A Solution To An Old Problem
Since at least the advent of the triathlon era of weightlifting, the human element in the adjudication of the exercises has been a challenge. Of the three competition exercises, the lack of consistency in judging the press was the most problematic. Proof positive of this assertion lies in the fact this exercise was eliminated from weightlifting competitions in 1972; to solve the omnipresent controversies caused by inconsistencies in deciding what constituted a legal press.
The press (the strict version) was originally designed to be a test of arm and shoulder strength. The weightlifter had to lift the barbell from the shoulders from a strict vertical standing position, to arms length without motion in the trunk, bending of knees or moving the feet.
It was a true test of strength. However, athletes who were good at this version were not very good at the quick lifts. The development of absolute strength beyond a certain point has negative influence on coordination and speed strength (Sokolov,1971). Consequently, this ambiguity created a program where the athletes with greatest absolute strength competed along side the supple highly skilled, speed strength athletes.
If one were to point to one single underlying reason for the death knell of the press it would be the original correct performance of the exercise consisted of man made stipulations. These man made stipulations were too restrictive for such an exercise. The complexity of human body; endowed with a wide range of movement possibilities and springy soft tissues means an athlete will gravitate to moving in such a pattern as to encounter the least resistance.
Consequently, the strict press and the other versions fell victim to the instinctive search for the most efficient use of the available mechanical leverage and elastic possibilities of the human body. Consider a brilliant observation, made by legendary Soviet weightlifting biomechanist Ilya Zhekov; in reference to man made rules governing movement of the human body:
“…….the weightlifter as a self – tuning system is confronted with the always present task to find such a movement structure which conforms to the required laws of physiology and will produce the maximum motor – effect. The search for this has for a long time been inhibited by the rules governing the execution of the press. However, the technique of the press has changed as have the rules governing it. And, in accordance a new starting position was born.” (Zhekov, 1972)
From Zhekov’s vantage point, i.e., of Biology; the technique of the press did not degenerate into cheating; it evolved into an efficient way to raise the barbell without moving the feet or bending the knees to lower the trunk. The lifter’s movements evolved harmoniously with the biomechanical peculiarities of the human body. The man made rules governing the legal execution of a strict press were outside the laws of Biology.
An Asian pull (Charniga, 2015) is a present day example of the the body’s natural predisposition to find a path of least resistance. Counter – intuitive and contrary to conventional wisdom; the weightlifter reflexively shifts stress away from the back muscles to accentuate the role of the calf muscles; all the while shifting the trunk and lower extremities outside the normal ranges of motion to raise the barbell.
What is to be done?
With the elimination of the press and the controversies it caused; the “pressing” problem for the judges is still very much alive today. If anything the problem is worse. Instead eliminating an exercise to make it easier for the officials; the technical rules have man made stipulations which are still out of sinc with the biomechanics of the human body.
The ‘press out’ infraction is responsible for more controversies, more time wasted in competition; and, of course, distress for the unfortunate athletes whose many hours of hard work and dedication fall victim to inconsistent adjudication of this ambiguous rule.
Figures 1 & 2. An unfortunate example of flawed technical rules. This lift was turned down; costing the athlete a gold medal at the 2016 Olympics. Note the bowed bar in upper left photo and straight bar in lower left photo. The lifter’s left elbow unlocked from a hyper-extended position, beyond 180°, let’s call it a -175° to an angle of approximately 180° or at best 178°, i.e., an insignificant deviation from a straight arm. This ‘wobble’ of elbow was precipitated by her pushing off the rear foot in recovering from the split and the ensuing vibration of the barbell.
The incident depicted in figures 1&2 is a perfect example of technical rules out of sinc with the real world of human physiology. There is no rational consideration in TCR of the difficulty of keeping locked elbows under the circumstances depicted. The mass of the barbell relative to the athlete’s weight in this case 232%. In order to recover from the split, the athlete shifts the feet back in line; exacerbating an already difficult situation: excessive bar oscillation.
