Power Points

Olympic lifts undermining your WOD times? Implement these five cues - courtesy of elite weightlifting coach Glenn Pendlay - for immediate improvements in the snatch and clean-and-jerk.
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Power Points Opener

Like a golf swing or a high jump, Olympic-style weightlifting is one of those sports skills so steeped in technique that a seminar on the topic always seems to funnel down to basic physics. For the biomechanics geek, this is great. But for most others, it can be overwhelming enough to make you consider scratching the snatch and clean-and-jerk from your programming altogether. We wouldn’t advise going that route. Olympic lifting is one of the most beneficial modes of training for developing the full-body strength and power and core stability that will carry over into all other areas of CrossFit.

Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be as complicated as some make it out to be. We recently picked the brain of one of the country’s most successful Olympic-lifting coaches, Glenn Pendlay of MuscleDriver USA in Fort Mill, S.C. (muscledriverusa.com), and he gave us five simple “points” for immediately improving performance in the snatch and clean-and-jerk. The techniques take practice, of course, but it’s not rocket science — just physics.

Snatch-4-CrossFit

Pendlay Point 1

Pull For Position, Not Speed

Executing a successful snatch or clean-and-jerk starts with your initial pull on the bar from the floor, which is the stem of the problem for many inexperienced lifters, especially those who are already used to deadlifting. With the deadlift, pulling the bar off the floor with maximum speed is a major key to completing the lift, particularly when there’s a lot of weight on the bar. So it’s only natural to think speed off the floor also would be the key to snatching and cleaning. This isn’t necessarily the case.

“There’s often a learning curve for CrossFitters to get away from that deadlift-style pulling and get into a style that’s going to make the bar easier to catch,” Pendlay says. “In Olympic lifting, how fast you can pull the bar from the floor to the hips is way less important than your position when you get to the hips because that’s what’s going to put the bar over your head for what we call the second pull. For beginners, this is counterintuitive. They figure a faster pull off the floor is what’s going to make or break the lift. Of course, it’s better to be stronger and to pull it faster, but only if you maintain the right position. If the bar moves twice as fast from the floor to the hip but then you’re in a bad position at the hip, you’re not going to make the lift. If the bar moves slowly but you’re in a great position at the hip, you’re going to make the lift.”

The position Pendlay speaks of is that split second just before the second pull. The bar should be directly over the heels with the knees in front of the bar and the shoulders behind it — this is the best position for exerting maximum power to drive the bar upward. “What often happens is that people are still leaning over the bar or their weight’s on their forefoot instead of being on the heel,” Pendlay says. “The deeper the bar is, the more force you’re going to be able to produce. So that’s the position we’re looking for at the very top of our initial pull. We want that bar right over our heel.”

Start with your shoulders directly over the bar when it’s on the floor. “I don’t coach people to have their butt in a certain place because it depends on body type,” Pendlay says. “If you stand over the bar with the bar in front of your shins and you squat down until your shoulders are directly over the bar, your butt will be in the right place. Your knees should be out in front of the bar, and the shins are going to be angled. The arms are hanging straight down to the outside of the knees, and your butt is where it is, which for most people will be lower than what feels natural.”

From here, the line of pull is crucial. The bar should come back toward you because this is the only way to achieve the ideal position for the second pull, where the bar is over your heels.

“What we don’t want to happen is for the bar to come forward,” Pendlay says. “Because if it swings forward, how are we going to have a strong position at the hip?

“What a lot of people will do is, they instinctively go to a position where they think they can pull the hardest, which would be with the butt a little higher. And sure, they can pull hard from the floor up to the midthigh, but in doing so, they get the bar out of position so they can’t exert maximum force at the top of the pull. If you only have 50 kilograms on the bar, you can do anything with it. But with 150 kilos, you can’t do that anymore. Once the bar gets really heavy, you have to have the laws of physics on your side instead of overcoming the laws of physics via muscular force.”

