Bottoms Up: An Alternative View to Popular US Weightlifting Concepts
Like many contemporary Weightlifters, I was introduced to Weightlifting through CrossFit and USA Weightlifting (USAW). However, after a few years in the sport I have drifted away from coaching and practicing many of those early Weightlifting concepts. For instance, I coach the clean and snatch in the opposite direction, teaching from the bottom up, or from the setup to the receiving position. I haven’t made this switch because the views regarding Weightlifting have shifted in CrossFit and USAW circles. The fact is many very successful and popular Weightlifting coaches still teach a progression that works from the top down, focusing on developing lifts from the high hang and receiving position. I never set out to be different because it was a popular thing to do, or to simply be different. My current coaching philosophies and progressions are the product of my learning experiences in the sport.
In 2013, with a CrossFit Games appearance behind me and wanting little to do with a metcon ever again, I stumbled upon Coach Stephen Powell of Kore Weightlifting. Coach Powell introduced me to “Chinese Style” Weightlifting. The concepts were completely opposite of everything I had learned to do with a barbell yet eerily similar to my experiences as a young athlete. The different approach helped me bust through an 18 month lifting plateau and was a large reason I qualified for the USAW National Championships in 2014.
After a year of training with Coach Powell, it was very important for me to gain my own firsthand experience with a coach out of a Chinese Camp. I turned to Coach Wu Chuanfu out of Singapore. Coach Wu has gained recent notoriety in the US working to Diane Fu, a popular Weightlifting coach in many CrossFit circles. Through Skype and video sharing, I was able to gain access to a world class athlete who was at one time a member of the Chinese National Olympic Weightlifting Team. Coach Wu deepened and expanded upon the “Chinese Weightlifting” concepts Coach Powell had introduced to me. Where he differed slightly from Coach Powell was his emphasis on tempo, skill and timing. In general, he taught Weightlifting very similarly to what I have seen in gymnastic progressions. His general idea was developing experience and understanding by moving slowly at first and then speeding up.
My experiences being coached to utilize different Weightlifting concepts have lead me to believe that teaching the snatch and the clean from the bottom up is a much more efficient process than working from the top down. That said, a variety of coaches do prefer working from the top down for a variety of reasons. The two critiques, I have heard most often referenced for working from the bottom up are that it is too large a movement pattern to teach beginning lifters and that poor mobility in the set up does not allow for proper movement patterns and mechanics to take place.
My answer to the first critique is to begin teaching the barbell’s break off the floor in parts. I do not start new athletes off with high pulls and full snatches. I begin with moving the bar from the floor to the knee, then practice moving from the knee to the hip, and end with the development of the finish or high hang. As athletes become comfortable and move naturally with these small movements I blur the lines between them, and develop larger movement patterns as we go. A critical component toward the successful implementation of this process is to give athletes, no matter how big or small the movement, a clearly defined place to start and finish each movement.
I will also ask learning athletes to pause at the land marks described above, to deepen their understanding, feeling, and experience in the proper position. Pausing at critical land marks allows the coach to be very hands on and manipulate the athlete to achieve optimal positioning. Pauses are also great for developing strength in more seasoned lifters.
A few simple characteristics of quality positioning and movement should be observed by the coach and practiced by the Weightlifter while learning the above positions. By watching the lifter’s back, a coach can see a great deal. Across body type, style, and regarding both the clean and snatch, a consistent and constant back angle should be maintained as the bar breaks off the floor and until it clears the knee. If the back changes in any way during this initial phase of the movement a pulling imbalance or a lack of structural integrity has occurred. The newer the athlete is to Weightlifting the more emphasis the coach should place on this simple concept. I coach my athletes while learning this phase, and well into mastery, to maintain their back and PUSH the bar up using their legs, not to pull the bar off the ground using their back and arms.
Once good positions are demonstrated consistently, the athlete’s movement looks natural, and they can achieve them without being manipulated I begin to work the idea of TEMPO, exploring pulling variations like the classic deadlift, high pulls, speed pulls and the full lifts.
