Monday, August 17, 2015

Deceleration: Cheetahs, Sprinters, and Weightlifters
Credit hookgrip

When I was in college, one of the prerequisites for undergraduates was a writing course. Before each assignment, we read two passages from books then formed a thesis for our paper. The bulk of the paper was drawing upon our readings and finding the similarities between both works. This wasn't always easy and forced me to closely examine the stories.

While I never enjoyed writing - which is strange considering this site - it became a valuable skill in exercise. Coaching, programming, and exercise choices require a sharp eye for picking up the subtle details. That is the aim for this post where we'll take a look at sprinters, cheetahs, and Olympic weightlifters. They appear different from one another, but in fact they share similarities.

Sprinter [source]

Researchers at Southern Methodist University of Dallas analyzed the running mechanics and action of sprinters compared to a group of soccer, lacrosse, and football players. It was previously believed that running fell under the influence of a spring-mass model described as:
The spring-mass model assumes the legs work essentially like the compression spring of a pogo stick when in contact with the ground. In this theory, during running at a constant speed on level ground, the body falls down out of the air. Upon landing, the support leg acts like a pogo stick to catch the body and pop it back up in the air for the next step.
It's been generally assumed that this classic spring model applies to faster running speeds and faster athletes as well as to slower ones. Elite sprinters do not conform to widely accepted theories of running mechanics.
The article states that sprinters deliver a deliberate striking action to the ground versus the mixed athlete group.
"Our new studies show that these elite sprinters don't use their legs to just bounce off the ground as most other runners do," said human biomechanics expert and lead author on the studies Ken Clark, a researcher in the SMU Locomotor Performance Laboratory. "The top sprinters have developed a wind-up and delivery mechanism to augment impact forces. Other runners do not do so."
And I'll highlight this last excerpt.
We found that the fastest athletes all do the same thing to apply the greater forces needed to attain faster speeds," Weyand said. "They cock the knee high before driving the foot into the ground, while maintaining a stiff ankle. These actions elevate ground forces by stopping the lower leg abruptly upon impact." 
The new research indicates that the fastest runners decelerate their foot and ankle in just over two-hundredths of a second after initial contact with the ground.
Keep this information in mind as we review the next article.

Cheetah [source]

The cheetah is the fastest mammal on the planet and is known for its speed. Alan Wilson and his team from the University of London’s Royal Veterinary College discovered that the cheetah's speed is not its most important hunting trait.
Third, cheetahs can decelerate faster than they can accelerate, much as sports cars with powerful engines need beefed-up brakes. While both these processes require different sets of muscles and depend on different conditions, the rates of acceleration and deceleration beat those of any other land-dwelling animal. Based on the recorded data, Wilson calculates that the muscle power output of cheetahs is about four times that of Usain Bolt, three times that of polo horses, and nearly double that of greyhounds.

The top speed of a cheetah hunt had no correlation to the successful outcome of the hunt. Instead, Wilson found that success depended more on how fast the cheetah could slow down, rather than on how fast it could speed up. It is this last phase of a hunt that was critical for success, where the cheetah slows down. When these two observations are put together, Wilson thinks that it seems cheetahs don’t abandon hunts early to save energy or reduce risk of injury.

Finally, cheetahs are not built to be able to turn at their highest speed. In an artificial setting, which astronauts and fighter pilots are put into for training, the force felt by a cheetah trying to turn around at top speed could knock it unconscious. Instead they use their ability to slow down and their ridged footpads and claws to grip the ground well enough to turn quickly.
The cheetah's ability to slow down as well as its agility are key factors to hunting.

Let's pull all this together for training.

Olympic Weightlifter

Weightlifters and the classical lifts, snatch and clean & jerk, are often known for their power and speed. If you want to develop a fast athlete, you have them employ those movements or a derivative of them. Typically, there is an emphasis on accelerating in the second pull and having a forceful extension of the ankles, knees, and hips (triple extension).

This is where it all ties into one another. While a powerful extension is beneficial and desired, sometimes lifters and coaches overlook the next part - deceleration/force absorption. In weightlifting, this is also known as triple flexion and is the resulting action of triple extension. The weightlifter speeds under the bar and decelerates it in the receiving position.

Much like in the discussion above for the sprinter and cheetah, deceleration is critical. Similar to the actions of the former two, the pull under the bar is deliberate.

In the sport of weightlifting, the goal is to put up the highest numbers possible. Athletes accomplish that by lifting the bar to the lowest height possible and then pull their bodies under it to speed into the receiving position. This can only be done because of deceleration at the end of the movement. They absorb the impact.

If the body did not slow down, their would be incredible wear and tear to the joints. And to an extent, this is true for a lifter who is lifting more than they are capable of handling.


If deceleration is important, how is it trained?

For the beginner, squatting consistently with good eccentric (lowering) control is first and foremost.

Intermediate weightlifters can incorporate snatch balances into their programs.

Non-weightlifter can use various jumps such as broad jumps, vertical jumps, box jumps, and depth drops. Emphasis should be placed on perfect landings for the most benefit as well as not overdoing it on the advanced movements like the depth drop.

For weighted movements, the Triple Extension-Flexion article provides two exercises - jump squats and trap bar jumps. Low rep sets with light-to-moderate weight is enough to provide the necessary training stimulus.

As you can see, three seemingly unrelated areas have something in common. Remember that deceleration/force absorption is important and is an active and deliberate action that should be trained.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The FuBarbell + The Training Geek Seminar with Diane Fu and Lester Ho

A day of learning and lifting

After attending the Ma Strength seminar in December 2014, I didn't plan on attending another seminar for a while. However, when the "FuBarbell + The Training Geek Tour" popped up on my Facebook feed, I couldn't pass on the chance to attend - the session was going to be held awfully close to my neighborhood at Brazen Athletics in Fairfield, NJ.

