Weightlifting news and views

Motivation or Coordination?

Motivation or Coordination?
The world records of the 2014 Asian Games Weightlifting
Andrew Charniga, Jr.
Sportivny.press

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Zufila Chinshanlo (KAZ) attempting to lift 5 kg over new WR 132 with 137 kg at 2014 Asian Games. Charniga photo

The highlights of the recent Asian Games weightlifting championships in Incheon, Korea from 09/19/14 to 09/26/14 showcased the tight competitions among weightlifting’s representatives of 3.5 billion people. A direct result of the fierce fighting to become Asia’s equivalent of an Olympic champion created eight new female and four male senior world records. In addition five junior world records were established: two each, male and female.
New junior world records inclusive, the Asian Games championships produced 17 new world records. This is in contrast to three female WR in London (1 each in snatch, jerk and total) and five male (1 in snatch; 1 in jerk; 3 in total). This Olympics for Asia produced twice as many records as the “real” 2012 London Olympics.

So, the obvious question, why so many records at this event? The only certain fact is what happened and when it happened. As to the why and the how, that is left to sport science to speculate based on analysis of as many reasonably logical factors as possible.

The records set at this championships are presented in tables 1 – 3.

Table 1. Female senior world records established at 2014 Asian Games Weightlifting Championships by weight class including failed attempts.

Wt. Cl. S J T = Sum Un. Att Diff. S+ Diff. J+ Diff. T+
53 1 1 1 2 (1) +1 +3
63 2 2 2 4 (2) +2 +4
75 1 2 1 (1) +1
+75 1 2 1 +2
Sum 5 3 5 8 (4) +6 +7

key to table abbreviations: S – Snatch; J – Clean and Jerk; T – total; = equaled world record; Sum – sum of records broken or equaled; Un. Att. – unsuccessful attempt at record; Diff. S+ – kilos added to snatch record; Diff. J+ – kilos added to jerk record; Diff. T+ – Kilos added to total record

Table 2. Male senior world records established at 2014 Asian Games Weightlifting Championships by weight class including failed attempts.

Wt. Cl. S J T = Sum Un. Att Diff. S+ Diff. J+ Diff. T+
56 1 1 +1
62 1  – 2 3 +1 +5
69 (2)
85 1
+105 (1)
Sum 1 1 2 1 4 (3) +1 +1 +5

Table 3. Female and male junior world records established at 2014 Asian Games Weightlifting Championships by weight class including failed attempts.

Wt. Cl. S J T = Sum Un. Att Diff. S+ Diff. J+ Diff. T+
53 1 1 2 +2 +1
56  1 1 2 +1 +1
85  – 1 1  – +2  –
Sum  2  1  2  – 5  –  +3  +2 +2

 

Some obvious revelations from tables 1 and 2 are:

1) five of the eight senior world records set by the women were in the clean and jerk, zero records in snatch;
2) only one of the four male world records was in the clean and jerk;
3) five of the female world records  were equaled, versus only one of the male records;
4) the women set five times as many jerk records as the men;
6) the women equaled five times as many records as the men of which three were in the clean and jerk, versus one jerk record equaled by the men;
7) the women improved an aggregate of jerk records by 6 kilos versus one kilo for the men;
8) the women improved an aggregate of total records by 7 kilos versus five kilos for the men.

These figures are consistent with the long term trend revealed in the text of A De-Masculinization of Strength. Data of the progress of world records, presented in this text, showed the ability of male weightlifters to eclipse world records in the clean and jerk is very limited because of the growing sophistication of testing for performance enhancing substances.

In this context, the male weightlifter is not necessarily weaker than years past, with respect to lifting the barbell to the chest, the problem is with the jerk from the chest.

The female lifters exceeded more world records, equaled more, attempted more and exceeded an aggregate in kilos of the records (with less body mass) than the male lifters of these championships.

Some Aspects of Motivation

A number of factors responsible for the avalanche of records established at the Asian Games weightlifting comes under the category of motivation.

One factor was the high level of the competition.

These games are staged every four years. With each games, participation has risen, in turn, spiking the level of competitiveness. The geopolitical competition among the member nations was most evident with the extensive media coverage which served to intensify the fight for medals. Another deciding factor was the fierce fighting for medals among closely matched competitors.

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An example of a media frenzy surrounding Asian Games champion LIN Tzu Chi (TPE). Charniga photo

The classes with the highest results featured multiple, closely matched competitors. For instance, the fiercest fighting among the top three competitors was in the 63 kg class. The 63 kg class world record in the jerk was equaled twice, eclipsed twice, attempted without success twice; the total record was broken twice.

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Unable to stand with this world record 144, 63 kg class lifter, DENG Wei (CHN) came back to make it on her 3rd attempt. Charniga photo.

Lower, non-record threatening results occurred in classes lacking a high level of competitiveness: 69 kg (M), 94, 105, 105+.

The age, level and specifics of the protocols to eclipse today’s records creates pent up conditions for record breaking performances.

