Written by Sean Waxman
1. In your opinion why is the triple extension more effective for weightlifters than the catapult technique?
This may be a longer answer than I prefer, but I’d like this to be the last time I write about this topic so I’ve tried to cover the primary area of disagreement.
As I understand it, the term “catapult” was coined by an American weightlifting coach as a way of characterizing and teaching the lifts. There’s even a book about it (McCauley, Power Trip, 2010), much of which is technically sound and uncontroversial. The catapult departs from triple extension in the explosion phase of the snatch and clean with respect to the action/contribution of the ankles, knees, and hips, and whether or not it’s important to launch the bar as high as possible.
The catapult’s distinguishing features include 1) emphasizing aggressive hip extension but not necessarily comparably aggressive knee or ankle extension, 2) avoiding aggressive plantar flexion 3) restricting the lifter’s Center of Pressure (CoP) to the back half of the foot throughout the lift (unlike a standard vertical jump). The catapult also relies on a concept of pulling the bar only high enough but no higher.
Triple extension, on the other hand, is based on 1) equally aggressive and maximal contributions via extension of the ankle, knee, and hip, 2) aggressive plantar flexion, 3) allowing the CoP to travel forward toward the ball of the foot (just like a standing vertical jump). Some triple extension proponents encourage pulling the bar as high as possible.
These differences are summarized in the chart below:
Hip, Knee, Ankle relationship
Aggressive and maximal contribution comes from all three
Aggressive and maximal hip contribution most important, knee less so, ankle not at all
Necessary for maximal power production
Unnecessary, should be minimized or avoided
Center of Pressure on Foot
Must be allowed to travel forward toward ball of foot like classic vertical jump
Should remain restricted to back half of foot unlike classic vertical jump
Value of bar height
Higher is better
Higher is not better
While some lifters prefer the catapult, the catapult suffers from three primary problems: 1) The catapult seems to misunderstand or ignore how the levers in the body function; 2) The catapult’s distinguishing features aren’t supported by scientific concepts nor published research; and 3) The catapult has no support among international coaches or lifters.
First, regarding the levers in the body, the catapult claims that explosive hip extension “is what really accelerates the bar (not knee or ankle extension)” (Power Trip, p. 99) while said hip extension should be directed “in as vertical direction as possible.” (Id, p. 142). Unfortunately for the catapult, multiple independent studies demonstrate that, without aggressive and maximal contribution of the knees and the ankles (with CoP travelling forward towards the ball of the foot), the hips slow prematurely when extending the body vertically. In fact, studies have shown as much as 30% of of the hips’ power may be lost by removing aggressive ankle extension. Without getting more pedantic, this is caused by geometry, anatomy and the cumulative effect of the lower body’s levers.
If the catapult theory of bar acceleration was correct, we should be able to artificially restrict the rate of extension at the knees and ankles (imagine, if you will, a rate-limiting ankle and knee brace) and still achieve maximal performances. Though such an experiment has not been conducted, we think it fails the common-sense test.
Thus, according to research, basic concepts of geometry and anatomy, and common sense, we can produce more vertical power when the hips, knees, and ankles contribute maximally while allowing the CoP to travel forward toward the ball of the foot. The catapult appears to misunderstand or ignore this. Triple extension harnesses it.
Second, regarding scientific concepts and published research, the catapult book itself cautions readers to be wary of weightlifting “techniques that have no basis in scientific fact whatsoever.” (Id, p 46). Unfortunately for the catapult, its distinguishing technical features suffer from this fault. We are not aware of a single published study nor any scientific theory that supports the catapult’s distinguishing features. On the other hand, there are mountains of uncontradicted research based on well-established scientific theory that support the distinguishing features of triple extension.
Third, with respect to the international weightlifting community, we’ve had the good fortune of hosting Olympic Champions, World Champions, other international medalists and multiple international coaches for hands-on technique events at our gym. We also discussed details of efficient technique with literally dozens of Pan American coaches at the US Olympic Training Center in 2013. All these coaches and lifters confirmed our understanding and their reliance on the biomechanics of the triple extension as described above.
