Two Great Resources For Learning How To Lift

When you first start CrossFit your coaches are sage-like possessors of wisdom unfathomable. They guide you, teaching you how to control your body so that your heels stay on the ground when you squat, developing your body’s ability to hinge at the hip and keep the spine secure with the infamous “core” muscles, and inundating you with arbitrarily named exercises that are supposed to help you get more fit. 

After a while, you decide that these strangely named exercises are fun and challenging. You want to get better at your snatch and clean and jerk. Unfortunately, your coaches seem to be bothered when you call them at 1130 at night demanding they explain to you intricacies of these movements, so that you can be better prepared for tomorrow’s workout.

No need to panic. Your coaches need sleep, and if you’re up at 1130 the night before working out, so do you. There are some great resources available to you where you can see quality demos of Olympic Weightlifting movements and the accessory work that is commonly paired with this type of training.

The number one resource for all things Olympic weightlifting is Catalyst Athletics. From having the most extensive exercise library I am aware of, to free training programs, to articles that are both informative and engaging, this site simply can not be beat.  All of the information here can be trusted to be accurate and the exercise demos are performed correctly as well.

Another great resource for some really great technique in action is the @hookgrip instagram account. He travels to weightlifting events around the world capturing the absolute best lifters in the world. His videos contain a bit of commentary as well, so you can become familiar with the elite athletes in the sport and become a bit of a fan in the process.

These two should be more than sufficient for anyone new to the sport. Where you want to stay away from is YouTube. Many people have developed the ability to speak clearly and confidently and present poor information in a way that sounds great. With more experience you will learn to discern the difference between those who know what they are talking about, and those who do not. 

Getting started and learning is a fun process. And you only get to be a true beginner once. Make sure to start that process on the right foot by getting quality coaching in your home gym and accessing the best sources available in your free time. Learning the right way initially will keep the progress rolling and eliminate the need for correcting pesky bad habits years down the road.

Gaining Skills and Making Progress

With the Open wrapping up everyone is excited about their fitness in a way many never have been before. Skills like muscle ups and handstand pushups are in the spotlight at the moment and folks are primed to get their first reps and make some new PR’s. It’s important at times like this to understand how skills develop and that there are correct ways to go about developing your physical abilities.

The first thing to remember is that capacity matters. If you are not strong enough to lift a weight, or if your lungs are not powerful enough to sustain intensity, you are going to need to fix these issues to achieve your goals. Many individuals had trouble with the thrusters of 16.5 simply because 95 lbs is over half of their best front squat. With this basic example it is easy to see that building your squat strength could significantly improve your capacity to handle this specific test.

Another good example is the kipping muscle up. While there were no muscle ups on rings this year, it is still a popular time to start looking up those two circles and imagining what the view is like from on top of them. The fastest way up on top is to kip and that’s what most folks set out to do, huck themselves upwards with all their effort  and hope for the best. The problem is most people don’t have the strength to even do a solid ring dip with full range of motion.

While the thrusters may have simply sucked for those who had to persevere through a challenging and relatively tough weight for them, the muscle up becomes incredibly dangerous at high speed without the required strength. Lifting a bunch of weights and practicing support positions on rings for several months is the best approach for developing the capacity to do a muscle up. Grow strong and things requiring strength work better. Simple.

Once you have the capacity to perform any skill you still have to learn to do the skill correctly. Fortunately, the two can be developed together. Pairing upper body strength development with ground based muscle up transition work will develop the motor patterning necessary and, as the strength reaches the required level, the only thing left is the application.

While the muscle up is flashy and has become a common benchmark for one’s efficacy as a fitness athlete, it is relatively easy compared to other exercises common to CrossFit. Learning Olympic weightlifting is an extremely intricate and time consuming process. From the basics of doing a consistent solid squat in training to nailing the classic lifts at heavy percentages, this is a process that can not be rushed. Spending hours, months, and years working the variations of snatch and clean and jerk along with supplementary exercises is how lifting is improved. Attempts can be made to rush or circumvent this process and achieve some level of success, but they will always pale in comparison to those who dedicate themselves to following a consistent program and putting in the hard work.

