In the last two years I think I’ve learned more about strength training than anyone in the world.
I’ve been lucky enough to learn from some of the best minds in strength sports. I’ve lived and traveled with, been coached by, coached next to and learned from 12 people who have completely reshaped my understanding of what the sport of weightlifting is, how to coach and how to train. I now have this treasure chest of information on weightlifting – and I want to share and have discussions around it.
Here’s where it all started:
2-3 years ago, I believed that I knew weightlifting. I was coaching the best weightlifting team in New England (Boston Weightlifting) alongside Matt Delaney and Ben Fuller. I held a New England record in the Snatch, and I was a medalist at the US Weightlifting Nationals 3 years in a row. I was confident in my weightlifting knowledge, and I thought my bro science was way stronger than the bro science of those around me.
In 2012, Vasiliy Polovnikov moved to Norwood and started training with me at my home gym, the Norwood Training Center. Vasiliy is a Russian champion in weightlifting and an International Master of Sport who has held the Russian clean and jerk record for years (226kg at 94kg bodyweight). We quickly became friends and he started actively coaching me. When we started, he told me that my technique wasn’t bad, it was that I didn’t have technique at all. I didn’t take this as an insult because I didn’t understand what that meant.
Vasiliy started writing daily plans for me, and we began working on my technique. He got me on a relatively typical Russian program (I’ll go over that at some point in the future). Day in and day out, he’d place a chair 2 feet away from my platform to watch my every lift. He’d tell me to do the same things over and over (pull longer, feet wider on the catch, tighter back, etc.). He’d sit there, slouched forward, forehead resting on his hand, saying “No. Again,” or “No. Pull longer,” shaking his head with a look of utter disappointment. This went on for weeks, months.
Small parts of every lift were getting better, but overall it just wasn’t what he wanted to see in a lift. We watched videos of my lifts and discussed what was right and what was wrong. He’d show me exactly what I was supposed to be doing. To me, it looked like there were a few things different, but they were small and mostly just habits that I was able to fix quickly. For example, I kept looking down while lifting, my feet wouldn’t move out when I would go under a snatch or clean, or my arms were externally rotated on the pull. But after fixing those things, the lifts were still not up to par with what he was looking for.
Frustrated, I asked him to explain to me what he wants in a snatch, in every centimeter of it. What exactly was supposed to happen – when, how, and why? Being a true professional in the sport, Vasya dissected every freaking millimeter of the snatch, until finally, that day, we understood the problem. I had a different understanding of what the snatch (and later the clean, jerk and squats), is supposed to be. In his world, a snatch was one thing, in my world the snatch looked similar to his, but was fundamentally different. I was applying the directions he gave me in the context of what I thought a snatch was, which was why it wasn’t making sense and my lifts weren’t becoming like what he wanted.
What I learned (for just the pull of the snatch):
Every muscle that could be used to get the bar up to the right height should be used. Each muscle has a right time to work (start with biggest muscles and work your way to the smallest), with the right amount of force (proportional to the weight being lifted). The end of the pull is when the bar is at the right height, and the lifter is in the perfect position from which he can use the bar to pull the system of himself and the bar into the catch position.
I didn’t understand how much to use the traps, shoulders, legs, how hard to hit with the hips, when to start opening up the back, or how high the bar should be pulled. I thought that the best lifters in the world were doing basically what I was doing. They were just stronger and used banned substances. I thought that if I kept doing what I was doing, I would get better. But that wasn’t the case as my lifts had plateaued for the past few years. Top lifers do something different. Their selection of exercises, selection of reps, sets, and volume over the days/weeks/months is specifically chosen to continually gain THE RIGHT type of strength to lift more weight than before.
All of this seems obvious, doesn’t it? But for me, once I understood this thoroughly, which muscles work when, and why, I understood my lifts in a completely different, more logical way – and what must be done to lift more. This led to a better grasp of all aspects of lifting, training and coaching. However, this didn’t make my lifting any better, since my body still didn’t know what to do (something I’ll write about in the future).
My initial training with Vasya taught me just how important it is for a coach to understand the athlete’s level of knowledge and thinking. The same words could have very different meanings depending on context. We may be speaking, in a way, different languages. Does the athlete know what’s supposed to happen at every point of the lift? Does the coach? Do they have the same understanding?
Blog 2 complete.
Blog 3 coming soon.