From Bulgaria To Cuba & Back Again
“80% of your success comes from 20% of your effort.”
— Vilfredo Pareto 1
“70% of life is showing up.”
— Woody Allen
“Make the lift, good technique. Miss the lift, bad technique. The rest is noise.”
— Jim Moser
Tamara was getting frustrated.
She was on her 4th day of training two to three times a day, and she was missing her jerks.
It didn’t help that she was being watched by:
- One of the best Olympic weightlifters of all time;
- His coach, who was one of the most influential coaches of all time;
- Her own coach;
- And over 10 teenage boys …
The pressure of a contest is one thing, but this was clearly going overboard!
We were in California, training at the gym of Alex Krychev and Ivan Abadjiev. If you don’t know who these people are — then you’ve got a lot of Weightlifting history to learn.
Here’s a short course: Ivan Abadjiev was the head coach of the Bulgarian team during their greatest heydey for nearly 30 years. Alex Krychev was one of his first serious lifters — who ended up becoming one of the worlds best.
Jim Moser, Tamara’s coach at the time — the one who took her from a bumbling klutz to a national-caliber lifter in just a couple of years — had set up this trip to California (that we started calling “Bulgaria”) to bring his teenage team members out for a week of liftin-n-learnin’ with Abadjiev and Krychev.
Of course, Jim basically ordered Tamara to go, too.
We had all been at the Jr. Olympics in Texas for the week previous, and Jim’s team had been there competing, Tamara was helping as a platform coach. And I was standing around looking pretty.
When I discovered where they were all going for the next week, I — almost literally — forced my way in, and joined them. I wasn’t about to miss an opportunity like that.
A fly on the wall learns many things.
It had already cost me too much to get my ass down from Portland to Texas for the Jr. Olympics, but at least I could justify it as a promotional experience. That night, I dipped into my ever-shrinking bank account and magically found enough to buy a plane ticket to California that literally left 6 hours later at 3 in the morning.
The Big Question(s)
Before I finish the story, let’s set up the questions we are trying to answer.
- Why don’t coaches agree about anything?
- Is there a difference between “Russian” or “Bulgarian” or “Chinese” training?
- What the fuck is a snatch balance, and can I buy one for under 20 bucks?
Have you ever noticed that when you look up advice about Weightlifting, every coach seems to be telling you something different?
Some of them want you to break the snatch up into 50 different little pieces and work each of them separately: snatch balances; pulls off blocks; drop snatches; jumping-jack-snatches; pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey-snatches; etc. (I made a few of those up…)
Other coaches want you to do the WHOLE snatch in full each time, without ever breaking it up.
And of course, there are thousands of options in between — one for every coach! This isn’t just true about technical stuff, it’s even more true about programming, exercise selection, diet, etc.
In this article I’m going to help explain why it LOOKS like coaches never agree (which should give you a hint about the answer).
Coaches don’t disagree… on the important stuff. They disagree on the shit that is almost totally unimportant.
Your job is to focus on the important stuff, and then do whatever you coach tells you.
Search for what coaches AGREE on and do THAT.
Everything else is up in the air. If there REALLY was a secret, don’t you think it would have been on Facebook by now?
Back To Bulgaria: Your Problem Is Not Technique, It’s Your Brain
After a series of attempts on the Jerk, some makes, some misses, Tamara looked visibly upset.
Alex Krychev walked up to her and asked her what she thought the trouble was.
Tamara rattled off a series of “technique” issues — the ones everyone thinks they are supposed to say.
Krychev laughed. He literally laughed in her face!
He said, “Your technique is wonderful. Your legs are weak.”
One of the worlds greatest lifters — and a great coach in his own right — had just told her that her technique was wonderful. Holy crap.
If you have only been following Tamara’s lifting for a year or so, Krychev’s comment might sound shocking. After all, she’s now known primarily for her squat strength! She is VERY strong now.
But, back then, she was FAR MORE technical than she was strong. She could only front squat 90 kilos on her best days. And yet, there was over 80 kilos on the bar. No wonder she was struggling! She was trying for many clean and jerks with what amounted to over 90% of her best ever front squat!
She was dead-convinced it was a technical issue. After all, if she posted a video on Youtube, or on some Internet forum, lord-knows all of the know-it-all Internet keyboard-jockeys will tell her 97 different things that she is doing “wrong”.
And yet, Alex Krychev just told her that her technique was fucking WONDERFUL.
Throughout the week, as we probed their minds, it became clearer and clearer the enormous divide between how much of your effort (and emotions!) should be spent on the basics, the fundamentals — and how little energy you should spent on everything else.
In one of my favorite moments, I asked Alex Krychev a question about technique, and why some people want you to do things one way, and others want you to do things another.
His answer: “Americans like to argue on the Internet.”
That line has been etched into my mind ever since. I also vowed to never engage in an Internet battle again for as long as I live. Real coaches don’t do that. They help their lifters learn the basics.
He told me that weightlifting is what happens from hip to catch, not floor to hip — That’s a deadlift.
I have used that line in every seminar I’ve ever given, ever since.
A Trip To Cuba
Another trip I made was to my friends Gwen Sisto and Ivan Rojas’s gym, Risto Sports, to spend some time with Dr. Alfredo Herrera.
Dr. Herrera was the long-time Cuban coach who has taken so many lifters to World-Class level, you can’t count them all.
