Muscle-Building Basics: The Olympic Lifts - Muscle & Performance

Muscle-Building Basics: The Olympic Lifts

The snatch and the clean-and-jerk are more than just amusingly named exercises. They’re historical — and historically difficult — multi-joint lifts that, if executed properly, can have a place in every workout regimen.
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If you’ve been hanging around gyms long enough, you’ve no doubt noticed that there are three main groups of serious lifters, folks training with weights who have an interest beyond general fitness. 

First, there are the bodybuilders. Whether or not those in this category compete is not important. What is relevant is their common goal: manipulate resistance to bring about increased muscle size, definition and balance. This group comprises the vast majority of lifters, folks who are dedicated to optimal physique development. 

Second, there are the powerlifters. Their goal is to maximize muscle strength — the force produced by a muscle or muscle group. For a powerlifter, efforts in the gym center around how much total weight can be lifted; they usually couldn’t care less how they look doing it. This is a relatively small group of lifters, and they’re typically found among the gym’s power racks and chalk buckets.

Third, there are the weightlifters. The term “weightlifting” (as one word) is not a generic one; it refers specifically to those performing the Olympic-style lifts — the snatch and the clean-and-jerk (e.g., to use the term “Olympic-style weightlifter” is to be redundant). While the goal of weightlifters is similar to that of powerlifters — to maximize the amount of weight lifted — the former group is also concerned with muscle balance and other factors important to bodybuilders. And you would have a hard time finding a bodybuilder who wouldn’t want the dense, massive quads, hams and back of a good weightlifter. 

There are only a few thousand weightlifters (USA Weightlifting athletes) in the United States. In fact, there are more USAW coaches than there are athletes. Fortunately, with more recognition being given to weightlifting through the growth of CrossFit and recent advancements in elite sports training (strength-and-conditioning programming), more and more athletes are becoming interested in the Olympic lifts. However, the plain truth is that very few of us grew up performing a snatch or a clean-and-jerk. Because they’re generally not in our usual library of exercises, we are not sure how to use those lifts in our training routines or even what benefits they offer.

Olympic Lifts for Muscle Building

The Olympic lifts may very well be the most underused and underappreciated lifts for building muscle mass. There are four physiological means by which these movements help increase muscle size and balance. First, the snatch and the clean-and-jerk are complex, multi-joint movements that activate a larger percentage of muscles than any other single lift. Lifters interested in balanced mass building want to ensure that all musculature, at one point or another, is contracting against a resistance. The Olympic lifts are efficient ways to stimulate a large percentage of musculature in a single lift. 

Second, these lifts require so much coordination and synchronization of muscle groups that the effect transfers to other movements. For instance, after learning how to clean properly, a person’s front squat invariably gets better. Why? Because the movement’s neurological and biomechanical patterns have been refined through repetition, and “synergist” (assisting) muscles have been trained to stabilize joints and optimize technical efficiency throughout the lift. What results is an enhanced ability to maximize force production in that movement, and that leads to a greater adaptation and more mass.

Third, the snatch and clean-and-jerk lifts require a full range of motion in joints. It may be surprising for some to learn that weightlifters are second only to gymnasts in tests of flexibility and have flexibility scores better than powerlifters and control subjects. Muscle contraction throughout the full range of motion results in the development of a balanced musculature around joints, not only adding to the appearance of fullness and mass around those joints but also to protection against injury.

Fourth, the downward compressive forces on the core musculature inherent in these lifts also aid in building muscle mass. Often the reason a lifter can’t come out of a deep squat is poor core strength. As a person trains the Olympic lifts, his or her lower back, abdominals, obliques, hip flexors and extensors all develop. Sure, these muscles will be stronger and look better, but that’s not the real effect. Because the core muscles are stronger, you can withstand training with higher intensity in all lifts — and that helps bring about greater mass.

It’s All About Technique

Success in the Olympic lift is unequivocally technique-driven. Cheating never leads to progress in these lifts. Though we review the optimal technique for the snatch and clean-and-jerk here, we do recommend getting a good coach if you’re really serious about achieving perfection.

Grip: Grasp the bar in a standard, pronated (palms down), closed grip. Now, tuck your thumb under your index finger and — if your fingers are long enough — your middle finger, as well. This is called a “hook grip,” and it will ensure you’ll maintain control of the bar during the rapid and explosive second pull. It may take a while for you to get accustomed to the feel, but once you do, you won’t be able to imagine how you ever grasped the bar any other way.

Starting Position: Determine the optimal width of your feet if you were to perform a vertical jump. This position, which is likely with your feet just outside shoulder width, should be the same position of your feet as you step under the bar. Now, look down at the bar from directly above it. The bar should be over the wide part of your foot — approximately over your shoe’s second set of eyelets. Your elbows should be pointed out to the sides, not behind you, and your knuckles should be under the bar.

Most important, your shoulders should be slightly in front of the bar. The easiest way to do this is to keep a natural arch in your lower back and then incline your torso to the point at which your shoulders are ahead of the bar and you are maintaining your grip. Make sure your feet are flat on the floor. (This is where solid lifting shoes can help.) Common problems are tight ankles, which will cause you to rock onto your toes at the starting position, and a rounded lower back, which will cause you to drop your torso and subsequently fall forward. Your eyes should be looking straight ahead — not down at the floor or up at the ceiling. The balance of the lifter should be on the balls of the feet with the heel still in contact with the floor.

