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Essential Components of Weightlifting Technique - part 1

Andrew Charniga, Jr.

Do not reproduce or republish in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. © 2003

The barbell requires not only physical power, but speed, reaction, coordination and will, too. Bulging muscles have long ceased to guarantee success - many other things are needed today (1).

Weightlifting technique has evolved over a period of many years. The evolution of technique is connected with improved biomechanical efficiency and include changes in the manner of moving the body under the barbell, the shift in emphasis away from employing the muscles of the upper extremities to lift the barbell to those of the lower extremities, and the distribution of force and the overall coordination structure of the snatch and the clean and jerk.

The split style of lowering the body under the barbell has given way to the squat style of lifting because a lifter is able to descend further with the squat style. Furthermore, the kinetic energy required to execute the split style is twice that of the squat style (2).

Part of the evolution in weightlifting technique is directly connected to the changes in the technical rules of weightlifting competitions. The elimination of the press led to the emergence of an "elastic strongman." This is not new, but this heretofore, not as successful, type of athlete was the prototype of today's champions. This athlete has effectively displaced the strong man of yesteryear. The most successful lifters of today rely on explosive strength, speed of muscular contraction, speed of movement, elasticity, and joint mobility to lift weights unimagined 40 years ago. A champion athlete from an era of absolute strength like Paul Anderson, lacking in mobility and speed strength, would have little if any chance of becoming a world champion today.

Soviet studies of the late sixties revealed a number of peculiarities regarding the rate of improvement in the triathlon total and the individual exercises. For instance, the efforts by the some young lifters of this era, who had good results in the snatch and the clean and jerk, attempted to improve what was perceived to be lagging press results; at this particular stage of their career they did so at the expense of improvement of the snatch and the clean and jerk.

These studies revealed the effect of increasing the results in the press and the weight of the barbell had on the improvement of the quick lifts. "We established a reverse dependence between achievements in the press and snatch. The increase in the snatch was accompanied by a decrease in the press and vice versa" (21). "In the not too distant past, the opinion was prevalent that heavy weights had to be used in training lifters. This did develop great strength, but it also lowered the sportsman's speed which in turn had a negative effect on increased results in the quick lifts" (22).

It has been said that weightlifting training is technique. The basis for this idea is that there exists the real possibility for a negative interaction of physical qualities as well as a negative transfer of motor habits resulting from the selection of the training exercises and the training weight of the barbell.

"In weightlifting, technique is the 'means' through which strength is expressed" (21)

The elimination of the press and the permanent switch to the deep squat for the snatch and the clean has diminished the role of absolute strength and increased that of speed strength in the lifting of maximum weights in the so called quick lifts. A weightlifter needs to generate great force quickly to lift a maximum weight in the snatch and the clean and jerk. So, the development of speed strength is a high priority of weightlifters (3).

The Connection Between the Specificity of the Weightlifting Exercises and the Athlete's Limitations

The specific limitations of the human body to produce great muscular force quickly (because of the brevity of the snatch and the clean and jerk) and at the same time execute a movement of complex coordination structure compel the weightlifter unconsciously to rely heavily on employing the so called "reactive forces" to lift a maximum weight. The lifter has to rely on the body's innate mechanisms to utilize these forces. The speed with which force is applied to the barbell and the speed of the body's movement in the snatch and the clean and jerk involve actions that cannot be carried out effectively under conscious control.

Therefore, the coordination structure of the snatch and the clean and jerk with near maximum and maximum weights require the athlete's actions to be automatic, i.e., a motor program is formed to carry out a movement too quick to be under conscious control. The weightlifter not only switches muscle groups quickly in lifting a maximum weight but also switches the type of muscular contraction (from concentric to eccentric and so on). The high speed of muscular contraction and the speed with which the body and its individual links move from one position to the next during the snatch and the clean and jerk effectively limit conscious control.

According to Vorobeyev (2), "An important peculiarity of weightlifting exercises is the brevity of performance, which makes it very difficult and even relatively impossible to implement conscious corrections during the lifting of the barbell," and "the possibility to implement corrections of motor acts during the lifting of maximum weights is extremely limited. It should be noted here that there would be less error if the movement were 'automatized,' from conscious control, in the opinion of N.A. Bernstein, and driven to a lower regulatory level to the lower neural stages."

