All right, buckle up and settle in because we’re going to go yard on this one. I’ve talked about this idea
in the past, but not in great detail, and it’s an important concept, especially these days with all of us being bombarded by technical information online that we’re not always sure what to do with.
The premise is that in most cases, it’s better to use training exercises as the primary method of error correction and technique improvement in weightlifting rather than relying on technical cues, despite the latter being what everyone seems to be clamoring for.
Why Use Exercises?
Everyone’s looking for that one magic cue that will suddenly solve a problem, but this is rarely how it works, and more importantly, cues are not self-contained entities and have serious limitations. A cue is just a reminder of previous instruction, not instruction itself—a cue is only effective if what it’s intended to remind the athlete to do has already been learned. We can scream “heels” all day long, and it’s completely meaningless, or maybe worse, very easy to misinterpret if that athlete doesn’t already know what we’re trying to get them to do in response.
Moreover, cues can only be effective if the issue we’re trying to resolve is exclusively skill-dependent, and few errors are because of the nature of the competition lifts being irreducible combinations of multiple physical qualities. It doesn’t matter if you know what you’re supposed to do if your body is physically incapable of doing it. An obvious example is maintaining optimal pulling posture with heavier weights—the body needs to have the posture-specific strength to support the positions and movement the athlete is trying to execute.
An exception to this example would be pulling posture degrading as weights increase because diminishing confidence encourages rushing the break from the floor.
Inherent Problems with Cues & Instruction
Not all athletes are motor superstars and many have trouble translating instructions into movement, no matter how eloquently described by a coach. Many are also huge overthinkers and will mangle your instructions through interpretation or paralyze themselves with analysis. The long term goal with the Olympic lifts is to minimize thinking as much as possible so eventually a lifter has to focus only on force and aggression—we can encourage this process by minimizing the talking and focusing on the movements.
Additionally, the Olympic lifts are not exclusively skill-dependent, like a baseball pitch or golf swing, for example. Even if a lifter executes with technical perfection at a light weight, they may not have the physical ability to preserve that motion through heavier weights, which means no amount of understanding, skill or instruction will make any difference—the previous example of pulling posture and squat posture are good demonstrations of this.
The body will seek the positions and movements it’s strongest and most comfortable in as weights increase. This is why training exercises are typically superior to cueing and thinking. If posture in the pull is fine with warm-up weights, but tipping increases as weights increase because the athlete doesn’t have the necessary posture strength, no amount of conscious effort to maintain posture will produce the desired result.
We have to strengthen the positions we want so they become the body’s natural choice regardless of conceptual understanding. Instruction and cues give the mind a goal, but training exercises give the body the ability to meet it.
How to Select Exercises
Now that you’re convinced, the question is how do we select exercises? Here is the process.
1. Identify the problem: Keep it simple and objective, like jumping forward, bar unstable overhead, etc.
2. Determine the source of the problem: This requires a solid understanding of technique and experience. Example: Jumping forward in a snatch can have several causes, and what corrects one will have no effect on another, such as shifting forward to bar after knees, weak or short leg drive and hips pushing through bar, or stiff arms in third pull.
3. Create a solution: Start by using existing suggestions by established coaches and see how and when they work and don’t, and over time modify according to your experience and create your own by experimenting.
Exercise Selection Goals
Select exercises that:
1. Address the technical need. Diagnose correctly and choose suitable movements.
2. Minimize the need for the athlete to think and understand. Reduce as much as possible to segments or simplified variations that specifically address the problem rather than trying to focus on one small piece of a more complex motion—that’s no different than simply trying to correct the problem within the original competition lift.
3. Encourage the body to execute as desired naturally. This means making the desired motion easy to do by wisely choosing starting positions or segments, using exercises that strengthen the positions/motions needed to support the attempted technical execution, and always reinforcing proper posture and balance—for example, making sure an athlete doesn’t shift back to the heels in good mornings or RDLs.
Why We Have to Get Creative
Athletes have a limited capacity for volume—we can’t simply continue adding more exercises to their existing program to address problems. We can’t also just replace critical fundamental exercises like squats and pulls with other exercises that address technical problems.
We need to find ways to address the athlete’s problems while also handling the fundamentals as the basic program intends. There are two primary ways to do this well: complexes and warm-ups. For example, instead of simply doing snatch pulls as the program would normally call for, we can do a halting deadlift + pull to improve pulling posture and balance, or parallel front squat + squat to improve strength in the sticking point of the clean recovery.
