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Efficiency, Bar Paths, New Techniques & Other Things I Hate
Greg Everett
June 19 2014

I’m not sure why this issue is on my mind today, but I’m bothered every time I hear the word efficiency used in reference to improving weightlifting technique.
Let’s just start with definitions of two words courtesy of the only source of information remaining on the planet (remember the olden days when you needed a dictionary and a reasonable knowledge of the alphabet to find a word’s definition?):
Efficient: Achieving maximal productivity with minimum wasted effort or expense
Proficient: Competent or skilled in doing or using something
I don’t know what the exact genesis of the common use of efficiency to describe sound snatch and clean & jerk technique was, but it does seem for some reason to be the word of choice for the majority of people online seeking technical improvements in their lifts. It’s a nice idea—not wasting any energy when performing a task—but, as I’ve written about in a number of places in the past, it should not be the goal itself.
Imagine yourself snatching 200 kg and clean & jerking 250 kg to win the world championships. Would you care how much energy you wasted during those efforts? I don’t know about you, but after that competition, I wouldn’t be running off to immediately involve myself in some long duration manual labor or recreational activity for which I needed a significant energy reserve. I had the ability to lift big weights and win a competition in my chosen sport, and nothing matters beyond that, with the exception of being able to do it again at a future competition (e.g. not injuring myself irreparably in the process).
Or how about a simple analogy that I will plagiarize from myself: If you’re building a drag racing car, do you take fuel efficiency into consideration? Do you concern yourself with how much of that fuel is converted to heat rather than movement of the engine? Of course not. Your only care is how fast you make that car move, and you’ll gladly burn through every remaining ounce of fossil fuel on the planet to make it happen.
We’re not looking for efficiency unless we’re talking about performing multiple consecutive repetitions of the lifts in as little time as possible… and we’re definitely not talking about that. (Incidentally, this is why lift technique in the context of a CrossFit workout may reasonably vary somewhat from what would be considered ideal in the context of competitive weightlifting: same lifts, totally different goals).
What we’re looking for is the ability to best do what we’re trying to do, which is snatch and clean & jerk as much weight as possible one time, which, along with strength, speed and mobility, requires the skill to maximize the usefulness of those physical qualities in performance of those lifts—that is, we’re looking for proficiency.

Efficiency is an unavoidable consequence of proficiency. If you make efficiency the goal, you end up with the possibilities of misguidedly seeking things like a perfectly vertical bar path, which precludes proficiency. So while seeking proficiency unavoidably results in efficiency in the appropriate sense, seeking efficiency does not necessarily result in proficiency (you could be wasting very little effort in your maximal lifts (efficiency), but those maximal lifts could be considerably below what your physical ability allows (lack of proficiency)).

Part of the skill of weightlifting is putting as much of your available fundamental physical abilities (e.g. strength, speed, mobility) into the performance of the lift. This means that technical proficiency includes "efficiency" in the sense that you're maximizing the result from a given input of effort.

However, this is very different than seeking efficiency directly or primarily. In the latter case, it's more an issue of minimizing effort, while in the former, it's an issue of maximizing results. You may not see those as being meaningfully different, but they are entirely different pursuits in my mind.

[Also, remember I'm talking about lifting technique here. We're not talking about efficiency at the neurological level.]
Now that that’s all cleared up, let’s rely on a tenuous conceptual relationship and turn to bar paths. This is a subject that seemed popular on the internet a few years ago thanks to the fantastical ravings of a self-renowned coach, but I haven’t heard much about lately until last night, when I heard something that nearly crushed my hope for the future of American weightlifting.
Long before I came along, studious individuals discovered that, when viewed from the lifter’s side, the path of the bar curves back, forward, and then back again somewhat as it travels from the floor to overhead in the snatch or the shoulders in the clean. This was termed the S-curve or S-pull for reasons that should be pretty obvious. (As an aside, remember that this is a description of a phenomenon, not a lifting technique—kind of like triple extension or the double knee bend. Don’t confuse the two.)
Now maybe it’s that term that has people thrown off—an S is dramatically curved, and we certainly wouldn’t want to see a bar path look like that—but no one (competent) ever suggested we would or did. It’s a simple way to describe the thing, so let’s not waste each other’s time wringing our hands over the letter’s shape. Further, it may not look exactly like an S, even a flattened one, especially depending on the starting point of the bar. However, the bar will move back toward the lifter as it moves from the floor to the lifter’s hips, then move out away from the lifter during the initial pull under the bar, and then again move back toward the lifter into the receiving position. If you don’t want to call that an S-curve, that’s fine, but please don’t confuse people by suggesting it’s some radically different lifting technique.
Again, I’ll plagiarize myself here with an excerpt from my book, Olympic Weightlifting: A Complete Guide for Athletes & Coaches

