Teaching Weightlifting Skill: 10 Objectives

In the view of the author, the following 10 objectives are critically important in teaching weightlifting skill to beginners. The initial learning of the beginner in their first 10-20 training sessions will have a very significant impact on their long-term technical competency, confidence  and ability to perform under pressure.

Coaches should teach the beginner athlete to:

Objective #1: Lockout and stabilise the bar above the head

Athletes have differing levels of ability to achieve ideal receiving positions due to flexibility limitations. However, it should always be a coaching objective to teach the athlete, from the very first moment of learning, to be able to hold bars motionless above the head and remain in balance. Successful achievement of this objective has long-term implications for the confidence and safety of the athlete in performing limit or near limit weights.

Objective #2: Develop explosive leg drive in the finish of the pull

From the very first moment, beginner athletes must learn and appreciate the importance of keeping arms straight in the pull, and generating the force needed to lift the bar through the action of the legs. Athletes need to understand the need for explosive leg drive at the end of the pull to achieve sufficient upward velocity. This objective can be achieved by teaching beginners to practise a jumping action while hold a bar or stick at waste height with arms totally straight.

Objective #3: Maximise vertical movement and minimise horizontal movement

Beginners will benefit if they develop the conceptual knowledge that the task is to minimise horizontal movement of the bar while making an effort to gain vertical movement. In the snatch, it is helpful to the beginner to minimise movement (swing) of the bar away from the body in the pull, and to arrest the bar motionless overhead (preventing any arc of movement of the bar backwards across the top of the head). In the jerk, athletes need to stabilise the bar motionless above the head, and minimise any forward or backward movement of the body while in the act of completing the ‘recovery’ phase.

Objective #4: Keep bar must as close as possible to the body during the pull

In the initial learning phase, beginners must be made aware of the need to keep the bar as close as possible to the body in the pull. A definition of CLOSE is useful to the beginner – “close means touching (sliding) the thighs and within 0.5cm of the body at other moments in the pull”. The beginner needs to acquire the conceptual understanding that keeping the bar close improves leverage and balance. The ability of the coach to explain these concepts is important.

Objective #5: Develop rapid and fluent movement under the bar

For an athlete to develop the skill and confidence to move under a bar into low receiving positions requires a lengthy and well-considered training process.  Coaches need to be mindful of the total importance of keeping weights light in the early weeks of training beginners to ensure that athletes experience success, develop confidence and are fluent in their movement. While rapid movement under the bar takes time to develop, the notion of ‘fluency’ is very important t and can be achieved within a few training sessions.

Fluency may be defined in this context as smooth and unconstrained movement; that is without hesitation, anxiety and awkwardness. Movement should demonstrate ‘automaticity’ or reducing conscious control. The maintenance of the athlete’s fluency in movement under the bar is a continuing coaching objective, and any signs of loss or reduction should be countered by a reduction in load and intensity.

Objective #6: Strive for excellence in receiving positions

The mastery of Weightlifting technique requires the athlete to be extremely proficient in all receiving positions (snatch, clean, jerk). Any long-term lack of proficiency in receiving positions has very significant detrimental effects on the athlete’s ability to perform. No matter how strong the athlete is in developing upward lifting force, a deficiency in the receiving position becomes the factor that limits progress. Proficiency is attained when the athlete can consistently demonstrate the ability to remain balanced and motionless in a full depth receiving position, with upper body close to vertical. Athletes often perceive they are in a full depth position in the snatch or clean when they are not and therefore some specific encouragement to “sit deeper” is often required. The importance of excellence in the receiving position for the jerk should also not be underestimated.

Objective #7: Practise success not failure

Athletes must eventually develop a supreme level of confidence in their own skill if they are to meet the challenges of competition Weightlifting at the high performance level. The development of the required confidence involves the successful performance of countless lifts by the athlete over many years of training with a low rate of failure. From the very first moment in which the athlete is introduced to movement under the bar, the coach must build confidence in the athlete by enabling the athlete to obtain effective and consistent technique, by providing positive reinforcement to the athlete and by aiming to achieve a failure rate of 2% or less in all technical lifts.

Objective 8: Achieve a high degree of productivity in training sessions

In any Weightlifting training session from beginner to advanced level there will be short periods of activity interspersed with longer periods of inactivity. The ratio between activity and inactivity is important. Inactivity should not be seen as purely rest as it also includes time used by the coach to impart guidance e.g. instruction, feedback and reinforcement. Inactivity also includes distractions, which are neither rest nor instruction by the coach. Distractions can be necessary and unnecessary. For example, it is customary for the gym to stop when a fellow athlete is attempting a significant weight or a new best performance and this can happen several times in one session. Unnecessary distractions include incessant use of a mobile phone (a major problem of the current era), prolonged conversation, frequent disappearances of the athlete from the training area and waiting for equipment to become available.

