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

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