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Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: OL’ing Part 2

Having looked yesterday in Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: OL’ing Part 1 at the origin and history of weightlifting along with the basics of competition and judging I want to spend today giving a brief overview of the technique of the lifts.  Please note, this is going to be extremely general and I will be leaving out a lot of details, much to the chagrin of those who know the lifts.

Numerous books and hundreds if not thousands of pages of analysis have been dedicated to this topic, I’m spending a post on it.   So don’t get all twisted if I leave out some miniscule detail such as the need to flex the wrists during the ‘third pull’ (NB: there is no fourth pull despite what some particularly misguided individuals seem to think).  I’ve also provided links to the best sources of English language information on the lifts, technique, how to do and learn them, etc.  If you want details, go there.  This is mainly background for tomorrow.

OL’ing Technique: Introduction

Sports can vary drastically in how much or how little technique plays a role in their successful performance.  Make no mistake, all sports have technique but some are relatively more or less sensitive to proper (and improper) technique than others. For example, it’s not uncommon to see some really ugly elite distance runners. It’s an activity where poorer technique can be overcome through sheer grinding work.  It’s also a fundamental human movement pattern which is probably why conditioning can overcome technique.  It’s also why running is easy to pick up.  The same can be said for cycling (which I described previously as seated running with gears).

In contrast, very, very little about the technique of Olympic lifting has anything to do with normal human movement patterns with one exception (the much vaunted triple extension) which I’ll discuss below.   In this sense it’s a lot like swimming and speedskating and that’s part of the reason I discussed both.  None of those three sports has much in common with normal human movement patterns and all three are exceedingly sensitive to technique (or the lack thereof).

Quite in fact, they are all sports where an athlete with better technique will often demolish an athlete with better conditioning (of course, at the highest levels you always find highly developed technique and highly developed levels of conditioning).  Aerobic fitness only gets you so far in the pool if you can’t swim efficiently, whatever qualities are required for speed skating only gets you so far if you can’t put it into the ice and all the strength in the world only gets you so far in the Olympic lifts if your technique sucks.

As well, technique in the Ol’s has been developing and evolving over the years as lifters figured out the best way to lift a barbell from floor to either the shoulders (clean) or overhead (snatch).   Much of this occurring when the Eastern European countries really started focusing on world sport in the 60’s and 70’s (keep these years in mind) and started doing a lot of biomechanical analysis into the sport and what the best way to do things were.

And, again, while I’m not going to detail everything (see my sources) here, I do want to look broadly at lifting technique, at least as it stands in the current era.  None of this is to suggest that lifting technique won’t continue to evolve (for example, consider the development of the squat jerk) or change but at this point, as with most sports, it’s pretty well refined.

The lifts are typically divided into 6 distinct phases, mostly for convenience and recognize that these are all just separations of the same continuous movement.  I’m going to look at each to one degree or another, mainly to note where interesting things happen or issues that are determinant in successful importance are relevant.  As well, I’ll point out places where misconceptions about the lifts or what is happening often occur.


The Start

Now, both lifts start with the bar on the floor and the lifter in a position not unlike (but certainly not identical) to a deadlift position.  Arms are wider in the snatch and closer in the clean due to how the bar is caught (a wider hand position means not having to pull the bar as high in the snatch) and this impacts on starting hip position and leg drive for the two movements.  But both share the same basic characterstics.

The main thing to note here (especially as this distinguishes both movements from current elite deadlifting technique) is that the shoulders are well in front of the bar.  As well, the torso is locked and arched.  Rounding at the start results in a loss of power to the bar.  Here’s a fairly picture perfect start position in the snatch.  Note the straight arms, flat back and shoulders in front of the bar.  This comes from the cover of Arthur Dreschler’s book, sourced below.


Snatch Start Position


First and Second Pulls

From the start position, the lifter begins the lift by breaking inertia to break the bar off the floor, moving to knee level and then past (at which point something called a Double Knee Bend which I’m not explaining) occurs; this combination of movements comprises the first and second pull (and most analysis breaks them into two segments but remember that this is just an overview).