The coach’s task is to optimise the amount of activity for each athlete for what might be considered an appropriate duration of training time. As a benchmark, in a 90 minute training session, an athlete should perform 40 sets overall. In effect this is 1 set every 2 minutes, with 10 minutes set aside for warm-up. An athlete who trains slower at 1 set every 3 minutes will perform 1/3rd less training than the athlete who trains 1 set every 2 minutes. Over time, this difference in productivity will have a remarkable effect.

Furthermore, coaches should not only be aware of the time interval between sets but also stoppages of the athlete in middle of a set. In most circumstances, it is helpful to give the athlete instruction or feedback immediately prior to, of following the set, and NOT in the middle of the set.

Objective #9: Develop the athlete’s understanding of timing in the execution of lifts

In coaching Weightlifting technique, there is a natural tendency to focus on helping the athlete attain optimal body positions at all stages of the lift e.g. start position, bar at knee position, full extension position and receiving position. There is also a focus on ensuring the movement of the bar follows an acceptable path in its upward journey e.g. small levels of horizontal movement, staying close to body, etc. But there is more to achieving excellence in technique and in particular close attention must be paid to timing. The most critical elements of timing occur at the end of the pull and in the movement under the bar.  Expert performers in Weightlifting show an ability to delay movement under the bar and in effect continue the pull longer (“finish the pull”). To the naked eye such differences in timing may be imperceptible expect to experienced coaches, but in reality a longer pull duration of between 0.05sec (1/20th sec) and 0.10sec (1/10th sec) has a profound effect. When the bar is travelling at 2.0 metres per second, the additional pull height achieved by adding 0.05 sec to the pull is very significant (10cm). It is a common issue in coaching to enable athletes to develop confidence in their own abilities and to reduce or break free from the anxiety created by lifting limit weights. In the beginner or novice lifter, this anxiety inevitably causes the athlete to ‘jump under the weight’ too soon i.e. shorten the pull. There is therefore a probable close association between confidence levels and whether the athlete can hang on to the pull for an extra 0.05-0.10 seconds. For this reason, coaches should pay heed to objective #7 (practise success not failure) to enable the athlete to develop great confidence.

Another timing issue of great importance occurs in the athlete’s movement under the bar. It is important for the coach to assist the athlete learn to achieve a very rapid drop under the bar (objective #5 above). Whenever a novice athlete is encouraged to move faster under the bar, there is a great likelihood that their efforts will result in ‘cutting the pull short’ i.e. failing to achieve the extra 0.05-0.10sec of pull. Thus, to assist the athlete develop a rapid movement under the bar, it is necessary to separate the ‘pull’ from the ‘drop’. This can be achieved with exercises such as Snatch Balance.

In all circumstances, the finish of the pull and the movement under the bar needs to be practised to a level where it is achieved without conscious control. This requires high levels of practise with weights that do not cause anxiety and departure from good technique.

Objective #10: Coach to reduce the incidence of injury

The naturally tendency of motivated athletes is to push hard in training to obtain results and to “think in a bubble”, that is to think only in the immediate sense and have no thought for the longer term effect. It could be said that this is necessary attribute of the athlete and it enables them to engage in training without fear. It is therefore the coach’s task to consider risks of injury, acute (sudden) or chronic (build up over time), and to make decisions about the levels of stress that an athlete can sustain without injury.

Athletes, when faced with the coach’s efforts to temper the athlete’s fearless attitude, are often prone to ‘barter’. This bartering process involves the coach trying to impose a limit on the maximum weight lifted and the athlete attempting to persuade the coach that they should go heavier. In these situations, the coach has to consider (a) the likelihood of success at the heavier weight (b) the possible effect in regard to injury and soreness. A good example, occurs when an athlete attempts to go beyond the limit set by the coach on a single back squat particularly if the weight is near or greater their personal best. An experienced coach will know that a very heavy back squat will present risks that range from minor soreness that may last a few days and cause a temporary loss of performance to significant acute injury that may take weeks and months to resolve.  In these situations the coach needs to evaluate the costs and benefits of allowing the athlete to succeed in the bartering process. A coach that allows the athlete to make all the decisions about how heavy they should go is not effective in reducing injury risks, and this will have a major effect on the long-term progress of the athlete.