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Martial Arts Analogy

How should weightlifting be approached as a new lifter?

Can we as weightlifters learn something from those that spend many years training in martial arts? I am a Black Belt in Tae Kwon-Do, and trained for about five years to achieve that grade. I strongly believe that my background in martial arts laid down the foundations for how I then approached my training for weightlifting. 

What I want to do here, is try to explain how I think weightlifting should be approached by those that are new to the sport. 

When you go into the gym, you are taught how to snatch, clean, and jerk – commonly, all within the first couple of sessions. And all too often, lifters are encouraged to start loading the bar with weight early on. To me, that makes no sense. Let me explain why…

If you take a martial arts class, for the first session you go in without a suit, and start learning the basic movements. After a few weeks of learning some of the basic movements, you decide that you want to continue with the sport, so you invest in that suit. 

You begin as white belt and you are now on the bottom of the ladder with the lowest grade in the martial art. You start developing your skill set to be able to progress up the ranks. 

It takes several months in martial arts to be assessed on your level of competency for your first grading, and to then be promoted. That promotion continues over months and years, until you rise through the different colour belts, and achieve a black belt. 

At the point where you achieve a black belt, you are considered to be a ‘first degree’, in which you’re back at the bottom of the ladder on the lowest end of the black belt grading system. 

Are you loading the bar prematurely?

As you can see with martial arts, we start at the beginning, we practice a certain skill set, and then we move onto the next level of competency. In weightlifting, many people learn the basics and suddenly think they are experts and start loading the bar. 

If you approach weightlifting with the same kind of mindset that you would approach a martial art, you would first go into the gym and learn the basics. By the basics, I’m talking about an overhead squat, a snatch balance, hang snatch, hang clean, etc. 

If we approach the basics with the mentality that, “these are all of the exercises that weightlifters need to do” (there could be a list of 20-30 different exercises depending on the coach and gym that you’re in), then you can really hone in on the basic techniques. 

My recommendation is to spend several months learning how to perform those movements unloaded.  Over a period of time, there should be no pressure on you to lift heavy. The emphasis should be on gaining confidence. 

By the time you have been assessed as having really good technical competency across a good range of exercises, then you’re ready to start adding the weights. At that point, it is unlikely to be your technique holding you back, but is more likely to be your mindset, or physical ability. 

Progression after basic competency has been achieved

I want you to take a moment to step back from where you are at right now, and look at all of the different movements associated with weightlifting. Ask yourself – are you really competent, confident, and moving with precision every single time you address the bar? Every single time you do a snatch balance, are you landing in a deep squat position, moving at speed, with confidence? If not, then why are you progressing to a snatch?

Once you’ve started to perform a snatch balance really well, then progress to hang snatch. Then ask yourself… How am I doing at hang snatch? Am I able to execute to movement with precision, with control, with consistency, every single repetition with an empty bar? If the answer is “yes,” and you’re doing that session after session, then you’re ready to start progressing and adding the weights. 

If not, why would you start loading? That, to me, makes no sense, and is asking for injury. 

Hold back, get to grips with those movements and reach out for help if you need. Then, only when you’re moving really well with a hang snatch, should you start learning how to snatch from the floor. 

Snatching from the floor

When we learn to snatch from the floor, we will be spending time addressing the first phase – from the floor to mid-thigh. 

Are you moving with the right muscle groups? Are you in the right position? If the answer is “yes,” and you’re able to control the movement, and every rep looks the same, then you’re moving in the right direction.

When you’re past all of that, I would encourage you to stay off the weight and keep drilling, drilling, drilling. Get yourself moving really well, fast, safely, and consistently. If you’re doing all of those things, then you’re ready!

If you’re in the first week of training and a coach asks you to load the bar, stand back and have the confidence to say, “hang on a minute, this is a complex skill set that you’re asking me to do, and I’d rather take some time to master the basics before I load with weight.” If you feel a coach is pushing you to move too early, then you now have some insight as to what my option is on this. 

If you are learning to snatch, I would firstly be looking for you to achieve a level of competency in the overhead squat, snatch balance and hang snatch. Only then would I progress you to lift from the floor. When you can lift from the floor really well, then you can start playing with the weights. The next level would be looking at other exercises like snatch from blocks, snatch from deficit, snatch deadlifts, as well as other exercises that you can do to assist your ability to snatch well.

Other exercises to assist in mastering technique

Now let’s look at the clean… Can you get into a good front rack position? Can you front squat? Can you hang clean? Can you clean from the floor? I would take all of my new lifters through each of these progressions before adding any weight.

In regards to the jerk, I spend many sessions off the bar drilling timing and key position, before I introduce the bar. I want my lifter moving with precision and without any load. Can you dip and drive straight? If not, then why are you using a bar let alone adding weight to the bar? 

If your positioning is good through the dip and drive, then we start looking at a split position. Does your split position look the same every rep? Or are you wobbly? Are you crossing your feet? Are you imbalanced? Are you lunging forwards?  All of these technical aspects need addressing before even introducing a bar.

Once the movements look really precise and are consistent, then introduce a bar. Can you keep that consistency on an empty bar? If you can, then you’re ready to start progressing. 

That’s my advice, think of it as a Martial Art analogy, and work ‘through the grades’.

If you’ve progressed ‘through the grades’ in weightlifting, then your technique is very unlikely to ever be a limiting factor in your progress. If you haven’t, you may progress initially (i.e. in the first few months), but I would expect that there will be a time where you will then plateau.

Unfortunately, it’s only when lifters reach a period of plateauing, that they go back to basics. I’m not saying it’s too late to go back to basics at this point, but it is a lot harder to make the necessary technical changes for someone who already has bad habits ingrained. 

I’ll let you be the decision-maker as to how you think you should progress your lifting.