Category Archives: Weightlifting

A visit to Houston: Part 2

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I woke up that Monday morning determined to spend some time in the training hall. It opened at 8:00, so I did a quick dumbbell workout in the hotel fitness center, cancelled that out with a spinach and cheese croissant from the Starbucks in the lobby, and headed to the hall around 7:45.

There were small groups of lifters walking toward the hall as well, and I figured if I blended in with some of them it might increase my chances of sweeping past the security guard without having to debate the finer points of whether or not I had the right credentials to get in.

Unfortunately, the group of lifters I attached myself to consisted of several Cubans, and I…uh…do not look Cuban, so the woman guarding the entrance spotted me as an impostor straight away and ordered my Irish-looking butt out of that cluster of Cubans and off the premises. When I asked if I could take a quick picture of the day’s lifting schedule that was posted on an easel there at the entrance, my audacity  was too much for her to bear.  “No…you…may…not!” she hissed, jutting her jaw and flexing her substantial forearms.

I’ve never been one to enjoy a punch in the face that early in the morning, so I beat a hasty retreat and took a nice long stroll in the morning sun.

Here I am enjoying that stroll:

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Here is an outdoor ice rink they were setting up not far from my hotel on this 70-degree day:

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Here is the symphony center, which appears to be a cross between the Parthenon and a bomb shelter:

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When I returned to the training hall a couple of hours later, Officer Friendly was no longer guarding the entrance, and her replacement gave me a smile and a wave as I walked right in.

I spent the next few hours watching the best lifters in the world practice their craft.

Have you ever stood in the middle of a crowded weight room, looked around, and said to yourself, “Jesus H! Will somebody please do one lift, just one lift,  correctly some time this century?!?”

If you coach at a high school like I do, you know what I’m talking about.

Well, standing there in that training hall was just the opposite. I probably spent six hours in there over the course of two days, watched hundreds of lifts, and saw exactly two missed attempts.

Two.

Everything those lifters did, whether with the bare bar or a bunch of weight, they did with precision. Here are some vids I put together that will show you what I mean:

 

 

 

As a coach of young lifters, it was so cool to see these men and women work on their technique. The way they kept perfect posture on their squats. The way they moved the weight at maximum speed every rep of every set . The way they warmed up for every exercise by doing a set or two with no weight on the bar–an approach that many of the high school boys I’ve coached over the years would tell you is “for wussies only.”

Schleizer arrived around lunch time, and after a quick bite he and I found Anna at the Eleiko booth.  We asked Anna if she wanted to head over to the training hall with us, but she told us that the fine young American lifters CJ  Cummings and Mattie Rogers were due at the booth any minute to sign autographs and pose for pictures.

This was great news for me, as two of my lifters are, shall we say, enamored of Mattie and I had promised them that I would get her autograph.

This was good news for Anna, because as part of her studies she was hoping to take a whole bunch of physical measurements of elite lifters there in Houston in an effort to build a database of, well, the physical measurements of elite lifters. She wan’t 100 percent sure of how she was going to round up those lifters, so she was excited that Mattie and CJ would be coming to her.

Here is photo I got with them. They were both, by the way, very gracious.

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So gracious, in fact, that when Anna asked them to accompany her to a nearby conference room so that she could measure their limbs and poke them with calipers, they agreed.

I headed back to the training hall as Anna, Schleizer (enlisted to jot down numbers as Anna measured) and the two lifters went off to strike a blow for science.

We met up later to watch the women’s 58K and men’s 69K classes compete. Here are some vids I took of those sessions:

 

Afterwards, we sat down for drinks in the hotel lobby. It’s funny, isn’t it, how sometimes you have to go to a place like Houston in order to find the time to sit down and have a drink with your friends? I’ve known Schleizer and Anna for more than fifteen years, shared hilarious and triumphant and brutally disappointing  moments with them in throwing rings and on lifting platforms, and…let’s just say that getting to hang out with them made the expense and hassle of the trip totally worthwhile.

