If you searched around on the internet for a way to improve your performance as a weightlifter (or as a practitioner of the Olympic lifts), you would find a thousand ways to do it. You might read that you need to improve your overall strength or that you need to do more of a certain lift. Others might advocate changing the whole training plan altogether. On the other end of the spectrum, you might find people that advocate you to work on certain aspect of your weightlifting technique. All of these answers are geared towards improving the physical state of the athlete and they might – or might not- be good. Obviously, there are many ways to skin a cat. However, there is one important concept that is rarely talked about and that you should be aware of. It is, to me, the most important concept to be aware of as an athlete.
This very important concept is actually a pretty simple one. I even dare to say that it is deceptively simple. Plus, I am sure that it will most likely be of no surprise to most of the readers. However, I think most will find that they are guilty of it. It is nothing novel, but it’s explanation is worth the detour (Keep reading). Enough with the suspense…Here we go :
You are thinking so much that you are sabotaging your weightlifting progress and performance. So stop thinking during your lift and limit thinking before you lift.
Why is this concept of not thinking so important?
1. The movement of weightlifting can be characterized as a feed-forward (It can’t be corrected during its execution)
In order to be effective in every movements we do, we have to be able to coordinate temporally and spatially our limbs. Every movement requires some kind of coordination. A basic movement such as a bicep curl requires you to activate the prime movers (Biceps) and agonist muscles (some shoulder or forearms muscles, for instance) while also inhibiting the antagonist muscles (triceps). You need to be able to do it at the right moment.
It is easy to realize that a movement as biomechanically complicated as a snatch poses a bigger problem to the motor system. In other words, the movement is extremely complex and the timing of activation/inhibition of the muscles is of extreme importance. Also, not only does the central nervous system coordinate pretty much every muscles, but the central nervous system actually has to make this coordinated movement happen at a very fast pace. Moreover, in weightlifting, some muscles go from being a prime mover to being an antagonist muscle in a fraction of a second.
This brings us to how coordination happens or, another way to put is how the motor system can produce movement. There are two important mechanisms involved that I would like to explore. The first one is called Feedback control. Feedback control allows the person to correct his movement through the uses of intrinsic feedback. During the movement, the person is able to process sensitive cues and readjust the movement so that the movement happens exactly how the person intended it to be. We consider that Feedback control produce slower movement because of all the processing and readjustment that is happening during the whole movement. It is also more accurate. If you did a bicep curl and took 3 seconds to go from fully extended elbow to fully flexed elbow, you could use feedback (visual cues, different sensation from joints, etc.) to readjust the movement (pull more, more to the left, more to the right, etc.) whereas this would be impossible if the movement was very fast. Consequently, due to the speed element, this is not possible in weightlifting which brings us to the second mechanism.
The second mechanism is called Feed-Forward control and it is responsible for ballistic movement which weightlifting certainly is for the most part. In order to produce faster movement, we sacrifice feedback cues and we can’t readjust or correct the movement itself. The action is planned and programmed, a signal is sent to the structures responsible for the movement and the action/movement happens. In other words, since the goal is to produce a fast movement, the action is started but it can’t be corrected because the action is so fast that the processing required to correct the movement would take longer than the action itself or slow down the movement. For example, if you are a baseball pitcher and you pitch, the moment you decide to pitch, the action follows and you can’t afford to change the movement because you would sacrifice speed.
As a weightlifter, if you make a conscious effort to think and seek feedback (like ”ok I just passed my knees, now I can pull faster” or ”ok the bar is at chest height, I can move under”), you are changing the nature of the movement itself. You are introducing feedback (position feedback for instance) thus changing from more of a ballistic movement to a slow moment which means you are sacrificing speed. You can see this in most beginners where their lift is a collection of different movements. Instead of seeing one smooth, graceful and explosive movement, we see a pull to the knee, followed by a pull to the hip, followed by a high pull, followed by a drop under and followed by a squat. As a weightlifter, you can’t afford to think or to correct the movement during the lift (during its execution) which is why it is so hard to get better at this sport as well as coaching it.
2. The more you practice, the more the skill becomes automatic
I always say that weightlifting is a long journey and that improvements are gradual. It is going to happen but you have to work hard to improve. Somehow, some may become emotionally connected to their result and obsess over everything they do in the gym. In hockey, baseball, or even golf, the nature of the sport allows for more deliberate practice. It’s not rare for a hockey player to spend a few hours a week just shooting pucks or for a golfer to hit 3000+balls a week. Since you get so much practice at the skill in those sport, the initial progress is very fast. Weightlifting differs a little bit because we are lifting loads and heavy loads are tiring. Moreover, although lighter weights are important, we have to lift heavy often (80+%). This limits the amount of repetitions you can do.
You can react to this reality in two ways. The first one is you can get discouraged and become emotionally involved with your bar. You start to think too much, obsess over small things and, in the quest of the perfection of the lift, you introduce feedback (thinking) during the lift. This is bad and won’t lead to progress. More often than not, what you see is choking with bigger weights because the proper conditions for the success of the lifts are just not met. I always say : ”lift and let me think for you”.
The second way to react to this is to receive proper feedback from an external source (Your coach), think about what it is you want to correct (Visualize, set your mind to do it), clear your mind, approach the bar and lift. This is, to me, the proper way to lift and you have to learn it early on because weightlifting only gets scarier and more complex as you progress. You cannot afford to miss personal records because you could not get a hold of your emotions and doubted yourself. Moreover, this approach makes you patient which is important. We forget too often that the lifters we see on the international stages have 10 to 15 years of experience.
3. Non weightlifting related studies looked into multi tasking, skill automatically and their impact on speed.
I do not want to spend much time on this, but if it is of any interest to you, I suggest looking up for these studies. Most of these studies tested a very basic action (like grabbing a ball) and added (or removed) feedbacks. If you read while waiting for the signal to grab the ball, you will take more time to grab the ball than if you just wait for the signal to happen. This is not surprising. You have better focus, you are more relaxed and you are more alert in the second case. If this is the case for a simple movement like grabbing a ball, what makes us think it is different for weightlifting?
4. Well learned skills have to occur without conscious attention to the characteristics of the skill
As I mentioned earlier, a beginner breaks down the lift to learn it (it is a collection of movements). An expert does one beautiful movement (it goes from the ground to over head in one motion). A beginners learn by using a step by step approach where very small chunks of information are processed one after the other one (eg : a pull to the knee, followed by a pull to the hip is what a full pull is to the beginner). An expert will still use a step by step approach but the chunks of information processed are going to be bigger (a pull to the hip is a pull for the expert, he doesn’t have to think about his knees).
5. Final word
You have to work towards being able to do the movement without conscious efforts and without you trying to correct the movement during its execution. What we want is a ballistic motion, which means we want a fast and explosive movement. You cannot afford to slow yourself down, and this is especially true in key position. The whole point of weightlifting is to create momentum so we can move around the bar. Thinking and readjusting the movement while its happening slows the movement and it also kill the momentum. You sabotage your chance of making the lifts. It is as simple as that. I have seen people add 5kg to their lifts just by changing the way they approach the lifts and just by not thinking or stressing over it. Try it, it might work for you too.