Here is Part 2 of Larry’s Chinese Weightlifting Experience series. Food for thought. Hope you enjoy it.
I grew up in Canada my entire life, but with all of my extended family in China, I visited often. Travelling and seeing different parts of the world has always been a part of my childhood for which I thank my parents – it gives you a sense of perspective when it comes to cultural nuances.
It makes the thoughts of “why do they do that?” become “oh, they do that.” Even in weightlifting there are such moments where something as clear cut as a Clean and Jerk is not seen quite the same way in China as it is back home.
Clean and Jerks
This is by far my worse lift, particularly the Clean, so I was excited to hear what suggestions Coach Fang had for me. As I worked up to a working weight, he didn’t say much about the clean at all.
The first time I asked him how I could improve on my Cleans, he said
Get stronger legs.
The second time I asked him, he said
Make your second pull faster.
The third time,
Stand up quicker.
Eventually he suggested I add some hang power cleans into my programming, which would focus on speed strength and improve the timing of my second pull.
The peculiar thing about training Clean and Jerks with Coach Fang was when he instructed me to do two repetitions, he would get upset when I dropped the bar after the first Jerk.
I said do a double!
After a couple sets, he just shook his head and asked me,
Are you going to keep cleaning the weight between every Jerk?
Finally it clicked. When he said do two Clean and Jerks per set, he meant Clean the weight and then do two Jerks. Throughout the rest of my trip I saw that this was how all Chinese lifters trained Clean and Jerks.
Is this an oddity in their programming? Or a fundamental difference in their view of Clean and Jerks as a movement? My belief is the latter. As for the programming of Cleans, Jerks, and the full movement, that will come up later in the series.
Coach Fang did give me some technical cues. For the pull, many of the same principles of the Snatch applied to the clean. Keep the bar close to the body at the moment the bar leaves the ground, keep the back tight throughout the lift from the pull to receive to recovery, and produce a short but maximally forceful second pull when the bar reaches the “power point.”
One thing I noticed with both Snatch and Cleans was that I initiated my second pull too early for Coach Fang’s liking. As I prolonged my first pull and waited longer and longer until I accelerated the bar with the second pull, he pointed even higher up on his thigh telling me I was pulling too early still!
Eventually it got to the point where there was barely an acceleration phase at all, and the pull became:
- first pull into the power point, and then
- immediately finish the pull.
When I started pulling like that, Coach Fang started nodding his head. My previous understanding of pulling mechanics was that the first pull brought the bar above the knees at a steady pace, and the second pull accelerated the bar into the eventual finish at the top of the pull where you fully extend your hips and knees.
Coach Fang’s cues cut out that acceleration phase, resulting in steady bar speed from ground to high thigh, followed by a short and violent burst of power that propels the bar up to the receiving height.
secure the bar with internally rotated and shrugged upwards shouldersFor jerks, as with the Snatches from last session, Coach Fang instructed me to “secure the bar” with my shoulders internally rotated and shrugged upwards to the point where my neck was shoved forward to the point of discomfort.
With my narrow jerk grip, this overhead position felt extremely stable and I felt in total control of the bar. In the receiving position the centre of balance should be directly over the hips, and the front knee should be at a greater than 90° angle.
The rear knee should be bent but rigid upon receiving the weight overhead. The rear foot should be placed such that the heel is pointed slightly outwards, thus rotating the hip internally and allowing for greater balance and less risk of the rear heel being forced flat onto the ground thus straightening the knee.
Coach Fang described the Jerk with three words:
These refer to the dip, drive, and receive respectively. While these were not specifically used as cues, I felt it was a good concise depiction of what we see when a Jerk is performed well.
I did 6 sets of doubles at a working weight, and then moved on. Coach Fang felt the most beneficial training for me while visiting would be to critique my technical lifts with light weight, and then maintain my strength with the secondary lifts.
it was imperative to perform heavy pulls to failure on a regular basisThere was not much Coach Fang had to say regarding to technique in this exercise, just more of the same as during the Clean. However, he did have a lot to say about programming this exercise.
Coach Fang said that it was imperative to perform heavy pulls to failure on a regular basis. He went as far to say that weight should be added to the bar until your back is rounded during the pull or when the bar won’t be budged off the ground
Obviously this came as a shock to me as not many coaches in their right mind would encourage using weights beyond what could be done with correct form.
Just to be sure, I asked if he was serious about pulling to the point of back rounding and he was completely serious and felt it was important to do so.
He did, however, warn me that if my back loses tightness that I should use less weight on the following set – BUT once you start pulling on a weight you should not stop pulling until you have stood up with it completely or unless the bar stops moving altogether… even if your back starts to round.