Schleizer took off that night, so the next morning I headed back to the training hall by myself, flashed the wristband that the ever-generous Eleiko folks had given me, and once again walked right in.

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If you coach kids in the Olympic lifts, I would recommend doing whatever you have to do to get yourself into one of these training halls some day. I grant you, it is motivating and a lot of fun to sit around with your athletes and watch vids of great lifters hitting huge competition lifts. But if you think about it, 499 out of every 500 lifts our kids perform are with submaximal loads, most often as partial movements like power snatch, muscle snatch, lift-offs, pulls, power jerks or what-have-you.  So to see the best lifters in the world practice those movements taught me things that were immediately applicable to my not-nearly-the-best-lifters-in-the-world.

The other thing that was cool to see was the way these lifters approached their training. Raise your hand if you’ve ever had some idiot in charge of your weight room who thinks that heavy metal music played at ear-splitting volume is essential to a successful workout. Strangely, the best lifters in the world do not seem to adhere to that principle. There was no music in the hall. None of the lifters had head phones or earbuds. The coaches never shouted. If they had advice for their athletes they spoke to them quietly between lifts. Many of the athletes paused for several seconds with their hands on the bar, marshaling their focus before attempting a lift–even lifts with clearly less-than-maximum loads. The main goal seemed to be executing each movement with precision.

After a while, Anna found me in the hall and enlisted my help. She was on the hunt for the fine Brazilian super heavyweight Fernando  Reis, and I agreed to act as wing man.

We found Fernando a few minutes later at the Eleiko booth, and when Anna asked if he would submit to be measured and calipered in the name of science, he cordially agreed.

That’s the thing about Anna. She’s just one of those people who if she asks you to strip down to your compression shorts and let her pinch the hell out of you with a set of calipers, you don’t think twice about saying yes.

So Anna, Fernando, and I retired to a nearby conference room and next thing you know there’s Fernando in all his massiveness carrying on a friendly conversation with us while Anna took measurements and I recorded.

At one point, Anna mentioned her hope to discover the qualities necessary to become a great lifter, and Fernando offered his insight into the matter.

“You know what you need to be a great lifter? Big balls. That’s what you need. You have to be willing to hurt.”

“Well,” replied Anna, “I don’t think we’re going to measure those.”

Here is a pic of Fernando and Anna after she finished working him over:

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He could not have been nicer about the whole thing. Truly a class act.

I still had a several hours before heading to the airport for my flight home, so after Fernando left us I made a beeline back to the training hall where I got to see the Polish super heavyweight Krzysztof Klicki front squat about a million pounds.

I was totally in the zone, taking vids on my iPad mini and posting them to Youtube when all of a sudden a harsh voice interrupted my reverie.

“Excuse me, may I see your pass?”

She was a very short lady, dressed in an official blue blazer, and looking really chapped.

I held up my arm so she could see my Eleiko wristband.

“That is not the right pass, sir! You need to leave immediately!”

She had brought one of the loaders as backup. I recognized him from last night’s competition. He was a sizable dude, and looked pretty chapped as well so I didn’t argue. I left immediately.

Actually, I lingered for a second near the exit because I spotted a mountain of a lifter warming up and wanted to take a quick photo of him. I knew my guys would get a kick out of how massive he was.

Nothing doing, though.

The lady was right on my heels like one of those little yappie dogs.

“Sir, you need to leave this area!”

“Can I just get a picture of the huge guy?”

“Sir, I will not have you bothering the lifters!”

This after I had spent hours over the past two days filming and photographing many lifters, none of whom seemed the least bit cognizant of my presence.

It was only later while lunching at a local Chipotle that I considered the absurdity of the situation.