So, it is unrealistic for a weightlifter to "think" his/her way through the snatch or the clean and jerk and, at the same time, successfully lift a maximum weight. This is obvious if one takes into account that the actual time of "lifting" a barbell in the snatch or clean is less than one second. The central nervous system's capabilities to direct high speed muscular contraction within the coordination structure of a complex movement like the snatch, the clean, or the jerk have definite limitations.

It is common knowledge that an electrical signal from the brain initiates a voluntary muscular contraction. But this involves a process where the signal is in effect relayed to the muscles. When this signal arrives at the neuromuscular junction, a chemical/electrical process produces a muscular contraction. A single nerve (like a long electrical cord) does not connect the brain to the muscles of the calf. The relaying of the initial signal from the brain to the muscles is not instantaneous; it is transmitted along relays or synapses.

The electrical to chemical to mechanical initiation of muscular contraction has definite limitations for speed strength sports like weightlifting, as far as conscious control is concerned. Deliberate actions are simply too slow, and the power the weightlifter needs to produce is compromised. This is why it is not realistic for a weightlifter to "think" his/her way through the snatch and the clean and jerk.

As far as the performance of a quick explosive movement like the snatch or a clean and jerk is concerned, the lifter has to rely on unconscious mechanisms which constitute an innate intelligence, if you will, to execute these movements effectively. This innate intelligence is superior to conscious control to direct complex movements in a fraction of a second.

There are a number of important elements of weightlifting technique. Any recommendations or conclusions drawn from video analysis, still photographs and the like must take into account the specific capabilities of the human body.

Can a lifter actually be cognizant of the some of the actions that are often prescribed by a coach, given the brevity of the movements, the complexity of the motor patterns and the limitations of the central nervous system?

For instance, the trunk needs to be pretty much in a vertical position in order for the trapezius muscles (shrugging of the shoulders) to have a strictly vertical affect on the barbell (6). So, why does a coach (even at the international level) tell an athlete, "You didn't shrug at the top of your pull. On your next attempt, make sure you shrug your shoulders." The instructions to the athlete require him/her to remember to perform the aforementioned action approximately at the instant the trunk passes through the point of full extension for some 100 milliseconds.

Competition attempts are with near limit and limit weights which effectively reduce the lifter's awareness of his/her actions. This is not a realistic expectation for the athlete. Even if this timing of the shoulder shrug were of any real benefit to lifting the barbell at the prescribed instant, which it is not, this action is far beyond conscious control in the span of time available.

Consider another example; a coach, or worse yet, coaches, shout instructions (to perform the jerk) to a lifter after he/she has recovered from the squat position of the clean. The athlete is standing with a limit or near limit weight draped across the chest while regrouping from the effort of the clean. At this instant, the lifter's central nervous system would be bombarded with different signals from joint and muscle receptors like an old style telephone switchboard with every line busy. A direct contradiction to what N.A. Bernstein recommends about pushing control of the forthcoming movement to the "lower regulatory level." Apparently, the coach wants the athlete "to push it back up" and "think" through the steps of jerking the barbell. The power of "mind over matter" is not without limitations.

Any effective processing of instructions to be followed by the implementation of said instructions under those conditions are unrealistic at best. If the lifter's body doesn't know the movement pattern at this point in time, any verbal instructions from afar, meant to remind the athlete how to jerk the barbell, are all but worthless.

"From personal experience and interviews with distinguished weightlifters, like world champions and world record holders, we know that in their approach to a maximum weight in competition, these athletes have a clear cut plan of action, even taking into account a less than precise execution of the movement. At the instant of lifting the barbell, the athlete does not think of corrections to the movement; but all of his attention is focused on displaying maximum effort at the necessary moment" (20). 1*

The coach and the lifter need to acquire a functional understanding of how the body works in order to teach and learn, respectively, correct weightlifting technique. This understanding of how the body works should be the basis for the knowledge of how to perform the exercises and to plan training.

1* It is worth noting that author Arkady Vorobyev chose the words "personal experience" for authoritative corroboration of this statement. This is as close as the two times Olympic weightlifting champion, five times world champion, 21 times world record setter, M.D., PhD., professor, acclaimed author, former head coach of the Soviet national team and decorated veteran of the Great Patriotic War came in his entire book to what would be considered a bourgeois "I think," and "I know," phrase.

