Ideal World versus Real World

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Simple appeals to me. The Olympic lifts aren’t as complicated and technical as certain factions would like to shove down your throat. The clean and the snatch can be summed up in the three pulls: get it off the ground (pull 1), explode it a bit higher (the extension, pull 2) and get under the darn thing (pulling yourself down, pull 3). The evolution of these lifts has been geared towards making these things happen faster, safer and more effeciently.

But people get a little touchy when these lifts are presented like a kindergarten counting lesson. There is a culture in the Olympic lifts that take them as seriously as a soap opera and revere them as something elite, extra complicated and deeply profound. They want them to be JUST RIGHT, or they simply don’t count. They’ve got an internal rulebook that strictly governs how to get from point A to Point B, and anything not abiding to those rules is simply wrong, bad or ineffective. We’ve seen these people before, but in different sports, and disciplines. Even often in the face of complete contradiction, like Michael Johnson’s upright sprints.

Olympic lifting, and most of the other techniques we use to move heavy weight, keep evolving, morphing and changing, and it is often in the face of stony face lifters who swear by an ideal. Now there are some key points that are fairly essential to these lifts, and far be it from me to understate the importance of technique, or give any idea that I don’t think these lifts totally kick ass.


There is, as with everything athletic, the ideal model and the realistic model. The best coaches in the world are the ones who completely grok this and work with each person individually on aiming for the ideal while embracing the realistic. But a dogmatic coach can’t wrap his hook grip around the malleable model, the ‘realistic’ model, and decides to tenaciously embrace an ideal concept with many particulars that he looks for. As nice as these nitpicky details might be, they don’t necessarily lead to a stronger, safer or more efficient lift for each person.

In other words I like the big picture, which is the breakdown into three pulls. Wanna get your head around the basics of Oly lifting? Then focus on the three pulls. I want to convey the 3 pulls and set them up as the basis for OL training. That, for most folks learning the lifts is the meat of Oly lifting. Exacts and fine tuned specifics can sometimes lack importance to the big picture. Foot position? Look at 10 different lifters in the last Olympics, you’ll see 10 different foot placements. For instance I was recently told by a lifter that feet should be narrow, parallel and pointing straight ahead. Don’t tell Shi Zhiyong of China that. He splays and angles almost as much as my floppy dogs go (but damn he is fast!).

Here’s some examples of Ideal versus Realistic:

Ideal World: shoulder rack needs to have high elbows.

In an ideal weightlifting world, where all is fast and beautiful, where babies eat from 5 kilo Ivanko plates and the only attire we ever need is a lifting singlet and wooden heel shoes, having the upper arm perfectly parallel, if not even higher, to the ground would, indeed, be coveted.

In the real world: If the bar lies happily on the shoulders, under control and in no harm of falling off, which can EASILY be done sans perfectly parallel arms, then where is the added safety or efficiency of poking God’s eye out with your elbow? The biggest worry of elbows a little low during the rack is nailing the legs with the elbows or the knees driving into the upper arm. That makes sense, but with an upright body position, this probably won’t happen. Maybe dropping elbows isn’t as much of a worry as a slumping upper body, which may make the elbows drop.

Zhang Xiangxiang’s shoulder rack, according to strict, nitpicky guidelines, is precarious, yet he held a world record for a bit, if memory serves, or maybe he just won the gold in 2008. How is it he can get away with it? As Greg Everett write in his great book Olympic Weightlifting:

“… the security of the rack position is a function primarily of shoulder position and secondarily of elbow position.”


Ideal World: Everyone can squat ass-to-grass with totally vertical spines.

Real World: At the bottom of your third pull (that deep squat part), if your arch is tight (meaning your butt doesn’t decide to crawl under your hips) and your chest is high (no rounded shoulder or dropped posture), congratulations! You’ve got a pretty good squat. Would safety or efficiency benefit from increasing ankle flexibility and letting the shins shoot forward to achieve a more upright position? Maybe, but if the bar is right where it needs to be, lined up with the ankle, and resting on the shoulders, then you’re mechanically in a pretty good place to drive it up from, and that’s what will make a successful attempt.

Ideal World: don’t pull with your arms and keep the bar close to the body.

Real World: don’t pull with your arms and keep the bar close to the body. These are some of the indisputable technique tips of weightlifting, where ideal and real world have no room for deviation. Hey, most anyone, despite body type, can achieve this.

If you’re kilograms away from a national record, some of these details might start looking important to you. But learning to take a discerning eye to technique and see where the priorities need to lie first and in what order might show that many details that are argued over internet chat rooms and forums are simply not important yet to many lifters. Yes, eventually we should strive for them, but first let’s get our asses moving and learning the concept of the three pulls.

We’ll talk about this stuff a bit ore at this weekend’s Tune Up workshop. We’ll actually go through a clean and jerk workout, with guidance and tips from yours truly and Trainer Allyson. You know the drill: 10-noon this Saturday. $10 donation for members, $20 for non-members. We’ve got to get our lifting in gear for the next Challenge for Charity, which will be August 30th.

As usual, check the fairly updated workshop page for info on all this stuff.


Sorry I’ve been gone so long, but here’s a video update as to what I’ve been doing…

and before that I was in Milwaukee with some friends…

But I’m back, and I hope to see a bunch of you this weekend!

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Showing 6 comments
  • sara


    Yeah- f*** all those ppl who take themselves too seriously. Bodytribe showed up and cleaned up in full force.

    Thank you so much for all you do. I can’t tell you how cool it is to have video to show friends and family…or how cool it is to hang around someone so refreshing, inspiring, and talented…OR how cool it is to see 40+ seals sun bathing at goat rock beach- oh wait, I think you know that one…

    you. rock. πŸ™‚

  • Aaron

    Thanks for adding some perspective πŸ™‚

  • Zac

    Okay, your 4th of July weekend was officially cooler than mine.

  • Amanda

    Congrats to Sara, Tom, and Chip! Strong work! Way to represent our Tribe!

  • Chris in Arcata

    A new blog entry. Now I can relax……

    Good to see you doing all that stuff outside Chip. Great to apply it outside with the nice weather this time of year.

    I do have to admit to not being BT exclusive this time of year. For me right now I’m climbing a lot of mountains. Though I have numerous other outdoor activities I like to participate in. Really that is why I do BT to keep me in shape for mountain excursions, and such. Physically I’m prepared. Those darn GPP drills help to keep me mentally prepared for any outdoor obstacles that have to be overcome in nature which is not always so forgiving.

    Thanks for helping to keep my body, and all prepared for my true outdoor passions !

    By the way I have been known to do burpee ups, rock shuffles, or other BT staples. Out next to some alpine lake, or something. The faces of your neighbors make you seem even more strange. Isn’t climbing a mountain a good enough workout ? Apparently not for me……

    Your so kind to inspire us all.

  • Mighty Kat

    Great post, Chip. As always, a fresh, unique perspective that appeals to common sense. I’ll be sharing this. Disappointed to find that my weak spot – pulling with the arms – turned out to be the implacable rule πŸ˜‰

    Loved seeing a meet taking place outdoors. Great lifts, all.

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