Olympic lifting is more popular than ever and if you follow CrossFit chances are you’ve been exposed to these explosive movements. Chances are you’re also struggling to perfect them if you don’t have the benefit of an experienced Oly instructor. While I’m nowhere near the level of a master Olympic Lifter I do have the benefit of learning from one and I thought I’d share a few tips I’ve picked up to help hone technique and improve performance.
1. You must learn and become comfortable with the hook-grip. This grip is standard for all serious Olympic lifters and involves wrapping the fore and middle finger over the thumb to press it into the bar. Your thumb and first two fingers are the strongest digits on your hand and provide the majority of grip strength especially in women and those with smaller hands. It will be uncomfortable at first and taping the thumb will help ease the friction from the bar. Also you will need to learn when to release the hook grip or more to the point the thumb during the turnover for both the snatch and clean. Holding a hook grip in the rack position, or overhead makes it significantly harder to lock out the elbows and relax the wrists.
2. Pulling under the bar is an active movement not a passive one. Too many coaches tell their students “get under it,” without explaining how, or what this really means. It’s hard to demonstrate and even harder to feel it as an athlete at the lighter weights most begin with but the third pull and it is a pull, is about forcefully dropping the body into a squat and pulling against the bar to transition the arms and torso underneath. In an experienced athlete this will be over literally in the blink of an eye and to the untrained look as if they simply squatted and the bar was there. Speed is key here and speed comes from proper hip drive and using upward pull and force to momentarily levitate the bar in space to give the athlete room and time to drop beneath it and receive it in a squat.
3. Stance is everything. Many beginners are using a stance that is much too wide and the feet rotated too far out. This has the effect of diminishing the available torque in their hips and legs and slowing the speed of the pull. This is something I struggled with at first but now have adopted for all my pulling and squatting movements. It takes time to generate the mobility in the pelvis but is well worth the effort. As you fully extend it is natural for your feet to spread slightly and rotate outwards into your “receiving” position. It is imperative though that you start with your feet in align with the shoulders. Imagine screwing your feet into the ground in a move we call “spreading the floor” this will manifest as a slight outward spreading of the knees, a squeezing of the glutes and significantly more torque and force in the hips.
4. You don’t actually jump! Too many athletes make a conscious effort to elevate their feet and jump up during the first and second pull. First this is dangerous especially with heavier loads, and more importantly it’s a waste of precious force and momentum. While it is likely and common for the heels to rise up at full extension before beginning the third pull, the feet should stay in contact with the ground for most of the lift leaving it only by a fraction of an inch as you quickly shuffle them out to assume the “receiving” stance. The loud crack you commonly hear during lifts is a result of wood soled lifting shoes on a wood floor and should only ever happen during the split jerk, as a result of the forward lunging motion of the movement. If you’re making a loud clap during your Cleans and Snatches you need to stop, and rethink your technique before you destroy your knees and ankles.
5. Keep the bar close but be aware at maximum extension there will be room between your shoulders and the bar. This action is how your body counter-balances all that weight over your center of gravity in the brief split second before you pull under the bar. The heavier the weight involved the more pronounced the backward lean of the torso just before the third pull will be. Regardless of your lean the bar should remain directly over your hips and ankles at its maximum apex of upward motion. Too far forward of this line will result in you being pulled forward by inertia.
6. The way to strength is fewer movements more often. CrossFit is fun because it is constantly varied and you rarely get bored. Real training however involves repeating movements over and over again to hard-wire the procedure into your nerves and muscles. The best way to get better at Olympic lifting is to devote more training days per week specifically to those movements until you become proficient at them. This may mean fewer days doing met-cons and gymnastics but that’s what it takes and it’s what athletes like Rich Froning and Jason Khalipa do to gain absolute strength and hone their skill; they dedicate entire training days several times a week to Olympic and heavy weight training. Doing cleans and snatches once every few weeks is never going to get you proficient at the moves.
7. Your warm-up should not require a warm-up. Warm-ups should not be mini-workouts and they definitely need to take more than 10 minutes to complete especially if you workout first thing in the morning. After waking your spine is stiff and your joints filled with excess fluid form the night’s regenerative efforts you need to take time to drain this fluid away and release and stretch tight muscles. Never run before a lifting workout, it’s a ticket to pulled hamstrings and injury and never use running as a warm-up outside of a very easy and slow paced jog. If you’re one of those witty people that live by the motto: “My Warm-up is your Workout” than you’re also failing to meet your maximum ability because you’re pre-fatiguing your body before you ever actually get to your workout. Olympic Lifting Coach Mike Burgener has an excellent pre-lifting warm-up routine and skills drills that should be in every Olympic Lifters playbook. Gregg Everett also has an incredible warm-up routine that he describes in illustrated detail in his excellent book; “Olympic Weightlifting, a complete guide for athletes and coaches.” In fact I’m just going to recommend that you purchase this book yourself if you’re serious about developing your Olympic lifts for CrossFit or in general.
There you have it seven easy tips to help develop your lifting skill and ability.