Can There Be Such A Thing As An Asian Pull?
Andrew Charniga, Jr.
“According to the laws of mechanics, work performed against gravity does not depend on the type of trajectory; since it is measured by the height to which the weight has been raised”. I.P.Zhekov,1976
An early rise onto the toes with knees flexed, shoulders behind the vertical projection of the bar with excessive bowing of the trunk backward are obvious errors in technique which should preclude a successful outcome. Charniga photos.
In weightlifting the outcome of the lifting is determined by the success or failure to raise the barbell in the competition exercises within the parameters of the technical rules. That is to say, the weightlifter has achieved a successful outcome by overcoming gravity; which, Soviet sport scientist I.P. Zhekov noted, does not depend on the form of the barbell’s trajectory.
Thanks in no small part to the work of many weightlifting sport scientists and countless professional coaches weightlifting sport has a modern protocol for raising the barbell in the most efficient manner to achieve the desired outcome.
The modern protocol of weightlifting technique typically produces a curve-linear bar trajectory known as an ‘S’ pull. The modern protocol stipulates as well, the optimum disposition of the feet, shins, thighs and trunk to raise the barbell in the most effective manner.
A curve – linear bar trajectory in the pulling phases of the snatch and the clean produced with the optimum disposition of feet, shins, thighs and trunk; antithetical to laws of physics, becomes the shortest distance between two points, which as it turns out is not a straight line.
“This curve – linear trajectory is connected with the performance of this exercise with the least expenditure of energy.” I,P. Zhekov, 1976
However, bar trajectory aside, the movements of the weightlifter’s body as a whole and the individual so – called kinematic links of arms, trunk, thighs, shins and feet determine the outcome of a successful or failed lift.
Some concepts of modern weightlifting technique:
The Russian Pull
The work of numerous Soviet era weightlifting sport scientists has produced many quantitative dynamic and kinematic parameters defining the most efficient weightlifting technique. The subject of this essay will focus on only one of the many; the position and range of movement of the shoulder joints as this relates to effective performance of the snatch and the clean.
The significance of the movement of the shoulder joints to the modern weightlifting technique is obvious:
“The force developed by the weightlifter’s muscles is communicated to the barbell through the shoulder joints. The vertical speed of the shoulder girdle is transferred to the barbell through the arms…….” I.P. Zhekov, 1976
Consequently, the disposition of the shoulders over, in front of, or behind the bar during the pull phase of lifting is an important indicator of how force is communicated to the barbell: vertically, or at an angle forward or backwards. And, of no small significance, the vertical disposition of the shoulders defines the inter – muscular coordination involved in raising the barbell.
However, it should be pointed out the basic philosophy of this modern protocol of weightlifting technique is for the weightlifter’s body to conform to the obvious physics of raising a barbell, instead of vice versa. That is to say, a lifter endeavors to raise body center of mass as high as possible, before beginning to descend under the barbell in the snatch, the clean and the jerk.
This of course means the movement of the shoulder girdle from start position to the full extension of the pull phase shifts within a relatively small arc. The weightlifter typically begins to squat under the barbell from a slight lean away from the vertical with raised heels and elevated shoulder girdle i.e., barbell and body center of mass have been raised to a high point by means of extension of trunk and lower extremities.
Figure 1. Drawings from the Training of the Weightlifter by R. Roman (1968; 1974; 1986). The broken red lines on the figures illustrate the relatively narrow arc of shifting of the shoulder joints in the pull. Charniga photo
Although variation is considerable, the lifter’s shoulder joints from start to finish of the pull are to shift within a relatively narrow arc. (figure 1)
For instance, the angle of inclination of trunk to the horizontal is typically in the range 25 – 50° (Roman, 1978). From here the shoulder joints shift up and backwards until the trunk is leaning away from the vertical approximately 10 – 15°.
Various authors (Druzhinin, 1974; Roman, 1986, Zhekov, 1976, Lukashev, Medvedyev, 1986, and others) suggest it is permissible for the trunk to lean 10 – 15º away from the vertical at the top of the pull. Consequently, the trunk begins to descend from this angle into the squat position. This means the shoulder joints shift forward through an arc of approximately 10 – 15º during the descent into the squat to return the trunk to vertical, or near vertical.
This Russian technique stipulates the weightlifter must accomplish the fundamental task of raising the barbell by moving the shoulders through a total arc of approximately 80 – 95º.
Furthermore, according to Soviet specialists the shoulder joints should lie in the same vertical line as the bar at two critical junctures in the pull phase:
/ at the instant of barbell separation from the platform (R. Roman, 1974; 1986);
/ at the instant the heels begin to rise in the explosion phase (R. Roman, 1974; 1986).