Relaxation of Muscles

In what would appear to be a dialectical contradiction, a weightlifter must develop maximum muscular tension to lift a limit weight but at the same time must prepare to lift by relaxing the muscles; a weightlifter must then keep unnecessary muscles in a reasonably relaxed state in order to most effectively perform the weightlifting exercises.

For convenience, one can divide unnecessary muscle tension or tonus as far as weightlifting is concerned into three groups: a) a conscious muscular tension of the grip, posture, and the like; b) a general overall muscle tension from psychological excitation prior to and during lifting; c) a high muscle tonus because of excessive training for strength.

It is common knowledge that the extensors of the thigh and the trunk bear the fundamental load in the snatch and the clean (7). However, it is necessary to maintain a firm grip on the bar and to keep the back straight, with even a slight arch in the lumbar area. But how much attention and effort does one devote to what amounts to posture and grasping the barbell?

The role played by relaxation of muscles in good technique is connected with a realistic expectation of the body's capabilities because "The heavier the weight, the more muscles and muscle fibers involved in the work, the greater the muscular tension. This causes too much excitation in those groups of muscles which should be relaxed during this action. Unnecessary tension in these muscles creates additional resistance for the working muscles by reducing the speed of contraction and accelerating the onset of fatigue." (4).

The lifter's attention to grip and the trunk posture have to be minimized. The lifter's focus must be concentrated on the production of a large vertical force, quickly, in order to move the barbell and the body from point A (the starting position) to point B (the actual completion of the exercise) as efficiently as possible.

The multitasking capabilities of the central nervous system are limited. Unnecessary muscular tension, as well as excessive tension in the gripping muscles and the muscles which straighten the spine, needlessly deploy the body's motor resources away from the most important task of generating the power to lift the barbell.

The Posture of the Trunk

A straight or slightly arched back during the snatch and the clean is needed to create and preserve a "rigid" connection between the support and the barbell. Should the back "round" during the lift from the floor, some of the force produced by the legs will be dissipated by the sagging of the trunk. Therefore, some of the lifting force will not be effectively communicated to the barbell.

However, no vertical force, per se, is generated by a "tight" back. The tight back serves as a rigid connection between the barbell and the support. As a point of fact, the forces which actually lift the barbell must be generated against the support. It is the manner in which this force is applied which determines technical proficiency.

The effort to keep the back straight essentially involves isometric tension. The muscles which straighten the spine do not extend the straight trunk from the inclined position beginning with the start of the snatch and the clean. Therefore, the tension in these muscles are postural and not lifting muscles per se.

It may be advisable to tilt the head backwards slightly in the starting position of the snatch and the clean. This slight inclination automatically increases the tonus of the muscles which straighten the spine (2). This method of facilitating the correct posture of the start is preferable to an excessive tilting of the head or concentrating on "tightening" the lower back muscles, holding the chest high and so on; all of which involve extra attention and unnecessary effort.

Ultimately, the isometric strength needed to maintain the correct posture of the back during the lifting must be developed to the point that the lifter is, for all practical purposes, unaware he/she is even "holding" the back rigid; nevertheless the weightlifter is effectively accomplishing this task unconsciously.

Grasping the Bar

The "hook" grip is the accepted method of grasping the barbell. However, it is common knowledge that this manner of grasping is not the strongest. More force can be applied with a "normal" grip, i.e. with the thumb placed on top, instead of under, the fingers than with a "hook" grip. However the "hook" grip is more effective for holding onto a barbell because it keeps the bar from turning in the hands better than the other which is a thumb less or a normal thumb over the fingers grip (8).

The isometric strength required to hold onto the barbell to maintain the correct posture of the back needs to be developed to such a level that the effort and attention devoted to holding onto the barbell is minimized. For instance, the main reason a lifter is typically able to snatch or clean more weight with straps is because of the less effort and attention to maintain a secure grip.

It is also worth noting that the muscular tension of grasping the bar, especially when it is excessive, has a tendency to "run up the arm." That is to say, muscles other than the actual gripping muscles become involved needlessly. As a result, a "seamless" switch from flexing to extending the arms is met with an "internal resistance" during the instantaneous fixing of the bar in the snatch.

