Nature Or Nurture:
Gender Variations in Weightlifting Technique
An important question of weightlifting sport science is whether there are gender differences in technique associated with physiological and biomechanical differences between the sexes. If such distinctions exist, do they involve actions the coach should teach the female athlete or eliminate; for instance, so as to conform to current thinking of correct technique?
“…nature” refers to biological/genetic predispositions’ impact on human traits, and nurture describes the influence of learning and other influences from one’s environment.”
Nature or Nurture Technique
Optimum parameters of weightlifting technique developed by the Soviet school of weightlifting have been forthcoming for males. Consequently, the question which should be asked are these parameters applicable to the female weightlifter? If so, then applying those male technique parameters would constitute ‘nurturing’ the female to perform the classic exercises like a man.
Figure 1. Graphic depiction of two female lifters. Ankle, knee and hip angles are depicted along with tracing of three points: green – barbell center of mass (COM); red – common COM (center of mass of body and barbell as a single unit); blue – COM of the body. On the left a ‘nurture’ and on the right a ‘nature’ technique. (graphics Todd Lyons)
However, if the coach/teacher allows for “biological/genetic predispositions” gender differences in weightlifting mechanics emerge; not deficient, just different.
For instance, consider the graphics of joint angles and tracings of path of shoulder joints, barbell center of mass (BCM), common center of mass (CCM) and body center of mass for two female lifters. Those three points of balance lie almost in the same vertical plane over the pelvis for the female graphic on the left; whereas, the same three points in the figure on the right do not; they are all in front of the pelvis. The alignment of the three points in the figure on the left are closer in conformity to the classic Soviet model; the alignment on the right are completely removed from what would be considered the optimum; even practical.
The female athlete on the left has been taught to perform the classic exercises step by step; a nurtured technique. The result is a slow, mechanical, inefficient, a nurturing of technique. Conversely, the athlete on the right is elite; expressing a natural predisposition to move the body in such a manner as to achieve a positive outcome i.e., a technique of nature. She is not focused on raising the barbell within specified parameters.
Critical parameters of technical proficiency
Soviet era research established numerous parameters of technique such as barbell speed, trajectory, height of lifting, optimum joint angles, and so forth.
The most informative parameters of technical efficiency in the classic weightlifting exercises are:
/ a low height of lifting;
/ a high speed descent;
/ an efficient expression of muscle power, i.e., the force of muscle contraction less resistance of muscle antagonists and elasticity of muscles, tendons and ligaments (Sokolov, 1982; Falameyev, 1980);
Of the four parameters listed above the first two are quantifiable: the maximum height of lifting and the speed of descent under the barbell. The efficiency of muscle power is only to be guessed; the quality of balance/equilibrium is likewise, not easily quantifiable.
The first three parameters are interconnected, interdependent and inter – conditional the same quality: the speed of muscle relaxation. A successful lift with a minimum height of lifting is not possible in either snatch or clean unless the lifter drops under the barbell very fast; which in its turn is not feasible unless the weightlifter is able relax muscles extremely fast. An efficient expression of muscle power is only possible when internal resistance from unnecessary tension of muscle antagonists is minimal. Furthermore, suppleness is likewise inextricably linked with muscle relaxation in minimizing internal resistance to movement.
The quality of balance/equilibrium is a critical skill; not just the balancing of a barbell in the squat position of the snatch. The complexity of equilibrium grows from the instant of barbell separation from the platform; forcing the weightlifter to cope with a ever growing toppling over force as the barbell rises; while at the same time lifting with maximum force.The disposition of the three points in the figure one are a reflection of the athletes effort to generate power while overcoming the toppling over force of the barbell pulling the body forward.
Considering those enumerated critical skills connected with mechanically efficient technique; biological differences between the sexes can be observed in the variations of the approach to raising a barbell. These variations in turn are connected with some distinct gender differences.
Contrasting of gender differences (male/female):
/ higher levels of testosterone/females only 10% of males;
/ more muscle mass, less fat mass/ less muscle mass, higher fat mass;
/ greater relative upper body strength/less relative upper body strength;
/ higher center of mass/lower center of mass;
/ less natural mobility in joints/greater natural mobility;
/ higher muscle tonus/lower muscle tonus;
/ naturally higher aggressiveness/low aggressiveness.
Gender Variations in the clean and jerk
The clean and jerk consists of two exercises in one: an energy sapping lift to the chest requiring mostly power; a lift from the chest requiring more skill than power. Some gender differences can be observed in the performance of this complexity.