An insignificant elbow ‘wobble’ from a hyper-extended disposition to a fractional deviation from 180° is entirely reasonable. Such slight movements should be deemed acceptable.
The four photos of figures 1 & 2 vividly illustrate problems the ambiguity of the press – out rule creates;
/ a modest wobble in the elbows is a natural reaction to the oscillation caused by the asynchronous and asymmetrical rearrangement of the feet in the jerk;
/ modest wobble in the elbows is a natural reaction to the oscillation of the bar in the snatch considering the high speed conditions of performing the exercise: for instance, the athlete drops in excess of the acceleration of gravity to fix the weight;
/ generally more females than males will lock elbows in hyper-extension;
/ deflection in the 15 kg barbell is up to 57% greater than the 20 kg bar, i.e., greater difficulty to controlling excessive oscillation (Charniga, A. 2017)
/ female lifters can be affected disproportionately by the ambiguity of the rule (see figures 1&2);
/ movement within a reasonable zone of variance does not constitute pressing per se; it is a natural shifting to establish equilibrium under the complex conditions of lifting maximum weights;
/ in most instances where the lifter is turned down; the weights are too heavy for an athlete to actually ‘press’ it to arms length outside a zone of variance of say 7 – 10° from actual elbow lock – out.*
The current technical rules state:
2:5.1.4 Pause during the extension of the arms.
18.104.22.168 Finishing with a press-out, defined as: continuing the extension of the arms after
the athlete has reached the lowest point of his / her position in the squat or split for
both the Snatch and the Jerk.
22.214.171.124 Bending and extending the elbows during the recovery.
Essentially any movement in which the athlete fails to achieve and maintain immobile, locked – elbow – joints is considered an infraction. Individual differences are permitted in the event an athlete is unable to fully straighten the arms. However, the immobility of fixed fully extended arms, applies to all. At any rate, the human element in adjudication prevails.
Modern, reasonable alterations to the technical rules
At the present time, there is no objective point of reference of what actually constitutes full extension of the arms. One athlete’s lifts can be judged good yet be unable to fully straighten one or both elbow joints: the angle of the elbow joint (the alignment of humerus/radius/ulna bones) is less the 180°, i.e., completes the exercises on bent arms. Conversely, another athlete, whose elbow joints extend beyond 180°, called a ‘hyper- extension’, are likewise judged good lifts. A third athlete, capable of fully straightening the elbows to form a joint angle of 180° tends to be the most common circumstance.
If the term press out is to have any relevancy there should be some objective definition of what constitutes an incomplete extension of the arms. The rules should specify an elbow angle of 180° as an objective point of reference. Most lifters can straighten their arms to this angle, i.e., full lockout.
The upshot is that all three variations described above are good lifts; with straight arms extended to 180° being the norm. Yet an elbow angle of 180° is not designated an objective point of reference. This is the first circumstance which should be added to the technical rules: an elbow angle of 180° is the objective point of reference defining full extension of the arms.
Figure 3. Two ‘fixed’ elbows in the figure depict an approximation of a zone of variance for legal lifts which can occur in weightlifting competitions. The elbow angle on the left is less than 180° whereas the one on the right is also less than 180° but in the opposite direction say an angle of -170°. Adding the difference from 180° they constitute a zone of variance of at least 10 – 14°, or more. Charniga photos.
The technical rules if not actually specifying; already imply an acceptable zone of variance for good lifts: from bent to hyper – extended elbows. Consequently, a reasonable zone of variance of at least 7 – 10° should be incorporated into the rules.
Furthermore, the only logical solution to all but end the controversies; and, in many cases the travesty of inconsistencies in judging is to permit movement within the already accepted zone of variance. Call it an elbow ‘wobble’, or whatever, as long as the movement is confined within reason to the zone of variance.