The meet organizers had erected seating for at least 250 spectators in the training hall. During the many hours I spent in there, though, there were never more than a dozen people occupying those seats. I have to figure that those dozen people, myself included, are the kind of passionate weight lifting fans of which there are not exactly a plethora in this country. So, short mean lady, if you happen to read this I’d love to hear the logic behind jacking me out of that training hall. If you really love the sport, I would think you’d be thrilled that at least a handful of people in this country shared your passion enough to want to spend their time watching lifters train. If, on the other hand, what you really love is the feeling of power that your blue blazer and meat head lackey give you, well…

After lunch I visited the Eleiko booth one last time to say my goodbyes to Anna. I could not wait to get home to see my wife and daughter, to deliver those autographs to my lifters. and to get them back on the platform.

 

 

 

 

 

A Trip to Houston: Part 1

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I’m not going to lie, the prospect of a return trip to Texas did not thrill me. I once spent the longest eight months of my life living in Dallas, and I left there with no intention of returning to that state.  Ever.

You know how, every once in awhile, some loudmouth in the Texas legislature will threaten secession if the federal government tries to deny their right to arm kindergartners or make the teaching of evolution a capital offense? Every time I read something like that, all I can think is “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”

But, this year’s International Weightlifting Federation World Championships were being held in Houston, and I love the sport of Olympic lifting and the Worlds had not been held on American soil since 1978 and Lord knows when they’d be back here again and Schleizer would be there to protect me and…so…a few days before this past Thanksgiving, I headed to Texas.

Scheizer, by the way, is my friend who was an all-American shot putter at the University of Illinois and is now a school district administrator and so is used to beating people’s asses.

The trip began on Sunday, November 22nd,  with a remarkably pleasant flight from Chicago. I had a window seat, and not long after I’d occupied it a friendly, earth-motherish sort of woman plopped down in the aisle seat of my row holding a baby boy maybe ten months old. She apologized in advance for any trouble he might cause, but he and I got along fine. He had big blue eyes and one of those enormous baby heads and all you had to do was wave at him once in awhile and let him squeeze your finger and he was happy as hell. We were best buds in about half a minute.

His seven-year-old sister set up shop in the middle seat, and we hit it off too.  She was wearing one of those funny winter hats that little girls love so much—furry, with bunny ears. I complimented her on it and that broke the ice. Before long she was telling me about her favorite dinosaur and how a cobra could defeat a komodo dragon in a one-on-one battle and what strategy she would use to try to make a good showing in her family’s annual pie-eating contest.

So it was a fun flight, and when was the last time you heard anybody utter those words?

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My incredibly patient, supportive wife had booked me a room at the Hilton, which was connected to the convention hall where the competition was being held. Upon landing, I shuttled over there from the airport, dumped my bag in my room and headed to the Eleiko Barbell display just outside the competition arena.

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Fifteen years ago, Schleizer coached the throws at New Trier High School just north of Chicago, and one of his athletes was a young lady named Anna Swisher. At eighteen, Anna was probably mature enough to be a senator, but she enrolled at Williams College instead and after graduating went to work on a PhD in exercise science. She recently helped Eleiko develop a coaching education course, and was scheduled to arrive in town Monday to help out at their booth. She had called ahead, though, and asked the Eleiko folks to hook me up with a ticket to Sunday’s competition sessions, which they very cordially did.

I had about an hour to kill before those  competition sessions began, and I knew exactly where I wanted to kill it: the training hall, also known as, “Nirvana for weightlifting dorks.”

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At every big-time lifting competition, the host provides a training area where the lifters get in their final workouts prior to competing. Quite simply, these are large rooms full of dozens of lifting platforms occupied by the best lifters in the world. I’d seen videos of various training halls over the years, but…it’s kinda like with a Sasquatch or a supermodel. What you really want is to see one in person.

So I was highly jacked about the prospect of spending some time in the Houston training area, which was located down a hallway from the competition arena in a room big enough to house giant exhibitions like auto shows or home artillery displays.

I wasn’t sure whether or not my Eleiko pass would get me into the training hall, but I figured the way to find out, this being Texas, was to just  take a shot at it.

When I reached the entrance to the training hall, I put my head down and flashed  my pass (actually a wrist band) at the security guard. I was a couple of steps past him when he called me back and informed me that I did not have the right credentials to enter the hall.