This year many individuals will build the ability to do amazing things. Many more can achieve those same skills and much more if they can commit to developing their capacity and honing their technique. Commit to working on the basics and developing sound strength and movement patterns and you will continue to grow towards your true potential.

Train Smarter not Harder

Athletes get their egos thrown out the window when they start CrossFit. No matter who you are, there’s going to be some aspect of this everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to fitness that challenges and at some point, utterly defeats you. Mobility is one of those somewhat obscure factors that will present a host of challenges to athletes of all skill levels entering the program.

A very specific mobility is needed for many of the exercises performed in CrossFit. This mobility goes beyond simple flexibility, as illustrated by the fact that some of the worst and most difficult to correct squats have come from yoga enthusiasts. This isn’t meant as a bash against yoga, only as an example to show that excessive flexibility without stability can be just as dysfunctional in terms of strength training as a lack of flexibility.

When you do a snatch you have to be able to comfortably move into a full depth squat with a vertical torso while supporting significant weights above your head. Simply getting into position is not enough. You must lock your body into rigid posture and control an external load back to a standing position. This requires that your muscles work together, in a uniform and controlled manner, even under extreme load and extreme position.

It is a convergence of coordination, flexibility and stability that allows movements as fast and aggressive as a snatch to be performed correctly. Having strength disproportionately above these three factors is a one way ticket to injury. Not only with the snatch, but with all movements, both bodyweight and weightlifting oriented as well.

The trouble is, when you start out at CrossFit, you have no clue where you are lacking. What’s strong, what’s weak, what’s running smoothly, are all mysteries until the clock starts running. This is why I start all new athletes out with training bars or pvc pipes and scale the vast majority of bodyweight movements as well. The more you move, the more apparent the issues facing you will become. Much of what initially seems to be flexibility related often turns out to be more effected by coordination and begins to correct itself from simple verbal cuing over a period of weeks or months, if an athlete is patient and dedicated.

The general CrossFit template is great for those simply looking to get a good workout and stay healthy. An hour lifting some weight, doing some 400m runs, and having a go at some band assisted pull ups is plenty challenging for the vast majority of the population and creates a wonderful training effect. However, when you decide you want to make significant improvements and you want to challenge yourself with weights and speed, you must respect the power of mobility.

Depending on your deficits, the path to better mobility will involve lots of practice, lots of stretching, lots of accessory work, or more likely, some combination of the three on a consistent and long term basis. Stay dedicated and focused on quality movement as a priority above simple intensity and you will be rewarded with a fitness you can use to do CrossFit and anything else you want for years to come.

The Hook Grip

Hook Grip.jpg

The hook grip is the hand placement used in the sport of Weightlifting to create a secure connection to a barbell during explosive movement. This grip is achieved by tucking the thumb as deeply as possible underneath the index and middle fingers of the same hand. Covering the maximum amount of thumb your hand size allows is paramount. The more of the thumb that is covered by your first two fingers the more friction will be created. This friction causes a tighter and stronger grip without the use of excessive muscle strain. Your thumb will take the brunt of this tighter connection and it will be very sore for a few weeks. With dedication and consistent use your thumb will adapt and soreness will no longer be an issue. There are many reasons why you’ll want to tough out this conditioning period. Some are very obvious, while others may be slightly less apparent.

First off, it’s a stronger grip. Barbells are designed to spin. When the bar is lifted the collars turn so that the bar can remain stationary in our hands and reduce wear and tear on the joints of our wrists, elbows and shoulders. When using the double overhand grip there is friction on only one side of the bar and the bar will naturally turn out of your fingers. Placing your thumb under your first two fingers creates friction on both sides of the bar and will therefore reduce the rotational force and allow you to more easily hold weight securely.

