Learning Weightlifting Technique Through Imitation
Has it ever occurred to you that weightlifting is a monkey-see-monkey-do activity? I’ve thought a lot about this over the years. If there is one thing I’ve become absolutely convinced of, it’s that most athletes learn primarily by imitation. When people are trying a new athletic skill, like a snatch or a clean, the best tool for their learning is to watch that skill being performed correctly by somebody else, and then basically mimic what they’ve seen with their own bodies. Some verbal coaching is very important and necessary, but the most valuable part of the process is when the athlete gets to see the skill being executed. Once they’ve seen it, they replicate what they saw.
I’ll never forget a day when I was teaching the power clean to a group of basketball players a long time ago. I had six or seven of them grouped around a platform and I was going through a short explanation of how to do the lift. They stood there and listened while I told them about hand placement, foot placement, the pulling movement, etc. After I finished and told them that it was their turn to give it a try, they looked at me like I had just given them the instructions in Arabic. We’re talking blank stares, jack. Then, one of them raised his hand and said, “Can you just do it a few times so we can see what it’s supposed to look like?” I said okay, then I put sixty kilos on a bar and did four or five power cleans. After I finished, they all nodded and said, “Okay, we got it.” Then they started taking turns doing their own cleans, and their technique wasn’t too shabby. I had to give them a lot of instructions to clean up mistakes, like “keep your back flat” and “accelerate when the bar passes your knees.” The combination of visual and auditory coaching was what they needed to get their form solidified.
The absolute best situation a new lifter can have is to train in a gym with some experienced athletes who have mastered the technique of the lifts. Along with the input they’re getting from their coach, they get to watch proficient training partners over and over, day after day. While they watch, the correct patterns of the lifts are being tattooed on their brains. They’re memorizing the movements and positions. And if they have some athletic ability and kinesthetic awareness, they’ll be able to move their bodies in the same manner. Many of you who are reading this can probably think about the early times of your own lifting, when you watched some stud nailing big lifts with sharp, speedy technique. You might not have known it, but you were learning every time you saw these lifts.
If you’re a coach, you need to expose your athletes to expert technique. Hopefully, you’ve got at least one or two lifters in your gym who are in the advanced stages and lifting big weights. If you don’t have anybody in your club who fits this description, then you have to figure out another way for your athletes to see what perfection looks like. Taking trips to other gyms where there are some high-level weightlifters is a great idea. It’s exciting to work out in new spots, and most people pick up all kinds of ideas and tips just from being around unfamiliar faces. The freshness of the whole thing seems to make everybody more perceptive.
If you live in BFE and it’s simply not possible to travel and train in different locations, then buy a freaking computer and spend lots of time on YouTube. Video work, in my opinion, is essential for new lifters. When I started lifting, I was constantly raiding my coach’s VHS collection of old world and Olympic championships. I probably watched an hour of lifting every day for the first few years of my career, obsessively studying the best technique in the world. Guys like Nicu Vlad, Stefan Botev, Anatoly Khrapaty, Blagoi Blagoev…these are the guys I patterned myself after.
Don’t misunderstand all of this. I’m not saying that you should coach technique by just having your athletes watch other lifters and nothing else. There’s a lot of communication and instruction that needs to happen too, and often you have to actually use your hands to put the lifter’s body where it needs to be. There are multiple pieces of the puzzle when it comes to building an efficient weightlifter. But never forget this: if they can’t see what it’s supposed to look like, it’ll be much harder to grasp what you’re trying to tell them.
Some people want moves like Jagger. Screw that. We want moves like Dimas. So let’s watch and learn.
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