On Various Aspects of Strength in Weightlifting
Coach Fang pointed out the various aspects of strength that apply to weightlifting.
There are primary muscles (quadriceps, glutes, and trapezius) that elevate the bar, there are the support muscles (errectors, upper back, core) that allow your primary muscles to exert force onto the bar effectively, and then there are the small muscles (biceps, triceps, pectorals, forearms, etc.) which do not play a distinct role during the lifts but if left untrained will be a limiting factor.
Absolute & Speed Strength
Strength in the primary muscle groups is divided into absolute strength and speed strength (eccentric strength and isometric strength will be mentioned later in the series).
Absolute strength being the largest amount of weight that can be moved regardless of speed, and speed strength being the ability to quickly accelerate a weight to a high speed.
beginners must focus on absolute strength for many yearsCoach Fang believes absolute strength is something beginners must focus on for many years, and that even many of the elite lifters in China must continue to increase their absolute strength to make progress in the lifts.
Heavy singles in Clean Pulls target absolute strength in the three primary muscles as well as the support muscles. While doubles and triples may also be effective in making improvements in strength, singles allow for the largest weight to be handled, which Coach Fang states is the reason for doing this exercise in the first place. Heavy singles also have a role in mental strength, as Coach Fang pointed out that on maximum effort Pulls, the mind often gives up before the body does.
Although absolute strength is a limiting factor for beginners more so than advanced lifters, Coach Fang pointed out that even recently a -77kg weightlifter, coached under one of his colleagues, was mentally weak and so he was prescribed heavy Pulls to failure multiple times per week.
His best lifts were 175/200, however due to his inconsistency, the position on the world team went to Su Dajin.
Coach Fang admits this method is not common for the elite weightlifters of today, but every lifter must prioritize their greatest weakness in training.
Programming Clean Pulls
As for programming, Coach Fang suggested I do heavy Pulls to failure up to 3 times per week using a simple programming method:
Snatch Grip OR Clean Grip Pulls up to 1RM, then 80% x2/2
As for other exercises to strengthen absolute strength, squats were the next most relevant choice.
However, Coach Fang was not insistent on performing heavy back Squats, stating that a max attempt should only be performed on days when heavy weights feel lighter than normal, and you have at least one person to spot you.
Pulls and Squats should not be done in the same workoutHe was also a fan of using a variety of Squats (Front Squats, back Squats, heavy partials, pause in the hole, and Squat from pins) in conjunction with heavy Pulls.
Pulls and Squats should not be done in the same workout, because the second exercise would suffer – if you squat prior to pulling you will be too fatigued to reach a heavy weight in the pull, and if you pull prior to squatting your back is fatigued and is at risk for injury.
To train speed strength, the staple exercise is the “Fast Pull” – a Snatch/Clean pull with a pull under. However, any pull or lift from the blocks or hang that emphasize the second pull will also train speed strength.
Coach Z explains the rhythm for speed pulls – the heels slap the ground twice: first when the bar reaches it’s maximum height, and second when the bar is lowered to the hang position. “Deng-deng”.
Here is Lu Xiaojun doing the Fast Pulls (Snatch version) with 180kg.
And here is Zhang Jie doing the Clean version.
(Side Note: Coach Fang recommended doing backwards jogging as a cool down exercise following a heavy Pull workout)
What is the most important thing to learn in life?
Coach Fang asked me this after making me jog backwards around the garden for a few laps. I assumed we were talking about lifting, so I thought out loud “Hmmm, strength? Maybe technique?”
“NO! In life Larry. The most important things to learn are history and culture.”
He then handed me a couple of old books about the early philosophers of China and another about more recent history. Unfortunately I have the reading comprehension of a child who failed Grade 1, so these books might not be of much use.
Before leaving the gym, Coach Fang handed me some more reading material, but these were weightlifting documents and articles he thought would be relevant to my training. I guess I have no choice but to become literate now.
Next in the Series: I travel to the provincial capital and set up shop in the provincial weightlifting team training hall.
- Cleans – Back tight and straight throughout entire movement
- Cleans – Begin second pull at high upper thigh and should be as quick/short as possible
- Jerk – balanced/forceful/accurate
- Jerk – centre of balance over hips equally
- Jerk – receive with front knee >90o, and rear knee Jerk – overhead position with shoulders internally rotated, shrugged upwards, and head pushed forward
- Absolute strength – Snatch or Clean Pulls up to a 1RM + 80% backoff doubles up to 3 times per week
- Speed strength – hang lifts/variations, block lifts/variations, fast Pulls from floor/hang/blocks