The 63 kg class jerk record of 143 kg prior to this competition was eclipsed (147 kg) at the 2009 Chinese National Games. Maya Maneza cleaned and jerked, with a slight press out, 147 kg in this class at the 2011 world championships.

OM Yunchol (PRK) jerked 168 in London, 169 last year and attempted 170 in the 56 kg class at the 2013 world championships. A 170 clean and jerk at this competition was not unrealistic for this athlete.

The 85 kg class jerk record of 218, equaled in Incheon, was established some sixteen years ago in 1998. To put that into perspective even further, Asen Zlatev of Bulgaria clean and jerked 225 kg in 1986 in the 82.5 kg class which was seven more kilos of weight lifted with 2.5 kg less body mass; this was 28 years ago!

Today’s protocols are not near as accommodating for attempts at world records as in the past. Records can only be established at a handful of tested international competitions; records have to be exceeded by 1 kg versus 0.5 kg; no fourth attempts for world records are permitted. Consequently, today’s lifters have fewer opportunities, fewer competition attempts and more weight to add to a record.

The weightlifters of the present day have to be highly motivated and extremely well prepared (which is the same) to lift a record under today’s more restrictive protocols. 

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After narrowly escaping serious injury in the snatch, 63 kg class lifter, JO Pokhang (PRK) cleans a WR 144. Charniga Photo.

A complex of socio-economic factors.

It should come as no surprise that the overwhelming majority of world records in weightlifting have been established by athletes from communist countries. Of the 722 female senior world records established by December 31, 2013, 552 were made by athletes from China and North Korea. Another 101 records were created by athletes from Russia, Bulgaria, Hungary and so forth who were up until recently communist countries. Of the 2,138 senior male world records established, 1,496 were created by athletes from, or up until recently, communist countries.

With the exception of the records set by two lifters: HSU Shu Ching (TPE) and LIN Tzu Chi (TPE), all the rest of the records were established and attempted by China and North Korea. Zufila Chinshanlo (KAZ), who set a jerk record, was originally on loan from China to Kazakhstan which is not a communist nation, but formally was part of the Soviet Union.

Furthermore, the discipline which is inherent in communist systems is the main factor which distinguishes China from North Korea, the two weightlifting powers in Incheon.

The Chinese lifters of 2014 are all top athletes, but the system from which they are a product has evolved. Unlike the teams China fielded in the wake of MAO Zedong’s death in the mid 70s, the Chinese lifters in Incheon expressed individuality; they do not dress the same, wear their hair the same and so forth; which is unlike the “stamped athletes” of the past. For instance, the Chinese women would come to watch the competitions dressed in jeans, some with shoulder length hair and were constantly playing with smart phones. The discipline of the cult of the personality of the MAO years has unraveled into a “soft communism.”

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XIANG Yanmei (CHN) winning 69 kg class on a bad hair day. Charniga photo.

The North Korean (PRK) athlete on the other hand is still very much a highly disciplined product of a Stalinist modeled “hard communism.” The team came and went as a group, all dressed the same, no jeans, no phones, no MP3 players, no tattoos, i.e., no individuality and no psychological distractions. With one exception, even their lifting technique was essentially the same.

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The PRK athletes and coaches cheering on their lifter in Incheon. Charniga photo

This may be an over simplification, but the motivation of an athlete coming from a “hard communism” system is unique. The multiple allegiances one normally encounters and embraces in life, which can be distracting and even divisive, are all rolled into one.

Most of us are employed, have a boss, select a church for worship, elect and support (or not) a head of state. For the PRK athlete, his/her employer is the head of state and god, all rolled into one. They can be said to have one master and, consequently, a single, extremely narrow focus to achieve for the state.

A scholar once likened elite weightlifting and cycling to a near death experience in sport. Anyone, who has witnessed the extraordinarily disciplined PRK lifters pushing the envelope to achieve a medal or a record, ready, willing and able to pass out trying, recognizes this is a unique psychology that is perfectly suited to pursue that experience.

The Coordination

The question as to how the North Korean lifters train, what loading parameters, exercise selection and so forth is always one of the first questions people ask, especially after witnessing something like the extraordinary events of Incheon. This is the coordination question. How does an athlete train his/her body to lift such big weights at the precise instant required in competition?

However, that may be putting the cart before the horse because the motivation question (partially answered above) goes a long way to answer the question of coordination. In a nutshell, psychological fortitude, the force of will to perform the hard work and the force of will to stand with a maximum weight and still jerk it from the chest are qualities necessary to achieve the coordination, even if the training methodology is not the best. This is the obvious circumstance because there are plenty of examples of champion athletes who do dumb exercises or perform exercises to develop muscles, which if applied to weightlifting technique, are non sequitor.

That being said, there are distinct similarities between China and North Korea with the rise of Bulgaria to defeat the Soviet Union in the early 1970s and into the 1980s.

China, like the old Soviet Union, is a huge country with a huge population, much more money, and way more resources for sport. North Korea, on the other hand, is a tiny country with a small population, little money, few resources; even feeding their people is a problem.

