The Education of a Weightlifter, Part I
By Coach Mark Acosta, BS, USAW
Position, Rhythm, & Speed.
If you’re reading this, you care about weightlifting, are an athlete, coach or aspiring to become one or both of these. In any case, adopting and maintaining a beginner’s mindset is necessary to the continuous growth and journey of a weightlifter. This journey, or as I will commonly refer to it, “The education of a weightlifter”, begins with wide eyes, a daring spirit, and a mind like a sponge, ready to soak up everything Coach teaches.
As a coach, it is necessary to understand that these wide eyed and daring beginner athletes, no matter how eager or daring, are but taking their first steps in their education as a weightlifter. They want to know it all, hear it all, and absorb every cue and lesson in the book on day 1. This, however, is the quickest route to failure, confusion, and early burnout in this sport.
It is widely agreed that weightlifting is an art. Poetry in motion, beauty in action, artistry and athleticism beautifully coming together to express a graceful violence like no other. Yet, no one would hand a paint brush to a child and ask him/her to work with aerial perspective or start discussing Rembrandt and the like. Yet, coaches are so quick to do just that in the sport of weightlifting.
Let the child in the athlete explore the movement, then set the standards and foundation upon which we will later build technique upon, challenge the athlete and push the limits, then start all over again and repeat endlessly.
Don’t throw Rembrandt at the child and then complain
that he/she thinks art is boring and confusing.
Begin at the Beginning
Lewis Carroll, in the now famous, “Alice in Wonderland” penned “Begin at the beginning”. We would do well as weightlifting coaches and athletes to allow “The education of a weightlifter” to begin just there... at the beginning.
In setting the groundwork for athletes, I like to begin by acknowledging that they are eager to start training hard and smashing PR’s. In fact, that is exactly what I cover on day one--PRS.
-Position, Rhythm, Speed-
In that order.
Not the kind of PR’s you thought you’d be hitting today? That’s okay, we are simply laying the foundation. For even the greatest of strengths will fall short of its potential in the absence of position, rhythm, and speed. Notice I said fall short of its potential--not fall short compared to others. Sure, strength will carry you a ways in this sport, but I do not care if you’re stronger than the average lifter. No, I am in the business of bringing people to, and past, their potential and limits, respectively.
As a coach you must provide visual, written, and verbal explanations and demonstrations of the positions. As I see it, there are 4 main positions in weightlifting and I will cover them briefly here.
In “standing tall”, I tell the lifter I am looking for 3 things--Eyes forward, Elbows rotated to either side of the walls beside them (internal rotation), and glutes slightly engaged. These three focal points serve to give the athlete simple and easily remembered cues that we will build upon for the rest of their journey in weightlifting. That is, maintaining a constant forward gaze and proper head position, setting the shoulders and upper back properly, and assigning tension in the lower body appropriately. Do I tell the lifter all of this? No. I simply say “Eyes. Elbows. Glutes.” The coach's job is to think and guide, the athletes job is to listen and obey (this of course only works when a proper working relationship established upon trust, respect, and integrity exists. However, this is a topic I will cover at a separate time: the dynamic relationship between the coach, the team, and the individual athlete).
We are adding to the complexity now, so we also will decrease the demands and cue’s imparted to the athlete to allow for more attentive energy from the athlete. In the power position I will tell the lifter I am looking for 2 things--Knees remain bent & ready, and shoulder is directly over the bar. This is the exact verbiage I will use with my athletes. To this the athlete will typically respond, “ready for what?”, and that is the correct question, the answer to which is, ready to punch and drive the bar upwards. Again, as a coach I know I am setting the groundwork for a strong quad punch and vertical intention set on the bar with heels maintaining their drive through the floor, as well the ability to stay over the bar as long as possible. What the lifter needs to hear, however, is just “Knees bent & ready, and shoulders over the bar”. A drawing of what shoulder positioning looks like here is useful.
