Unbalanced Equilibrium in Weightlifting
“The majority of coaches and sportsmen are unaware a lifter does not utilize the strength of the muscles of the right and left side of the body uniformly.” A.N. Vorobeyev, 1977
Figure 1. Elite lifter descends with barbell seemingly too far in front of the trunk and fixes it with modest asymmetry of feet. It is assumed the weightlifter needs to keep the barbell close to the torso in the pull and descent, i.e., balance and stability achieved by moving the barbell close to the body. By contrast, the weightlifter can move the body to the barbell and still get the job done. Charniga photos.
Balance, equilibrium and stability are interdependent, interconnected and inter-conditional attributes, crucial to successful execution of the classic weightlifting exercises. Weightlifters arrange the feet, grasp the barbell and endeavor to shift the feet in the descent under the barbell uniformly equidistant to facilitate balance, equilibrium and stability in the performance of the classic weightlifting exercises.
The precise disposition of the weightlifter’s stance and grasp of the barbell are predicated on the assumption that the strength of muscles on the right and left side of the body are equivalent; and, likewise generate selfsame lifting forces to balance and level the barbell in the act of lifting.
However, the complexity of equilibrium in weightlifting exercises includes the coordination of intersecting signals from the right and left sides of the brain to the contra- lateral sides of the body (figures 2). It is common knowledge the right side of the brain controls the left side of the body and vice versa. The weightlifting literature is scarce to non – existent on the weightlifter’s ability to generate force uniformly through right and left arms; right and left legs.
Most coaches and athletes just assume equidistant placement of hands and feet from the center of the barbell are all that is needed to balance the barbell and establish equilibrium of the athlete – barbell unit.
Figure 2. An example of elite lifter raising a record weight with what would seem to be a balance/level barbell; subsequently significantly imbalanced. Neural signals intersect from right and left side of the brain to right and left sides of the body (indicated by arrows) may play a role in this imbalanced yet balanced phenomena. Furthermore, neural input to muscles are altered in response to changes in posture: in this instance, from crouching to standing. Charniga photo
Weightlifters typically arrange the feet in the starting position of the snatch the clean and for the jerk equidistant from the center of the bar and collaterally equidistant from the right and left half center of the body. In this manner the right, left hands and feet work to lift the barbell uniformly with both sides of the body presumably performing 50% of the muscular work. Furthermore, the aim is to lift with the barbell level so that the athlete – barbell unit is balanced.
A number of factors complicate the weightlifter’s efforts to balance the athlete – barbell unit. The athlete’s area of support is limited to the length and breadth of the feet. However, the so -called ‘toppling over’ or forward pull of the barbell is caused by the general center of mass (GCM) of the athlete – barbell unit rising along with the rising barbell (A.N. Vorobeyev, 1977). This forward pull, a sort of horizontal gravitational force, increases the complexity of establishing and maintaining equilibrium.
The weightlifter is tasked with raising a maximum weight all the while overcoming an ever increasing the toppling over force; created by the rising barbell; pulling him/her face forward. Consequently, achieving balance, equilibrium and stability in the weightlifting exercises is considerably more involved than merely keeping the barbell level with hands and feet equidistant from the center of the barbell.
Figure 3-4. Elite Chinese female fixes barbell in low squat with feet arranged asymmetrically to the side (frontal plane) and to the rear (sagittal plane) to achieve a stable equilibrium with a multi – planer disposition of legs.
However, the multifaceted complexity of the vital attributes of achieving equilibrium in the weightlifting exercises reaches zenith when the athlete switches from lifting to receiving barbell in the squat for the snatch, the clean or the split or squat position for the jerk. The weightlifter has to switch from standing to squatting at maximum speed and prepare to instantly receive the barbell and balance the athlete – barbell unit over a new support.
The new support will be the altered disposition of the feet to the side, either forward, backwards or in same position; but, not necessarily arranged symmetrically from the center line of the body or barbell (See figure 2-3). In the example depicted in figure 2 – 3 the female lifter has shifted her feet such that the left is moved to the side and backwards further than the right, all the while the barbell remains level and in the same horizontal line.
According to Vorobeyev (1977), “The asymmetrical re – arrangement of the feet is due to a non – uniform raising the barbell in the horizontal plane.” This can be true but it would have to be based on evidence the barbell would be displaced in the horizontal plane, i.e., one side of the barbell would follow the foot displaced asymmetrically.
