When it comes to the gym, I often find that the best lessons about training and fitness come from the simple act of showing up and putting in the work, whether in weightlifting, bodybuilding, powerlifting, or whatever aligns best with one’s fitness goals at any point in time. It is only upon reflection of the days, weeks, and months prior that I realize the progress and the mistakes I’ve made. Often times, there are way, wayyy more of the latter!
Training changes constantly, and it is never 100% perfect. It’s essentially a huge trial and error process, in which you learn by doing, and making mistakes over and over again. As such, it’s very easy to lose sight of the process in favor of potential outcomes.
Even with the best possible programming and training environment at your fingertips, there will always be a desire for more and more. Of course, as a coach I also hope that people continue training and setting new benchmarks well after they’ve blown a previous benchmark out of the water.
The desire for more, for constant improvement, means that mistakes are inevitable. We must have the humility to accept them as part of the process when we look back at what we’ve done, how we could do better in the future, and most importantly, how far we’ve come.
For the sport of weightlifting, we’ve actually got an excellent case study relevant to the discussion at hand. These days, Staff Coach Jake sports a 250-pound clean, 235-pound clean & jerk, and 185-pound snatch. He started focusing specifically on Olympic-style lifting 8 months ago.
Was this a linear process though? Far from it. It was actually 8 months of trial-and-error, and a little something I like to call “figuring it out.” And I’m not sure he would’ve gotten there if he didn’t take the time to periodically look back at his workouts and adapt accordingly. Let’s just say it wasn’t a blind pursuit on his part.
Still, there were times where it seemed like progress was stagnant, and Jake was figuratively walking in a circle. After some discussion, he and I narrowed down the 3 biggest mistakes he (and I) made as beginner weightlifters. The hope is that you can learn from this so that instead of taking a huge step back when things go awry, you can take a small step back to go two steps forward.
The 3 Biggest Mistakes
1. Going too fast
This is perhaps the most obvious mistake, and it’s obvious because everyone makes this one. Everyone wants to haul ass and hit milestones as quickly as possible—it’s the phenomenon of instant gratification. This can be a dangerous proposition however; when we make this mistake, we tend to miss the little things.
Especially in a highly technical sport like weightlifting, missing little nuances in technique on a regular basis means that those bad habits will build and build, eventually reaching a threshold when the weights go up and the barbells get heavier, combined with the inability to successfully hit those numbers. For example, it’s bad enough for a beginner trainee with no idea how to hinge safely and effectively to do barbell deadlifts; it’s worse when we add power and velocity to the equation. And you can bet those errors will carry over and ingrain themselves in muscle memory if they are left uncorrected.
I detailed my personal struggle with this in a previous blog I wrote with Ross, where we spoke about the differences between deadlifting for huge numbers and pulling for the Olympic lifts. Coming from a powerlifting background, I was so used to deadlifting that the Olympic lifts felt entirely foreign. I know I was bumping the bar off my thighs, reverse curling instead of cleaning, and muscling the bar because I couldn’t trust my ability to pull slow, push from the floor, use my quads, and delay accelerating the barbell until mid-thigh.
Thankfully I learned from Jake, and refrained from increasing weights and forcing progress when it wasn’t ripe for the picking. If I felt like my technique wasn’t quite there (and let’s be honest, this happens more than we like to admit), I knew that it would be foolish to try and hit new numbers.
Old habits die hard if left unfixed, and it’s better to practice and try to correct them at lower intensities, and then build from there, than it is to plow ahead and hope that errors correct themselves with a little voodoo and magic.
2. Not emphasizing positions
The previous point actually leads right into this one. Not emphasizing positions that are crucial in weightlifting is another big mistake that beginner trainees make. We had Quinn Henoch present his ClinicalAthlete Weightlifting Coach certification here a few months ago, and this was one of the biggest lessons he drilled home. Without proper position, we simply cannot achieve proper function.
Positions matter. Own them.
