Sunday, September 20, 2015

Relaxed Smooth Ease: What Studying Running Has Taught Me About Weightlifting

In weightlifting we often rib a fellow lifter when they make a PR look easy. "Put some weight on the bar," someone will yell, "That was too easy!" Although it is intended as a compliment and encouragement to keep progressing, I think it is also telling about how many of us may have come to think how a maximum effort should look: ugly and difficult but successful.

However, I don't think that making something look heavier or more difficult is the real goal. As a weightlifting coach, I want all my lifters' efforts to look the same: fast, easy, smooth and yes, relaxed. Not loose and sloppy mind you, but rather, efficient. Making a lift look easy no matter how heavy it is is how high skill looks. "Lifting ugly" is not better nor demonstrative of higher effort. It is just mechanically inferior, psychologically taxing and physically damaging.

Arthur Lydiard in Sports Illustrated in 1962 talked about the importance he placed on high skilled over perfect, textbook form. These days there are many "schools" of running technique available. Similarly, there are nearly as many schools of thought on weightlifting technique as there are are coaches with internet access. (Although one of my favorite weightlifting coaches and a friend of mine was quoted to me recently as saying that we pretty much figured out efficient technique 25-30 years ago. Anyone who is preaching a new better way is probably wrong, or trying to sell you something.) There are also many coaches out there, let's call them "formalists," who feel that if a high level lifter (or runner) could only make their technique even a bit more textbook, they would lift more (or run faster.) This doesn't seem to be a fruitful position, for running at least.

There have been several studies that indicate running is actually a self optimizing skill. Tinkering with stride length, footstrike and cadence always (always!!) makes highly skilled runners less efficient than with their natural form. My guess is that the same is true of high level weightlifters. Many elite lifters have little form idiosyncrancies that certainly don't prohibit them from setting world and Olympic records. It is a mistake to think that they would lift more if their technique were "better." To reiterate, form and high skill are not the same thing. The fundamentals are learned and over time with practice an individual expression of those fundamentals becomes engrained as a high level skill.

To quote Lydiard,"If a joker throws his arms around, that's fine, so long as he is fit and relaxed. Then he runs smoother and easier and form takes care of itself. We want the chap who can run for two or three hours and come back looking as fit as he did when he went out." I think the same is true of weightlifting technique. I would never coach it as a good fundamental technique or a desirable form variation to emulate, but if you throw your head in your pulls on the way to medaling in four World Championships, four European Championships and four Olympic Games like Pyrros Dimas did, who the hell am I (or anyone else) to say with any certainty that correcting that would make you better?

So practice and keep the fundamentals in mind but go for high skill, i.e. Relaxed Smooth Ease and your form will take care of itself. I'll still keep an eye on you though!