Here is part 1 of a series of posts by reader Larry.
After I saw that he traveled to China I asked him to share his experience with Chinese weightlifting with all ATG readers. Thankfully he agreed. I hope you learn something new and enjoy this as much as I did.
Read All Parts here: Chinese Weightlifting Experience.
About This Series:
This series of narrative posts will go through the things I saw, heard, learned, and all the suggestions I received from the various Chinese coaches and athletes I trained with at the city, provincial, and national levels. During my training adventure I met world champions, world record holders, and a very special Olympian.
Arriving in China and Meeting Coach Fang
I arrived in China planning to visit my family, namely my elderly grandparents, who all live in Huainan city, Anhui province. This is a relatively small city of ~2 million people. I did not know for sure if there would be any weightlifting facilities accessible to a foreigner in this city prior to coming, but luckily I was put in contact with a man who I will refer to as Coach Fang.
Coach Fang is a former national/international level weightlifter having competed with the Anhui provincial team during his prime, but retired early to start his family. He is now the director of the Huainan city athletics school and acts as the school’s head weightlifting coach… That is if there were any lifters to coach.
Weightlifting in China thrives on the kids in rural areasCoach Fang tells me weightlifting is not popular in the city as most kids are focused on studies and play recreational sports like basketball, soccer, and ping-pong. Currently, weightlifting in China thrives on the kids in rural parts of the country who see the sport as a way to escape the countryside and possibly earn a living as an athlete to care for their family.
The last time there were lifters training in Huainan, one of them got sent to the provincial team and quit after a few months because it was too much pressure, and the other was pulled out by his grandmother who was concerned about the risk of hurting his back.
The facilities in Huainan city, after some cleaning up.
When I met Coach Fang at the athletics school, he was very welcoming. He seemed happy that someone was finally going to use the weightlifting equipment. The gym was just a dusty room with a not yet built weightlifting platform, two areas padded with rubber matting, and a few cigarette butts scattered over the ceramic tiled floor in between. There was a bench for supine pressing, a bench for chest-supported barbell rows [Video], two squat blocks, and a large pile of bumper plates and rusty bars. Coach Fang picked out a 20kg bar that had a bit less rust than the rest and told me to warm up. The bar was freaking cold since there was no heating in this room and several of the windows were broken.
Today’s lessons would be in the full Snatch, and the Back Squat.
Snatch – Overhead Position
When I was warming up with the bar, Coach Fang immediately stopped me and told me to internally rotate my shoulders in the overhead position. This surprised me because I was always taught in the past that externally rotating the shoulders overhead allowed for the most stable position and would allow the bones and joints of the upper extremities to support the weight.
Coach Fang laughed and said that with the elbows pointed down and shoulders externally rotated, the bar is not secure and can be easily missed in front or behind. He said that it is important to always point the elbows back and shrug the shoulders up, keeping the shoulders internally rotated and the bar “locked in place” (See photo of Coach Fang internally rotating my shoulders).
Now if you try this at home with a bar or broomstick, notice how this forces your neck forward and pushes your head way in front? Look familiar?
I will say this now; internal rotation of the shoulders was trend throughout my Chinese weightlifting tour.
Importance of Back Tightness
The next thing he emphasized was the importance of back tightness – from the moment you grip the bar until you receive the down signal, your spinal erector muscles must be rock solid. He noticed in the video I showed him of a recent snatch PR that my back was tight during the pull, but relaxed during in the receiving position.
To think, I always thought I had decent mobility, because I could sink my hips low to catch a snatch… Turns out I’ve been cheating by loosening up my lower back, which he said will prevent me from putting heavier weights over my head, and more importantly will put me at risk of injury.
As I continued working up in weight on the snatch, Coach Fang commented that my first pull was fine, but to make sure that when the bar comes off the ground, that my shins don’t push it forward and to resist this by pulling the barbell backwards into my shin – he told me this would help increase my back tightness as a side effect.
As for my second pull, it was sluggish and too long. His suggestions? Be patient with the bar until it reaches the “power point” and then “use my rocket fuel to explode!” He pointed at my high upper thigh a few cm below the crease of my hip and said, “this is the power point” AKA where to initiate the second pull.
He pointed out some things that I was already doing that he liked:
- keeping my arms loose and elbows pointed outwards on the pull (this is also internal rotation of the shoulders)
- finishing the pull with full knee and hip extension, and keeping my chest high throughout the first pull
He suggested I work on my second pull by including above-the-knee hang muscle snatch, high hang snatch high pulls, and upper body bodybuilding work into my programming. This was my only snatch workout with Coach Fang, but don’t worry there will be more snatching later on in the series.