Ivanov (1977), studied the connection between the “time of readiness”, the time of pausing in the starting position before beginning the jerk and successful attempts with near maximum and maximum weights of 1,690 weightlifters of the USSR. He analyzed a possible dependence between successful/unsuccessful jerk attempts of 978 weightlifters and the time of recovery from the squat. In both circumstances the longer the time of readiness and/or, the time to recover from the squat the more likely the athlete was unable to jerk the barbell.
However, the author concluded the time of recovery from the squat had a greater effect than the time of readiness on whether the jerk was successful. Longer recovery times from the squat were more likely to result in a missed jerk from the chest.
These data was obtained from an era before women weightlifters. The author believed the oscillation of the barbell in the start position had some influence on the time of readiness. Longer times were recorded with heavier weights because the heavier barbell takes longer to stop oscillating, i.e., the athlete would wait until vibration of the barbell to lessen.
The time to recover from the squat, in effect the time of straining, had the most influence on the athlete’s ability to jerk the barbell. So, a longer time of straining would more likely result in a missed jerk from the chest than a longer time of resting in the starting position of the jerk. The greater negative influence of prolonged straining versus a prolonged ‘resting’ in the start position of the jerk of course applied only to male weightlifters.
The perspective of this rather obscure research is unique. Ivanov attempted to quantify the effect of straining on the expression another physiological quality coordination/skill. Which, in this case the coordination/skill, follows the the prolonged straining in the same exercise. It is common knowledge (Kanyevsky, 2007) a successful jerk from the chest with a given weight requires less power than needed to clean it. So, the effect of an energy sapping clean on the lower power, but higher skill jerk to follow; is a question of human physiology with broader implications beyond weightlifting.
The Female Weightlifter’s ‘Dolga Gatovitsa’ an Effect of Prolonged Straining
Practical experience, extensive observations of international and local competitions reveal a tendency of a longer time of readiness in the start position of female weightlifters. Furthermore, unlike the male weightlifter, the time of straining to recover from the squat need not affect a female’s ability to successfully jerk the barbell as much as it would a male lifter. This is especially evident when contrasting the jerk attempts of male and female lifters who expended near exhausting effort to recover from the squat.
More often than not, males who take a longer time to stand, i.e., undergo prolonged straining, will immediately attempt to jerk the barbell. They will not pause long enough to regather, to release unnecessary muscle tension, to balance the body – barbell system before beginning jerk proper. Perhaps the perceived exertion of the recovery from the squat triggers a reflexive response from the male lifter to begin the jerk while there is still energy available to jerk the barbell. This ‘rush to lift’ precludes sufficient time to relax excess muscle tension; to balance the athlete – barbell system.
Three videos illustrate this circumstance. In the first video a female lifter takes a rather prolonged time of readiness, a ‘dolga gatovitsa’ (literally, Russian for ‘a long time to get ready’,) after a very difficult and prolonged straining to stand from the squat. The same circumstance occurs in video 2. The woman takes a rather long time of readiness; especially when added to the prolonged time to stand from the squat.
In video 3 the male lifter begins to jerk the barbell rather soon after struggling to stand; this lack of readiness sends the weight forward out of control. These differences in reaction to straining are subtle, not mutually exclusive; yet nonetheless, distinct.
1 – https://youtu.be/oiuv29Y1-28
2 – https://youtu.be/x-MsvbK9w1A
3 – https://youtu.be/tBA1EsN9aP8
4 – https://youtu.be/e29vv3rhY-k
Whatever the mechanism, counter-intuitively, females are more likely (but not exclusively) to respond to an energy sapping clean by waiting longer in the start. Waiting longer before jerking would seem to sap more energy; leaving little power in the tank to jerk the barbell. However, in most cases their ‘Dolga Gatovitsa’ is not energy sapping; but an effective prerequisite to successfully jerk the barbell.
This phenomena in all probability is connected with the physiological and psychological make up of the female weightlifter. Anecdotal evidence indicates females tend to be more energy efficient at straining than males. And, this feature could explain why prolonged (straining) recovery from the squat is neither physically nor psychologically as taxing for females as males, i.e., a quality of nature.
On the other hand females who have been taught to approach weightlifting aggressively, that is to say, from a male perspective; are more likely to expend more energy in standing from the squat and take less time to regather in preparation to jerk, i.e., a quality of nurture.
The female weightlifter’s energy expenditure from prolonged straining may not be perceived to be so taxing as to preclude her from jerking the barbell due to lack of energy; as it is for the male weightlifter.
For instance, observations of rapid, discrete changes of facial expression (Charniga, 2016) in females which coincide with changes in mechanical advantage of the weightlifting exercises shows females, especially elite and the super elite, will instinctively ‘dial down’ superfluous muscle tension in order to perform the exercises with greater mechanical efficiency.
