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Scaling of Body Mass in Weightlifting: What Can Happen to the World’s Strongest Weightlifters

 

Scaling of Body Mass in Weightlifting:

Consequences for the World’s Strongest Weightlifters

Andrew Charniga

Sportivnypress

“…excess bodyweight first creates additional loading on the sportsman’s muscles because the weightlifter has to lift this excess weight during the execution of the weightlifting exercises; second, the sportsman’s speed deteriorates.” Abramovsky, 2002

Special conditions exists for improving results in the unlimited weight classes in weightlifting. An unlimited weight division permits a lifter to increase his/her weight in the snatch and the clean and jerk by means of increasing body mass with no worries at the weigh – in. However, this can be accomplished without necessarily improving technical skills; or, even retaining motor skills achieved at a lower body weight. In most cases athletes in the unlimited classes raise more weight by using the larger body mass to overcome a proportionally smaller mass of barbell. However, there are a number downsides to this mass over mass equation.  

Meranzov (1985), Spasov, Sinclair and others cite a bodyweight of 140 kg as the point of diminishing returns for a weightlifter of the modern era. However, this figure pre – dates the appearance of the female weightlifter in international weightlifting. A casual observation of the state of women weightlifters at the present time indicates a point of diminishing returns as far as body weight is concerned is much lighter than 140 kg.

Female weightlifters have smaller bones, comparatively less muscle mass and proportionally greater fat mass than their male counterparts. Consequently, with the rise in bodyweight in excess of the now 90 kg border, females will tend to add more fat mass relative to the increase in muscle mass. Therefore, diminished technical efficiency with the rise in body mass ostensibly is a larger problem for the +90 kg class athlete. The +90 kg athletes will tend to raise proportionately more fat mass when lifting the barbell. Which of course, exacerbates the two downsides pointed out by Abramovsky (2002): extra effort is expended raising excess, even non – functional body mass; speed of movement deteriorates. 

Figure 1. The world’s strongest man reacts to missing a world record 221 kg snatch. Charniga photo.

Dinasaurs of weightlifting’s past such as world champions Hepburn and Anderson raised weights in their day which have been exceeded by females of today, weighing as much as 20 kg less. Schemansky and Davis (both USA) at around 102.5 kg bodyweight; made those behemoths obsolete already in the 1950s; but, with the appearance of Zhabotinsky (USSR) and Alexeyev (USSR) the huge unlimited athlete re- emerged; with one major distinction. Unlike the 140 – 160 kg monoliths of the past these 160 kg Soviet lifters were very athletic. Yet, with their appearance on the international scene Kurlovitch and Pisarennko, at around 120 kg bodyweight, represented a new wave of the world’s strongest man. Considerably leaner, with less muscle mass, they lifted the biggest weights; with strength accentuated by speed of movement and flexibility.

That being said, we are back to an age ruled by 160 – 170 kg giants. And, with the return of the giants lessons of the past have been forgotten; the problems connected with failure to scale body mass in conformity the dynamics and kinematics of the competition exercises are being repeated. 

Two of the not so obvious yet critical problems connected with failure to scale body mass: difficulties with jerking the barbell (especially the third attempt in competition) and fixing the barbell in the snatch.    

Figure 2. Olympic champion is unable to fix the barbell in a stable squat because the girth of the athletes belly and thighs combine to prevent her from effectively amortizing the downward path of the barbell and counterbalancing the weight in the squat position by tilting the trunk and shins forward. Note: Shins shift from a slight forward lean to vertical as the athlete loses balance. Charniga photos.

 / The jerk from the chest;

Research has shown the lightest lifters are more skillful in the jerk from the chest. Lifters in the light weight classes lift 250 – 305% of bodyweight. This huge disparity between the athlete’s mass and the weight lifted necessitates a combination of power and highly refined skill to raise the barbell and still balance the athlete – barbell – system. The toppling over effect of such huge weights exerts a forward pull on the athlete – barbell unit; making balance the critical factor to lift such huge weights successfully. Think of gravity pulling in two planes simultaneously: vertical and horizontal.  

On the other hand the record weights of the top super-heavyweights range from only 164% of bodyweight for the 2016 Olympic champion to about 189% for some of the lighter supers; and, 147.5% for the 2016 female Olympic champion to only 112% of bodyweight for lower level; yet proportionally much heavier females.