The female lifter depicted in figures 3-4 achieves a stable equilibrium in the low squat by increasing the width of her support base in the frontal and saggital planes simultaneously; with the left foot shifted backwards further than the right. In this case, the athlete reacts by shifting her body asymmetrically relative to the horizontal line of the barbell; which one would expect to see reflected in the barbell being turned to one side; which doesn’t happen. Significant anecdotal evidence does not confirm the barbell twists to one side with the asymmetrical placement of the feet. For example, in figures 3-4, the feet are arranged asymmetrically; but the barbell remained in the same horizontal plane.
Furthermore, this asymmetry of foot re – arranged can be most often observed in female lifters, especially those who possess large mobility in joints. One also finds this aberration with lifters who employ the squat style instead of scissoring the feet in the jerk. Consequently, a plausible reason for the asymmetry is the lifter’s reaction descending under the barbell by expanding the base of support to establish equilibrium in the saggital plane.
“You get pseudo-order when you seek order; you only get a measure of order and control when you embrace randomness”. Nasim Taleb
Equilibrium is “a state of balance between opposing forces or actions that is either static (as in a body acted on by forces whose resultant is zero or dynamic” Merriam Webster). The ability to achieve a state of dynamic equilibrium is an extraordinarily complex and difficult task in the performance of the weightlifting exercises. The weightlifter has to balance the opposing forces of his/her body and the barbell as a unified system; assuming the athlete deploys the strength of his muscles uniformly.
The circumference of the right arm/shoulder and right thigh of many experienced weightlifters are larger in comparison with the contra-lateral limbs. This one sided development of the body is thought to result from the asymmetrical and asynchronous re – arrangement of the feet in the jerk.
Generally the lifter’s right foot remains on the platform for a moment as the left is raised and placed backwards. Most people are right handed; consequently, most right handed people select the right foot to shift forward into the split for the jerk. This prolonged support on the right foot, however brief, over time, and, after many repetitions, results in a slightly larger asymmetrical development of the right side of the body.
The left foot is raised from the platform before the right, because it has to be moved further away from the center line of the body. The foot re – arranged backwards which is usually the left, provides less vertical support for the left arm to fix the barbell at arm length. Consequently, it is no coincidence, a lifter struggling to jerk a maximum weight will fail or experience difficulty locking the left elbow.
The Possibility of Spill Over of Efferent Impulses
Consider the quote from the Soviet experts below:
“Raising a barbell unbalanced is due to the asymmetrical development between the muscles of the right and left side of the sportsman’s body. It is difficult to spot this mistake with the naked eye; without special instrumentation.” A.N. Vorobeyev, 1977.
There may be some truth to this statement. However, apparently not considered in the explanation for an “unbalanced barbell” is the known fact nervous enervation to the muscles come from opposites sides of the brain, i.e., the lines cross. The nerves from the central nervous system intersect to enervate opposite sides of the body (figures 2, 5 – 6).
The phenomena of cross – education; a result of training one side of the body; the right arm for instance, increasing in the strength of the contra – lateral side; in this case the left arm, has been documented (Wilson, 1996; Rasch, 1957). An interesting explanation suggested by Hellebrant (1951, quoted by Rasch) “cross – education effect was the result of simultaneous discharge of efferent impulses over bilateral pathways”. How a “spillover of efferent impulses” would affect weightlifter straining to lift and balance a barbell at on and the time, has not received attention.
Nonetheless, the idea of a spill over of efferent impulses over the crossed lines of the neural paths enervating opposites of the body would seem to be reasonable explanation for the imbalance of equilibrium as depicted in figures 2, 9-10.
So, muscle imbalance is not the only explanation for the “unbalanced” phenomenon. A more likely explanation is an asymmetrical spill over of the neural enervation to the muscles, i.e., a non – uniform ‘crossing of signals’. That is to say an unbalanced barbell may just be normal; considering the intricate conditions involved; a complex organism performing the complex task of raising a maximum weight.
Figure 5-6. Olympic champion jerking with level barbell and symmetrical re – arrangement of feet. An illustration (arrows indicate contra – lateral enervation) of the extraordinary complexity of contra-lateral control of the body from opposites sides of the brain as legs shift in different directions providing differing support to arms. Balancing the barbell with the instantaneous scissoring of the feet shifting asynchronously and asymmetrically is an extraordinarily complex balancing act for the weightlifter. Charniga photo
Equilibrium, Balance and Stability in Spite of, or Because of Imbalance and Asymmetry?
Not surprising the jerk portion of the clean and jerk exercise confronts the weightlifter with the most complex conditions to achieve a dynamic equilibrium: the common center of mass of athlete – barbell is raised to the highest point in the midst of an instantaneously shifting of the feet asynchronously and asymmetrically. While this transpires, one foot is re – arranged significantly further behind the vertical line of the bar.
