Jason Khalipa is obviously well known as an amazing CrossFit athlete.
He’s also the owner of a successful gym (and has great business advice to give), and he’s the author of a new book that will get you focused and moving forward in business, fitness, and in life. It’s called As Many Reps as Possible.
So listen in to this one for a different look at Jason. Of course we talk about CrossFit programming (I mean, you know I’m going to go there), but we really spend a lot of time talking about the realities of business and life.
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It’s difficult because I am probably going to make some people I care about deeply upset with me. However, I have my athletes assuming I feel a certain way about the lifts, and the truth is I don’t feel that way at all. So I’m going to risk addressing the issue in this article.
Specifically, I’m referring to plantar flexion (fancy term for extending up on the balls of the feet) during the extension of the second pull and moving one’s feet during the catch phase of the snatch and the clean. Let me give my thoughts on those two issues concerning the pull, and I am going to attempt to build my case with science and common sense.
In America, there are two ways of thinking:
minimal to no plantar flexion and minimal foot movement
massive extension as tall as possible on the toes, and the feet move from hip width (during the pull) to about shoulder width (during the catch phase)
The Case for Minimal Extension and Minimal Foot Movement (Catapult)
I am familiar with my former mentor’s view on plantar flexion and foot movement, so I will start there. Coach Don McCauley (a great coach, by the way) believes in minimal plantar flexion and minimal movement of the feet. He loves the hookgripusa video of Ella Grizzle, as she has no foot movement and minimal extension. Yurik Vardanian was an example of a lifter with minimal extension and minimal foot movement. Yurik was an amazing weightlifter. There is no doubting that.
The thought process behind the minimal extension and minimal foot movement is to focus more on getting around and under the bar. The fear Don has is that lifters will spend too much time up top trying to pull the bar higher, and therefore miss their opportunity to get under the bar during its peak. I totally understand that, and I agree with a lot of what he’s saying.
The Case for Maximal Extension and Moving the Feet (Triple Extension)
On the other side of the coin, you have my friends Coach Sean Waxman (also a mentor) and Coach Spencer Arnold (my best friend in the sport of weightlifting). Simply put, they believe one should finish as tall as possible – gaining as much height as possible – on the bar. They believe an athlete normally starts with their feet underneath the hips during the pull phase, and then the athlete jumps the feet out during the catch phase.
The thought is the feet are hip width during the pull to produce the most power. Most athletes perform the vertical leap with their feet at about hip width. Therefore, the thought is that position must be where the body is able to produce the most power. (There isn’t a lot of science to back this up one way or the other, but it makes the most sense.) Then they believe the athlete jumps their feet out to receive the bar where most people feel comfortable performing the squat, which is typically about shoulder width.
Now I have spoken with both men, and they agree a lot of this is determined by each athlete’s anthropometrics and the anatomical structure of their hips. Simply put, hip to shoulder is a great starting point, but it will all depend on the athlete. It’s hard to refute this view because it seems to make the most sense. Or does it?
So what are my thoughts?
I am glad you asked because I am happy to finally tell everyone where I stand. Here’s the thing. My mother will tell you that from a young age I have never followed anyone blindly. I got in a lot of trouble in sixth grade simply for asking too many questions. My teacher would make some outrageous statements that didn’t set well with me, so I was constantly having him defend his opinions. He called it arguing, but I called it clarification.
I encourage all of you to never follow someone without question. That’s a great way to head down a bad path. Whether it’s religion or politics, you need to form your own opinions. When it comes to weightlifting or strength and conditioning, we have science to guide us. However, there simply isn’t a ton of quality research to answer all of our questions, or this would be put to bed already. Here’s what I believe, and why I believe it.
First, when it comes to extension, I believe an athlete should pull the bar as high as possible. However, what does that even mean? The moment the hips extend, the bar trajectory is decided. For the majority of athletes, that means there will be extension on the toes. So why do some people extend onto the balls of their feet and some do not extend that much? It’s a great question without a proven answer, but I have a solid theory.