Regarding mobility restrictions, I always start where the athlete can. If limited positioning does not allow a safe break off the floor I find the place where they can break the bar safely using blocks, risers or plates. Let’s also be honest. Overhead and front rack mobility aren’t always, if ever perfect either, especially in older and novice athletes. I have come to expect some form of mobility dysfunction in every athlete. I teach and work hard to be flexible, creative, and thoughtful as those issues surface.
Most novice Weightlifters have thoracic spine and hip limitations that disrupt their ability to set up with their hips low, chest high and shoulders back, the set up that I believe is most advantageous for breaking the bar off the floor. In my experience these limitations arise for a of couple reasons. Generally, novice Weightlifters will have a weak back and limited control of their scapula. Contemporary life style conditions don’t help this situation. For the most part many folks sit at a desk most of the day, are on their couch at night, drive their car to and from, and any spare moment between, sometimes during, are on their smart phone. Each of these situations promotes positioning that restricts hip range of motion and leads the shoulders to lurch forward.
To develop some range of motion in the thoracic spine I have my athletes lay on a double lacrosse ball, placing it just below their ribs, and then spend two or three minutes doing straight arm passes that mimic snatching. You can do these with a PVC pipe, light barbell, or without. After two to three minutes, move the ball up and repeat, working all the way up to the top of the spine and to the base of the traps.
Hip mobility is beneficial for a variety of athletic and general health applications. However, for the purpose of this article the goal is to push the knees outward in the setup, giving the athlete the ability to set up closer to the bar. My favorite exercise to open the hips is any variation of a banded distraction stretch. Simply attach the thickest band you can work with to a fixed structure, step into it with one leg, and then facing away from the structure place the band as high as you can on your hip. From this position lunge forward with the leg that is hooked into the band. Focus on stretching and ungluing your areas of tightness for 3 minutes per leg. My favorite variations mimic poses consistent with that of your friendly neighborhood Spiderman.
Increasing performance is best established by building good habits on top of established, better habits. You would never put the roof on a house before the foundations is set or hang drywall before the electrical is installed. Doing so would force you to rip the walls down and redo work that you had already completed. Coaching athletes from the bottom up may take more time but when done correctly lays the foundation and frame work for proper movement patters that only have to be taught once.
Learning a new task and breaking bad habits is always problematic and never helped by moving quickly. Because of this, I believe that teaching the turnover and receiving position early is a mistake. Those portions of the movements have to be performed fast. I’m sure most people would agree that moving too fast before grasping a concept opens the door for improper movements. I do not think any of us learned to drive a car fast? Do ice skaters learn to race or do triple axels first? A better example might be gymnastics. I have seen firsthand, watching my children learn the sport at 2 years old, that progressions of simple and slow movements take priority.
Lastly, it is my opinion that coaches and athletes do not like working from the bottom up because it’s not sexy. Fitness is a sport now and Weightlifting’s greatest characteristics, challenges, and gauge for progress revolve around going overhead, with big weights, fast – none of which happen early under my guidance. The last concern of many barbell athletes, especially those with a penises, is quality of movement. It’s my experience that when it comes to a barbell, athletes working for time in particular, only care about moving fast and heavy. Winning randomly assigned tasks and lifting more weight is not a healthy way for learning athletes to measure success in the sport of Weightlifting. The fact is that standing up with the bar over your head improperly doesn’t mean much and won’t get you more than a pat on the back, a few likes on your Instagram account, and most likely, a shoulder impingement. When working with new athletes, it’s very much my goal that they see Weightlifting as a movement sport, not a strength sport. In fact, the more I learn from coaches and practice what they have taught me I believe when learning Weightlifting you must move slowly and develop control over all else. The fact is you will not ever be able to lift heavy weights like they are light, so you might as well start lifting light weights like they are heavy to prepare for the journey and progress ahead. Its uncommon practice and a focus on positioning that will make you great Weightlifter, not chasing sexy numbers.