by Frederick C. Hatfield Ph.D.
While in the Soviet union back in ’83, I met Marchuk — the guy who broke Alexeev’s C&J record. He was a very strong dude! We got to talking. I was 242 at the time. He looked at me, at my legs, at my “supposed” WR of 1008 in the squat and said, “NYET! NOT POSSIBLE!” So I bet him a quart of vodka that I could beat him — all 350 pounds of him. He accepted. His coach secretly came up to me and said, “In Russia, we call powerlifting the “fake” lifts. We call it that because you use supersuits, big belts and giant knee wraps. Can you still beat Marchuk?” I said, “Yep!” He said, “If you do, Marchuk will be SHIT forever! In this gym he is king. If he’s beaten at ANYTHING he will be shit!” Then, two days later we went head to head. He barely struggled up with an 800 pound squat — not bad for a sans wrap sans suit lift, no? So I did it, being out of shape, I figured what the hell! I’d save this poor fat slob’s career by not beating him. I did it too — sans belt, sans suit.
See, it take a highly trained and gifted ATHLETE to excel at ANY sport. Marchuk was a master at the clean & jerk. An athlete in every sense of the word. He and I parted company with Marchuk — and his coach — having a new-found respect for powerlifting. They do not call powerlifting the “fake” lifts in Russia any more.
It amazes me to hear lifters squabble over something as spurious as whether Olympic lifting or powerlifting is better or worse than the other, or whether there is merit in athletes from other sports performing the respective lifts from either. The answer is clearly that both have much to offer because each is radically different from the other. All one has to do is read the research literature to understand that there are different forms of strength. There’s speed-strength (a combo of starting strength and explosive strength). Then there’s both aerobic and anaerobic strength endurance. Then there’s limit strength. Powerlifting, for the first time in history, was devised to test one’s limit strength. No other sport does.
But let’s get into Olympic lifting, and try to discern whether there’s something there for athletes from other sports to benefit from.
Pound for pound, Olympic weightlifters have a greater level of speed-strength than any other class of athletes in all of sport. This fact was made very clear during a massive scientific expedition carried out on the athletes at the Mexico City Olympics in 1964. Sports scientists found that Olympic lifters were able to both vertical jump higher than any class of athletes (including the high jumpers), and run a 25 yard dash faster than any class of athletes (including the sprinters).
Well, OK. So some of it came from genetics. But you can rest assured that much too came from the specialized training they undergo in that sport. Among other things, their training revolves around two specialized lifts, the “snatch” and “clean & jerk.”
These two lifts and their applicability to sports training is the focal point of this article. First, though, so we’re all on the same page, remember what speed-strength is. It is a combination of two distinct attributes: 1) your ability to “turn on” as many motor units as possible instantaneously (starting strength), and 2) your ability to leave those motor units firing once you’ve turned them on (explosive strength). In the snatch, the weight is pulled from the floor to an overhead position in one explosive motion. In contrast, the clean & jerk is a two part lift where the weight is pulled from the floor, staying “clean” of the body (that’s where the phrase came from back in the old days; nowadays, it’s OK to brush the thighs on the way up), to a position where it is resting on the shoulders. The lifter then thrusts (“jerks”) the weight overhead, using his legs in the upward thrust, and (after taking his feet off the floor) his arms in the downward thrust of his body to lockout.
The peculiar positions through which the lifter passes as these lifts are accomplished — and the specialized methods of training required — offer much in the way of “carryover” into practically every explosive type sport there is.
In the snatch, lifters take a shoulder width or narrower stance in addressing the bar. Next, they squat down and grasp the bar very wide, using a “hook grip” (pinning their thumbs to the bar with their index fingers). This grip is important in overcoming the bar’s inertia during the violent “second pull” (explained below) without losing your grip. The back is kept tight and flat at about a 45 degree angle to the floor (more or less depends on the anatomical structure of the lifter), and the shoulders are situated well in front of the bar.
The lifter then lifts the bar upward during the first pull, using only the legs. In other words, the back remains at about a 45 degree angle to the floor during the initial pull. You shouldn’t use your back to pull during the initial pull. Instead, the back muscles (notably the erector spinae) act as stabilizers, remaining statically contracted. The bar is kept very close to the shins, and the shoulders remain far over (in front of) the bar.
