Speed in Weightlifting: an Optical Illusion

Andrew Charniga

www.sportivnypress.com

Speed in weightlifting, specifically in the performance of the classic snatch and the classic clean and jerk is an enigmatic topic of the weightlifting literature. Many Soviet era weightlifting sport scientists address this aspect of weightlifting biomechanics in articles, textbooks and the like. No one disputes the significance of speed of movement to the weightlifter’s success at lifting maximum weights.

However, when we are speaking of speed in weightlifting one should not confuse the barbell speed with the speed of the athlete’s movements; the speed with which a specific phase of an exercise is executed; the re – bending of the knees in the explosion phase of the pull of the snatch and the clean. For instance:

“It can be asserted that weightlifting has gradually evolved from a strength to a speed – strength, and, subsequently, to a speed sport. Naturally, a person’s static strength cannot be used to assess such a quality.”  V. Stepanov, V. Tomilof 1984?

It is very easy to confuse Physics with Biology in the performance of the classic exercises. For example, coaches instruct athletes to move the barbell such that it remain within the confines of the laws of physics: shift the barbell in a modest curve- a near linear trajectory; a sequential firing of muscles from strongest to the weakest; complete the pull by fully straightening the trunk, legs, raising the shoulders and fully raising the heels, and so forth.

The prevailing idea of proper technique is to fully straighten the legs, raise the heels and shrug the shoulders is to use the athlete’s height to raise the barbell as high as possible. The optimum technique, from the standpoint of physics, is  to stand as ‘tall as possible’; all the while keeping the body, especially the waist and torso as close to the barbell as possible. In effect, movement of the lifter’s body is dictated by the physics of how to best raise the barbell high enough to lift it overhead; or, to the chest. This protocol seems logical given the circumstances of raising a maximum weight. It is logical to assume the movement of the barbell and the athlete’s body must remain in lock step; a minimal deviation from a straight line.  

Tilted heads: A Distortion of Perspective

Assuming the physics involved in raising a heavy barbell, with minimal deviation in its vertical trajectory outside a modest curve – a near liner vector is correct; is it any wonder why so many coaches watch their athletes in training and competitions with heads cocked to one side; presumably, to check bar and torso are in close proximity during the pull and descent phases of the lifts.

It is entirely possible these head tilting coaches, over the long term, may owe their stiff necks to outmoded Euro/Russian/American ideas to place the emphasis on performing the classic exercises by lifting the barbell close to the body; especially keeping the bar and the torso in close proximity as the weightlifter descends under the barbell (see example of ‘poor technique’ in figure 1).

Figure 1. Super elite female lifter descending under a near record weight with the bar ‘a mile away’ from her torso as her chest descends past the weight with asynchronous placement of feet: her right foot returns to the platform before the left. Obvious ‘errorsof technique? Charniga photo.

Generally accepted protocols for performance of the classic exercises stipulate the weightlifter fully straighten the trunk,  knee  and hip joints; followed by a rise onto the toes and raising of shoulders. All the while keeping the barbell close to the body. It is based on the belief this will impart the maximum acceleration to the barbell; raising it high enough for a successful lift. These actions are to be completed before the athlete begins switching directions to drop under the barbell into the squat. For instance:

“At the instant the athlete has risen up on his toes, the shoulder girdle grip and metatarso – phalangeal joints should lie in the same vertical plane. Such a position is the most advantageous condition for the maximal utilization of the participating muscle groups and the subsequent transfer of the barbell upward.

“It would be impossible to fully realize the potential of the muscles generating force in the direction of the barbell, if at this instant, the shoulder girdle is in front of or behind the vertical line of the meta – tarso phalangeal joints.” R.A. Roman 1978, The Snatch, the Clean and Jerk

So, based on the statement above from Roman (1978) which is also echoed by other sport scientists (Martyanov, Medvedyev, 1988); presumably the coaches with tilted heads are looking to see if their respective lifters are finishing the pull phase of the classic exercises with torso and legs fully extended, heels raised, shoulders elevated and shoulder joints in the same vertical plane as the bar.  At the same time, the coaches are presumably checking to see if the bar travels in close proximity to trunk.

From a standpoint of a modern view of the weightlifting biomechanics; at the very least, those old ideas are not set in stone.

In point of fact, it behooves the weightlifter to concentrate on moving his/her body as quickly as possible. This accentuation on speed of moving the body does not necessarily require fully straightening the legs and trunk in the manner described by Roman.

Furthermore, fully straightening the knees and trunk before raising the heels; with shoulder joints even slightly behind the vertical plane of the barbell; from the old Russian viewpoint; and, still widely accepted today; has been considered mechanically efficient. Yet available evidence contradicts those views:

... “A full extension of the knee was seen as a picture of good technique until Zatsiorsky’s work, which found that extending the knee over 165° required supplementary muscular work and time, while no longer applying significant force into the ground.”

According to Zatsiorsky, widely acknowledged as the father of European biomechanics; a volitional straightening of the knees to full extension in power exercises like sprinting, jumping and weightlifting is counterproductive. Consequently, looking for this, commonly referred to (by the misinformed) as a ‘triple extension’; is likewise counterproductive; with the ‘looker’ at the risk of developing a stiff neck. Various authors  (Zhekov, Bobbert, Zajac) who have studied the biomechanics of weightlifting, the vertical jump and such, confirm Zatsiorsky’s conclusion. 

Figure 2. Super elite female lifter finishing the pull phase of the clean with knees bent and shoulders well behind the vertical plane of the barbell. Charniga photo. 

If the ‘triple extension’  is counterproductive; isn’t it an optical illusion as well? Zhekov, among others, noted a full extension of the legs before the weightlifter begins dropping under the barbell is due to inertia; the legs continue to straighten even though the action of timely flexing the legs and hips has begun.    

