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Strength v Technique by Sean Rigsby
For as long as there has been man, there has been arguing. Weightlifting, a sport and community comprised of thinking men and women, is no exception to this maxim. I think this may be what attracted me to the sport. My time involved, compared to some of my peers, is relatively short. But I have spent enough time in this niche sport to find that our community contains some of the most thoughtful, passionate, and talented individuals one could find in any sampling of the population. Even our bad eggs seem a bit more tolerable when viewed through the iron light.
A major debate between amongst coaches and athletes has been to determine what the single most important quality in developing the success of a weightlifter. The scope of this article will focus on a very small window of that success, and not stray outside the realm of athletic traits. Weightlifting coaches seem to get divided into one of two camps, prioritizing one quality above it’s symbiote: strength and technique. The real truth, as with most things in the world, is that no one characteristic completely defines success in weightlifting and most coaches recognize this, falling somewhere in between the two camps. Zealots are few and far between, but they are usually particularly loud and outspoken, projecting their affinity without reservation.
I’ve had the pleasure of speaking and working quite a bit with three Level 5, Senior International Coaches at MDUSA, between Don McCauley, Glenn Pendlay, and Chris Wilkes. I’m also fortunate enough to have been able to spend time speaking with and being coached by USA National Coach and Olympic Gold Medalist, Zygmunt Smalcerz. Last but not least, Travis Mash, World Champion Powerlifter and one of the best strength and conditioning coaches in the industry has also spent time coaching and educating me during his tenure at MDUSA and beyond. This has allowed me to work with several different training philosophies all along the spectrum.
Allow me to establish parameters for our “strength vs. technique” debate. On the one end, there is Glenn Pendlay, who once told me that if you have “good enough technique”, you can train and focus primarily on your strength so that you can snatch, clean, and jerk more using that technique. On the far opposite end is Don McCauley who would prefer speed, execution, and efficiency in day to day training rather than a heavy emphasis on strength work. My other coaches fall somewhere in between.
Zygmunt once told me that “if [it] is not done right, there is no point in doing [it].” Technical mastery is paramount to success in weightlifting. Traditional weightlifting nations prioritize the perfection of technique for years when developing athletes. Concurrently, they slowly, and in some cases restrain, the advancement of strength, focusing more on general physical preparedness. Specificity and intensity increases as the athlete ages, but it is typically well after sport movement has become second nature. This practice falls in line with Coach McCauley’s bias in the technical camp.
Probably in the same breath, Zygmunt went from talking to me about technique, to watching Colin Burns do heavy snatch pulls. I think it was something like 180kgs for 6 triples in the snatch pull. I believe this was just before Colin snatched 169 for the American Record. The next day Colin did front squats and then “extra” back squats to work on leg strength. In another part of the gym were the 105 behemoths, David and Donovan, making child’s play of 600lb squats for doubles and triples. Every lifter in the room practiced to perfection, but they were by no means dialing back strength work or the maintenance of their strength abilities. Ilya Ilin has claimed a front squat of 290kg and a back squat of well over 300kg. Mart Seim, competitor at the World Championships in Houston has back squatted 400kg. Boyanka Kostova, 58kg World Champion in Houston, performed a jaw dropping 180kg front squat in the training hall days before competing, a weight that if done in the back squat would make her a powerlifting world champion as well. Men and women from all over the world are brutally strong. Make no mistake, without requisite strength, you will not be successful in a sport in which the sole mission is to defy gravity.
So then what to do? Highly technical lifters and tremendously strong lifters alike seem to succeed. A coach and athlete must work together to identify what if their technical issues are leaving kilos on the platform. Likewise they must determine if the athlete simply isn’t strong enough to progress forward onto to heavier PRs. A useful guideline for determining efficiency comes from the Soviet Union. Soviet sport scientists accumulated data from thousands of weightlifters across several decades and this allowed them to establish a strength ratio system, depicted below.
This is by no means an absolute and fool proof system. They are simply averages, coming from lifters who were selected to be ideal for weightlifting, many of whom lifted in a different era than the current one. If anything, lifters today should be more efficient, though differences may occur between heavyweights and lightweights, and female lifters are unlikely to press quite as much as their male counterparts. If you find, for example, that your clean deadlift is not in line with your back squat as depicted above, it may be time for you to work more on pulling strength.
This begins what I would call the corrective method of strength and conditioning. At times non-specific and non-traditional methods may need to be implemented in order for a weakness to be corrected. This is also where coaching begins to swerve away from the scientific principles it is founded upon, and becomes the art of manipulating variables for a given athlete. It becomes most valuable to have a coach with extensive experience in hands on coaching. To insist that science has a fully comprehensive view of the ideal methods for training is either to be naive or to outright lie. Of equal importance to creating physiological stimulus is inducing a psychological one. Athlete and coach must develop a relationship of trust, where the athlete is willing to submit but the coach does not allow their ego grow beyond accepting the input of their athlete. With these considerations in mind, we can tailor a program to meet the athletes needs thusly:
1. Establish a line of trust and communication between athlete and coach. A program without belief from the athlete is useless.
2. Develop a general base of strength.
3. Concurrently or following a strength phase, develop technical mastery of the sport movements.
4. Under high intensity of sport movement observe flaws. Address with corrective exercises both strength and technically focused.
5. Manipulate program to induce a psychologically motivating and positive stimulus.
If your training follows these guidelines I can virtually guarantee you will be successful. Neither attribute, strength or technique can confidently take greater importance over the other, but finding the correct balance is paramount. With these physical attributes in weightlifting settled, I’ll leave you with a final thought.
Mike McKenna once shared part of his philosophy on coaching weightlifters once with me: “our goal is always to create a good person, a good athlete, then a good lifter.” I agree with this order of operations and will certainly strive to do the same with my own athletes so long as I’m walking the earth. However, it is the author’s opinion that the single most important quality for success in weightlifting, perhaps all sport, is stubbornness. There should be more to character than possessing an indomitable will, but people both morally bankrupt and virtuous succeed everyday. I’ve watched successful lifters with different limb lengths, backgrounds, technical methods, coaches, genders, etc., and they share one common trait: stubbornness.
Sean Rigsby is a multiple time Senior National Medalist in Olympic Weightlifting. As a member of Team MDUSA, he has contributed to several National Championship Team Titles and risen through the ranks as a competitive 105kg+ lifter. Sean is currently in the process of completing his undergraduate degree in English and holds multiple professional certifications. He provides remote coaching, free CrossFit programming, and lifestyle apparel through Heavy Metal Barbell Club. You can visit www.heavymetalbarbellclub.com to find out more or follow Sean on Instagram @seanmrigsby.