Failing Well

You’ve got a 250lb front squat, a 270lb back squat, a 400lb deadlift. Your grip is of the walnut-cracking kind, and your traps, when swole, partially block your hearing.
Why can’t you clean 225lbs?
Because you have 180lb technique.
When I started my shift from powerlifting to CrossFit, I had a 520lb deadlift, and a 185lb hit-and-miss deadlift-upright row-curl combo. I wouldn’t call it a clean, but I stuck with that technique until I hit a massive PR: 195lbs. It took six months, made my wrists hurt, and probably did long-term damage.
Over the last five years of CrossFit, it’s become more clear that technique has to come LONG before weight. You can’t ‘get by’ with okay technique. Strength doesn’t float all boats; it’s just convenient to believe the fallacy. If it were true, powerlifters could make the shift to weightlifting with minimal technique changes. Who is swelling the ranks of weightlifting? CrossFitters, not powerlifters. The technical, not the strong.
Travelling for CrossFit HQ, 321Go and Ignite over this last year, I’ve been lucky (incredibly so) to train with, among and beside some of the top athletes in the sport. I’ve asked them many of the same questions, and heard the same answers so many times that I can now start recording their responses before they open their mouths. But the most concise-and poignant-came from an eighteen-year-old at the 2013 CrossFit Games Gauntlet event.
After 93 burpees in ten minutes (some of which ended in pullups or muscle-ups,) he took a short rest and then ascended a max clean ladder like it was a gently-sloping mountain trail. 245, 275, 295, 305… he crushed these impassively. At 315, he caught the weight easily, and then failed to stand it up. No matter. He rested, then tried again. Same result. A beautiful pull, a flawless catch, a vertical torso and great rack position. He just couldn’t stand it up. It was the same result on the third attempt.
He won, but wasn’t a standout. Several other kids came close to the 300lb mark, all because of great technique…not massive power or size. Their skill is hard-set; they’re ready to move up by continuing to do what they’re already doing, not by pursuing a random Squat Cycle or 5-3-1 or 20-20-20 program that some Russian used in the 1970s.
“I don’t do any of that stuff,” he told me. “I just do CrossFit.” He’s been doing it for almost eight years, starting with CrossFit Kids, learning and practicing for a year with an empty bar. Moving not to 45lbs, but to 15, and then 25. Getting really, really good at 25 before moving to 45, and then becoming a master there, executing perfect cleans ten times out of ten.
Too often, we see lifters whose form falls apart on a heavy lift. Sometimes, they make it, and it’s a ‘personal best.’ Usually, they fail in a catastrophic way. If you’ve just hit 220 for the first time, and caught it with your elbows down, you’re not ready for 235, no matter how good your legs feel. You’re ready for a wrist injury: catching that 235lb baseball without a glove isn’t going to help you in the long run. Getting really, REALLY good with 95lbs will.
Please, no more ugly PRs. No more seeking magic in rep schemes or strength biases. When your misses look as good as your best lifts, you’re ready to move up; not before. Learn to drive well before you drive fast, and stay out of the breakdown lane.