The session was held on a Saturday from 9 AM to 5 PM. The hosts were:
Diane Fu
- Owner of FuBarbell
- Extensive work with Kelly Starrett
- Weightlifting coach for Team NorCal
- Mentored by Wu Chuanfu, coach of Singapore's national weightlifting team

Lester Ho
- Co-Owner Southeast Strength
- PhD candidate, three dimensional kinematics of the snatch
- Mentored by Robert Kabbas, silver medalist at 1984 Olympics
The day before the seminar, I received an email with the course manual. It was a pleasant and appreciated surprise that allowed me to review the material beforehand. The manual gave me an idea of the day's schedule and what to expect.

The seminar had 15 attendees in total with the group comprised mostly of coaches.

Diane began with an introduction of her template which is geared toward improving the athleticism of a specific type of individual - the modern athlete. The modern athlete is usually a person who has little-to-no exercise experience and has a sedentary lifestyle as a student or office worker with limited time to exercise. They tend to pick up weightlifting in their 20's or 30's and are very new to it.

In order of most important to least important, the template prioritizes:
  • Position - A combination of mobility, proprioception, and strength in certain positions/postures
  • Movement - The flow and  rhythm of the full movement and consistent rep quality
  • Speed - Position and movement are prerequisites to speed. Speed will be detrimental to reps if the other two qualities are not developed
  • Load - Weight is the least prioritized aspect. Skill is required first and an individual will lift whatever they are capable of with the correct technique
Lester then began to speak on the biomechanics and physics of weightlifting and covered the laws of motion and the center of mass. This lead to the next segment on levers and varying body types using the toolbox method.

Participants paired up and used their phones to take a picture of each other in the position shown above while lying on our back. Using that image, two boxes - using an app or a computer program like paint - are drawn on to the upper and lower body. This gives an understanding of the lever relationship between the torso, femurs, and lower legs. Depending on a person's leverages, they will have one of three body types, which are:
(1) A long torso with short femurs (ideal for weightlifting)
(2) Long Femurs compared to their torso (more use of legs)
(3) Equal length torso with their femurs (strong upper body)
These characteristics affect a person's positions. For instance, a weightlifter with long femurs will take a wider stance with their feet somewhat externally rotated and catch the bar with an inclined torso in the snatch. A longer torso individual will be able to set up comfortably in a narrow stance and receive the bar with a more upright torso.

They noted levers add another layer of information and give insight, but a coach shouldn't rely only on levers when examining a lifter.

Assessment and Mobility

With the fundamentals explained, we proceeded to the movement portion and started with assessment testing.

The first assessment was simply to crawl on our hands and feet. This is what I consider a true bear crawl - trunk parallel to the ground with the hips at or slightly below the height of the shoulders.

Notice the controlled limb movement
Opposite hand and foot move together

I'm familiar with the crawl and use it in a warm-up or part of the training session. However, I've never thought to use it as an assessment, but it makes sense. The crawl allows you to see pelvic control, core strength, and coordination. Some of the participants found it a bit challenging.

The second test was a narrow stance squat with the hands clasped together overhead called the Charlie's Angel Squat. It's a very simple movement that reveals mobility restrictions in the lower body and shoulder extension along with feeling the quadriceps (more on this below).

Those two movements illustrated how well one's body can move. Understanding how we did on those drills, we went into mobility of the upper body, hips, and ankles.

The upper body stretch we did was a hang from a pull-up bar and our partner pushed on us right below the scapulae. Over the course of three sets, we worked towards a more narrow grip. This stretched all of the anterior pressing muscles really well. Combined this with the fact a bar hang also stretches the lats, there was significant improvement in shoulder extension.

Jump to the 1:20 mark to see a 
similar take on the stretch we did

The next focus was on the hips and ankles by using band distractions. With a band anchored on the rack, you take the other end and put it around your hip or ankle. With the band on, work through various angles - lunge, split, squat, and then repeat on the other side. Almost everyone saw improvements in their positions. The drills were good, but if anyone had an injury they were advised to not do them.


Now that we were all warmed up, we began the actual lifts. They used a top-down approach to break down the pull. It progressed as,

Extension > Power/Hip > Knee > Start

After hitting each point, we reversed the movement and initiated the pull. Combining it together, we did a snatch pull, power snatch, and then finally a full snatch.

From the start position, we were told to go straight up as if we were trying to draw a straight line from a pencil sticking out of our ear. Visually, a PVC can be held adjacent to the lifter. Keeping the ear in line to the PVC will force the lifter to pull straight up. If the lifter still needs further feedback, Diane demonstrated by having her hand on the upper back and told Lester to press her hand upwards. This achieves the correct pulling action.

I really enjoyed their cues. They provided excellent cues to understand how it should feel. I particularly liked the emphasis on feeling the quadriceps contract in the start position and in extension. In the start position, "feel your heels float" gave the right idea of how far you should start over the bar - the weight is shifted forward just enough to have your heels stay lightly on the ground. If done correctly, the quadriceps muscles can be felt.

Extension was cued in a similar fashion. There was no forceful plantar flexion, but instead were told to extend upwards and feel the quadriceps. Done correctly, the heels again "float" as opposed to doing a calf raise.

We were now given 30 minutes of open lifting to snatch on our own. We were allowed to go as heavy as we chose under the condition we maintain good technique. As we lifted, Diane and Lester went around observing and coaching everyone.

I did some light muscle and power snatches and took this as an opportunity to take photos (which can be found at the end). At this point, we were about halfway through the day and we broke for a one hour lunch. I stuck around and took more photos of Diane and Lester lifting. This surprised me a bit because they taught for 3-4 hours, lifted during lunch, and then taught for another 3-4 hours. That is awfully tiring, but kudos to them for being able to do it!

Clean & Jerk

Once everyone got back, we briefly went over the clean and spent more time on the jerk. For the clean, we went through the same progression as the snatch. Everything discussed on the snatch applied to the clean. The only change was the grip width and the bar being racked on the shoulders.

