On the topic of weightlifting technique: My rebuttal to the naysayers

Every now and then, there is an article that gets published on weightlifting which argues that knowledge or characterization fine points of weightlifting technique don’t matter for most trainees. Ironically, these articles often conclude that technique is what matters the most and that it should be a priority. Different from what I usually post, this piece looks into why the fine points of technique matter for all level, and to a certain extent, it makes the case that discussion of technique with as many people that are certified, qualified, with experience, with diplomas, or not!- as possible is healthy, necessary and the best way to improve your ability as a coach or athlete.

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All things considered, the dogma around weightlifting programming and coaching is funny. The characterization and the understanding of technique and what it entails are extremely important for sport performance at all level of lifting. The naysayers state that this is just talk and people should just do the lifts and technique will come. I cannot disagree more, and only in lifting will you hear this type of argument. Anywhere else, very structured learning is considered as a better approach to teaching.

To become elite, you need elite coaching from the start. Elite coaching is not defined by the experience of a coach, but by the knowledge of the finer points of technique and programming, as well as managing the training during injuries…and how to apply it. If you are not getting it from the start of your career, and you are instructed to ”just do it”, then by the time you will be an intermediate lifter, you will spend most of your time unlearning the bad motor habits while the rest of the world will be passing you. Teaching the technicalities, as precise and fine as they can be, is what I consider elite coaching that will lead to elite success.

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Here are a few examples of why it matters so much.

1. A friend of mine trains high level rowers in Montréal. We often discuss the peculiarities of our sport, our federations, different strategies to get young people into our respective sports and overall programming. All things considered, rowing looks very simple to the observant. Well, he spends most of his time refining the technique of his rowers to ensure they use their muscles groups in the proper sequence, making sure the movement is long or short enough, making sure the training works their weakness by changing the speed or frequency or length. Training is structured technical refinement.

All level of rowers go through the same paradigm. That is, no matter what your level is, you will refine your technique, develop your work capacity, and train weaknesses in the gym to prevent injuries. Funny enough, he says that most people still think rowing is an arm sport. If this type of rationale works for a relatively simpler movement, why would it not work for weightlifting where we train much more complex movements ?

2. In baseball, one of the many difference between players that will make elite level and those that won’t make it, is technique. Most players that were instructed to ”just pitch” (”just do it”) either end up with bad motor patterns (thus bad pitching efficiency) or injured. While you do need the volume – or in other words to pitch a lot- to become good, you need to do it right from the start. Some people have made it to elite level by ”just pitching”, but that’s certainly not the norm. Bad movement patterns lead to injuries and lesser efficiency. The only way to refine bad movement patterns is just stress the finer points of technique, especially since the movement is so fast (just like weightlifting).

If the bar loops around the lifter and your approach to fixing this problem is to keep doing the same thing over and over (”just do it”), then your lifter will never be good. A great coach will take a look at the pull itself and see if the looping is the result pulling problems, which it probably is. A great coach would also test the mobility of the shoulder of the lifter, and sure enough, you may find internal rotation problems there as well.  If  a”just pitch” approach does not work in baseball in the long term, why would a ”just lift” approach work in weightlifting?

3. While buying a camera, the retailer said that a lot of his clients are golfers of all level (from total beginner to elite by our standards). They buy cameras that can shoot 10 images per second to sequence their golf swing. Since the swing is so fast, it is hard to really coach it without using an approach that is based on precision. The camera allows to sequence the swing so that at a given time in the swing, the golfer can look at the angles of his body, how he holds the stick, and his positions. In other words, right from the start, golfers stress technique of the swing by characterizing it, understanding it, and changing very fine and precise points of the swing. If a fast movement like a golf swing needs to be understood by its finer technical points so the right change can be made, why would it be different for weightlifting movements?