By adding technique exercises to warm-ups, we can address problems without adding considerable volume or time, and we improve the effectiveness. This is also usually best done with complexes, such as adding multiple dips to jerks to improve position and balance, high-pulls to snatches to improve drive and bar proximity, or power cleans to cleans to improve turnover speed and meeting the bar.
Categories of Exercises
We can split exercises in this context into two basic categories: technical and training. The purpose of technical exercises are for the athlete to learn and practice a skill independently of any qualities like strength. These will be more common earlier in a lifter’s career, or used more for initial stage remediation of bad habits later on. These will include technique primers, learning drills and any other remedial drills performed with little to no weight.
Training exercises may have a significant technical element to them, but are intended to train physical qualities like strength to allow proper execution of a movement up to maximal weight attempts. This category includes standalone exercises like pulling or deadlift variations, complexes combining an exercise that addresses a problem with the competition lift it’s intended to improve, and modifications to standard exercises like including pauses or changing tempo; for example, pause squats, slow-pull snatches or cleans, segment snatches or cleans, and holds in the receiving position.
Criticalness of Proper Performance
Some of you may find it odd this has to be mentioned explicitly, and I suspect your coaching and athletic journey has been smoother than others’, because I can assure you it needs to not only be stated, but repeated regularly—exercises need to be performed correctly to be effective, and this is even more critical for exercises specifically intended to improve technical performance.
In fact, if you perform these exercises poorly, not only will they not improve the lift, but usually reinforce the problem and make progress more difficult. The obvious example is using pulling variations to fix the problem of tipping over the bar in the first pull—if we load up an exercise like a segment clean pull and then perform it with the same tipping motion we’re trying to correct, not only would there be no reason at all for the exercise to change the way we’re pulling, but we’re actually strengthening that poor position and ensuring further that the body will move into it as weights increase.
As less obvious example would be a more technical exercise like a snatch with no jump. The primary purpose of the exercise is to improve leg drive through the pull by exaggerating the drive and timing—the feet should stay on the ground because the athlete is continuing to push longer, so they remain anchored. However, it’s far easier to perform a snatch with no jump by cutting the pull short
and not trying to lift the feet up—in other words, the more natural and easier way to perform the exercise will not only not make positive changes, it will reinforce and even exacerbate the cause of the problem we’re trying to fix.
Intensity control when it comes to programming and training these exercises is an important part of the puzzle. As weightlifters and lifting coaches, it’s natural to be stuck on the idea that heavier is better, but you see now why that’s not necessarily true—heavier is only better if it’s also correct. An exercise will be far more effective correctly a technical problem with less weight and proper execution, and the intensity can be increased over time as the athlete progresses in ability—patience and discipline are imperative.
Minimize Technical & Conceptual Information
One of the biggest reasons using exercises instead of instruction for technical improvement is that it helps us bypass the obstacle that the brain presents in the process (yes, I understand the brain is still responsible for motor learning even without consciousness, but rhetorically I like saying brain
, so figure it out). We can largely avoid the common problems of overthinking, doubt, confusion and misinterpretation that prevent instruction from being as effective as our elegant and eloquent presentations would otherwise be.
The goal is to minimize explanation and technical information—to get the body to do what we want without interference from the mind. We need to limit explanation of an exercise to only what’s needed to execute it correctly; we don’t need to dig into technical concepts on how it relates to or affects the lift we’re trying to improve. That won’t contribute to the cause, and only offers potential problems. This is a paint-by-numbers workbook, not trying to teach Michelangelo on day one the principles he’ll use to paint the Sistine Chapel.
Since I told you earlier the best way to learn how to better diagnose and correct problems was to start with the methods of existing coaches and gain some experience and then start experimenting, it’s only fair I give you a few examples to work with.
- Slow pull snatch/clean: Fix premature opening of the hips or tipping over the bar, and improve balance and bar proximity before contact
- Snatch with no jump: Improve leg drive and balance in the pull
- Push press + split jerk: Improve timing, power and balance in the drive, upright posture when splitting
- Tall snatch/clean: Learn and improve third pull mechanics and speed, improve connection and meeting the bar in the turnover
- Halting deadlift: Strengthen the ability to stay over bar longer
- Floating pulls on riser: Reinforce starting position and strengthen the break off floor and proper pulling posture
- Segment snatch/clean pull: Improve postural strength and balance in pull
- Pause back squat: Improve squat and pulling posture, improve rate of force development from in squats and pulls