Team China’s Secret?

Andrew Charniga

www.sportivnypress.com

Saper Verdere {Knowing how to see}

(Leonardo Da Vinci)

The image of a gentleman standing atop small stage of a horse drawn wagon; on a box or a street corner brandishing a bottle of a miracle elixer; touted to cure all ailments; is omnipresent scene in many an American movie; especially westerns. Collectively known as snake oil salesmen  it is a common descript for someone selling medicines or other products which do not live up to the hype.

This many decades old business  is alive and well today with many practitioners in a variety of endeavors, including exercise and conditioning. For instance, the personal trainer of a famous NFL quarterback was called a modern day snake oil salesman for peddling cures for cancer and concussions (https://www.bostonmagazine.com/news/2015/10/09/tom-brady-alex-guerrero-neurosafe/).

Many falsehoods concerning snake oil exercise techniques have been exposed in this misinformation engineering series. Clearly two of the most prominent oily methodics are ‘functional training’ and ‘core training’; which require constant in – depth monitoring to stop the spread of these twin diseases of ignorance.

The epidemic of injuries in American sports including professional football, collegiate football, professional and collegiate basketball, soccer and baseball (see Charniga 2015 – 2021, www.sportivnypress.com) can be traced to the omnipresent trend to buy and sell these oily techniques to athletes for strength and conditioning; in the  process, displacing traditional, rational training methodologies.

An oxymoron: Team Chinese Training Secrets

The following analysis/commentary is based on the video to be found at: https://www.youtube.co/watch?v=kFueIWmQzto.

The title of course is misleading; it is not a secret if you are telling anyone and everyone the ‘secret’. So in this context the title is an oxymoron. Thee following essay of what is presented in the video centers around the hyper- expensive tech toys the Chinese federation purchased for the national team. The tech toys are purported to help lifters recover from workouts, prevent and/or heal from injury. This should be renamed the spending path to coaching expertise; the same psychology common in the USA for many years, implemented by university strength and conditioning coaches.  

That being the case, if the Chinese way of spending a lot of money  to prepare athletes selected from a population of 1.5 billion, is the future of weightlifting; what do the rest of us do who posses no where near the population or cash? 

“Weightlifters typically perform their exercises over a lengthening of kinematic chains with both feet on the ground. The standing position is less disruptive to the symmetry of the classic (anatomical) pose, therefore, a the lower MTR (minimum time of a motor reaction) is connected with a lesser disruption to the symmetry of the body. The latter is associated with the high degree of the interaction (synergy) of the muscle mass of the entire body.” (Stepanov, Tomilov)

Figure 1. Chinese female with ice pack applied to lumbar area in the immediate wake of winning 2020 Olympic gold medal; because of, or in spite of ‘core’ training?

Sophistry vs. the real world

Figure 2. Exercise protocol used by team China to assess and address weak back muscles; a condition that cannot exist when weightlifters reach the elite stage as members of a national team. Furthermore, this exercise/diagnostic proves nothing; while placing an excessive and unjustified strain on the lumbar spine. The inherent danger associated with exercises like this is the possibility to ingrain the wrong habit of tensing the lumbar back muscles and shift an unjustified load to the back in the classic exercises. Weightlifters naturally tense the muscles of the back with pressure from the feet; the entire chain from feet to shoulder girdle are activated as one piece in the act of raising barbells from the floor. The exercise is unnecessary and pseudo diagnostics – see figure 1.

Many categories/techniques of exercise for sale; especially exercise and evaluative machines touted for effectiveness over traditional exercises or techniques are prime examples of sophistry, i.e., something that sounds good on paper; but, as with ‘paper’, there is only silence.

Figure 3. Chinese national weightlifting team member using a German Centaur machine to measure ‘core’ strength; the pseudo outcome of which is the apparent impetus to assign simplistic exercises to strengthen perceived weaknesses in the abdominal wall. A classic example sophistry: a commercial solution to solve a made up, a non – existent problem.

“Every athlete who arrives at the national team is gifted” (1)

Ivan Abadjiev (BUL), the most storied, successful coach in weightlifting history, was asked what he does for athletes who have weaknesses when they reach the national senior team of Bulgaria. He replied: “When they get to my level they don’t have any weaknesses”.

