The numbers game

One of the major sources of frustration for all lifters is the amount of time it takes to make progress as well as progress's stilted nature. Consider that it is widely accepted (and rightfully so) that a technically efficient lifter can squat snatch or clean more than s/he can power snatch or clean, due to the much shorter distance to pull the bar. You might have to bring the bar two feet higher to catch a power lift as opposed to a squat lift. The only catch is that it requires much more speed, flexibility, timing, and technique to effectively pull off a platform lift in the squat style. That and the more precarious catching position requires far more stabilization strength.

Before competing in this sport, I trained in the powerlifting style while wrestling at Maryland, which means that I not only didn't practice squat-style Olympic lifts but I also squatted and bench pressed loads of weight in ways that ended up giving me major inflexibilities. I'm not here to explain why powerlifters are sacrificing strength and overall athleticism for the purpose of bigger official numbers, but I will say that the powerlifter's squat, which is legal when the thighs are parallel to the floor and keeps the knees directly above the feet while the back is bent forward, is not only rather dangerous but also builds up bad habits and inhibits the body from ever reaching certain positions. The bench press, which of course is the standard "how strong are you?" lift (though I say the squat or an Olympic lift should take its place), is practiced to death by everybody from the average weekend warrior to the top professional athletes. It's the easiest lift to do (just lie down on a bench and do a pushup) and guys like to think that women want a big chest and big arms more than anything else (though, says the butt is the most important, and abs and hips are third and fourth, but the biceps and chest don't come in until 8th and 9th). I could bench press around 375 pounds in college, and that caused the upper-outside part of my pectorals (the ones that attach the chest to the shoulder) to be so tight that I can't fully pull my shoulders back with my arms extended. I can't tell you how much stretching I've had to do to fix that (it's not fixed yet). I've squatted 475 pounds for reps and supposedly could do close to 540 pounds max, but now that I do Olympic-style squats I still have trouble keeping my hips in and my back upright because my knees want to travel further backward and my lower abdominals, the very center of the body's core, are weak because the upper abdominals always did the work.

This all means that I have a LONG way to go before I'm physically and technically proficient in this sport. The numbers game is an addictive method of predicting your potential, and I often can't stop myself from using it to determine just how far I could go if I did finally perfect my technique. One version goes a little something like this:
  • Do a max back squat for three reps (I have done 195kg).
  • You should be able to front squat 80% of that for three (156kg).
  • You should be able to clean and jerk what you can front squat for three (156kg).
  • You should be able to snatch 80% of what you can clean and jerk (125kg).
  • Therefore, my total should be 281kg.

There are more ways to play it. How about this one:
  • Do a max power clean (I did 305 pounds in college, about 139kg).
  • You should be able to snatch what you can power clean (139kg).
  • You should be able to clean and jerk 125% of what you can snatch (the converse of the 80% rule, 174kg for me).
  • Therefore, my total should be 313kg.

See why it's addictive? The last formula would put me maybe 20kg away from qualifying for the Pan American games, the World Team, and other international competition, and I'm not done getting stronger. 313kg would have been a close second at the 2008 Senior Nationals and a championship at the 2007 American Open. The only problem: this doesn't really work. Everybody's different. One of my teammates can clean almost as much as he can front squat, and with women that's especially more likely. I guess we can't just proclaim winners based on their best back squat.

But that's what makes this all the more frustrating. It seems like I should be able to do so much more so I want to pack plates onto the bar, but technique is a dish best learned slow. If I put too much on the bar too often, I'll give up technique to try to power up the bar, and bad habits once learned are much harder to break. Instead I can build up all those little muscles I never used before, work on my speed, flexibility and timing, and watch those numbers creep up. Whenever it seems like I hit a wall, I go to my coach and to Mike Walters (possibly the greatest man on Earth) and they usually find something else wrong that I can fix and make more gains. It's best just to forget about what you SHOULD be able to do and focus on how to get better.

I think that was a pep talk for me more than anything else..

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