They stressed to set the lats in the rack position by not having too much space between your armpits. If the elbows are too high where the humeri are parallel to the ground, the lats are unable to support the weight. Once the bar was correctly racked, we did a complex that consisted of a push press, push jerk, and split jerk. The goal was to first achieve proper depth on the dip and then complete extension. Most trainees will cut the two movements short which results in a shallow dip and splitting too early for the jerk. To ingrain proper dip depth, including dip holds into your training will cement the new change.

Just like the snatch, we were given 30 minutes free lifting time for the clean and jerk. In the previous seminar, I was instructed by Liao Hui for the rack position - have elevated shoulders and make a big chest. This actually strained my shoulders and caused them to cramp. Lester said set the lats instead. I found it much more comfortable.

Closing Discussion

After lifting, we had the opportunity to ask questions. Questions were asked throughout the day, but I don't recall any questions during this specific Q&A. Diane and Lester spoke about how they taper and deload - including how they are different from one another - plus how a trainee should set their annual training if they compete minimally or not at all.

The final discussion was on programming. They program in 3-4 week blocks. Diane recommended for those who only do WOD's to include strength training sessions that incorporates trunk work (core and lower back). They both agreed pulls are underrated and very beneficial. Pulls done correctly really employ the legs. If feeling the quadriceps is hard to understand, then they recommended narrow stance squats.


It appears Crossfit certifications teach sitting back in the start position of the snatch and clean with an emphasis on hip extension. I am not 100% sure - because I've never taken a Crossfit certification - but this is what I took away from the seminar.


The seminar was solid. The only adjustment I would consider is adding a segment on programming prior to lifting. It felt somewhat brief and lumped together with the Q&A and end. It can be expanded on with an overview of a sample training week along with how to set up the main movements plus accessory work to improve technique.

This next point is not exclusive to this seminar and something I've seen in every seminar I attend. While questions were asked throughout the day, when it comes to Q&A at the end of a seminar, participants hardly ask questions. For whatever reason, that's the way it is. I'd recommend any seminar presenter(s) to instead try and anticipate questions or ask themselves "Can I/we elaborate on this here?" because people will rarely put forth the good questions. I had to do this in college for research papers and I've found it helpful. It's not a foolproof method, but it might encourage more dialogue from the guests.

Material aside, sitting on a wooden box is surprisingly extremely uncomfortable. I would have gladly enjoyed being able to sit in a chair. Call it nitpicking, but it's hard to pay attention when your glutes hurt.

Suggestions for Trainees

If a trainee engages in only WOD's, devote time to training you typically wouldn't do, such as bodybuilding work. Try to feel the muscle for each rep, do isolation work for smaller muscles, go slow, do high reps, and don't worry about the load.

Need to get use to the new start position and staying over the bar? Apply the same concept from the jerk dip hold to the the start position, Hold it for time and get accustomed to how the start position should feel. Stay in the start position for 10, 20, or 30 seconds and then do the snatch or clean. You become familiar with the set up and can use a light load for the lifts.

Final Thoughts

Weightlifting is simple. You take a heavy barbell and you put it over your head. Learning how to do it efficiently is difficult, but teaching someone else how to do it is much harder. Describing how weightlifting should feel to an individual is not easy and can be tough to grasp.

Diane and Lester did a terrific job at conveying that feeling without making it overly complex. This is what I walked away with and it enhanced my coaching skill set. Both of their extensive backgrounds and experience combined into an enjoyable seminar.

If you're lucky, they will do the tour again in 2016.

You can view photos I took from the seminar here.

FuBarbell Sites
The Training Geek Sites

Further Reading,

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Barbell Alternatives to the Back Squat

Squats are a staple among weightlifters

The back squat is a fundamental exercise. However, not everyone can perform it. There are a number of reasons that can prevent a person from back squatting, such as:
  • It's awkward to do
  • No access to a squat rack 
  • They suffer pain in the upper body such as the low back (lumbar spine) or shoulders
As much as I like the exercise, it's not completely necessary. There are many productive variations of the squat. The back squat in particular is effective because it can be done heavy. The same can't be said for squats that don't use a barbell as they get no where near the weight of a back squat. The front squat can be interchanged with the back squat, but front squat progress can be limited by mobility issues. If mobility is adequate, but there's no squat rack, then cleaning it is out of the question. The weight used in a clean will be lower than the actual weight that can be used in a front squat.

Fortunately, there are variations that can be substituted into training. While single leg exercises and dumbbells or kettlebells can be used, they serve better as accessory work and to build volume. I don't believe they can replace the barbell and vice versa. In the appropriate context, each has their own benefits.

The primary exercises discussed here are suitable to build a strong set of legs. Best of all, a rack isn't needed, there are less compression forces on the spine, and they are fun variations to incorporate - especially when training feels stagnant.

Lastly, I'd suggest new weightlifters wait until trying these exercises - have at least one year's worth of training experience. They would see better progress by developing a strength base and proprioception through employing other squat and deadlift variations along with single leg exercises.

Jefferson Lift

The Jefferson is an odd looking lift. It's not quite a deadlift and it's not quite a squat. It's somewhat like a trap bar deadlift-squat combo, but it's still unique in its own way. And contrary to how it may appear, it's not an asymmetrical movement either - weight distribution is even throughout both legs.

I like it because I've found it's great for driving rotation in the thoracic spine (upper back) and it doesn't require as much mobility as the hack squat - which will be discussed last. With the weight directly underneath the body, reps feel balanced and there isn't a huge stress on lumbar spine. The Jefferson lift is a great option for those who don't have access to a trap bar. Also be warned, if you have short arms this exercise will become much more difficult and will require you to squat down lower and there will be trouble at lock out.
Zercher Squat

The Zercher squat is often criticized for the bar placement on the biceps' tendons. Although it isn't necessary, this is where having a specialty bar or wrapping a towel around the bar helps. I've found knowing how to settle the bar in your arms makes a difference.