Soviet sport scientists have for the most part defined the parameters of this technique, so we can call this protocol the Russian pull. Most of this Russian pull fits into a logical framework to achieve the desired outcome. However, as already noted, the lifter has to accomplish the fundamental task of raising the barbell within a relatively narrow corridor of movement of the shoulder girdle.
Typically, a weightlifter’s shoulders move in front of the vertical line of the bar after barbell separation. Following barbell separation the protocol of the Russian pull stipulates the shoulder joints remain in front of the vertical line of the bar up to the point the knees stop straightening and begin to move under the barbell.
From the examples presented (figures 2 & 3) the effort to keep the shoulders in front of the vertical line of the bar is obvious. This is to preserve a large arc of motion in the trunk and prevent a drop in barbell speed.
Figure 2. Depiction of disposition of barbell just above knee height according to R.A. Roman (1968; 1974; 1986). Note the vertical projection of the shoulder joints in front of the vertical line of the bar. Approximately the same disposition of the barbell is depicted on the right. However, the athlete on the right has slightly larger angle in the knee. Charniga photo
The athlete in these illustrations mimics the drawings by trying to get as much from the trunk extensor muscles as possible and still raise the barbell within the permissible arc of movement of the shoulders. He continues straightening the knee joints as the barbell moves above knee level. In this example of the Russian pull the lifter has straightened the knees close to an angle of 180º with shoulders still in front of vertical line of the barbell.
Figure 3. Relatively prolonged straightening of knee joints in the Russian pull; which, in effect is a delayed re-bending of knees with shoulder joints in front of the vertical line of the bar. This action prolongs the loading on the lumbar spine. Charniga photo.
It should be pointed out, re – bending the knees under the bar is a reaction. This reaction allows the lifter to re – introduce the thigh and ankle extensor muscles to straighten the trunk. Moreover, the re – bending of the knees reduces the moment force on the hip and more importantly, the lumbar spine.
Even after re-bending the knees, the shoulders can be still in front of the vertical line of the bar:
“The athlete’s shoulders are an average of 4% of the athlete’s height in front of the line of the bar for the snatch and 4.6% for the clean when the knees stop bending under the barbell, carried out flat footed.” (R. A. Roman, 1978) see figures
However, this means relatively speaking, there is a prolongation of the loading on the lumbar spine. As the athlete continues to straighten the trunk, while keeping the shoulders in front of the line of the bar; re – bending the knees and with it the re – introduction of the extensors of the lower extremities can be delayed.
The knee bend under the bar is minimal. (see second position in figure 3)
Consequently, this element of technique illustrates part of the underlying logic of the Russian pull:
“It is natural that the lifter – barbell should move in such a way that the joint moments are as small as possible.” I.P. Zhekov, 1976
Keeping the shoulders in front of the bar as long as possible, in addition to minimizing joint movements; allows the extensors of the trunk to work over a longer arc of movement and minimize a drop in barbell speed. Furthermore, straightening the knee joints to an an angle close to 180º lengthens three of the four parts of the hamstring group which are two joint muscles. This sets up these muscles to perform like a bow string: to flex the knees and hip joints very fast.
It would seem logical, that the carefully worked out parameters of the Russian pull fit the physics of a modern protocol; such that, the movements of lifter’s joints and the barbell are as small as possible. And, as a result barbell center of mass is raised concomitantly with the highest raising of body center of mass in the pull.
However, the basic precepts of the Russian pull technique were, for the most part, formulated during the early period of an extensive application of performance enhancing substances.
The weightlifter’s training system was further developed during this period of special enhancement; consisting of complex patterns of loading, the introduction of a large number of special assistance exercises and special exercise techniques. Many of these exercises and techniques were devised specifically to strengthen the athlete to better perform the various phases of Russian pull.
So, more to the point, how much can we attribute our understanding of training and weightlifting technique developed during a period of special enhancement to biomechanics and training methodology; and, how much to chemistry?
It is common knowledge (Medvedyev, 1994, 2000; Charniga, 2012) the advent of no notice out of competition testing in the wake of doping scandals at the Seoul Olympics of 1988 effectively stopped the progress of male world records in weightlifting. A brick wall was erected, so to speak, still standing in front of the male weightlifter to this very day.
A prolonged loading on the lumbar spine to keep the shoulders in front of the vertical line of the bar is a singular characteristic of the Russian pull. Why? Because, if for no other reason, the weightlifter, struggling to overcome gravity, is forced to get as much as is humanly possible out of the limited arc of movement allotted the shoulder girdle.