"...the path of the barbell during the snatch is not a straight vertical line, but describes a slight S shape (when viewed from the lifter’s profile). This minimally curved path is not a goal itself, but is the result of optimal pulling mechanics due to the body’s interaction with the barbell and the maintenance of balance over the base. It would be convenient to be able to lift a barbell in a perfectly vertical line, but this is not how the body functions mechanically; additionally, a straight vertical line would not allow the bar-body unit to remain correctly balanced over its base with the necessary movements of the body during the course of the lift and the end point of the barbell.
"The term S-pull has recently become unfashionable because of its association (fairly or not) with more pronounced bar path curvature. In truth, the ideal bar path does not describe a perfect S shape, but the point is that it conveniently describes in a basic sense the horizontal deviation pattern of the bar path. The term itself is immaterial; however, the understanding that the bar path is neither perfectly vertical nor straight is important, as attempts to achieve either will compromise optimal lifting mechanics and balance."

"...In all cases, the goal is to lift the bar in a way that allows optimal mechanics for accelerating the barbell upward, maintaining balance of the system over the base, and optimal mechanics for moving the body under the bar. In short, the intent is to minimize horizontal deviation of both the barbell and the body without compromising the ability to lift with maximal effectiveness."

I feel like that makes two things very clear: First, the curve is (or should be) slight; second, a curved bar path is a result, not a goal.
This of course relates back to the efficiency issue. Is a curved bar path efficient? No, not really, if we consider the bar movement as an isolated piece of work. But it’s not. The movement of the bar is one element of the movement of the barbell and body together that produces the lift as a whole, and forcing the bar to move in a perfectly straight vertical line for the sake of "efficiency" means interfering with the optimal interaction of the body and barbell that produces the best lift. And of course, we don’t care about efficiency, but proficiency.
I was told recently that it was said that a certain country’s weightlifters lift in a straight line, while other countries’ use an S-curve… I can imagine that the coaching in this country may commonly emphasize attempting to flatten the S-curve, while others don’t consider the topic something that needs to be addressed directly, as it will take care of itself if they’re teaching proper lift mechanics—but that’s different from lifting in a straight line vs. not lifting in a straight line. A few well-used seconds on the google machine will produce plenty of video evidence to dispute the claim of this country’s lifters lifting in a straight line anyway. Is there some lifter from this country out there who manages to create a straight bar path? Probably. Will you be able to replicate it? Probably not, because your structure is not identical. But don’t forget, there are also lifters whose bar paths are dramatically curved (even in the “wrong” direction), and they’re better than you also, so let’s all settle down and not get quixotic about this stuff.

An important concept here to keep in mind is that the heavier the barbell relative to the bodyweight of the lifter, the flatter the S-curve will be with the same lifting technique - this is a simple product of the scaled reactionary movements of the barbell and body as they interact with each other and remain in balance over the base. A heavier bar will diverge less and a lighter body more, and vice versa, to create the same balance of the combined system during the lift.
And this topic of course leads me into the next one: people getting so caught up in the attempt to figure out THE secret to weightlifting that they abandon all sense and reason and latch onto the newest idea they come across, no matter how nonsensical. My favorite example of this was a video posted a few years ago entitled New Chinese Clean Technique. One lifter started her clean with a very wide grip, which she then slid in during the turnover. This was ONE lifter out of a million or so Chinese lifters… One. Yet armies of internet regulars were immediately enamored with this idea and convinced it was going to be the technique that catapulted them to the world championships (no, that choice of words was not accidental).
The next big one came after German coach Frank Mantek did a seminar at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado, at which he said they no longer “do the double knee bend” (at least this is how the story was told to me—who knows if the person even got that much right). In any case, people were suddenly freaking out about the double knee bend and working out ways to not do it any more. If they had paused for a moment and considered the issue, they probably would have done two things: First, considered the fact that English is not Coach Mantek’s first language, and it’s quite likely what he said was not exactly what he meant. Second, looked up some video of current German lifters to see if they were not double knee bending. I did both of those, and shockingly enough, the Germans were still double knee bending (if you’ve read my book, you know why this should have been pretty obvious right off the bat). The rational conclusion is that what Mantek meant is that they had formerly taught the double knee bend as an intentional action and were no longer doing so—not that they had discovered some way to circumvent the natural mechanics of the body. Disaster averted.
The most recent example that comes to mind is the idea that the Chinese are all now internally rotating their arms in the overhead position. This one kills me. Seriously, go hold a barbell overhead and internally rotate your arms and see how it feels. You can’t tell me that makes any sense at all. If you don’t trust your own instincts here (I suppose it might be better not to in some cases), just get back on the old YouTube or google images and check out some Chinese lifters holding snatches overhead. You’ll find the bony points of the elbows oriented about halfway between straight down and straight back—that is, the arm is somewhere around the middle of its range of internal and external rotation. Might you be able to find an image of the arms more internally rotated? Quite possibly, and once you divide that one example into the number of images not showing that elbow position, you’ll end up with a quite insignificant fraction, at which time you can feel reassured that this is not in fact THE new Chinese secret to lifting big weights.
There are exceptions to every rule. There are lifters in the world who seem to defy every known principle of anatomy and mechanics and still lift world class weights. The important thing to keep in mind is that they are exceptions, not rules. It’s also important to quit trying to claim an entire nation lifts one way, and even more important, quit trying to appear innovative by presenting such exceptions as new, advanced lifting techniques, misleading new lifters and confusing and distracting more experienced ones.
Of course, the point I always like to end these little forays with is: do whatever you want. Find what works for you, no matter what I say. If it makes you more successful than every other way, it’s right.
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Tim Brown
June 19 2014
Thanks Greg,
As always, shedding light in the dark recesses of the internet and exposing bro-lifting and generally clarifying things that have otherwise been taken out of context.
Please keep up the great work. :)
Damian Smart
June 20 2014
I think that you are getting upset over semantics. You can be efficient in weightlifting by utilizing complete strength to snatch 200. If your movement is not efficient, you will expend energy in areas not needed and not being able to complete the lift to your full potential. You are upset over your interpretation of the word efficient.
Damian Smart
June 20 2014
Also "Efficient: Achieving maximal productivity with minimum wasted effort or expense"

