Want to break a habit? Start with the ho-hum

By Dave Werner and Maureen O’Hagan

Setting records, or even personal records, is exciting. But when weightlifter Pat Hackett walked in the door of Level 4 CrossFit Seattle looking for help, what she needed was something more ho-hum – actually, what she needed was a whole lot of ho-hum.

What’s ho-hum? Before we get into that, here’s a little bit about Pat. A masters competitor, she has set nine records in her age group. She’s 6’ tall and slim, a former model who looks nothing like the stereotype people have of weightlifters. At age 65, Pat was leading a busy life, with lots of responsibilities. She had begun lifting just five years earlier and fell in love with the sport, progressing quickly. Within a year, she was competing.  But ultimately, Pat’s story is one of patience and perseverance, of facing down challenges and on occasion, getting frustrated. It’s also a story of success – the kind of success we like to highlight at Level 4. From a coaching point of view, Pat’s story is just as applicable to novices as it is to advanced lifters. Actually, in some ways, a novice might have an easier time with some of this. Still, in an era when everyone wants a quick fix, it can be a difficult concept to sell.

Pat came to Level 4 CrossFit Seattle because she wanted to work with Olympic weightlifting coach, Mike Ng. With 17 years experience competing and coaching, Mike has worked with elite athletes. At Level 4, he teaches classes for novice and intermediate lifters, too. Everyone wants the same thing out of Mike: the secret to lifting more weight.

That’s what Pat wanted, too. She wanted to return to the Master’s World Weightlifting Championship. But she had a problem. In competition, the judges were calling her out on her snatch. She would lock the bar out overhead, but the judges were giving her red lights, not the white lights that signal a “good lift.” In one major competition, she was close to bombing out completely for failing to make a successful snatch. At first, she wasn’t sure why the judges were calling foul.

“Another lifter said, ‘you’re hitching,’” Pat recalled. “I said, what’s a hitch?”   A hitch is a momentary pause as the bar travels up from the ground. In competition, pausing is not allowed.  “Pat would get to the hips, stop for a split second, and then explode,” Mike said. Some judges noticed it and others didn’t. But the bottom line was, this split-second pause had the potential to get Pat disqualified. She knew she wanted to get rid of it, but at this point, the hitch was ingrained. The good news was, Mike knew it could be done.

The not-so-good news? Fixing the hitch would be hard – something like teaching a right-handed golfer to swing left-handed. The difference is, Pat didn’t need to learn how to use her left hand; she needed to learn how to stop her brain from telling her to pause mid-pull. Which brings us to the ho-hum.

“A lot of weightlifting is mental,” Mike said. “You get all emotionally aroused with heavier weights. I wanted Pat to be able to control the weight and not let her emotions take over. So she could stay kind of ho-hum about it and not get into panic mode.” 

This meant dialing the work way back. At first, Mike recalled, they did less work than Pat was accustomed to. “We really slowed things down,” Mike said.  They dialed the loads way back, too. If you’re used to snatching 40k, as Pat was, reverting to 15k – or even the PVC – was frustrating, to say the least.

For a while, Mike didn’t even want Pat to complete a full snatch. Instead, they spent months snatching from the blocks. “We’d drill and we’d drill and we’d drill,” Pat recalled. “This man has the patience of a saint.”

At first, she didn’t mind the pace. But after a couple of months, it was starting to get frustrating.  After hundreds of lifts, she still hadn’t been able to cleanly snatch anywhere close to her PR. The problem was, doing the lift wrong felt right to Pat. To her, that hitch was an integral part of the process of getting the bar overhead.

“There were days where she looked worse than the week before,” Mike conceded. “But I’d been around long enough that I knew as long as she stuck it out, it was going to change. It was just a matter of time.”

But how long can a person work on drills before losing her mind? She had read somewhere that it takes 10,000 repetitions to master something. Initially, that didn’t sound that bad. But at some point, 10,000 began to feel like eternity. It got to the point where she’d drive to the gym thinking she was never going to get it. She thought seriously about quitting.

“It’s mentally fatiguing,” Mike said. “You have to endure a lot of stuff. Physical pain. Mental pain. A lot of times it feels like you’re not making any progress. But you’ve just got to go through it.”

The only solution? More drills. Here are some that Mike and Pat used:

•  Jumping drills. “Some people say there’s no jumping in weightlifting, but I guess I'm old-school,” Mike said. It was a way to get Pat to fully extend in the hips before engaging the arms.

• Lots of work from the high hang. The idea was to find a drill that didn’t allow Pat to hitch. That way, she began to get the feeling of a smooth pull.

• Lots of work from the blocks.

• A variety of complexes. The idea was to come up with something new each week so it didn’t feel like an endless treadmill. “Trying to keep hope alive, that was the challenge,” Mike said.

To Mike, though, the particular drills aren’t necessarily the point. “That’s the sad truth about weightlifting: you don’t typically have many breakthrough moments,” he said. “If you’re looking for secrets, there aren’t any. People might try to sell you secrets, but nobody is going to put 30K on their snatch because of some secret technique.

“It was just Pat coming in day after day, practicing rather mundane things until she got it right.”

And yes, she finally did. But true to Mike’s pronouncement, it wasn’t a miraculous moment when her snatch was fixed and she never hitched again. Instead, it was a process of gradual, sometimes imperceptible, improvement. One day, the bar would fly up; the next, that momentary hitch would sneak back in. But over time, Pat learned what it felt like to snatch properly.

“There was this feeling like it was no effort,” Pat recalled. “What I’ve learned is, less is more, that you don’t need to try so hard to make it go up.”

It’s another way of saying, more ho-hum.

Dave Werner is the owner of Level 4 CrossFit Seattle, the first CrossFit affiliate on the planet. He is also co-founder of moveskill.com, an online general fitness program for athletes from beginner to advanced that includes daily programming, detailed instructions and demonstration videos. 

Maureen O’Hagan is an award-winning professional writer and editor. Reach her at maureen.k.ohagan@gmail.com.