Getting past your lifting plateaus: A conversation with Giles Greenwood

8 minutes

I recently shared a coffee with weightlifting legend, Giles Greenwood, to discuss the phenomenon of lifters failing at a mere kilogram above the weight they have marked out as their personal best.  Giles has enjoyed a long and successful competitive career in weightlifting, representing Great Britain and winning a gold medal for snatch in the 2002 Commonwealth Games.  He now coaches the GB women’s team, runs weightlifting instructors courses and is an easy going, warm character.  We decided to write up the gist of our conversation and offer our insights to you lifters out there….

Giles: In beginner and intermediate lifters I regularly see them snatch or clean a weight fairly comfortably but then just do a high pull when attempting more. The increase doesn’t have to be much and the successful attempt suggests they are physically capable of more. My own reading of this is that a lifter will get to a weight where they believe, at some level, needs extra effort. This translates into continuing the pull past the point where they should have started their transition under the bar and results in the lift being abandoned as if you hold on to a pull until the bar has reached the apex of its path you no longer have time to get under it. You need to be transitioning under the bar as it is still travelling upwards to have the time to get under it. The challenge for these lifters is to maintain a consistent approach to each lift regardless of what the weight being lifted is. Does this analysis of the problem seem reasonable and do you have any suggestions or strategies for remedying this?

Jessica: I totally agree, Giles, that the approach should be consistent in each lift, whether it’s an empty bar or a heavy one. The challenge for lifters with this issue could lie in their understanding of the mechanics of the lift or in their underlying beliefs about ability as a lifter. Consistently aiming for hitting the correct positions, regardless of weight can help to drill the movement into memory. This learning process takes time, so it’s understandable that beginner and intermediate lifters are still in the process of encoding the movement pattern into memory. Until it becomes more automatic, there is a good chance that we will see greater variations between lifts, such as you describe here with heavier ones missing the getting under phase. Some people will need to see what they are are doing to help them adjust, so filming is always a good way to help develop a mental image of a quality lift. That image of a quality lift can be used to mentally rehearse the movement and will help to set it firmly in place. The other issue that could be involved has to do with the meaning of the lift and the lifter’s beliefs about their ability. At the risk of sounding too fluffy and psychoanalysing, I feel that I should point out that for many lifters, what they can lift carries a meaning. It might be about proving themselves or that feeling competent with lifting is getting tangled up with their self worth. When a lift takes on a meaning beyond that lift, it can be counter-productive to performance. Too rigid beliefs about performance or ability, like “I can lift __kg” also carry with them unhelpful implications, such as “I can’t lift ____kg”. We might easily dismiss these implications in our logical minds, but they can have an unconscious effect on how we approach the bar. Believing a lift is beyond your capability will translate into a different lift than one you feel comfortable about. That extra long pull often seems to be a genuine, but misguided, attempt to get the bar moving. Unfortunately, in instances like these, failure sometimes only provides further evidence to the rigid belief that you have a specific limit to your abilities. Instead, focus on hitting the positions regardless of weight. Being in the same mindset whether it’s a warm up or a PB. And resist putting limits on yourself by countering beliefs about how much you can or can’t lift by being more open and reminding yourself that you just don’t know yet.


Giles: Beginner and intermediate lifters often get frustrated at their lack of progress in mastering the Olympic lifts. It is surprisingly common for this to cause their lifting to become a miserable task rather than an enjoyable challenge. I think this is particularly exacerbated by the presence in the gym of experienced lifters seemingly effortlessly performing lift after lift without too much trouble. This isn’t a true representation of the process most lifters are continually going through, I know I need to concentrate to do a half decent lift, but it’s hard to persuade a beginner of this.
I’ve read a bit about enjoying the process rather than the outcome and rewarding effort over achievement. One of the things I like about weightlifting is the concentration and attention to process required but this may just be because I’m proficient at the basics so don’t really do horrendous lifts – they’re all ok, some are just a bit better than others. I’m also not ambitious for success any more so not in any hurry. When you’re starting out your bad lifts don’t work at all so it’s more discouraging and you want to get decent in a reasonable time scale so you feel some pressure there as well.
What are your thoughts on enjoying the process of learning instead of being constantly disappointed in not being as good at something as you’d like to be?

Jessica: Such an important point, Giles. It’s something that is a great challenge because outcome is often what we get rewarded for in lifting, as in life. And yet, too much emphasis on outcome can result in anxiety, bad attitudes and ultimately poor results. Your attitude about lifting serves a good guide to beginners and lifters looking to improve. Often the more pressure we feel to succeed, the more unhelpful thinking patterns arise and confound our efforts. It’s a fine line to tread as lifter – to work towards perfection without developing an attitude of dysfunctional perfectionism. Psychologically, the task here might involve examining your beliefs about success and failure. If the idea of failure brings up a lot of fear and anxiety, work on getting more comfortable with it. Practice accepting failure, seeing failure as normal and as a valuable opportunity to learn. Developing a new language around failure and success will help cement in a more functional approach to perfection that will serve you well in lifting and beyond. Start by separating a failure from your identity. Having failures is not the same as being a failure. Keep your focus on what are doing well, such as dedication to practice even when it’s tough. It can help to write down your thoughts after a failed lift and spend a few moments considering what these thoughts do for you. Are they helpful? Realistic? Practising more helpful ways of thinking on a regular basis will help them to become more natural. Another thing to consider as a beginner is that comparison may not be your friend. Giles makes a good point that what a beginner observes in a more experienced lifter often doesn’t reflect the effort and difficulty that is actually going on under the surface. They also don’t see the countless disappointments, mistakes, failed lifts and insecurities these more experienced lifters have negotiated on their journey. When we compare, we also neglect the fact that people progress at different rates. We all come from different starting points, have different strengths and different challenges to contend with along the way. It’s only useful to compare if it encourages you to keep going, not if it increases insecurity and negative self-talk. In sport, it’s often the athletes that have to work the hardest – those that have to struggle the most -that enjoy the best performances later. Your current ability does not reflect your potential. Only your dedication and hard work will determine where your limits are.

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Giles: The thing that strikes me about both Jessica’s answers is that our focus can sometimes be on the wrong thing and this can delay progress as well as just making training and competing less enjoyable. Only feeling good about successful lifts for example instead of feeling proud of ourselves for persevering even when it’s not going well or focusing on the outcome of a heavy lift we’re about to attempt instead of concentrating fully on the process required to perform the lift. Changing our focus can be beneficial to our progress as well as making training and learning a more rewarding experience.

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