olympic lifting

Arousal Theory and Strength Sports: How to Harness Nuclear Energy

At the elite level, a large difference in performance between the three medalists on the podium is not typical. We see this across various individual strength sports such as weightlifting, sprinting, and gymnastics. One percent could be the difference between missing and breaking a world record. In weightlifting, both lifts are very explosive with neither one taking more than a few seconds to complete, and optimum power output must be produced. There is often only 2.5 kg separating the lifters in the top 5 spots, meaning the smallest variation in performance can be the difference between securing a medal and failing to place. Sports, which have very little variability between the top athletes who place, express a need for training modalities that can push performance just by a slight increase.

Overworking vs. Underworking

Because numbers can easily measure weight training progress, athletes have a tendency to pursue testing methods often. The aggressive consciousness, which weightlifters seem to possess, is a rivalry against oneself, and often leads to overtraining. Athletes typically have a competitive personality, which makes them assume overworking is better than underworking.

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The theoretical goal is to design a training program that will provide stress, but not continue to the point of distress. Little room for error can be left when peaking and every competitive advantage should be used for a successful performance. These factors can be measured and maintained by monitoring mood and excessive arousal while helping avoid the negative effects of over-reaching, which can lead to over-training.

A stressor is anything that may knock the body out of balance (a.k.a. homeostasis).

*for more on homeostasis and stress read here.

The stress response is what your body does to re-establish the balance. Your body’s physiological response mechanisms are beautifully adapted for overcoming short-term physical traumas. When we turn on the same physiological responses that are provoked chronically with heightened arousal, it then becomes disastrous. Fitness and fatigue cannot exist independently and often the demands of competitive athletes do not match according to the current level of not only physiological functioning, but psychological. Almost all athletes are overworked in some capacity, and although we all want to embrace ‘the grind’, constant excitement will cripple our success for long-term athletic development.

When to Turn It On

Many of us fail to differentiate between activating a stress-response out of necessity and for the sake of it. We become accustomed to turning our anticipatory defenses into an uproar of unnecessary activation. If you constantly mobilize energy at the cost of energy storage, you will never create a reserve for when it counts the most (aka competition). Excessive arousal may seem necessary, but more often than not is hindering performance as opposed to aiding in a successful attempt.

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Arousal and Threat

Arousal is a combination of physiological and psychological activity theorized to fall along a continuum from a completely relaxed state to intense state of excitement (Moran, 2004). Arousal is suppressed and activated by the parasympathetic and sympathetic branches of the Autonomic Nervous System. The sympathetic nervous system prepares our body for when energy expenditure is needed. During arousal our body needs to pay attention to the task at hand, so it neglects other systems such as immune and digestion that are deemed lower priority at that moment. For example, let’s say you’re roaming the Serengeti and a lion pops up ready to eat you. In that exact moment, what is most important to your body:

  1. - Digesting the food you just ate
  2. - Defending against a disease that may harm you tomorrow
  3. - Getting an erection
  4. - Running away to ensure survival

While 1-3 are indeed important, they do nothing to help you run away from the lion and must be “ignored” for the time being.

Yerkes & Dodsen (1908) developed the inverted-U theory in an attempt to explain the affiliation between arousal and performance. The relationship is curvilinear, specifically stating performance is lowest when arousal is very high or very low, and optimal at a moderate level (Singer et al., 2001). In Weightlifting, an athlete must presumably lift the most weight possible during an optimum level of arousal, however, either hyperarousal or diminished arousal may lessen performance (Jensen, 2009).

Although heightened arousal can impair the performance of some motor tasks, the relation between a stressor and the change in arousal varies markedly across individuals. It is also important to note that there are always exceptions to the case, but the vast majority of people happen to perform better with moderate levels of arousal. What is considered a eu-stress for one individual may in fact be a dis-stress for another.

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Generally speaking, certain sports require distinctive arousal levels

Fine motor control requires less arousal while motor tasks, which require strength or ballistic movements, require higher levels of arousal (Noteboom, Barnholt & Enoka, (2001). Ultimately, many variables play a role in creating a successful athlete, and to appropriately accommodate those variables an individualized program must be administered. For example, not everyone will respond to a certain stimulus of physical training the same way, just like how everyone will respond to stress management in slightly different ways

New athletes often make an assumption that psyching up or creating a high level of arousal is imperative to optimally complete a heavy lift. While higher arousal helps strength, compromised coordination and technique may occur, especially if technique is still being learned. The common mistake a lifter will face is overdoing it or using techniques at the wrong moments in training. A beginner is less groomed and so the motions of their sport are not as habitual in those who have ample amounts of experience. Typically a beginner will do better with low levels of arousal because performance is based on utilization of relevant cues and narrowing of attention as arousal increases. Too many cues, or an excess of arousal, can cause the lifter to heighten his or her state of sensory sensitivity to a state of hyper vigilance. When we approach a lift with excessive arousal we can trigger inappropriate responses such as excessive physical strain associated with somatic anxiety.

Once a lifter becomes accustomed to the motor patterns of their sport, then they will be able to determine their optimal zone of functioning within the arousal continuum.