Without going into a lot of unnecessary details, here’s what you need to realize, the first and second pull are a means to an end, a way of getting the bar into the important position which is often called the ‘power’ or ‘explode’ position (called the third pull by many).

I make this distinction because the first and second pull of the clean are superficially very similar to at least some styles of deadlift (for example the Clean Style Deadlift described here).  But they aren’t the same and here’s why: in the deadlift, the end point is at lockout and the goal of the movement is simply to get the bar from floor to full extension.  This allows lifters to do things (such as get the shoulders behind the bar earlier) that don’t work in the Olympic lifts where the lifter attempts to keep the shoulders in front of the bar for as long as possible.

Because while the deadlift stops at full extension, this is really when the OL’s start (in a certain sense).  Because once the bar reaches the explode/power position the lifter now explodes, effectively throwing the bar up into the air.   And this is where the real action in the OL’s happens.   And since success or failure in an OL is determined by how much weight they can successfully throw high enough to catch (see next section) it is a rare lifter indeed that will miss an OL off the floor.

Because in the OL’s, your’e limited by the amount of weight you can throw in the air from the explode position and this should always be less than what you can lift to that position.   The only lifters who miss off the floor are either injured or have been training too much from the hang and have lost leg drive.  In the deadlift, you can have a weak spot anywhere in the movement and it’s sometimes the floor.

In any case, to give you some idea of what’s going on, here is a female OL’er just finishing her first pull and about to start her second pull in the snatch.  Note the wide grip, loose/straight arms, flat back and shoulders in front of the bar.

First Pull
I can’t think of a witty caption for this.

One point that I really want to restate is this: the first and second pull of the lifts are really just a means to an end; they have as their real goal putting the bar in the right position for the next phase of the lift.  As I mentioned above, they are almost never limiting (though the movement around the knee can be technically problematic) for an OL unless a lifter has been injured or done really imbalanced training or something.

Because the whole enchilada of the OL’s, the single part of the movement that determines success or not, is the next phase of the lift.  Because hopefully after a proper first and second pull to arrive in the power or explode position where the real insanity of the movements start.


The Explode

Because at this point in the movement, the lifter now extends upwards (and often slightly backwards) in what is sort of like a jump with the bar in the hands.  It’s about the only part of the Ol’s that look anything like a normal human movement in the sense that many sports rely on what is often called triple extension (extension at the hips, knees and ankles).  Here’s what it looks like.

Triple Extension
Kriss Kross Will Make You Jump Jump


I’ll note only in passing that there has been much debate over the role or benefit of going up on the toes during this part of the movement with many great lifters doing one or the other and the current trend to remain more flat footed than in previous years for reasons I’m not getting into.

This important bit is that the lifter has now exploded up (and usually a little bit back) and effectively thrown the bar into the air;  it is now a ballistic missle.  Please note that the force to make this happen occurs through the action of the legs and  back and the arms are minimally, if at all, involved beyond connecting the lifter to the bar (and no I’m not addressing early arm bend).  This is not a delt or arm movement; well, it shouldn’t be in any case.

Now let’s back up to high school physics and what happens in a situation like this.  If the lifter were to let go of the bar what you’d see happen is the bar would continue to rise (based on it’s initial velocity and weight) before stalling out and then falling back to the floor because of that gravity thing.

But since the sport is weightlifting and not weight throwing, that’s not what happens.  Because the lifter doesn’t let go of the bar; rather he has to find a way to get the bar  to either the finishing snatch position (above the head on locked arms) or the clean position (essentially a front squat position).  I’ll deal with the jerk briefly below.

Now, if the weight were light enough, the lifter could conceivably throw/pull it high enough to catch it more or less standing up.  Or perhaps by slightly bending the knees if it was a little bit lower.  This is actually a related set of movements called a power clean and power snatch (defined as catching the bar with the legs any higher than a half squat).    Here’s a power snatch to give you an idea.

