Olympic Lifting K.I.S.S. – Keep It Simple, Sucka
This is a quick and simple guide (sorta) to those silly lifts ya see in the Olympics every 4 years. Here also be a melting pot of lifters featured in these pictures, from my home fries here at Bodytribe to Olympic competitors, and I thank them for being a part of this whether they know they are or not. A handful of these pics were donated by Tracy Fober, AKA Iron Maven, so please visit her blog and witness her good work. Strewn throughout this virtual mini-pastiche are also little paragraphs of Fun Facts, the sorta crap that I find fascinating and can bring out the historical geek in all of us.
Now put on some groovy jams, have some odorous tea, and read away. Here we go…
Point A: the ground.
Point B: above the head.
The Olympic Lifts are simply two competitive ways of getting the heaviest weight possible from Point A to Point B. No racks, no gear, just put a bar on the ground and get it up over your head swiftly. Over the course of the last century there evolved universally accepted rules and guidelines that could be judged and sanctioned so everyone was on the same page. Since the first modern Olympic games in 1896, the contest of strength has gone from as many as 10 lifts using multiple tools to what we might recognize today, the clean and jerk, and the snatch, with just the barbell. By the way, to the majority of the world, what we call Olympic Lifting is simply known as the sport of Weightlifting.
Fun Facts: In 1904, there was a 2-handed barbell lift, A 1-handed barbell snatch, and an all-around DB challenge, which consisted of 9 lifts (plus an optional 10th lift of choice), and included variations of the snatch, the jerk and even curls. Weightlifting was originally considered part of the Track and Field events. Competitors would often also compete in the Tug-o-War or a throwing event as well. There was also a club swinging challenge, which was part of the gymnastics events.
Sometimes the simplest route can be the most effective. The Olympic lifts aren’t as complicated and technical as certain factions would like to shove down your throat. The clean and the snatch can be summed up in the three pulls: get it off the ground (first pull), explode it a bit higher (the extension, second pull) and get under the darn thing (pulling yourself down, third pull). The evolution of these lifts has been geared towards making these things happen faster, safer and more efficiently.
But people get a little touchy when these lifts are presented like a kindergarten counting lesson. There is a culture in the Olympic lifts that take them as seriously as a soap opera and revere them as something elite, extra complicated and deeply profound. They want them to be JUST RIGHT, or they simply don’t count. They’ve got an internal rulebook that strictly governs how to get from Point A to Point B, and anything not abiding to those rules is simply wrong, bad or ineffective. We’ve seen these people before, but in different sports, and disciplines. Even often in the face of complete contradiction, like coaches who screamed that Michael Johnson’s upright sprinting technique was wrong, despite his victories.
Then there’s the other side. The trend of workload training that has now turned these lifts into another animal entirely. Get the bar over head many, many times in as little time as possible. These shouldn’t even be called Olympic lifts, since they don’t share the same technique or the same goal. Olympic lifts are the most efficient technique to move the heaviest weight once, while these high rep challenges are an endurance battle utilizing a different skill set, energy system, and, to be honest, different technique. It’s like comparing sprinting to jogging… one is a maximum application of force, the other is a smaller application of force over a greater amount of volume. These have morphed into two different styles. This article addresses the first one , but feel free to apply the techniques to the second one. Just try to avoid letting fatigue let it go to hell. As Tommy Kono says, practice makes permanent. If you’re practicing slop, guess what you’re making permanent?
Olympic lifting, and most of the other techniques we use to move heavy weight, keep evolving, morphing and changing, and it is often in the face of stony face lifters who swear by an ideal. Now there are some key points that are fairly essential to these lifts, and far be it from me to understate the importance of technique, or give any idea that I don’t think these lifts totally kick ass.
There is, as with everything athletic, the ideal model and the realistic model. The best coaches in the world are the ones who completely grok this and work with each person individually on aiming for the ideal while embracing the realistic. The best coaches are those who can fit the form to the lifter, not the other way around. But a dogmatic coach can’t wrap his hook grip around the malleable model, the ‘realistic’ model, and decides to tenaciously embrace an ideal concept with many particulars that he looks for. As nice as these nitpicky details might be, they don’t necessarily lead to a stronger, safer or more efficient lift for each person. (And the bad coach lets the slop dominate the workout).
In other words for now let’s focus on the big picture. Wanna get your head around the basics of Weightlifting? Then focus on the three pulls. I want to convey the 3 pulls and set them up as the basis for OL training. That, for most folks learning the lifts, is the meat of weightlifting. Exacts and fine tuned specifics can sometimes lack importance to the big picture.
