Somewhere in a two-car garage in Bonsall, Calif., 40 or so miles north of San Diego, sits a gym that has welcomed the likes of professional baseball players, elite weightlifters and Olympic beach volleyball players, including the legendary Karch Kiraly. In fact, it might be the only USA Weightlifting Regional Training Center with a sign on the wall that says “The Man Cave.” There’s room for its four Olympic-lifting platforms — and not a whole lot else.
Here, at Mike’s Gym, older athletes are not only welcome; they’re celebrated. They’re the charter members and the most frequent visitors of the gym, and there’s even a name for this group of 60-plus-year-olds: the Geezers. Three days a week, at 8 o’clock in the morning, anywhere from a few to a dozen Geezers employ CrossFit training principles as they perform Olympics lifts, push plate-loaded wheelbarrows and Prowlers up hills, and scale workouts however they see fit. If you dare ask why none of the men reveals his time or the weight used for a “Cindy” WOD, the response you’ll likely get is, “Because we’re geezers, that’s why.”
The ringleader of the group, owner of Mike’s Gym and resident Geezer, is Mike Burgener, one of the most esteemed coaches of Olympic weightlifting in the country. The aforementioned list of pro sports — he taught its players how to snatch and clean right there in his garage. In recent years, Burgener has become a devoted CrossFitter, and he’s a weightlifting coach for CrossFit HQ, a natural fit considering the inclusion of Olympic lifts in countless WODs and the CrossFit Games.
Coach’s Comment: “I had a great coach tell me years ago, a guy by the name of Steve Gough, that 90 percent of all missed lifts in Olympic-style weightlifting can be attributed to the feet, the stance.”
Burgener was first introduced to Olympic lifting by a Catholic priest in South Bend, Ind., while a member of the Notre Dame football team. When he arrived on campus in 1964, he was a 5-foot-10-inch, 165-pound defensive back who ran the 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds. Four years later, he was 190 pounds and a full tenth of a second faster (a significant improvement over such a short distance). “And it was all because of Olympic-style weightlifting,” Burgener says.
He believes in “God, country, family and Notre Dame,” and Olympic lifting is probably next on the list. Having competed and coached the sport for more than 40 years, Burgener believes there’s no better way for athletes — specifically CrossFit competitors — to develop transferrable explosiveness than by learning to properly execute cleans and snatches.
“I believe the CrossFit athlete is probably the best all-around athlete in the world,” says Burgener, who’s also a former Marine. “You have to prepare yourself for the unknown and the unknowable, and that’s what the Olympic lifts help you do. Most people who don’t use the Olympic lifts in their training program don’t know how to teach them. When taught properly, they’re very safe; Olympic lifting is one of the least injurious sports in the Olympic games. The Olympic lifts are there to be used, and the turnover value is astronomical. If you learn to lift properly with great technique, those Olympic lifts are going to carry over to all the other things you do, as well. They teach you to safely, efficiently and effectively generate force against the ground. And that’s what CrossFit’s all about.”
“My philosophy is similar to a football coach,” Burgener says. “I played football at Notre Dame, and I was taught by one of the greatest coaches of all time, Ara Parseghian. He believed in fundamentals, and I apply that same philosophy in my teaching of Olympic-style weightlifting.”
Burgener’s fundamentals when teaching the snatch and clean (the jerk portion of the clean and jerk is a separate matter) deal with three basic aspects: (1) the stance, (2) the grip and (3) the positions of the barbell as it moves through the range of motion.
“If I teach a brand-new beginner, someone advanced, an older guy, a younger guy — it doesn’t make any difference,” Burgener says. “The fundamentals are always the same.”
- The Jumping Position “Where the feet are to start the lift, I call that the jumping position. The feet are underneath the hips — not too wide, not too narrow. If I’m going to jump the bar, using the ground as my energy source, I want to be able to drive hard with my legs, and the best place to do that is with the feet underneath the hips in the jumping position. This is going to be the exact same position as when I jerk or press the barbell.”
- The Landing Position “If I’m going to jump, I have to land. The landing position is going to be wider than the jumping position because it needs to be more stable. This is going to be the same for receiving the snatch and receiving the clean, but it’s also going to be the same for the back squat, overhead squat and front squat.”
When you’re training with Mike Burgener, you don’t just step into the gym and start snatching or cleaning. Nor do you perform some generic warm-up of jogging, stretching and squatting and then get into your snatches and cleans. Drills always come first, in the form of two warm-ups (Junkyard Dog and the Burgener) and skill-transfer exercises, all created by Burgener. “We do these drills every single day,” Burgener says. “And all of them have a particular purpose.”
Junkyard Dog Warm-Up
Before getting into specific Olympic-lifting mechanics, this warm-up is performed “to get the blood flowing,” Burgener says. “It’s one of the best conditioning drills any athlete can do to get the body warmed up. It’s a semi-met-con, as well as a great blood enhancer.”
The Junkyard Dog Warm-Up consists of two partner-assisted exercises:
- Partner A sits on the floor with his or her legs straight, torso upright and arms extended straight out to the sides. Partner B starts behind Partner A’s right arm and jumps over it. Then he turns to his left and jumps over the legs. He turns left again and jumps over Partner A’s left arm, then he immediately comes back the other way (jumping over his left arm, legs and right arm). That’s two reps (over is one, back is two). He completes 10 reps, then the partners switch roles.
- Partner A gets down on his hands and knees. Partner B jumps over his back, then Partner A immediately raises his knees off the ground to form an upside-down V and Partner B crawls underneath him. Over is one rep, and under is two. After 10 reps are completed, the partners switch.
