Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Giles Greenwood, head coach Bethnal Green Weightlifting Club. Giles is a former British champion, Commonwealth Games gold medallist and British record holder.
When beginners first come to Bethnal Green I advise them to leave their brain at the door. When you first start to learn the Olympic lifts it is best to just absorb what the coach tells you and do exactly what they say. This isn’t because all coaches are infallible but because the single biggest obstacle I see to progress in learning weightlifting technique is “paralysis by analysis”. Most people have read articles by great champions about the Olympic lifts on the internet and come armed with this knowledge to their nearest gym. Anything the coach, who probably isn’t Abadjiev, Rigert or Kono, tells them is filtered through this information and applied using the beginners own interpretation. The inevitable result of this is confusion for the beginner as they try to reconcile what they’ve read with what they’re hearing or wondering how this teaches the “double knee bend” or whatever and making life more complicated than it needs to be. The coach at your gym will have their own tried and tested way to teach the Olympic lifts which may differ from what you’ve read but still be effective. If you are a beginner - relax and follow your coaches instructions without considering the “why’s and wherefore’s” of everything you are being told to do, your progress from beginner to intermediate lifter will be much swifter and smoother.
Once a lifter reaches a level of competence at the Olympic lifts and has a few competitions under their belt they will often start to question the training programme their coach is giving them. Although this isn’t as cut and dried as the decision for a beginner to do exactly what they’re told, as the coach may be wrong and the lifter may know better by now, it is usually the case that the lifter actually thinks there is an easier way to achieve their inevitable greatness. Exercises which are tough and unloved will suddenly seem ineffective while favourites will become the staple diet. It’s very hard to look at your own training in a dispassionate way. Your coach has a good knowledge of your abilities, strengths and weaknesses and wants what you want – for you to become a better lifter. Even lifters who are good at programme writing and coaching others have great difficulty writing effective programmes for themselves. A strange mixture of ego and work ethic often produce training regimes which are either too easy or ridiculously hard, it is then difficult to admit to your own mistakes and change the programme because it is hard to admit you’ve written a programme for yourself that isn’t working. This is a process that a coach will be constantly going through and, being removed from actually following the training programme, is usually in a better position to adjust it as they don’t have as much ego invested in it being “right”. If you are an intermediate or advanced lifter and think you aren’t improving because your programme isn’t right, talk to your coach about it. They should be amenable to changes you suggest if they are sensible. If they think you should stick to what you are doing, ask yourself, and them, why. They want you to achieve and you want to achieve. They might think that your best bet is to stick to the programme to get through a plateau and they might be right!
Every weekend, I travel to Hottentots Holland Weightlifting Club to lift and learn from the national coach, Aveenash Pandoo. Yesterday was my first opportunity to participate in a full squad training session, so I thought I’d write up my notes for you. These are observations and I make no guarantee that I am accurate on all counts.
For starters, I forgot my shoes for the third time in my entire lifting career. Like when you’re injured, it’s important to show up anyway. There’s plenty of weaknesses you could be working on, plus you can improve your own technique and coaching eye through observation. Between lifts, I was very intrigued by the difference in coaching style. Here are the rest of my notes:
All in all, this setup very much reminded me of the environment of martial arts training, albeit with a lot more audience participation and collaborative learning. In particular, there is a huge emphasis on mastery on a per-lift basis. Anything learned from the coach must be applied immediately and henceforth. There is a feeling of being behind, in a good way, if that makes any sense to you! This is an emergency - it is impossible that there is enough time to get strong enough and learn everything you need to. Therefore, you must apply yourself consummately to this bar in front of you right now… this very next lift.
Although the original message was edited to remove the lines I’m paraphrasing here, the credit for this goes to Tony Leung Sifu.
“You don’t agree with my ideas? Fine! Tell me I’m wrong. Call me stupid!”