For instance, some Bulgarian world record holders in the clean and jerk of the 1980s; notably, A. Varbanov, and M. Petrov, grasped the barbell with the right hand further from the center of the bar than the left. This asymmetric grasp tilted the barbell, by shifting the right hand closer to the discs. Even though they stood in the starting position of the jerk with barbell tilting uneven to the right across the chest; the barbell was nonetheless leveled as it was raised to a lock out position overhead. A stable equilibrium was achieved even though the athlete – barbell unit was not balanced at the start.
The lifters who employed this uneven grasp of the barbell and start with unbalanced barbell executed the exercise effectively through a re – distribution of the mechanical energy of the athlete – barbell unit to find a stable equilibrium.
Figures 7-8. M. Petrov jerks from unbalanced start to finish the exercise with a level barbell and a stable equilibrium. Did the lifter establish balance and equilibrium in spite of or because of the asymmetrical hand spacing?
Furthermore, these lifters presumably attempted to effectively ‘hide’ the weak side or left arm, supported by a left leg arranged rearward much further behind the vertical line of the barbell. The lifters indirectly supported weaker left side by shifting a small disproportionate portion of the load to the right side where the front foot is closer to the vertical line of the barbell.
The Bulgarians were successful lifting world records even though this ‘aberrant’ technique was considered inefficient:
For example, mesrs. Petrov and Varbanov re – distributed the energy from the unbalanced right side to achieve a balanced, level barbell even though the hand spacing was uneven.
Lifters typically have the most difficulty locking the arm of the leg placed backwards in the split; and, anecdotal evidence indicates this arm is most often injured in sprains or elbow dislocation.
A variation of such a strategy to address the strong side, weak side dilemma in the jerk from the chest is to assume a start position with hands equidistant from the center of the barbell; but with feet arranged asymmetrically. Here, instead of the right hand positioned closer to the discs the right foot is advanced forward slightly from the horizontal line of the bar. The right leg bears a disproportionate loading when the lifter executes the half squat to jerk the barbell and this foot is already closer to its ultimate destination.
Peculiarities of balance, equilibrium and stability are not unique to weightlifting. In point of fact they can even be considered ‘normal aberrations’ in athletics; given the extraordinary complexity of the human body’s movement possibilities. Furthermore, the high incidence of injuries in American sport can be traced to a catastrophic outcome of strength and conditioning training, therapeutics and the like; where athletes are choreographed to conform movements to rigid, arbitrarily conceived linear limitations.(Charniga, 2015 – 2017).
Lifting with an asymmetry and/or asynchronous hand or foot spacing are not peculiar to weightlifting. Biomechanical research has determined Usain Bolt had an asymmetrical gait; generating more force with his right leg than left. This is a peculiar circumstance considering the 100 & 200m events are measured in hundredths of a second and an asymmetric gait would be expected to make a runner oscillate within the confines of his lane; slowing a sprinter.
“Running experts generally assume asymmetry impairs performance and slows Runners down”. “Our observations raise the immediate scientific question of whether a lack of symmetry represents a personal mechanical optimization that makes Bolt the fastest sprinter ever or exists for reasons yet to be identified,” said Udofa, a member of the SMU research team
Biomechanical analysis of the 2017 World Athletics Championships revealed a asymmetrical stride to be fairly common among elite runners. In fact, the 2017 world champion at 10,000m Almaz Ayana of Ethiopia “shows a difference of up to 20 centimeters between the length of her strides from right to left, i.e., her right to left is 20 cm longer than left to right.”Hanley, 2018
Figures 9-10. Depicted in the figures is a rather peculiar example of asymmetrical balance. The athlete in the photos raised her right heel even before barbell separation; lowered it to the platform after the barbell passed knee level; once again she began raising it asynchronously, relative to the left; before rising onto the toes with both feet, i.e., deploying four levers with her right leg: foot, shin, thigh, trunk. Charniga photos.
The video (Youtube link: https://youtu.be/7tP7NjsnJuc) of the female world champion presented below is a good indication balance, equilibrium and stability need not have an absolute dependence on symmetrical, equidistant grasping of the barbell and stance. The lifter raises a barbell which was supposed to be loaded to 118 kg. Instead, the loaders failed to load a 2.5 kg disc on one side of the barbell (the lifter’s right).
https://youtu.be/7tP7NjsnJuc (video Andrew Charniga)
The lifter feels the unbalanced weight during the clean; all the more significant because 2.5 less weight on one side of the barbell is approximately 5% of her 48 kg body weight. Too late to adjust the grasp or stance, the lifter pauses briefly to shift the energy of the athlete – barbell unit until she senses her equilibrium; then successfully jerks the barbell level and balanced.