Consider the super elite female straining to stand in figure 2. The relaxed features, as though somnambulate, coincide with a knee angle of approximately 90°. This is the most difficult segment of the squat when the force arm of gravity is greatest, i.e., where one would expect the strain to be reflected on the young woman’s face. Although difficult to quantify, this phenomena of relaxed straining can only be interpreted as mechanical efficiency.
Figure 2. Somnabulate super elite female, facial muscles relaxed; straining to stand as knee angles reach 90°, the most difficult segment of the exercise. Charniga photo
Some Gender Variances in Movement
“In almost every domain of life, men are considered the normal human being , and women are considered “abnormal” , deficient because they are different from men.” Carol Tarvis, 1992
Considering the list of gender differences above males have some exclusive advantages in weightlifting. Consequently, means for the female weightlifter to circumvent such male advantages of greater muscle mass, high serum testosterone, lower fat mass and the like, are to make use of the natural gifts of suppleness, joint mobility and greater elasticity in overcoming mechanical difficulty in the classic exercises. Evidence is to be found in the female weightlifter’s movements outside accepted norms of linear symmetry.
For instance, many elite females pull and recover from the squat with a distinct shifting of the knees inward (varus) and or outward (valgus); covered in other essays (Charniga, 2015;2019). The bowing of the knees outside the linear line of the foot typically coincide with the most difficult segments of the exercises; the joint angles of 80 – 100° and the like.
Other movement variations involve effective utilization of inertia and elastic energy in lieu of a total reliance on muscle force.
For instance, generally there are two ways athletes assume the start position for the jerk. The first is to begin the half squat with the knees locked or a knee angle about 180°; the other is with knees slightly flexed. In either case the lifter begins the half squat by flexing knees from either of these static dispositions.
A variation outside the norm is illustrated in the video 4: https://youtu.be/e29vv3rhY-k. The woman assumes the start for the jerk from a brief static, flexed knee position. Instead of flexing knees further to squat, she begins by rapidly straightening the knees; then proceeds to perform the half squat. This preliminary straight – to – bend squatting gets the barbell moving (inertia); bending the bar as the legs straighten; which in turn, will recoil as she bends into the half squat; contributing to an even greater bend and accumulation of strain energy. Furthermore, the rapid straightening of the knees facilitates the knee bend by rapidly stretching the bi – articular muscles which flex the knees; thereby utilizing the energy of recoil from soft tissues.
The peculiarity of this woman’s technique, effectively using what Nicolai Bernstein called the “free forces” is a classic example of someone getting the most out of her body; above and beyond mere muscle contraction:
“The movement of the body is more economical, and consequently, more rational, the greater degree to which the organism utilizes the reactive and external forces and the less reliance on recruiting active muscles”. N. A. Bernstein, 1947
Questions of Balance
“Complex systems are full of inter-dependencies— hard to detect— and nonlinear responses.” Nasim Taleb, 2012
Of the four critical parameters of proficient technique, balance/equilibrium is interconnected, interdependent and inter-conditional to the other three. The effectiveness of a low height of lifting, a high speed of descent under the barbell and a rapid relaxation of muscles are facilitated by the athlete’s ability to balance the athlete barbell system in the receiving position of the exercises.
Balance/equilibrium is complicated, as already noted, by the rising general center of mass of the athlete barbell as a single unit. Balance/equilibrium in the fore aft (sagittal plane) direction is likewise a complex problem. A select few males are champions utilizing the inefficient squat jerk technique; yet many lesser lifters copy this technique. This despite the fact that those who manage to become champions stumble about the platform lucky to succeed with usually less than 50% of their jerks; many, often are lucky to make one.
So, it should not come as a surprise that very, very few females; certainly no champions at the international level; jerk with the squat technique. Balance/equilibrium in the sagittal plane is too complex, either with a quarter squat bend; or, worse yet a full squat under the barbell. So, it should go without saying that scissoring under the barbell in the jerk is the most effective technique due to the largest area balance in the fore aft plane; coupled with a reasonably low center of mass of athlete – barbell.
Females typically have a higher success rate in both classic exercises in competition. Consequently, almost universal adoption of the scissors jerk technique is consistent with the female weightlifter’s greater overall psychological stability as reflected in a higher success rate in comparison with males (see figure 3).
Figure 3. Super elite female jerks record weight with a wide split to counterbalance the athlete – barbell unit in the fore – aft plane; while lowering center of mass for better equilibrium. Charniga photo.
Figure 4. Elite female lifter shifted feet asymmetrically in the squat; in order to lower center of mass and increase the area of balance in the sagittal plane.