Lowering from the power position to where the bar is just below the knees, in line with the patellar tendon, I will tell the athlete that in position 1, I am looking for shoulders to now be in front of the bar. Again, a diagram or drawing is useful here. Yes, position 1 will also entail the strong stabilization of the low and upper back, the tension through the middle and lower body, etc. We will cover and reinforce those aspects of the position as necessary, but in that proper stabilization and bracing is already expected, the singular cue I expect the athlete to memorize here is “shoulders over the bar”. If the athlete has not yet learned how to breathe, brace, and move through a deadlift in a stable manner, then he/she need not concern him/herself with the positions in weightlifting just yet, as there is more foundational work to be done--And I would caution the coach who finds him/herself constantly reminding the athlete not to round their back, to step back and address foundational movement skills first. You will only be doing you and the athlete a disservice by continuing to “discuss Rembrandt with an artist just barely learning to hold the brush”.
Position 2/The floor:
From position 1, we drop the hips and bend the knees until the bar is mid-shin or until the plates would be resting on the floor. All foundational aspects of a good starting deadlift position should be applied here, with the added specificity of the athletes hip crease being slightly above the knee and shoulders in line with or slightly over the bar.
One useful thing about this particular way of teaching, is that each of the cues applied from the top down, remains a cue applicable to the next position. Recall that the cues for the standing tall position were “Eyes, elbows, glutes”--these will be constant for all positions, given that “glutes” will be rephrased within the context of appropriate lower body tension. Shoulder position and knee angle focus from power position will be relevant in both position 1 and position 2 (floor). This is important to note because, in dealing with beginners, we must ensure that every positional cue we give is understable and memorable to avoid confusing and overwhelming the athlete.
Rhythm & Speed come after position, because now that the athlete has a better grasp of what the positions are and look like, they will need to learn to dynamically move from one position to the next accurately. When moving from any one position to another, it is not important how fast the athlete moves on day one, as long as the positions are being hit accurately and correctly. A coach who emphasizes speed over rhythm and position will be a frustrated and overworked coach in the end.
Returning to the artist and the brush idea--another great example here is that even the most seasoned musicians, when given a new piece of music, will not simply begin practicing the piece at the full tempo. Rather, and actually having taught and performed music for many years before venturing into weightlifting and the fitness industry, I would introduce a new piece of music to my students by allowing them to look it over, explore and perhaps listen to the piece, and then slow the tempo down significantly as we begin rehearsal. Regardless of the tempo, the rhythm and position of the notes relative to each other and relative to the time signature of that given piece of music remains constant and therefore applicable to the next stage of learning when we increase the tempo closer to performance level.
It is from these teaching roots and this education style I applied in past jobs, whether it was music, physical education, or general academic subjects in special education classes I worked in, that I borrow and use constantly in weightlifting. In all these subject matters, the instructor must teach accurately and in a manner both meaningful and memorable to the student. It is a task not to be taken lightly, for the wide eyed and eager students/athletes that show up on day one are trusting you to guide and steer them in the right direction.
Every athlete has an inner child that undertakes the journey and education of a weightlifter alongside them. It is your job as coach, as teacher, to set the standard and foundation upon which they will build, allow them to explore and play within these bounds, then challenge and push the limits. Repeat these with care and professionalism, emphasizing the importance of Position, Rhythm and Speed, and both you and the athlete will be well on your way to shattering PR’s.
Mark Acosta is a health & fitness professional with 9 years in the industry. Dedicated to the art of coaching, and unwavering in the pursuit of helping people unlock their true potential.
Having learned from some of the nations leading coaches and sports performance training facilities in the industry, Coach Mark specializes in strength & conditioning, team dynamics, and delivering personalized coaching for mental and psychological skills relating to peak performance & stress management.
Coach Mark’s experience ranges from coaching groups of toddlers, to working with the Chinese Olympic Ski team, and private NHL, MLB, & other professional athletes. Notwithstanding, Mark has a passion for coaching any athlete at any level, provided they have the work ethic necessary and willingness to learn.
Success leaves clues, and to those willing & able to follow them, Coach Mark will relentlessly pursue excellence alongside them.
Move or Die.
B.S. Physical Education
USAW LVL 1
EKI Kettlebell LVL 1
ProAct & CPI Training