Olympic Lifting 101

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The sport of Olympic lifting is comprised of two lifts: the snatch and clean & jerk. These lifts are both tests of power and strength and require a great amount of technical expertise. In the snatch, the athlete must move the bar from the floor to an overhead position. In the clean & jerk, the athlete must first move the bar from the floor to the shoulders, and then from the shoulders to an overhead position. Judges indicate whether or not the lift is successful.

Strength coaches use a variety of different techniques to improve athleticism. They may employ techniques from bodybuilding, powerlifting, physical therapy, pre-habilitation, track & field, and Olympic weightlifting. The key detail to remember is that you are developing athletes and not Olympic weightlifters; therefore, it’s important to think of the Olympic lifts as just a few tools in your toolbox that can be used to to aid in the development of your athletes.

Many different coaches disagree on whether athletes should perform the Olympic lifts the classic style (from the floor) or from the hang position (slightly above the knees). Both starting positions have their benefits, but the hang position seems to be suitable for all athletes, especially taller athletes who do not possess the best body types for the sport of Olympic weightlifting. The hang position is easier to teach and you do not encounter the flexibility issues that become readily apparent when one performs the lifts from the floor. 

Another benefit of performing the lifts from the hang is that this is the position from which most athletes most commonly apply force; the classic “athletic position” is characterized by the feet under the hips, knees slightly bent, and butt back.

Very rarely are athletes required to produce force with a deep knee bend (as is encountered with the classical style of Olympic weightlifting). This deep squat position is, however, highly specific to football linemen, baseball and softball catchers, and rowers. Nonetheless, the following teaching progressions will be based on the hang position.

Snatch Progression

1. Starting Position

The starting position for the snatch and the clean are identical. The athlete begins in the power position, which is feet hip-width apart and a slight bend in the knees. The grip that we will initially teach is the clean grip, which is an overhand, closed, shoulder-width grip. The traditional snatch grip is usually taught once the athlete knows how to perform both the snatch and clean.

The reason I recommend teaching the clean grip first is that it will emphasize getting maximal hip extension, because the bar will have to travel a greater distance as a result of the closer grip. Also, the clean grip will help to reinforce the grip for the clean and the jerk.

2. Picking up the Bar

This is one of the most important details in learning the Olympic lifts. Picking up a bar and putting down a bar incorrectly can lead to injuries, so it is imperative that you teach your athletes the proper techniques in this regard. The athlete must pick the bar up with a tight, flat back with the shoulders blades squeezed together. This will help to provide support to the spine and lower back. Do not let your athletes get lazy with this technique. They should use the same technique regardless if they are picking the bar up from the floor, blocks, or training trays.

3. Hip Separation/RDL

The next step in the progression is to teach hip separation, a term that I learned from strength coach Chris West. This term is used to describe separating the trunk from the hips. Trunk flexion/extension is completely different than hip flexion/extension. When performing the Olympic lifts from the hang, we initially want to get hip separation by performing hip flexion by pushing the hips back to stretch the glutes and hamstrings. This pre-stretch will allow a greater contraction of these muscles, when they are recruited.

Getting back to hip separation, the exercise used to teach this is the Romanian deadlift (RDL). As mentioned before, this exercise is used to stretch the hamstrings and glutes. To accomplish this stretch, keep a slight knee bend, tight flat back, and initiate the movement by pushing the hips back.

The bar should slide down the athlete’s thighs. A good teaching cue is to tell the athlete that they should attempt to push their weight onto their heels, or to try and touch their butt to the other side of the room. As a coach, you should be watching to see if their hips backward; if they don’t, the athlete is simply bending at their trunk and not the hips, and no hip separation is occurring.

4. Jump Shrug

This next step in the progression is used to teach the athlete to keep their arms straight and maximally use the lower body to accomplish the movement. Begin the exercise in an upright position, and then perform a RDL to the top of the knees.

As soon as the bar reaches the athlete’s knees, he should explosively jump as high as possible by pushing the feet into the ground and driving the hips forward. At the top of the jump, the athlete should shrug their shoulders straight up. The arms should be kept straight through the entire movement.

5. Snatch (High) Pull

This exercise is used to teach the athlete to keep the bar close to the body during the pull portion. The movement is similar to the Jump Shrug. The main difference is that the athlete will now use their arms at the top of the movement and explosively pull the bar up to the chin after triple extension of the ankles, knees, and hips has occurred.

The athlete does not have to jump during the exercise; they should simply rise to their toes as the arms begin to pull. Again, watch to make sure that the arms are straight until triple extension has occurred, and the bar stays close to the body.

6. Overhead Squat

The overhead squat is great for teaching the catch position. It is very important to make the athlete comfortable with the bar overhead; just as importantly, this exercise develops movement-specific torso stability to maintain the bar overhead while keeping the arms straight. The athlete should move his feet out to a “strength position,” which a stance outside of shoulder-width.