New athletes get a pass because they don’t know any better. For those of you who are familiar with training and are constantly in the weight room screaming about your next lift to come, you are wasting your time and giving us all headaches. You’ve also caused a substantial amount damage, which now must be dealt with somehow.  You simply can’t train like this as often as you’d like. Threat Matrix Theory (Visser & Davies, 2010) explains how any number of multiple outputs may form from a stress response. We do not only encounter a single variable altered during this process. Determining which part of the fatigue was caused by the training itself, and what was caused by the emotional stress of an elevated arousal state is the hard part.

A stressor may be as simple as anticipation before a competitive situation, which at first may appear as psychological, but as it manifests becomes physiological as well (Jensen, 2009). Such a response can lead to a failed lift or technical failure resulting in injury, or improper recovery causing you to peak or fatigue earlier than you should be when competition time comes (Lee, 1990). Competitive weightlifters understand competitions provide incentive for hard training. A successful meet involves more than being stronger compared to competitors of the same weight class. In addition to physical training, psychological aspects such as mood and vigor will play an important role in an athlete’s performance as well.

Don’t train harder, train smarter.

Profile of Mood States Questionnaire (POMS) is a standard validated psychological test formulated by McNair et al. (1971) which requires you to indicate for each word or statement how you have been feeling in the past week.

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Athletes scoring below norms on scales of tension, depression, confusion, anger, and fatigue, and above norms on vigor, are said to possess a ‘positive profile’ that graphically depicts an iceberg. Monitoring of mood states may offer potential methods of mitigating loads, whether that be psychological or physical.

Serious athletes will push their bodies hard enough, often riding that fine line between wellness and illness. Simply tracking how you feel related to qualitative variables, which mirror excess stress, can be of use to athletes and coaches. You can do this by writing it in your training log (if you don’t have one yet, what are you waiting for?). Remember, stress comes in all shapes and sizes and we deal with it enough, so why add more to training than necessary?

Optimizing performance is contingent upon proper stress regulation and will differ between training and competition environment. Coaches are often attempting to increase the likelihood of success within an athlete’s performance and will make most of the decisions for an athlete, but for those who do not have this advantage should educate themselves. In accordance with proper programming, mental skills training to control or alter arousal levels may be of interest. Beginning to use skills during practice will have a carry-over effect in competition, and is valuable in both situations. Utilizing such skills will not likely benefit the day of competition if not practiced.

Learn how to create a balance with combinations of relaxation and intensity. These are two things that don’t seem to go together when you first think about it. Managing arousal levels is key in not only competitive situations, but during training as well. If you experience every lift in a working set during training as a max effort lift you will pay the price. Being able to harness nuclear energy is the name of the game. Conserve it for a time when it is most necessary. To understand the stress response, fundamental knowledge not only of physiology but of psychology as well, must be possessed.

about the author

fac188db2d11c567ecf4133a5a44ea64.jpeg

Dani Tocci is an eccentric individual whose primary goal is to cultivate a positive growth mindset with everyone she works with on both a sport consulting level and with training. Having a not so typical background with degrees in art and philosophy gives her an edge on her thought process. Dani is a competitive olympic weightlifter and has had the pleasure of working with national level athletes.  Follow her on Instagram (@d_tocc) for all the happenings.

Cleaning Up the Pull in the Olympic Lifts: Technique and Drills for Success

Olympic lifting isn’t just for athletes who compete in meets. The various exercises dramatically improve both rate of force development and rate coding while recruiting the largest motor units. And since most sports require both strength and speed—i.e. explosive power—many athletes benefit from incorporating the Olympic lifts into their training. The obvious advantages gained from weightlifting lead to its popularity in strength and conditioning facilities around the world. The lifts—that were once relatively obscure—are now staples of training programs. But that popularity also generates inconsistency. And unfortunately, inconsistency leads to the spreading and teaching of of many different—often incorrect—lifting techniques.

One of the biggest offenses occurs in the initiation of the movement, or in the pulling phase.

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If you’re the wrong kind of aggressive in the pull, you’ll forget to be aggressive in the catch.

The pull should be aggressive, but also controlled and fluid. Because the purpose of the first pull is to disconnect the stationary barbell from its motionless position on the platform, the start of the lift should be slow and controlled. The middle portion of the lift only becomes fast because the control exerted on the first pull allows for speed to accumulate.

Pulling turns out to be the additive combination of start speed and acceleration in the middle of the lift. It results in the chain reaction of turnover and receiving the weight at the top of the movement.

Athletes often have the desire to pull the bar from the floor harshly and overemphasize the use of their upper body in order to get the barbell to the ideal position. (This could be due to five-time national champion Donny Shankle’s popularized quote to “rip the bar like you’re ripping a head off of a lion.”)

But in doing so, the barbell breaks away from your body—thus disrupting your center of gravity, making it hard to complete the lift. And it’s what I refer to as being the wrong kind of aggressive. Yanking the bar harshly transfers the angle of the back to an undesired, even dangerous, position.

This improper initial movement causes problems up the chain, too, forcing you to tug aggressively at the top of the pull. Instead of adding speed, this extra movement actually slows you down and inhibits you from being aggressive at the proper time. And that makes the transition to receiving the barbell—either overhead in the snatch or on your shoulders in the clean—more difficult to perform.

