Flexibility and Stability for Lifting
by Charles A. Smith (1951)
The mailbag brought some interesting letters this weekend. One writer wanted to sell me some shares in a “wild” mink ranch . . . smell a mink there . . . and another guaranteed to teach me playing the tuba in ten titillating lessons. “Be a success” said the third, earn BIG money selling home appliances in your spare time” (what spare time? Weider, can ya hear me?) while the third and fourth pieces of mail contained questions on Olympic Lifting problems. Casting aside all thoughts of mink ranching, tuba playing and selling home appliances – the best home appliance I know of is a husband – I settled down to the most enjoyable piece of work I know – writing about weight training!
“Charlie,” said Harry Fryer from Detroit. “I wonder if you can help me. I am having a lot of trouble with my snatches and clean & jerks. I have plenty of power but I just can’t seem to get under the weight. I pull the darn barbell high, but there seems to be no sip to my split or squat. I can’t seem to get low enough because my actions are stiff and slowed up somewhat, because of that stiffness in the hips and shoulders. I find it hard to get the weight back enough when it is overhead, and next day, my hips and lower back are very stiff and tired. What do you think is wrong with me? And please try and help!”
“I’ve read a lot of your articles,” Pete Brioz tells me . . . he’s from Chicago . . . “and sometimes they have been helpful. Now I wonder whether you can pull something out of your bag of tricks. My trouble is that I seem to have no stability when I have the barbell overhead in the clean & jerk. I wobble all over the place and have lost lifts plenty of times because of dropping the bar. It isn’t that the weight is too heavy; it’s just that inability to control the weight when it is overhead. Any help you can give me would be very much appreciated.”
OK fellows, Here goes! The two complaints received are not so rare as weight trainers might think at first glance. The lifting faults Harry and Pete complain about are the two most common in the field . . . Lack of Flexibility and Lack of Stability. They have specific causes that can be easily remedied with little trouble and a lot of hard work . . . some people think hard work is a lot of trouble, but when you get results, then I’m sure you think the trouble is worthwhile, and forget quickly all the blood, sweat and . . .
The first thing I do when someone complains about being unable to get under the weight, of fix it overhead, is to look at the width of grip. It was a great surprise when I saw some pictures of Vorobiev, the Russian world snatch record holder, to see how narrow was his hand spacing. The Russians use this narrower hand spacing, often giving up certain benefits of the wider grip to gain this dubious one: A little extra pulling power is possible with the narrow hand spacing on the bar: however, it raises the center of gravity of he lifter to a high “danger point” . . . an inch, or at the most an inch and a fraction, but enough to exert considerable influence on the lifter’s stability when he has a weight at arms’ length overhead and is in the deep split or squat position. That’s one cause of inability to control a weight and keep a good balance. Vorobiev, an experienced lifter, of course is used to his style, but the danger lies in the probability of a bunch of young and enthusiastic lifters attempting to copy the form of Vorobiev. The shoulders of the Russian lifter are not what one would call extra wide, and it is possible that this narrow hand spacing in the snatch is suited to his physical structure, AND ENTIRELY UNSUITED to any young hopeful who feels he can copy the Russian with advantage to himself.
The narrow, or shoulder-width, hand spacing is also responsible for a seeming lack of shoulder flexibility. To illustrate what I am driving at more clearly: If you take a broom handle and hold it with as wide a grip as possible, it is a matter of extreme ease to pass the handle from the front of the body over the head, at arms’ length, to the back of the trunk. But just take a narrower hand spacing . . . say a matter of sixteen inches or less . . . and try and “circle” the bar over the head to the back. You will find that all the flexibility of a contortionist will not get the bar where you want it. The muscles that rotate the shoulder blades are functioning under difficult conditions, and cannot perform the action required to take the broom handle over. Therefore, any lifter who has a tendency to take the barbell out to the front or away from the body finds it hard to compensate for those faults with a forward thrust of the head, or a swing forward of the hips, to bring the bar under control and where he wants it. He cannot “rock” under a weight or drop back into a back bend.
