Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Recap of the 2015 IWF World Championships

During Thanksgiving week this past November, I traveled out to Houston for this year's World Weightlifting Championships. It hasn't been in the United States since the eighties and I couldn't pass up on the chance to go. While I could only be there for three days, it was plenty of time time to take in everything.

This post is more of an interlude before the next one which also relates to the championships. That one will be an interview I had the opportunity of conducting while I was in Houston, but more on that next time.

Here I'm writing about my experience on the trip and that essentially amounts to a bunch of random thoughts. It ends with a compilation of the Instagram posts I did when I came back from Houston. What I won't be doing here is providing an analysis of the competition. That kind of commentary can be found on blogs, podcasts, and eventually Sportivny Press.

There were sessions at all different times of the day, but every session had great lifters to watch. Not only that, but there was always a crowd. For instance, one night on my way to the last session, a coach and his wife went to watch even though athletes from their country weren't in the session. In the competition hall you saw fans, athletes, and coaches watching all the lifters on the platform.

I sat on the far side of the hall. On my first day, I ended up with Enver Turkeleri sitting in front of me, an Azerbaijan coach next to me, Chinese men's head coach Chen Wenbin across the aisle, and the entire Russian and Ukraine team sitting in the rows behind me. It made for interesting observations during the men's 77kg A session. For example, I noticed many of the coaches paid more attention to the scoreboard than the actual lifts happening on the platform. Or when Su Ying missed a jerk, Chen Wenbin immediately demonstrated to the athlete with him the correct movement using only his hands. It was one quick motion and few words.

That moment didn't click in my mind until later that night. It was when Papayats had introduced me to weightlifting coach and IWF education and development commission member Aveenash Pandoo. He gave a lecture earlier that day and said that demonstrating corrections is visually processed faster by the cerebellum rather than explaining it to a person.

Let me say in all the time I've been reading, practicing, and been involved with lifting, that has been the first time I had ever heard that. Saying my mind was blown would be an understatement.

All in all, the atmosphere and venue were great. It also helps immensely if you speak a second language to converse with athletes and coaches. Seeing as how most didn't speak English, it limits the amount of people you can connect with. However if you were able to chat someone up, they were often very friendly.

Random Thoughts and Observations
  • While the men's sessions were interesting, I thought the women were more enjoyable to watch. The men had more missed attempts 
  • Every time a Russian lifter came out for their attempt, the entire Russian team began to clap. Unfortunately, they were always out of sync
  • The Iranian fans win gold for enthusiasm
  • Papayats and I were on the elevator with a Korean coach and his athlete and this very same situation happened:

    When Papayats greeted him, I pretty much stood there clueless
  • I missed the Indian weightlifters compete! I arrived after they had all competed, but I did get to chat with their 77kg weightlifter Sathish Sivalingam and team physiotherapist
  • I also ran into the Two Doctors and Gregor on an elevator ride and managed to get a good laugh out of them. Can't say the same thing for the elevator ride with Zygmunt, but that's because everyone on the elevator stood there quietly when he walked in
The most valuable lesson I came away with from this trip was that there are so many people who know so much more than me. They were some of the best people I had conversations with. Sadly, most people will probably never hear of them because they aren't some Instagram famous person.

Instagram Interviews

If you don't follow me on Instagram, I did quick on-the-spot interviews of athletes and coaches in Houston. It was anyone who would agree to four simple questions: which do they like more snatch or clean & jerk, favorite thing about weightlifting, least favorite thing about weightlifting, and advice they would give themselves.

It provided a bit more substance than just taking pictures, but I didn't plan any of these individuals. The people chosen were based on if I ran into them and they weren't busy. Some people I didn't want to rudely interrupt while others were usually heading somewhere and I didn't want to delay them.

Click on the the person's name to be taken to their full interview. Enjoy!

Dave Luk

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George Kobaladze

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Hani Kanama

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Ruslan Zhabotinsky

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Jared Fleming

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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,
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