The barbell goes where you want it, not the other way around.

The pull seems more strenuous and complex, so we focus on it—maybe a little too much. Because if you put the same energy into sitting hard into a receiving position, as you do the pull, your lift will be more successful. You must place the bar overhead with intention. In weightlifting, the barbell goes where you want it to not the other way around.

Unfortunately, if you teach the start position and pull incorrectly, you cannot expect your athlete to perform the full movement properly. That’s where the power position comes into play.

Working from blocks works well with athletes who have a tendency to pull incorrectly—whether they’re veterans or beginners. Since the power position allows you to keep the bar close to the body, it naturally limits your ability to tug the bar at the top by reducing the room you have to move. The result is a more stable, controlled center of gravity, in order to optimize the force applied to the bar.

Below are two examples of how each pull is properly done from the blocks:

Snatch Pull

Clean pull

During both lifts, the athlete in the video uses the power from his lower body to guide the bar upward. He maintains perfect posture by pushing the knees out while looking ahead or slightly up.

The middle portion of the pull is predominately accomplished by a push with the legs while the elbows guide the bar up to the midsection. To get this out of my own athletes, I often cue them to push the floor away with the heels—instead of thinking about the movement as a pull. This forces the athlete to focus on not coming to their toes or being too concerned with their arm movement.

A pull should always directly correlate with the full lift. There is no purpose in teaching a pull if it has no transfer-over effect into the exercise. In the video above you see the athlete performing the snatch by allowing the bar to guide up in a smooth motion. Then he completes the lift by sitting hard under the bar, maintaining a strong overhead position.

Start small for big results

In addition to teaching more fluid traditional pulls, a way to begin attacking these common problems can be dealt with by adding warm up drills prior to each specific lift and strength exercises (pulling variations) at the end of the workout. I have my lifters start with an empty barbell, or even a PVC pipe, broomstick, or training bar.

The movements below are breakdowns of the full lifts and will teach the athlete to gain the proper feeling for certain positions. The first five exercises are warm up drills, which will help athletes who have trouble transitioning from pulling into sitting under the barbell (often noted as the third pull).

  1. Pull to front drop snatch warm-up complex:
  2. 1. Pull the bar to sternum height and pause.
  3. 2. Without tugging at the top flip the bar over head and begin to sit hard into a full squat.
  4. 3. Hold the seated position and do not rush up immediately.

Here you will learn to connect the dots between finishing the pull and transitioning into dropping under fast. Your arms should immediately be prepared to lockout overhead while maintaining a solid core. This movement teaches you to understand that when snatching to apply aggression into sitting underneath the barbell.

  1. Snatch grip front press variation
  2. 1. Without using momentum, maintain a high chest and sit hard under the bar as if you were sitting under a push jerk.
  3. 2. Poke your head through and push up into the barbell with your trapezius.

This is another drill used to mimic the movement underneath the bar. The motion must be precise and short. want to focus more on the movement which occurs underneath the bar after the pull.

  1. Behind the neck snatch press: in full squat
  • 1. Beginning in a full squat, engage in your core and push up into the bar.
  • 2. Be sure to keep your heels planted on the floor.

A true test to strength and stability: This should not be done in excess weight or reps. Typically, I utilize this during a warm up with an empty barbell in a complex for 4x4.

  1. Behind the neck Snatch grip jerk
  • 1. Slowly dip with knees out and chest up.
  • 2. Once the dip is complete, a short drop underneath the barbell happens in order to secure the lift overhead.
  • 3. The first drop is short and the second will end in a full squat.
  • 4. Visualize pulling the bar apart over head and remain in the catch for about 2-4 seconds.

It’s easy to be more concerned with standing up with the weight, as opposed to securing the lift overhead. But, many lifts are lost because of impatience and rushing.

  1. Clean drill
  • 1. Swing the weights back and forth slowly.
  • 2. Once the weights begin to come back in front of you, flip your elbows up in a rack position.
  • 3. As you flip your elbows, sit hard into a ½ squat.

Here is a great exercise if you use your arms too much in the pull. It reminds you to immediately turn the bar over fast. It’s particularly useful for beginners who are just learning how much power comes from the legs. Sometimes I will incorporate these in between working sets.

These next two examples will help athletes who struggle with general pulling technique and strength. Each exercise will focus on controlling the barbell by using the lower extremities as the main driver in gaining height in the pull.

  1. High pull to stick

This exercise ensures you’re pulling the bar high enough, and allows you to work harder at the top. Variations from the floor as well as complexes and adjusting the height can be applied.

  1. Staircase snatch muscle pull

Usually done with light to moderate weight, this is a great exercise to focus on the eccentric portion of the lift. Starting from the box, raise your elbows (picture a puppet) as high as possible while maintaining form, then slowly lower the bar allowing it to just slightly tap the staircase.

