Most of the ways people teach the Olympic lifts to lifters seem to be tailored
to weak people, who are in the beginning of their lifting career, or really
athletic people, who can already move challenging weights during the whole
range of motion. I guess in the past this was not much of a problem, as gifted
athletes would figure it out nonetheless and people were not so prone to come
from a pure strength background without having any athleticism beyond squatting
and deadlifting and benching.
As strength surpasses athletic ability, some parts of the technique can not be
understand kinaesthetically (if you deadlift over 200kg, you will not feel
nuances in weight shift when pulling the empty bar to shoulder's height).
Consequently I present a slight modification to teach the O-lifts to the
already (somewhat) strong athlete. Namely I suggest training the high pull
and maybe the jerk heavily, while working on the more technical points with
lighter weights adjusted to the level of skill.
Usual way to teach the O-lifts
So the usual way to teach the Olympic lifts is the so called
top-down-approach, which simply means that you start with partial movements
beginning where you want to have the bar in the end. So for the Snatch, you
would begin with Overhead Squats (or even before, presses from behind the neck),
progress through the Transition, maybe do Snatches elevated position and
finally the full competition movement. The Clean
and Jerk is a much longer movement and you would make a exercise sequence for
the Clean and one for the Jerk. Again one would start with the Press (starting
from the rack position on the deltoids, not necessarily the way you usually
Press), progress through Push Presses, Power Jerks until you reach Jerks. For
the Clean part you might begin with Frontsquats and again work your way through
the transition until you have the full clean. Finally you need to combine these
two movements and might start with a Power Clean and Power Jerk, then a
Frontsquat to Power Jerk, finally culminating in the whole and glorious Clean
The three pulls and the catch
At core of the Olympic lifts, meaning snatch, clean and jerk, and if you like
the classics, clean and press, is the pull from the floor, which ends either in
the bottom position of the snatch, with the weight overhead and you sitting in
the hole, or the bottom position of the clean, with you sitting in the hole of
a Frontsquat. This is commonly referred to as the catch. As you probably know,
this pull consists actually of three pulling movements, before you drop under
- parallel displacement
- hip extension
First pull: Parallel displacement
The first pull starts from the floor. The back angle is a little bit more
upright than in the deadlift and the barbell can lie a bit more in front of
the middle foot, as weights you can put overhead will always be submaximal
pulls. This way the quadriceps are elongated more than in the deadlift,
allowing for a longer acceleration phase.
This phase is rather easy; you accelerate the barbell from the flow in a even
and smooth motion, without any jerk. Until the barbell passes the knees, the
angle between back and ground does not change; hence the name parallel
Especially when you can not move much weight, this phase is not as important as
the second pull. Do not fret over speed here and focus on getting in a good
position for the second pull.
Second pull: Hip extension
As your knees are out of the way, your hip can extend and the angle between
back and floor will change. This phase continues until your hips are fully
extended. Some people teach to hump the bar during this phase, some don't.
However, usually you should hear a little bit of rattle as the bar passes your
hip, because, although you do not necessarily shoot for it, the bar probably
should touch it.
This part of the pull is also why Olympic lifts are often taught as "jumping
with a barbell" or "jumping with a shrug at the end". The most common mistake
is not to extend the hip fully. A very useful indicator is looking at where
you landed: if you moved vertical during the jump, your hip probably did not
extend fully. You can also try this very well without weight, to see how the
mechanics work out!
This phase is where the most force is transferred to the barbell. Hence it is
of utmost importance to really extend the hip to its full extend.
Note that in this phase there usually is some contact of the bar with the hip.
However, unlike some people believe, this fact alone does not contribute to
the acceleration of the bar. Although it might be a useful cue sometimes to
ensure a complete hip extension, one should not aim to purposely drive the bar
back into the hip or the other way around. Actually this is a second level
misunderstanding, i.e. a misunderstanding of a misunderstanding, where people
where arguing about catapulting and triple extension. That discussion however
is dead for the better part of a decade, as it is pretty much boils down to
the time when the lifter's heels rise as part of the complete hip extension.
Third pull: Shrug
With your hip fully extended and the momentum carrying you onto your toes, you
try to apply a final bit of force to the bar by shrugging. Timing is crucial
here; however, it is better to shrug too late and lose a bit of force
transmission from the third pull, than it is to shrug too early:
If you shrug too early, the barbell does not hang onto your fully extended arms
and dropped shoulders anymore, so part of the force you generate during the hip
extension is wasted on extending your arms and shoulders, instead of
accelerating the bar anymore.