“we discovered several weaknesses with tests” (1)

The obvious disconnect from the video “Team China Secret” is the why and how is it the athletes who make it to the national team get there; if they have weaknesses; in need of special machines and a dizzying array of recuperative devices and strategies to recover from workouts and prevent injury?

There is an obvious dissonance between the words of Abadzhiev; with the circumstances of a Chinese national team selected from a country of 1.5 billion people and the need to correct “discovered weaknesses”; when “every athlete … is gifted”, i.e., elite athletes, by definition  should not have weaknesses.

Weaknesses “discovered” in members of the Chinese national team:

/ ‘core’ strength/functional training. The spread of these twin pseudo commodities from homegrown (USA) snake oil all the way to China is a testament to the widespread movement of ideas, especially terribly flawed  info – for – sale in the modern age. The salient feature of these myths is they are first and foremost techniques, methods and even machines for sale.   

Figure 4. Chinese Olympic champion being attended to with ice pack on lumbar area and assisted off the platform at the 2019 world weightlifting championships.

The ‘core strength’ myth is a false narrative. The specialized training for ‘core’ strength, centers around the idea that an athlete needs to control abdominal muscles; specially transversus abdominis; a nonsensical, anti – Darwinian fallacy of logic. It is impossible to control one or more of the 600 odd muscles in the human body in the midst of performing complex coordination exercisess. Even were that possible, any benefit derived of such an action is highly improbable.

Furthermore, according to the ‘core’ strength devotees a weak (not accurately defined by the Chinese) ‘core’ is a root cause of back problems. The ‘core’ strength devotees assertion athletes can learn to control individual muscles; thereby mitigating back problems caused by a weak ‘core’; is utterly false; without substantiation. For instance:

“Lifting big weights in the clean and jerk, squats and push – jerk has unfavorable effect on the spine; especially the lumbar area. “…Lumbar pain most often is the cumulative result of many workouts. ” (A.N. Vorobeyev, 1988)

Figure 5. Apparently, unbeknownst to Chinese coaches and ‘scientists’ back pain and/or lumbar injury in weightlifting is directly connected to straining at the squat with big weights; pulls in excess of 110%; which are in effect deadlifts. Furthermore, the negative consequences associated with exercises of such high lumbar spine strain are not mitigated by  ‘core’ strength; whatever that is.

The internet is littered with videos of Chinese lifters (males and females) straining with big weights in squat and pulls (deadlifts). The consequences of such training; are ice bags on the back (see figures 1 & 4) and injury.

A rife digitization of a false narrative flies in the face of the fact there is little if any correlation between straining at heavy squats, heavy pulls/deadlifts with results in the classic exercises. Yet those very same exercises at the high intensities are most definitely connected with lumbar pain; and ,over time, injury.

“Weightlifters frequently experience pain in the lumbar area of the spine. In the overwhelming majority of cases this is caused by a compensatory loading on the inter – vertebral discs.” Vorobeyev, 1988

Heavy squats and pulls involve straining with the back tilted forward at various angles towards the horizontal. The closer the trunk approaches a horizontal disposition, i.e., is tilted forward by the heavier weights; the greater strain to the discs and ligaments of the lumbar spine; the weightlifter’s weak link.

No amount of sit-ups or trunk twists and the like will mitigate the strain on lumbar discs and ligaments inflicted by ultra – heavy squats and pulls (deadlifts). Furthermore:

“The work regime of a high pull with a heavy weight is closer to an isometric than a dynamic.” V.I. Frolov, 1977

The biomechanics of heavy pulls are significantly different than the pulling motion of the classic exercises. The ankles do not shift as much as they would in the classic exercises when the barbell passes knee level; which means the strain on the back is amplified because the loading is not shifted back to the lower extremities; the back assumes lion’s share of the strain to fully straighten the trunk (Frolov, 1977).

The Weightlifter’s Strength Topography

Weightlifters, as do athletes in other sports, have a ‘strength topography’ peculiar to weightlifting training (Vorobeyev, 1988). The strength topography of the elite weightlifter shows a  predominance of extensor muscles over flexor muscles.

Some examples of the skilled weightlifter’s strength topography are extensor to flexor muscle ratios: (extensor to flexor strength) elbow 1.6:1; trunk 4.3:1; ankle 5.4:1; thigh (knee joint) 4.3:1 (Vorobeyev, 1988). Vorobeyev considered these strength ratios proof of the “weightlifter’s harmonious development” of the basic muscle groups.