This was, to put it delicately, very disappointing. The training area was blocked off by a set of bleachers and a wall of curtains so I couldn’t see  any of the lifters, but I could hear the slam of lifting shoes on wood and the “bu-bu-bump-bump” of plates hitting platforms. So near, and yet…

Dejected, I headed back towards the competition arena and puttered around for a few minutes looking over the display booths full of lifting equipment and t-shirts. Out of nowhere, a nice-looking young lady came up from behind and attached a tendo unit to my right trapezius muscle. “Where do you hurt?” she asked in a throaty voice tinged with just a hint of sexiness. I started to tell her about my training hall rejection, but right away she flipped on the tendo unit and launched into her sales pitch. As she spoke, she gradually turned up the intensity of the electric shock which, in hindsight, makes me wonder if the implied message was that she was going to keep cranking that thing up until either I handed over my credit card or my trapezius exploded.  I told her I couldn’t possibly spend $250 on a portable tendo unit without first asking my wife, and that seemed to ruin the moment for her. She cut the juice, handed me a business card and went in search of likelier prey.

It was time anyway for me to enter the competition hall to see the women’s 53k lifters battle it out. The competition sessions were held in what appeared to be a mid-size concert venue with about 3,000 seats. My Eleiko pass required me to sit in the upper tier of seats, the lower tier being reserved for coaches, athletes, and VIPs. Here was my view from up there:

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The venue was intimate enough that I was able to shoot some pretty good vids  to take home and show my athletes. Here are a few lifts from the snatch portion of the competition:

If you’ve ever been to a weightlifting meet, you know that they always project a chart on the wall that gives you the names of the lifters, the weight of their opening attempts, and the weights of their various makes and misses throughout the competition. They had that here, projected onto the wall on either side of the stage but, unfortunately, I was too far away to be able to read it. And not being able to read the chart takes a lot of the drama out of the competition. It would be like watching a baseball game without knowing the number of balls and strikes on a batter or the number of outs in an inning.

Luckily, when I went to the bathroom during the break before the clean and jerk, I got turned around and re-entered the competition hall through a different door. Suddenly and fortuitously, I found myself to one side of the competition stage with a great view of the lifters and the chart. Not only that, but very few of the close-up reserved seats were occupied, so…I occupied one in the third row.

This was my new view:

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Here are some vids I took of the clean and jerk competition from that vantage point:

Next up was the men’s 62k class. I stuck with my off-to-the-side seat, and saw a great competition. The highlight was a world record in the clean and jerk by Chen Lijun of China! Here is a vid of that lift:

 That segment of the competition ended around 7:45, and I had seen somewhere that the training hall was open until 8:00, so I decided to take another whack at it. Many years ago, when I was a brand new teacher, I took a look at my actual teaching certificate one day and noticed that  it did not list English as one of the subjects I was authorized to teach. This was a problem, as I was several months into my first job…as an English teacher. Anxious to get this little mix-up straightened out before the folks at the district office took notice, I rang up someone at the state board of education and was told that I did not, in fact, have the coursework required to qualify for a license to teach English. After a sleepless night spent wondering how I was going to inform my department chair of this…uh…complication, I devised a plan. Before enrolling in summer classes the previous June, I had been assured by someone at the state that those classes would secure me an English endorsement. The person who later examined my transcripts apparently disagreed, as did the person I spoke to after examining my certificate. Clearly though, there was someone in that office who thought those classes sufficient. What if I just kept calling until I got that person on the line?

After only a couple of tries, that is exactly what happened. I spoke to the right person, she fixed my certificate and I am, nearly twenty-five years later, still an English teacher.

Might the same approach eventually get me inside the training hall?

That night, it did. There was a different security guard on duty, I flashed her my pass, and she just smiled and waved me in.  

What was it the dude who discovered King Tut’s tomb said when they knocked open the entrance and he stuck his head inside? I don’t remember, either.  But I’ll bet it was something along the lines of “Holy s—!!” which is exactly what I muttered to myself when I walked in that hall. 