A secure connection to the barbell is essential. As we cross the knees and approach mid-thigh, when lifting a snatch or clean, a violent and explosive acceleration will occur. This is commonly referred to as the second pull. If the grip is loosening at this point the athlete’s brain will immediately recognize and compensate to keep the bar in the athletes hands. Common faults associated with this situation are early bending of the arms, slowing of the second pull and excessive use of the upper body to lift the bar upwards. All of these mistakes will minimally affect novice lifters, but as an athlete progresses, incorrect movement patterns will be engrained and progress will grind to a screeching halt.

One more way this amazing grip benefits us is that it takes less energy to maintain than the double overhand. Imagine swinging a golf club with a white knuckle grip. This grip is going to radiate stiffness up your arms and result in swing that is anything but smooth. You need a smooth swing! Or in the case of Weightlifting, smooth timing of the third pull to change your body’s direction and pull yourself underneath the bar. By maintaining a strong grip and keeping the arms relaxed we can most accurately and consistently time the transition and relocation to our receiving position underneath the barbell.

The hook grip is essential to Weightlifting. It creates a stronger connection to the bar that allows you to move heavy weights with a level of coordination and agility that cannot be achieved with any other grip. Consistent use of this technical hand placement will allow you to progress as an athlete more quickly and further than without. Furthermore, extension of this grip into any CrossFit workout involving pulling on a bar or dumbbells will provide incredible advantage over a standard grip for the same reasons.

Make PR's with Effective Breathing

Mike does a great job here of staying tight through a tough squat for a big PR!

I was hanging out at my old gym the other day and girl was going for a PR on her front squat. She missed it three times, none of which had anything to do with effort, and was obviously preparing to try it again. At this point I didn’t want to watch her fail anymore, so I asked her if she wanted to make the lift or not? Confused, she softly replied that she did, and proceeded to look at me like a dog that had been kicked. To cut the awkward silence that followed, I explained to her the correct way to get set up for a squat and she made her PR on the next attempt.

We need to use our breath in a very specific way when we lift weights and this situation got me thinking that maybe an article outlining the proper technique would be a good idea. I'll use squatting as the basis for my example, though understanding and practicing diaphragmatic breathing, or "belly breathing," will help you with any lift.

When you squat, you need to get a good, deep breath in. This breath needs to go down low, into your stomach. How do you know the air is going where it should? Place your fingers inside your hip bones, low on your stomach and take a breath. Did you feel your fingers push out as you took your breath? Ok, good. That’s where your air goes.

Now, as you feel that air push out against your stomach, flex your abs down on that pressure to brace yourself. You just successfully created tension through the middle of your body. This is the same mechanism that allows rubber tires to support a heavy automobile. Keep this tension and move downward into your squat.

Sit your hips down and as you reach the bottom, where you will change direction, increase the tightness of your abs on that air, and start to stand. Maintain this tightness and start to hiss out a bit of air so you don’t get dizzy as you return to your starting position.

This part is important. The starting position of your squat is not a rest position. Stay tight. Keep flexing your abs and take a few small breaths without releasing your tension. Gather yourself and take a new breath down deep, brace against it and squat again. Repeat for as many reps as necessary.

As this breathing becomes more consistent, you can perform several reps on a single breath. Time and practice will allow you to determine how much weight you can move without needing to stop and get yourself a new one. Always remember to get your breath at the start and become stable before you move, and to increase the tightness on that air as you impact the bottom. This force of changing directions at the bottom will knock the air out of you if you don’t hold it strongly enough

Apply this breathing to any lift. Squats, deadlifts, presses, snatches and any other lift should be set up by taking a good deep breath and holding it. Timing the release of air with the completion of the lift is as important as holding it, so make sure to practice letting a little air out on your lighter sets until it becomes second nature. Effective breathing will allow you to lift heavy more safely and more often. This is how you get stronger. So, get focused on your breathing and the PR’s will be sure to follow.