Fun Facts: In countries where this sport isn’t that popular (think English speaking countries), it is often referred to as Olympic Weightlifting, since the Olympics are the only time most folks in those countries pay attention to it. But the rest of the world has always simply referred to it as the sport of Weightlifting and keep abreast of competitions throughout the year, every year. But weightlifting also has a way cooler, almost dangerous sounding moniker as well. Stemming from the Greek word Halteres (throwing weights) comes Halterophilia. Although it sounds like it could be a skin disease or a diagnosis found in the DMS IV, it was a much more common term used about half a century ago (actually still used by some countries), and gives you serious snob credibility if you use it at your next party.
Most folks getting involved in any serious level of competition will not get there through just an article online, or even a book or video. So getting some time under the eyes of experienced tutelage would be the next logical step after getting the bug for the fast lifts through this article.
Weightlifting will mess with many a first timer’s head. The popular weight training seen in the average health club or gym is ‘hard’ training, meaning there is a constant tension in the working muscles, often making the movement tense and sort of slow. But weightlifting has periods of ‘softness’ in which, after a powerful and quick contraction, there is a period of movement sans tension. Any boxer will tell you that throwing a punch is the same way. A strong cross starts from a period of powerful tension, creating an explosive movement. But for the movement to continue, there must be a softening of tension, only to harden again as the punch cultivates into a full, and potent, extension.
Now if you’re a neophyte attempting a clean or snatch for the first time, a light bar just begs to be muscled up. Heck, why should you clean it when you can curl it? So the art of weightlifting begins with pretending that 20 pounds is 200 pounds. Moving the bar is only part of the battle. Moving the body around the bar (the ‘soft’ part) is the other important aspect, and no other form of weight training really incorporates that concept.
Yes, there might be a little benefit in the beginning to adding a modicum of weight to the bar, forcing you to move around it rather than muscling the bar into position. But this isn’t a license to be stupid. There is a reason many coaches will knock your noggin if you so much as attempt anything heavier than a naked bar, or even a PVC pipe, for the first few weeks. Form trumps load when learning any type of battle with gravity, and many coaches feel that mastering an empty bar is step one. Wax on, wax off.
But if adding a little weight teaches you to move around the bar rather than move the bar around you, then so be it. Just don’t let ego get in the way. It doesn’t matter what you squat or bench press. Be humble before the fast lifts. They will reward you later.
The 3 pulls: Big Man/Little Man
No matter how nit picky anyone gets about their dogmatic version of how the lifts should go, we’re going to boil the clean and the snatch down to the 3 pulls (we’ll worry about the jerk later in the article). In other words, we can split the lift into 3 sections, and each section has it’s own particulars. For now, let’s keep things simple. We’ll leave the crazed details for folks to argue over in oly lifting forums and chat rooms. Here’s the simple version that anyone can start to work on, adding these lifts into their lifting arsenal.
The First Pull
This pull gets the bar off the floor to the knees. Looks like our friend the Deadlift, but there are some key differences that separate this pull from your powerlifting training. We’re setting up the bar for the second pull here, and if we follow a powerlifting protocol, we won’t be in the best position for the hip snap of the second pull. Therefore, let’s focus on staying over the bar more instead of trying to straighten our hips out so much. So unlike a powerlifting deadlift, the first pull for the clean will have most of the extension coming from the knees, not the hips.
That’s right, you’re straightening your knees more than your hips (lets even say pushing the knees back a bit). In fact the hips stay as close to the same angle through this entire pull. Why?
The Second Pull
Because the hips are needed mostly for the second pull. Once the bar passes the knees, the hips take over the show. So if they are still sufficiently back and bent after the first pull, they should have plenty of room to snap explosively forward. This movement will really get the bar moving up a bit. But the bar doesn’t have to come way up to the shoulders. Why?
The Third Pull
Because now we pull ourselves under the bar. Why waste energy on trying to get the bar super high when we can instead get UNDER it? This is what separates the sport of Weightlifting from any other sport. This is where the athleticism kicks in. Can we go from the tallest, most extended position we can (the second pull, what we call Big Man) into a deep squat (Little Man) faster than lightening can strike?
Well, probably not, but that is the perpetual goal. The Big Man/Little Man transition is the key to making a lift, but don’t forget the first pull, which sets the stage for this to happen properly.