But catching it that high limits how much weight you can use and recall the point of this: to lift the most weight.   Which means that since the bar can’t go up, the lifter has to go down, catching the bar in a full (or very close to it) squat position.  Read that again, after throwing the bar UP the lifter has to now go DOWN underneath it.  And he doesn’t have long before that gravity thing will pull the bar too low to catch.  In fact, he’s got about 0.2 seconds to go from full extension to low enough to catch the bar.  Half an eyeblink.

Which means that he has to rapidly switch from exploding up to, effectively, ‘jumping/pulling himself’ down.  And this takes split second timing as well; if he goes too early, he compromises bar height and position and will usually put the bar out front.

If he overpulls, he loses valuable time to get under the bar because he’s not getting any extra bar height but he is waiting to start moving underneath; the hyper extension also tends to put the bar too far back (some lifters do this though). The best lifters can finish the explode and instantaneously switch to moving under the bar at exactly the right moment.   Watch the videos from yesterday.

But fundamentally this is why squat movements surpassed split movements in terms of technique: the squat let lifters catch the bar lower in the snatch and clean which meant the weight didn’t have to be lifted as high which let people lift more weight which was the goal of the sport.

The only reason that the squat jerk hasn’t come to prominence over the split or power jerk is that it’s too tricky of a move for most to consistently perform with the weights used in the clean and jerk.   The tiniest deviation in bar position and the lift will be lost (there is more ‘wiggle’ room in the split jerk because the base of support is longer front to back).

So the lifter has to get under the bar in the split second between throwing it into the air and it coming back down.  How does he accomplish this magic trick?  That’s the next phase of the movement.


The Squat Under/Third Pull

The answer is that, for a brief moment, the lifter will actually un-weight themselves, briefly lifting their feet off the floor so that they are no longer in contact with the platform.  During this time the lifter continues to exert force on the bar and this is about the only time that the arms play much of a role.  But due to that whole inertia thing and the bar weighing more than the lifter, something neat happens when you combine the lifter being unweighted but continuing to pull against the bar (or push in the case of the jerk).

Because now instead of the lifter moving the bar, the bar will move the lifter.  That is, by continuing to pull ‘up’ on the bar, the end result is the lifter pulling themselves down (and yes, I’m simplifying this, OL purists please do not get annoyed).  Or as Yakov Smirnov would have said “In Soviet Russia, bar lowers you.”

As this happens, the lifter will rapidly replace his feet on the floor (this is the genesis of the common ‘foot stomp’) because unless he does this he can’t exert force on the bar to bring it back under control.

I’d note that while he’s doing this he also has to relax/bend his legs enough to sink down into the squat position while he continues to exert force upwards (or at least against) the bar.  As all of this is going on the lifter is also bending his knees (while pulling UP on the bar which is a lot harder than you think; pushing UP with one part of your body while the other half is moving DOWN) to sink down into the squat position.  And this all has to happen quickly enough to get under the bar for the next phase of the movement.

So let’s sum up the movement so far: first pull, second pull, EXPLODE to throw the bar into the air, momentarily unweight as you keep pulling to move yourself under a bar that is rapidly slowing down, get your feet back on the floor (while squatting under and pushing UP on the bar at the same time) to catch a heavy bar crashing down on you.  No problem.  Right.  Now what happens?


The Catch/Recovery

So the bar has been thrown, the lifter unweighted, got into a squat position the bar has stopped going up and is coming back down and/or being brought under control.  We’ll assume here that the bar was thrown high enough in the first place which is not at all guaranteed.  Many lifts are lost solely because the bar height is insufficient and/or the lifter doesn’t get low enough fast enough.  But let’s look at what happens if the bar can actually be caught and here the snatch and clean differ slightly.

The Snatch

The main issue with the snatch is bar position and keep in mind that it has to be caught overhead with locked arms and stabilized.  This entails it being in a fairly specific position which is why the bar path is so crucial here.  The bar basically has to go up and then ‘slot in’ on top of the lifter.

Now, within some small limits, if the bar is forward or back the lifter can get it under control.  He may duck walk a bit or shift his weight to get the bar back under control.  If it’s too far in front or in back, he’s going to miss the lift.  Even if he had the power to throw it high enough.  The technique here is exacting and lifters having an off day in the snatch can and will miss every lift even if their strength or power are sufficient just because the bar is out of position.  And you really can’t save it if it’s out of position without some superhuman efforts.

