The down LOW on CrossFit DC’s recent technique heavy Olympic Lifting cycle,
and why we have HIGH expectations for everyone’s improvement.
By now, everyone at CrossFit DC is probably well aware of our penchant for programming technical Olympic lifting progressions – the more frustrating the better, it seems. The big question is why?
The Olympic lifts can be an exercise in frustration – the closer you come to making a lift, the harder you want to try the next time. Unfortunately, for a majority of athletes, especially CrossFit athletes, this often means simply attempting to apply more power via raw strength and brute force. The result is sadly predictable: an attempt that moved farther from achieving the desired result, rather than closer. For most, this leads to the feeling that Olympic lifting is simply an endless journey of frustration, filled with flashes of improvement surrounded by the dull monotony of bewilderment.
The trick, as you might have surmised, lies in improving technique. Only when an athlete accepts that by improving, and there-after relying on, technique will the journey become a little less frustrating (and if not, perhaps a little less bewildering). For our theoretical lifter above, that means understanding that the increase in raw, brute force led to a decrease in efficiency. And Olympic lifting is nothing if not a study in the demands of efficiency.
Consider Coach Takano’s two essential steps in becoming better at Olympic lifting (from his article, oddly enough entitled, Why Technique Matters in Olympic Weightlifting):
“The first is to lift with the greatest biomechanical efficiency, allowing for the generation of the greatest amount of power and the fastest appropriate body movements. The second is to develop and use the musculature in the most efficient manner.”
It’s no coincidence that Coach Takano references the need “to lift with the greatest biomechanical efficiency” before the need to “develop and use the musculature.” Said another way, an athlete must learn to move the weight in the most efficient manner (technique) before worrying about gaining strength and attempting to move more weight.
This not only includes performing the Olympic lifts with the best technique, but also in choosing exercises that help to develop and reinforce technique. In this way, a lifter will come to rely on, and seek out, their skills to make that oh-so-close lift, rather than mere strength. Or, as Coach Takano eloquently puts it, “the body will develop in a manner that is harmonious and conducive to optimal performance.” Yea, what he said.
Armed with the knowledge that better lifting is developed through technique before strength, the exercises that have saturated our programming of late should now make more sense.
High Hang – With just the barest amount of extension available to a lifter, the High Hang position is a great tool for teaching a lifter to use the explosive power of the hips to elevate the bar (as opposed to the momentum gained pulling from the hang position).
Low Hang – learning to control the bar before it passes the knees and moves into the power position, where explosive power can be properly applied. The low hang also has the added benefit of highlighting how important it is to drop the hips to get the bar into position, rather than simply bending over (hint: the first loads the legs, the second loads the back, and even a first day Elements attendee knows which you want to use to lift something!).
Pulls from the Floor (Heavy and/or Elevated) – Setting up properly is one thing, but keeping that set-up as you pull heavy weight from the floor is another thing entirely. The combination of both will allow you to properly take a heavy weight from the floor and get into the power position, where you can forcefully extend the legs and hips making that previous max effort lift feel like child’s play (but only if you’ve learned how to properly catch the weight…)
Pause and Tempo Squats – You didn’t think it was coincidence class programming has been featured so many of these lately, did you? Of course not, and while they do have a tremendous amount of benefit to your squats, they are also of immense benefit to your Olympic lifting. Think of it this way: if you can maintain tension and control sitting under a weight you conveniently took out of a rack, you’re going to greatly improve your chances of being able to find that tension and control when pulling under that weight after lifting it from the floor.
Snatch Balance – Who knew Overhead Squats could get worse! As terribly frustrating as the various forms of Snatch Balance can be, they’re actually a great tool for our purposes: they highlight the need for proper position under the bar during the snatch, while the dynamic motion limits the amount of weight that can be used (as compared to the Overhead Squat). There’s a narrow margin of error in the snatch, especially when it comes to moving the bar into the correct position overhead. The beauty of the Snatch Balance is that the bar already begins in the correct position, and instead it’s the body that needs to be moved down into the squat.
Off-Side Split Jerks – To be honest, this is the most emphasis we’ve placed on Split Jerks in quite a while, so our goal has been to both teach and improve the split jerk at the same time. To teach, we’ve used quite a bit of un-weighted drilling to really hammer proper placement of the feet. To improve, we focused on the combination of the off-side (“weak side”) split jerk in combination with the strong-side split jerk. Forcing athletes to place their weak foot forward first in the jerk helps focus attention on where the movement needs attention, and simultaneously limits the amount of weight that can be used.
In looking at the above list in total, we can see that the cumulative focus of this Technique Cycle has taught us: (1) how to take the weight from the floor; (2) how to maintain control past the knees, getting the bar into the power position where the explosive power of the extension can properly be applied; (3) where the proper receiving position is for each lift, and how to receive the bar with tension and control; and, (4) in the case of the Clean and Jerk, how to be as efficient as possible to complete a second lift after expending so much energy on the first.
While improving Olympic lifting technique is a year round endeavor at CrossFit DC, our timing for this particular technique-based cycle is not random. For those athletes at CrossFit DC who participated in the Open this year, you will have noticed the months preceding contained a lot more workouts featuring lighter weight, higher repetition Olympic lifts than usual. No surprise, considering that’s exactly the sort of workout featured during the five weeks of the Open. What should also not be surprising is that during these months of light weight, high rep training, lifting form and technique began to degrade. More than that, the flaws have been relatively consistent across the gym, which is why the exercises listed above and used in our post-Open programming were chosen.
If you’ve read this far, I trust we’ve gained your trust that this has all been for a reason, and a sound reason at that, and that it will help. However, it probably has not answered that one question you would most like answered: when is this going to end?
Next week, the last week in June, marks the end of our current technique based Olympic lifting cycle. Yes, this means an end to all the awkward hang positions – for now at least. It also means we will conclude the cycle by working towards a max effort in each of the three lifts:
Monday, June 22nd – max effort Clean
Thursday, June 25th – max effort Jerk
Saturday, June 27th – max effort Snatch
Then what? Well, as Coach Takano alluded to above, after working on movement technique, the need shifts to developing movement strength. To that end, our upcoming program cycle will focus on developing power in the Olympic lifts, in which complexes will be a prominent feature.
Until then, here’s to the endless pursuit of better technique!