In defense of Sport Science : what it has given us and how it can help us solve weightlifting problems

Mathias Steiner
Mathias Steiner

There seem to have been a disconnection between what sport science really is and how it is believed to be. I noticed that there seems to be a common belief that sport science is not useful to coaches or athletes. Because my mission with First Pull is to produce educational material and discuss ideas, this disconnection, between the reality and the popular belief of sport science, is a problem I want to address. The general idea being that without sport science, there is no such thing as effective training methods because the knowledge of the mechanisms implicated in weightlifting (skill acquisition, movement specificity, anatomy, recovery, etc.) would be unknown. Here is my rebuttal to the dis tractors of sport science.


  • 1. Knowledge of anatomy is important to prevent injuries, muscular imbalances, and to understand overall muscle function.

Although the number of injuries in weightlifting is less frequent (or not as frequent as some agents might have you believe), many lifters battles with muscle imbalances, mobility and muscle tightness. This is mostly true at the beginning and if it is not being taken care of, injuries can happen (or lack of progress). How can you know what to do to correct the imbalances, the mobility issues, and muscle tightness if you don’t know which muscle does what, its attachment, and how it acts in the muscle chains it is in.

Jie Zhang
Jie Zhang

Without that kind of knowledge, it is apparent that no matter how much experience you have at teaching technique, your lifters can’t be as healthy as they need to be to reach their goals.  Can you gain that knowledge from personnal experience? Sure, but the scientific method is an objective method where variables are controlled during rigorous experiments and more importantly, the data obtained from such experiments is measurable. It can be statistically tested in order to distinguish between randomness and truth. Also, every injured lifter will be seeing professionals like physiotherapists or osteopaths. The scientific data from many fields led to the creation of these methods of treatment.

As an example, one person I coach has trouble with squats as well as standing up from cleans. Analysis of his squats showed that the point where he fails the lift is higher than parallel by a good margin (parallel being defined as a straight line between knee and hip). The sticking point is not where the lever is maximal for the quads but where the lever is maximal for the glutes which by simple deduction means that the problem is most likely his glutes (and perhaps his core). A person who does not understand biomechanics and anatomy could have you do more squats because you have ”weak” legs. A person who understand the contribution that the sciences of biomechanics and anatomy have offered would have you do relatively lighter squats and more glute work for a while. This is what we did, and almost magically, the trainee improved his squat by 5kg in two weeks. 

  • 2. Movement specificity is key in weightlifting & without sport science, specificity is impossible to define
Andrei Aramnau
Andrei Aramnau

Our concept here is that specificity is needed for the improvement of the skill of weightlifting. If this concept is true, and I believe it is, then we need to be able to define what is specific and what isn’t specific. To be able to define something as specific, you need to understand what it is and how it works. This understanding require solid knowledge that can only come from objective inquiries. Let’s start with an example.

Through observation, you would see elbow extension and shoulder flexing to 180° , in a press just as in a Jerk.  You could then term the press as the ultimate assistance exercise for the jerk because the arms are doing ”the same thing”. However, an EMG would disagree with this statement and the principle of mechanics would not be supportive of this statement. Charniga wrote : ”Therefore, the biomechanics of the muscular force involved in strict pressing movements is quite different from the correct biomechanics with which the pressing muscles are deployed in the jerk. In the former, the pressing muscles move the barbell against a fixed trunk or support; whereas, in the latter, the pressing muscles move the trunk away from the barbell, i.e., follow the path of least resistance.” In other words, the press is not specific to the jerk in term of muscle action, body movement, speed of muscle contraction, and even the leverage of the pressing muscles are not the same. It is still a good exercise, but using it to improve the jerk rather than something else (ie overall stability) is faulty.

Khadzhimurat Akkaev
Khadzhimurat Akkaev

It seems apparent that understanding how the central nervous system work and how it generates movement is crucial in coaching as well as in programming. For comparison sake, the engineer who builds cars has to know how the engine – as well as every pieces – work in order to be sure that it is safe and last long.  Without this type of knowledge, which came from thousand of studies, it is impossible to define an exercise as specific and this translate in poor exercise selection and lack of results.

