Advancement of Novice Olympic Lifters: Part 1 - The Box

Advancement of Novice Olympic Lifters: Part 1

Olympic lifting is an impressive discipline that has great application for developing athletic ability for both sport and life.
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CrossFit Olympic Lifting Stance

Olympic lifting is an impressive discipline that has great application for developing athletic ability for both sport and life. The snatch and clean and jerk require strength, speed, flexibility, coordination and balance. Athletes will learn both how to receive and apply force — vital traits in both power sports and combat. In addition, training the Olympic lifts will develop mental fortitude in both concentration and toughness. Overcoming fears and aggressively moving around heavy flying objects with confidence becomes vital, as any hesitations will result in failure. As the lifter advances, total commitment to making the lift becomes as necessary as the load is large.

This is a very cerebral sport in which raw strength is rarely the limiting factor, especially for beginners. Instead, the skills of positioning, speed and balance are the first hurdles to overcome. An athlete new to the Olympic lifts can be somewhat successful just relying on natural strength, but at a certain point, without proper technique, their progression will stall. Capacity will be extremely limited compared to the contractile potential of muscles. While getting the weight to the shoulder or overhead can be muscled up in a wide variety of different and creative ways (this I have seen in some videos and gyms that are more concerned with intensity), without proper technique the athletic ceiling in weightlifting is very limited.

I have outlined a number of progressions to develop technique and consistency for novice lifters. These progressions take the full movement and chop it up into the critical elements, building both positioning and speed. Each element builds on the previous skill, adding a degree of difficulty and increasing range of motion. In a relatively short period of time you should be able to get a new lifter to the full movement as long as the previous steps have been mastered. Our first portion of the progression will cover the snatch. Part 2 will dive into the clean and jerk.

The Snatch:

  • Muscle snatch from the high hang + Overhead squat
  • Power snatch from mid-thigh + Overhead squat
  • Power snatch from the floor
  • Full squat snatch from the floor

Breaking Down the First Progression

The first portion of this progression includes muscle snatch from the high hang. In the setup we are developing positions of a vertical torso, weight in the heel and posture of the core. We want a straight up-and-down dip and drive through the heels as vertical momentum is created via a closing and opening of the hips and knees. This triple extension of the knees, hips and ankles is carried over to the arms. Lifters should learn to pull with the elbows high and outside the bar, keeping it very close to the body. Good speed and proper receiving position overhead with the shoulders elevated and retracted back (elbows turned down to the floor) can be developed. After that, capacity and positioning in the overhead squat must be developed, as this will eventually be the receiving position for the full movement.

Second Progression

In the second progression, many of the concepts from step one will be carried over. The starting position is slightly different as the barbell moves closer to the ground to the mid-thigh position. The core should remain tight with the shoulders pulled back, bar brushing the legs. The shoulders should be in front of the bar with a good stretch and tension in the hamstrings, weight in the heels. From here the athlete will accelerate, passing through the high-hang position, achieving triple extension with the knees, hips and ankles. This momentum and elevation on the bar now creates a moment of weightlessness on the bar. This is an opportunity not to pull the bar up, but rather for the athlete to pull himself down with his elbows high and outside. As the athlete moves his feet from the pulling stance (hip-width apart) to the landing stance (shoulder-width apart), the bar is received overhead with the hips above parallel in a partial squat. The movement is completed by freezing tight upon the catch, going down below parallel to a full squat and standing up with the bar overhead.

Third Progression

In the third progression, all of the elements of step two carry over, but the emphasis is the positioning and acceleration of the bar off the floor. From the ground, the bar will start over the middle of the foot with the shins in contact with the bar. Shoulders should be over the bar with good posture of the torso (lats engaged and shoulders pulled back). As the lifter pulls in a tight and controlled fashion off the ground, the knees will push back as the shoulders rise with the hips. Building speed, the lifter accelerates through triple extension, pausing tight at the receiving position and performing a full overhead squat.

Fourth Progression

The last progression takes out all the stops, making the movement smoother and more seamless. Now the lifter will rapidly retreat to the full overhead squat to receive and stabilize the bar overhead. Mobility, speed and balance become more vital.

Other Considerations

CrossFit Olympic Lifting Grip

Stance, grip and position are the first places to start organizing the lifter. We start with the feet under the hips whenever we are pulling on the barbell. Feet are approximately hip-width apart whenever squatting. The hands should be held wide enough to provide 6 to 8 inches between the bar and the head when held in the receiving position. This is approximately with the bar in the crease of the hip when held at the waist. The hook grip (thumbs under the bar with fingers wrapped over them) should be used whenever pulling. This is a stronger grip that eliminates any laxity in the fingers when accelerating the barbell. Having said that, it often hurts a little for beginners. Practice the grip whenever Olympic lifting. It takes about two to three week for the tendons in the thumbs to thicken up, at which point pain should subside. Wrapping the thumbs with a flexible tape can also help avoid blisters and reduce discomfort of the grip.

Enjoy these progressions and always go back to the basics. When the movement stops becoming the movement and starts looking like something else, take the weight down and dial in the technique. Practice these methods consistently to develop good strong habits and muscle memory.