On to the…
my priority in training should be to back squat at least 200kgCoach Fang said to do some squatting just to keep my body from getting too weak during my trip. When I told him I haven’t tested a one-rep max back squat in over a year, he was not happy.
He started spotting me on every rep of my squats to get a feel for how much force I was putting into the bar, and again he was not too pleased. After a few sets, he told me my priority in training should be to back squat at least 200kg, and that would add more KGs to my total than anything else (I estimate my current max to be around 175kg).
He said that for me, it is even OK to do squats as the first (or only) exercise in a workout.
In terms of squatting technique, Coach Fang said to squat down until my hamstrings hit my calves, but not so low that I lose tightness in my lower back.
He told me to try to move my hips in a more vertical motion and not to have too much movement from front-to-back and that if I have to move my hips out of line to reach depth then that is too low as well. He said my center of balance should stay the same throughout the movement.
The chest should be kept high and the back tight but not hyperextended/kyphotic. When standing up out of the hole, push the chest up – not up and back, thus hyperextending the back – just up. This barely made sense when he said it but when I thought about while standing up, things all of a sudden felt lighter.
Since he said squatting should be my priority, he also put in his two cents about programming. Coach Fang suggested:
Back squats 80-85% of 1RM for 8-10 sets of 3-5 reps
I told him I train 4 times per week and usually squat in 3 of those workouts. He said it’s fine to squat 3 times per week, but 2 times is enough (that’s including front and back).
He said that making progress in volume was a good indicator of leg strength improvement, which I did not understand at first but as I learned more about the norms in Chinese training programs, the more I understood what he meant.
(More about how to choose weights in a “Chinese program” will be detailed in further along in the series.)
After squatting came the REAL important stuff.
Ok, maybe doing overhead triceps extensions with a 25kg plate was not the biggest lesson from today, but it was still significant.
weightlifters MUST use bodybuilding exercises to progress in the snatch and C&J
Coach Fang said that a weightlifter MUST use bodybuilding exercises to progress in the snatch and clean and jerk.
According to him, to elevate the bar you use your quadriceps, glutes, and trapezius (in that order of importance). For every other aspect of the lifts, you depend on your back and your small muscles.
Coach Fang’s prescription includes training one or two small muscles at the end of every workout, stressing the importance of upper back, lats, triceps, obliques, and abs in particular.
The Chinese Method of Bodybuilding?
Choose a body part and do an exercise (preferably isolation) for 6 sets of however many repetitions it takes to get some soreness or just go to failure, with whatever weight feels right. Very scientific, I know.
After I finished lifting, Coach Fang made me jog a few laps around the front entrance garden. This was to loosen me up and cool down after the workout.
Coach Fang described the Chinese weightlifting technique as:
There is no explicit elaboration on lifting technique other than achieving those four points, which refer to keeping the bar as close to the body’s center-line as possible throughout the lift, moving your body and the barbell as fast as possible, keeping your body low rather than lifting the barbell high, and ALWAYS being in a balanced position at any point in the lift and in total control of the bar.
As for the approach to training and programming, Coach Fang said that weightlifting has a strength component and a skill component, but athletes often forget the importance of strength so it is the coaches duty to keep the athlete’s body getting stronger, while it’s the athlete’s job to keep getting their mind stronger.
For protective equipment, Coach Fang said to use only equipment when that particular body part starts feeling sore or weak. For a belt, he said use it when I start losing back tightness during a workout. He was more liberal with wrist wrap use, but only on overhead movements.
In terms of general programming, Coach Fang emphasized the importance of making every rep perfect in training. He said that the national team training programs are not very rigid and allow for a LOT of auto-regulation in terms of reps and weights at the athlete’s own discretion.
As I learned later on, Chinese programs heavily depend on the athlete’s own ability to choose the right weight and reps for a given exercise.
This was my first taste of real Chinese weightlifting, the system that is so often spoken of but rarely described in detail. I definitely only scratched the surface with Coach Fang, but I knew that he would have a lot more answers for me once I asked the right questions.
Next in the Series: Clean and Jerks, Clean Pulls, and the importance of history and culture?
- Everything – close/fast/low/balanced.
- Overhead position – shoulders internally rotated and shrugged up, head and neck pushed forward.
- Snatch – back tight and straight during pull, receive, and recovery.
- Snatch – begin the second pull only a few cm below the crease of the hips.
- Back Squat – hips travel in a somewhat vertical line and center of balance does not shift during the movement.
- Snatch second pull – hang muscle snatch, hang snatch high pulls, bodybuilding work.
- Squats – trained twice per week, front or back.
- Back squats – example 80-85% of 1RM for 8-10 sets of 3-5 reps.
- Bodybuilding – two muscle groups at the end of each workout, each exercise done 6 sets to failure or boredom.