Adverse emotional responses to someone else’s beliefs are a common source of outrage for us petty humans. The willingness to exchange ideas is more important than being right or wrong. How else can you learn? I once saw a personal trainer on YouTube cop so much flak for her poor demonstration of the kettlebell swing. A lot of people advised her on what she could do to improve, but most slated her. She went away, took a Hardstyle Kettlebell course and posted the before and after. She went from dangerously ignorant to credible inside a weekend and I respect her for leaving the earlier work up for comparison.
I’m working hard to be a good coach. I often joke that I’m always right, but that’s far from the truth. It’s okay slate me if you think I’m wrong, but if you want me to come around to your way of thinking you’re going to have to go a bit further and show me your way. I’m happy to change my mind when presented with an option I feel is superior.
I might teach but I’m still a student. Call me stupid.
You are going to die, and you probably don’t like to think about that. I certainly don’t, and I’m stepping out of my comfort zone to write this. I gave up reading The God Delusion because the topic made me uncomfortable. When I think about death, sometimes I become extremely panicked and sad for a brief time. It sometimes takes a minute for my reasoning to override this panic. I tell myself : ”Why bother worrying about this? You cannot change it, so stop wasting your time fretting and make the most of what you’ve got.”
Yet the worry is of course recurring, because I remain human and it is not solvable problem. Perhaps it’s not a problem at all, but it still bugs the hell out of me. Speaking of hell, let’s get this out of the way early: I am an atheist. Lots of people aren’t (I have no idea of the stats but I would guess more are religious than not) and I don’t have a problem with that. I don’t force my beliefs on anyone and this is not a religion bashing post.
To be honest, I think I would be happier if I did believe in God and an afterlife. I’m not about to take up a religion for my own benefit, but I’ve actually tried in the past! I felt like I was fooling myself so I stopped. Once again, I want to stress how much I respect anyone else’s beliefs and I do not think you are fooling yourselves if you are religious. I’m paranoid about offending people as I go about writing thing and I will probably have more caveats along the way. Just bear in mind I am not trying to convert you.
To nothing and beyond
It seems like a lot to ask of myself to watch a one hour talk these days. I use longer lectures online as practice for attention training, and count the number of times I flit away to another browser tab, application or task.
One such talk, delivered by the world class powerlifter Kirk Karwoski, highlighted the importance of ritual in lifting success. It’s so simple, I feel a little foolish for not having implemented the advice earlier (it’s not the first time I’ve heard it, from other sources).
The concept is simple - can you hold you attention and just do what you need to do for 20 seconds?
I enjoy assessing intent.
Consider the entrepreneur (yet to achieve their financial goals), displaying a fear and apprehensiveness about being “found out” that they wish to cover up. Fear of failure and loss is at the heart of these behaviours. You’ll be regaled with well-rehearsed scripts of their current efforts, with great consideration made to pre-empt objections and cover weaknesses. Weakness is not often seen as an attractive trait - it stands out and tends to make the onlooker uneasy. Not many wish to be associated with weakness.
Consider the weightlifter during a tough session or competition. Total mood changes, attempts to psych out the fear with aggression, or crumbling defeatist self-talk. Anxiety rules?
Consider the employee. Every week I meet crazy young go-getters in well salaried positions, often making ridiculously poor decisions to cover previous poor decisions. They strive to appear valuable and divert blame. Go ahead and try and hide, it’s all in plain sight to me. I take a certain mischeivous delight evoking the “deer in headlights” look. Depending on how mischievous I’m feeling, I might let the stare linger before putting them at ease. Even when I don’t carry any weight relative to them, it’s interesting to view their reaction to a perceptive person as a threat. I hate seeing knee-jerk reactions and poor decisions made out of insecurity, so I’m quick to nip those in the bud when they are of detriment to the task at hand.
How much does it cost?
I received an email recently containing a link to a website called Translation Telephone. An amusing little timewaster and mashup of Google Translate, it kept me occupied for precisely one sentence. I typed in the first thing that came into my head: “By the power of Grayskull” (naturally!) and watched it scrambled through 20 languages then back to English. The result got me thinking.