Essentially, keep your arms extended when setting up then ensure the bar is fully placed in the elbow crooks so it doesn't move and rub your skin.  When the bar's racked in the arms, it's important the upper arms (humeri) are held close against the torso - think of pinning the elbows against the ribs - and the forearms are kept up. This shifts the weight to the trunk instead of having the arms bear the brunt of the weight.

If there's one exercise that teaches you to brace your core, the Zercher squat is it. The bar's location causes the entire trunk and back to brace during the set. And if you don't have access to atlas stones, this also doubles as a poor substitute for stone lifting.
Hack Squat

Mention the hack squat and more often than not, the hack squat machine is what most people think of. There is another exercise known as the barbell hack squat. Its low position requires a little more mobility than the previous two lifts discussed and has some semblance to a Olympic lift start position.

The hack squat is excellent for quadriceps development, especially for the vastus medialis. What I've found best about the hack squat is that there is less stress on the hips in the eccentric portion of the lift. Instead, the focus is extension in the knees and hips. If your hips are beat up from deadlifts and squats, the hack squat serves as a great movement to cycle into a training block and use as a semi-deload from the main lifts.

If you decide to try the hack squat, I advise you to thoroughly warm-up your knees. The hack squat spares the hips, but it can be rough on the knees. Just add a few minutes of cycling and mid-to-high rep bodyweight squats (10-20) to your warm-up and it should do the trick. Similar to the Jefferson lift, short arm lifters will encounter the same problems in the start position and lock out.
If I could have it my way, everyone would be able to do back or front squats. Unfortunately, that's not realistic. However during the year, it is practical to implement these other barbell movements and program them into training blocks. They offer a new stimulus to the body that will elicit progress and will still maintain relevance to the squat and deadlift. Not only that, but they will have carry over and translate well when you return to the main lifts.

Whether you are able to squat or not, be sure to incorporate these movements into your training and improve your leg strength.

Further Discussion,

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Ma Strength Seminar with Yu Jie, Liao Hui, and Lu Xiaojun

That's my best Yu Jie face

Not many people can claim they are the best in the world. Olympians Liao Hui and Lu Xiaojun made no such statement, but that's because they don't speak English. Ma Strength co-director Jianping Ma addressed the group that morning saying that these guys are the best.

This past Sunday, I attended the Ma Strength seminar at the South Brooklyn Weightlifting Club. For those unfamiliar with Ma Strength,

"Welcome to Ma Strength – your ultimate site on Chinese weightlifting. Our mission is to provide athletes and coaches with the tools they need to enhance weightlifting performance using the knowledge and methods of the Chinese weightlifting system.

What makes us unique is our expertise and experience in these methods. We aim to fill the growing demand for knowledge and application about the Chinese weightlifting system through this blog and website, along with our technique clinics, coaching seminars, products, and online projects."

The hosts and guests were:
Jianping Ma
- Ma Strength Co-Director
- Head Coach at Lindenwood University
- 1984 Olympian

Manuel Buitrago
- Ma Strength Co-Director
- Head Weightlifting Coach at Supreme Sports Performance & Training
- Trained under Ivan Abadjiev

Yu Jie
- Head coach
- Athletes include Liao Hui, Lu Xiaojun, Lu Haojie, Zhong Guoshun, Tian Tao

Liao Hui
- Men's 69 kg weightlifter
- Four gold medals
- Holds the world records in snatch, clean & jerk, and total

Lu Xiaojun
- Men's 77 kg weightlifter
- Six gold medals
- Holds the world records in the snatch and total
Before I proceed, let me give my own brief background in weightlifting. My university had USA weightlifting instructors available if anyone was interested in learning the lifts. I took advantage of it in my freshman year of 2008. It wasn't until 2011-2012 that I spent more time practicing the lifts, learning more, and meeting with the university's weightlifting club near the end of my final semester. In the summer of 2012, I developed sharp knee pain and discontinued practicing the lifts. Only until recently in 2014 have I started squatting again and making a slow transition to incorporating derivatives of the full movements.

It's not everyday world champions visit your area; the seminar presented a perfect opportunity to meet two of them. Not only that, but the most popular entries on this site are the Olympic weightlifting articles. I knew readers would like a feature on the seminar.

I chose the Sunday seminar for a number of reasons. First, since the seminar was being held from 10:00AM to 12:00PM, I would be able to avoid traffic in Manhattan. Next, there were would be less attendees than the Saturday session, which would potentially make for a more individualized experience. Lastly - and most importantly - since the Saturday session would be their first seminar, I knew any issues they may have encountered from the first seminar would be resolved for the next day.

Attendees came from local and far, but most were predominantly from the East Coast with the exception of one person from outside the US. Everyone knew the basics of Olympic weightlifting and had been training anywhere from a few months to a few years (aside from me).

Ma began with a general introduction explaining the Chinese system. The Chinese studied the systems of America, Russia, Bulgaria, and then finally developed their own.

Ma used five words to describe the snatch with the last two being his own he adds.

  • Close - Bar stays against and near the body while traveling upwards 
  • Fast - Lock out immediately after full extension
  • Low - Lock out low 
  • Timing - Rhythm (More on it below) 
I wrote timing as rhythm. It was illustrated with two fast claps in succession as opposed to one clap, a pause, then the next clap. This described the rhythm of the movement and feet. It was full extension and then boom! The bar is locked out overhead. The aim is to develop rhythm instead of extending aggressively and then riding or squatting the bar down.

After the explanations, we were told the seminar's format was changed and we will get the chance to lift and receive on the spot instructions and corrections. They explained experiencing the concepts first hand will help us better learn them.

