It’s weightlifting. You just lift heavy, right? Yes and no. If you spend a little time trying the Olympic lifts, you realize that it is a little more complicated. Olympic weightlifting introduces you to a unique dilemma: Strength or Technique? What do you address first?
When I first began weightlifting, my now husband, Jason, explained to me that the best weightlifters are a combination of a professor and a meathead. The professor is the type that only wants to work technique. Every day in the gym, they make sure every movement pattern is warmed properly and moves efficiently. And the meathead? You know the type: they’re the athlete who walks in the gym with the same routine and pounds their bodies into the ground with no periodization and no plan except to keep trying to beat whatever they did the previous session.
That meathead was me. I walked in the gym everyday expecting, and forcing myself to lift heavier and heavier no matter what my body (and my coach) was actually telling me to do.
And you know what?
It worked. Well, for a little while anyways. It’s not like he didn’t try to warn me; he totally did. Over and over and over. But honestly, what wife actually listens to their husband? (Hah!)
The problem though?
There comes a time when improper technique and lack of efficiency stalls progress for heavier lifts. Recently, with the help of Cara Heads Slaughter, I am heading back to the drawing board. For those of you who live under a rock, Cara is an Olympian (2000 Sydney Games), silver medalist at the 1999 Pan American Championships, 5x Senior World Team Member (1998, 1999, 2002, 2003 & 2005), a former USA American Record Holder in the 75kg weight class, and a Junior World Championship Medalist (1997, bronze). She’s literally done it all.
Now she’s taken on the challenge of reprogramming my mind and body to move weight through proper positioning rather than my grip and rip philosophy. (Go ahead and laugh, but in all fairness, I warned her I was a project.) If you don’t move properly and efficiently, how can you use all of your strength?
However, I am just one scenario. Over the past few years, I have helped in multiple CrossFit® gyms and been introduced to numerous athletes making the switch to competitive Olympic lifting. In many cases, athletes ask me why they can’t seem to improve their Olympic lifts anymore. My first question to them is almost always, “How do your Olympic lifts compare to your strength movements?” In a lot of these cases, the athletes spend so much time focused on the positions and online drills they find on Instagram that they forget to go in the gym and build some real, usable strength. If you don’t have a base to pull from, how can you improve those lifts?
So my question then becomes, what do you address first?
The simplest logical answer (in my opinion) is whichever one is your weakest link.
This may be easier said than done, because no one really enjoys working on their weaknesses, but there is also no magic solution or one size fits all program for athletes. In my case, it wasn’t necessarily a bunch of things I didn’t already know. Some of them were imbalances that I never wanted to address before, a few things Cara explained to me in a completely different way than I’d heard before, and they seem to really be working.
Mostly, it was having the right person tell me that this is what I needed to do. I believe that this is where the importance of having a coach or training partner you really trust comes into play.
It’s hard to take a step back and tell yourself that you need to work on things that you may not like to do. More likely than not, that’s where your improvements will be found. If you aren’t sure about your weaknesses, find a coach to help you. The sport has grown tremendously the last few years and the resources are right at your fingertips. Besides, almost every coach I know in this sport is willing and eager to lend a hand to those that really want to learn.
In my case, strength has always been easy to come by. My best back squat is 211 kilograms at a bodyweight of 75.5kg. I joke sometimes that I can do one rep of back squats and my max goes up. The problem is that there is more to Olympic Weightlifting than what you can squat. I am limited by flaws in my technique and also by the strength in my posterior chain. These are things I’ve known for years, but my infamous line to Jason was always “yes, I know, but I don’t have time to work on that now.” Well now, I don’t have time not to.
In a short 8 weeks, Cara added a major emphasis on strengthening my posterior chain with deadlifts, RDLs, etc. She also didn’t allow for incorrect repetitions. If something wasn’t right, we did it again, or we lowered the weight until it could be done correctly. For me, it was really hard to make that change mentally. My idea of training hard was to force more weight all the time regardless of how it looked. The good news is that I saw improvements in that eight weeks, and I felt way more confident in my approach during competition knowing that there was a really good chance I could execute my lifts correctly.
Was is perfect?
Not even close. It probably never will be. I’m okay with that because that means there’s always room for improvement. I know Cara sees things the same way. During our celebration dinner Cara was already talking with the other coaches about the athletes programs and adjustments she wanted to make going into the next phase of training for all of her athletes. Everyone has a different set of strengths and weaknesses that they need to address. Set goals with the guidance of your coach, let them develop a plan, and then put your trust into it. Addressing weaknesses is not fun, but seeing improvements makes the process it worth it.
If you have tremendous amounts of strength that you aren’t using because technique is keeping you from attaining proper positions, then focus your Olympic lifts more on technique and use squats and pulls to keep strength levels up. And vice versa, if you have good positions and timing, but you aren’t strong enough to stand up with the weights you are catching, then focus more on getting stronger. The trick is to be honest with yourself or find a coach that will do that for you, then simply put in the work to conquer your weaknesses.
Editors note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.
Featured image: @everyday_lifters on Instagram