The weightlifter’s ability to react to the barbell imbalance enabled her redistribute energy of the athlete – barbell unit; indicative that balance and equilibrium are intricately more complex than merely an equidistant gasp and placement of feet and a level barbell.
“… it is imperative that novices do not learn standard movements, but are trained to find the optimum movement parameters, which are the most advantageous under the specific circumstances. The lift will result in failure if the athlete does not compensate for deviations.” Druzhinin, 1974
Various authors (Roman, Druzhinin) have put forth methods confirmed by practical application to acquire balance, equilibrium and stability skills from the first lessons with novice lifters. R. A. Roman recommended performing the classic exercises with eyes closed or with blindfold to develop the kinesthetic awareness of the body’s position in space.
Druzhinin (1974) recommended teaching the snatch beginning in reverse order, from overhead to the starting position. And, with each learning segment the athlete is to ‘find’ equilibrium by performing the segments practicing loss of balance.
“Do the same movement with a loss of balance forward and backwards and with a rearranging of the feet in front of and behind the projection of the barbell.” Druzhinin, 1974.
The logic behind these learning techniques centers around the fact that movement parameters with lifts of 65, 75 and 85%, for instance, are all different (Roman, 1968). This is true even if the lifter lifts the same weight multiple times (Roman, 1968; Druzhinin, 1974). Consequently, developing the skill to balance the athlete barbell unit incorporates how to find one’s equilibrium with various weights and under various conditions are critical skills to learn from the onset of training and should be continued throughout a weightlifter’s career.
If it ain’t broke don’t fix it
The importance of lifting the barbell level and distributing one’s efforts uniformly cannot be underestimated. There is no questioning the logic of spacing the hands and feet equidistant from the center of the barbell in order to lift a level barbell with the same muscular force from each side of the body. Nonetheless, this circumstance is predicated on the assumption the strength of the right and left side of the body are uniform and/or can be expressed uniformly in the act of lifting.
Balance, equilibrium and stability define the complexity of the classic exercises. One need only count the misses in competition attempts where in many cases, lacking in the aforementioned attributes cause missed attempts. This circumstance is all the more poignant for the jerk from the chest of the third and final lift. The most complex skill in weightlifting, the success rate for the third jerk in competition is usually less than 40%.
The toppling over, a sort of horizontal gravitational pull, presents the most complex challenge to the weightlifter, to perfect the qualities of balance – stability – equilibrium. This horizontal pull on the athlete – barbell unit increases with the rising barbell and reaches its zenith in weightlifting sport with a jerk of 300% and more of the lifter’s body weight.
The fact that the opposite sides of the body are controlled by the contra- lateral sides of the brain, a crossing of signals from the intersection of the nerves; can be considered the normal aberrations of the functioning of the human body.
What on the surface would appear to be inefficient movements and/or incorrect disposition of the barbell relative to the horizontal (illustrations 1- 10); are in many cases normal aberrations. These aberrations do not necessarily mean the athlete has some defect; he/she is unlikely in need of fixing.
1/ Vorobeyev, A.N., Weightlifting, Textbook for the Institute of Sport, FIS, Moscow, 1988, Translated by Andrew Charniga
2/ Vorobeyev, A.N., Weightlifting, FIS, Moscow, 1977, Translated by Andrew Charniga
3/ Zhekov, I.P., Biomechanics of the weightlifting exercises, FIS, Moscow, 1976. Sportivnypress, Livonia, Michigan
4/ 2017 IAAF World Championships Biomechanics study, https://www.iaaf.org/about-iaaf/documents/research#collapse2017-iaaf-world-championships-biomechanics-st
5/ Roman, R.A., The Training of the Weightlifter FIS, Moscow, 1968;1974; 1986. English translation (1986 version) Sportivnypress, Livonia, Michigan
6/ Druzhinin, V.A., “Teaching snatch technique to beginners” Tiazhelaiia Atletika, 29-31:1974. Translated by Andrew Charniga.
7/ Wilson, G., Murphy, A., Walshe, A., “The specificity of strength training: the effect of posture”, Eur J Appl Physiol (1996) 73:346 – 352
8/ Rasch, P.J., Morehouse, L. E., “The Effect of Static and Dynamic Exercises on Muscular Strength and Hypertrophy”, J. Appl. Physiol. 11(1):29-34, 1957