by Coach Dan Bell
If you’ve ever played an organized sport, you know what drills are. They are the boring and repetitious skill-building practice that high school athletes are certain have nothing to do with getting better at the sport, and everything to do with their coach’s desire to make his athletes suffer. A quarterback may be asked to take snaps to a 5 or 7 step drop several dozen times in a single practice without every actually throwing the ball. Baseball players spend endless hours on fielding and hitting drills to refine their skills. Wrestlers spin and spin and spin and sit out until they puke. Drills break down fundamental skills into smaller, easier-to-learn chunks. Drills are vital to mastering high-skill sports.
Despite the caterwauling of strength-above-all-else meatheads, weightlifting is a high skill sport. That weightlifting has a barbell in common with strength sports like powerlifting, bodybuilding, and recreational weight training makes it seem like it, too, is a relatively low skill sport dependent mostly upon strength. Every CrossFitter who has tried to learn to snatch can tell you that is wrong. Yes, weightlifting demands that you be incredibly strong to succeed, but without highly refined technique you’ll never be able to put all of that hard won strength into a limit Olympic lift. That is where drills come in, especially in the first couple of years of training.
Most experienced coaches realize that the entire lift has too many moving parts to teach them effectively all at once. We use the “part-whole” method, breaking the lift down into pieces, emphasizing positions and moving from one to the next with precision until it becomes natural. And when I say it becomes natural, I mean after thousands of reps it feels natural. It will feel anything but that for quite a while. I have a footwork drill for the jerk that I have all beginners do. I don’t want them to have to think about their feet at all when we move to the next phase of learning the jerk, so I have them do this drill for ten repetitions per set, ten sets per day (spread throughout the day) for ten straight days. That gives them a thousand reps. It takes that many reps for the movement to feel more automatic—and more natural.
So think reps for drills. Lots of reps, but never any heavier than can be done with perfect or near perfect form. We want to groove in that new motor pattern as perfectly as we can. It will take far longer than you probably have the patience for, which means you will have to develop more patience. There is no way to speed up the process.
So what kind of drills am I talking about? With new lifters I use variations of a shifting drill (video), from the top of the knee to the power position. The lifter is trying to master the transition from the knee to power position. After that we shift to full extension (video) without over-rotating the torso and pushing the hips too far forward, or pushing too far forward on the foot. (This is probably the most difficult part of the pull to maser) The athlete does this drill as slowly as needed so they are in complete control of position. We only let them speed up when they can smoothly and precisely make every rep look exactly the same.
We have drills for learning the first pull, for learning to pull under the bar, for the transition from 2nd pull finish to pull-under, and many more. You can put the drills together in different combinations to create learning progressions from the top→down or bottom→up. We often use them individually to address specific technique concerns or for remedial work. And if we don’t have a drill that will address a specific problem, we’ll make up a new one. (Yeah, you can do that!)
Over the next few weeks we’ll look at individual drills, how to use them to learn the lifts, and how they can help you fix “technique gone bad.” If you’re feeling frustrated trying to master the Olympic lifts, try not to fret; help is on the way.
* Dan Bell is a USA Weightlifting National Level Coach and Head Coach of Rubber City Weightlifting in Akron, Ohio. He coached Holley Mangold to a USAW Junior World Team, A Pan Am Team, and the 2009 +75kg American Open Championship. He has helped Julie Foucher (2013 CrossFit Games, 2nd place) and Scott Panchik (2012/2013 CrossFit Games 4th place) refine their Olympic lifting technique.
Mark Cannella and Coach Bell founded the Columbus Weightlifting Club in 1999. Dan and Mark started the Arnold Weightlifting Championships in Columbus and Coach Bell helped run it for 11 years. After leaving Columbus and a break from coaching, Coach Bell founded Rubber City Weightlifting in 2012 and began producing national level weightlifters again.
Dan compares weightlifting to a 300 pound golf swing; the technique is that demanding and precise. He believes weightlifting to be the ultimate test of strength, speed, flexibility, and agility.
Look for more great education from Dan Bell as he will be Coaching our upcoming Vulcan Weightlifting Seminars! For more info on seminars or if you would like to host a seminar at your gym contact us at email@example.com
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