Most of the research which supports the protocols of the Russian pull, exercise techniques and training methodology dates from the period of special enhancement.
Consequently, the singular question to consider: would today’s widely accepted parameters of technique, the training loading, exercise techniques and so forth, look different had there been no period of special enhancement?
If the answer to that question is no, this of course means a shifting of the shoulder girdle significantly outside the acceptable arc of movement would constitute an error in technique. An unsatisfactory outcome would be anticipated due to varying degrees of mechanical inefficiency connected with irrational technique.
Figure 4. Contrasting positions of bar and shoulder joints between Russian pull and an Asian pull; bar approximately knee level. The shoulder joints are in front of the vertical line of the bar typical of a Russian pull with bar at knee height (figure on left). The athlete on the right performing a clean with Asian pull technique has already shifted shoulder joints behind the vertical line of the bar with barbell slightly below knee height. The re – bending of the knees has already begun whereas athlete on the left has continued to straighten the knee joint. Charniga photos
Video LI Zhangying: Note slow early rise onto the toes; large shifting of the trunk behind the barbell; high speed of descent into the squat from a large angle of trunk behind the barbell.
Figure 5. Contrasting positions of the shoulder joints between Russian and Asian pull with bar at approximately mid thigh.
/Russian pull: trunk tilted forward more than 30°; shoulder joints significantly in front of vertical line of the bar; knee angle close to 180°; a large moment on lumbar spine; feet flat; explosion phase has just begun.
/Asian pull: Trunk tilted approximately 45° away from the vertical, behind the vertical line of the bar; shoulder joints significantly behind the vertical line of the bar; knees are bent; heels raised; explosion phase almost complete. Charniga photos.
Video of A. Aramnau: Note narrow range of shifting of trunk; fast descent.
The obvious, excessive shifting of the shoulder joints relative to the vertical line of the bar depicted in the figures 4 & 5 should not result in a desirable outcome. A large shifting of the shoulder girdle is outside the logic of the physics involved to achieve the optimum barbell height, i.e., to raise barbell center of mass and body center of mass concomitantly as high as possible.
However, we should emphasize the movement potential of the human body is extraordinarily complex. The body has innate, reactive – protective mechanisms and innate redundancy to accommodate complex movement patterns. Perhaps, as the saying goes, “there is more than one way to skin a cat.”
An Asian Pull
“And, this is why a “self – tuning” system can select the optimum trajectory of movement for the given system, which has limited energy resources.” I.P. Zhekov, 1976
I.P. Zhekov (and the entire Russian biomechanics community) believed the physics of weightlifting dictated small joint movements to apply and maintain vertical forces to a heavy barbell.
However, by the same token, the human organism tasked to raise a heavy weight is a bio- cybernetic entity, i.e., a “self – tuning” system capable of adjusting the limitations of body’s myriad of bone levers, muscles, tendons, ligaments and fascia to achieve the desired outcome restricted by “limited energy resources”.
There is reasonable consensus in the weightlifting literature to define optimum technique as the ability to raise a maximum weight to the minimum height and to descend extremely fast into the squat. (cited by Verkhoshansky, 1988) The high class lifter’s speed of descent under the barbell exceeds the acceleration of a free falling body.
Consequently, it is relatively safe to say the speed of the descent is the single most important factor to raise a maximum weight overhead in the snatch or to the chest in the clean. Since you really cannot drop slowly under a heavy weight raised to a low height, a low height of lifting and high speed of descent are for all practical purposes one and the same thing.
“…the faster the descent the greater the weight one can lift.”
R.A. Roman, 1974
The obvious question arises as to whether the following illustrations of what we call an Asian pull automatically constitute errors in technique.
/ a significantly larger arc movement of the shoulder girdle;
/ an unusually large rise onto the toes throughout the final acceleration, which bends knees in the process;
/ an unusually large deviation of shoulder joints behind the vertical line of the bar;
/ a shifting of the emphasis of power generated in the explosion from the trunk to the feet.
This ‘Asian pull’ technique is in all probability an effort to circumvent gravity by finding the path of least resistance for the body’s movements, which means these movements need not be designed to raise body center of mass center as high as possible (as in the Russian pull) before squatting under the barbell.
An atypical large amplitude of movement of the shoulder joints characteristic of the Asian pull can be also considered as the weightlifter’s reaction to the geometric constraints of the modern Russian protocol.
The reason for coining this technique an ‘Asian pull’ is that one observes this technique most often with Asian lifters, especially females. This technique can be considered truly reactive, because virtually everyone teaches the Russian pull technique.
Consequently, even though Asian lifters and especially the females, are taught essentially the “proper” technique; many top lifters react to the conditions of raising a maximum weight in the snatch and the clean with an atypical shift of the trunk backwards coupled with an early, large rise onto the toes.
