Oly Lifting 101
In many of my classes there seems to be either a misconception or a general lack of knowledge concerning the terminology and technique used in the gym… most notably, the Olympic lifts. This is not a surprise because up until the age of CrossFit, only a small section of the general population ever gave the Olympic lifts any thought. Like me, whenever I watched the summer Olympics as a kid, all I can remember is seeing some guys picking a weight off the floor and putting it over their head. Not once did I delve into what was actually happening, the technique they used, or the terminology describing the lifts.
My only real exposure to the weightroom was in the early 80’s in the body-building era of Joe Wieder, Arnold Swarzenegger, Lou Ferigno, GNC, and Muscle&Fitness magazine. I learned how to squat(somewhat), benchpress, leg-extensions, and preacher-curls(that gives me chills to type) done in sets of 6 and 8 with lots of rest between. This diet of movements would sometimes be supplemented with deadlifts and powercleans, which my coaches told me would give me explosive power on the football field. In the powerclean, as I was taught, a lifter “rips” the bar from the ground and catches it in the front rack position. The only coaching I ever received in technique was “use your legs!”. Although I can only speculate, but I’ll bet MOST people my age were exposed to generally the same thing playing high school football in Texas.
For a little history behind the true Olympic lifts, the “snatch” and the “clean and jerk”. In both of these lifts, the bar is taken from the floor and put overhead using large muscle of the posterior-chain with extreme athleticism and shoulder stability… their similarities end there. Although these next thoughts are only conjecture and speculation on my part, I wanted to clear up some confusion concerning terminology… IMO. As stated above with the onslaught of the body-building scene of the 80’s, and the focus on “getting big”, the sport of Oly weightlifting got lost in the shuffle. Compared to a bodybuilder, most weightlifters are not “swoll”… they tend to be compact, with stout legs and a modest upper-body build… but one thing for sure, they are strong and agile. With this body-morph not prized by the Wieder-era, muscle enthusiasts placed little value on the true Olympic lifts. Sure, you’d see a front-squat or maybe a powerclean at a gym once in a while, but not once did I ever witness someone snatch or catch a clean in a full squat. With the rise in popularity of CrossFit and its claim to produce the most broad and general fitness model, the agility, coordination, and speed of the Oly lifts were once again prized. But, with the knowledge of lifting technique known only to a handful of die-hard practitioners and with 30+ years of dormancy in the general fitness population, the Olympic lifts took on new descriptive terms. Herein lies the recent confusion in vocabulary.
For the record, Wikipedia defines the snatch as
The essence of the event is to lift a barbell from the platform to locked arms overhead in a smooth continuous movement. The barbell is pulled as high as the lifter can manage (typically to mid chest height) (the pull) at which point the barbell is flipped overhead. With relatively light weights (as in the “power snatch”) locking of the arms may not require rebending the knees.
As performed in contests, the weight is always heavy enough to demand that the lifter receive the bar in a squatting position, while at the same time flipping the weight so it moves in an arc directly overhead to locked arms (the quick drop). When the lifter is secure in this position, he or she rises (overhead squat), completing the lift. Alternatively, the lifter may use a split style to get under the bar.
The same can be said for the “Clean&Jerk”. “With relatively light weights” the power position is used to receive the weight. The “Power-Position” is an upright stance with the knees bent less than 90 degrees… aka “half-squat”. So to clear up the confusion in vocabulary.
- Snatch – weight is taken from floor to overhead in one continuous motion with arms locked out and received in the bottom of the squat, then squatted up to complete the lift. There is no need to use the word squat-snatch, in much the same way we don’t have to say a ‘squat-squat’ or a ‘squat-wallball’… a squat is understood to be part of the movement. By definition, “snatch” is the name of the full lift.
- Power-snatch – same as #1, except the weight is received in the power-position.
- Clean – weight is taken from floor to the front rack and received in the bottom of the squat, then squatted up to complete the lift. There is no need to use the word squat-clean.
- Power-clean – same as #3, except the weight is received in the power-position.
The power-snatch and power-clean are both useful in a weightlifter’s training regimen, but to never learn or practice the full-lifts is to cheat oneself out of gaining agility and coordination that no other lifts can do. The ‘power’-lifts allow a lifter to exhibit sloppy form with usually too much weight and hinder progress. There are some REALLY strong guys who can powerclean 230#+… but there is a limit. Typically what happens as they attempt to lift heavier and heavier, their form degrades, becoming dangerous and injury-prone… legs spread 4 feet apart and backs hyper-arched. I’ve gotten the response “I’m not any good at catching it low.”… well, then THAT’S exactly what you should be doing more of. Isn’t the whole point in our little CF experiment to try to “get better”??? Show me an athlete who can snatch (full squat) their bodyweight and I’ll bet there isn’t a movement they aren’t capable of doing at CF.