Now bear in mind that these actions are themselves faults in lifting style. The bar should, with reasonable allowances for the lifter’s physical structure, always be taken right up the front of the body and the body itself dropped right under the weight with NO HIP MOVEMENT. Certain top lifters, finding it hard in their EARLY weightlifting days to gain flexibility and stability, took to rocking forward and bending back, and thought they had developed a new style of lifting in the snatch and the clean, whereas all they had done was to bypass the cause of one fault by introducing other faults.
When a lifter has tight or stiff hips he gets the weight high enough and in correct position, but is unable to get LOW enough and sometimes presses out his near limit poundages. In the course of this action there is also a loss of balance because of “action” during holding the position he is in and naturally, the press-out is sufficient in itself to cause disqualification. With tight shoulders the weight cannot be controlled when it travels too far forward, and the lifter is unable to bring it to arms’ length directly over the hips. Again the lifter finds a loss of balance. This time, not because of any further “action” but because of a shifted center of gravity.
Here are some exercises you can practice to gain flexibility and stability:
Shoulder Loosening – Take an ordinary exercise bar or broomstick. Hold it at arms’ length overhead with as wide a grip as possible. You will find that the bar almost touches the top of the head. Lower the bar to the front of the body. You will be in the position of the deadlift finish. From here, swing the bar up and over the head in a complete circular motion until it touches the lower back or buttocks. Don’t move the hands along the bar but keep them still. Grip the bar as tightly as possible and PULL OUT towards the ends of the bar. As it travels over the head, thrust the head FORWARD. Swing the bar back and forward over the body . . . front to back and return. Each workout gradually decrease the distance between the hands . . . the width of grip. 3 sets of 30 reps are fine, and don’t forget to pull out on the bar.
Here is another shoulder loosening exercise. Stand in front of an open door . . . about a foot away from it. Reach up and place your hands on the top of the door casing. The arms, trunk and legs will be in a straight line running at an angle from top of door to floor. Hand spacing should be just shoulder width. Now let the body swing forward as far as possible between the door posts (see the illustration) and return to original position. When as far forward as you can go, try and thrust the head even more to the front and between the shoulders. 3 sets of 25 reps.
For loosening up the hips the following movement is unapproached. All you need is a pair of deep knee bend racks. Just place them at arms’ length to each side of the body and stand in between them. Grasp them firmly about halfway down, then sink SLOWLY into a DEEP SPLIT with either the right or left foot to the front. When in as low a position as possible, rock the trunk back and forwards gradually straightening out the front thigh until you are in upright position again. Return to the deep split and continue the forward and backward “rocking.” 2 sets of 25 with the right leg to the front, and 2 x 25 with the left leg front.
Control of the weight in the low position of the clean and snatch is essential to lifting success. Most times instability is due to the feet traveling along the same line causing a narrow base, but we very often have a lifter wobbly on his pins because of movement of the bar AFTER has been taken to arms’ length. The shoulder and hip loosening exercises should help you gain some measure of stability but you MUST use weight to gain STRENGTH STABILITY. Drop down into a DEEP split of squat with a LIGHT bar held overhead. Make sure that the correct stance is maintained . . . body upright, head slightly thrust forward, eyes looking to the front. Now slowly LOWER the bar . . . keep those elbows locked . . . down until the arms are level with the shoulders. At no time during the lowering of the bar must the position of the body alter. The trunk must not drop forward and neither must the legs move from their split or squat position. Return the bar to arms’ length overhead then repeat the lowering motion. DON’T MOVE THE BODY OR LEGS. The arms are the only moving parts of the body. 3 sets of 15 reps working up to 3 x 20 before increasing the weight of the bar.
Take a light dumbell in one hand, hold it at arm’s length overhead and sink down into a deep split or squat . . . as deep as the low position of your snatch or clean. From here lower the dumbell down to the SIDE at arm’s length until the shoulder level position is reached, then raise to above the head again. At no time during the exercise must you allow the trunk to bend to the side. Keep it upright throughout the movement. Don’t allow the angle of the split or squat to alter. Work up to 2 sets of 15 reps before increasing the weight.
Don’t use these movements as part of your training schedule but keep them supplementary to it. Go through your regular workouts first and then use the flexibility and stability movements afterwards. Don’t forget those squats and deadlifts for they will give you the BASIC POWER needed in all lifting. And thanks, Harry and Pete, for writing to me. Hope I’ve helped you.