Weight training: how to perform the most common weightlifting exercises

Olympic lifts: increase your strength and power

By: BJ Rule BSc

I’m a firm believer in the benefits of the Olympic lifts and their variants as being of real importance for sportsmen and sportswomen, despite some recent criticisms of them – of which more later. In this article I outline six benefits of the Olympic lifts plus three variation lifts, tell you how to perform the latter, and indicate their benefits

The Olympic lifts are the snatch and the clean and jerk. Derivatives of these include partial or hanging lifts, such as the hang clean and the hang snatch, where the bar is pulled from a position approximately level with the knees, for example, as opposed to being lifted from the floor. Power variations are where the bar is received or caught in a semi-squat position, as opposed to the full squat position. There are also video clips of the three exercises mentioned so that you can see how to perform them as well as key lift tips. When learning the lifts, always start with a light weight and spend a lot of time learning how to lift properly. These moves are very dynamic and could lead to muscle and joint strain if poor technique is used.

Six reasons why the Olympic lifts and their variants benefit sports performance

1) The exercises are performed from standing

The fact that the exercises are performed from standing is important for a number of reasons. One of the most obvious is that the majority of sports are also performed from a standing position - although there are exceptions, such as cycling and rowing (and I believe that Olympic lifting is also beneficial to them). Olympic lifting develops proprioception (basically, the ability of the body to adjust to the forces transmitted through its limbs and muscles) and spatial awareness (the awareness of the body in space and the adjustments made consciously and unconsciously to, for example, maintain the robustness of a sports skill). The lifts develop these qualities.

2) Olympic lifts mirror the way force is produced in sport 

The way the Olympic lifts are performed mirrors the way force is developed in numerous sports: for example, in basketball and football, where it is applied to the court/pitch, carried through the lower limbs, up through the body and transferred (often) through the upper limbs – the basketball jump shot being a prime example.

3) The exercises involve multiple muscles

The Olympic lifts are compound muscle-group exercises as they work across numerous joints. This is important for time-saving reasons. Rugby and football players who are in team training, doing skills practice, speed work and other conditioning have limited time for strength training. But the Olympic lifts and their variants are ‘bang for buck’ exercises. They deliver big-hit training in a relatively short space of time. For example, performing a snatch develops leg, hip, back and shoulder strength just from pulling the bar from the floor; it also develops core and torso stability and strength throughout the movement.

During the catch and recovery phases, the ability to absorb a load is trained, and so are the stabilising muscles around the spine and shoulder joint, legs, hips and back. The catch occurs when the bar is ‘caught’ overhead with the arms fully extended. The absorption of the lift’s force at this point is extremely useful in training the body to absorb load. The ability to absorb a load is required for most sports – think of catching, being tackled, being hit.

4) The exercises involve triple extension

Olympic lifts replicate the movement patterns involved in running, jumping, throwing, punching and tackling. The main pattern that is trained when performing these lifts and replicated in numerous sports is ‘triple extension’. Triple extension involves the muscles of the ankles, knees and hips engaging synchronously to produce a dynamic movement.

5) They recruit high levels of motor units

Speed is a key requirement for most sports; in fact, you can never be quick enough! Neuromuscular recruitment –  the ability to recruit and contract as many motor units as possible (motor units are bundles of muscle fibres and the nerves that spark them into action) is crucial for speed. I believe the Olympic lifts are fantastic speed developers because of this. The snatch, for example, is completed in a split second. In this blink of an eye, the weight is lifted from the ground to an overhead position. To do this you need to engage numerous motor units. Training fast will make you fast and Olympic lifting makes you fast.

6) They increase range of movement and improve posture

We should be aware of the benefits of optimal range of movement and the importance of posture for athletic performance. When range of movement is limited and posture is poor, muscles aren’t able to fire correctly; this limits performance and increases the chance of injury. The Olympic lifts and their variations can increase range of movement and improve posture. The range of movement is improved in key areas across the body – for example, in the hips this is improved through the bottom position of the clean or the snatch.

