musings on strength, skill, and strength-skill

By SOLO

Few weeks ago I walked into a brand new CrossFit box. I do that quite often.

This particular gym is owned by a coach who specializes in weight lifting (yesssss!), so naturally he asks me if I have done weight lifting before.

When I confirm that I have done some weight lifting, yes, he wants to know which is my better lift – snatch or clean and jerk.

“Snatch!”, is my response. I also share somewhat proudly that I have just recently FINALLY snatched over 100 pounds – my goal for over two years. He nods.

Today’s workout includes push press.

I always find it humbling to have any kind of weight over my head. And knowing that I am capable of much more – having to reel myself in, because I do not yet have the skill. I can squat over 200 pounds without trying, really, yet struggle with overhead – combination of limited mobility and lack of skill.

Here’s a heavy (for me) strict press from couple of years ago.

Now, as I load the bar, I feel the coach watching my form. Hundred pounds, hundred and fifteen, hundred and twenty five.

I drop the bar, clean it, and re-rack.

I notice the coach raises an eyebrow, and finally, comes up to me with a question.

“At the beginning of the class, you told me that snatch was your better lift, and that you JUST snatched 100 pounds recently. Yet, I just watched you EASILY clean 125 pounds off the floor! So, why would you say that snatch is your better lift?”.

I pause.

My max clean is somewhere in the 170s (pounds, not kilograms). I find cleans way more intuitive, and my lack of shoulder mobility does not impair me as much in that lift, as it does in the snatch. In the absolute terms, my clean and jerk IS my stronger lift.

But is it my BETTER lift?

Christian Thibaudeau discussed a concept of “strength-skill” in this article few years back – the ability to make the best use of the strength you have when performing a specific exercise. 

Strength is not only a physical capacity, but also a skill since your body needs to know how to apply the proper force during a movement. To reach your strength potential, you must maximize what the Russians called “strength-skill.”

And this:

Someone can have strong muscles, yet not be able to display that strength optimally on some exercises, even if the individual muscles involved in the lift are strong.

Oh, those Russians. They are sharp as a tack, aren’t they? 😉

I see this at the gym all the time – a woman being able to press hundreds of pounds on a leg press, only to use a 60lb barbell for a front squat.

I used to be able to muscle snatch more than I could squat snatch.  My heaviest snatch is STILL a power snatch. I am slowly (oh so slowly) working on closing that gap. I finally snatched over 100 pounds last year – it was three years in the making.

*A muscle snatch is a movement where you bring the barbell from the floor to overhead without using your hips – once the barbell leaves the floor, you just… stand up. Because you are not using BIG body parts (like legs and hips), MOST people can snatch wayyyyy more than they can muscle snatch. 

How’s that possible? The answer is skill. Being able to use the strength you have on a specific exercise requires skill, not only the skill to perform the proper technique, but also the skill to apply force during the execution of that movement.

And then check out this much lighter snatch, but OMG bottom position!

If you have ever trained in powerlifting or Olympic lifting, you are well familiar with the beginner gainz – where you seem to be lifting more and more at every session, until you are finally stopped by your lack of technical mastery. That’s where the fun begins.

The clean comes more naturally, as I’m just better able to recruit the strength that I already have. But I have spent A LOT OF TIME working on my snatch. Most of my snatch work is not even close to my max – it’s form, it’s mobility, it’s stability. It’s working on strength-skill.

So, which is my better lift? Is it my clean and jerk, because I am able to move more weight? Or is it the snatch, because my form and technique is better?

I guess it depends on how you define better, doesn’t it? 😉

Hugs,
SOLO

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Posted March 23, 2017

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