The bigger weights lifted by the +105 kg and the +90 kg lifters obscures the fact their technical skills don’t necessarily improve or even remain the same as their bodyweight rises. This is quite obvious from the troubles experienced by Iranian +105 kg, Salimikordasiabi. His increased bodyweight over time has accompanied by a decrease in technical proficiency. He is able to lift a big weight (250 – 255 kg) in the jerk; but, repeatedly experiences difficulties raising it within the rules.

Assistance exercises such as the push press, push jerks, bench presses and others over time can exacerbate the problem of jerking the heaviest weights the +105 kg lifter can clean. With body mass surpassing 165 kg for males and somewhat less for female +90 kg lifters there is a definite tendency to ‘muscle’ the weight with the arms at the expense of accentuating the legs; especially, the action of forcefully scissoring the feet into the split position.

There are a number of causes for a deterioration of technical efficiency.

/ The weight of the barbell is proportionally lighter relative to the lifter’s body mass; which in turn, means the toppling over effect is less. Consequently, an accentuated wide scissoring of the feet is not near as critical as it for someone lifting say 250% of bodyweight and more.

/ The +105 and +90  kg lifter has to expend more energy moving his/her mass from the starting position into the split, i.e., speed of movement deteriorates. The lifter’s arms and shoulder muscles are usually bigger and stronger; so in lieu of the extra energy to move the whole body; lifters will tend to accentuate the role of the muscles of the arms and shoulders. As a result, the technique of jerking the barbell can deteriorate into a shuffling of the feet and a push – pressing of  the weight up.

/ An element of effective technique in the jerk often overlooked: the hands should push the body away from the barbell (Luchkin, 1945; Zhekov, 1976); not push up, as in pressing. This important element of good technique is critical for someone endeavoring to raise upwards of 300% of bodyweight; but, much less a necessity for someone lifting 124 -164%. A good example of this is the 170+ kg athlete from Iran pressing the weight up instead of pushing his body down; and, in the process his lifts are turned down.

Figure 3. +105 lifter successfully muscles 252 kg to arms length; but the lift is not allowed due to press out. Charniga photo.

/ The +105 and +90 kg athletes can successfully jerk a heavy weight with a  forward barbell trajectory slightly greater than lighter lifters because the toppling over influence is considerably less with 124 – 164% of bodyweight than it is with, say 250% weights.  This in turn creates the illusion their technique is okay because they make lifts someone endeavoring to raise 200 – 250% cannot; with such a mechanical error.  

/ fixing the barbell overhead

Fixing the barbell on straight arms in the jerk is made more difficult than it should be by pressing up on the barbell. Likewise fixing the barbell at arms length in the snatch is a complex motor task; which is made more difficult for the biggest athletes because of impediments created by their girth, exercise selection and slower speed of movement. 

Figure 4. Three elite lifters: two females and the world’s strongest man illustrate the complex mechanics of fixing a maximum weight at arms length in the squat. In all three examples the the barbell is fixed with varying forward tilting of the shins. The lifter on the right has a significant leaning of the shins with a minimal trunk tilt. The +105 lifter has the least lean of shins and trunk forward (center figure). The lifter on the far right has a moderate leaning of shins combined with a significant tilting of trunk forward. At any rate, the lifters have counterbalanced the athlete – barbell unit with varying portions of the body disposed in front of and behind the barbell. Charniga photos

The combined girth of the belly and thighs of the biggest athletes conspire to force the athlete fix the weight higher i.e., creating a less stable center of mass of athlete – barbell unit. Compare the height of hip joint in the three photos in the figure. However, the biggest problem for the +105 and +90 kg lifters occurs when the belly meets the thigh as the lifter turns the weight over to fix it at arms length. The inability to sink lower as the belly meets thighs can push the shins towards vertical and cause the athlete to drop it. See figure 2.

/ height of lifting in the pull

The height of lifting the barbell in the pull required to fix a weight on the chest in the clean and overhead in the snatch is a simplest and probably the best indicator of the athlete’s technical proficiency. The higher the barbell has to raised the more energy expended overcoming gravity, the less efficient the technique. Typically the bigger guys/gals have to lift the barbell to a greater height relative to their stature because with the rise in body weight, the increased girth of the waist and thighs combine to limit the depth of squatting under the weight.