The predominance  of the weightlifter’s trunk extensors over flexors of 4.3:1, i.e., back muscles over abdominal muscles, was not considered a problem. Hence, the ‘core’ strength commodity did not exist in the real world of Soviet sport science. However, they came to a logical, experienced based confirmation, ultra heavy squats and pulls were unnecessary; as well as a prime cause of lumbar spine pain and injury.

Another factor obviously overlooked from the ‘video of secrets’ is the excessive muscle mass of the Chinese men and many women. At least two problems come to mind with unnecessary muscle mass; especially in upper extremities: 1- unnecessary mass makes making weight for competition more difficult; 2- these extra muscles can alter, and hinder efficient technique in the classic exercises.

It is also unclear whether arbitrary strength development in upper extremities can cause injuries to the lower extremity muscles and  joints because the strain of lifting can be inadvertently diverted to those muscles; away from the main lifting muscles. For instance, the athlete depicted figures  3,4 & 5 can be observed performing bar dips with 100 kgs in another Chinese video; a prime example of wasted effort to develop unnecessary muscle mass; with no positive connection to results in the classic exercises.

The all too evidentiary concerning Soviet era measures of the weightlifter’s strength topography is: the relative strength of the muscles of the trunk (front, back, sides) evolve proportionally to how they are used in weightlifting exercises.

Indeed, the strength of the flexor muscles of the high class weightlifter (‘core’ muscles inclusive) were found to be the same as a much lower class lifter. The strength of the high class weightlifter’s muscles do not; and, should not develop out of proportion to how the body deploys these muscles in the act of lifting; as the athlete progresses in weightlifting sport.

“The strength of the flexors of the upper extremities and trunk change insignificantly with rise in sport mastery. The flexors of the strongest athletes are the same as those of the class I or master of sport, whereas their extensor strength is significantly greater.” A.N. Vorobeyev, 1988

Consequently, a case can be made that Chinese national team lifters doing bar dips with 100 kgs; silly functional and ‘core’ exercises; not only do not mitigate back pain and other injuries caused by the straining at squat and pulls with big weights; but, most likely contribute to those problems.

Figure 6. According to the Chinese rational expressed in the video; the rather thin, muscle-less athlete, depicted in figure 6, lifting with a ‘weak’ rounded back to  snatch 150 kgs at 75 kg bodyweight would be in need of serious ‘core’ strength and functional exercises to correct his obvious deficiencies. Even though he is an Olympic champion? Photo  of Y. Mitkov (BUL) courtesy of Bruce Klemens

The bodybuilding, the functional and ‘core’ non-sensicals the Chinese lifters are depicted performing in the video and others like it, serve to only confuse the body to perform efficiently the complex tasks  requisite of the classic exercises.

Proof positive of this assertion; one need only observe  someone who practices the crossfit regimen do weightlifting; to, as the communists would say, apprehend, unnecessary muscle mass and strength are the enemies of coordination. However,  these enemies of coordination are not as easily recognized as such; the Chinese are plying non – sensical exercises and techniques with already, super elite athletes; recruited from a country of 1.5 billion with a lot of money to create a large infrastructure of training facilities, sport schools, professional coaches and so forth.

The question of Cardio Training

Another issue raised in the video of ‘secrets’ is the question of the weightlifter’s cardiac capacity; especially as it pertains to the recuperative capacity of the Chinese lifter who may have to follow him/herself in competition with only 2 minutes to return to the platform.

Strength, as well as cardiac capacity develop according to the principle of specificity. Playing with cardio – machines and other non – specific exercises do not meet the criterion of specificity for the ability to recuperate between sub-maximum and maximum attempts in weightlifting.

For instance, pulse rates of high class weightlifters can reach 190 – 200 bpm for lifts with 90% and above weights in the clean and jerk. Weightlifter’s adapt to training at high heart rates specific to the demands of the classic exercises. The classic snatch and the clean and jerk are performed against a backdrop of rapid changes in posture from crouching – to – standing – to -dropping – into – squat fast enough to significantly exceed the acceleration of a free falling body.