Closing Thoughts

While the olympic lifts take YEARS to master, I hope these drills and cues help you on your journey to become a better lifter.  Post any questions or comments you have below, and be sure to apply for our olympic lifting coaching program if you want help with programming and optimizing your lifts.  There are ONLY 3 SPOTS available right now, and those are on a first come first serve basis.

about the author

fac188db2d11c567ecf4133a5a44ea64.jpeg

Dani Tocci is an eccentric individual whose primary goal is to cultivate a positive growth mindset with everyone she works with on both a sport consulting level and with training. Having a not so typical background with degrees in art and philosophy gives her an edge on her thought process. Dani is a competitive olympic weightlifter and has had the pleasure of working with national level athletes.  Follow her on Instagram (@d_tocc) for all the happenings.

Genetics, Hard Work and the Power of Environment: How to Elevate Your Training to the Next Level

Header Photo Credit

We are surrounded by the continuous debate of genetics vs. hard work:

Are the most successful individuals reaping benefits because of their IQ or genetic capabilities? Did these individuals have to work hard, perhaps close to 10,000 hours? 

We are so eager to know what a successful person is like (aka what talents and qualities they possess) because we assume their personal qualities will give us insight into how they’ve reached the top.

Success stories are a perfect example in their ability to create myths of the greatest of all time and the near 'self-made' nature of x talent.   In fact, they tend to water down the success of said person to an association of special characteristics we cannot all possess...and it’s complete nonsense.

Most of us neglect the environment in which we choose to dwell. You know the saying, “practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect?” Well, training hard in a crappy environment breeds stress, not success. It doesn’t matter if you are the most gifted athlete there is, if you aren’t in the right situation you can't be in the right mind set.

Observational Learning

Innate talent is clearly apparent in many athletes, but why some excel and others plateau or fall off is quit an interesting topic that can be debated from many angles. I believe this idea, that successful people are just genetically gifted, is completely put to shame when you place an average athlete in an above average environment and give them the opportunity needed to develop skills for success. Conversely, if you place someone with incredible talent in an environment that doesn't facilitate his or her progress, the result will show no value.

Although biological forces, such as genetics, do limit individuals, we contain a remarkable amount of plasticity, both physically and mentally speaking. Each of us live in various communities that contain different cultural norms, and the social influences placed on us by each group will result in how we formulate our identity.

Luckily, we are quite flexible and capable of learning a multitude of attitudes and skills via vicarious experiences because a considerable amount of what we learn comes from observing others (aka observational learning). Bandura (1986) stated:  if knowledge could be acquired only through the effects of ones own actions, the process of cognitive and social development would “be greatly retarded, and not to mention exceedingly tedious.”

Modeling is the core theory of observational learning, involving a symbolic representation of information and storing it for use at a future time. Several factors determine whether a person will model. People who lack skill are most likely to model, and are more likely to model high status people than those of ‘low status’. The greater the value an observer places on a behavior, the more likely the individual will acquire it.

After attaining what we have observed, we produce the behavior by converting cognitive representations into appropriate actions. If it pertains to a motor skill that we cannot actually see ourselves performing, such as weightlifting, many athletes will use videos, or better yet coaches.

Skinner_Pavlov_Bandura
Skinner_Pavlov_Bandura

The Power of Environment

I'm going to make a bold statement by saying your environment is the most important factor in your training, even more important than your mind-set. You can only avoid so many external forces before they start to settle internally. Mental skills are tough even when you are in a positive situation, but it’s incredibly hard to train your mind if you are in an unsupportive or unhealthy atmosphere.

My coach explained that years ago when you first entered a weightlifting gym you had to earn your stripes. The beginners would load the bar for the advanced lifters and watch them practice. If you were using something that someone stronger needed, you gave it up. This wasn’t exactly a punishment, but rather a learning environment. It facilitated the desire to want to grow and be better, and separated those who were not serious about the sport and those who were willing to put in the work. Whether you realized it at first or not, you absorbed experience watching their successes and failures through observational learning.

A few months ago I was asked how in one year I was able to accomplish so much in terms of my training. I had to think about this for a while because, as athletes, we may never give ourself the credit we deserve when it comes to making progress. As far as I’m concerned, I'm not even close to where I need to be in terms of strength, so my progress kind of went unnoticed to me. But it got me thinking nonetheless:  what exactly changed?

Training Atmosphere

My training atmosphere transformed drastically, which lead to a spiral of fortunate events. The minute I began training with certain people and under both of my coaches supervision is when I began to progress. This change wasn’t just about programming specifics or adding new exercises, in fact, we don’t follow a typical weekly weightlifting “program” or scheme.

And it definitely had nothing to do with having fancy equipment or a state of the art facility.  I mean...I trained in a basement or a carpet factory the majority of the time.  So what was so special?

Dani Carpet Lifting
Dani Carpet Lifting

Last May (2014) I began to train seriously for weightlifting by consistently lifting 4 times a week with my younger cousin under both of our coach’s supervision. Prior to this we were lifting in the morning at a local CrossFit gym or in his garage, and we were only lifting with our team once a week. We have been supporting each other for a few years now in our athletic endeavors, and I have seen him grow from being told by a doctor he could never squat, to a junior national level qualifying weightlifter (hmm maybe it was the environment change).

A silent shift began to commence in our training. We would walk in more determined with a goal in mind for the day. We were spending less time chatting and more time focusing on preparing for every single rep. What appeared to be antisocial behavior was actually the opposite:  we were soaking in every aspect of the room in an attempt to apply as much as we could to our own lift. Every training night we drove together to lift, went home, ate dinner and went to bed. The cycle repeated throughout the summer.