Lifters clean the barbell with relatively vertical disposition of the trunk in the squat position. Consequently, as a weightlifter’s body mass increases, fixing the weight on the chest is not as big a problem for these athletes. However, the increasing girth of the waist and the thighs which accompany the rise mass can eventually make fixing the barbell on the chest more difficult either because the weight has to be lifted higher or the lifter has to struggle to fix the weight on the chest as the belly and thighs collide in the squat. 

 Muscular tension in the working muscle groups during the performance of the explosion usually reaches optimum {with missed attempts at limit weights the force applied to the barbell usually exceeds the same force of successful attempts”} Druzhinin, 1974

A not so easy situation for the coach to determine with any, let alone the biggest lifters, is excess effort applied to the barbell to compensate for the excessive girth and slower speed of movement. As the quotation from Druzhinin above indicates, in many cases more force can be applied in missed attempts than sufficed for successful. In our case the bigger athletes will try to pull longer and harder than necessary to lift a maximum weight; partly in order to compensate for the inability to drop into a low squat and balance the weight with some forward lean of the shins/trunk in the snatch.  

/ height of fixation of the barbell in the snatch

The amortization of the barbell is a critical element of technique often overlooked, or simply just not understood, especially for the snatch. The action of amortizing the weight during the descent into the squat creates a re – ward ‘hook’ in the barbell’s trajectory. The distance the barbell descends from the high point of the pull to the lowest height in the squat is the amortization. A optimal hook facilitates fixing the barbell over head. It allows the lifter to fix the weight and position the body in the low squat. Part of the rearward portion of this hook is created as the athlete sinks into the low squat position. Inability to drop low enough to amortize the barbell effects this rearward hook and of course will leave an otherwise accessible weight slightly forward.

/ balance

Balance is another critical skill which usually deteriorates  with a failure to scale body mass commensurate with the dynamics of the competition exercises.

Figure 5. The lifter in the photo on the left is in the process of losing a 216 kg snatch despite having fixed the weight overhead on straight arms. He is unable to either lean forward or tilt shins forward sufficiently (as belly is up against thighs) to effectively counterbalance the system athlete barbell. The lifter with 215 kg on the right is able to counterbalance the athlete barbell system with shins tilted forward and slight leaning of trunk; but, likewise with no space between belly and thighs. The figure in the middle from Zhekov’s Biomechanics of the Weightlifting Exercises, depicts the angle of dynamic balance in the low squat. Note body segments lie in front and behind the vertical line of the bar. Such a disposition of body relative to barbell becomes increasing difficult with the rise in body mass of the +105 and +90 kg lifters. 

Balance is a problem for the biggest lifters because they typically are unable to squat to a low position under the barbell. This means the barbell has to be fixed at the chest or overhead higher from the platform, i.e., the center of mass of the system is proportionally higher relative to the athlete’s height.

A simple indicator of balance especially in the snatch is depicted in the photos in figure 4 & 5. A disposition of body and barbell sufficient to achieve dynamic balance in the squat position of the snatch is created by having some part of the body in front and behind the vertical projection of the barbell. Consequently, the larger the body mass the higher the athlete sits in the squat; the lesser the possibility to counterbalance the athlete – barbell system: to have shins tilting forward with some leaning of trunk forward, with hips slightly behind the vertical projection of the barbell (figures 4 & 5).     

/ selection and excessive use of exercises out of sync in time and space

“Exercises directed at the formation (transformation) of competitive actions “in parts”, must not essentially differ in their main structural form from the reproduced “parts” of the competitive exercise (analysis must confirm the structure is correct). If this condition is not met, the preparatory exercise will be formed not as a skill of the competition exercise but as some other skill. This may cause interference (negative transfer) of skills. L. P. Matveyv, 1977

Athletes frequently mimic the techniques, training methods, exercises and so forth of the best in sport. This is certainly not a new phenomena. However, everyone is different and just because a champion does some exercise doesn’t necessarily mean it is one of the secrets to his/her success. Coaches and athletes often don’t take the time to analyze the long term effects of assistance exercises.   

In light of what has been presented about problems of jerking the barbell, push press, push jerks and other similar exercises where the habit is ingrained to press upward; such assistance exercises for the jerk are not advisable; especially for the biggest athletes.

