Weightlifting is a skill and it should be trained as a skill

Medina, Credits @ Ironmind
Medina, Credits @ Ironmind

The recent ”spurt” of popularity of Weightlifting, by different actors such as Crossfit, may also have  given the impression that weightlifting is a ”work out” which in turns may influence the way the lifts are being programmed in Gyms. We are seeing the lifts performed with major technical flaws on T.V (Here is an example by a very famous non weightlifter Athlete) and programmed in ways that do not lead to proper skill acquisition/refinement, which makes the general public believe that 1) weightlifting is just like any other resistance training movement 2) technique – or technique development- does not matter. It isn’t and here is why.

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It seems that the skill part of lifting – which is the acquisition and refinement of technique- is underrated for many reasons like lack of patience and ego. If by nature weightlifting is a skill, and if by default the acquisition of a skill require a very specific approach, then the training of weightlifting has to be done a way that accounts for this reality and is conclusive to improved motor skill.

Weightlifting is a skill 

By definition, a skill is a previously learn ability to do a specific task in a way that will produce pre-determined results. In other words, when you train in weightlifting, your training as to improve your ability to do the lifts in a way that will produce successful lifts. Increased skill means increased weights (as long as other factors are in line too : physical and psychological preparation). If you don’t make your lifts, then either your ability to execute the skill is not there on that day – or you have limited or no skill at all. Consequently, we consider weightlifting to be a closed skill because it is performed in a predictable environment where the athlete is able to plan what to do and how to do as well as the demands and requirements of weightlifting are known in advance of the task it self.

pb-120723-weightliftingChina-02.photoblog900This couldn’t be more important. First, as a weightlifter, you have three attempts for each lifts in competition. Training in a way that does not improve your skill has another drawback then the limited weight lifted. It also produces lifters that are not constant in their results. Second, the risk of injuries can go up if you are lifting weights that you shouldn’t be lifting given your current skill level (although your strength level may allow it). Third, training in a way that improve your skill improves the numbers of made lifts which improves the psychological state of the athlete. That is, the athlete becomes more confident and learns to let go (relax). As Tommy Kono said : ”Weightlifting is 50% mental, 30% technique and 20% power”. The psychological state of the athlete should, therefore, not be overlooked.

High skill means least amount of resistance is used which is extremely useful in weightlifting. Having the bar just a little bit forward, for instance, increases the difficulty of the effort. Higgins (1991) wrote in The american Journal of Physical Therapy : All movements represent a blend of internal and external forces. Skillful movements approach an optimal blend; that is, a blend that is best suited to the task at hand and to the individual and his or her surround at that point in time. The progressive incorporation of external forces into the organization of movement occurs as a function of development and learning. Bernstein identified this phenomenon and aptly called it “seizing the moment of least resistance.”

Skill acquisition : a brief review for athletes and coaches

Halil Mutlu was known for his extreme ability to focus on his lifts and really plan its execution. Credit @ Michaels
Halil Mutlu was known for his extreme ability to focus on his lifts and really plan its execution. Credit @ Michaels

In 1967, Fitts and Posner identified three stage of skill learning. The cognitive stage refers to the understanding of the demand of a new skill. In other words, it focuses on learning what needs to be done to perform the skill correctly. Improvement are mainly due to thinking and planning as well as the ability of the athlete to uses existing knowledge/skills as a basis for the new skill. A good example of this is a lifter that I train. She happens to be a very good salsa dancer. Upon starting weightlifting, One thing we had to work on was to not initiate the first pull with the hip. She was doing this because of her previously learned skills in Salsa were it involves so much hip movement. A person also goes back to what they know. It couldn’t be more apparent that it is very important to be aware of that when you train or coach.

The second stage is the associative stage. The athlete already has an idea of what the skill is and how to perform it. The focus is on perfecting the execution of the skill in order to improve the efficiency and the accuracy of performance. This is where skill-specific exercises have to be used as well as proper feedback. This is also why we are going from least complicated to most complicated. It is said that athletes learn through timing and rythmn in this stage. For us weightlifters, it means the movement is whole and you are starting to feel like you know the timing of execution (when to initiate maximal power out put, for instance).

Finally, the third stage is the autonomous stage. The skill is mostly automatic as the athlete does not need to really pay attention to the execution. The movement is precise, well timed, the focus is high, and overall, the sentiment of competency is high. The road to this stage is through a massive amount of practice. Learning is still happening, but relatively slower.

Skill acquisition theory is exactly why weightlifting should be trained in a gradual and progressive way, so that it allows the person to improve their motor skills.