This was a last minute surprise. I luckily didn't wear jeans like I was considering that morning. I was dressed to lift and brought my weightlifting shoes along if such an event were to occur.

To be honest, this was a pleasant change. I wasn't sure what the seminar would entail. I signed up to see what content would be presented and how I can incorporate what I learned into my own skill set. As mentioned previously, I haven't done any Olympic weightlifting outside of front squats and snatch high pulls. Later when Ma asked how long I've been training, I just replied "not that long."

But more on that in the next section.

Hands On Corrections


Ma discussed and demonstrated the snatch plus its variations: the split and power snatch. He explained the form of the snatch noting the chest and head are up, the wrists relaxed (no wrist flexion), stance is comfortable around shoulder-width apart, and the knees are out/wide. He said knees out as having each knee over each foot (proper joint alignment).

Ma said full extension is straight up. Yu Jie showed the position quite a few times - on the forefeet, elbows high, wrists and hands close outside the shoulders, and head slightly back. After extending, jumping backwards is wrong. You stay where you start and your feet only move outwards to the sides.

Kazakhstan's Zulfiya Chinshanlo displays 
excellent full extension straight upwards here

As Ma called on us, we went up one-by-one. In the snatch, we would begin in the start position, do a few muscles snatches followed by the full snatch. Either in the start position or the full snatch, Ma would instruct the lifter with Yu Jie adjusting them - raising the hips, head up, relaxing the arms, keeping the bar close, aggressive lock out, head through/forward (not down), and tight back.

Yu Jie adjusted almost everyone's overhead position by internally rotating the shoulders. It was the most intense retraction I've felt. The best way I can describe it as him grabbing the scapulae and folding them into the spine. This is "tight back." It's similar to the retracted scapulae in the bench press in that it's a stable position.

Notice the retracted scapulae and
elbows pointing backwards

My start position required positioning my head slightly up rather than looking straight ahead. I also needed to have the bar closer at the end of extension. The full extension position Yu Jie showed helped and I also understood the scapulae adjustment.

Ma told me that I need tight and flexed hips (so I stay over the bar) and my posture is caved forward: chest and shoulders pulled forward and inward knees. Given how much time I spend sitting (commute + work = over 11 hours a day), it made sense. As for the knees, I've avoided excessive knees out to mitigate my knee pain and have emphasized the adductors in training. His last observation was that only one foot moves out in the catch and I remember that bad habit from the past. After I finished, I was surprised he didn't mention my poor stamina because I was breathing pretty damn heavily.

After this, we took a 10 minute break before beginning the second half of the seminar.


Liao Hui began and said technique is greater in the snatch than the clean, therefore strength is very important for the clean & jerk.

The rack position has the elbows set up naturally with the chest tight/high. This position is strengthened with lots of jerk dips and front squats.

We didn't do many cleans. Instead, Ma had us start with clean deadlifts. Everyone did clean deadlifts well with minor adjustments here and there. Liao Hui helped while Ma instructed - relaxed arms, pulling the elbows upwards, and keeping the bar close.

From there, it was a power clean into three split jerks. The dip for the jerk should be stable and slow. The drive up should use the whole body to extend upwards getting up on the toes then splitting and continuing to drive the arms overhead. Ma said don't just drop under the bar.

The split jerk has the torso vertical, back leg semi-bent, and the front leg's shin vertical. Again, the head is through/forward. The trunk only moves up and down as the legs split apart.

Liao Hui, Yu Jie, and Ma switched off between correcting each person. They emphasized the controlled dip, head positioning, and the set-up of the legs in the split. For instance, Liao Hui took a piece of PVC and slid it between the lifter's head and shoulders for them to understand the forward head posture.

For split jerk corrections, the stride of the front foot was usually short and needed to be further out. The rear leg was too straight and needed more knee flexion and plantar flexion. Usually the heel was off the ground, but not high enough. The weight distribution is spread evenly among both feet, 50-50.

My clean deadlifts and rack needed "tight chest" which felt like exaggerating a big puffed up chest. Liao Hui had me maintain this as I pulled and then he stepped away as I approached a full stand. Because I was very focused on holding my chest like this that as I neared the top, the bar was already well past mid-thigh. For me, staying over the bar and naturally shifting to the power position has always been an issue.

My split jerk was mediocre and I needed the above corrections. Truthfully, I've never done jerks as part of my regular training. I'm willing to bet Yu Jie noticed this because his advice was to practice the split.

General Advice

A question about the back squat came up. Ma said squat straight up and down with the back tight. There's no backwards movement. Weight is distributed on the entire surface of the feet with just a little bit towards the back of the feet.

We were all in need of more flexibility.

Overall, I believe everyone needed to slow down and be smoother in their lifts. There's no reason to rush through the movements. Whether it was standing out of the snatch or dipping for the jerk, Ma emphasized controlled movement and to have solid positions.

Hasty execution leads to poor movement or lack of the full movement. I learned something similar back in eskrima. The head instructor was going through a session with me and kept drilling the basic strikes. He stressed following through after each strike to maximize effectiveness. The same applies to extension, lock out, and driving up after the dip. This is why close, fast, low, timing, and stable are very important. They are the basics to develop rhythm and tempo in a fluid snatch, clean, and jerk. By being precise and having accuracy in the movements, you promote the most powerful positions.


The seminar gave me a lot of information to process. For one, they focused on end positions with little attention on the in-betweens. There was no mention of first pull, second pull, or anything between the start position and extension unless inquired by an attendee. It was only the essentials and it proved to be productive.

Next, they predominantly used internal cues. Liao Hui and Ma had me stay over the bar in the clean without having to say it once. I understand external cues can be helpful, but lately I've found internal cues to be more efficient.

The more I reflect on the seminar, the more I realize it was similar to what I've previously read and watched from Tommy Kono. Both have their differences, but I couldn't help notice the resemblance in some parts. Maybe that's just good weightlifting.