One exercise in particular which is popular with many lifters is the so – called muscle snatch. This exercise stands out as being out of sync in time space with the skill to lift maximum weights. The barbell is lifted from the floor or from the hang to arms length without squatting under it, i.e., using only arm and shoulder muscles to raise it as it passes the waist.  

Even though this movement seems entirely consistent with the muscle actions of the snatch, the motor pattern is quite different.

First, the lifter is practicing lifting the barbell higher than is necessary to raise a maximum weight, i.e., out of sync in space. Second, the lifter spends more time lifting the weight upward, i.e., out of sync in time. Third, the motor skill to fix the the weight overhead is radically different than the actual action of fixing the weight from a rapid drop into the squat position. Fourth, variations of performing the exercise range from a a high pull and passive turnover of the barbell to a high pull and a strenuous press up, as depicted in figure 6.

The high pull and press up version is without a doubt the worst version for transfer of habits to the skill required to lift maximum weights.  

Figure 6. Lifter is performing the ‘high pull and muscle up’ version of the muscle snatch which bears no resemblance to the skill of lifting maximum weights in the snatch. 

This exercise is particularly popular with the people who should do it the least, the +105 lifters. The skills inherent to lifting a maximum weight in the snatch can and usually do deteriorate as body mass approaches the point of diminishing returns. The specificity of the skill connected with lifting a maximum weight in the snatch involves actively turning the bar over during the descent (as lower extremities flex) into the squat while instantaneously switching from pulling the body down (which is not done in the muscle snatch) to pushing the barbell up and back to fix it and counterbalance the system.

/ general deterioration of motor skills

As body mass increases past some reasonable point of diminishing returns there is a general deterioration of the motor skills. A shift away from accentuating moving the body to using muscle and body mass to raise the barbell; primarily due to the aforementioned fact that it takes extra energy to move unnecessary body mass.

Conclusions

There is a positive outcome to be had from increasing body mass. The athlete lifts bigger weights; even though the bigger weights lifted are not the same percentage of his/her body mass. The downside is the bigger weights, as a percentage of the lifter’s bodyweight, a simple indicator of mechanical efficiency, invariably declines.

This simple fact is often ignored and is all the more apparent with the female weightlifter. The recent introduction of the 90 kg class is a good example of an error in judgement. Generally the 90 kg results have been lower than the winning results in the 75 kg and even lighter classes. For instance, the winning result of the 90 kg class at the 2018 Chinese national championships was 253 kg; whereas the winning result at 75 kg was 273 kg. Even the winning result of 264 kg for the 69 kg was 11 kg greater at a bodyweight of 21 kg less.

For all of the reasons enumerated above, the additional mass added to a generally smaller frame does not translate into improved or a preservation of the specificity of the  motor skills to raise maximum weights. It would be a good idea to have a weight limit for the female unlimited class of say 130 kg. For instance, the winning result of the 2017 Senior World Championships was a -7.69 kg less than (snatch – bodyweight + jerk – bodyweight) the bodyweight of the gold medalist. 

A primary consideration for the biggest athletes is to endeavor to achieve some mass which is reasonably commensurate with the dynamics of the competition exercises such that unnecessary fat and girth do not impede the athlete’s ability to move in a manner consistent with the best technique for lifting maximum weights.

The coordination structure of assistance exercises selected for all lifters, especially the biggest athletes, need to conform as closely as possible with the skills requisite for lifting maximum weights.   

References

1/ Abramovsky, I., “A weightlifter’s excess bodyweight and sport results”, Olimp magazine, 1:28-29:2002, Translated by Andrew Charniga, www.sportivnypress.com

2/ Meranzov, C, “Trends in the evolution of sports results during the 1973 -1983 period”, IWF Coaching – Refereeing – Medical Symposium, Bad Blakenburg (GDR), May 28 – 30:1985:29-34

3/ Druzhinin, V.A., “Teaching Snatch Technique to Beginners”, Tiiazhelaya Atletika, 29-31:1974, FIS, Moscow.

4/ LI, N., “A new conceptualization of weightlifting technique and training”, Olimp 2- 3(58):2016; English translation Andrew Charniga, www.sportivnypress.com

5/ Matveyev, L.P., Fundamentals of Sport Training, FIS, Moscow, 1977

6/ Zhekov, I.P., BIomechanics of the Weightlifting AExercises, FIS, Moscow, 1976. Sportivnypress, Livonia, MI 48152 English translation

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