Fun Facts: The 1924 Olympics in Paris saw the last use of globe barbells. For that year, lifters could chose between globe or plate loaded barbells. The French were among the only lifters who chose the globe weights, and even won the light-heavyweight division. Since then, plate loaded has been the only option.
So here are some tips for the three pulls for the Clean and Snatch
A quick note… before you start delving into the lifts with aplomb, be well versed in how to drop the bar. If your gym or lifting dojo doesn’t have a designated weightlifting area with bumper plates, this might be a problem, as dropping anything in these types of places is grounds for your membership card getting ripped up. Support your local lifting center and practice where dropping heavy stuff in encouraged. And then learn to drop it, since you will, whether it is planned or not. The bail-out is an important skill to acquire before throwing any weight over your head.
- Start with feet under the bar.
- Grab the bar with a hook grip*. The snatch will have a much wider grip than a clean, and we discuss it a bit more further down this page.
- Lock the lats and the spine with our perpetual “chest up, booty out” cue, setting a tight arch and packing the shoulders into the ribs.
- Despite the deep starting position you’ll see many competitors take, for now focus on this easy set up position: hips higher than knees, chest higher than hips.
- Lock the lats and the spine (everyone can use reminding a couple of times)
- Head up, eyes conversational, like you’re chatting with the 6-year-old child right in front of you.**
- Keep that chest over the bar, not behind it.
- Start to rise by driving your feet into the ground with your weight bearing down towards the center or even to the rear of your foot.
- As you rise, stay over the bar, but keep the bar close to you
* Haven’t practiced a hook grip yet? Wrap those fingers around the thumb, not the other way around. It hurts at first, but you get used to it. Is it important? When the weight gets heavy, it behooves us to not have to worry about holding onto the bar.
** There’s an increasing trend of folks insisting that the neck be completely neutral, and the eyes should be focused down a little, eliminating neck flexion. C’mon… the slight flexion in the starting position of a clean, or the bottom position of a squat or deadlift, is not detrimental to spine safety, and the over-concern for some sort of theoretical proper perfectly straight spine position is unfounded in this case. If you’re straining your neck at the bottom position, there are other issues in place, and keeping a neutral cervical spine is not the answer, and can easily throw the lift off by offering a chance for the hips to rise faster than the chest. Look ahead with head and eyes, for god’s sake!
So, you’re over the bar, it’s passing the knees, your arch is tight and your hips are back. Now what? Dan John likens the first pull to pulling back a bow string (loading those hamstrings), and the second pull to letting the bow string go, launching the arrow. So the second pull is the releasing of the tight bow string (the loaded hamstrings), which means…
- Snap the hips hard. This hip drive has been referred to by Mike Mahler as the ‘Midnight Move,’ since this violent thrust can be perceived as a bit obscene. So be it.
- For now, focus on a combined hip drive/shrug and see where it takes you.*
- Keep it close to the body. We often say ‘shave the thighs.’ If the hip snap whacks the bar away from you by bumping your legs into the bar, you’ll lose power trying to bring it back.**
- By the way… this is meant to be FAST! Your feet might leave the platform. Fine, they have to alter their position a bit for the third pull anyway, so if you explode up hard enough for the body to rise off the floor for a quick second, groovy. It isn’t necessary, and some coaches advise against it, but forcing your body NOT TO might lead to more problems. Just watch out for the big ‘stomp’ that some folks practice. They not only rise off the platform from the second pull, but they purposely lift their feet towards their butt, and then stomp them back onto the platform during the third pull. This was vogue for a while, but has lost popularity since spending that much time not connected to the platform reduces any force you have created, and can slow down your pull under the bar.
* The shrug: Old school thought: Combining a powerful shrug with the hip drive will get the bar moving up. New school thinking: a powerful shrug should be the beginning of the third pull, shrugging yourself DOWN rather than shrugging the bar UP. The first concept (shrug the bar up) works great for power cleans, and beginners seem to grasp this idea quicker. The second concept (shrugging the body down) can increase the speed and effectiveness of the third pull, but it is a bit tricky for a beginner to comprehend.
** The dreaded and debated thigh bump! Now when I say ‘thigh bump” I mean thigh bump, not hip bump. If the bar slides up (“shaves”) the quads due to hip extension, then the hips might make contact with the bar pretty hard at the top of the pull, groovy, that ain’t gonna make a heavy bar change trajectory. But there is a growing trend amongst a certain faction of lifters (a couple schools under the influence of a certain coach or two) who have a new and modern (um… and silly) take on theses pulls, starting the first pull like an upright deadlift almost up to mid thigh, then slamming the thigh against the bar for the second pull. The logic to this escapes me, yet I continue to see it amongst the local meets here quite a bit.