The gastrocnemius is a bi-articular muscle, which means it crosses two joints (the knee and ankle). When the knee extends in the powerful way as demonstrated during the snatch, clean, or even vertical leap, power is transferred from the origin of the gastrocnemius (upper leg) down the leg to aid in the extension of the ankle by pulling on the calcaneus. I have to assume that the degree to which one extends is directly related to where the gastrocnemius inserts into the calcaneus with that massive Achilles tendon. I personally don’t believe anyone can control the height they raise onto the balls of their feet no more than they can control the height during a vertical leap.
I know the finish of the snatch or clean isn’t the exact movement as performed in a vertical leap, but the intent to extend at the hips and knees sure is. So I believe in full extension where extension of the hips and knees are concerned. I don’t believe anyone should purposely rise onto his or her toes, and I don’t believe anyone should purposely not rise onto the balls of their feet. The amount of plantar flexion is directly related to the follow-through of the pull and where the Achilles tendon attaches.
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However, I believe anything extra performed after hip and knee extension is a delay putting that athlete at a disadvantage to getting under the bar. Therefore, extend the hips and knees, and then move directly to getting under the bar. Any arm or shrug action should be directed at ripping under the bar. I believe any shrug or arm action to directly make the bar rise any higher is a waste of time. I stand firm in believing the difference between a good and a great athlete is the timing between the pull upward and the change of direction under the bar. However, I totally believe an athlete should pull the bar with as much power as possible, peaking the bar as high as possible (which only makes sense to me).
One other thing to consider is some athletes are going to naturally produce more power in their pulls. I think Coach Spencer Arnold has the best examples of a powerful athlete and a fast athlete. He coaches Jessie Bradley, a Team USA athlete who produces more power in her pull than most NFL linebackers. The height of her bar is naturally higher than most other athletes. He also coaches Jourdan Delacruz, also a Team USA athlete. Jourdan is a naturally fast athlete. She doesn’t pull the bar extraordinarily high, but she can get under just about any bar.
Now should Jourdan try to be more like Jessie, or should Jessie try to be more like Jourdan? No! Jessie should and does work on her speed under the bar. Jourdan should and does work on the power in her pull. Spencer uses velocity based training to work on the qualities of strength. He doesn’t try to have either girl raise up on the balls of her feet any more or any less. They are very different athletes, and he works with the gifts each girl has been given.
So what about the feet during the pull and catch phase? I don’t believe there is a one-size-fits-all solution. If I had the means, I would have every one of my athletes test the velocity of their pull with their feet in multiple places in relation to their shoulders and hips. Wherever they produced the most velocity is exactly where I would have their feet during the pull. Most coaches who have been in the business long enough can use their eye. However, I love having concrete data.
In my experience, starting with the feet underneath the hips is where most athletes produce the most power. Therefore, this is a good starting point for most athletes. In turn, most athletes squat the most weight with their feet around shoulder width, especially considering the importance of a vertical torso (vertical torso is specific to the catch position in weightlifting). In weightlifting it’s not simply about the strongest position, but in reality it’s about the strongest position as it relates to the specificity of the Olympic lifts. The shoulder width position also allows the hips to sit down in between the feet for the lowest possible catch position. In summary, it’s all about achieving the strongest and most stable position while also achieving the lowest possible position with a vertical torso.
At the end of the day, it all depends on the anatomical structure of each athlete’s hip along with his or her anthropometrics. I’ve witnessed exceptions to the rule, but the majority seem to fall into the hip width pull and shoulder width catch. I recommend starting with these positions, and then slowly playing around with different positions. It shouldn’t take long before you find the right positions for your athlete. Of course, there is a sure fire way to determine which positions are best for your athletes. You could always use a tendo unit to measure velocity of the pull. You could take 85% bar weight, and then perform two to three pulls at hip width, two to three pulls two inches wider, and two to three pulls an additional two inches wider. Whichever position you or your athlete produces the most velocity from is the position you should practice pulling from.