Stability and strength are also developed across the shoulder joint and the upper spine, when the bar is taken overhead and held and then brought down to the ground, as is the case with the snatch.

Variation lifts

One of the problems with performing the Olympic lifts can be the learning curve taken to master them. This can be an issue particularly if your weights sessions are just a part of your week’s training and not a specific focus. I believe this is where some of the variations of the Olympic lifts can be very useful, as learning them is slightly easier (than learning the full lifts) and some of the variations have even more specificity to certain sports.

Using various starting heights or ‘hang’ positions can be extremely useful and the joint angles involved are shared with positions in many sporting movements. The varying levels of the hang can replicate the hip thrust, which is crucial in a host of sporting movements – for example, the hip drive needed for tackling in rugby, or the power that comes from the hips in judo.

The ‘power’ position refers to a catch or receiving position that is not the full-squat catching or receiving position (a part of the full Olympic lifts). This can be a useful time-saver, as the learning curve and range of motion involved in learning the full catch or squat position can take a while.

a) Power snatch from the hang

The power snatch from the hang is ideal for anybody who needs to develop power through the lower limbs – for example, runners, long jumpers, footballers and rugby players. It is also brilliant for those who need to improve jumping combined with overhead power – for example, tennis players (serving and overhead shots), volley ball players and javelin throwers. There are various hang positions and these can be from the hip, mid-thigh or just above the knee.

The benefits include (as well as those listed above) the fact that the deep receiving position does not feature in this lift. This may seem like a contradiction (earlier, I mentioned that the deep catch or receiving positions are beneficial as they improve range of movement), but receiving in a shortened position is beneficial as individuals may not have the flexibility or range to perform the complete versions of the lifts, and receiving in the power position still holds all the other benefits.

Key lifting technique tips:   

Start position     

  • Feet are shoulder-width apart
  • The bar is gripped in a wide, snatch grip
  • Weight is spread through the whole of each foot
  • Knees are slightly flexed - a stretch should be felt in the hamstrings
  • Hips are flexed and torso, chest and head are forward of the bar
  • Lower back is arched, upper spine is extended and tight. Head looking forward
  • Arms are straight and elbows are locked

Pull   

  • The pull is initiated by triple extension occurring across the ankle, knee and hip, causing the bar to travel vertically
  • Lower back remains arched, upper back extended and tight and the head is looking forward
  • Chest, shoulders and head are still forward of the bar

Jump   

  • The ankle, knee and hip are at full extension so a jump action is performed (the feet may or may not leave the floor)
  • The bar continues to travel vertically

Pull under           

  • As the bar continues to travel vertically, the body pulls under the bar
  • The shoulders slightly shrug and the elbows begin to flex
  • The ankle, knee and hip quickly flex to pull the body under the bar

Catch/receiving position   

  • The upper body catches the bar overhead, the elbows extend and the shoulders contract
  • The lower body simultaneously reacts so the heels contact the ground and the knees and hips are slightly flexed

Recovery   

  • The bar is then ‘stood up’ by extending the knees and hips.

The power clean from the hang

The power clean from the hang is a clean where the bar is received in a partial or semi-squat position only and starts from a hang position and not from the floor. This variant provides most of the benefits of the power snatch from the hang; however, as the bar is caught at the chest (or rack) position, more weight can be handled, which means more strength and power benefits.