During Q&A, someone asked about sweeping the bar. The second pull was was not directly discussed during the seminar. When translated to Yu Jie, all I saw him do was gesture to the pocket area. The first thought that came to mind was, "Kirksman." From what I recall, he's the first person I read referring to and calling it the pocket area.

Considerations/What If's

I have been wondering - was the minimal instruction effective because it was simple or was it simple because the lifters already had some proficiency? It's hard to say, but I would guess it was a mix of both. Enthusiastic participants plus good coaching are a productive combination.

Second, I am curious if the instruction style and corrections provided would change had our group been comprised of more advanced athletes. That's not to say the group encompassed a bunch of beginners, but what if they were, say, some competitors for the upcoming American Open? I don't think the instruction would have been drastically different because the basics are always paramount, but you never know.


Since we were the second seminar in the lineup, I understand the addition of the lifting portion was a last minute change. Even though we were a small group of 12, going up one-by-one to receive coaching can take time. I don't know how this is playing out in the other seminars or if changes are being made to the format. Aside from time, there was an overlap of corrections from person-to-person. During the clean & jerk, I went to scribbling notes as the person on the platform went through clean deadlifts. It wasn't overly repetitive, but I already saw others go through the same instruction.

If possible, I would have liked to see it broken down into two groups: Manuel + Liao or Lu with one group of attendants and Ma + Liao or Lu with the second group. Yu Jie could supervise and walk around advising both groups. After the break, the groups switch coaches and athletes for further instruction. Although Manuel was busy taking photographs throughout the event, his lifter was in attendance. She received positive feedback on her technique from Yu Jie and Ma. I can't speak for the others, but I would have enjoyed his comments in the seminar as well. I believe the other person with the Chinese team was an assistant coach. Assuming he would be willing, I wouldn't doubt his ability either.

The other thing that comes to mind is maybe including a printed outline to follow along. Taking notes is best, but as I review the notes I took and as I write this, my memory struggles recalling every single detail. An outline would be useful and I would have jotted down less (but probably not).

Finally, Lu Xiaojun wasn't heavily involved in our seminar. He was on the platform at the beginning of the snatch segment warming up with the bar but that was it. He wasn't present during the snatches and came back after the clean & jerk portion concluded, but that's only because someone had asked a question regarding squats. Ma had him demonstrate the back squat plus a squat jerk.

I don't know how it was planned. Maybe Lu was involved the previous day and it was Liao Hui's turn to engage with participants on Sunday? Or something else altogether? I'm not sure. This is especially true since the format changed and we were lifting. Originally, Liao Hui and he were going to demonstrate the movements and work up to near maximal weights. I would have enjoyed the seminar a bit more if Lu spoke or helped lifters.

Other Tidbits
  • Liao and Lu are on vacation and have been relaxing after competing at the World Championships and Asian Games respectively. They will start training once again when they return to China. 
  • Lu has a 4 month old daughter. 
  • Lu has been squat jerking for 10 years. He used to push jerk, but noticed he can go lower as the weight increased. 
  • Lu's squat is his strongest lift. He can deadlift 280 kg. 
  • Lu doesn't bench press. He does push-ups 
  • Yu Jie is tall 
  • I don't know why Liao Hui wasn't brought up. Sorry everyone.
Sorry Liao Hui - no one wanted to 
know what you lift

Final Thoughts

Should you attend the Ma Strength seminar? It depends. I really enjoyed it and would recommend it. I have been going through the material many times since it ended.
Definitely go if
  • You want coaching from Yu Jie and Ma
  • You want to meet Liao Hui and Lu Xiaojun
  • You want to learn something new
Don't go if
  • You're tight on cash
  • You want a significant amount of personal coaching
The seminar was $315 and lasted two and a half hours plus time afterwards to take photos and speak with everyone. The remaining seminars near Chicago this weekend are $365 The seminars have concluded. If you really can't afford it, then I'd suggest to try attend one of Ma Strength's 8 hour technique clinics whenever the 2015 schedule is available. You would get a better bang-for-your buck in the clinic with more hands on instruction.

Was the cost worth it to attend the seminar? You bet! I realize some of you reading this may think this isn't ground breaking information or saying, "Well, I already knew this and that" and so on and so forth. Knowing and experiencing are two different things. Usually when I write a longer piece - such as this - I take time and hit mental blocks as I write. I did not have that issue as I wrote this. Instead, the most arduous part has been simply getting it all down. Two and half pages of notes transcribed into a much more thorough write-up.

Jianping Ma and Manuel Buitrago are great guys who are very knowledgeable and host an enjoyable seminar. I liked it and I doubt the Chinese team will be back from China any time soon. With preparation for the 2016 Olympics Games in Rio, Brazil, I think it is unlikely they will have time to visit again so soon.

If you want to learn more about Ma Strength, visit their website [link] and Facebook page [link]. Registration and details for the remaining seminars can be found here.

Photos from the event will be on the Facebook page. Because photography was not allowed during the seminar, I took some after it ended and they are available for viewing here.