The next test would involve a front squat and overhead squat. Wherever you or your athlete can sit the lowest with a vertical torso is the catch position. Of course you would still want to test those positions for strength and stability, but I would recommend focusing on strengthening that position for the catch phase. After these tests, you would have your pull position and catch position.
To most people this would seem the logical way to determine pulling and catching position. However some might say finding a position that allows for better timing trumps a pulling position that creates the most velocity. You might hear someone say a wider pulling position allows someone to get around the bar quicker because they don’t have to move their feet. Therefore a little less velocity is offset by better timing and speed around the bar. Of course, there isn’t a way to prove this or a study to look at. I’d like to use Gym Aware or some other device to measure the velocity under the bar with 1. moving the feet and 2. not moving the feet. Maybe Coach Spencer Arnold could perform that study for us, since he has a Gym Aware device to measure velocity.
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So we have defined both camps (catapult and triple extension), and I have offered my thoughts. Personally I don’t think I fall within either camp, and I hate being labeled as either. I am a weightlifting coach who will use whatever method, technique, or program possible to help my athletes reach their goals. I’ve heard several people talk about America being behind the rest of the world regarding technique. I’ve witnessed both camps use examples of athletes on the Internet to prove their point. So is America behind the rest of the world regarding technique? Are we teaching something other coaches from around the world aren’t teaching?
American Weightlifting and the World
First let me say a few things. I’m tired of people ragging on weightlifting in America. America now takes home medals at every international competition we show up at. Harrison Maurus and CJ Cummings break world records at almost every international competition when they compete. Our men’s and women’s team won the Youth World Championships. Our Junior Women’s team won the Junior Worlds in 2018, and the Senior Women’s team won fourth overall at the 2018 Senior World Championships. It was exciting at the 2018 Senior World Championships to coach Meredith Alwine, a junior athlete at the time, to sixth in the world. However even crazier was the fact that fifth place went to Mattie Rogers – another American. Yes, two American women in the top six spots in the world championships.
My point is American weightlifting has transformed in comparison to the last Olympic quadrennial. We are no longer just showing up at the World Championships. We are there to win medals, period! Phil Andrews and the folks at USA Weightlifting are a big part of this. Expectations have changed, and they needed to change. The truth is I wouldn’t have stayed in the sport unless those expectations had changed. I want to be a part of a winning culture. It’s just a mindset thing, and the folks at USA Weightlifting (Phil, Mike Gattone, Pyrros, Lorene, and all the rest of them) have cultivated a whole new paradigm I am proud to be a part of.
So now the question is, “Does the rest of the world really have a different technique than the athletes in America?” Here’s what I did to find out. I went on Hookgrip’s YouTube page and I literally took the first six videos that contained either the snatch, clean and jerk, or both. I analyzed the videos for two questions:
Was there plantar flexion (extension at the ankle) during extension?
Did the athlete move his or her feet into a wider position during the catch phase?
Here’s what I found:
Video #1 – Salwan and Safaa from Iraq
In the snatch, both athletes extended onto the balls of their feet and both athletes moved their feet out. In the clean and jerk, one athlete extended at the ankles and moved his feet, and the other athlete demonstrated very little ankle extension and didn’t appear to move his feet.
Video #2 – Hassona from Qatar
In the snatch, there was noticeable ankle extension and foot movement. In the clean there was minimal, yet present, ankle extension, and definite foot movement.
Video #3 – Yokubov from Uzbekistan
In the snatch and clean, there was massive ankle extension and massive foot movement.
Video #4 – Mosquera and De Las Salas from Colombia
In the snatch and clean, there was massive ankle extension and foot movement.
Video #5 – Training at the Taiwan National Training Center
Every athlete in the video demonstrated ankle extension and foot movement in the snatch and clean. I would like to point out that most of them, not all, performed panda pulls instead of traditional snatch and clean pulls – emphasizing a shrug up at the top. Panda pulls are snatch and clean pulls that end with the beginning of the third pull. Here’s an example.