Snatch-3-CrossFit

Pendlay Point 2

Get Under The Bar ASAP

Dropping underneath a bar for either of the Olympic lifts can be a daunting task, so common sense tells you to pull the bar up as high as possible before squatting down to catch it. But in reality, the longer you wait to drop, the more difficult the catch will be.

“Going into a CrossFit box and watching people snatch, probably the number one mistake I see is that people pull too long,” Pendlay says. “In other words, the bar comes off the hips and they keep pulling until the bar is at, like, their sternum or shoulders, and then they want to go under it. That’s too high. When the bar comes off your hips, you should be going under immediately, not continuing to pull. People pay too much attention to pulling up on the bar and not enough attention on getting under it — with the snatch in particular but also the clean. You only have to pull the bar to your bellybutton to clean it. The hips are very powerful. If you keep pulling with the arms, yes, the bar will go higher, but it’s going to slow down because the arms can’t supply the same force as the hips.”

If this concept isn’t making sense to you, consider the physics. In a snatch or clean, the bar will travel upward from the ground, reach its peak height, then drop back down toward the floor until you catch it. If you wait too long to drop underneath it, by the time you catch the bar, it will have already started its descent. An object will gain speed as the force of gravity pulls it down, so the longer the bar has been falling, the faster it will be moving, and thus the more difficult it will be to catch.

“Ideally, you want to catch the bar at the very top of the pull, or close to it, so that it has no momentum,” Pendlay says. “If the bar has only come down two or three inches by the time you’re supporting it, it’s very easy to catch. If it’s come down 18 inches before you’re supporting it, it’s extremely difficult. That’s why you have to start dropping down while the bar is still going up.”

Pendlay has a simple tip for dropping underneath the weight in a timely manner: Move your feet once the bar reaches your hips. “I don’t use this cue because I think you have to move your feet when you snatch,” he says. “You don’t. But it’s a great way to teach beginners to stop pulling. Because once your feet come off the ground, you can’t pull up on the bar anymore. It’s just simple physics. So you really want to institute that as soon as the hips come into the bar, you move the feet out. To do this, you have to at least slightly come off the ground. I don’t tell people to raise their feet, because if you tell them to do that, they’ll get carried away and start moving their feet 12 inches up in the air and doing a little kick, which isn’t right.”

Coaching Cue: Make Noise With The Heels

This tip relates to the previous cue about moving the feet, and it’s one you don’t need a coach for, just a keen ear. After you leave the ground — and you’ll only be in midair for a fraction of a second — stomp down on the platform or floor with your heels so that you can hear an audible sound. According to Pendlay, this simple practice will benefit your lifting technique in three distinct ways.

Snatch-2-CrossFit

Pendlay Point 3

Make Noise With The Heels 

This tip relates to the previous cue about moving the feet, and it’s one you don’t need a coach for, just a keen ear. After you leave the ground — and you’ll only be in midair for a fraction of a second — stomp down on the platform or floor with your heels so that you can hear an audible sound. According to Pendlay, this simple practice will benefit your lifting technique in three distinct ways.

“Number one,” he says, “stomping the heels stops you from pulling too long. Two, it emphasizes moving the feet fast, which is important for the snatch and clean-and-jerk. If you stomp the heels down, it takes the emphasis off raising the feet and puts the emphasis on being quick because it’s impossible to make a noise with your heels if you don’t do it fast. And three, it puts you back on your heels. A lot of people want to come down on their forefoot first, then the heel, to cushion themselves. That invariably throws you off-balance and makes your catch very soft and unstable.”

If possible, use a wooden platform instead of a rubberized floor when doing Olympic lifts. The heels stomping down will make a louder noise on wood, which will make it easier to self-monitor. If you’re on wood and you don’t hear that stomp, you’ll know you didn’t move your feet fast enough or you came down on the balls of your feet, or both.

Snatch-CrossFit

Pendlay Point 4

Time The Heels, Butt and Arms 

Timing is important in weightlifting, and to give yourself the best chance to complete a heavy snatch, you should strive to have three things happen at more or less the same time: (1) your heels stomping down on the platform, (2) your elbows locking out, and (3) your butt reaching full depth at the bottom.