The Burgener Warm-Up
This is a protocol of five exercises that breaks the snatch down into small pieces, thus allowing the lifter and coach to pinpoint areas of weakness along the path of motion and work on each aspect individually. “It’s a warm-up, but it’s geared toward giving you an opportunity to practice your weaknesses,” Burgener says. “You want to do this before you exercise so that it will solidify what the purpose of each exercise is. As a coach, I can watch you and see where your weaknesses lie, and then I can give you a lesson plan to try to improve them. For example, if you’re not generating enough speed on the barbell, I’m going to give you down and ups.”
The five exercises of the Burgener Warm-Up are the following:
- Down and Up: a drill that trains the athlete to generate speed on the bar
- Elbows High and Outside: generating speed while keeping the bar in close to the body
- Muscle Snatch: geared toward achieving a strong turnover as you pull yourself under the bar
- Snatch Land: a footwork drill that teaches the proper receiving position for the snatch at quarter-squat depth
- Snatch Drop: another footwork drill that incorporates the full squat position
This is another collection of five exercises, each of which addresses a specific aspect of the snatch, similar to the Burgener Warm-Up. (Skill-transfer exercises also exist for the jerk but not the clean.) “So that’s 10 exercises I have in my toolbox that I can give an athlete based on what his weakness is,” Burgener says. “You have to practice this skill work every single workout, which then opens up the communication between the athlete and me.”
The five skill-transfer exercises for the snatch are the following:
- Snatch Push Press
- Overhead Squat
- Pressing Snatch Balance (aka Press Under)
- Heaving Snatch Balance
- Snatch Balance
Coach’s Comment: “With the grip on the bar, there are not too many items on the checklist. The template for teaching the Olympic lift has to be very, very simple, and that’s what this is.”
Hook Grip “It doesn’t matter if it’s the clean or snatch, the athlete must use a hook grip when pulling the barbell.” (A hook grip is one in which the thumb grips the bar underneath the fingers, unlike a traditional grip in which the thumb is over the fingers and doesn’t actually touch the bar. Burgener says, however, that it’s OK to use a traditional grip when the bar is overhead or you’re pressing.)
Grip Width (snatch) “For the snatch, the width of the grip is such that the bar is eight to 12 inches over the head at the top of the movement — the wider the grip, the closer the bar will be to the head. And this depends on the athlete. If I’m working with a young teenage girl who’s got small wrists and small bones, I don’t want to take the grip out so wide; I want to be more narrow until the bone density gets built up. If the athlete is very thick-boned or experienced, we can go wider, and that grip would come down to even two or three inches over their head.”
Grip Width (clean) “The clean grip is a little bit different. I start beginners out with a thumb-and-knuckle grip, which is a thumb length and one knuckle out on each side of the bar from where the knurling starts and the smooth part ends. And I may even go wider because the elbows come around much faster with that wider grip, so it’s a bit safer. If the athlete has a narrow grip, there’s a chance the elbows will hit the thighs. For me, as a geezer, I go out at least two thumb lengths.”
“The stance, grip and position fundamentals deal mostly with the clean and snatch,” Mike Burgener says. “The jerk is a whole different thing. Before you can learn the jerk, you have to learn the push press and push jerk behind the head; the push press and push jerk in front of the head; the jerk behind the head, which involves the split [with the legs]; and then you go to the jerk in front of the head. And then you have to put it all together with the clean.”
BAR OVERHEAD POSITION
Coach’s Comment: “When you do the lift, you’ll be going from the ground up, of course. But in order to teach it the right way, I go from top to bottom. So I’m starting with the bar overhead and finishing with the bar resting on the floor.”
Armpits Showing “You have to make sure that the shoulders are externally rotated when the bar is overhead, with the armpits showing [from the front].”
Bar Over Your Base “The bar overhead must be lined up over the base of support, which is the back half of the feet.”
Coach’s Comment: “There are five basic positions I use on pulls (cleans and snatches). The bar has to hit each of these positions. I might not get to the five positions with an athlete for four to six weeks. I always get to high hang, pocket and takeoff, but bringing the bar from the ground to the takeoff position is really hard to teach. But that’s the most important part because you have to really load the hamstrings. If you do it too fast, you don’t load the hamstrings. You have to learn how to do it slowly, and once you have that down, we can speed up the acceleration off the ground.”
High Hang “Standing straight up and down with a barbell in your hands, bend only your knees about an inch — not your torso, not your hips, just your knees. That’s the last position that the athlete takes before driving up and going under the bar.”
The Pocket “If I move forward slightly with those bent knees and I push my butt back about two inches or so, the torso comes forward and the bar slides down to about where the pockets would normally be, with the bar touching the body.”
Takeoff “I continue to go down farther, and the bar slides down to about an inch or two above my knees. The knees are still bent, but only that little bit. That’s where the bar starts accelerating.”
Below the Knees “I go about two inches below the knees, where my knees are slightly bent but I’m still well in advance of the bar with my chest and shoulders.”
Bar on the Floor “Then I take the bar to the starting position, resting on the floor. In this position, the hips are above the knees and the shoulders are ahead of the bar. The bar could be on the shins, but that depends on the athlete. Most weightlifters will bring their shins to the bar, yes. But that’s really hard to teach.”
Lindsey Valenzuela demonstrates the workouts in this article. Valenzuela splits her time between Valley CrossFit in Van Nuys, Calif., and DogTown CrossFit in Culver City, Calif. Shortly before our shoot, she successfully snatched 200 pounds.