in her legs, which will be essential as the bar comes into the hips. This is the difference between the “stripper pull” (where the athletes hips shoot up, leaving their chest pointed at the floor) and a well-executed push against the floor. For those who are struggling with feeling their legs, or who are kicking the bar out forwards, small changes to the setup can bring big developments.

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The most important part of the first pull is how well it positions us for the second pull and the transition under the bar – the biomechanics discussed in the last paragraph are all important for exactly this reason: they allow the athlete to finish upwards through the legs whilst simultaneously placing the bar behind the head in a secure location (or “aiming the bar”). It is in precisely these two movements that the benefits of our work with Justine can be demonstrated. In the first situation where the hips rose too early and the chest fell, we can predict that the bar is going to be pushed forwards by the hips and allowed a lot of space from the athlete, resulting in looping the bar around the body, rather than keeping it close. In the latter situation, it is still possible to do this, but the degree and likelihood are much less significant. Simply put, a good position at the knee might have improved Justine’s lift, but this position alone isn’t enough for every athlete unless they know how to extend properly!

In the final portion of the pull,  the difference between using the hips and using the legs is obvious. Whilst the camera angle does exacerbate the differences, its clear that there is a lot of daylight between the athlete and the bar in the first image. This is one of the most important principles of weightlifting: remain close to the bar wherever possible. This is the result of finishing through the hips and throwing the body backwards because the pull has been performed incorrectly and the athlete has no purchase on the bar with the legs (due to an excessive hip angle). In the latter scene, the legs remain engaged all the way through the lift, with a much more vertical and complete pull – there is no need to throw the shoulders backwards to compensate as the bar is already moving backwards, since Justine’s shoulders were over the bar in the previous image. This means that an extension upwards will safely place the bar behind the athlete’s head, without excessive involvement of the upper body.

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If you’ve got a background in Olympic weightlifting already, you’ll know from these two series’ of photographs that these two lifts will have radically different outcomes:

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The first snatch is clearly far less stable and unbalanced – the athlete is too “through” the bar, with the balance falling through to the toes as a result of having to either jump forwards or incline the torso to compensate for the bar being improperly positioned. In the first video, it was necessary to step forwards in order to regain the balance. In the second, Justine’s positions are far better – whilst there are still some mobility and stability issues that we’re working on, the chest remains high and the bar is well positioned overhead. In this situation, where the athlete is well balanced, the catch is fundamentally sound and the athlete can sit there and adjust if necessary before standing up. Simply put, if you have to rush to stand up in the snatch, something probably went wrong in the pull! In the latter, this is definitely not the case for Justine.

This is just one aspect of the progress that we’ve seen working with Justine over the last few weeks of programming, not to mention big progress in squatting and pulling strength. There’s no reason that improving the fundamentals like this should take ages: the beauty of weightlifting is that small technical improvements can lead to huge progress in terms of how the lift feels, looks and how much weight can be used. Keep your eyes peeled for more updates on Justine and the rest of the CAP athletes!

 

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The week ahead 03/04/17: heavy reps and big projects

This week starts off with plenty to talk about – the European weightlifting championships are well under way!

The European championships in Split, Croatia have recently begun and promise some very interesting competitions in the heavier weight classes – from the 85Kg class all the way up to the super heavyweights, it’s going to be an exciting watch. Our favourites to watch for are the 85kg class and the 105kg class – in the former, a battle between Russia’s Artem Okulov and Bulgaria’s Ivan Markov seems both inevitable and fantastic viewing. In the latter class, the 105kg class, we’ll see current World Record holder David Bedzhanyan lifting, as well as the Armenian prodigy Simon Martirosyan – both of whom promise big weights and have the potential to push youth and senior records. In the female classes, our favourites are the 90kg and 90+ categories: the former is the first international competition for the weight class and the latter sees Tatiana Kashirina return to the platform after missing out on the Olympics.