If a coach wants his athlete to achieve high results, he has to select the most specific exercises (we have limited energy and time) to address the current problems of his lifters’ technique. For definition sake, an exercise is specific if it creates the neuromuscular adaptations we are looking for and posses the ability to reinforce the ”motor program” of the lifts. 

  • 3. Biomechanical studies have given us considerable insight into proper weightlifting technique
Vassili Alexeiev
Vassili Alexeiev

Biomechanical studies of the technical lifts – the snatch and the Clean and Jerk- show the influence of different angles between joints and how changing them can influence the lifts. Now everybody has different leverages which makes the technique of every lifter different to some degree (the angles between joints change). However, to define what good leverages are and to change the lifting set up of a lifter to create better technical efficiency, you need to understand these mechanical principles and they are universal.

Biomechanicians also study variables like velocity, force and power output. These variables are an integral part of weightlifting and without advancement in the field of physics and biomechanics, we would have no clue about how they change the lifts. A good example of this is the force-velocity curve which I have discussed in my article about the relative speed of the first pull in weightlifting.  

The biomechanics studies allow for the comparison of weightlifting technique in time and its result null the idea that weightlifting, as a sport, has not changed since the press has been removed from competition. For instance, recently these studies have offered insight into why women are improving at a fast rate.  This type of result is of extreme importance and raise awareness of key points of weightlifting technique.

For discussion sake, scientists of the biomechanics field have even studied how weightlifting shoes influences leverage, the difference between a successful and unsuccessful snatch as well as the influence of weightlifting belts on different variable (i.e core stability). These studies make legit various sport practices that have appeared through the years. Moreover, this body of knowledge is important because it gives insight into technique efficiency.

  • 4. Weightlifting is a skill which means that the approach to skill acquisition influence the end result

Olympics+Day+1+Weightlifting+G7r09l9UkkplIn the last month, I wrote about the acquisition of the weightlifting skills as well as the transfer of learning which gives an neuro-physiological explanation of why some people learn the lifts faster and better than others. If we consider that weightlifting is a skill, and there is no doubt about it in my mind, then the approaches to skill acquisition can be studied and tested. Since a skill can be defined in a neuro-physiological and biomechanical way, we can try and understand what is the best way to learn it as well as how to dissect it in a way that facilitate learning.

Accordingly, I think that there is a better way to learn a skill. No matter what tradition can tell you about the ways that have been used, the results of skill acquisition studies show empirical data about what seems to be the best way to learn a given skill. The beauty of it is that many models have been proposed (and they all share similarities) through the years and we are still refining our models. How the brain allow us to learn and do complicated movements is, to me, a very interesting field of research. Moreover, science offers great insight into how we recruit motor units and how they are coordinated in order to produce complicated movements (This is something that I will explore in a future post).  The result of this mechanism is inter muscle coordination, proprioception, limb control, and more. To overlook the advancement in this field is to close your eyes to the possible refinement of your own approach. Since no approach is perfect, and because more refinement can always be done, every coaches can benefit from becoming familiar with such studies.

  • 5. Science inquiries offer a progressive approach towards the truth where new knowledge is integrated 
Andrey Demanov
Andrey Demanov

Traditions offer a very fixed way of doing things that does not allow for change and progress. Science on the other end is always changing and scientists are always debating ideas. We have seen some models fall, some models rise and we have also seen some models being changed in order to integrate new data and knowledge. This form of debate and progress is very healthy and only brings out the best.

From the wikipedia page on the Scientific Method : ”The chief characteristic which distinguishes the scientific method from other methods of acquiring knowledge is that scientists seek to let reality speak for itself, supporting a theory when a theory’s predictions are confirmed and challenging a theory when its predictions prove false […] Scientific researchers propose hypotheses as explanations of phenomena, and design experimental studies to test these hypotheses via predictions which can be derived from them. These steps must be repeatable, to guard against mistake or confusion in any particular experimenter. ”

 Being aware of the latest results from sport science allows you to understand the mechanisms behind what you may be seeing/experiencing at the gym and offer a good basis to find a solution for the problems you are experiencing. The knowledge we have now may be different tomorrow, but at least we have it and we are willing to test it again and again.