Of course, even if it’s in position, the lifter has to have the ability to stabilize it overhead (again, the arms are locked).  You can look at the video of Dimas from yesterday to see how hard he’s working to keep the bar stable.  But assume all of this has happened, now the lifter is sitting at the bottom of an overhead squat.

Now, since the weights are lighter in the snatch, there should never ever be a problem with recovering from the bottom in terms of leg strength per se.  The lift isn’t simply limited by that (it’s limited by getting the bar height, catching and stabilizing it).  And you will often see lifters sit at the bottom briefly to get the bar under control before standing up for this reason.  There’s simply no reason to rush.

In other situations, lifters will start standing up immediately, often this can allow them to save a minimally out of position bar since they can use shifts in their body position to bring the bar back under control.  But it’s not required from a strength standpoint.

But now, standing up, the lifter has to simply get the feet on the line, hold the bar overhead (look side to side if you’re Dimas and want to show off) and wait for the refs to give him the down signal.

The Clean

The clean is more complicated so let’s look at that.  In the clean the bar has been thrown and is then caught in a front squat position with the bar on the shoulders, the elbows having whipped underneath it on the catch as the lifter moves into the squat position. In an ideal world, the timing and bar position is such that the lifter can get a bounce out of the bottom of the front squat to facilitate standing up.  And unless something has gone wrong, a lifter won’t ever deliberately pause at the bottom (as they might in the snatch) because there’s no benefit to doing so.

To understand why consider how much more you can squat with a bit of a bounce versus a dead pause at the bottom.  It can easily be 5-10% difference in weight depending on a host of factors.  By bouncing you use less force to move more weight due to the impact of elastic recoil and a plyometric effect.

And this is important for at least two related reasons.  First and foremost the weights are heavier and the lifter has just made a maximum exertion, it’s possible for leg strength to be limiting in the squat clean recovery.  Secondarily, the lifter still has to do the jerk to complete the lift; any energy he can save by bouncing out of the squat is energy he has left for the jerk.  Lifters who exhaust themselves standing up from the squat clean often can’t make the jerk.  This is about as good as it gets (note that Dimas uses the power jerk)

But being able to catch a good bounce is predicated on a number of factors, not the least of which is the bar being in the right position during the catch.  If the bar is out front (and this can occur for myriad reason), it can make recovery from the front squat a real bitch; the upper back gets rounded, the lifter may tip forward, the lever arm is greater.  Either way it’s a bad thing if the bar is out front.

If it’s too far back it can knock the lifter on his ass or, in some cases, cause him to black out by blocking blood flow although this is fairly rare.  Ideally though the bar will loop back, be caught in a perfect front squat position allowing the lifter to not only catch the bar but get a nice rebound out of the bottom (as shown in the video above).

Make no mistake, recovering the squat clean can be related to pure leg strength but there is also a timing aspect (catching the bounce just right as the bar is trying to pin you down), an elastic aspect (getting a good rebound out of the bottom), and a technique aspect (related to having the bar in the right position).   Quite in fact, lifters with better/more consistent technique often get by with far less excess leg strength than lifters with poorer technique: they don’t need the pure leg strength because the bar is always in the right position for an easy rebound.

At least one great Soviet lifter had a front squat that was something like 10kg above his best clean and jerk and had no problem recovering the squat clean.  Another had a front squat 50kg above his best clean and jerk and had all kinds of problems.  The difference was technique.

But let’s assume everything went right, the lifter caught the clean, caught the bounce and is now standing with the barbell across his shoulders. He may make some adjustments to foot or hand position but now he has to jerk it overhead.  The jerk is usually divided into the same 6 steps but I’m going to just summarize them since the concept is the same even if the movement is not.


The Jerk

After reaching the top, the lifter will usually take a brief rest, at the very least he needs to let the weights stop oscillating before starting his jerk.  The feet and hands may also be adjusted slightly for reasons I won’t go into.  The lifter then gets tight with his chest up before doing a preparatory dip, not too low and not too shallow.