“You won’t ever make this perfect, but that’s fine,” Pendlay says. “There are world-class lifters who won’t do all three at exactly the same time. It’s the attempt to do it that’s important. A lot of times what you’ll see with less-experienced lifters is that there’s a noticeable difference between the heels coming down and the elbows locking. Even if you can make the heels hit down and the elbows lock out at the same time — just those two things — that’s certainly an improvement over a lot of beginners.”

Coaching Cue

The key to synchronizing these three aspects goes back to Pendlay Point No. 2: not pulling too long. “It all ties together with wanting to start dropping under the bar while it’s still moving upward,” Pendlay says. “If your feet come down and noticeably later your arms lock, that means you’re pulling yourself under the bar as it’s coming down. However far apart those things happen — the arms locking and the heels coming down … every tenth of a second the bar’s dropped a few inches.”

The Pendlay File

Glenn Pendlay is an American weightlifting coach with more than 15 years of experience at the national level. He has coached more than 140 national champions and currently works with such American lifting standouts as Travis Cooper, Jon North, James Tatum and Donny Shankle. He’s the namesake of the Pendlay line of lifting equipment and is the head coach of Team MDUSA.

High-Bar-Squat-Push-Press

Pendlay Point 5

Assist With High-Bar Squats and Push Presses 

Practicing technique on the snatch and clean-and-jerk is imperative for mastering the Olympic lifts. But assistance work is important, too, for one simple reason: If you’re not strong, you won’t be able to snatch or clean a lot of weight. According to Pendlay, experienced Olympic lifters typically snatch between 60 and 70 percent of their max squat. (Beginners usually snatch well under 50 percent of their squat.) Meaning, if you want to snatch 300 pounds, you better be squatting considerably more than that.

“You can never be too strong,” Pendlay says. “There’s a huge misconception that American weightlifters only care about technique, not strength. The assumption is that we’re just trying to hone our technique and that somehow we don’t realize that you have to be a strong squatter. That’s not true at all. In weightlifting circles, squat is king. To be a good [Olympic] lifter, you have to have a good squat.”

The barbell squat is the most important assistance move for the lower body. For the upper body, Pendlay favors push presses to help lock out at the top of a jerk or snatch and hold a heavy weight overhead.

“Just like it takes a big squat, you have to have some upper-body strength to clean and snatch,” Pendlay says. “If you can’t hold the bar overhead, you can’t lift it. The push press is our primary shoulder, arm and upper-back strength exercise. The reason we do it instead of a military press is that, first of all, we get practice on the dip and drive. But also, in weightlifting, you never want to develop the habit of pushing the bar off your shoulders. In the jerk, the legs push the bar up and the arms push the body down. If you try to use the arms to push the bar up, you’re going to fail because, hopefully, the weight you’re jerking is more than you can press. The push press over-weights the top because you’ve got some momentum from the legs, so you’re not using the upper body in the lower portion of the lift.” 

Coaching Cue

The high-bar, or Olympic-style, squat is the version Pendlay uses with his lifters. Unlike a powerlifting squat, the bar sits on top of the traps (not down lower), the chest remains upright throughout and the butt goes down as far as possible at the bottom of each rep, well past thighs parallel with the floor.

“We squat high bar simply because of the upright position at the bottom,” Pendlay says. “If you get really strong bent over [as in a powerlifting squat] but not as strong upright, your body is going to naturally revert to that when weights get heavy and kind of scary. But on the clean in particular, that doesn’t work. You can’t catch a clean bent over.”

On push presses, use both clean and snatch grips, starting with the bar resting on the shoulders, and go heavy to mimic a max clean-and-jerk or snatch. With a light weight, a push press can be completed using only momentum with the legs. When going heavy, the legs will only be able to push the bar to about nose height, at which point the shoulders and arms take over. This upper-body emphasis is what you want when trying to improve your Olympic lifts via push presses. 

Don Ricci, CSCS, is a USAW Level 1 sports performance coach who runs the Barbell Performance program at Deuce Gym in Venice, Calif.