What Feels Strong Today Won't Always Feel as Strong

Jesse Irizarry


Strength and Conditioning, Strength Training


For some bizarre reason, Olympic weightlifting is treated as a very different discipline from general strength training by newer adoptees. Things that make intuitive sense in weight training aren’t applied to weightlifting (Olympic). One of these crucial components includes working on weaknesses and being aware not increase primary muscle strength while forgetting about all the rest.


It’s not even about preventing imbalances that may lead to injury, it’s about actually using the musculature that should be strong and should work in a sequence in the movement. Your muscles should work in harmony and contribute to the lift and then you can lift heavier weight at a higher frequency with much more predictability of outcome.



It Won’t Always Be This Way

My Olympic weightlifting coach, Yasha Kahn, has spent years learning from the best coaches and lifters in the world. One of the best ideas he took from them is that certain muscles need to be used and triggered at different points of the snatch and clean and jerk—there is a very distinct timing to this.


I’ve seen my fair amount of new lifters learn the snatch and clean and jerk and what’s usually common in all of them is that even seemingly muscularly balanced lifters, will move to gravitate toward movement patterns dependent on a certain emphasis of muscle groups. Most people can’t help this and if they don’t have a coach who knows what he’s looking at, they’ll continue to use what feels strong and solidify these patterns.


This all makes complete sense. New lifters try to create a technique based off of what they think should be happening in the lift. This is either from a picture in their head of what they think they see from watching the coach when they’re shown the lifts or even a segmented portion of them, or an abstract interpretation of the verbal or tactile cues the coach gives them. They do whatever they can and contort themselves in any way possible to try to move according to the idea of what they think should happen.


The issue becomes that when new lifters begin to internalize the movement more, they're not taught that the next step is to feel the movement itself, or if they are told this they don’t grasp the idea. They keep defaulting to whatever helps them make the lift and those prime movers get stronger and stronger. The result is that the actual muscle that contributes to a solid lift will atrophy.


An example of this would be receiving the barbell in the snatch on the legs rather than supporting and reversing the downward movement of the bar with the hips and lower back. If the adductors and quads are not strong, stable, or trained enough to receive the load in a quick, dynamic manner, then the lifter will never shift the feet out when receiving the bar with heavy loads in a knee out position because the immediate response of the body will be to shift the stress to the already stronger and active hips and lower back.



As a coach, when you try to correct this in a lifter and tell them to use their legs or try to elevate the barbell with the shoulder girdle, they will be awkward and have difficulty doing it. They will tell you that it feels weaker and they are right because the wrong muscles and patterns are strong, or maybe it’s more accurate to say the muscles and patterns contributing to the lift are inadequate.


And this is what my coach, Yasha, always tells people, “What feels strong today won’t always feel strongest.”


Help Your Muscles Catch Up

Just telling someone to use muscles or move a certain way is wasted effort if those muscles are weak and inactive and the patterns supported by those muscles aren’t built. Muscle groups must be built up and stimulated by other exercises. In Olympic weightlifting, the exercises to focus on these muscle groups don’t necessarily need to be special exercises and variations that resemble the snatch and clean and jerk.




They can be, but they don’t have to be. Bringing up these muscle groups, to borrow terminology from bodybuilders, can be just like how they focus on hamstring exercises because they notice it’s not in the correct proportion to their quads. It could also be like a powerlifter doing a ton of upper back exercises like rows and face-pulls because they notice that their upper-back is giving out when they pull heavy deadlifts.


A great example of this would be addressing the problems of an Olympic weightlifter not receiving the barbell with their legs tensed and activated. Most of the population who start weightlifting at an older age have been sitting for most of their lives. As a result, their adductors are remarkably weak and inactive.


You can tell this person to shift their feet out when they receive a clean over and over but if their adductors do not work then they will not do this. But a very low-level exercise that addresses this very effectively would be the wall squat. Start with your toes pointing out one to three inches away from the wall and slowly move them closer over time.




Another example would be using a special exercise that resembles the snatch. This addresses the problem of muscle groups not being used properly and at the correct sequence during the lift. When you go into the final extension of the snatch, the shoulders/trap should fire at the same time as the ankles extend forcefully against the ground.


Only after this will the arms activate and the elbows guide the barbell upwards. Big muscles fire before smaller ones. If this is done correctly the shoulders will still be in an elevated strong position to receive and stabilize the heavy barbell overhead.



A great exercise to practice the timing of this and strengthen the muscles in the correct manner would be trap pulls:



If you would like my help on anything I have touched on here feel free to visit me at my gym, JDI Barbell in New York city if you are in the area or, you can connect with me online at JDI Strength.


Jesse competes in the sport of Olympic weightlifting, and he was also formerly a competitive powerlifter. He was featured in main strength and fitness publications. You can read more of his work on his website.

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