This sets up for a vertical explosion where he uses hip and knee extension to drive the bar up and off his shoulders.  The bar is now a ballistic missle again and the lifter will once again get underneath it by unweighting himself briefly (by lifting his feet from the platform, either splitting them or jumping them out sideways) as he continues to push up on the bar; this has the end result of pushing him down.

Again, he has to replace his feet quickly on the platform to get control of the bar and this happens in a split second.  Catching the bar with locked arms, he then recovers both feet on the same line until judges decide if the lift was legal or not.   So again it’s a pattern of setup, dip, explode, throw bar, unweight, go under the bar, reset feet and catch.


Do Or Do  Not Do, There is No Try

There is a semi-related point I want to make about the Olympic lifts here that often goes underappreciated by those involved in the other strength sports.  And that is that, unlike other movements in the weight room, the OL’s are by and large a very go/no go affair.  That is, lift success tends to either happen or not with very little middle ground.  Ok, this isn’t making sense.

Consider a lifter doing a maximum squat who may get stuck in the middle for a few seconds, grinding and grinding in the sticking point.  They might make it through they might not make it through but they can get stuck and will continue to work to try and get the weight to a place that lets them make the lift.  The same holds for benches and deadlifts and just about any other major weight training movement.

The Olympic lifts are not like this.  As often as not the bar height isn’t there.  When this happens the bar is simply dropped; the lifter can’t force it or grind it or anything.  It just doesn’t go high enough and the lifter will simply let go.  But even if the bar height is sufficient, a lift is often missed and again, it’s a very go/no go kind of thing.  This is arguably more true for the snatch where an out of bar position won’t allow recovery.  Here’s a snatch being missed behind, for example.

Even in the clean the same basic thing can happen and about the only ‘grinding’ you’ll ever see in an OL is during the front squat recovery (remember, the snatch recovery will never be limited by leg strength).  But on the clean itself, or the jerk that won’t happen (in the jerk the bar will simply be dropped in back if the arms don’t lock instantly).  This is as much due to the nature of the lifts as the judging: any grinding in a lift would get red lights outside of the squat recovery so lifters simply don’t bother.

But this aspect of the lifts, the go/no go nature of the lifts has major consequences for the physiological requirements of the sport in several ways which is what I’ll be discussing tomorrow.  It also causes another oddity, often a lifter will go from making a very ‘easy’ (read: completed) lift with one weight and then fail utterly with what seems an insignificant increase in weight (1-2.5 kg or 2.2-5.5 lbs).

I mean, you might be adding 1% or less to the bar and suddenly the lift goes from ‘no problem’ to ‘can’t make it’.  You lose that extra couple of cm of bar height, the bar just doesn’t quite get there (or you press it out which is illegal).  And you go from success to failure in an almost binary fashion.  And you just don’t see that in other weight room movements.  But the go/no go nature of the OL’s makes it happen.


The S-Shaped Pull

As one final note today, I want to point out an oddity of the Olympic lifts which is that roughly 40 years of analysis and experimentation has led to the conclusion that the absolute BEST way to perform the lifts is to have the bar move in what’s called an S-shape pattern as shown below.  That is the bar sweeps back and then forward and then back again to be caught as shown below (you can also see it in the video above) and this occurs in both the snatch and clean (the jerk trajectory is different).

Snatch bar path


I mention this explicitly because some often make a rather simplistic argument based on physics that the bar should be pulled in a straight line due to the logic that ‘the shortest distance between two points is a straight line’ and hence that will let you move the most weight.  Sadly this ignores the basic fact that the body moves rotationally, not linearly.  Joints open and close in a circular fashion.   Linear motion is achieved in humans through translated rotational motion.

As well, the way that the center of gravity shifts forwards and back in an OL makes a straight line pull less effective; again you can see this in the clean and jerk video I posted yesterday, how the lifter’s weight shifts back and forth through the clean movement.  The S-curve may be longer  in a purely physics sense but it’s superior in a real world and physiological sense because of how human biomechanics work.