My small accomplishments had everything to do with my coaches fostering an environment that cultivated a success mindset. Amongst the weightlifters on my team are various national level lifters, as well as coaches who have coached at the highest level possible. I spent the prior year not being able to clean and jerk less than my body weight. After a summer of training hard I put on about 15 kilos just to my clean and jerk. I too, along with my cousin, had earned my way to a national event. It was baffling, really.

I began to train with people far beyond my capabilities as a lifter. At first, the shift of training atmosphere scared me. I was far less experienced and quite weak compared to everyone else that was lifting with us. I was terrified of one of my coaches and afraid to miss a lift and look like an idiot.

When an opportunity is present, sometimes it may appear as a boundary. The opportunity may be given to those with talent, but only the individuals who posses the strength and mind to seize them will become great. Learning to foster and decide which environment is best for you may be one of the hardest choices you make as an athlete.

The Success Mindset

What I’ve learned is it's incredibly important to have like-minded training partners. If you want to start competing, you’ve got to embrace a competitive mindset and stop lifting with those who are just there for a hobby.

There is NOTHING wrong with going to the gym just for the sake of it, but there is a difference between working out and training with a purpose. You need to separate yourself from those people, regardless of how hard it can be. They will keep you stagnant, whether they mean well or not.

Our environment is a crucial agent in formation of personality. However, our decision to choose our environment is of more importance. It is the first step in realizing we need to create a new approach to cultivating our success mindset. We are the only ones who can bring forth success by combining our mental and physical characteristics and using them together to foster the best environment for our goals.

Ultimately, you need an honest evaluation of whether or not your environment is killing your progress. Granted, being honest is a lot harder than we think and can often offend our egos, but it's something we have to do.  So...go ahead and ask yourself the question most of us don’t mind avoiding:

Is my environment killing my progress? Am I surrounded by people I admire? Is this the best possible environment for me to reach my goals?

Go Fast Quote
Go Fast Quote

Being a self-made individual cannot exist.

Both team and individual athletes are of high caliber, but the intrinsic drive to be self-governing and efficacious is an underlying theme of athletes who compete alone. You can be “the best basketball player in the world”, (cough LeBron, cough) but you must rely on your teammates to follow through as well. Conversely, in an individual sport, you are your competition.

Confusion arises because we seem to get jumbled by the desire to be self-made individuals. I think as strength athletes competing in an individual sport we share a common desire and longing for a different type of success versus those who play team sports. We are not looking for cohesion or a sense of affiliation. We have no one to blame but ourselves for failure, but we have many to thank for our success. The point being:  self-made individuals do not exist at all, all of us develop by relying on many others.

Every athlete must accept that achieving high levels of success is something you cannot do by yourself.

Many of you may not be able to train with others, but I believe lifting with a team is one of the best ways to take your training up to the next level. Very few elite athletes train in solidarity. When we have off days, training with a group of people who have a great amount of energy will off set these times. If they are the right kind of people they will also put you in check when needed. Energy is transmittable and it can shift the mood of the room, whether it’s success or misery.

What distinguishes many of the most successful people is not their incredible talent, but rather, making the most of the opportunities that facilitated their learning and practice. In other words, their paths were shaped by particular events, which began to happen once they found the correct environment.

Dani Team
Dani Team

Final notes

1.  There isn’t a best coach, but there is a ‘best coach for you’.

2.  Pick a high quality teacher or coach. Do not seek someone who makes you comfortable and happy constantly. This is a good person to have in your life, but not as a coach.

3.  Find an environment that facilitates further education in the subject.

4.  Don’t be a big fish in a little pond; you need to know when it’s time to move on.

5.  An atmosphere must be intense, focused, and organized. Loud heavy metal music and screaming doesn’t always correlate with intensity.

6.  Trim the fat.  If you want to be serious you need to let go of those who are holding you back.

Energy is contagious, negative energy can ruin an athlete, and make them less productive regardless of the effort put in. It has been said you become the five people you spend the most time with. Surround yourself with people who reflect who you want to be and how you want to feel. Surround yourself with individuals who possess traits that will help reach your goals. Anything less will steer you in the wrong direction.

about the author

fac188db2d11c567ecf4133a5a44ea64.jpeg

Dani Tocci is an eccentric individual whose primary goal is to cultivate a positive growth mindset with everyone she works with on both a sport consulting level and with training. Having a not so typical background with degrees in art and philosophy gives her an edge on her thought process. Dani is a competitive olympic weightlifter and has had the pleasure of working with national level athletes.  Follow her on Instagram (@d_tocc) for all the happenings.

REFERENCES

Bandura, A. (1986) Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

To Think or Not To Think: The Power of Mental Rehearsal

Bases loaded, I click my shoes twice to get the extra dirt off my cleats. I take three practice swings outside of the batters box with two bats, going through my walk up routine perfectly, without even thinking. As I approach the plate my coach says, “Don’t think and just rip it." Pitch one, strike. I didn’t like it, too far outside. Pitch two, swing and a miss; I wasn’t even sure what happened. What gives? I wasn’t over thinking, my swing was PERFECT, coach said so himself. Count is 0-2 and my hands are so clammy I can barely hold onto the bat. I start to go over my last swing in my head, but then the ball comes right at me. Pitch three, perfect pitch, right down the line.