The most common mistakes here are pulling too early and pulling with your arms.
While the first mistake is pretty much a matter of exercising a lot, the second
one often stems from being a bit too focused on getting the bar up instead of
displaying great technique. The best hint here is: You notice when the timing
is right, because the bar feels a thousandfold lighter than when the timing is
off. Try to find that sweet spot.
How or even if you catch the bar depends on the exercise you are doing. If you
are just looking to develop power then doing high pulls might be the exercise
of your choosing, as the catch is arguably the most difficult and dangerous
part of the lift. When it comes to the full clean and or snatch, it boils down
to your ability to squat down and stabilize the weight – a skill which has to
be exercised on its own and the reason why programs targeted at general
athletes only include the power versions of the corresponding lifts (although
they are still more difficult and dangerous than just doing high pulls).
There is not much technique behind the catch, as it is essentially a front or
an overhead squat, initiated with a break at the hips and knees. What is more
important is that one starts decelerating the bar as early as possible. In
particular it is not uncommon to catch the bar in a half or quarter squat
position, as long as the weights are lighter, however, to move the most weight
one clearly has to master to catch the bar quite low and still be able to stop
it on the way down.
O-lifts for Powerlifters
Nowadays there are a lot of trainees who are not the classical sportsman, but
picked up powerlifting or any other strength sport as pastime later in life,
not before the early twenties. As such they are often already quite strong,
but lacking an athletic background, the complex Olympic lifts present a
As alluded in the beginning, I propose to work the high pulls heavy, receiving
the bar and partial exercises more lightly
Heavy high pulls
Heavy high pulls are a great exercise on its own, but especially in the
context of learning the timing in the Olympic lifts, they are golden. Starting
with something around 10-30% of your max deadlift, you accelerate the bar
through the three pulls, only to let it go down without catch after the last
pull. Using sets of three to six repetitions, you can try to refine your
timing. The great thing about this exercise is the feedback it provides:
Usually pulling a weight to about chest's height is quite hard, however, once
you get close to good weightlifting technique, it feels much lighter and goes
up much farther, by about a factor of two. So while you might struggle hard to
get 50kg to your chest without any technique, once you hit the sweet spot,
pulling 100kg to chest or shoulder's height is almost easier. Further feedback
is provided by the change in foot position after each lift. If you are jumping
forward, usually your hip extension is not complete (try it!).
This can be programmed as a lighter deadlift session. If you pull sumo you
probably can get away with either variant, however, if you pull conventional I
suggest to use the snatch grip high pull as it is further removed from your
A similar approach can be taken with the jerk, which can be trained from the
racks just as one would maybe train the push press. I usually do not struggle
with this part of the lift other than balancing on my feet, so I prioritize
heavy (overhead) lunges over practicing what I already can do well.
Light technique drills and full exercies
Finally there are many smaller technique drills one can practice whenever. The
warm-up is a good place as one is still mentally fresh and it helps, but in
the end it depends on your priorities and your schedule. I usually work
through the transition, then snatches or clean pulls from the hang or from
blocks, and then try to do a few sets of the full snatch or the full clean
(as long as my jerk or even push press surpasses my full clean I do not bother
with this part of the movement).
Even though I train the Olympic lifts only a few months per year, I still
manage to make some solid progress in these months.
I think the division into heavy pulling work and lighter receiving work is for
some people necessary, as they have not the refined kinaesthetic awareness of
somebody truly athletic. While it certainly can be developed over time, in the
already strong individual pulling the empty bar a thousand times will never
make it "click". One has to present a weight sufficiently heavy for its
mechanics to be actually registered.
It is somewhat similar to teaching the deadlift to newbies. Few people are
ever challenged by 30kg or 40kg and they can just move the bar around their
knees, and they just do not get how to pull. Only when it gets a tad heavier
they are actually forced to move in a way that the knees are not in the bar
path, technique will be understood and can be trained somewhat autonomously,
as then the hit in the knee provides instantaneous feedback.
But in contrast to deadlifts, where one would go up with the weight, I
recommend to go down with the weight once you can reproduce proper technique
with the higher weight. You know you are strong enough, but it teaches your
sensory machinery, if you get a feel with less of a stimulus. Furthermore it
is less taxing and at some point you will be able to use a weight in the full
lift, which is at least sufficiently heavy to train proper pulling mechanics.