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Discussion and understanding of finer technical points is necessary from the start and overlooking it is sacrificing your potential as a coach or the talent of your athletes

People may think that we are obsessive because we discuss and debate the finer points of technique all the time. Allow me to offer my perspective on this. If coaching is a profession, then it is your duty to know all the finer points of technique, and how it changes across various parameters such as morphology, psychology, neuromotor ability and trainability. Whether coaching is a full time job or not does not matter in this debate, but treating it as a profession is of utter importance.

The best physiotherapist are the physiotherapists that keep learning after they graduate. The best doctors are doctors that keep learning, but more importantly, assist a lot of round tables to discuss cases and discuss different views and perspectives. The best scientist is the scientist that is up to date with the scientific literature and has genuine and competitive ideas for the field. Similarly, the best coach is the coach that is open about learning more, willing to discuss ”cases” (fine technical points for us) with others, and keeps up with what’s being done in the rest of the world so that he has competitive ideas and solutions to problems that can be encountered.

If the rumors are true, during their visit in the US, these lifters spent days and night talking about the finer points of technique (Not just during the seminars)
If the rumors are true, during their visit in the US, these lifters spent days and night talking about the finer points of technique (Not just during the seminars)

Not only is it important to know and apply technicalities, it is also what people are looking for

If I take a look at the articles that I have written on First Pull,  the most popular ones were the most technical ones. These are the one on bar paths, on developing maximal neuromuscular power, the biomechanics of women weightlifting, the speed of the first pull, on stability. Some of these articles have been used for academic work as well.

People are looking to understand the finer points of weightlifting which is great. There really is a bias towards such posts (hint if you are a blogger). This process leads to better performance and better ideas (or research). Discrediting people that either produce or read such material is, however, detrimental to performance, and close the door to developing up to date strategies and coaching methods. We don’t need less discussions and web exposure, we need more discussions of technique.

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On qualification, experience and athletic result of the writers/debaters

The naysayers often make the point that not everybody is qualified to discuss technique (but they will often make sure to write that they have some kind of qualification, be it a degree or a certification course). I would like to propose an alternative. This idea is that you should learn from as many people as you can, and throw out what does not work or make sense for you and your athletes. Knowledge is like technique, it can always be refined and sharpened.

Most of the best coaches I know, and discuss with on a regular basis, are coaches that have had a terrible athletic career, with some of them never even reaching a body weight snatch. However, they have produced so many elite lifters themselves. What matters here is their knowledge and know how, not their experience as a lifter.

Push this further, a football coach is not qualified to discuss weightlifting technique by any means, but he/she understand the importance of technique in sports. They know about developing athletes, and reaching goals. Discussion of technique on a general level, or even just their inputs on what you do can be quite interesting and lead to new ideas. You can learn from any coaches working in any sports. When you cannot create new ideas, you borrow ideas from others.

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Even total beginners have interesting inputs on weightlifting. After a while, when you have coached a few athletes and developed your own way of doing so, it is refreshing to hear the perspective of beginners on the lifts. Many cues I use in weightlifting, I borrowed them from beginners lifters. People tend to relate better to certain cues. One thing I sometimes do is flat out ask : ”what do you think happened?” That leads to amazing discussion where both of us can learn. It also lead to team bonding, which is underrated in weightlifting.

Finally, qualification is a relative and subjective term. When it comes to qualification,  there are no coaches that I know of that are better qualified to explain what is mechanically happening in weightlifting than an engineer. Similarly, there are no coaches that is better qualified to explain what is happening neuro-muscularly than a neuroscientist. So what gives?

A great coach is somebody that understand technique, knows how to produce it by using the right cues and stressing finer points of technique, as well as having a great personality that athletes can relate to. In my opinion, it is not so much your qualification that matters, but much more your perspective, your knowledge, your ability to find solutions to problems  and how you apply everything you know on a daily basis.

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Jean-Patrick Millette

Jean-Patrick Millette is a full time weightlifting coach located in Montreal, Canada. He has a bachelor in kinesiology. He coaches dedicated weightlifters of all ages (Youth to senior) as well as running the well respected First Pull website. He has been very active at promoting the sport of weightlifting.

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