I struck out, and it was the first of many times at bat where I would approach the plate with uncertainty. Dragging my head down in shame back to the dugout, my coach pats me on the back. “You were thinking too much again.”  This isn’t a flash back from an intense collegiate game, it was fourth grade little league and it marked the beginning of me critically thinking about “thinking.”

Do I ‘Think’ Too Much?

I never knew what to focus on when at bat or, as my coach would say, what not to think of, and it followed me through my entire career as an athlete. Lets jump forward 15 years to me now competing as a weightlifter. If you are involved with strength sports you may agree with me when I say it is one of the most fatiguing athletic ventures. But you're probably thinking in terms of how hard your program is physically and how you have DOMS from those back squats you did the other day.

Tommy Kono, a well known weightlifter and coach, as well as an inductee of the International Weightlifting Hall of Fame, broke down the main aspects of weightlifting success into a pie chart, which looks like this:

Pie-Chart.png

50% is from the mind   30% technique   20% power development

He stated most lifters and coaches seem intent on spending no time on the first item and every little second of all their efforts on the last, until exhaustion. It's not the amount of physical strain placed on our bodies which may make us a successful competitor in the long run; instead, it's the combination of cultivating the correct mind-set so when we approach our times of physical strain we are prepared.

I can guarantee every single person reading this has been advised at one time or another that the reason they missed a lift, or didn't make the big play, was because they were over thinking, spending too much time analyzing, or rather, not relying on their “muscle memory" and instincts.

Research on memory and its various systems is vital to understanding information processing and motor performance. Muscle memory has been used to describe the observation that various muscle-related tasks (such as swinging a bat or performing a snatch) seem to be easier to perform after previous cyclic practice. It is as if the muscles “remember.” Information is perceived by the CNS and prepped for a meaningful motor response, when at some point information selected must be retained or stored for a future use.

Within a few weeks of starting a resistance training program strength increases despite little to no increase in hypertrophy. These initial increases in strength are due to neural adaptations. When we learn to snatch we are not just taxing our muscles in a physical manner. The retention and subsequent retrieval of information can be either beneficial or detrimental. For example, if you spend a year squatting improperly it will become frustrating to reteach proper mechanics because your body has adapted in more ways than one to the stimulus.

Similarly, the same concept adheres to our decision making process:  if we are groomed to think a certain way for a long period of time it will take longer to restore because the brain reverts back to its automatic decision making processes when we are faced with reoccurring situations.

By creating habits, we forge new pathways in our brain and it can be exhausting.

Lighter weight reps and sets are relatively monotonous, and we rarely think about the lift, it’s almost automatic. Often we are told we cannot think about what we want to do when attempting an action and it will occur naturally, but when we hear this, we miss the big picture. One must be present on all accounts, mentally and physically. What you should be doing when approaching a lift is actually the opposite of being on autopilot and just going through the movements. Practice builds confidence, but to reach higher levels of lifting one must become an intelligent athlete aware of the situation and in complete control of their thoughts.

How to Snatch
How to Snatch

The top 5 weightlifters will almost always be more reliable than the other competitors, suggesting consistency leading up to performance is a major factor.   The higher placed athletes in each weight class were more consistent in their performance between competitions when compared with athletes who placed in the bottom half (McHuigan & Kane, 2004). Why may this be?

The secret of weightlifting is mastering the content between your ears. I will never down play hard work, the incredible amounts of dedication and the years of training athletes put in because all of those play a role in what makes a great athlete. But to be mentally present through every step of your performance determines the outcome, and I’m not just talking about competition day.

It’s also much easier to avoid the hard work that comes with mental training. In fact, for every hour I spend in the gym, I try to put in at least half that time with mental-skills work.

For the purpose of this article, I'm going to specifically speak in terms of daily training circumstances and hold off on a competitive situation or the day of a meet for now. Incorporating new techniques during a pressure situation will likely not be beneficial. Utilizing a mental rehearsal program will take time to develop and is not a one night stand.

At the higher level of the sport spectrum (where you find your national and international athletes), there isn't much difference in strength and/or power between competitors, so what it ultimately comes down to is what’s going on in their brain.

As stated in my last article, we are not born with this state of mind...it takes grooming. I attempted to end off explaining that mental skills are qualities that develop over time, just as your muscles do. So lets start with our first step into mental training and dissect one of the most reoccurring problems I see.

Often when attempting a heavy weight one may change how they approach the situation compared to when lifting lighter repetitions. Granted, hitting a new PR can be scary. Sometimes we get stuck thinking about the number rather than what we know we are supposed to be doing. Especially if this number has been haunting us for a while. The situation I repeatedly encounter when working with athletes is their inability to see the difference between how they approach their lift, not on a technical level, but a mental one. Typically, the athlete will try to critique their form immediately:  “I pulled too early, I was slow, I’m just too weak.”

