Seeing Systema from within Weightlifting

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Seeing Systema from within Weightlifting

Category : FC Connect

A few years ago, I recall watching a fellow student attempt to do a diving front roll over a narrow table and smacking their foot on it as they went over. Frustrated, they would try multiple times, but always with the same result. As my friend let out another exasperated sigh and returned to try again, I thought of the many occasions in my own life where I had been stuck in the same pattern – frustrated, angry, and stubborn – endlessly repeating something that would never seem to go my way.

With some movements (e.g., diving rolls, punches) there are moments of commitment where a whole series of muscular actions coalesce into a single unified habit. For my friend, this began the moment they committed to the roll – it became an action which, once started, was like a runaway train that they could not control. It completed itself, whether they wanted it to or not. This is also commonly seen with strikes. If a punch lacks weight, there is then a need to identify which “parts” of the punch were good, and which were bad. A common cue is pointing out unnecessary tension in the shoulder (one of potentially thousands of variables that could be at play). However, what happens when you point this out to someone? It is a rare person who can take a single verbal cue and implement it successfully on the next repetition (unless they have been practicing for some time). The “habit” of the punch tends to persist unless careful interventions are applied to deconstruct and remove the counterproductive components of the image (or neurological engram).

Like my friend with their front rolls, and Systema students learning punches, I have been struggling with the problem of a habitual action of which I have little control. For over a year, I have been trying to learn how to reliably perform the snatch. Gold medalist Aleksey Torokhtiy points out some of the pertinent technical components of the lift in the video below.

One of the first things I was initially frustrated (and amazed) by, when I first started learning this lift, was the remarkable similarity to the feedback I received in Systema. I was told that I:

  • was too tense and needed to relax,
  • was rushing through the movement,
  • needed to feel the rhythm of the lift rather than impose my imagination of what I “should” be doing on the situation.

Additionally, between multiple attempts, coaches would ask me what was different about the first lift versus the second, and I would not be able to tell them the difference. Much like learning Systema style punches for the first time, they all felt the same. Doing the snatch felt like performing a single impenetrable habit – I would start the lift and get a result, but could not report on what happened in between.

With time, I have found that a lot of my problems involve the “second pull” where the bar explodes off your hips, and you attempt to get a complete triple extension of your hips, knees and ankles.

The Second Pull in the Snatch

This is one of the most critical phases of the lift, where the bar gets its final big boost before you pull yourself underneath it to catch it. The second pull has a lot of similarities (for me) to the moment of giving or receiving a strike. It is preceded by a anticipation, anxiety and/or fear prior to the moment of “impact”, it happens very quickly, and can result in a lot of pain if not done correctly (you don’t want to try to get under the barbell if you mess up your second pull). When all three of these variables are present, its common to go into a sort of “autopilot” mode to get through this moment.

Even though the snatch has different biomechanical issues from Systema striking, or rolls, or any other “impact” type movement that we may experience, the internal psychological mechanics are similar. The primary issue that undercuts both Systema and this lift are a calm and steady psyche which should remain flat and uncoupled from the “peak” of barbell speed and muscular effort. As long as the autonomic nervous system gets dragged into a spike of activity alongside the spike in barbell speed, there is minimal chance of 1) improving technique, 2) relaxing unnecessary tension, and 3) feeling the barbell rather than imposing one’s ideas on it. Similarly, giving and receiving strikes while burdened in this way will rob all of us the sensitivity and detail needed to make practical technical improvements (i.e., deconstruct and remove counterproductive habits from the neurological “image” of the punch).

While its not everyone’s cup of tea, weightlifting has turned out to be a useful adjunct to my Systema training. Other precision sports like archery, darts, and golf have similar advantages in that multiple repetitions provide ample trial and error opportunities to study decoupling sympathetic nervous system activity from a critical action. This is, after all, what Systema breathing attempts to access, and for some of us, there is an advantage in using multiple methods, sports and activities to triangulate upon this end.

I hope this serves as an interesting anecdote for you to consider some of the potential avenues you might also be able to explore Systema principles in your own life and hobbies.

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