To rehash an old example:
Let’s imagine a scenario in which a weightlifter is required to perform cleans at a high threshold. If someone is uncomfortable or unfamiliar with certain positions, the body will instinctively work to avoid them, especially under speed and load. If the lifter can’t tolerate the bottom of a catch position, he is likely to catch the bar high or miss the clean entirely because he can’t get down low or fast enough to receive the bar.
If he is unfamiliar with the power position, he is likely to initiate the second pull too early. This could limit the amount of hip extension he’ll be able to impart onto the bar, or result in an inefficient bar path because the thighs bump the bar forward and out.
Figuratively speaking, in all these instances the lifter would be leaving weight on the platform. That’s a fancy way of saying that he could be cleaning a lot more, if only he were proficient with these positions in the first place!
Let’s face it, the positions needed to succeed in the sport of weightlifting are difficult and uncomfortable. I can’t imagine someone holding the bottom of an overhead squat, with a ridiculous amount of weight on the bar no less, for an indefinite amount of time and particularly enjoy doing so. This position is crucial for the snatch however, and a lack of familiarity with this position and many more will mean missed lift after missed lift.
Heck, even the mobilization below would be uncomfortable for a lot of people who are just starting out.
3. Failing to meet basic mobility requirements, or failing to have a strategy to address these limitations
Once again, the previous point leads directly into this one. In order to achieve the often uncomfortable and perhaps extreme positions needed for weightlifting, a lifter must have the proper balance of mobility, stability, and motor control. As an extension of this point, I would say that mobility is the very first thing we need.
Let’s say I’m working with a powerlifter. If someone absolutely cannot squat below parallel, no matter how strong the lifter is above it, he won’t be successful at the sport. He can squat 500 pounds and make it look crisp and easy, but he will never get 3 white lights in a competition, because below parallel is the minimum requirement for a successful squat in powerlifting.
Thus, mobility is important. And to make sure we’re getting into positions safely and effectively, that mobility must be augmented by the stability to handle those positions safely, as well as the motor control we need for our minds to say “hey, this is a safe position for us, everything is good.”
For Jake, ankle mobility is a huge area of focus that needed and still needs improvement. On the other hand, I’m stiff as a board all around (no joke), and my hips have been bothering me immensely. You can bet that we’re working on our mobility, because that’s the first thing we need to even achieve positions in the first place. Foam rolling, self-myofascial release, targeted warm-ups, and the diligence to do these boring but necessary things almost everyday have been crucial for us.
As a side note, this is where FRC (functional range conditioning) has been a game-changer for me. With the direction provided by my fellow coach Dan Cerone and regular practice of the mobility enhancing techniques inherent to this system, my hips have been feeling amazing, and for one, getting into a deep enough squat to catch cleans is becoming less and less of a problem.
The Big Picture
If nothing else, what’s the big takeaway from all this? A beginner weightlifter should be fully invested in his/her training, with the wherewithal to look back and reflect regularly on past training, where he or she is in the process, and what could be done better tomorrow, a week from today, and in the months ahead. It’s a constant cycle of self-improvement that begins with the understanding that the heavy weights and big numbers do not come fast nor easy. A lifter must have the requisite mobility to get into and own the positions necessary, the understanding that the snatch and clean & jerk must be practiced over and over again, and an appreciation for the technical nuances of the sport.
Make sure you’re not committing the mistakes we’ve outlined above, and continue training hard, but smart!
by Jeremy Lau
Jeremy Lau is a Senior Staff Coach at Halevy Life.
Jeremy graduated cum laude from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with a BSc. in Biomedical Engineering and is currently pursuing his M.Ed. in Exercise Physiology at Columbia University. In addition to his academic accolades, Jeremy is a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS).
Prior to joining the team at Halevy Life, Jeremy completed a coaching internship at Cressey Sports Performance, where he coached both amateur and professional athletes, among whom were many professional MLB baseball players.
As an athlete, Jeremy has played baseball competitively for most of his life.