Yu Jie and Jianping Ma

Liao Hui and Lu Xiaojun

Manuel Buitrago

Chinese Style Weightlifting Coaches in the USA

If you're seeking out Chinese style weightlifting instruction in the USA, these are the coaches with the experience that I'm familiar with:
Jianping Ma
- He trains athletes at Lindenwood University in Missouri 
Manuel Buitrago
- He's located in Washington, D.C.
Stephen Powell
- While located in South Carolina, he also does long distance consultations and is familiar with the Chinese and Russian training principles 
Further Reading and Other Reviews

Prior to the seminar, I have followed and read many weightlifting articles and sites. In doing so, it gave more depth to the topics. Below are my recommendations to learn more as well as other Ma Strength reviews.
- Kirksman was the first person I came across who explores the Chinese system. I've found his teachings very helpful
Yatin Prasher [Link 1; Link 2]
- He attended the Ma Strength weightlifting camp in China and wrote about his trip 
Larry's Chinese Weightlifting Experience
- During Larry's visit to China he was able to get in contact with a weightlifting coach and explains what he learned for All Things Gym 
Barbell Meditations
- Dave is another Ma Strength weightlifting camper and gives a great overview of the trip 
All Things Gym
- An attendee shares his thoughts on the Brooklyn Sunday seminar 
Crossfit SAA
- A review from a lifter who attended the Chicago seminar and has also visited the training halls in China 
Wu Chuanfu
- Kirksman's former coach who trained in China 
Takano Athletics
- Bob Takano puts forth excellent discussion and analysis about every level of the sport that I highly recommend 
The Training Geek
- Lester simplifies weightlifting which is what I loved about the seminar 
Tommy Kono Books
- While I haven't finished the first book, I've found his teachings very valuable 
Weightlifting with Marilou Dozois-Prévost
- Not exactly Chinese weightlifting, but Chris's experience echoes many of the corrections that were discussed in the seminar
Related articles,
  • Typically I include specific articles from the site here, but in this case I will simply recommend the Olympic Weightlifting tag to browse all the entries
*I'll be editing this post periodically if corrections are needed

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Review of Popular Knee Sleeves

When it comes to weightlifting gear, knee sleeves are a popular item. It's likely you have seen athletes wear them in events and competitions.

Knee sleeves provide warmth in and around the knee joint which promotes local circulation. For an individual with minor injuries. the warmth can alleviate pain and make leg exercises tolerable. In contrast, knee wraps provide compression at the joint and positively affect performance while knee braces offer mechanical support.

So, are knee sleeves necessary? Not entirely - it's up to the lifter. For an individual with no issues, they can engage in exercise perfectly fine. Knee sleeves may offer comfort to an injured or older trainee. However, they aren't a 100% fix and some trainees might find the sleeves don't help as much as they'd like or if at all.

I opted to use knee sleeves after injuring one knee a few years back. These days I can perform squats fine without knee sleeves, but I stick with them for comfort.

That being said, knee sleeves range in a number of factors such as price, brand, and warmth. Depending on preferences, this can make choosing a pair more work than it should be. Therefore, I'll discuss popular knee sleeves I own or have had a chance to use.

The main points I'll be looking at are: material/fit, warmth, and price.

Having seen several Olympic weightlifters wear these, I purchased a pair in June. I would call these lightweight knee sleeves - adequate warmth, low price, and movement feels most natural with these. The fit is comfortable and as the knees become warm, the sleeves tighten around the leg. They can bunch up but that can be fixed easily.

Como sells single sleeves whereas hookgrip sells them as a pair with the sizing listed on the site. The second difference is the hookgrip logo is sewn on each sleeve - mine eventually came loose and I removed them. Lastly - while it's not a huge issue - be aware that as the bar slides up your thighs there will be a very small bump in movement from the logos.

These are a nice pick for someone who wants minimal support at a low cost.

FIT: Comfortable and tightens as knees warm up in training.

MATERIAL: Stretchy - hookgrip site lists it's a mix of nylon (55%), rubber (35%), and spandex (10%). Can be machine washed.

WARMTH: Adequate and absorbs sweat.

PRICE: For a pair, $12-14.

WHERE TO BUY: Hookgrip store here.

*Update: Here's a brief review I wrote of the newer sleeves from hookgrip:

Tommy Kono (TK)
This was the first pair of knee sleeves I bought. Reviews I read stated they either were better than the Rehbands, or were worse and tended to rip. I've had no issues with them. They're tight and take practice to put on [view this video here for help]. The rubber material on the inside gives a tighter feeling. For bilateral movements they perform okay, but they don't feel comfortable in single leg exercises.

If warmth is what you need, the TK's are it. When I use them my knees become very sweaty. For squats in particular, the perspiration would drip down my legs. This does cause them to shift and move around a bit. As a result, they needed to be adjusted here and there.

Overall, it's a good mid-priced knee sleeve, especially if keeping your knees warm is your main priority.

FIT: Tight and loosens slightly from sweat in training. Takes practice to wear quickly.

MATERIAL: Neoprene on the outside with rubber-like material on the inside. Has to be hand washed.

WARMTH: Very warm! Knees will become very sweaty.

PRICE: For a pair, $39.95 on Tommy Kono website and slightly less on Amazon.

WHERE TO BUY: Tommy Kono website here or Amazon here.

Rehband (Original)
Unlike the other two, I don't own Rehbands. My experience with them has been through Krank. The Krank coach for school athletes is a strongman competitor who uses them. He has used them for a long time with no problems. My more direct experience with Rehbands was when one of the Krank members bought a new pair and let me try them on. I instantly noticed it was comfortable and easy to slide on. It felt like a good mix between the Como/Hookgrip and TK knee sleeves.

Of course, the better quality comes at a higher price. Rehbands are one of the most expensive knee sleeves and are not sold in pairs. Therefore, the cost you see is for a single sleeve and most trainees are looking to purchase two.

If you want quality, long lasting, and see it as an investment, Rehband makes a great choice.

FIT: Comfortable.

MATERIAL: Neoprene inside and out. Can be machine washed.

WARMTH: Warm and absorbs sweat.

PRICE: For one sleeve, $39.95.

WHERE TO BUY: Amazon here.
Earlier I mentioned I started using knee sleeves because I injured a knee. As great and comforting as the knee sleeves were, they never fixed the issue. What did cause significant improvement for my knee was fixing my squat mechanics. Knee sleeves can be a great accessory item in your training, but know that you're moving correctly first.