The Asian pull technique is antithetical to Russian protocols which stipulate the lifter remain flat – footed as trunk and thighs straighten in unison during the explosion phase (see figure 3). Much of the explosion phase of the Asian pull is carried out with shoulder joints behind the vertical line of the bar with heels raised as legs straighten.
That is to say, the vertical support reaction created by simultaneous trunk and knee extension is carried – out over a limited area, consisting of the lifter’s toes. Pushing – off raised heels is very similar to how many (vertebrates) animals jump (A. Biewener, 2007)
Figure 6. XI Hongli (CHN) 69 kg cleaning 154 kg at 2013 Chinese National Games with unorthodox Asian pull. Charniga photos
Video of XI Hongli: Note high speed of descent under the barbell and extremely low squat.
Conventional wisdom dictates how does one lift a maximum weight by this unorthodox use of the trunk extensors?
Moreover, how does a lifter generate power with the legs in the explosion phase of the pull when trunk is shifting backwards behind the vertical line of the bar while knees are straightening and heels are raising at one and the same time?
Isn’t the force generated by the knee extensor muscles dampened by the feet when a lifter is raising the heels and trying to straighten the knees at the same time? Moreover, the shoulder joints have to return from what should constitute an exaggerated rearward deviation to move under the bar. Without question, this should be considered a significant, unnecessary expenditure of energy.
Figure 7. Examples of shoulder joints shifting forward and down and relatively far away from the barbell in the descent of the snatch by world champion DENG Wei (CHN). Charniga photos.
Video LI Zhangying: Note large shifting of the trunk behind the barbell; high speed of descent into the squat with a very fast shift of the shoulder girdle forward under the barbell.
An Asian pull stands in stark contrast to the Russian pull which is rather straight forward: an attempt to overcome gravity vertically such that “joint moments are as small as possible”. However, as Zhekov said, the body as a self – tuning system, sensing “limited energy resources” can adapt to the task of raising the barbell. The Asian pull seems to ignore the logical dictates of physics. Which, without a doubt would have surprised even Zhekov.
Indeed, these specific skills and qualities are not new to weightlifting; they are just re- emerging, in an era where the opportunity for special enhancement is quite limited. On the surface, this Asian pull looks terribly inefficient and by all rights should not work.
However, practical experience indicates this is not so.
Although the technique of record lifts of the period leading up to 1989 would seem to be logical, the lifts from the era before no notice out of competition testing must be classified as just that: weights male weightlifters are still unable to pick up to this very day (Charniga, 2012). Consequently, do we know the Russian pull to be the optimum biomechanics or a biomechanics one can only perform effectively with performance enhancers?
The loading on the back as the bar passes knee level with Russian pull where shoulders are in front is radically different from the Asian pull where shoulders are behind the vertical line of the bar and trunk almost vertical. However, that being said, in all probability the most significant flaw in the Russian protocol is the minor role relegated to the lever system of the foot and ankle; and, especially to the limited role assigned the muscles of the shank held in reserve to raise the heels at the last instant of the pull.
The significance of straightening the knees in the presence of raising the heels will be explored in a future article.
1/ Zhekov, I.P., Biomechanics of the weightlifting exercises, Moscow, FIS, 1976. English Translation Sportivny Press, Livonia, Michigan
2/ Bartonietz, K. E., “Biomechanics of the snatch: Toward a higher training efficiency, Jr. of Strength and Conditioning, 24-31:1996
3/ Vorobeyev, A.N., Weightlifting: Textbook for the institutes of Sport, Moscow, FIS, 1972; 1982; 1988
4/ Roman, R.A., The Snatch the Clean and Jerk, Moscow, FIS, 1978. English Translation Sportivny Press, Livonia, Michigan 1982
5/ Roman, R.A., The Training of the Weightlifter, Moscow, FIS, 1974; 1986. English Translation Sportivny Press, Livonia, Michigan
6/ Charniga, A., A De-masculinization of Strength, Sportivny Press, Livonia, Michigan, 2012
7/ Tarasenko, V., “Afterthoughts about the 2012 Olympic Games”, Olimp, 49 – 50:2-3:2012
8/ Medvedyev, A.S., Medvedyev, A.A., Masalgin, N.A., Sarsania,S.K., “Prognosis of World Records in Weightlifting and the Use of Performance Enhancers”, Teoriya I Praktika Fizicheskoi Kultury, 8:39 – 43:1994. Translated by Andrew Charniga, Jr.
9/ Biewener, A,A., Animal Locomotion, Oxford University Press, 2007