Once the bar passes the knees, a re-bending of the knees (called the “double-knee bend” or “scoop”) takes place. This enables the lifter to reposition his thighs under the bar for a powerful second pulling phase. The double knee bend, together with this “second pull” is very similar to the action athletes use in vertical jumping. In fact, the carryover benefit of pulling in this fashion is increased vertical jump performance for athletes in many different sports.
The reason for keeping the shoulders well in front of the bar during the initial pull is to set the lifter up for the double knee bend and subsequent second pull. If the shoulders were either directly over or behind the bar during the critical first pull, the lifter would end up way behind the bar after the double knee bend. This, of course, would make it impossible to impart great upward force to the bar during the second pull, and the lifter would miss the lift out in front.
Probably the most difficult part of Olympic lifting is getting under the bar. The best lifters in the world lift the weight slower and not nearly as high as intermediate level lifters. The reason for this is that the weight they’re lifting is far heavier, but (because of greater starting strength and skill) they are able to get under the bar faster.
The faster you are at getting under the bar, the less high you have to pull the bar, and therefore the more weight you can lift. Getting under the bar occurs much faster than gravity allows, because the lifters are actually pulling themselves under the bar. In fact, the snatch and clean movements — getting under the bar — are measurably the fastest total body movements that exist in all sport. Provided, that is, it’s being demonstrated by an elite lifter.
A highly coordinated shoulder shrug (trapezius) during the final inches of the violent second pull “unweights” the bar. The lifter is now able to lift his feet from the floor, allowing him to quickly “slingshot” himself straight down (using deltoids)to a rock-bottom squat, with the barbell locked out overhead.
The best lifters time their thrust out of the rock-bottom squat position so perfectly that they’re able to begin the push upward while the bar is still on an upward path from momentum generated during the final phase of the second pull.
If the lifter must wait until the weight is stabilized overhead before standing erect, two things happen: 1) the bar’s upward momentum stops, and 2) the bar begins traveling back downward (making it much heavier than the full weight of the bar must be lifted).
Once the lifter is standing motionless and erect with the bar overhead, the judges will give the “down” signal. At this point, the rules of competition state that the bar must be lowered to the floor under control. Years ago, that meant lowering the bar to the floor, a horrible thing to have to do with a heavy weight. It’s dangerous. Nowadays, with the advent of rubber “bumper” plates, it’s strongly advisable to drop the bar but maintain control over it by keeping your hands on the bar until it stops bouncing.
THE CLEAN & JERK
Form used during the first and second pull of the clean is very similar to that incorporated in the snatch. The lifter takes a narrower grip than for the snatch, usually slightly wider than shoulder width. This allows for a slightly more upright posture prior to the first pull. Also, the weight is considerably heavier than that hoisted in the snatch.
The reason that heavier weight can be used is that while the snatch involves pulling the bar and then catching it at arms’ length overhead, the “clean” involves catching the bar (“racking it”) on top of the front deltoids and clavicular pecs. Simply, you don’t have to pull it as high, so you can use heavier weights.
The forward position of the shoulders, the re-bending of the knees after the bar passes the knees, the vicious upward extension of the body, and the slingshot-like drop into a rock-bottom squat position under the bar are all quite similar to the corresponding movements in the execution of the snatch. Including the timing. A skilled lifter is able to aid the bars’ upward momentum (from the second pull) by instantaneously driving out of the hole.
There’s one difference of significance, however, and that’s the fact that the lifter’s hands are much closer together while executing the clean. That means the bar can bend more. The “harmonics” of a whippy bar aids in generating great upward momentum during the second pull, and the lifter coordinates the timing of his upward thrust with the bar’s upward (return) unbending.
The jerk involves a very fast “dip-and-thrust” motion. The bar bends as the explosive upward thrust begins, and the harmonics of the upward-whipping bar is timed precisely with the lightening-fast drop under the bar and upward recovery push. Unskilled lifters dip-and-thrust tenuously, often pausing before the explosive thrust upward. This is not good. They are then unable to avail themselves of the bars’ assistive harmonic action. They then have to thrust with greater force, often resulting in being “rushed” to get under the bar. Because they’re rushed, they are obliged to cut their upward drive short, and less force is imparted to the bar.