I use these pulls instead of traditional pulls if an athlete is hanging around at the top of the pull too long.
Video #6 – Moradi from Iran
In the snatch and clean, he demonstrated full ankle extension and aggressively moved his feet.
Obviously, it would appear most athletes perform plantar flexion, and most appear to move their feet out when transitioning from the pull to the catch phase. I encourage all of you to perform the same test by checking out Hookgrip’s awesome YouTube page.
One other thing I would like to point out is that I spent all day analyzing video with absolutely zero bias. I simply wanted the truth. I noticed the exact same mistakes I see everyday at my own gym. I noticed Rostami, the great 94kg Olympic Champion from Iran, performing pulls with a big emphasis on shrugging up and performing massive amounts of ankle extension. Now of course, when he lifted, his timing was perfect, and he spent zero extra time at the top of the pull before ripping underneath.
So what’s my conclusion? Based on what I know from science, what I have experienced during my years of coaching, and my observations from today, I have to say most people will demonstrate some degree of ankle extension and most will jump their feet out. I still don’t believe an athlete should emphasize coming up on the toes. I simply believe it is something that happens as a follow-through of hip and knee extension. You can read my earlier explanation of the bi-articular gastrocnemius. I believe most athletes perform the pull with his or her feet underneath the body as to produce the most power, and most athletes will jump their feet out into a better receiving position.
Personally, I believe better timing in the transition from the second to the third pull comes with practice more than a stance or even from some verbal cue a coach is giving. Did Michael Jordan become an amazing basketball player because he had a coach cueing him on how to shoot the ball? No, he became amazing because he practiced all the time. The guidance of his coaches definitely helped to sharpen his skills, but it was the hours of practice that perfected his shot.
Coaches like to believe they have way more control than they really do. At the end of the day, we give our athletes solid programming, teach them a technique that fits their body structure, and we keep them on track. How far they go is really up to:
their work ethic!
their ability to understand movement!
the durability of their body to not get injured!
how strong their mind is!
I would caution all coaches from scouring the Internet for videos that match your preferred technique. I would also suggest matching the technique to fit the athlete, and not trying to force an athlete to fit any preconceived notion of a technique you deem superior. If you perform the exercise I did today with Hookgrip’s YouTube page, you will see a lot of massive lifts performed a lot of different ways.
Real life concerns and application
I will end with what really inspired this article. One of my athletes, Meredith Alwine (Junior American record holder, silver medalist, sixth place at Senior World Championships, and currently second overall in America for Robi points), sent me a text and explained she had been sent a video of a Youth World team member snatching. Meredith is an amazing lifter with beautiful movement. The part that concerned me is that Meredith was told she should move her feet out to match the athlete in the video. The youth lifter in the video is ranked fifth overall as a youth.
The first thing I did was check places first through fourth in the Youth category in America to see how those girls moved. All four girls demonstrated ankle extension, and all four girls moved their feet out in the catch phase. Does this mean I think this Youth lifter in the video should move her feet in during the pull and jump them out during the catch? No way! My point is that just because a few athletes perform a technique you prefer doesn’t mean everyone should change their technique to lift like that person.
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So almost 3,700 words later, I hope this article can finally put to bed this whole debate about ankle extension and feet moving during the pull. It probably won’t, but I think I have properly defined my take on the subject and supported it with concrete facts. At the end of the day, there isn’t enough real research to prove any of our theories. There have been world records set with several variations of technique. Both camps I discussed earlier (catapult and triple extension) have developed amazing athletes who have gone on to compete for Team USA. I suggest we all lose the dogmatic ways of looking at technique, and agree there simply aren’t any absolutes.