Still, language in certain contexts can be imprecise and ambiguous. As such, it’s possible our interpretation of catapult-related claims is too literal. Maybe the catapult simply attempts to characterize efficient lifting as that in which the lifter doesn’t launch him/herself into the air to gain flight nor spend measurable time hanging out on the balls of their feet while moving slowly (e.g. “If you are taller at the top of your 2nd pull than you are standing erect performing your best calf raise on the balls of your feet, you are doing the lift wrong. (Id, p. 144); “Some think more time is spent on the balls of the feet at the end of the 2nd Pull[.]” (Id, p. 83)) If so, we agree: flight and measurable time on the balls of the feet are undesirable. However we don’t think these are faults attributable to the features of triple extension. Instead they result from user error.
Note: We haven’t discussed the technical discrepancy related to bar height. The catapult relies on a concept of launching the bar high enough while, triple extension lends itself to launching the bar as high as possible. In practice, these two alternatives may not be much different. No matter your technique, pulling the bar high enough to make the lift is certainly all that’s required. However at limit or near limit attempts, launching the bar as high as possible may be the only way to launch the bar high enough.
Catapult proponents are fond of pointing to this lifter or that, saying, “See, she can lift well from her heels,” or “See, that lifter who attempts triple extension is [slow/off balance/choose your favorite fault].” Even if these claims are true for any number of individual lifters, we don’t think they lend themselves to widespread prescriptions of the catapult.
Within the past year, the author of the catapult book has stepped into a larger coaching role with team MDUSA. Since taking this position, MDUSA’s lifters continue to improve. Can we attribute this to their adoption of the catapult’s distinguishing features? It’s hard to know. However even if we can, it still doesn’t overcome the weight of the catapult’s problems for the purpose of mass adoption.
For many of your readers, these technical points may seem minor, maybe even trivial. To them we say, so long as you’re performing the way you like, having fun, and staying safe, don’t worry about the rest. However, for those looking to maximize absolute human potential in the snatch and clean & jerk, we believe the differences are important. And all the compelling evidence reveals superiority of the triple extension.
2. What do you make of the idea of performing the Olympic lifts with bands and/or chains attached to the bar?
Bands and chains may be effective tools for improving force production in power lifts but I discourage their use for the snatch and clean & jerk. The accommodating resistance alters the speed, acceleration, timing, and coordination of the Olympic lifts in a negative way.
In training for weightlifting, we seek to pattern motor qualities in a way that mirrors competition as closely as possible. These qualities include, among others, speed, acceleration, timing, and coordination. We develop these qualities in training by practicing the lifts the same way we’d like to perform them in competition. Use of accommodating resistance alters the way we express these qualities in training and therefore will alter our ability to properly express these qualities in competition.
At a practical level, use of accommodating resistance during the snatch and clean and jerk will alter the speed, timing and mechanics of the transition and change of direction, and will affect the motor patterns associated with receiving the bar.
Because accommodating resistance disrupts important qualities of the lifts, I don’t use or recommend bands and chains for the snatch and clean and jerk. If we need to improve force production, we have other methods that don’t carry the same drawbacks.
3. Briefly explain how you implement strength ratios into the creation of your athlete’s programs
We use strength ratios as a means of identifying imbalances in athletes and to help guide the direction of the training. Ratios help us understand things about an athlete in development including whether a lifter is strong enough (in weightlifting, as in most sports, there is such a thing as strong enough) and how efficient a lifter is based on their strength.
We use approximately 26 supplemental exercises with our class 1 or higher athletes. Nearly every one of these exercises is based on a percentage of the snatch or clean and jerk. We have determined an ideal ratio for 14 of these exercises. The ratios are based largely on standards derived from within the Russian weightlifting system. The ratios include guidelines such as:
Back squat should be ~130% of clean & jerk
Front squat should be ~112% of clean & jerk
Snatch should be ~80% of clean & jerk
- Power snatch and power clean should be ~80% of full lifts
Here’s an example of how we might use these guidelines:
If an athlete’s back squat is less than 130% of their clean and jerk, progress in their clean will likely be hampered if we don’t improve the athlete’s ability to produce force in the squat. Conversely, if an athlete’s back squat is well above 130% of their best clean, the athlete may be limited by an efficiency problem in their clean.