These unskilled lifters also often catch the bar overhead, and wait to adjust. This results in bearing the full added weight of a now-downward moving bar. Often, it results in the elbows coming unlocked. This is cause for disqualification of the lift. If they’re lucky, their elbows remain locked, but they are obliged to recover to an erect position with great difficulty. In recent years, a sideward splitting of the legs is being seen more and more as the lifter takes his feet off the floor to thrust his body downward under the upward moving bar. The theory is that since the squat position is more stable and natural than the front-and-back split leg position, an advantage is gained. It may well be. It certainly is in the case of the snatch. The old split snatch style went out with the great Russian snatch champion, Plukfelter (circa 1960).
OLYMPIC LIFTING AS A TRAINING METHOD FOR ATHLETES
“Whoa! Dr. Squat!” you mutter, not relishing the thought of having to engage in so much lightening-quick movement. “If the weight’s heavy, you’ve gotta move SLOW!”
Really? Tch! Tch! So, let me make a few points.
First, if you were as capable as a weightlifter of “turning on” as great a percentage of all of your muscle fibers instantly during your shot put, you long jump or each individual step in your 100 meter dash, perhaps you’d be winning more. Chances are, you lose because you simply never learned to “turn on” maximally. There’s a learning curve involved in explosiveness– it’s far more than simply lifting the weight. And remember, those explosive fast-twitch muscle fibers have a disconcertingly low oxidative capacity (assuming you have any in the first place).
Then there’s the “compensatory acceleration” factor that I speak of in countless articles. You see, Olympic-style lifters MUST compensate for improving leverage during the course of the pull by accelerating the bar (as in the second pull). Otherwise, they’d never impart sufficient upward momentum to the bar in order to get under it. So, I ask you, if YOUR leverage is improving during any given sports movement (and it almost always IS), how come YOU don’t take advantage of that fact? Probably because you never learned HOW! Let’s not forget the fact that many of your sports movements are MUCH like those used in weightlifting. Jumping, exploding, and related movements are all total-body movements that must be learned.
“Aw, Fred! My elbows and shoulders are too tight to rack the bar! I’ll tear myself up!”
Tch! Tch! Y’know what? Maybe — just maybe — getting a little flexibility in those joints will aid in preventing a few of those aches and pains I keep hearing about from so many athletes (but RARELY hear from Olympic lifters). It’s probably a good idea to wear wrist wraps, though. No point in traumatizing yourself. In fact, if it’s THAT bad, at least do the explosive pulling portion of the lift (called a “high pull”). You don’t have to actually “rack” the bar on your shoulders to derive benefit.
“Yeah, but what about that ballistic shock on my knees hitting the bottom during a snatch or clean? My knees can’t take it!”
Now, I’m not saying that you need to go out and start doing ballistic drops to a rock-bottom squat position with maximum weights on your body. What I AM saying is that you need to break into it slowly, doing some light stuff. But you needn’t go to rock bottom. While your body has a wonderful, built-in adaptive ability that will most certainly aid in preparing your knees for the tremendous stresses involved in moving heavy iron in your powerlifting skills, the ballistic forces involved in maximum Olympic lifting are (at very best) degenerative for everyone, including the Olympic lifters. Start slowly and with lighter weights. Maybe even an empty bar, just to learn the movements. And, stick to the power cleans and snatches where you’re catching the bar at about the depth of a half-squat or so.
“OK, so if I shouldn’t go rock-bottom, do cleans if my wrists hurt, or use max weights, what SHOULD I do?”
Power cleans or (if you can’t handle the wrist, shoulder or elbow flexibility requirements), high pulls. Five sets of 3 once weekly off season. Concentrate on compensatorily accelerating the bar, and catching the bar’s harmonic unbending action.
Front squats (if you don’t have a safety squat bar) and overhead squats (for the squat workout of your LIFE!). Five sets of five once weekly off season. These squats will target your quads as well as any exercise there is. Power snatches (catching the bar overhead at a half-squat) and muscle snatches (pull to overhead without rebending your knees). Five sets of three once weekly off season. Concentrate on compensatory acceleration and catching the bar’s harmonic unbending action.
Push jerks (drive the bar upward without rebending your knees to get under the bar), 3-5 sets of three once weekly early preseason. Concentrate on max weight, leg drive, and compensatory acceleration.
Apply some of the pulling techniques spoken of in regards to sports-related jumping technique, including the double knee bend. It’s not uncommon to add up to 4 inches on your vertical jump immediately, just by learning how to take advantage of tissue viscoelasticity and stretch reflex stemming from the double knee bend technique. Practice, practice. But only under an expert eye.
I’ll wager you’ll become a better athlete. And, that’s the bottom line.