With that being said, if an athlete is continuing to progress meet after meet (like Meredith), please don’t suggest she should change her technique – especially if you aren’t me, her actual coach. However, to all of you coaches out there, if you see something that might help one of my athletes, please call, text, or email me. I am the most open coach in America. I am constantly going to Coach Waxman, Coach Arnold, and Coach McCauley for suggestions. However, when you go to the athlete, it can be confusing – especially if I am telling her something different.
If someone wants to argue with the statements in this article, I guess they can. I will never place myself in either camp, as I simply prefer to be referred to as a weightlifting coach. I will continue fitting the technique to the athlete, and hopefully I will continue sending athletes to the Youth, Junior, and World Championships year after year.
Most importantly, I hope this article will help all of you younger coaches make important decisions regarding technique. Finally, I hope this will once and for all clarify my views on technique especially where plantar flexion and foot movement are concerned.
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Several of you who follow me are aware of the debate between Coach Mike Boyle and me.
If you aren’t familiar with the debate, I will give you a bit of the background. Coach Boyle’s take is that all bilateral squatting is both unsafe and ineffective for improving athletic performance. He concludes that the compressive load on the spine is dangerous, and that the spine isn’t designed for compressive forces. He also concludes that unilateral is superior because sports are played unilaterally. Specificity is king, making unilateral the best choice.
My take is that both bilateral squats (front squat and back squat) and unilateral squats (split squats and lunges) are great choices for improving athletic performance and for stabilizing the body to prevent injuries.
This debate has prompted me to take a closer look at the research on this subject. Before I go into my findings and my thoughts on the topic, I want to say that I respect what Coach Boyle has accomplished and contributed to our industry. I have actually paid for two of his seminars, so I am in no way saying that he is a bad coach. That would be a foolish assumption on my part. I am simply disagreeing with him on this one issue. We agree on so many topics like:
Sport specific training should be left to the sport coach.
Box squatting can be dangerous – especially the bouncing and rolling box squats.
Cleans are awesome for power production.
With that being said, let’s take a look at what I found.
Point #1: Bilateral Deficit
Let me first explain what the bilateral deficit really is. If you test out your one-repetition maximum unilaterally and add the right max to the left max, the two combined will normally be about 10% more than your bilateral maximum. There are a lot of theories as to why that is, but the data is really inconclusive.
The two main theories are:
We are wired to be unilateral creatures because we walk around our entire life unilaterally.
When we perform a movement unilaterally, we are able to counterbalance or shift around to find a mechanical advantage. An example is when you perform a preacher curl with one arm; you will naturally contort your body a bit to bang out a couple of more repetitions. Obviously when you perform a movement bilaterally you are in a fixed position making counterbalance much harder.
I am going to go with the cause as just a neurological response from all of the normal day-to-day unilateral movement we all do naturally. Coach Boyle uses this finding to say the body performs better when using unilateral movements. He goes on to say the body shuts down neurologically when performing bilateral movements. However, the research doesn’t agree with him.
The research will show that athletes will narrow the bilateral deficit after performing bilateral movements for a length of time. A lot of studies show athletes eliminating the deficit altogether, and a few show bilateral facilitation (bilateral outperforming the sum of the unilateral movements). Regardless, what does any of this have to do with performance?
So far the only study performed on the bilateral deficit regarding athletic performance showed that athletes with little or no bilateral deficit were able to produce more force against the blocks at the start of a sprint. So once again, this is a great point to use both in your training. Clearly this is the stance taken by most coaches.
The other studies performed on unilateral and bilateral squats in athletic performance showed that both worked about the same regarding actions like sprints, vertical leaps, and broad jumps. Once again, the finding didn’t surprise me. This just showed that either option is fine. However, I still have to lean toward performing both due to the one study showing a smaller bilateral deficit contributing to more force into the blocks in a sprint.
Point #2: Building Back Strength
Then I brought up a point that hasn’t been discussed that often. Coach Boyle said the limiting factor in a lot of squats is the back and not the legs. I would agree that is true with most, but there are a lot of athletes who lose squats due to leg strength. I’d say 70% of people lose big squats due to back strength, which brought me to my point.