It may be our pangs of Anglosphere pride, but we’re also keen to see the performances British athletes bring to the platform: Sonny Webster, Owen Boxall, Emily Godley, Sarah Davies and Rebekah Tiler will be representing in their respective weight classes throughout the week.

 

Meanwhile, back at Conquest Athletic Performance…

This week spells the start of the real taper for many of our athletes: as we move from the higher volume blocks of early training towards testing and competitions, our main focus for these athletes is consistency and readiness. This also means a lot of specificity: where these athletes were recently reporting back to us about PRs in their 5RM back squat, deadlift or push press, we’re expecting to see a lot more of this progress in heavy singles and doubles – and primarily in the competition lifts (Be they powerlifting or weightlifting competitions!). This tends to be our favourite time, as both athletes and coaches: seeing the weeks and months of hard work come together in the important lifts is incredibly rewarding. Not many people enjoy 10-rep maximums on the back squat, but months like this are where this gruelling work pays off and serves to reinforce the value of the process to our athletes. If you want to be strong, there are times where it’s going to be uncomfortable!

What really excites us about heavy singles is that our athletes are starting to feel their way back towards competitions – for those of us in strength sports (powerlifting and weightlifting), the time between significant competitions can be vast whilst we work on fixing weaknesses, improving crucial aspects of technique or simply getting stronger to reach competitive or personal goals. This has meant that, for some of our athletes, its been as many as 4 months since their last significant competition – and anyone that has competed in powerlifting knows that 4 months of prep for a competition means at least 12 weeks in the trenches of high-volume training. The psychological challenge of volume training is significant and it can be easy to feel like you’re not doing anything of value when you’re so far out from competition and your focus is adding work capacity, or working on subtle technical cues. Now that we’re tapering back into heavy singles we can really start drilling into athletes that this is what we train for. The thrill of powerlifting comes from the weight of a heavy barbell on your back or in your hands, and the fact that this particular weight is really going to challenge you for even a single rep.

As we come into the last few weeks of any cycle, this thrill really comes back and the change in mindset is visible: it’s unlikely that you’re the same athlete in week 1 as week 15. What we love about tapering here at Conquest is that we get to bring out the competitor in our athletes – for a few weeks, at least, the heavy singles and doubles develop consistency but they also force athletes to behave like every rep in the gym is their third attempt in competition. Sure, there’s usually less lycra and the gym music is probably far more annoying and awful than you’d have at a competition, but the athlete is 100% focused on that lift. For a few sets of singles, we can forget about the ‘background noise’ of relationship problems, work stress, assignment deadlines or taxes, and as coaches it’s amazing to see regular people become primed and focused athletes.

Announcements (but not really)

April is an exciting month for us as a company, but our athletes in particular. This month marks the first month of a severe change of pace: our social media interactions have been limited lately but we’re going to be starting to really engage with the people in our sport and with the things our athletes really care about. You can expect to see a lot more of us, and a lot more of the things our athletes want to show off, on facebook, Instagram, twitter and here on the blog. Naturally, if you want to get in touch with us with any queries or comments this also allows us to hold open and engaging discussions with anyone who has an interest.

One of the things we’re most excited about is the engagement with our athletes that will focus on the why of training as well as just the how. Here at CAP we pride ourselves on instilling an effective athletic mindset to those we work with – it’s not enough to lift big numbers, put up fast 40s or win competitions – being a great athlete requires you to really understand the demands and challenges of your sport. Through our work with athletes in various sports, we’re really working to change the way that these athletes approach training in the scope of a single session, block of training and their athletic career as a whole. Through regular, in-depth consultations and constant focus on developing both skills and knowledge, we’re working to really revolutionise the service of remote coaching and provide a comprehensive development in sport and S&C. Watch this space – we’re going to start seeing some exceptional developments in the next few months, and in a year or two you’ll not recognise the coaching game!