There must have been 60 platforms set up in there, maybe more. Rows and rows of them. And though only one or two were occupied at that late hour, it didn’t take much imagination to see that during prime time it would be a fantastic place to watch weightlifting. Here’s what it looked like that night:

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I had a nice dinner at the hotel and went to bed thinking very happy thoughts. Schleizer and Anna would arrive the next day. and I imagined us spending many happy hours together watching great lifters.

It turned out to be a little more complicated than that.

Next up: Rejected again! Seeing another world record. Anna armed with calipers.

 

In Praise of the Full Olympic Lifts (by Dan McQuaid)

First, let me hedge on that a little bit. I’m going to leave the jerk out of this discussion for the moment and focus on convincing you that teaching young athletes the full clean and full snatch is absolutely to their benefit.

Here’s what I call a “full clean.”clean sequence

As you can see, the athlete begins the lift by raising the bar from the floor and ends up dropping into a full squat while receiving it. Here’s a vid of a full clean.

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Here’s what I call a “full snatch.”

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Once again, the lifter begins by raising the bar from the floor and sinks into a full squat while receiving it.

(Okay, there should be one more photo at the beginning of this sequence, but trust me, this was the Olympics–he took it from the floor.)

Here’s a vid of a full snatch.

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If you have visited a high school or college weight room recently, you know that the Olympic lifts are considered an essential part of training young athletes. We had a track meet at a nearby school this weekend, and their new weight room contained ten lifting platforms with plenty of Olympic bars and bumper plates. I assume the school would not have spent the money to buy all of that equipment just to make me envious (we have four platforms).  They clearly intend for their athletes to be trained in the Olympic lifts.

And here’s why:

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This is the top of the second pull in the snatch. The lifter has executed an explosive “triple extension” launching herself upwards with a coordinated hip, knee, and ankle extension.  This is a movement demanded of athletes in many sports. From the waist down, she could be a volleyball player leaping for a spike, a discus thrower blasting out of the power position, a defensive lineman elevating to knock down a pass, or a basketball player extending for a rebound.

That’s why the school I visited this weekend has–like schools all across the country–devoted a bunch of money and space to establish a proper training area for the Olympic lifts. The idea that these lifts can improve performance in a variety of sports is now widely accepted.

And I could not agree more.

But teaching kids how to properly execute the full lifts takes a lot of time and effort. A coach cannot bring his kids to the weight room, turn up the heavy metal music, and then sit down and play Angry Birds while the athletes manage themselves. Coaching the Olympic lifts is just like coaching the discus, or tackling, or a pickoff move. The athletes must be drilled in proper form and given regular, guided practice by a knowledgeable coach.

And, as with any sport, it takes passionate commitment to become an effective coach of the Olympic lifts.

But, if your passions are already focused on becoming a great football, volleyball or basketball coach, will you have the time and energy to pursue the training necessary to become a great lifting coach?

Or, is there a way for your athletes to garner the benefits of Olympic lifting without having to go to the trouble of teaching them the full movements?

Might partial versions of the Olympic lifts be the answer? If it is the middle portion of the clean and snatch (the “second pull”) that makes athletes more explosive can’t we just focus on that and forget about having to teach our athletes to raise the bar from the floor and to receive it by sinking into a full squat? After all, that stuff seems a bit complicated.

Let’s take a look.

Here is an athlete demonstrating a “power clean from the hang position.”

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She begins the movement not from the floor but with the bar just above her knees, she blasts through triple extension, and she finishes by receiving the bar without dropping into a full squat. Based on that middle photo, it sure looks like she is getting the full benefit of performing an Olympic lift without having to go to the trouble of learning how to raise the bar from the floor to the hang position (no easy matter for many young athletes) or to sink into a stable front squat while receiving the bar (also not a simple matter for young athletes).

And the same approach can be taken with the snatch.

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Problem solved, right? Just teach your athletes these simple variations of the Olympic lifts and you can go back to playing Angry Birds while they reap the benefits of the full Olympic lifts without having to…well…perform the full lifts.