If an athlete’s best power versions of the lifts are too close to their full lifts, this tells us the athlete likely needs to work on the speed of transition or the receiving position in the full lifts. If an athlete’s power versions of the lifts are too far below their full lifts, it tells us the athlete may be lacking in strength.
We use ratios like this as a guideline to supplement what our coaches see from the athlete day to day. Though ratios don’t always tell the whole story, they can often help fill-in some of the blanks so we can more effectively optimize an athlete’s training.
4. How do you structure your developmental program differently for those interested in seriously competing in weightlifting vs those interested in using weightlifting for another sport, I.e. CrossFit?
My weightlifters train six days a week between three and five and a half hours each day focused on improving their snatch and c&j. At the beginning of the weightlifting training process we use training to learn how to compete. This includes primarily technique development and general physical preparation. Once efficient technique has been established and the lifter has grown into the proper weight class based on their height, the emphasis of the training shifts to training to win national and international medals.
Crossfit athletes usually train with us two to three days a week and one to three hours a day. Due to the brevity of our time together, the focus of this training is primarily technique development for the snatch and C & J.
For athletes in sports other than Crossfit and Weightlifting we encourage them to commit four to six days a week in their off-season to training with us. The focus of their training will vary based on individual needs. My general guidelines for most athletes in most sports are the following:
2x bodyweight back squat and deadlift
1x bodyweight press
1.25x bodyweight snatch
1.5x bodyweight c&j
In our experience athletes reaching these standards demonstrate a good balance between power, strength, stability and mobility and are well prepared to handle the rigors of their season.
5. How can we develop better coaches to advance the sport of weightlifting in the US?
I think we would benefit tremendously by creating a national coach development system. Currently, we have none. Literally no system to develop coaches.
Instead we have a coach ranking system. The ranking system indicates little more than who has taken weekend courses via USAW and who has had one or more successful athletes at the national or international level.
The current ranking-only approach has problems. Among others, it does very little to teach coaches about the sport or how to coach. It also does very little to ensure that our coaches have a common foundation of knowledge with which to communicate, not only with each other but also with coaches from other countries. Finally, our ranking system lacks a repeatable process for attracting, identifying and developing good coaches.
Ideally, I’d like to see us create a multi-year developmental system based on a long-term educational plan like those in other countries. This could include standardized undergraduate and graduate-level educational paths, similar to those required of other professions like law and medicine. I believe math and science should be featured prominently in the curriculum as these are the basic languages through which international coaches communicate. I also think this educational path should include hands-on training and ongoing proficiency testing.
Successful systems like this already exist throughout the world. Most countries require their coaches to go to school and achieve the equivalent of a master’s degree in weightlifting. Coaches graduate with a proficiency in sciences such as kinesiology, pedagogy, and psychology, as well as the knowledge enabling them to apply these sciences to the development of technique and programming. This process was developed in the late 1950’s, adopted by much of the world, and has been successfully implemented since.
Related Article: 11 Lessons from the Russians by Colin Burns
Sean is the owner and head coach of Waxman’s Gym and the head coach of the Waxman’s Gym Weightlifting team. Sean has been a professional coach for over 20 years and a world-class Olympic weightlifter. Nobody in Southern California has Sean’s winning combination of education, Olympic weightlifting experience, and strength coaching experience/success.
Sean received his Bachelors of Science in Physical Education from Cortland State and did his graduate work at Long Beach State in kinesiology, biomechanics, and exercise science. He spent more than a decade studying, training, and coaching under the guidance of USAW Hall of Fame Coach Bob Takano and NSCA Hall of Fame Strength Coach Dr. John Garhammer. Sean is a former USA Weightlifting National Team member, national medal winner, and five-time California State Weightlifting champion. Sean has coached/trained athletes from virtually every sport at levels ranging from high school through professional.
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Not in PubMed:
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Mechanics of the Vertical Jump and Two-Joint Muscles: Implications for Training, Umberger (1998)