 

 

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Case Study (Annie): stage I – Needs analysis and GPP

Introduction

This case study represents an attempt to positively describe the development of an athlete in the sport of Olympic weightlifting from the very beginning of her training. It will follow the development of “A”, who begins this case study as an absolute beginner with no formal experience in strength sport, through the various stages of training towards success in the sport of Olympic Weightlifting.

It is our intention that this case study should continually develop so as to give rise to a proper account of the training of a weightlifter in a way that is seldom seen in the English-speaking world. It will be organized according to the athlete’s development along the advancement tract as outlined in the Russian sport mastery classification chart (Fig. 1) for the sake of convenience. This choice of format will also serve to benefit us when it comes to reviewing the efficacy of a given program regarding the athlete’s training age. In this way, this case study will also serve to facilitate the evaluation of all aspects of the program, with the intention of identifying those aspects which are most effective and those which require review in future programs.

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Figure 1 – from Takano, 2012, P.34

Athlete profile

An initial survey of the athlete’s physical fitness, composition and experience is necessary. Upon beginning to train the athlete in the February of 2016 she demonstrated the following basic physical characteristics:

Age: 18

Bodyweight: 55kg

Height: 167

Body composition: low body fat, low lean tissue

Athletic background: amateur gymnastics, badminton, cricket

Whilst these characteristics are far from elite, they serve as an excellent basis for the training of the Weightlifter. The General Physical Preparation (GPP) of the athlete is likely to be very good given the consistent athletic history of the athlete. Furthermore, the existing body composition was positive and, from a “triage coaching” point of view, suggested that we would be able to immediately begin training for performance without too much concern for the selection and achievement of a given body composition change.

Initial movement screening suggested a number of persistent movement issues, primarily the result of muscular imbalance:

  • Extreme tendency for knee valgus
  • Severe anterior pelvic tilt
  • Kyphosis of the upper (cervical-thoracic) spine
  • Substantial hyperextension of the elbows and shoulders

Stage 1: need analysis and gpp

As a result of the aforementioned physical and movement analysis, it was clear that the individual’s primary coaching needs were proper physical balancing. To suggest a program of Olympic weightlifting to this individual would have been reckless due to the insufficient postural and movement capabilities of the athlete’s body.

Given the athlete’s ability to move properly in various other, unloaded sports such as badminton and cricket, it seemed that the most appropriate method for their development towards training in Olympic Weightlifting was continued GPP. The movement problems highlighted above were not present in these unweighted activities, suggesting that what we refer to as “stage 2 GPP” (ability to move in a precise and controlled fashion) was present. As such, development along our existing GPP tract meant that “Stage 3 GPP: the ability to move, under load, with precision and control” was our prescription.

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Figure 2A performing a 30kg squat during Stage 3 GPP

                The manifestation of this program of GPP involved a great deal of regular strength training work. Focus during this time was on the development of proper posture and development of strength and co-ordination through a number of classical strength movements, primarily:

  1. Back Squat
  2. Overhead Press
  3. Bent-over Row (and variations)
  4. Deadlift

These exercises formed the core strength training involved, with additional focus applied to the proper development of the core muscles, glutes and scapular retractors. This phase lasted for around 3 months, during which time the athlete demonstrated huge increases in hypertrophy, basic strength, flexibility, stability and co-ordination. Results in the aforementioned strength movements are recorded below (Starting weight refers to the weights achieved in February 2016, Resulting weights refer to those achieved in June 2016):

Exercise Starting weight Resulting weight
Back Squat 20kg 60kg
Overhead Press 10kg 25kg
Bent-over row 15kg 35kg
Deadlift 30kg 70kg

Development in these strength lifts, whilst productive, are secondary to the proper structural alignment that was achieved during this GPP Program (3 months).

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Figure 3A performing a set of 5 back squats at 50kg towards the end of Stage 3 GPP

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Athlete profile: Annie

Age: 19

Bodyweight: 58kg (u58 class…for now!)

Height: 167cm (approx.)