What? That’s not even remotely near He-Man’s trademark cry. But these two words got me thinking. This site took two minutes out of my life, that I won’t be getting back. But there was more just than a time cost to using it. Aside from the other stuff I could have done instead, there was an energy penalty. The attention, the focus, the mental resources: you’ve only got so much of this to work with in a day. Once those mental (or physical) resources are depleted, there is only one thing to do - rest. You only get so much energy to spend in a day before you need to sleep - how are you going to use that?
Specificity and adaptation are a part of being human, but boy some people (mostly men) get weird with it. I certainly did. For a decade, I trained Kung-Fu between 3 and 8 times per week. With so many hours invested, it’s natural that I spent a lot of time outside of training thinking about training. This is what happens when you get specific. Tynan’s hyper focus on work is a similar example, as is the life of any high level sportsperson.
There’s a low quality behaviour that tends to accompany and feed on specificity that I recognise commonly in myself. Once you’re aware of it, it’s easy to tone down. It also becomes easy to spot this behaviour in others, which helps in the areas of understanding and forgiveness.
This behaviour, which I don’t think much of, is comparing yourself to others on the basis of your strengths. Here’s my account of it. Young and aggressive, I was a model student - the right mix of tenacity combined with a humble attitude. I trained hard and fought hard. I didn’t like to see cowardice and unwillingness to push oneself in beginners, although I was always careful to nurture them. Outside of the class, suddenly I was a big fish in a small pond. I found myself assessing the fighting capability of others (judging) based on appearance. This sounds crazy but I guarantee you most low level fighters do this almost involuntarily. I supposes it’s the male equivalent of when a woman walks into a room full of other women and instantly decides who they don’t like. Similar assessment, different criteria.
Then I moved full time into weightlifting. Out and about and in public I began assessing people based on their ability to lift. I’m pretty good at it actually, and often in commercial gyms I can predict what a lifter will load up and how well they will perform the lift before they’ve touched the bar. Nowadays, my assessments are for improving my coaching eye, not to size them up out of personal insecurity. I made a crucial shift in my thinking, and I need you to do the same. Here’s the one thing you need to understand…
I’ve noticed a disturbing trend amongst a growing number of lifters in my local club of late. I’m sure this is one behaviour you’re going to recognise and it must be infuriating for coaches.
Let me give you a real life example to illustrate. Here was yesterday’s workout down at Bethnal Green Weightlifting Club:
Power snatch 105% x 1 x 6
Clean and jerk 90% x 1 x 4
Every couple of years you see a diet strategy for getting slim getting major airtime. Atkins, Paleo, Zone… these days Intermittent Fasting is the new hotness.
It’s always the same pattern. First someone rehashes some material that’s been around for a while - usually the 60s or 70s. Then some strapping young chap (it’s always a guy) writes a website, swiftly followed by a print book, and makes a ton of cash. Following on from that you get the obligatory evangelists in the fitness industry, acting like it’s a lifestyle. The next step is for mainstream media to latch onto it. Cue umpteen newspaper articles, product clones, and of course misinterpretations. The final stage is for my sister to ask me about it. When that happens, the diet is officially dead.
An anecdote. There’s a guy in my office who I chat to on occasion regarding lifting. He’s a Crossfitter and I’ve seen him train a couple of times down at Bethnal Green. Like me, he usually works to a fairly routine schedule - trains at the same time, eats and the same time and place, and it’s usually buying lunch where we cross paths.
He often complains of one injury or another, so I asked a couple of questions to get perspective on his situation. He told me that he had recently started IF in an attempt to lean out a little. I should point out here that this guy is tall, fairly lean (leaner than me, but then most people are) and I’d be generous in guessing his weight at 80kg tops. Alarm bell number 1 - you’re not that fat.