One can frequently observe a lifter rotate the bar repeatedly (after placing the grip) before beginning to lift in the snatch and the clean in order to eliminate this tension which "runs up the arm." This is a way of localizing the tonus of muscles involved to those below the elbow joints. Ex Soviet or some of today's Russian lifters are typically the most frequent practitioners of this pre lifting ritual.

A similar situation with excessive tension from the hands is connected with grasping of the bar for the jerk from the chest. The lifter has to avoid squeezing the bar while it is resting on the chest before the jerk. The lifter either needs to keep his/her hands "open" or consciously relax the fingers to prevent the grip from impeding the lift to arms length.

The tension from the grip that can "run up the arms" can take the form of an excessive co-activation of antagonists (triceps and biceps) at the least opportune time. The work of the triceps muscles to "lock - out" the bar can be impeded by too much tension in the biceps and other flexors of the arms. In this instance the lifter appears to have no problem lifting the barbell to arms length, but he/she is simply unable to fix it.

Inter - Muscular Coordination and Relaxation of Muscles

It is important to remember in weightlifting that there is a very rapid alternation of tension and relaxation of muscles during the snatch and the clean and jerk. This quick switching from tension to relaxation and vice versa is an indispensable component of good technique. A "general tension" from preliminary "psychological excitation" where there is unnecessary tension in many muscles (especially antagonist pairs) prior to lifting, as one would typically observe in powerlifting, would have a negative affect on the weightlifter's technical efficiency.

EMG analysis of major muscles involved in the snatch and the clean show that inter muscular coordination, i.e., the economy of movement, of the master of sport differs markedly from that of the lower classified lifter.

The effectiveness of muscular activity depends on the net torque produced. So, an unreasonable level of co-activation of muscle antagonists involved in movement production is generally acknowledged to be inefficient. EMG analysis of the inter muscular coordination of the high class weightlifter (Master of Sport, Master of Sport International class) revealed an alternation of rapid bursts of EMG activity in the thigh extensors and knee flexors, i.e., a rapid switching of tension between the agonist and antagonist muscles of the thigh. In effect, the knee flexors are in a relatively relaxed state while the knee extensors are contracting and vice versa.

The lower class lifter typically does not display this activation/relaxation scheme for these key muscle groups. Analysis of inter muscular coordination of the lower class athlete revealed a prolonged tension in both the thigh extensors and knee flexors, i.e., protracted co-activation of antagonist and agonist during the explosion phase of the pull (B.A. Podlivayev, 1975, cited by Verkhoshansky) (5). Verkhoshansky also notes that an inter muscular coordination which involves a rapid alternation of EMG bursts between agonist and antagonist is typical of high class athletes in other types of sports which require explosive strength (5). Also, clinical research corroborated the absence of unnecessary muscular tension from the co-activation of antagonists by elite athletes executing simple movement patterns (16).

Inter - muscular Coordination and Weightlifting Training

High technical proficiency in the snatch and the clean and jerk is typically a product of continuous refinement of movement through repetition. The ultimate purpose of training for weightlifting is to develop and perfect the skill to lift a maximum weight in the snatch and the clean and jerk at the precise instant of competition. This skill is connected with lifting a bigger weight to a lower height, at a lesser barbell speed, at a higher speed of body movement than is involved in lifting sub maximum weights in the snatch and the clean and jerk; or it is involved in training exercises. The specificity of this skill is transitory in terms of the lifter's ability to replicate it without frequent practice.

Abajiev (25) cited enhanced inter muscular coordination resulting from significant repetition to explain why 15 year old Naim Suleymanov, at 56 kg bodyweight, lifts 160 kg; yet, 25 to 30 year old lifters, weighing 120 to 130 kg, lift 100 or 110 kg. In his example, the ability to generate great force with the lifting muscles while keeping the synergist muscles in the optimum relaxed state was the explanation for this huge difference in results. "In this case the weightlifters' muscle mass is much bigger, but their inter muscular coordination is different from that of Suleymanov. This is why they perform the movements with the bar 'heavily,' with great energy drains and with decreased efficiency" (25).

Willful Relaxation of Muscles

The relevance to weightlifting to avoid unnecessary tension whether it be from excess tension from gripping, maintenance of posture, or, as a result of psychological excitation, reflects the logical correspondence between the requirements of the activity and physiological capabilities of the human body: "The rapid switch from contraction to relaxation of muscles is not confined to just switching from one movement to another (from the explosion to the squat under).... An exceptional 'explosion' phase of the snatch or the clean necessitates that the weightlifter's muscles are able to contract rapidly, but they also are able to switch quickly from one state to another" (2).