Hold on one second there, mon frere.

I’m ready to argue that taking the time and effort to teach your athletes the full Olympic lifts is absolutely worth it. Here’s why:

Reason #1  Training kids to lift the bar from the floor to the hang position strengthens their back, butt, and hamstrings in a very healthy way.

Ask most kids to pick up something from the floor–a weighted bar, their dirty laundry, the burrito they just dropped on the carpet, whatever–and they will immediately go into hunchback mode, rounding their shoulders and spine rather than bending at the knees and hinging at the hips with a set back. This is not a safe way to pick up a weight, but many young athletes lack the strength in their back, butt, and hamstrings to keep their back set while bending forward. Is it unreasonable to suggest that this weakness might negatively effect their performance in their chosen sport ?

Olympic lifters cannot tolerate weakness in those areas. They have to be able to raise a loaded bar from the floor to the hang position in a mechanically sound way…

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…or they would not be able to manage heavy loads.

You tell me, would your athletes benefit from developing the back, butt, and hamstring strength it takes to raise the bar from the floor in the manner demonstrated by this lifter?

Yes, it takes time and great care to train beginners how to perform this movement, but the potential benefits…

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…are worth the trouble.

Reason #2 Teaching kids to sink into a squat when receiving the bar develops leg strength, flexibility, and stability.

Simply put,  you must have all three in order to hit these positions…

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…and then rise up from them without dumping the weight.

It takes time to train even the most gifted athletes to do this with heavy loads. Kids need to start out with PVC pipes and light bars and build from there. Some need a lot of stretching to remediate tightness in their hips, shoulders, and wrists,  but again, wouldn’t increasing flexibility in these areas have a beneficial effect on their overall athletic performance?

Reason #3 Kids who are only taught the partial lifts often lose their form (and many of the benefits inherent to Olympic lifting) as they increase their loads.

There are many examples of this on Youtube.

Challenged to attempt a heavy load from the hang position, kids will often get the weight moving by swinging their hips into it and then splaying their feet awkwardly as they receive the bar. What was meant to be an athletic movement focused on an explosive triple extension degenerates (in the case of a clean) into a hip-assisted reverse curl with little or no extension of the ankles, knees, and hips or (in the case of the snatch) into essentially a straight-armed, overhead weight toss likely ending with the bar crashing to the floor behind the lifter.

Yes, the athlete in one of the videos above performed a very crisp, athletic, and technically sound hang snatch without dropping into a squat as he received the bar, but he was not maxing out. Like many Olympic lifters, he was using this partial lift to train a segment of the full lift.

Clearly, athletes need to challenge themselves with increasingly heavy loads in order to gain strength. It would be tremendously boring–not to mention a waste of time–to spend month after month executing your lifts with the same weight.

But, asking young lifters to attempt near-maximum weights in the Olympic lifts without training them in the correct methods of lifting the bar from the floor and of receiving the weight in a solid, stable position is a mistake.

If we are going to encourage kids to put up big numbers, we owe it to them to train them to do so in the safest and most effective manner possible. And in the case of the Olympic lifts, that is the full version.

Allow me to close with a rather major qualifier.

Every kid is different. You cannot expect all of your athletes to fit a single training template. In spite of your best efforts at remediation, you may find certain athletes whose shoulder tightness will never allow them to safely rack a snatch overhead. Very tall athletes sometimes need to begin their Olympic lifts from blocks as their height does not allow them to set up in a solid starting position when lifting from the floor. Here is a vid of the fine shot putter Jordan Clarke lifting from blocks:

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So as you lead your athletes down the path towards executing the full lifts, you will have to take the occasional detour.

Yes, this approach can get a bit complicated. Yes, it takes a lot work.

But the payoff is that you will help your athletes improve their stability, balance, explosiveness, and flexibility. To me, that makes it worth the effort.

My advice to any coach who wants his athletes to reap the many benefits of training with the Olympic lifts is to take a coaching course from USA Weightlifting. They offer these two-day seminars all over the country, and it is time well spent.