Sport: Olympic Weightlifting

Training age (to date): 9 months (6 months weightlifting, 3 months GPP)

Annie is a Junior weightlifter and, I believe, best represents the product and service that we offer here at Conquest. After a childhood of primarily-aerobic sports, such as Badminton and Cricket, she has taken to Weightlifting with a great deal of enthusiasm and ability. Despite requiring a fair amount of strengthening, mobility and GPP work, her technical progress over the past 6 months is exemplary – she demonstrates what an athlete with absolutely no experience in weight training can achieve by working with us.

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One of my favourite parts of working with this athlete has been the coachability and athletic maturity that she brings to the table. An important factor of training that many individuals forget is the constant urgency of improving one’s technique – even if only by one small cue every session or every week – and in this area Annie has been both compliant and enthusiastic. As coaches, it is inevitable to come across better and worse athletes in any sport, but to come across individuals who are coachable is perhaps rarer, and these individuals are a testament to the validity of your programming and your coaching because they consistently put the work in and thus are only limited by a coach’s creativity and skill.

We asked Annie to share some of her views and experiences with us:

1) What is your favourite thing about Weightlifting?

I love improving! It doesn’t always have to be a Personal Best (although that’d be nice!), things as simple as a small tweak in my lifting technique can make so much difference to a lift and every session I learn something new. There’s no better feeling than focussing on the way that you lift and then, after perhaps as little as one session, it clicks and you start making lifts.

 

2) What is your favourite thing about working with conquest athletic performance?

I love how individualised my programming is. What I do every session is specifically tailored to me and my weaknesses: my technique has improved so much in a short space of time due to my most recent program and I think its also really improved my confidence in the sport. I actually feel like a weightlifter now, rather than just a person who does weightlifting!

 

3) What would you say was your best moment in the sport so far?

In my recent competition, making my 3rd snatch was an ecstatic moment! I had been scared of missing all my lifts but making the 2nd and 3rd snatches made me feel much more confident and showed that I could do what I’d been working towards. I felt elated at what I had achieved and think that it has driven me to keep improving and lifting in the future.

 

Keep your eyes peeled – Annie will be moving up into the women’s 63kg category over the next 12-18 months and we hope to see her representing us at the British Nationals in the next 2 years! We will be running a multiple-part case study on her progress on the blog so be sure to subscribe to keep up with Annie and the other team athletes!

 

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Feature post: CAP powerlifter takes bronze in her first competition!

To kick off our regular blog posting (AT LEAST once weekly, every Sunday, but more as available!) we want to highlight the fantastic achievements of our CAP junior Powerlifter, Sophie! In her first competition ever, Sophie managed to bring home a bronze medal with a PB in the squat and equal PB in the deadlift!

During her competition, Sophie made all 3 of her Squats, her 2nd attempt Bench press (the first only being called for a short pause which she later fixed) and her 2nd attempt Deadlift with a painfully close 3rd attempt called for a minor hitch. Here at Conquest we’re very proud of Sophie for these lifts but equally proud of her for the way in which she composed and conducted herself during the competition – as it was her first competition, we’ve been urging her to have fun and just take it as a challenge to be overcome. The powerlifting community is a fantastically diverse and supportive community, meaning that any initial nerves needed to be calmed and then, on the day of the competition, it’d be obvious that everyone wants you to make 9 lifts and everyone is there to improve themselves!

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This competition comes at the end of a 12 week program that concerned itself with proper movement – due to some medical issues in the past, Soph has suffered from some hip impingement and used to be borderline on the depth and suffered from a severe drop in the chest during the squat. Today saw almost none of those flaws, showing the huge progress that she has made and the character that she brings to the platform. With this being only her first competition, and Soph being a Junior in the powerlifting world, it was great to see her come away with a medal in a weight class that is overwhelmingly populated by athletes with much more experience and age.