The cardio vascular system of the elite weightlifter should be able to develop, to accommodate the specificity of this stress; such that multiple high intensity lifts are possible within relatively short rest periods. For example:

It is well known that the largest effect in muscular activity is obtained when the pulse exceeds 180 bpm. Our research has shown that N. Kolev’s pulse reaches 190 – 200 bpm when he lifts 190 kg.” (Furnadzhiev, V., Abadzhiev, I. 1982)

Consider the quotation above from Bulgarian national coaches of the 1970 – 1980s. When they were winning most of the world titles at the time of Kolev and many others (1970 – 1980s) of the Bulgarian national team; the Bulgarian training center did not even have heat; let alone the money for expensive cardio climbing machines purchased by the Chinese. The Bulgarian weightlifter’s capacity to recover from the stress of high intensity lifts; to easily accommodate the time constraints of the competition protocols was developed performing the classic exercises; not with machines.

Figure. Chinese weightlifters doing cardio to enhance recovery between lifts of the barbell.

An issue of the Chinese concern with the ability to recuperate sufficiently to follow oneself in competition is not considered. How much of a Chinese weightlifter’s recuperation time is elevated due to performing the classic exercises in the presence of excessive, unnecessary muscle mass built up in superfluous training exercises? Just as the movements of the crossfit devotees are relatively wooden when he/she endeavors to perform the classic exercises; the excess muscle mass of the Chinese lifters, logically, would cause a lot of the same back round ‘static’ for the neuro – muscular system.

Ignorance flies in the face of Complexity

..”all muscles contribute to the control of each joint and segment.” F.E. Zajac, 1993

Engineered for complexity, the human body is miracle of evolution. Man made efforts to apply simplistic linearities in exercise techniques, methods, postures and so forth; to prepare elite athletes for the complex tasks involved in weightlifting sport; where skill and power are all but indistinguishable; are impractical.  

This Darwinian complexity, instead of inspiring awe, is evidently ignored by the functional and ‘core’ devotees which can be seen in the video; seeking to apply simplistic, linear solutions to non – existent problems. Consider figures 7, 8 & 9.

Figures 7&8. Super elite weightlifter seeking the ‘secret’ in Sochi. He is looking to regain his super elite form with assistance of a functional training practitioner. Note hand placement in figure 8 to find that one secret muscle to activate. 

Figure 9. Asian Olympic weightlifter for whom the jerk from the chest  “is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”(Winston Churchill 1939); developing his biceps. Go figure.

A not so conspicuous, nonetheless, essential point should be made, to glean the why and the how the Chinese national team, a Euro-Asian super elite athlete and Asian lifter (figures 7, 8, 9) alike could gravitate to the silliness of ‘core’, ‘functional’ training and bodybuilding. 

More often than not a athlete achieves super elite status in sport due in no small measure to his/her coach’s diligence and competence in selecting the athlete, instilling the discipline inherent to adhere to appropriate training methods and the requisite nurturing of modern technique. Achieving elite status at the international level, necessitates unidirectional, intense focus and discipline to training. It is unlikely such an athlete is cognizant of the ‘nuts and bolts’; the how and why he/she managed to reach the super elite level.

That being said, when something happens to suspend, or break up the traditional disciplined training regimen: loss of or rejection of the old coach, suspension, injury or extended time away from training to name a few. One or more of those circumstances combined with an aging body can leave the athlete grasping for straws to find the right technique, training methods, coach, and so forth, to regain the old form.

A prime example of just such a circumstance; the former super elite Euro-Asian athlete depicted in figures 7&8 training in silliness to regain the old form of 185 – 190 kg in snatch and 240+ in jerk. Despite taking on a new weightlifting coach; as well as engaging in  the dis-functional machinations depicted in figures 7&8; over a period of about two years; the athlete was lucky to do around 160 and 200 kg; a shadow of his former self.

Of no less absurdity is the other athlete (figure 9) doing curls to develop already excessively muscled arms; despite the well known fact large upper extremity musculature and strength negatively impact proper technique in the jerk portion of the classic clean and jerk.

An equally puzzling aspect of elite weightlifters doing such things as depicted in the videos (of which the pictures in figures 7-9 are taken); is why someone would want to broadcast one’s ignorance to the whole world?   

Recuperation toys

“we know that in sport, especially in weightlifting, after every training there will be damage..” (1)

The statement above “there will be damage from every training” is in and of itself an affirmation a functional apprehension of the process of training weightlifters is utterly lacking. Avoidable/unavoidable injuries aside, workouts should not inflict “damage”. Presumably this idea of damage is the rational for the array of ultra –  expensive restoration/recuperation tech toys on display for the national team.