Key lifting technique tips:  

Start position          

  • Feet are shoulder-width apart
  • The bar is gripped with a narrow, clean grip just outside the thighs
  • Weight is spread through the whole of each foot
  • Knees are slightly flexed, a stretch is felt in the hamstrings
  • Hips are flexed and torso, chest and head are forward of the bar
  • Lower back is arched, upper back is extended and tight. Head looking forward
  • Arms are straight, elbows are locked

Pull   

  • The pull is initiated by triple extension occurring across the ankle, knee and hip, causing the bar to travel vertically
  • Lower back remains arched, upper back extended and tight and the head is looking forward
  • Chest, shoulders and head are still forward of the bar

Jump   

  • The ankle, knee and hip are at full extension, so a jump action is performed (the feet may or may not leave the floor)
  • The bar continues to travel vertically

Pull under           

  • As the bar continues to travel vertically the body pulls under the bar
  • The shoulders slightly shrug and the elbows begin to flex
  • The ankle, knee and hip quickly flex to pull the body under the bar

Catch/receiving position   

  • The upper body catches the bar in the rack position, with the elbows high and the wrists flexed
  • The lower body reacts simultaneously, so the heels contact the ground and the knees and hips are slightly flexed

Recovery   

  • The bar is then ‘stood up’ by extending the knees and hips.

The power jerk

This exercise requires the bar to be taken to an overhead position from the rack position. Athletes such as boxers, athletic event throwers and tennis players can all benefit from the power jerk. The main reason is that force is transferred into the floor, through the body and finally through the limbs. Think of a right cross in boxing – force is applied into the ground, up through the leg, through the hip, via the torso and shoulder and finally through the right fist. The power jerk is a great exercise for training this pattern.

Key lifting technique tips:   

Start position      

  • The bar is gripped in a narrow, clean grip and the bar is supported in the rack position, with the elbows high
  • Weight is spread through the whole of each foot
  • Lower back is arched, upper back is extended and tight. Head looking forward

1st Dip   

  • The dip is initiated by flexing through the ankle, knee and hip
  • Lower back remains arched, thoracic extended and tight and the head is looking forward, while the elbows remain high

Drive   

  • The ankle knee and hip extend forcefully and the shoulders elevate to drive the bar vertically

2nd Dip

  • As the bar continues to travel vertically the body pulls under the bar
  • The ankle, knee and hip quickly flex to pull the body under the bar, while the elbows continue to straighten and extend

Catch/Receiving position

  • The upper body catches the bar; the elbows extend and the shoulders contract
  • The lower body reacts simultaneously, so that the heels contact the ground and the knees and hips are slightly flexed

Recovery   

  • The elbows are locked out and the bar is held overhead
  • The bar is then stood up by extending the hips and knees.

The case against Olympic lifts and their variants

 

As an advocate of these lifts for my own training (Rugby League focus) and for training a host of clients – including athletes from sports as varied as competitive runners, cyclists, professional rugby league players and international judo competitors – I have seen the benefit of these lifts. However, there are coaches who are very dismissive of the Olympic and their variants lifts: for example, Tudor Bompa, one of the foremost strength training experts in the world, whose thoughts you can read elsewhere on this site.

The main ‘Bompa argument’ is that sprinters, for example, do not need to utilise pulling (extension) movements from the upper body when running, and it is this aspect of the Olympic lift and their variants that makes them superfluous to their event. My counter-argument is that the upper body plays only a small role in the Olympic lifts – it is the lower body that generates the power to lift the bar vertically. Bompa, for example, simply advocates the calf raise, squat and a hamstring exercises as the three key power exercises, whereas a single pull from the floor (as in a snatch or clean) covers all these lifts in one.

Despite the thoughts of the great man and with all respect to him, I believe that Olympic lifts do have a place in the training schedules of athletes from all sports. I have given my reasons: what do you think? 

About: BJ Rule

BJ Rule is a trainer and strength and conditioning coach based in London, who holds a BSc in Exercise Science. He owns and runs a trainer education company, Optimal Life Fitness, teaching trainers how to train clients in the use of kettlebells, Olympic weightlifting and boxing. He also runs the One Personal Training Studio in London. BJ has played a wide range of sports, including Rugby League (semi-professionally), football, triathlon, and has had an amateur boxing bout. He now trains using Olympic lifting, kettlebells, sport and boxing methods.

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