“The one absolutely certain way of bringing this nation to ruin, of preventing all possibility of its continuing to be a nation at all, would be to permit it to become a tangle of squabbling nationalities.”

Theodore Roosevelt

Athlete and Strength & Conditioning coach extraordinaire, Bill Starr, penned this insightful article about a year ago or so back (or at least it was brought to my attention about that time; it may actually be older), and it comes to mind whenever I hear arguments crop up concerning “perfect” exercise form.  As Bill Starr has forgotten more than most Strength & Conditioning aficionados will ever even come to know (and I include myself in that group), I tend to give him a listen when he speaks; especially so, when he opines on the weight game.  And I’ll admit that it’s comforting (in a self-congratulatory kind of a way) when his sentiments happen to harmonize with my own, thus giving me that warm-fuzzy feeling that I might actually have a bit of a clue about this whole S & C business after all.

Now, I’ve always been of the mindset that “perfect” form, whether it’s in a power clean, chucking a football, throwing a punch, or swinging a baseball bat, is a relative thing.  Each one of us is put together differently, and we each have our our biomechanical advantages, disadvantages, and idiosyncrasies to contend with.  But just as lacking perfect throwing mechanics didn’t stop Brett Favre from reaching greatness,  just because I can’t pull-off a text book power clean does not mean that I still don’t derive a hellacious benefit from working the movement.  Sure, I don’t allow myself to get sloppy, nor would I allow anyone I train to do so; within a certain “flaw window”, though, I’ll let things slide.  How wide is that “window”?  Well, like just about everything else in the Strength & Conditioning world, it depends.

I can definitely say that this demonstration of the power clean, though, is somewhere waaaaaay beyond that window.  The sad part of this is that the guy in the foreground actually has better form than the guy in the back, which, as you’ll see, ain’t sayin’ much.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ksC2P4Xp6m8&feature=channel_page]

I have all the respect in the world for coach “Dos”, and for what he has done out at College of the Canyons, but for the life of me, I can’t figure what his reasoning is for allowing this kind of atrocious form to be exhibited in his weight room.

Now, contrast that technique with this:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z9LfNTiTyiI]

A few very subtle flaws here and there (feet too wide, an early pull from the arms), but all-in-all, a pretty damn good lift.  Wind this kid up and let him rip.  A good enough lift to derive some serious benefit?  You bet.  And then some.

By the way, that first clip was featured in this, Carl Valle written, Elite Track post.  Carl is spot-on, in my opinion, in his assessment here.  Again, this gets back to adjusting the catch portion of the exercise to the athlete’s frame, muscle distribution, and limitations.  Using myself as an example, I tend to be one of those who (as Bill Starr alluded to in the piece cited above) tend to bend (pull with) my arms way too much and way too early when performing any Oly (or Oly derivative) lift.  The thing is, if I were an S & C coach observing an athlete of my build, I could predict this flaw in the lift before the athlete even touched the bar.  Why?  Long arms that are relatively much more muscular than the traps — ergo, more reliance upon the arms (at the expense of traps) in the pull.  Now, here’s the $64k dollar question: which came first, the trap/arm muscular “imbalance” or the flaw in the lift?  My money is riding squarely on the genetic side; I’ve simply learned to perform the movement in a way that’s best suited to my natural strengths and weaknesses.  Now, take a no-neck athlete with scrawny little T-Rex arms of my same bodyweight and lower body biomechanics and you’ve got someone who could potentially double me up in the Power Clean; you might even have found yourself someone who could realistically go on to contend on the Oly platform.  And what’s more, this guy will more than likely exhibit “perfect” form in the pull portion lift; it’s natural for him to do so.  He’ll unconsciously (and quite naturally) keep those big traps engaged in the lift as long as possible.

Now, let’s take a look at the catch portion of the lift.  In assessing my build we find this: big, sweeping quads and a big (protruding, not wide) ass.  Translation: this athlete is good (and quite naturally comfortable), low in the hole, in the front squat position.  If he’s fast (which I am, relatively), this will reduce the peak height at which he’ll have to pull the bar in the first place, because he’ll be comfortable swooping in and catching a heavy weight low in the hole.  By the way, look how low the kid in the second clip makes his catch.  Talk about comfortable in the hole.

