Larry’s Chinese Weightlifting Experience Part 1 – Snatches & Squats

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.

Larry-Chinese-Weightlifting-Experience-Part-1-snatches-squats-Logo

Larry Training in ChinaAbout the Author:

Larry is a 24 year old, 4th year med school student. He started weightlifting approximately 2 years ago and plans to compete in the 2014 Canadian nationals as a -85kg.

In December 2013 he traveled to China where he got to experience first hand what it’s like to train with and learn from some of the best.

You can follow Larry on Instagram @yangl123, check out his training log and see his lifts on his YouTube channel.


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.

huainan gym panorama

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 internally rotating my shoulders into the proper overhead position

Coach Fang internally rotating my shoulders into the proper overhead position

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.

Lin Qingfeng (CHN, M69-) 2012 Olympic gold medalist pushing his head  forward to lock his shoulders in place. (Hookgrip)

Lin Qingfeng (CHN, M69-) 2012 Olympic gold medalist pushing his head forward to lock his shoulders in place.(Photo by Damon Kelly/Hookgrip)

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.

First Pull

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.

Second Pull

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…

Back Squat

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.

Squatting Technique

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.

Triceps extensions

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.

General Points

Coach Fang described the Chinese weightlifting technique as:

  • close
  • fast
  • low
  • balanced

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?

Read Part 2 about Clean & Jerks and Pulls here.

Summary

Technique Cues:

  • 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.

Programming Suggestions:

  • 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.
  • schmitt

    I want to see shoulder warm up in video.

  • jon cole

    Some interesting idea, about back tightness and squat volume, and bodybuilding stuff.

  • ryan

    Incredible. Ilya Ilian also mentioned that internal rotation is preferred.

  • Paul

    Thanks for writing this Larry! Really looking forward to the rest of this series.

  • DoubleCheeseBurger

    Thanks Larry, I am sure all the readers appreciate the time you take out to write this

  • John

    Really appreciate you taking time to write this, Larry!
    Cheers from Sweden.

  • Andy

    I like the emphasis on balance “throughout” the lift, as well as the notion of a lack of specificity in any one technique and instead achieving overarching aspects of technique. All good stuff.

  • Genus

    Really? His shoulders seem pretty externally rotated to me. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9fJG41CNngY

  • Tony P

    Da Truth! Great read.

  • Thiagov

    how about the jerk?
    Shoulder elevated and internat rotated?
    I would like to see more post about the jerk

    Great work

  • Steven

    Man that was an awesome read. And very helpful as well. Can’t wait for part 2

  • Swed en

    Great and interesting. I hope the next part will keep the same quality!

  • Washington04

    Love it! Great article Larry, thank you! Very interesting about the bodybuilding stuff and hip positioning in the squat.

  • simon

    this is so legit. i’m very jealous you got to see chinese weightlifting up close and personal. until i can make it out there myself, this is the next best thing. thank you for that.

  • Natty Gaines

    excellent read

  • RJ Abella

    I look forward to the next article. Thanks!

  • lifter

    good info.what is coach fang’s full name? i want to know what his lifts were

  • adam

    Great read looking forward to the next installment :)

  • Tyler

    I deeply respect what the Chinese coach had to say but IR overhead accompanied by that forward head position is a disaster for both structures. The fact that it might be advantageous to weightlifting (probably giving the lifter more shoulder ROM to control the bar by slacking the system) is all well and good but I used to teach that position and it really damaged/irritated many of the people I’ve worked with also I feel like it pushes the bar into one part of my hand rather than having a full solid grip overhead. I’m sure with these high level guys they can buffer it better or the risk is worth the reward. Definitely hacking the biomechanics though. It also doesn’t make sense to me because if the shoulder is biased toward IR during the first, second and third pull, and then during the the turnover the shoulder HAS to externally rotate. Does he expect the lifter to turnover fast and then IR as soon the bar get overhead? Grooving the entire turnover motion biased in IR feels improbable/awkward to execute anyway. Very interested to why I keep running into the cue.