It explains achieving maximal productivity while not wasting effort or power which would be seen in bad form etc. Glad I could clear that up for you!
Greg Everett
June 20 2014
Damian -

"Efficiency" is an unavoidable product of proficiency in the case of weightlifting technique. It's not just a semantics argument, it's an issue of how one conceptualizes and consequently approaches training.
Adam Harrison
June 20 2014
I understand what you're saying Greg, but the only time that I've ever heard the word "efficiency" used in weightlifting is to describe percentage of lifts and not outright technique. If a lifter can front squat 200kg and deadlift 200kg, but they can only clean 120kg and snatch 50% of their clean then they aren't using their strength/power efficiently and logically, have some serious technical flaws.
Greg Everett
June 20 2014
Adam -

If a lifter has those numbers, it's because he/she is not technically proficient - he/she hasn't learned yet how to perform the snatch/CJ well enough. How would they improve "efficiency" in this case other than by improving proficiency?
July 14 2015
I understand Greg's point of "efficiency being a product of proficiency", but personally I don't think that means efficiency is a worthless term. Yes, obviously the term has been popularized through Crossfit (which is ultimately the point I think Greg is trying to make, without directly coming out and saying it) but in that context it makes perfect sense - you look at the top crossfitters and, granted not all of them are extremely proficient, but in general they have better technique than their lower competition, which does make the lift a more efficient lift for them. So they can conserve energy in the context of an endurance competition and have more 'gas left in the tank' if they are performing the lifts correctly and MORE efficiently than the competition. You can argue all day about whether snatches and clean and jerks belong in high-rep endurance workouts like Crossfit, but that doesn't change the fact that efficiency is not a bad term to use in that context. I have been going through a lot of Greg's articles and the negative attitude toward the "new generation" of weightlifters and Crossfit in general is starting to get very taxing and offputting. We get it, you're an oldschool badass who doesn't like the 'kids and their rap music these days'.
August 15 2016

I like your comments about efficiency vs proficiency. But, I find disagreement with your last point on internally rotating your arms. Now, this could be due to my shoulder morphology vs yours, but I do find that internally rotating my arms in the overhead position puts me in a stronger position, without a doubt. To me, it makes good anatomical sense: it aids in engaging the shoulders, traps and scaps, and it puts the elbows and wrists in a stronger and safer position.

Here are some qualified lifters explaining things from the pro-internal rotation perspective (where the audience is clearly novice lifters who are looking to establish good habits and correct form):

Aleksey Torokhtiy

Torokhtiy starts demonstrating the technique and explaining the reasoning and its role in the overhead position (until about minute 7 in the video). He calls it the "inclusion of the hands" and elbows and calls it a key to the exercise.

Ilya Ilyin

Ilya explains the same thing here, emphasizing the effect on joints. In his overhead snatch position, the internal arm rotation isn't as pronounced, but that is probably just due to his personal morphology. Clearly he is saying that internal rotation, as much as possible or comfortable, is the correct position.

An example from recent competition is Tian Tao's overhead position in his 217 C&J in the Olympics: fully internally rotated. But, I don't think it's a new Chinese secret or anything. The Chinese apparently due emphasize the technique and people refer to them because they are so successful, but clearly it's know to other lifting traditions as well. It just appears to be something that most American coaches seem to have discarded, even going so far as to recommend the opposite.