And not only has every analysis of lifting technique generated this as the optimal technique, the real world fact is this: every top lifter in the last 3-4 decades of the sport uses it.  While that doesn’t prove anything (sometimes athletes are dead wrong in what they do in sport), it’s pretty suggestive that this is the way to clean or snatch a barbell properly.


Your Technique is Good but You Lack Confidence

Ignoring the insane technical requirements of OL’ing, there is something else I want to mention relative to the lifts which is this: doing all of the above with anything but the most trivial of weights takes a staggering amount of confidence (or perhaps better phrased a ‘lack of fear’).  I want you to think about it objectively, you are taking a heavy barbell and throwing it into the air.  If you were letting it go that would be one thing.  But now you are expected to effectively jump/dive back under it as it’s coming down to try and crush you.

Lifters often find themselves balking when the weights get heavy, the fear reflex kicks in and they either don’t pull the bar as hard as they should or they don’t really go for it to get under the bar.  And even if they have the technique, the raw strength, the power and everything else, the lift will still be missed.

We might compare this to something like gymnastics: think about a girl throwing herself into a back flip both off and back onto a 4″ beam (the balance beam). You can’t hesitate, you can’t hold back.  Because if you hold back you really get hurt.  You only succeed by committing to the movement 100% and there is often that part of your brain reminding you that “This is a really fucking dumb thing to be doing.”

But that mention of 100% brings me to a final oddity before I wrap up today.


Sometimes Less is More

The following is a point made to me by a good friend, an OL’er himself who both coaches and competes.  He’s also given me invaluable feedback on this article series but prefers to remain anonymous.  The point he made to me is this: due to the nature of the lifts, the technique required and the critical nature of a proper bar path, it is often better to pull/explode a little less than maximum especially if that allows the lifter to maintain a better bar path or trajectory.

Put differently, sometimes when athletes try to go full gorilla on the bar, they end up being pulled out of position, losing body posture or bar position/trajectory.  And all of that strength and power don’t matter if the bar is out of position (again arguably more on the snatch than on the clean and jerk but it still applies to both).  In that case, going at 90% but maintaining better technique often works better from the standpoint of making a successful lift (of course being able to give 100% effort AND maintain bar path is ideal).

All of which is really just a consequence of the exacting nature of OL’ing technique and the nature of how the lifts are or aren’t made.  And this really separates them from the other strength sports where slight deviations can be overcome with brute strength.  A deadlifter isn’t going to pull at less than maximal effort for fear of losing the bar, same with a squat or a bench.  In a snatch, a maximum pull off the floor (and there is an aspect of pull rhythm that I am not getting into) is just as likely to make the lift more likely to miss as it is anything good because it disrupts technique.

That’s right, under certain conditions, OL’ing strength sport where it can be better not to use maximum strength.  Whoa.
The Weightlifting Encylopedia by Arthur Dreschler.
  THE single most comprehensive book on the sport of Olympic Weighlifting. There is also a companion DVD.  Note that this book is insanely detailed and shows the level of depth you can really get into with these movements.   For literally every point I made above Dreschler spends pages examining every possible nuance.  It’s that kind of sport.
Olympic Weighfliting by Greg Everett.  Another excellent book on weighlifting technique.   There is a companion DVD and I have reviewed both the book (first edition) and DVD here on the site.  While not nearly as detailed as Dreschler’s book, it’s a bit easier to follow and has lots and lots of good picture series to illustrate what’s going on.
Weightlifting Olympic Style by Tommy Kono.  Perhaps the best introductory book on OL technique.  This is by far the least technical of the three books in this list but what it lacks in endless detail it makes up for in sheer awesomeness.
Glenn Pendlay Olympic Lifting Technique DVD by Glenn Pendlay.  I reviewed it on the site and highly recommend it for anybody wanting to learn the basics of the lifts quickly and easily.

And that’s a very broad overview of Olympic lifting technique, mainly I went through it to faciliate tomorrow’s discussion of the physical characteristics needed (or not needed) to succeed at the sport.  It’s all coming together now.

Read Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: OL’ing Part 3.

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