Bulgarian training methodology focused on the competition exercises, whereas the Soviet methods at improving results in the competition exercises consisted of a complex system of loading strategies, the use of many supplementary exercises and periodization schemes to increase muscle mass.

For a tiny, poor country like Bulgaria their system not only proved successful, but cost effective, i.e., to get good at competitions, practice competitions. The effectiveness of such a system was its simplicity and very narrow focus. A key factor of the training methodology of the North Korean has to be a similar simplicity, coupled with an extremely narrow focus.

Since no one this side of the 38th parallel knows exactly how they go about developing the “coordination” for weightlifting, speculation has to rely on reasonable inference.

One logical place to make a reasonable inference is the jerk from the chest.

Eleven of the twelve member team all jerked the barbell from the chest with a classic Soviet model technique protocol: a rapid scissoring of the legs fore and aft, trunk vertical, barbell positioned behind the head in the low split, rear leg straight.

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2012 Olympic champion RIM Jongsim (PRK) with wide split for jerk. Charniga photo.

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KIM Kwangsong (PRK) jerking 195 in 77 kg class. Charniga photo.

The lone lifter JONG Kwangjin (PRK), who performed the squat jerk technique, i.e., an expressed individuality, missed all three attempts.

The most complex, difficult part of weightlifting is the jerk from the chest. The difficulty to perform this skill arises from the fact that it is preceded by a fatiguing lift to the chest; the complexity of coordination increases with the rising height of the common center of mass of the athlete and barbell as a unit.

The fact, that the jerk from the chest comes at the end of the competition when the athlete is fatigued, further complicates a correct performance of the exercise. Furthermore, the weightlifter has to perform this skill under more difficult psychological conditions; it is the final effort of the final motion the athlete performs in a competition to decide the outcome.

Any weightlifter who possesses a very reliable jerk from the chest has a distinct advantage to settle the outcome of a competition in his/her favor. With one already noted exception, all of the North Korean lifters performed a rapid, wide scissoring of the feet. This is indicative of more power generated to raise the barbell while at the same time this action creates conditions to effectively counter balance and fix the weight overhead.

The only way to get good at these elements of jerk technique, especially so that the lifter can do this under conditions of fatigue and psychological duress, is to practice the specificity of the competition exercise.

In contrast to this elementary concept, this simple, narrow focus on the single most important factor; some elite lifters employ the squat jerk technique; an unreliable method which only makes performing the exercise harder. Other lifters consciously limit the width of scissoring by bending the rear leg to receive the barbell in the split for which there is no logical justification.

Furthermore, many lifters perform many supplementary, low in specificity exercises such as push presses, push jerks (even in the warm up room of competitions), heavy bench presses, military presses, jerks from tables and others to improve the jerk from the chest. Lifters and coaches alike assume employing all of these exercises to prepare for that specific moment of truth in competition is that the sum of all those parts will be greater than the whole. This is simply not true.

Several North Korean lifters at this competition appeared to have made refinements in their jerk technique by obviously not wasting time switching to some less reliable method. The most notable improvement came from KIM Un Guk (62 kg) who made all three jerks in Incheon after barely making only one each at the 2013 Asian championships and the 2013 World championships.

The lifter who appeared to make the biggest improvement in the jerk from the chest was KIM Un Ju (75). She is the same KIM who zeroed at last year’s Asian championships missing all three jerks with 152 kg. KIM made three precise, powerful jerks in Incheon employing the classic Russian technique; one of which equaled the world record 163 and thus effectively settling the outcome of this class before making the third with a new world record 164.

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KIM Un Ju (PRK) jerks WR 164 kg. Charniga photo.

Another simple, highly effective, low cost refinement of the “coordination” is the weightlifter’s suppleness.

All of the PRK lifters were very supple.

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KIM Kwangsong (PRK) sitting in very low squat to clean 207 kg. Charniga photo.

The weightlifter can enhance mechanical efficiency by cultivating and maintaining a high degree of suppleness. The ability to squat under the barbell very low and very fast translates into a lower height of lifting. This in turn means less work performed against gravity and the possibility to lift a bigger weight by means of expressing less power.

The “strongest” lifter of the 75 kg class was KIM Un Ju (PRK). KIM performed stretching exercises between the snatch and the clean and jerk; exhibiting a suppleness in the lower extremities the author had never seen before, or for that matter, even thought possible. This extraordinarily supple lifter lifted the biggest weights in the clean and jerk, equaling one and eclipsing another world record.

So, one can reasonably infer, with a degree of certainty, the North Korean weightlifter, who resides in a country which has difficulty to even feed its people, employs at least two simple, highly effective, low cost secrets to develop the coordination: master the jerk from the chest in the most efficient manner and develop a high degree of suppleness.

/ Charniga, A., A De-Masculinization of Strength, Sportivny.press, Livonia, Michigan, 2012.
/ Charniga, A., “Aesthetics of Strength”, Sportivny.press, 2014.
/ Zhekov, I.P., Biomechanics of the Weightlifting Exercises, M, FiS. Translated by Andrew Charniga, Jr., Sportivny Press©, Livonia, Michigan

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