Ways to improve skill learning / improve skill acquisition 

Although very important, I won’t spend much time on this (that’s my bread and butter, after all). However, I would like to make a point about how skill acquisition is done in other sports than weightlifting and draw a conclusion from that. In every sports, the refinement of technique or skill is done through deliberate practice. For instance, in hockey, you will spend a lot of time, pretty much every practice, just shooting in a net trying to improve your ability to do so. In baseball, you will throw the ball just as often and you will spend a lot of time practicing your batting skills. In golf, most pro golfers average 3000 balls hit every week, on top of their games.

Why would weightlifting be any different?

To improve your skill, you have to practice it. Given that we have to practice our skill with heavy weights and it is tiring, most of the practice is done through the use of lighter weights sets. This is why you see Olympic Gold medalists who still warming up with an empty bar. This is why you should be doing a large number of sets of moderate weight when learning this sport.


Mutlu vs Suleymanoglu, Epic game of Chess.
Mutlu vs Suleymanoglu, Epic game of Chess.

If there is one thing that I want you take from this article, it is that in order to be good at weightlifting, your approach has to allow you to learn how to improve your skill. You cannot skip a step in weightlifting, it just isn’t conductive to better long term results. This article outlines why, as a coach, I don’t tolerate miss lifts (my athletes either drop the weight or we move on) unless we are really testing a max lift, in which case they will get a maximum of 3 attempts (to mimic competition setting)

The article also gives insight into why I think the Crossfit AMRAP and the like/Physical preparation (Strength and conditioning) approach to weightlifting is not conductive to high results. These approaches are based on work capacity rather than skill development. The only way to the top is through an approach that allows you to work hard at developing and refining your skill.


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  • The day is soon coming when a top-level competitive CF athlete will make the transition to reach a national stage in the sport of weightlifting….it is only a matter of time. It seems that there are certain sports purists where CrossFit has pulled from who seem to think that the only way to a metal stand is by strict adherence to specialized training. Meanwhile, the CrossFit phenomenon is throwing out a wide net and bringing in athletes from far and wide that are breaking down the perceived barriers that the specialists have erected. And by the way…your welcome for all of the new popularity that CF has added to these various sports. If we step back and look at this objectively, everybody wins…and everybody is getting better.

    • Hi,

      It’s great that it has given weightlifting some visibily. I do not argue against that. It’s great.

      As far as a crossfitter hitting the national stage sure. But, going to an international stage is another battle.
      While people are amazed and look at Rich Froning who has snatched 136kg at 88kg (so as a 94), you have to acknowledge that you don’t medal as a 62kg on the international stage with such bars.
      Mutlu as a 56 did a world record of 138kg snatch. To go from that national stage to that international stage takes specialization.

      But then again, it is comparing apples and oranges. No point in that.

  • In a way, crossfit isn’t as diverse as we think it is. There is a snatch or clean at least in 2 WODS a week, plus they practice it a lot. This leads to specialization for those lifts and hence better performance. Granted, crossfitters are doing a lot more than those two lifts which makes the percentage of time (specialization) doing those lifts lower. I’d say crossfitters probably do 75% as much as Weightlifters do.

  • crossfitters do about 75% of the reps weightlifters do? you obviously have no idea how much time a real weightlifter spends doing weightlifting movements. let’s start with about two to three hours a day at least. and this is never ever lifting when really lactate treshold is reached (what cf does all the time, see amrap or anything “for time”). to get to the top in wl you have to start young (age 8 to 12 or so, movement learning age) and then train around 10 years 8-10 times a week, weightlifting only, to reach your potential. elite sports is something different then some “boxes” with “wods”. weightlifting is a sport not a fitness programm like cf.

  • Great article as always!
    I coach weightlifting in a primarily crossfit gym. My plan is to have the athlete lift as close to perfection, working at their own level for weights and skill progressions… CF’s stance seems to be ‘do whatever it takes to get the standardized workout done today, right now’.
    Those to take their time, practice their lifts with focus, and go back to WODs when they are more proficient (days, weeks, months) always do better. My biggest problem with CF is it lacks long term ideas of development/progression/patience in exchange for just ‘getting it done’.

  • I agree that weightlifting for competition is a specific skill that requires mental and physical training. But you can use also use the movements in a slightly “less trained” manner for strengthening and overall conditioning. I find it interesting that Usain Bolt is featured doing what are essentially reverse curls probably trying to do hang power cleans. Although nowhere close to hang power cleans, I see nothing wrong with doing this exercise for upper body strength and overall conditioning. That bring said, if any of us crossfitters or weight lifters were to jog a 400 or 800 as a warm up and post the video, I’m sure Usain and his trainers would tear into our form, tempo, technique, etc. Just as we are not training to run a sub 40 second 400m, he’s not training to do 400lb clean. As long as there is no risk of imminent injury, to each his own.

    • Exactly!!! Well said. Everyone needs to stop comparing weightlifting the sport to the snatch and clean &jerk as exercises.

  • Fisker Performance

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