Remember, knee sleeves can help you but they can't fix you.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Optimize Abs with Pelvic Tilt

This would be a healthier spine if 
it had the rest of the body

The pelvis is the area of the body between the lower abdomen and the thighs. You can imagine it being from the bottom of your pants' zipper to the top of the pants' waistline. Pelvic tilt refers to the movement of the top of the pelvis from a neutral/no tilt position to either:
  • Anterior/Forward pelvic tilt [APT]
  • Posterior/Backwards pelvic tilt [PPT], or
  •  Lateral pelvic tilt (upward shift of one side; this won't be discussed)
In weightlifting movements, you typically want to maintain a neutral pelvic tilt and spine posture. This is for the health of the spine as well as developing long term strength. However, some movements are done more efficiently - either performing it more easily or better engaging the desired muscles - by incorporating slight APT or PPT.

For example to combat lumbar flexion - rounding out of the low back - in an exercise, thinking about arching with minimal APT will keep your spine in a neutral posture. Note, I wrote minimal APT. The goal is to maintain the natural lordotic curve of the lumbar spine (low back).

Due to behavioral habits and strength discrepancies between muscles, pelvic tilt can also become exaggerated in a person's posture. Developing excessive APT is common from sitting for long durations over time. The degree of it will vary on other factors, but this won't be the topic. (You can read more in Mike Robertson's discussion of pelvic tilt at the end of this post).

Instead, I'm briefly going to point out a major issue I've come across with dead bugs and related supine (lying face up) abdominal exercises.

Most articles, videos, and diagrams may discuss and demonstrate the movement, but the problem becomes that the pelvic tilt is fairly hard to notice or understand when described. This goes right over a person's head and they incorrectly perform the movement.

The images below are shown as lying on the ground since that's how the supine exercises are performed. From this view, it's also easier to understand how to do the exercises.

No Tilt (Neutral)

This is "normal/ideal" posture - the lower and upper back both have their natural slight inward and outward curves respectively.

Here the top of the pelvis does not tip forwards or backwards. When lying against the ground, there's only a small amount of space between the low back and floor. There's just enough room for your fingers to slide under. Many exercises should be performed with a neutral spine.
Anterior/Forward Pelvic Tilt (APT)

Here the top of the pelvis is positioned forward causing the butt to stick out. The space between the lumbar spine and floor is substantial - almost enough for a fist to fit through.

I've found this is where a lot of people go wrong. Unknowingly, they perform an exercise in APT because they are not aware of it. In abdominal exercises - such as the dead bug - the focus is on the moving component. While a person concentrates on reps, time, and moving the limb, they will not consciously press their back against the ground.

Without that control, the result is repetitive motion without using the targeted musculature and a large arch causing discomfort in the low back.
Posterior/Backwards Pelvic Tilt (PPT)

As displayed, the pelvis is rotated backwards causing the low abdomen/ribs to "crunch." Done properly, the back is flush against the floor and there is no space whatsoever.

To emphasize how PPT feels, it's better performed on a bench or exercise mat. The padding will provide more feedback during execution. Think of pressing the low back into the ground and "scooping" your pelvis under. The key here is to maintain this position during a movement.

It should be focused on for better results. The PPT is the main aspect to a movement such as dead bugs, leg raises, or hollows. The arms or legs moving are secondary to it.
While I covered supine movements, PPT extends to planks, push-ups, and ab wheel rollouts as well. In these movements, it's common to see the hips sag down and the lower torso become lax. Rather than maximizing use of the exercise, gravity puts undue stress on the lumbar spine.

Pelvic tilt is straightforward to understand. The issue is that trainees aren't aware of it and how it plays a role in certain movements. By knowing how pelvic control is used in the right exercises, it increases their benefits.

Be prepared - you will definitely notice the difficulty change when tilting your pelvis posteriorly.

Further Reading,

Related articles,

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Kettlebell Rack Position

Prior to Krank, I used kettlebells about two or three times. When I started interning, once again I was introduced to them. To make it more interesting, I had to learn how to use them immediately if I wanted to teach any kettlebell exercises.

Through some trial-and-error, advice from the coaches, and research, I finally reached a level of being okay. No more forearm bruising and losing the kettlebells out of my hands (which did happen once). I realized they're not all that tricky - knowing a few subtleties helps make adjustments that lead to big improvements.

Enter the rack position.

It's a very common posture in the carries, cleans, squats, and push presses that we program. However, it can be glanced over when the focus is on the dynamic parts of those exercises. This became apparent when one person mentioned their forearm was hurting during single-sided rack carries.

A good kettlebell rack is actually simple to understand.

First and foremost, it begins with the grip. The intuitive thing to do is grab the middle of the handle like a dumbbell. Surprisingly enough, this won't lend itself to the most comfortable grip when cleaning it. Instead, take a hold of it with your thumb near the end of the handle as shown below.

Left: How it's commonly grabbed in the middle
Right: This offset grip will set us up to comfortably clean & rack it

A proper rack will:
  • Have your grip in the upper corner of the handle.
  • Have the hand inside the shoulder with the thumb close against the chest.
  • Be in the bottom of your hand with a straight wrist:

Take note of where the handle rests in the hand

Another thing to keep in mind is to stay tight and compact - keep the armpit closed with very little space between your arm and your body. Done correctly, there won't be enough room for a hand to slip through. This accomplishes two things:
  1. It allows your body to support the weight compared to only your arm. In the latter case, the arm  alone has to support the weight against gravity. This unnecessarily strains your arm.
  2. Since your entire body is giving support, you're able to handle more weight with ease.
You can check if the kettlebell is in a good position by opening your fingers up. Held correctly, there will be little change in effort. The kettlebell is supported by the corner space between your thumb and index finger and will hardly move.

Even with the hand open, there's little change in how the kettlebell sits

The adjustments described here can lead to a better rack position to reduce discomfort on the working arm as well as move around more weight in your exercises. Play around with the set-up to get a feel for it.

Next time you're using a kettlebell, remember Ice Cube's words of wisdom, "You better rack yourself before you wreck yourself, cause poor movement is bad for your health."
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