  • 6. Final word

06_08_2012_weightlifting_149916487_hdI could go on and on, but I think these 5 points drive the message home that sport science has offered insights into movement production, refinement of weightlifting technique, movement specificity, as well as provided interesting notions about mechanical principles for weightlifting. As coaches and as  athletes, everything we do has to be done for a reason. Sport science has offered data on which we can base our hypothesis and find solutions.

Now, to be a good coach does not mean that you should be a scientist either. I am not speaking against personal experience and I am not stating that the only thing you need is scientific knowledge. In fact, I value personal experience and I think it matters just as much as scientific knowledge. Obviously, as a coach you need to be able to communicate that knowledge (you need people skills) and you also need to put in application that knowledge through programming and coaching cues. The point of this rebuttal is to put into perspective the idea that doing everything based on tradition, casual observations and personal experience might prove faulty in the long run or play against you because you left place for randomness to creep in. Just like you need a good ratio between strength and technique in weightlifting, you need a good ratio between scientific knowledge and experience. 

8 comments

  • Yout best article yet. All great but this is an article is most necessary. Thank God Roger Bannister didn’t listen to scientists’ who said a sub 4 minute mile would cause your lungs to explode. Or running a sub 10 second 100 meters would cause muscles and tendons to tear.

  • Excellent article, by the way we can not forget that all the biggest C&J of all categories has not been touch for 25 years, and I ask myself how can that be.

    • Not of all categories, we have been seeing a lot of world records in the CJ lately. In the last 5 years, we saw records in the CJ in the 56, 69, 94, 105 and we saw a few attempts from the 77 and 85. Women are destroying the records every year too. Every class saw world records in the CJ since 2008.

      I do get what you mean though. It’s fascinating to see the records improve slowly over time.

      • yeah but I am talking about the all time records in the old categories of the 80`s, we can see that the current WR nowadays in C&J are below if we compare with the year of 1988. The most interesting thing about your article is when we see the records in track and field and swimming that are higher when comparing with the 80`s, I think that sport science has helped a lot more other sports than weightlifting

  • Like most things there is a balance between practice and theory. It is often the case that results/methods are forged in the gym and that science will give more insight into the mechanisms etc at play, which may or may not lead to further refinement/replication etc. There are a lot of so called experts who are all theory and no practice who unfortunately get too much credence. I’d rather listen to someone who has lifted and/or coached at a high level than someone who has letters after their name but no material achievements. I think very few significant advancements have come from pure theory, rather by experimentation/application in the field using a mix of scientific method, common sense and intuition/instinct (not to mention hard physical work!). I know a coach who decided to return to academia and had his PhD tutor frequently asking his advice after class…

    • Hi Charlie,

      As I said in my final word : ”In fact, I value personal experience and I think it matters just as much as scientific knowledge. Obviously, as a coach you need to be able to communicate that knowledge (you need people skills) and you also need to put in application that knowledge through programming and coaching cues. ”

      and

      ”Just like you need a good ratio between strength and technique in weightlifting, you need a good ratio between scientific knowledge and experience.”

      To me the best coach is someone who has decent experience and understands what he is doing.

      • I agree with the last comment in your reply but my point is that I favour/value practical coaching experience more than scientific knowledge whereas you rate them equally (I’m not necessarily right it’s just my opinion, for context I’ve been lifting, coaching and refereeing for 18 years and trained with numerous commonwealth medallists in weightlifting and olympic medallists in other sports). I find the science fascinating (and did study it formally too), but I find it more enjoyable and useful to listen to experienced high level coaches.

  • Soy hispanohablante,soy bolivian a pesar de que la traduccion de este articulo no es tan buena he podido percibir lo maravilloso wonderful de este,y tratando de ser objetivo opino que el Levantamiento Olimpico es el verdadero deporte base incluso superando al Atletismo y primero esta el conocimiento despues el empirismo.Un Entrenador de Fuerza y Acondicionamiento Fisico es versado en la teoria y ducho en la practica lamentablemente en mi pais no los hay.

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