He coaches in what is often termed the “Russian-style”, as opposed to the “Bulgarian-style” that Abadjiev and Krychev (and crew) invented.2
The first thing I noticed when I met Dr. Herrera was how similar in personality he and Krychev are.
- They are both jovial, laughing (almost goofy), men with big smiles on their faces.
- They both have a powerfully nonchalant way about them — dare I say, not unlike an artist.
- And they both sound very cool when they talk 🙂 (I really need to develop a better accent if I’m ever going to get anywhere as a coach.)
They both have clearly never lost their sense of how fun this is.
Dr. Herrera lived up to his title and provided us with what felt like a graduate seminar in the theory of strength training. From power point presentations, to handouts, to long talks on deep topics, he has clearly spent as much of his life reading and thinking as he has slamming barbells.
I felt quite at home with this part of his personality! The man would have been — had he grown up in America — a Geek, in all the best uses of the term.
I then watched as Dr. Herrera coached the group through a zero-to-weightlifter seminar in the gym, learning how to snatch, clean, and jerk from scratch.3
From the practical to the intellectual, what struck me the most was how NON-serious he came across in everything said — super mellow.
It wasn’t just his ever-present smile. It was a true sense that emanated from him that I recognized as very similar to the Zen Monks I have known.
It was as though he was saying, “Take everything I am telling you — there will be a lot — learn it, then forget it! — Now you can lift.”
At one point, I asked Dr. Herrera about his preferred technique for taking the bar from the floor to the hip.
He quickly put himself into the proper “hip position” stance — power position, chest high and strong, legs in a very slight squat — and tapped the crease of his hip with his hands.
“I care IF you get here, not HOW you get here,” Dr. Herrera said.
He then said something that sounded nearly identical to what Krychev had said:
“The snatch is what happens from here,” he said, tapping his hips again, “to here,” he put his arms over his head in a mimed lockout position.
Of course, Dr. Herrera has all kinds of great tricks, tips, and drills to help a person better lift the bar from the floor to the hip — all coaches do!
But he is a PRO. He NEVER allows the focus to shift away from the POINT. It is not the letter of the law, but the spirit of the law that matters!
The snatch is what happens from the hip to the catch. The rest is just setting up.
After this experience, I started to tell people to think of the floor-to-hip as similar to a sprinter getting set into the blocks.
It is important! But, the important part is that by the end you are set up correctly, not HOW you get set up correctly.
The real race, from blocks to finish line, happens from hip to catch.
- Get set up into the blocks (floor to hip) slowly enough to guarantee that you will get set up correctly.
- Start the race (exploding off the hip) FAST!
- Finish the race (into the lockout) FASTER — Sprint through the finish line! — this is THE most aggressive part of the lift.
That is weightlifting “technique” in a nutshell.
But, but, but… Bulgarians and Russians are like… Opposites, Man!
Do you see what the Internet does to your fragile mind?
Here are two guys — Alex Krychev and Dr. Alfredo Herrera — who are (according to the Internet) from opposite sides of the weightlifting fence — who give nearly IDENTICAL advice about what is important: Basics.
In fact, their advice is SO similar, it was nearly word-for-word.
You Can’t Build A House With Door Knobs
Dr. Herrera’s programs and technical advice will only LOOK dramatically different than the Bulgarians advice because YOU are focusing on all of the trinkets rather than the foundation…
THEY understand the priorities — the center — the foundation upon which all else is built. Their energy is placed there.
YOU are trying to build a house by spending all of your time deciding upon which roof tiles are best, what paint colors look the prettiest, and whether the door knobs match the toilet!
While you were wasting your time, your competition was building a foundation, installing the beams, the walls, and the roof.
They have a house, built with very little.
You have a million trinkets and are sleeping in the rain.
The Internet is a silly place.
Never trust anyone who spends their time arguing, getting angry on the Internet, and trolling. Even if they ARE a good coach, they are also a child. Do you want to be coached by a child?… seriously? What does that say about YOU?
Great coaches don’t do that shit — wannabe coaches do.
American’s argue too much. They take things too seriously. And they fail because of it.
As Bruce Lee said, “I do not fear the man who has practiced a thousand punches, one time each. I fear the man who has practiced one punch a thousand times.”
I’ll bet you that the guy who scares Bruce Lee would be “called out” on the Internet for not knowing enough punches!
- Whether you do snatch balances — or don’t know what they are! — isn’t going to make or break you… not even close. Neither with split squats or choosing to do more front squats vs back squats, or saying screw it to squats altogether and focusing on pulls instead. It’s all been done with great success!
Whether your training is called “Russian”, “Bulgarian”, “Chinese”, or “Super-Sexy-Samurai!” — it is not the name — but the quality of your foundation that matters.4
Are you building a house or are you collecting crap?
Now go lift something heavy,
- This is called the Pareto Principle, or the 80/20 rule. For a cool read on Vilfredo Pareto, check this out. ↩
- those names, Bulgarian and Russian, as applied to styles is horribly misleading for two reasons: 1) they are names of countries, and in those countries, people have done many different styles (just like here!); 2) many people in OTHER countries have used these styles as well, so why don’t we name them after THOSE countries??? Leads to much needless confusion and fighting. ↩
- If you’re curious, it was Dr. Herrera’s advice that lead me to stop having my beginners focus on cleans until we have built up A LOT of skill in snatches and jerks first. ↩
- Corollary: If your diet has a name, you might have an eating disorder. ↩