Strategies for Movement Development:
The Olympic Lifts, Part 1
The quick lifts are notorious for their perceived complexity and many athletes struggle developing capacity in the lifts. To the undeveloped lifter, the Olympic lifts look like a blur of movement and often feel even worse. Putting it all together seems overwhelming and often frustration and dismay ensue. The good news however is that with the right approach steady progress can be made. Below are three things to consider that I gurantee will make your training more productive.
The Olympic Lifts (Snatch & Clean and Jerk) are different than the Power Lifts (Deadlift, Back Squat, Bench Press). While both are barbell exercises, the Olympic lifts are demonstrations of power expressed through a technically sensitive sequence movements and positions. Their inherent speed decreases your margin for error unlike the power lifts (misnomer anyone?) which are performed at slower tempos and are easier for your nervous system to process. We often harp on gradually increasing the loads on your power lifts to develop strength and many in our gym have been quite successful getting strong through gradual progressive increases of weight on the bar. We cannot however expect the same linear development of the olympic lifts. Your emphasis when approaching these lifts should be “as heavy as technically proficient today” instead of “a little heavier than last time”. If you’re feeling good and the positions are clicking, then by all means push a little that day, but if you’re missing positions and starting to deviate from good form, you need to pull back and work on the skill component of the lifts. This mindset helps produce productive training sessions where you can focus on getting better, not necessarily moving more weight. Instead, each time you train, focus on one to two aspects of the lift you want to develop that day. Even if you moved 10lbs less then the previous week but your rack delivery became a little smoother and quicker, you’ve moved in the right direction.
The biggest mistake I see athletes make is not taking the time to develop PERFECT starting and rack positions. The beauty of these is that they’re static positions you can take the time to work on and get right every time. There are a lot of things happening quickly in the Olympic lifts, but if you focus on achieving mature start and end positions a lot of the blurry stuff in the middle will naturally begin to work itself out.
Start position basics
Whether you’re starting from below the knee, the floor or anywhere else take the time to make sure your back is arched, your weight is balanced and the bar is touching your body with your arms hanging straight. On top of that, remember that you’re about to rapidly accelerate a barbell and you need to get TIGHT. This means taking the slack out of the barbell/you system by taking a big breath in and bracing your muscles. You upper back should feel engaged and your hamstrings should be on tension (like our “gillie” stretch). A simple way to think about this would be to imagine you’re about to jump as high as you possibly can from your start position. Another way to think about it is to imagine you’re going to throw the barbell as high as you can towards the ceiling. These mental cues often help people achieve the positions and tension they need to initiate an efficient pull (does this guy look soft?). Never, ever (ever) rush through your start position. If you’re soft or out of balance, the barbell’s trajectory will deviate from where it needs to be and the lift will be missed or botched. You simply cannot lift well from a bad start position, so take the time to learn exactly where you need to and get there every-single-time.
I don’t think there’s anything that makes me want to pull my hair out more than people who try and stand up a lift they haven’t properly racked on their shoulders or overhead. It’s understandable that this portion of the lift can be difficult for folks because of mobility restrictions or general apprehension about the movement but once you’ve got that barbell in the rack position, take the time to make it perfect before standing it up. If it’s so heavy that you can’t troubleshoot your position here you’ve jumped the gun and gone too heavy too fast. Developed lifters will need to troubleshoot minor errors and occasionally chase a lift but it’s never because they don’t know how to properly rack the barbell. Think of if this way, every time you do an Olympic lift there are three positions you need to get through.
A. Your Start Position: On tension, in balance and ready to explode
B. Your Rack Position: In the clean, this means the barbell is on your shoulders with your hands open and elbows as high as you can get them. In the Snatch, the barbell is locked out overhead above the middle of your foot. These can be received anywhere from a 1/4 to full squat.
C. Your Finish Position: Fully stood up with the barbell and you in balance and under control.
Often I see people want to go straight from A to C in an effort to simply complete the lift. If there is no distinct rack delivery position in the early stages of your learning progression you will NEVER (ever) move heavier weights well and you’ll never lift anywhere near as much as you’re truly capable of. The “B” should be a quick, distinct and crisp moment where the lift is won or lost.
Have you ever really pressed out a snatch overhead? YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG. Have you ever stood up a clean with your hands still clenched to the barbell and your elbows low? YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG. Stop doing it wrong, it’s really not that hard. Just fucking take the extra time to fix the position every time you get there before standing up. If you practice this consistently it eventually won’t be a problem because a smooth and complete rack delivery will be so intuitive to you you’ll get as mad as I am right now when you see people rushing through this portion. These concepts also hold true for Olympic lifts in conditioning workouts. Every rep should be executed with intention of hitting A-B-C-A-B-C-A-B-C… as consistently and correctly and quickly as possible. The newer you are, the longer you’re going to need to take at each position before moving to the next. If your WODs look like A-C-A-C-A-B²-C-a-q-C-A-W?-C you need to chill out out and slow down.
In conclusion, don’t stress about your numbers every time you train the O-Lifts, learn what a good start position feels like and never stand up a lift you haven’t finished racking. Easy peasy.
Okay, movie time
Califorina Strength on Cleaning and the Rack Position
Watch Cal Strength at Catalyst Athletics. Get used to seeing the A-B-C for each lift.