My first question is what were you thinking when you approached the bar and placed your hands on it? My next is, what were you thinking when you were warming up with a weight you can do but isn’t so easy to handle? Lastly, what about your warm up sets? Typically three different answers are given. This is the main problem, there is no consistency.

Plato Quote
Plato Quote

Conducting a Mental Rehearsal

Many of us seem to think our mental approach only needs to be turned on when we attempt heavy lifts in the snatch, and clean and jerk. But it starts with the warm-up attempts. Mental rehearsal is not day dreaming, but rather a drill of precision. The technique is not concerned with positive statements or self-confidence boosting, which is a separate entity.

As you approach a mental rehearsal, you visualize yourself performing the lift and doing exactly what you want.  This, in turn, creates neural patterns in your brain just as if you had physical performed the action (Porter, 1990).

The pattern relates to practicing, which is an extension of physical training. Each time you utilize this technique you reinforce your memory, so when a pressure situation arrives you're well prepared and confident of accomplishing the task at hand.

Before you approach the bar you must visualize the lift being done in your head. The method of which you choose to do so will vary with each of us.

Here is an example of how I mentally prepare for a snatch

1.  Look straight ahead and drive up with your chest

2.  Slow and controlled form the start, push the ground away from you with your heels.

3.  Push into the hand on your back (a cue my coach gives me)

4.  Barbell to belly button & turn over fast, sit hard.

5.  Press into the bar with your lower traps.

6.  Remain in the bottom position until you are settled, don’t "rush out”

You need to have a mental game plan. When you are lifting, this entire script is not going through your head. It’s more like the dress rehearsal before the actual movement occurs. Before I approach the bar I typically have my back to it with my eyes closed. When you block out vision, you isolate the inner physical sensations around you. I prefer to mouth/ speak what I’m thinking out loud. I think of the lift in two phases, the pull and the catch, this personally helps me break down the complexity.

We all have different weakness and strengths; this isn’t a cookie cutter outline for everyone. Take time to develop your mental skills and figure out what you must focus on. Actually sit down and write it out, then simplify it just like I did above.

Understanding how the motion of the lift feels as well as looks is important. An automatic reaction should be a desired one which is done through practice. You have to ask yourself:  are you just going through the motions to get the lift done or are you training with purpose? This is most important when we do our accessory work and our lighter lifts. Often these attempts are rushed and spent less time on (mentally) compared to the main lifts. I know this was true for myself, originally they were less fun and not as rewarding or exciting. The moment I began to understand how important it was to take every single detail of my training into account was the moment I actually progressed.

When you approach the bar as it becomes heavier with each rep, it is not often that we are so physically tired as to why we can’t lift the weight, but mentally drained. If we are not prepared for our lift, or we have scattered thoughts, it may be detrimental to our physical capability. The possibility of using self-talk strategies too often, commonly termed ‘analysis to paralysis’ or ‘over thinking’ may often result in negative performance. Having a habitual approach to the bar will off set this manifestation of over thinking. Attempting to think about 100 new corrections before you snatch a heavy weight isn’t the time or place. And if it gets to that point it’s time to strip the bar and move on.

Dani Snatch
Dani Snatch

Some key concepts to be aware of when you approach your training session:

1.  Visualize the completion of the lift before you attempt to do so.

2.  Be consistent. Pick a strategy and stick with it. Follow through.

-If you’re focusing on sitting hard during the lift that day, don’t overthink your pull.

3.  Stop thinking about the previous lift & focus on the task at hand.

-It’s over, move on. If you keep thinking about it, it’s likely it will keep happening.

4.  Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative.

-Instead of finding the flaw in every lift, focus on what you did correctly and re-structure your words for the next attempt.

-Avoid mentioning the technical mistake and instead replace it with a corrective measure in order to maintain focused on the task at hand.

-Do not harp on what you did wrong, focus on the cue which will guide the movement.

5.  Always approach the bar with conviction.

-All of your hard work deserves fierce confidence in your capabilities. After all, what have you been training for?

6.  Just because it’s an accessory exercise doesn’t mean it’s less important.

-The same rules apply; they wouldn’t be in your program if they didn’t matter.

7.  Over analyzing should not take place outside of the gym.

-Stop worrying about WHY you missed your lift. Instead be constructive and write down what you’re going to do to change it.

-Your mental rehearsal may change from training season to season as you acquire new skills or weaknesses. This is not necessarily a bad thing; we would never want to be stagnant. There is always something we can work on to better ourselves.

about the author

fac188db2d11c567ecf4133a5a44ea64.jpeg

Dani Tocci is an eccentric individual whose primary goal is to cultivate a positive growth mindset with everyone she works with on both a sport consulting level and with training. Having a not so typical background with degrees in art and philosophy gives her an edge on her thought process. Dani is a competitive olympic weightlifter and has had the pleasure of working with national level athletes.  Follow her on Instagram (@d_tocc) for all the happenings.

The Olympic Lifts: Are They For You

So the other day I found myself in a globo gym esc environment. I think it was a YMCA, but I'm not entirely sure.

Either way, while I was trying to get a lift in on the road I couldn't help but notice two fine gentlemen approximately twenty feet down to my left.