    • Mike

      Probably because it works, even though biomechanically it doesn’t make sense to you. The Russians talk a lot about how it reduces repetitive stress on the joints by transferring the work to the muscles when receiving, meaning stronger shoulders and traps and healthier joints… just my 2cents

      • Tyler

        I understand thats what they say, however the objective biomechanics say that an elevated shoulder in IR is not only unstable but the joint space in completely shut down. I understand it might work for keeping elbows straighter during the reception or for some other reason but it’s still a compromised position. I would always look for the reason why elbows are unlocking (third pull and turnover speed/ issues etc) rather than changing the way my body is designed to move to make up for it. This is a constant in most sports where hacks like this can lead to covering up issues elsewhere. None of the top biomechanics experts in the industry would and agree that is a good position of the shoulder. I still don’t see how it is even POSSIBLE following the snatch, now setting up In the OHS or jerk is totally different where it’s actually possible to execute. Rather then an argument based on description (I’ve seen it work, the best use it) I would rather have a discussion based on analysis. Also keep in mind, I have already tried this technique for years and it did not have a positive effects.

    • Luc Lapierre

      If you watch videos of lifters dislocating their elbows during the snatch, you’ll find that most of them in external rotation.

      • Tyler’s

        I would love a link to such a video.

        • Luc Lapierre

          Both things you mentioned happened AFTER the injury had occurred: http://i.imgur.com/pbohH.gif

          Off the top of my head, others who got hurt after locking out the Sn externally rotated:
          Baranyai 08
          Ilyin 08 (not a full dislocation but still an injury)

          I don’t think any of these guys necessarily MEANT to lockout in ER; that’s just the way the lift went. Ilyin himself said ON VIDEO to lock out a Sn with IR. I think I’ll defer to Ilyin, thank you very much.

      • Tyler’s

        If your talking on the South Korean weightlifter Jaehyouk Sa from London then I would say that has nothing to do with the external rotation but more so to do with the twisting at the bottom of the lift combined with losing the bar behind.

        • Luc Lapierre

          Didn’t mention anyone in particular.

    • miaou

      Can you please point to an elite (olympic and/or world’s medallist) weightlifter that uses external rotation in his overhead lockout position either in the snatch or in the jerk? 100% of the ones I can think of have/had their shoulder in neutral (elbows pointing to the side) or internal (elbows pointing slightly back) rotation.

      • Tyler

        You are right. none have them in external rotation, and furthermore that’s not what I’m arguing. What I’m am saying is biasing internal rotation is biomechanically an error. Hang from a pull up bar totally relaxed, where do you shoulders go? Into IR, IR is a slacked, unstable, position that is designed to prevent the elbow from buckling (I recently discovered the intent of it). I agree the lifter will and should have their shoulders in a neutral position overhead, their isn’t enough capsular slack to allow anything but in excessive flexion/abduction, however by externally rotating on a fixed bar, it keeps them that way. I also noticed this IR overhead occurs when the lifters hips shoot up during a heavy snatch and the shoulder needs more slack in order to keep the bar vertical while the torso leans too far forward. Again loose elbows, hips shooting up in the snatch etc are all technical errors that don’t need a biomechanical hack to fix.

      • Chris Theoharis

        Just to be clear you’re saying this is IR? http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=xiQ6Dc8ZyAI#t=28 (to me this looks like a solid, externally rotated position with an active shoulder)

        THIS looks like IR to me: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=EzQL-i_MTdU#t=29

  • Whit

    I’ve seen a lot of writeups recently about lifters’ experiences going over to train in China. To me this was the most informative and useful of all of them. Great job, thanks for sharing!

  • Roddy

    This is a great read, thnx

  • NoMan

    I am being a dumb ass but what do the Chinese and Russian mean when they talk about Internal Rotation of the shoulders? Give me some coaching ques, do I widen the gap between my scapulas, by otating my shoulders forward and up or do I pinch my scapulas together by rotating my shoulders back and up.

    Plus, Larry thanks for the articles.

    • DaTruth

      Internal rotation is literally the scientific term for that direction of movement in your shoulder joint. It has a definition, look it up!

    • Whit

      This confused me when I first heard it, because it’s kind of backwards when your arms are up vs. down. Internally rotating when they’re down means rotating your shoulders forward (widen the gap), but when you put your arms above your head in that same position, it will pinch the shoulderblades together. For the longest time I thought people were wrong when they said to internally rotate in the catch until I realized I had it backwards. I had been internally rotating from the get-go because it always felt most natural and stable, but I thought I was externally rotating.

  • Jianping Ma

    I was excited that i helped Larry to set up his China weightlifting trip a few months ago and very happy to see Larry learnt a lot from Chinese weightlifting system. As a former Olympian and professional weightlifting coach I always ready to help all ages athletes, by the way, we are now updating our website. It should be done soon. The temporary one : http://www.ChinsesWeightlifting.com
    Former Chinese Coach-
    Jianping Ma

  • guest

    I don’t really want to stir up old dirt, but wasn’t there a part 4 at some point? Will it ever come back?