The concept of restoration; while probably not invented by Soviet sport scientists; a rational, science based conceptualization of the practice was. There exists a wide array of restoration techniques, modalities such as sauna, massage, whirlpool and so forth.  A commercialization of this concept distorts the science and practice of training (pedagogics) and restoration.

A rational training regimen stipulates, first and foremost, pedagogics is the primary means of restoration; such that, by all means necessary, one is not confronted with: “we know that in sport, especially in weightlifting, after every training there will be damage..” (1).

The statement every training will cause “damage” is a problem, buying a bunch of toys will not solve, or even mitigate. Training in general and workouts in particular, should be structured such that the exercises, the loading and biomechanics; are within reason. Weightlifting training in and of itself should not inflict damage after every workout. The ice bags and injured Chinese athletes missing from international competitions clearly indicate the Chinese pedagogics are the problem; not training for weightlifting training per se; which, commercial restoration toys will not solve.

Restoration means and methods are meant to coax the athlete’s body to restore pre – workout functions; not interfere with the process.

First and foremost, restoration is a process by which the body’s organs and systems restore pre – workout function to overcome fatigue and other effects of hard training; to reach a state of enhanced resistance to the ‘tear down’ of muscle tissue and so forth. The basic idea of optimum pedagogics is to train the body to repair and restore at its own pace; so as to reach a state of conditioning exceeding the beginning levels of strength, endurance, coordination and so forth. Indiscriminate use of restoration toys can interrupt this process by artificially removing the benefit of the fatiguing effects of training; which the manufacturers (as well as coaches and athletes) of these devices don’t take into account.

Conclusions

“In reference to a theory of postural sway as a consequence of noise within the neuromotor system, a sign of imperfection in the human body..

“Given our current measly understanding of the central nervous system, it takes some nerve to claim that evolution led to a faulty design of the system for postural control, and contemporary engineers are able to identify the flaw.” Latash, M.L., Zatsiorsky, V.M., 2016

The quotation above concerning the “nerve of engineers” to find fault with evolution; is an idea applicable to the Chinese national team purchasing tech toys which purport to find fault with the bodies of elite athletes. Engineers do not know nor cannot replicate in any meaningful way the human body’s evolved complexity of design.

The amount of money the Chinese spent on tech toys; obvious from the video; to find weaknesses and ‘prevent’ injury are proof a lack of knowledge; of even common sense when it comes to the fundamentals of training; knowledge of the biomechanics of weightlifting technique, injury prevention and the like. Spending a lot of money on high tech toys doesn’t hide this fact; it exposes it. 

The two points made in the video about the need to find weaknesses in elite athletes with machines; based on the pseudo science of ‘core’ strength and functional training along with the use of an extensive array of recuperation devices because “after every training there will be damage..” exposes the flaws of their training philosophy. Just hearing these pronouncements is suffices to disqualify the validity of their ‘secret’.  

 References

1/ https://www.youtube.co/watch?v=kFueIWmQzto

/ Vorobeyev, A.N., Tiiazhelaya, FIS, Moscow, 1988. Translated by Andrew Charniga

/ Latash, M.L., Zatsiorsky, V.M., Biomechnaics and Motor Control, Elsevier, London, 2016

/ Charniga, A., “Can there be such a thing as an Asian pull”, www.sportivnypress.com

/ Charniga, A., “Muscles of the shank, Movement of the shin & susceptibility to lower extremity injury”, www.sportivnypress.com

/ Furnadzhiev, V., Abadzhiev, I., The preparation of Bulgarian weightlifters for the 1980 Olympics, Tiizhelaya Atletika Ezhegodnik, FIS, Mocow, 1982. English version translated by Andrew Charniga, Sportivnypress. Livonia, Michigan

/ Geselyevitch, V.A., Meditsinsky Spravochnik Trenera, FIS, Moscow, 1981. Translated by Andrew Charniga

/ Frolov, V. I., Efimov, N.M., Vanagas, M.P., “The Training Weights in the Snatch Pull”, Tyazhelaya Atletika, Fizkultura I Sport publishers, Moscow, 1977:65 – 67. Translated by Andrew Charniga