Generally balance/equilibrium is perceived as primarily active. Weightlifters are already active with regards to balance/equilibrium with precise placement of hands on the bar, spacing and disposition of feet, and so forth. That said, females are more likely than males to be reactive in seeking balance/equilibrium.
For instance, an example of reactive movement to drop fast and very low under the barbell is illustrated in figure 4. The lifter hopped backwards while shifting her feet to the side asymmetrically. The left foot is situated behind the horizontal line of the barbell and her right foot. This asymmetry of the feet is reactive action. It occurs in the act of straining to lift a maximum weight; necessitated by a high speed of muscle relaxation to drop low very fast and quickly achieve equilibrium.
A simple argument can be made the foot asymmetry increases the area of balance in the sagittal plane similar to a split disposition of the feet in the jerk. It is reactive; nature and not nurture, because the athlete is moving the body outside any feasible ability for conscious control.
For instance, an estimated two thirds of all female lifters at 2013 Chinese National Games hopped backwards into the squat for snatch; with asymmetrical foot placement.
Furthermore, many elite females drop fast under the barbell without flexing the hips to assist the speed of descent (Charniga, “Variations in the jump under the barbell in the snatch and the clean”) . This is further indicative of low overall muscle tonus and a natural ability to relax muscles fast, i.e, a technique of nature.
Gender differences, however, subtle need to be taken into account in the learning/training of weightlifters. If a coach prepares a female weightlifter from a male perspective there is a risk the strengths of the female athlete will be ignored. The coach may endeavor to decide the female weightlifter’s movements conform to generally accepted parameters; which have been handed down for decades as appropriate for male weightlifters. That would be the nurture approach.
A nature approach would allow the female weightlifter perform the classic exercises in conformity with the strengths inherent to the athlete’s Biology: low overall muscle tension, larger mobility in joints, ability to reflexively relax muscles fast; utilize inertia, elastic energy, and so forth.
Consequently, the coach needs to cognizant of the technique peculiarities of the female athlete such as a more effective utilization of calf muscles and less reliance on the back (an Asian pull technique) an asymmetrical placement of the feet in squat, bowing the legs in and out during the pull, a longer time of readiness in the jerk a ‘dolga gatovitsa’, a mechanically efficient expression of muscle power by means of relaxation of unnecessary tension in antagonists and a greater reliance on utilizing elastic energy from tendons and ligaments.
/ Ivanov, A. T., “The time to prepare for the jerk”,Tyazhelaiia Atletika Ezhegodnik, FiS, Moscow, 1977:55-57.Translated by Andrew Charniga
/ Falameyev, A. I., Salnikov, V. A., Kimeishei, B.V., “Some observations about weightlifting technique”, The P.ZF. Institute of Physical Culture, Leningrad, 1980. Translated by Andrew Charniga
/ Sokolov, A.N.,Tiazhelaii Athletika, Textbook for the institutes of Physical Culture, 1982
Charniga, A., A De – masculinization of Strength, Sportivnypress, Livonia, Michigan,
/ Charniga, A.,“Comparison of Warm up Protocols of High Class Male and Female Weightlifters”, www.sportivnypress.com
/ Oleshko, V.,“Characteristics of the Movement of the Athlete/Barbell System for Athletes of Different Sex”, Olimp,
/ Charniga, A.,“Expression of Strength in Weightlifting”, www.sportivnypress.com
/ Charniga, A.,“How the Female Weightlifter Out – Grew the Lady Bar”, www.sportivnypress.com
/ Charniga, A.,“Equilibrium in Weightlifting”, www.sportivnypress.com
/ Charniga, A.,“Variations of the Jump Under the Barbell in the Snatch and the clean”, www.sportivnypress.com
/ Charniga, A., “Why God Does Not Build In Straight Lines”, www.sportivnypress. 2019
/ Charniga, A., “Its all connected Part II”. www.sportivnypress.com. 2015
/ Roman, R.A., The Training of the Weightlifter, FIS, Moscow, 1968
The significance of a fast, energy efficient rise from the squat was indirectly addressed by Roman (1968). He recommended weightlifters use the maximum result in the clean and jerk as the point of reference for training the squat. The squat training would compliment the technique of the clean when the athlete uses weights of 85 – 115% of the maximum result in the clean and jerk. The lifter should endeavor to perform the exercise with a smooth rhythm; accentuating a fast rise from the low position.
/ https://www.medicinenet.com/nature_vs_nurture_theory_genes_or_environment/article.htm#what_is_the_nature_vs_nurture_who_created_the_theory, nature nurture defined