Although subtle in nature, a "general" tension from "psychological excitation" has the same adverse affect on the weightlifter's net power output as the excessive tension from gripping or to the maintenance of the posture of the trunk: it can compromise the crucial alternation of contraction/relaxation of key lifting muscles.

"The athlete's ability to voluntarily relax his muscles is of extraordinary importance for assimilation of high technical mastery. This is not an easy task because of the tension associated with weightlifting exercises; muscle tonus is high and relaxation of muscles is difficult" (2). Great weightlifters like David Rigert, Yurik
Vardanyanand Yuri Zakharevich appeared to be half asleep as they stood over a barbell before lifting a world record weight. In contrast, it is quite common to see powerlifters, under similar circumstances, screaming, faces flushed, fists clenched in a high state
of excitation. This radical difference in approach is undoubtedly one of the reasons (but by no means the only one) that powerlifters find it very difficult to successfully switch from powerlifting to Olympic style weightlifting.

The "tight athlete, one who is consciously or unconsciously creating unnecessary muscle tension, is less likely to be able to perform the seamless, fluid motion which is required to lift a maximum weight. The net power output the athlete would otherwise be capable of producing is diminished by unnecessary muscular tension. Consequently, the "tight athlete's" maximum results in the snatch and clean and jerk are more likely to be less.

"High" Muscle Tonus and Training for Strength

Absolute strength is an important quality for weightlifting but excessive training on strength with a large loading of heavy weights from pulls, squats, presses and the like can have a negative effect on improvement of the snatch and the clean and jerk. Speed of muscle contraction and speed of movement are the critical skills for the weightlifter. These skills have to be reinforced frequently.

For instance, "A high muscle tonus can impede the speed of movement because increasing the tonus of the working muscles hinders their relaxation" (V.L. Federov, 1958, cited by Sokolov) {19}. "Special research shows that lifters who have the highest muscle tonus are those who get carried away with strength exercises" (19). So, not only does one's skill in achieving the optimal state of muscle tension in working and non working muscles affect weightlifting technique, but it also affects the contents of the training.

Relaxation of Muscles and Muscle Mechanics

The concept of relaxation of muscles and elimination of unnecessary tension plays an important role in other sports requiring maximum effort in a short period of time. The physiological basis for relaxation of muscles is simply common sense.

In Track and Field, the importance of relaxation of muscles in the sprints is common knowledge as "the number one secret to greater speed is relaxation! It allows a faster and more complete shutdown of antagonists, quickening alternation cycles and permitting more force to be delivered in the desired direction with less energy consumption. Relaxation must become second nature in every drill you do and every run you take. You may feel that you aren't generating enough force while relaxed (a perception that gets a lot of sprinters into trouble in big races), but remember, only the net force counts! The net force is the amount of force delivered in the desired direction minus the force generated by the antagonist muscle at the same moment" (9).

It is necessary to consciously focus on a general relaxation of muscles prior to lifting in order to "clear the body's electrical circuitry." For example, a signal from the brain to the muscles to contract is like a phone call that has to be connected by a series of operators to finally get connected to the party one is calling. Tension in unnecessary muscles or an excessive muscular tension to maintain the posture or grip is like having too many "people" trying to place a call on a what must be understood, as far as the body is concerned, a limited number of circuits.

The electrochemical to mechanical efficiency of the body's movements can be compromised by unnecessary muscular tension immediately preceding and during the performance of the snatch and the clean and jerk.

For instance, the horsepower rating of an automobile does not factor in the possibility of the air conditioning running at full blast, the radio and dome lights on while the driver is trying to go from 0 to 60 miles per hour as quickly as possible. The auto's "accessories" draw some of the engine's power away from propulsion just as unnecessary muscular tension reduces the net power output of the weightlifter. The "relaxed" weightlifter eliminates unnecessary "accessories" to achieve the most effective power output from the main lifting muscles and the greatest speed of movement.

Although there are special exercises for muscle relaxation and other activities like massage and vibro massage that promote relaxation, ultimately, a weightlifter needs to develop the ability to willfully relax the muscles. This is an essential component to prepare to lift the heaviest weights in competition.