The arms should be straight overhead with the bar slightly behind the head. A good teaching cue is that the biceps of the arms should be even with the ears. The athlete then should descend into a squat by initiating the movement by pushing the hips back and bending the knees.

7. Snatch

The final step in the progression is to put all the steps together in a cohesive movement. The athlete begins with the feet under the hips, shoulders back, and a slight bend in the knees. He then pushes the hips back until the bar reaches the top of the knees. The athlete then jumps as high as possible; at the top of the jump he violently shrugs his shoulders and pulls the bar up overhead, all the while keeping it close to his body. 

As the feet hit the ground, they should be moving to a point where they are slightly outside the shoulders; the arms are straight, punching into the bar overhead. The bar should then be brought down to the shoulders and then lowered back to the thighs for the next repetition.

Progression for Clean

Since the snatch was taught with a shoulder width grip, the initial steps are all the same to teach the clean. This is why I prefer to teach the snatch first.

1. Front Squat

The Front Squat is the catch position for the clean. The athletes’ feet are slightly wider than shoulder width apart and the bar begins at shoulder level. The elbows should be held high (ideally the upper arm should be parallel to the floor), and pointing straight ahead. The bar should rest on the shoulders, and not in the hand. The hands are simply there so that the bar is not dropped. 

Some athletes’ will experience some discomfort through the wrists due to inflexibility, but they should be encouraged that it is common and they will get past it. One particular stretch that is effective is a behind the back prayer stretch. Attempt to close your hands together behind your back, as shown in the picture below. Begin the movement by pushing the hips back and bending at the knees to a point where the upper thigh is parallel to the floor. The athlete must get used to catching the bar on the shoulders and not in the hands.

2. Clean

The clean begins in the same manner as the snatch. The athlete begins with his feet under the hips, shoulders back, and a slight bend in the knees. The athlete then pushes his hips back until the bar reaches the top of the knees, and immediately thereafter jumps as high as possible. At the top of the jump, he violently shrugs his shoulders and pulls the bar up his body. 

As the feet hit the ground, they should be moving out to a point where they are slightly outside shoulder-width; the arms should be rotating under the bar until it rests on the shoulders. The bar should be brought down to the thighs in a controlled manner to reset prior to the next repetition.

Progression for Jerk

Once the snatch and clean have been taught, the jerk is quite easy to learn, as it combines a few of the techniques from the former two exercises.

One begins in the catch position of the clean; the bar is on the shoulders and the elbows are held high. The finish of the jerk is an overhead position similar to the snatch. How the bar gets from the shoulders to overhead is a little different. Moving the hips back and simultaneously bending the knees creates a pre-stretch of the hip and knee extensors to initiate the movement. 

The athlete then violently jumps up and moves the feet out while the bar is traveling overhead. The athlete should imagine punching his hands into the bar to finish in an overhead position. A helpful cue for the jerk is to “dip & drive;” the dip is short and fast, and facilitates the drive portion of the lift. The keys to the dip are to make sure the heels stay flat and the hips move slightly back to engage the glutes.

Note: On all the lifts the feet and bar should hit at the same time during the catch. (i.e. snatch & jerk: feet land at the same time the arms are straight and overhead; clean: bar hits shoulders at the same time the feet land)

Variations & Alternatives

I explained the basic Olympic lifts exclusively with a barbell from the hang, but that does not mean this is the only way to perform the lifts. 

There are a number of variations that are listed below:

  • 1-Arm DB Snatch/Clean/Jerk
  • 2-Arm DB Snatch/Clean/Jerk
  • 1-Arm DB Rotational Snatch/Clean
  • Alt. 1-Arm DB Rotational Snatch/Clean
  • 1-Arm BB Snatch/Clean/Jerk
  • BB Split Snatch/Clean/Jerk
  • 1-Leg DB/BB Snatch/Clean/Jerk
  • 1-Arm/1-Leg DB/BB Snatch/Clean/Jerk

Coaches must feel comfortable performing and teaching the Olympic lifts prior to recommending them to athletes. Nonetheless, even if you still do not have confidence in teaching these lifts, there are alternatives. Many plyometric exercises (such as box jumps) can be used in place of the Olympic lifts. Other alternatives include medicine ball throws that emphasize triple extension of the ankles, knees, and hips.

Conclusion

Implementing the Olympic lifts into your athletes’ programs can make a huge difference in improving their power, athleticism, and confidence. They teach the athlete how to functionally use their entire body to produce force into the ground; load their hips; balance; and coordinate complex movement schemes. 

Use the Olympic lifts as one of the many tools in your toolbox. Remember that the goal is to make a stronger, powerful, injury-resistant athlete, not an Olympic lifter. The lifts should be used in conjunction with a solid program emphasizing all the other parameters of sport performance.

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