One of the take-home lessons we want to enforce as the result of this is that sometimes progress isn’t just measured by the weight on the bar! Whilst we’re proud of the PBs that have been set and the strength that has been shown, today’s podium finish for our token ginger demonstrates technical and psychological progress – it’s hard to see your progress for what it is when you’re cutting weight and totally re-learning squat technique. That said, to have come from squatting 70kg at half depth all the way to hitting 77.5kg with unquestionable depth, better hip health and a much more stable bottom position is a huge achievement inside of competition or out of it!

Here at CAP we encourage entering oneself into healthy, fun competition and we hope that one day all of our athletes get to have such positive experiences. If you’re losing love for your sport or you need to really push your training, get yourself into a competitive mindset, sign up for a competition and see how motivated you are afterwards! Keep your eyes peeled because this competition qualified Soph for the British single lifts in the deadlift: we’re hoping for big things for Soph and with our programming and her attitude, we’ve no doubt she’ll be a force to reckon with as she matures!

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The CAP team: a brief introduction

The Conquest Athletic Performance (CAP) team is a pretty simple section of this blog: it will focus primarily on the athletes that we work with and details their journeys through their respective sports. We feel that any coach or coaching system is only ever as good as its ability to produce consistent positive affects in its athletes. This is at the core of our individualised programming, facility programming solutions and our blog content: we do what we do to improve athletes and make athletes of those who have the right mind-set and attitude.

As such, we think its both interesting and productive to demonstrate the successes of the athletes we work with who work hard for their results and simultaneously showcase our coaching portfolio. Posts in the CAP team section will generally follow the development of our athletes (some from absolute novice to success story) and will feature posts about competitions, breakthrough training performances and what its like to be an athlete working with us. Throughout the course of these pieces, we’re hoping not only to discuss how one goes about being a great athlete but also what it is like to live the life of a hard-working athlete.

We’re big fans of the online content put out by a number of sites such as BarBend, AllThingsGym and other such sites but there has been a general shortage of pieces on the athletic lifestyle. Acclaimed philosopher Robert Nagel once wrote of consciousness that the “what it is to be something” is something you can only really experience from the inside – here at CAP we want to share the “what is to be an athlete” in a way that a lot of good, informative resources tend to miss. This is why we want to give access to our athletes and their experiences in the sport, in the hopes that we can shed light on athletic life for everyone.

We hope you enjoy keeping track with our athletes, and perhaps learn something about athletic life and the journey to sports mastery.

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Conquest vs public health: the what and the why (a brief introduction)

The “Conquest vs Public health” series will be a number of fairly brief and simple pieces written in a more casual tone that don’t really engage specifically with strength sports or programming. These pieces are more likely to address the way that the health and sport fields can engage with the public in a way that should provide some perspective and information to the general public. Whilst its easy to get bogged down with the minutiae of training athletes and effective high-performance programs, here at CAP we understand that our athlete pool is only ever as big as the physical culture and health of a nation will allow – beyond healthier and stronger athletes, we think its important to be a healthier and stronger country.

The vast majority of the pieces written in the Conquest vs Public health series will be on their own page and will be less focussed on specifically-informative content. Whilst it would serve some purpose to have dense articles full of citations and data for extrapolation, we believe that public health should be a public concern and protectivist language won’t help engage with people who don’t want to be nutritionists, exercise physiologists or professional athletes. The discussion of public health should be informed and responsible, yet it is currently in the hands of ham-fisted government figures, misinformed political activists or a small number of healthcare individuals whose main concern is profit. We believe that fostering a “by the informed public, for the whole public” attitude is the first step.

That said, this section of our writing will  be focused on a number of diffuse topics: reviews of reports and statistics into public health concerns (especially diet/exercise ones), reviews of media/government presentations of public health and, finally, some active discussion of the way that individuals would best serve their own health and fitness. We don’t pretend to be doctors in the area, but a culture of knowledge and conscience about our own bodies would serve to reduce a large number of public health.

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