Have you ever performed a lift, and then upon completion of the rep thought to yourself: “damn, that felt good”? That, from start to finish, it just felt “right”? Congratulations, you have discovered the “feel!” More often than not, however, this feeling remains an elusive event in the average beginner-intermediate lifter’s experience of the weight. In my opinion, it is one of the primary factors that delineates high-achieving athletes from the inexperienced or inconsistent ones. As I embark on regaining strength once possessed, this is something I’ve been actively searching for. In fact, my program for the next 12 weeks is all about re-training, re-imagining, and optimizing this sense of the feel.
Today’s blog post is going to discuss what the feel is in the context of my experience, and how you can achieve it regularly in both your training and on the competition platform. Were going to approach this two ways: what’s happening biomechanically (in a very rough sense), and the essential mindset an athlete must have to navigate his/her own sense of the feel.
If you’ve ever watched an experienced lifter setup for a Snatch or Clean you might notice them shifting their hips up and down, resetting their hands on the bar, the position of their chest, and so on (at our club, Ian Haya is the master of the dynamic twerk start). What that lifter is doing is looking for just the right spot in their setup to feel their strongest. What the athlete is feeling around for is a point of maximal tension in their start position (for the most part, in the glutes, hips, abs, low- and upper-backs) that gives them the strongest setup possible. They’re not death gripping the bar and completely stiff. On the contrary, the point that they’re looking for is a compromise of sorts, seeking an apex of maximal tension while still remaining supple. If you’re too tight you’ll just swing the bar wildly in the second pull, throwing it, hoping you can catch it. Too loose and the bar will feel heavier than it is. This is why the lifter’s you’ll see at World’s or the Olympics can look so strong yet so fluid. This is a feeling that must be maintained throughout the entirety of the lift.
I posted a video to Facebook recently of myself performing Slow Snatches. The intent behind this exercise was to become as aware as I can of each bit of the lift in my first pull as I transition to the second. When the bar is at mid-shin how does it feel? When I pass my knees where do I feel strongest yet still mobile? Way over the bar or further back? In that video you’ll notice I raise my hips first. Yes, I know, this is “wrong.” If you learned to lift with us, you’ve probably been called out for “Stripper Snatching” (no moral judgement here, promise). What I’m doing isn’t Stripper Snatching, though, and is entirely intentional.
Utilizing the technique that I am, I’m addressing two problems of particular to me. Firstly, I have relatively long femurs, and as a result clearing my knees has always been a problem. I also feel far more comfortable with my shoulders way over the bar. If I lift completely straight I can’t stay over the bar properly, pulling my shoulders back too soon. In the past, when I’ve used a more orthodox technique, I’ve often straightened my knees too much, making it almost impossible to jump; I would rarely rebend correctly. What I’m doing is a compromise.
I have (not to brag) an exceptionally strong posterior-chain (low-back, glutes, hamstrings). If you watch, I lift with my hips and low-back until I pass my knees, but then immediately transition to leading with my chest, scooping my hips in, and punching the bar upwards with my quads. In essence, everything that is supposed to be happening happens. My shoulders stay over the bar, I jump straight up using quad strength to propel the bar up into the correct bar path (well, mostly, I’m just getting back into it, remember?). Fundamentally, I’m doing what I am supposed to. That is, bringing the bar to the power point (hips for Snatch, mid-thigh for the Clean) while staying over the bar. Scientific evidence substantiates this approach.
Akuss (2011) has found that, among the women at the 2010 World Championships, everyone’s first pull differed by weight class, sometimes dramatically so. Even so, all of their first pulls finished in the same position, with the shoulders over the bar at the power point, and the hips coming in. While I can only surmise what may occur between other athletes and their coaches, I know that the more I coach an athlete, the more we find ourselves distanced from a standardized approach. For an athlete in their second year of training, we may have changed their start position and first pull technique multiple times, constantly refining what both looked and felt best, and most importantly, what allowed them to lift the most weight. To sort of bridge my own personal experience with the point I just made, if you watch Chinese Weightlifting videos on Youtube, you’ll notice a number of larger Chinese athletes utilizing a similar technique to what can be seen in my Snatch video. Surprise, surprise, being a 105+kg, half-Chinese man myself, what I’m doing just might make sense! Onto the next question: how do I think about the feel?
Visualization is a proven strategy for improving athletic performance. Often, in the cues I give my athletes, I ask them to think about moving their body in a way that exaggerates what I want them to do. Common ones might be: “elbows to the ceiling,” “shoulders up,” “lead with the chest,” etc. These are basic visualizations, though. Let’s go a step further and use metaphor.
Once more, going back to my Snatches, the setup I’m utilizing allows me to feel the strongest, but not just because of my personal anthropometry (read: limb proportions). Metaphorically, when I setup this way, I feel like I’m a loaded gun. When I’m setting up, getting my butt to the floor, I feel as though I’ve just become a chambered round, and I’m the bullet. When my hips begin to rise that’s the trigger being pulled. When I clear my knees the hammer is coming down. As the bar makes contact with my hips, the primer of our metaphorical round has been ignited and the explosion occurs. I take the same approach to the setup in the Clean and Jerk, and it is an integral component to my setup. Why is this so important?
The importance of using psychological metaphors is fundamentally about sense making. Using the metaphor I describe above allows me to most efficiently make sense of what I’m doing and why. Knees back here, wrists up there, look straight ahead… Sometimes cues that make reference to your body parts are too isolated, disjointing the sensation of the lift, and thus divorcing you from what the feel is supposed to be as a whole. While I use these cues as a coach to get you to exaggerate a movement, what I’m really hoping for is that you feel why it’s necessary to improving your technique. The best lifters are able to integrate these cues into their understanding of a lift’s execution as a whole. It’s not good if you exaggerate pulling your elbows up if you loop the bar around your knees first. I can suggest metaphors, but it’s up to each athlete to begin developing and internalizing their own metaphors for lifting.
The next time you pick up a bar, focus on how each phase of the lift feels. When you warm your Snatch up with a few lifts from the Hang, pay attention to how the bar feels going from your knees to your hips. Get a feel for both tension and suppleness when you setup off the floor. Most importantly, start developing your own approach to how you lift the weight. The more developed your feel becomes, the better you’ll know it, and thus, the more consistent you’ll be in lifting as best you can. Remember, I can show you the how to’s and give you feedback, but it’s still your hands on the bar. I only know what’s supposed to happen. It’s only you, however, who knows what feels right and what doesn’t.
2011. “Kinematic Analysis of the Snatch Lift With Elite Female Weightlifters During the 2010 World Weightlifting Championship” in Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. Vol. 0, No. 0, Month 2011.