*A quick aside: again the traps are cut a break in this scenario, this time due to the reduced need for bar height in the pull.  Further reliance upon — and reinforcement of — natural strengths.*

Now, I know nothing about the two kids in the first clip — and let me say that there’s a lot more going on that’s wrong (and just plain ugly) here than just the catch — but I’d bet that even if the weight were radically reduced for these two we’d still have plenty of work to do to get even close to a decent catch.  Just focusing on the lower body, take a look at the exaggerated leg splay.  This suggests to me tight hips, tight ankles and a sub-par posterior chain.  Even with a much reduced weight, I bet these two are uncomfortable catching in anything resembling a proper stance, and deep in the hole.  Now, let’s walk around back and have a look; I bet we find this: lacking glutes, no junk in the truck; a.k.a., the dreaded accountant’s ass.  The thing is this: these two may not ever, due to their inherent limitations, be good in the hole — or good in the pull, for that matter — they can, though, be a hell of a lot better.  And in the process, they can milk even more benefit from the exercise, even if they never perfect the movement.  And that’s the point.  Because, in performing the exercise in the fashion these two are, they’re missing out on 50% of the movement’s benefits (the catch/force absorption component).  And, of course, we’ve got the safety issue to contend with.  So where is the point where the plug ought to be pulled?  Ask yourself a few questions: (1) is there real and measurable benefit being derived?  (2) is the movement still relatively safe? and, (3) what is my goal with the movement?  There’s a hell of a lot of difference between utilizing a lift for athletic development and in training the lift for competition.  So if you’re an athlete looking for all-around betterment, and the answer to the first two questions  is yes, then by all means continue on.  I don’t mean to suggest that you should allow yourself to become lax in striving for perfect form in the lift, just don’t obsess about perfection to the point of having that obsession limit your athletic progress.

The CrossFit Argument

CrossFit and the promotion of poor form.  Ah, this is one argument that never dies.  Alex, over at Journey to Health, spoke to this in a recent post.   And here’s the post, (and all the comments) from The Art of Manliness,  that she was commenting on.  Here’s my take on the issue: If I were waiting for perfect form in the snatch and clean & jerk to come along, I’d still be “polishing my form” with 135 pounds.  Gimme a break.  There’s perfect, there’s good enough, and there’s time to call it quits.  Strive for perfection, work your ass off with good enough, and pull the plug when your form deteriorates into (1) unsafe and/or (2) non-productive.

In health,

Keith

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Keith Norris is a former standout athlete, a military vet, and an elite strength and conditioning expert with over 35 years of in-the-trenches experience. As a serial entrepreneur in the health and wellness space, he is an owner, co-founder and Chief Development Officer of the largest Paleo conference in the world, Paleo f(x) . As well, Keith is a partner in one of the most innovative lines of boutique training studios in the nation, Efficient Exercise. He’s also a partner in ARXFit training equipment, and a founding member of ID Life. In his spare time, he authors one of the top fitness blogs in the health and wellness sphere, Theory To Practice.

8 COMMENTS

  1. With crossfit it is twofold:
    1. You can’t teach the snatch with a PVC pipe, and you can’t learn from someone who only has a crossfit 1 certification. They aren’t going to be anywhere near the ballpark of correct.
    2. As I noted in another thread, the high rep snatches/jerks while immensely fatigued are a recipe for disaster. Add to the mix that there are videos of some CFer’s doing snatches in sand and proceeding to throw the barbells afterwards…recipe for disaster, making the technique of Coach Dos look almost good. Almost

    • Skyler,
      I think the idea here, in this, as in other pursuits, is to follow common sense. Of course we could look at this through the “glass is half full” prism, in that what we have here is a clear case of “accelerated evolution”, that is to say, a revved-up thinning of the herd 🙂

  2. Unless I’m missing something, there seems to be a confusion of the difference between a Power Clean and a full Olympic Clean.

    The first video shows a Power Clean where the object is to use your power to bring the bar up with a minimal dip in a high catch.

    The second video shows a full Olympic Clean where you catch the bar deep in the whole. They are different lifts with different goals and different ranges of motion.

    The guy in the first video may lack some muscles but he does have the posterior chain strength to bring 333lbs up to chest level in one explosive movement. Unlike the guy in the background, he catches it on a vertical torso. Also notice the length of his legs.

    • David,
      I have to disagree with your assessment, here — vehemently so, in fact. The first video represents a demonstration of no more than a poorly (at that) executed high-pull; there is no “catch” exhibited by either athlete. Now, I love the high-pull, and I perform the movement quite often myself. However, in my opinion, both of these athletes would be better off (1) performing a proper high-pull, and milking the movement for all its posterior chain enhancing benefits, and (2) learning and executing a proper power and/or full clean (and, yes — I’d agree that the 2nd clip is more a demonstration of a full clean), and utilizing that movement for working the body’s force-absorption capabilities.

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