That second pull really gets that bar moving up. But if the bar is really heavy, it won’t come up too far, so you’d better get under it. This is more than a drop… this is a PULL. So…
- Yank your body down into a beautiful front squat (clean) or overhead squat (snatch) , while…
- Shooting your elbows up into the eye of the sky, racking the bar securely on your shoulders for a clean or catching it overhead for a snatch.
Got it? Good. Now stand up.
There’s your clean or snatch, but although they follow the same basic steps, there are two big differences…
1) Grab the bar much wider for the snatch. The snatch grip is easy to figure out. Forget all the rules about hand placement that involve any numbers or measurement. Simply take a PVC pipe and find the narrowest width you can hold that pipe while taking it from over your head back to your butt with perfectly straight arms. This is often referred to as a ‘shoulder dislocate’ and is a great warmup for the snatch. But we’re going to use it as the brain dead way of determining snatch grip width. Now duplicate that distance on the barbell, and you’re good to go. If you want to test it, simply overhead squat with this width. That will tell you if it works or not (it will… if you know how to overhead squat).
2) The snatch won’t stop at the shoulders. The third pull isn’t to rack the bar, but to get us under it in a deep overhead squat, then we stand up with it locked out over our heads. From ground to over the head, Point A to Point B, in one movement. This means that the lift will be lighter than your clean, and it will feel a bit different to practice.
On paper, the clean and the snatch don’t look that different. In execution, the differences can be almost frightening. The snatch is often learned first, simply because it is technically trickier and makes the technique for the clean seem like a recess once you get around to it. There might be nuances in foot position and third pulls that we won’t even get into here… keeping things simple, remember?
The jerk is part 2 of the Clean and Jerk, which finishes the travel of the bar from point A to point B after the clean, and we’ve saved the jerk for last since it is probably the most simple of the techniques to understand, especially after understanding the concept of getting under the bar that is essential to the clean and snatch.
So the clean leads to a nicely racked bar across the front-top of the shoulder blades, waiting eagerly for the second half of its journey. Once someone has a strong understanding of the clean, they can get a significant amount of weight to this racked position, more weight than they can strictly press. So using the legs to drive the bar upwards just enough to then push the body UNDER the bar will be the best way to move the most weight.
- Set up strong. Weight on heels, chest proud.
- There are some choices for elbows. Keeping them up in the same rack position you caught the bar from the clean is an easy option, but bringing elbows a little more down and out while locking the lats in place is a superb option for many, helping lock in an even tighter foundation position for the spine.
- Squat quickly down just a tad to then explosively drive the bar upwards using the legs.
- The bar won’t go much higher than standing height, but that’s all that is needed, since you’ll be pushing yourself down UNDER the bar
- The easiest way to get under the bar quickly is to split the legs, like a lunge, while locking the arms out, ending with the bar securely locked overhead in a split stance.
- Stand up. Many coaches recommend front foot first, but it sometimes isn’t the natural path the body wants to travel. Just get up, with the bar locked overhead.
Fun Facts: From 1928 until 1972, there were three contested lifts, with the Press joining the famous pair we see in competition today. But, due to the fear of the officials watching people practically break themselves in two, the Press was eliminated from competition. Lifters were bending extremely far back, turning the lift more into something resembling a standing bench press than a strict overhead press, and they’d sneak in a subtle knee bend to drive the weight up. But instead of just enforcing the rules about beck bend and knee bend (or lack thereof) better, the IPF decided to just toss the lift into the burn pile (there was some political pressure as well, as there often in is high level competitive sports, but that’s another story).
What this all could mean to you.
Want size? Some of the most impressive physiques I’ve ever seen have been on Weightlifters. In fact many of the best physiques in the world (think Arnie) built their foundations through Weightlifting. The Bodybuilders from the middle of the last century were often weightlifters FIRST, then they thought they’d show off their hard work through physique contests. In fact bodybuilding contests were held in conjunction with weightlifting meets. To compete in one was to also compete in the other.
Want speed and athleticism? Weightlifters, when tested in other disciplines of speed, usually track and field events, can often post remarkable results sans any real training in those events. Even the biggest of the lifters often have remarkable speed and agility. It’s inherent to the sport, and the crossover to other sports is undeniable.
Wanna be a competitive weightlifter? Delve deeper into this world by finding a good coach to work with. Now that you’ve got the basics, it is time to learn the details.