Enough soap-box, but one more thing to avoid coach/client communication breakdowns. The term “hang” has zero to do with whether or not we squat during the lift. All lifts are assumed to start from the floor unless “hang” is used, where the lift starts from the hang-position… somewhere mid-thigh… depending.
Now that we have the lingo clear, lets talk about lifting some heavy crap. The basic principle behind lifting large loads a long distance very quickly is accomplished by an idea of “core to extremity radiation”, or C2E as I’ll call it. “Core” movers are defined by the large (strong) muscles of the hips, back, and butt… sorry “abs” are only anterior-stabilizers and do not apply in this definition. Your core is capable of applying very large forces, but at low velocities. Think of a deadlift… lots of weight, but it moves very slowly. “Extremity” movers are the smaller muscles of the arms and legs. As you move farther from the core, these muscle get smaller but faster. ie. Quads to calves, or shoulders to biceps. Extremity muscles produce significantly less force than core musculature, BUT they are capable of moving very quickly. C2E radiation is the principal of beginning a movement using core muscles to get an external load such as a barbell, baseball, or golfclub moving. Once the object is moving, contraction of extremity muscles radiates outward to increase the velocity (speed) of the moving object. A pitcher starts his pitch with a wind-up involving a twisting of the hips (core)… then his shoulder engages(outward radiation) bringing the ball around… and he finishes with a snap of his wrist (high velocity). I liken C2E to a manual transmission. Anyone familiar with a “stick-shift” knows to get the vehicle moving from a stop sign, you put it in 1st gear and let off the clutch. In 1st gear the engine produces an extreme amount of torque to overcome the car’s inertia and get it moving… but to go faster you must shift to 2nd. 2nd gear produces less torque but allows the car to go faster. This series of gear changes produces the most efficient way to get a car going from dead-stop to top-speed. If the driver attempts to bypass this sequence and tries to start from 2nd or 3rd gear, the result is a stalled engine and failure to take off. 1st gear is your core and the higher gears are your extremities. To overcome a weight’s inertia(its tendency to keep doing what it’s doing… stay put or keep moving), large core muscle with the ability to produce great force are needed. Once the weight is moving, we can “shift” to the extremity musculature to keep the weight moving and even get it moving faster. Watch a season Olympic lifter as they snatch or clean and you’ll recognize this sequence if you watch closely.
- With straight arms , heels planted, and using the large muscle of the hips, hamstrings, and back, the barbell is “deadlifted” off the floor to their knees… this is what we call the “1st-pull”.
- Once at the knees, the lifter accelerates the bar by fully and violently “opening” their hips to the bar… 2nd–pull. At this point their heels are still planted and elbows straight.
- Once to the hips, the lifter shrugs their shoulders, extends their knees,, and rises onto their toes…3rd-pull or triple extension. At this point elbows are still straight. Notice how contraction radiates from core to extremity creating the highest velocity in the bar as it moves upward.
- At this point the bar “floats”… and by that I mean that the high velocity created by the C2E and full triple extension by the lifter creates a split second where the bar has yet to begin “falling”, similar to a punted football’s “hang-time”. It is only after this floating of the bar are the elbows bent, except their purpose is NOT to lift the bar further, the elbows bend to pull the lifter under the bar at which time the process is repeated to squat the bar up. Attempting to use the arms to lift a heavy weight is futile and only results in lost power output and a missed lift. “When the arms bend, power ends.” A good golfer would never snap their wrist before engaging their hips, then shoulders in a swing.
Dmitry Klokov one of my favorite lifters… and the only person on Earth with a better lifting-face than D. Burrus.
In case you’re wondering, 196kg = 431lbs and 232kg = 510lbs. Large loads, lifted long distances, quickly = POWER.
So the basic principal behind lifting heavy things is to use large/powerful muscles to get the weight moving, then using smaller/faster/more agile muscles to keep it moving and to get the lifter into the strongest position possible. The “jerk” is no different. Many a time do I watch underdeveloped lifters attempt to put a weight overhead by “pressing” the bar up. Again, think extremity muscles = low force. The most efficient way to complete the lift is using C2E radiation. The “dip and drive” of the jerk IS the whole lift… the “drop&lock” is merely exercising agility and coordination to get under the lifted/floated bar with elbows locked out. You can NOT press 225# overhead (unless you’re Jabe U. or Eric S.) using your arm and shoulder muscles. This idea can be applied to almost every “difficult” movement done in the gym… muscle-up, pullup, SDLHP, HSPU, dips, etc. The CrossFit term “kip” is essentially a technique for using C2E radiation where violent hip-extension is used to help get the body moving and the arms/legs finish the job. This is where the term “technique” comes from and for some, this may take many years to develop and perfect… so keep practicing… just please don’t say “squat snatch”.