It began over a year ago when my weightlifting coach, Drew Dillon, suggested I take a couple of months away from CrossFit to put dedicated focus on my lifts. At the time, I wasn’t ready to take such a long break from CrossFit. I was having fun, making gains in the gym, and couldn’t imagine stopping all my progress to just focus on lifting for 2 months. I brushed him off. He took it well; at the time, I thought he was just being laid back about it. Looking back, it was probably more just quiet confidence that I would come back around when I was truly ready to improve my lifts.
Over a year later, I came back around. I was making steady gains in the gym in all areas BUT my Olympic lifts. I had just spent four months focusing on developing my engine and had lost 20 pounds. I was terrified I would gain back the weight I lost and lose all my engine gains, but I hadn’t PR’d in a year on either of my lifts and while I wasn’t losing strength, I wasn’t progressing like I used to in my early crossfitting days. I finally decided to try his advice of giving up “crossfitting” for about 2 months while I put dedicated focus on my weightlifting technique. And so I started, dedicating the months of May and June, five days a week, to weightlifting…here are the Top Five things I learned through this cycle.
- Positional Strength is Paramount
I’m a fairly strong athlete, my wheelhouse is a heavy barbell, NOT a long metcon, but what I learned quickly during this cycle is all the strength in the world won’t help your weightlifting if you can’t apply it to the positions required to maintain good technique on your lifts. This “positional strength”, is essential to maintaining the correct bar path throughout a lift. About two weeks into my cycle, I started to really feel solid in my positions. Suddenly, keeping my shoulders back was easier, pushing off the floor didn’t feel so foreign and dropping under the bar – especially on snatches – started to feel natural. The repetition of moving through my lifts day after day started to engrain those positions and my lifts got easier. Before I started this cycle, I just didn’t practice my lifts often enough to feel these positions and build this strength. Waiting on the lifts to appear in a “constantly varied” week of CrossFit never provided me enough practice and performing the lifts during a metcon did nothing but build the wrong habits.
- CNS Adaptation…yes, that is a “thing”
About four weeks into my cycle my lifts just started to “click”. Weights that I had struggled with the week before suddenly felt great. My consistency increased and everything started to feel easier. When I told Drew about my session, he said I was starting to experience central nervous system adaptation – literally my nervous system was making the necessary connections to make me more coordinated on my lifts. During this time, I also really started to understand the rhythm and timing of my lifts. Taking the time to repeat these lifts day in and day out allowed me to get used to how I needed to move to execute the lifts correctly.
- The importance of tension
I know you’ve heard it too, the cliché “stay tight” or “tighten your core”, but what does that really mean? Proper bracing through your core makes ALL the difference in the world on your lifts. Heavy weights feel lighter when you are properly braced and a good brace sets you up for success to receive the weight. Have you ever caught a clean and your shoulders folded forward and soon after your chest sinks and you drop the weight forward? This used to happen to me a lot, especially when I got above 85% of my max. I wasn’t bracing properly and therefore I was not receiving the bar in a stable position and I would lose the weight. Throughout this cycle I learned how to hold my brace and catch both my cleans and snatches with good core tension. This makes all the difference in the world. One of the key things I started doing during this time was wearing my weight belt even for lighter weight, I used it as a feedback mechanism to assess if I was holding my brace properly. If you aren’t using your belt this way, you should. Check out this great article from Dr. Richard Ulm on proper bracing and use of a belt.
- You can lose weight without cardio
That’s right. Surprisingly, I lost more weight during this cycle, about 5 pounds and I got leaner. This was amazing to me given I had already lost a lot of weight. I made no changes to my diet. I just lifted heavy five days a week for eight weeks. Don’t be afraid to cut the cardio from your routine for a period of time, your results may surprise you and you can always build up your engine again!
I learned two important lessons about recovery during this cycle. First, I would say that overall this cycle allowed me to recover from months upon months of high volume CrossFit workouts. About two weeks into my cycle, I realized I was not waking up sore anymore. That’s not to say I wasn’t getting a great workout, but the volume of my work was dramatically decreased during this time and I believe this allowed my body to recover from the demands of all the CrossFit volume I had been doing. Second, I finally understood the technical demands these lifts put on my body, including my nervous system. Drew used to always tell me not to metcon before a dedicated weightlifting session and during this session, I could finally feel why. These lifts are so technical that if your muscles and nervous system are not fresh, you will really struggle to perform these lifts correctly, especially at weights over 85% of your 1RM. By eliminating metcons from my regimen, my body was able to recover and be fresh for each day of lifting. About 6 weeks into my program, I did a metcon – it was for a cancer fundraiser at our gym – I knew I had to lift the next day, but wanted to participate for a great cause. While I don’t at all regret participating, my lifts the next day were horrible. Everything I did felt slow and my timing was off. I attribute this directly to the toll that metcon took on me. I think this was happening all the time before I took time off, I just didn’t have a “fresh” baseline to compare to so I didn’t think my metcons were really impacting my lifting. Now that I know what it feels like to lift fresh, I certainly could feel that everything was just off.
So what happened at the end of my cycle? I got comfortable performing full snatches and cleans on every rep. My jerk stability improved. I started to be able to “self diagnose” problems based on how I failed lifts, and correct myself! I got comfortable with the “feel” of my lifting rhythm. Oh…and I added 30 pounds to my Olympic total and 10 pounds to my jerk. To be honest, I expected most of these things to happen during this cycle. It was when I returned to traditional CrossFit workouts that I got surprised – my handstand pushups, a previous weakness of mine, are now rock solid, my butterfly pull ups became more powerful and consistent and I PR’d my max effort toes to bar. I expected regression in these skills, NOT progression! So what happened? In my very non-scientific opinion, my weightlifting progress taught me to move better, understand my body’s unique timing, and built more power into my hips and this directly translated into these CrossFit skills. Did my engine decline? Absolutely, but not as much as I feared and looking back on my gains – both in the lifts and my CrossFit skills – the layoff was more than worth the decline in my aerobic fitness!
So if you are someone who is looking to improve your Olympic lifts and really dial in your technique and set new PRs, I would strongly encourage you to take some time away from metcons and dedicate time to weightlifting. Your progress may surprise you!
Looking for technique help? Check out the coaches at Project Lift, they have made all the difference in the world in my technique!
Looking for a place to weightlift or generally improve your fitness? Check out CrossFit Westerville. We offer CrossFit classes, bootcamps, yoga and dedicated weightlifting instruction from Drew Dillion of Project Lift. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to sign up today!