Why is it then so many stand with heads tilted to one side to check to see if the barbell is pulled close to the torso; and, the chest is close to the bar in the descent under the weight? False assumptions based on the idea movement of the body should conform to the physics of the barbell’s path. That is to say, the lifter’s body should remain as close to the barbell as possible and deploy in a specified sequence: legs and trunk followed by ankles, shoulders and arms, i.e., the focus of the lifter’s effort is to raise the barbell close to a vertical trajectory with the barbell close to the body so as to minimize unnecessary effort by reducing the moment force of gravity on the lifter’s back and legs.

That being the case; if head cocking coaches are looking for the wrong things what should they be looking for; especially without risking stiff necks in the process?

Probably the most important element of weightlifting technique to be cognizant of is  the speed of the body relative to speed of the barbell. These speeds can, and should be diametric opposites as the weight of the barbell increases. Were this not the case, weightlifters could raise a barbell of varying weight with close to the same speed.

However, to put it simply; you can’t raise a heavy weight fast; otherwise it wouldn’t be heavy. That is why we call the big weights heavy – they are too heavy to pick up with enough speed so as not to necessitate squatting low to receive it on outstretched arms or on the chest. 

The objective of weightlifting competitions is to lift maximum weights; the ‘speed’ that matters the most; is the speed of the lifter’s body applying force and moving away from a slow moving barbell. That is why it is easy to misconstrue weightlifting speed; most coaches and athletes tend to focus on aspects of technique which in many cases are superfluous and are even counterproductive.

In point of fact, the faster the athlete’s movements, the body as a whole and its individual links; the more force which can applied to a moving object; which in this case is the barbell (Sokolov, 1971).

Consider the video of an Olympic champion warming up for the snatch at the world’s championships. Since this athlete’s technique is modern; the accentuation of effort is on the receiving/fixing the barbell in the squat. Consequently, the speed of the bar and the athlete dropping into the squat seem to be in lock step.

However, as the weight of barbell rises; especially as it reaches 120 kgs; the speed of the barbell slows with the rising speed of the athlete’s movements. Furthermore, as the speed of the barbell slows the athlete’s speed of descent rises dramatically. 

The divergence of speed of movement between athlete and barbell is an optical illusion. On the surface the movement as a whole looks fast; but, it is the athlete’s body which is moving faster; not the slowing barbell. This divergence can best be observed in the video link by focusing, say the left  eye on the barbell; the right on the lifter’s body.

As the weight rises one eye sees a slowing barbell while the other can barely follow the athlete’s body as he drops extremely fast under the weight. You don’t need to tilt your head to one side to observe this. Furthermore, the feedback, if any, from the coach the athlete requires is: does his/her speed of movement increase with the rising weight of the barbell; or start to slow.  If the speed of the body begins to slow; the lifter needs to know this and concentrate on moving the body fast; not a triple extension of lower extremities and shrugging of shoulders.

  “ the skill to execute the squat under in the presence of a slower barbell speed is also indicative of better technique; It is precisely this skill that is important for lifting maximum weights, I.P. Zhekov, 1976

Video of Olympic champion G. Boevski warming up for snatch at the 2001 WWC.

The video is a vivid example of the optical illusion of speed in weightlifting. The body speed makes the whole movement look fast; when in point of fact, the speed of the barbell slows as the weight rises. Learning how to lift a slow moving barbell involves moving the body and its individual links as fast as possible. In this context, the high class weightlifter uses the inertia of the body to solve the physics of lifting maximum weights; which may not necessarily entail following the logic of physics. 

 

Figures 3&4. Olympic champion warms up for the snatch with what seems poor technique: not fully straightening the legs; prematurely raising the heels and descending with bar significantly in front of the trunk. Charniga photos.

For instance, the photos of the Olympic champion appear to violate the aforementioned tenets of good technique; with obvious flaws in body disposition relative to the trajectory of the barbell.

Yet, merely looking at still photos; or, for that matter, a coach watching for these flaws with head tilted to one side; one will miss the essence of what is happening: the path to a positive outcome need not follow old precepts of following the physics.

On that note, one risks failing to see the forest for the trees; which in this case means the positive outcome of a successful lift can be accomplished not by the book; the speed that matters most is the fast athlete overcoming the slow moving barbell.  

References

/ Sokolov, L.N., “The significance of speed in weightlifting and methods to develop it”,

www.sportivnypress.com Translation Andrew Charniga

/ Roman, R.A., The training of the weightlifter, FIS, Mosow, 1968; 1974; 1986

/ Chernyak, A.V., Method of planning the training of the weightlifter, FIS, Moscow, 1978

/ Vorobeyev, A.N., Weightlifting: textbook for the Institutes of Physical Culture: 1988\

/ Charniga, A., The Secret to the Weightlifter’s Strength: Speed of Muscle Relaxation, www.sportivnypress.com

/ Medvedyev, A.S., Lukashev, A.A., Kanyevsky, V.B., Ismailov, I.S., “Peculiarities of the Elastic Deformation of the Bar During the Clean”Teoriiya i Praktika Fizicheskoi Kultury, 5:43 – 46, 1990. English translation Sportivnypress: Weigthlifting Training and Technique. Andrew Charniga

/ Martyanov, S.S., Popov, G.I., Roman, R.A., Teoriiya i Praktika Fizicheskoi Kultury, 2:38 – 39, 1988. English translation Sportivnypress: Weigthlifting Training and Technique. Andrew Charniga

/ Stepanov, V., Tmoilov, V., “Morpho – functional reasons for formation of stable styles of the competition movements in weightlifting”, The P.F. Lescraft Saint Petersburg State Academy of Physical Culture 1982? Translated by Andrew Charniga. www.sportivnypress.com