References

  1. From Sovietsky Sport Publishers, Publication #239:1988
  2. Vorobeyev, A.N., Tyazhelaya Atletika, Fizkultura I Sport, P ublishers, Moscow 1972, pp: 63; 93 - 111.
  3. Frolov, V.I., "Analysis of Kinematic and Dynamic Parameters of the Movement of the Athlete and the Barbell", Published by the Lenin State Central Institute of Physical Culture, 1980. P. 6
  4. Falameyev, A. I., Salnikov, V. A., Kimeishei, B.V., Some Observations about Weightlifting Technique, The P. F. Institute of Physical Culture, Lenningrad, 1980
  5. Verkhoshansky, Y.V., Fundamentals of the Special Physical Preparation of Athletes, Fizkultura I Sport, Publishers, Moscow, 1988:17
  6. Charniga, A., The Relative Value of Pulling Exercises in the Training of Weightlifters, Sportivny Press, www.dynamic-eleiko.com 2003
  7. Sokolov, L.N., "Modern Training of Weighlifters", Weightlifting Yearbook, 1974:4 - 8 Fizkultura I Sport, Publishers 1974, Translated by Bernd W. Scheithauer, M.D. 1975
  8. Luchkin, N.I., Weightlifting, Fizkultura I Sport, Publishers, Moscow, 1962
  9. Quote attributed to Charlie Francis on the Internet, 2002.
  10. Medvedyev, A.S., Melkonyan, A.A., Frolov, V.I., 1985 Weightlifting Yearbook, pp 85 - 89, Sportivny Press, Livonia, Michigan. Translated by Andrew Charniga, Jr.
  11. Frolov, V.I., Efimov, N.M., Vanagas, M.P., The Training Weights in the Snatch Pull, Tyazhelaya Atletika, Fizkultura I Sport Publishers, Moscow, 1977: 65 - 67. Translated by Andrew Charniga, Jr.
  12. Medvedyev, A.S., Melkonyan, A.A., Frolov, V.I., 1985 Weightlifting Yearbook, pp 85 - 89, Sportivny Press, Translated by Andrew Charniga, Jr.
  13. Matveyev, L.P., Fundamentals of Sport Training, Progress Publishers, Moscow 1981:25 - 26
  14. Engels, F., Dialectics of Nature, International Publishers, new York, 1973
  15. Vorobeyev, A.N., Tyazhelaya Atletika, Fizkultura I Sport, Publishers, Moscow, 1981
  16. Enoka, R. M., Neuromechanics of Human Movement, pp 353:2001, Human Kinetics, Publishers
  17. Astrand, P., Rodahl, K., Dahl, H. A., Stromme, S. B., Textbook of Work Physiology, Human Kinetics, Publishers, Champaign, IL 2003, PP - 328
  18. Kanyevsky, V.B., Teaching the Starting Position of the Snatch and the and the Clean and Jerk to Novice Weightlifters, Weightlifting Technique and Training, 1992, Translated by Andrew Charniga, Jr.
  19. Sokolov, L.N., The Significance of Speed in Weightlifting and Methods to Develop It, Tyazhelaya Atletika, Sbornik Statei. Fizkultura I Sport, Publishers, Moscow 1971:111 - 118
  20. Vorobeyev, A.,N., Tyazhelaya Atletika, I Sport, Moscow, Publishers, 1977, PP 6 -7
  21. Chernyak, A.V., The Optimal Ratio of the Triathlon Exercises Tyazhelaya Atletika, Sbornik Statei. Fizkultura I Sport, Publishers, Moscow, 1971:18 - 24
  22. Sokolov, L.N., "Modern Training of Weightlifters", Weightlifting Yearbook, Translated by Bernd W. Scheithauer, M.D., 1975:4 - 8
  23. Samusevitch, A.K., Tyazhelaya Atletika, Belarus, Publishers, Minsk, 1967:88
  24. Zhekov, I.P., Biomechanics of the Weighltifting Exercises, Sportivny Press, Livonia, Michigan, Translated by Andrew Charniga, Jr. 1992.
  25. Abajiev, I., "The Preparation of International Class Weightlifters", Proceedings of the IWF Coaching - Medical Seminar, Varna, 1983:57 - 63.