They looked to be in their mid 20's, and were probably working professionals or grad students at one of the nearby colleges.

What grabbed my attention you ask?

Well...let's just say they were trying to do power cleans, and doing so quite unsuccessfully.  It looked like they were reverse curling and humping the bar into submission, as opposed to performing the beauty that is a power clean.

All kidding aside, I'm not one to sit hear and bash other people.  I hate that.  My hat goes off to both of them for at least making it into the gym and working hard.  For all I know, they just wrapped up a 10 hour day at the office and the fact they made it in to train is awesome.

But...as I watched them lift all I thought to myself was:

"Man.  These guys could be getting so much more out of their training right now."

Which got me thinking about the olympic lifts, and how popular they've become over the past several years.  You used to hardly see anyone performing olympic lifts outside of high school, college and professional weight rooms, but now they seem to be just about everywhere.

Not only that, they've become a pretty divisive issue:  some coaches swear by them, while others are moving in the opposite direction.

As I pondered this more and more I finally decided to sit down and write a post on the subject, so here we go.

The Lifts

Let' quickly take a look at a few different olympic lifting variations, just so we're all on the same page going forward.

The Clean and Jerk

The Power Clean

The Snatch

The Power Snatch

There are many variations to the olympic lifts, but these are some of the most popular and make it relatively easy to understand the other ones.  Other notable variations I did not include are the hang clean, hang snatch, hang power clean and hang power snatch.  These are performed the same way as the above videos, except the lift does not start from the floor.  Take a look at this hang clean video and you'll know what I mean:

Positives

When you perform the olympic lifts with proper technique, you can derive a lot of benefit from them.  In fact, one could easily make the argument that they get you the most bang for your buck.  For example, they:

Teach you to generate/put force into the ground

Are great for power development in the sagittal plane

Teach kinesthetic awareness

Can cause hypertrophy

Create positive neural adaptation by increasing intra-muscular and inter-muscular coordination

*if you don't know what intra or intermuscular coordination are, then checkout this free webinar.

Train functional stability through the core

Help maintain and possibly increase range of motion

While that's an impressive list, there are some downsides to the olympic lifts as well.

Negatives

Technicality

For starters, these lifts are highly technical, and while technicality alone shouldn't be a deterrent, it raises a significant issue:  time.

If you read anything written by the Chinese or the Russians concerning the development of their lifters, you'll know their athletes do thousands of reps with a wooden dowel before ever touching a weight.  As a coach, I have to question if I have enough time to both teach the lifts, and get a training effect out of them.

For example, am I getting a young kid who I'll have under my wing for an extended period of time, or am I getting a professional athlete who has 12 weeks to prepare for camp?

High Movement Demand

The olympic lifts put a premium on moving well.  In order to perform a legit clean and jerk, and a legit snatch, you better be able to move like a boss.

In my experiences thus far, I just haven't met many people who walk in day one with the capacity to perform these lifts.  Not only do they lack the necessary amounts of "range," they also don't know how to move.  Things that seem simple, like a hip hinge and a squat, often need some serious work.

So...it's a timing issue again:  how long will it take to improve range of motion, how long will it take to train basic movement patterns, how long will it take to get technique down etc etc.

I Can Get the Same Benefits With Other Options

For as great as the olympic lifts are, I know I can get the same benefits from an athletic standpoint using far less technical movements and exercises.  I can squat, deadlift, jump, throw, and sprint, among other things, to get after the same list of benefits from above.

So it raises the question:  do I need to spend a lot of time with these exercises, when I can plug in other options that are simpler, possibly safer, and just as effective?

Questions to Ask Yourself

Ultimately, it's impossible for me to sit hear and tell you whether or not you should be performing olympic lifts.  I know nothing about you, and the answer to that question varies from person to person.

What I can give you though are some questions you can ask yourself to help guide you to the right decision.

What's my skill level?

This is really combining two questions:

1.  How well do I move?

2.  Can I perform the lifts with good technique?

If you're good on both, then you just need to worry about whether or not the olympic lifts are specific to the demands of your sport.  If you aren't good on both, then you really have to consider the next two questions.

How much time do I have?

As I discussed above, time is really important.  How much time do you have before you need to be ready for x?  And can you afford to devote any of that time to learning a new lift?

Are there other ways to reach the same end goal?

This one is pretty self explanatory, but once you have an end goal you need to determine the fastest, safest, most efficient way to get there.

What does my sport demand?

Do you need to throw a baseball or do you need to play football?  Do you need to compete in olympic lifting?  Do you want to compete in Crossfit?  Do you need to play soccer?

All of these situations are different, and before making a decision you need to consider what each athlete needs to be successful.

Closing Thoughts

The olympic lifts have been around for a long time, and watching someone who's good at them is like looking at a beautiful piece of artwork.  The timing, the flow, the strength, the power...it's really a sexy thing when you break it down.

For as beautiful as a well executed lift can be though, a poorly executed lift is just as ugly.  It's like watching a really bad train wreck in slow motion.

So, what I want you to do is ask more questions.  Go out of your way to clear yourself to perform these lifts as opposed to just doing them.

Because at the end of the day the olympic lifts aren't inherently good or bad, they are what they are until you put them in a specific context.

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