An Analogous Precedent for Alteration of the Technical Rules
An example of a precedent to a logical alteration of the technical rules; based on the natural predisposition of human mechanics; is the rule allowing the bar to contact the lifter’s thighs during the lifting motion. Up until that time (the early 1960s) weightlifters had to raise the barbell, in effect, ‘holding’ it away from the legs as it passed the thighs.
A ‘thigh brush’ was permitted based on the argument from Russian sport scientists that shifting the barbell towards the body, even to the point of touching the thighs was a natural reaction to overcome the ‘toppling over’ force of the weight pulling the athlete’s body forward. Weightlifters would be able to better preserve equilibrium if the bar was allowed to touch the body.
This shifting of the barbell towards the body meant the barbell’s trajectory took the shape of a ‘S’; and, this ‘S’ shape was more efficient than a strict vertical bar trajectory. Furthermore, this allowable shifting of the barbell towards the body reduced the moment on the lifter’s lumbar spine; the most frequent site of injury to weightlifters.
This allowable brushing of the thighs was counter to the laws of physics where the shortest distance between two points is a straight line as would be expected in a vertical, no – thigh – brush, bar trajectory in the pull. However, for the weightlifter, the shortest distance between two points is a curve-linear or ‘S’ pull.
What actually is a ‘press out”?
* It is far more likely lifters in the heavy weight classes will actually commit a “press – out” infraction.This means the the lifter raises the barbell to a position and briefly pauses with the elbows bent, most often less than 180°. However, in our example presented in figures 1 & 2 a lifter who hyper – extends the elbows could lift the barbell to an elbow angle of 180° or slightly less; pause, then continue raising it until the elbows are hyper – extended beyond 180°. The athlete was turned down for this perceived ‘press – out’.
The strongest weightlifters jerk 220 – 300% of bodyweight. It is unlikely any of these athletes have the arm strength to press a barbell from a paused, bent elbow disposition of 10 – 15° lower than lock out.
An actual press – out infraction is far more likely to occur in the heavier classes where the weights are both bigger and smaller. That is to say a 169 kg lifter lifting 250 kg is lifting a weight of only 148% of bodyweight. The challenge for this athlete to both lift and balance the athlete – barbell unit is significantly less than it is for a lifter lifting 250% of bodyweight. The heaviest lifters are less likely to bend the legs significantly in the scissoring under the weight to fix the barbell; yet are still be able to complete the exercise by muscling it with the arms (figure 4).
Figure 4. The athlete in the figure depicts the circumstances under which a weightlifter may ‘press out’ the barbell to complete the jerk. The weight is about 148% of his bodyweight. In the middle photo the upward movement of the barbell slows to almost a pause. The lifter completes lifting the barbell with minimal to no change in the angle of the inclination of the front thigh, i.e., fixing the weight more with arms than lowering the body under the barbell. Charniga photos.
At least two instances of the very same circumstances depicted in figure 4; a jerk turned down for ‘press out’, included an incident at the 2016 Olympics in Rio. This resulted in the athlete appealing the turned down lift decision; which had resulted in a lost Olympic medal; to the court of arbitration in Lausanne, Switzerland. The other incident occurred at the 2017 WWC In Anaheim. Two jerks turned down for ‘press out’ were cause for security personnel to ring the competition stage to prevent a riot.
Consequently, elimination of ambiguities in the technical rules; especially when that elimination is connected with the modernizing the competition format in conformity with the laws of Biology; can only be a win win for all concerned.
/ Zhekov, I.P., “The Dynamics of the Press”, Tiiazhelaya Atletika, FIC, Moskva, 1972
/ Charniga, A,. “How the female weightlifter outgrew the lady – bar”, www.sportivnypress.com
/ Charniga, A., “Unanticipated Consequences of a Weaker Sex”, www.sportivnypress.com
/ Technical Competition Rules & Regulations of the International Weightlifting Federation, Budapest, Hungary; 2016.