The fact that the spinal erectors must overcome a major spinal flexor moment during squats and even more in the front squat means that you are increasing the strength of your back when squatting. The load is at least 40% less in the unilateral squat, so the back is only forced to adapt to this light load. If you are a competitive football player or rugby player, you are going to need that back strength.
Here’s a crazy finding: an average defensive back in the NFL weighing 199 pounds and running a 4.56 40-yard dash is capable of producing 1600 pounds of tackling force. If you are building monsters capable of this kind of force, you better build monster backs capable of withstanding 1600 pounds of force.
Obviously even with trap bar deadlifts, the spinal flexor moment is great – but it is reduced because of the proximity to the center of the body. The farther up the spine that you move a bar will increase the spinal flexor moment. When you perform a front squat, the spinal flexor moment is even bigger because now the bar is in front of the body and ever farther away from an intervertebral joint in the spine. If you want monster athletes, use monster movements.
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At the end of the day, specificity will always win. If you are creating athletes who sprint, run, and cut, you should perform unilateral work specific to those movements. However, unlike the popular opinion of the unilateral crowd, not all sport is performed unilaterally. Just look at vertical leap, broad jump, the start of a sprint, athletic stance, batting, a wrestling throw, the start of a swim race, and so many jumps during volleyball. Once again, using both seems to be the answer.
To date there is no research on bilateral deficit as it pertains to risk of injury. Boyle simply references anecdotal data that several of his guys either got hurt bilaterally squatting or bilateral squatting was irritating the backs of his athletes. My data would say something much different. We haven’t noticed that squatting irritates anyone’s back. However, there are two cases on our team where athletes had prior injuries that didn’t allow them to back squat or squat as much. In one case, we simply performed front squats. In the other case, we performed unilateral squats once or twice per week and performed bilateral squatting two to three times.
Before I participated in the debate, I actually called Dr. Stuart McGill. Here were a few of my takeaways. First, here is Dr. McGill’s quote:
“Everything in biology has its tipping point. Below that tipping point everything is anabolic. Everything above that point is catabolic and damaging. This goes for unilateral squatting, bilateral squatting, and pretty much every lift.”
So either movement can be helpful or damaging based on the load and the particular athlete.
Dr. McGill and I agree that bad movement patterns can also get an athlete hurt regardless of load. If you notice a lot of knee valgus or anterior pelvic tilt while performing bilateral squats, you are probably going to get hurt. If you use a wide split stance during a unilateral squat, you are going to mess with the pelvic ring and cause SI joint pain. The takeaway is to find a good coach, learn the movement, and only load functional movement patterns.
All the research points to the back squat being one of the safest movements you can perform. When you are trying to build your absolute strength in those first two to three years, bilateral squats performed heavy are great. Once you reach that threshold of squatting around twice your bodyweight, you might want to consider specificity. At that point, based on these findings, I would focus on one day of velocity based training for the bilateral movements, one day of bilateral based movement for absolute strength, and one day of unilateral movements for hypertrophy and strength.
It might look like this:
Unilateral squats – 5×5
Velocity based back squat
Front squat maximum effort
Unilateral squats – 3 x 8 each leg
I would like to say one more thing in defense of Coach Boyle. He coaches 1,000 athletes per year. He has to design a system to fit his athletes in their culture to get the most results. I think he has done a great job. His athletes are performing, so that’s all that needs to be said. (Of course I believe my athletes are performing even better, but I’m a little biased.)
Feel free to do your own research. I used two really great sources that led me to my research:
“The Whole is Less than the Sum of the Whole” by Greg Nuckols in his online research review MASS
“How to Squat: the Definitive Guide” also by Greg Nuckols
Yes, I am a Greg Nuckols fan mainly because he was one of my interns and powerlifters several years ago. He’s become quite amazing at diving into research and presenting his results in a way that is easily digested by coaches like me. I highly encourage all of you to check him out.