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.
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.
This 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
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.
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.