First Pull

At the start of the pull off the floor, ensure that your arms are tight and that the movement is initiated by the pushing of your feet against the floor. The first pull is more of a drive with the lower body than a pull with the upper body. 

The key in the first pull is this: As the bar travels from the floor to the level of your knees, you should do everything you can to maintain the angle of your torso. That is, your hips and shoulders should rise at the same rate. Think of the bar as stationary and that what you are really doing is moving the platform. If you do this, when the bar gets to knee height, your shins will become vertical and the bar will want to drift away from you to a point under your shoulders. Keep your wrists flexed and your knuckles under you to prevent this drifting. At this point, you’ll feel the weight more in your midfoot.

Transition: As the bar passes the knee, tuck it in toward your hips (actually move it up your thighs). This is called the “scoop,” and it is as if you are scooping the bar toward you with your knuckles down. But remember, you’re scooping the bar with your elbows rotating toward you, not your shoulders; keep them forward.

Now, this is important: During this transition, not only are you tucking the bar in toward you as you prepare for the second pull, but you are also moving your knees forward. This “re-bends” your knees while bringing the bar closer to your hips. It is common for the bar to scrape your thighs during the transition, which ends at the point called the “power position” — the point of contact at which the second pull begins. Exactly where that point of contact is will depend on your limb length and whether you are performing the snatch or clean-and-jerk. Normally, the second pull begins somewhere between midthigh and hip.

Note: These lifts are not made up of a series of steps with noticeable starts and stops all put together. That is, movement from the first pull to the transition to the second pull should appear seamless and should be executed with increasing speed, particularly as the bar moves to the second pull.

Second Pull

Once the bar is in the power position, forcefully and rapidly extend your hips (“pop” them quickly forward) as you go up on your toes. This is called “triple extension” and is vital to bring about optimal bar speed. The upward motion of the bar during the second pull is initially the result of a forceful hip extension and, to a lesser extent, knee extension and ankle plantar flexion. 

As the bar leaves your hips, perform a fast, hard shrug, being careful to keep your elbows high and outside. Avoid leaning back except to make a path for the bar, which should rise in as straight a line upward as possible. A common mistake in the second pull is for the bar to arc out in front of the body. This can occur especially if the bar ricochets off the hips too violently or your elbows drift behind you. Think of your hips as “carrying” the bar upward after extending forcefully forward. When the bar reaches its maximum height, your elbows should be as high as possible and on the sides of your body. 

Up to this point, the technique described applies to the snatch and the clean-and-jerk. The only differences between the two lifts through the second pull are, of course, your grip width and the fact that the bar may contact your thighs slightly higher toward the hips in the snatch than the clean-and-jerk when in the power position. However, at the top of the second pull, the movements differ dramatically.

At the top of the second pull in the clean-and-jerk, immediately move your elbows forward rapidly in an arc under the bar. At the same time, release the hook grip (a tight grip can inhibit arm speed) and drop into the receiving position by pulling yourself under the bar. Set your heels hard against the floor and bend your knees to the proper height — depending on whether you are performing a power clean (in which you don’t squat all the way down) or a squat clean (in which you enter a deep squat). You have now racked the bar and are ready for the jerk.

At the top of the second pull in the snatch, drop into the receiving position by pulling yourself under the bar and rapidly locking out your elbows. Try to lock out at the same time as you reach the bottom of the receiving position. If you lock out after you reach bottom, you will be more likely to “press out” at the top. To complete the snatch, stand and shift your feet inward, keeping your elbows locked and the bar slightly behind your head. 

For the snatch and the clean-and-jerk, try to receive the bar at the highest elevation with your torso and shoulders rigid at a perpendicular or slightly forward angle to the floor. This will help prevent the bar from crashing down on you at the bottom of the receiving position.

Jerk

When the bar is in the receiving position on a clean-and-jerk, you may need to shift your feet into a position more closely resembling your jumping position. Keep your elbows in front of the bar, which should be supported primarily by your shoulders.

The main coaching point here is to “dip and drive.” Keeping your torso upright and your weight back on your heels at the beginning of the dip, drop your hips smoothly and straight down by 8 to 10 percent of your height. Be careful not to dip too quickly; this creates space between your shoulders and the bar, meaning the bar will not be resting on the shoulders during the drive.

Drive the bar straight up, not forward. Be sure to extend completely at your hips, knees and ankles. During a split jerk, your hips should move directly under the bar. Your back foot should land slightly before your front foot with your elbows locking rapidly. Keep your front foot flat and your shin vertical. Support your back foot with the entire width of the ball of your foot. Keep your back knee bent and stable with your feet hip-width apart.

Recovery (From Split Jerk)

To recover from the split jerk, press up with your front leg and step back one half step. Then move your back foot up underneath your hips. Finish by sliding your front foot back the last few inches, all the while maintaining torso and shoulder stability.

How to Fit Olympic Lifts Into Your Routine

There are two important concepts to consider when working these lifts into your present training routine. First, they always should be performed after a warm-up but before heavy, low-speed strength movements (i.e., squat, deadlift, bench press, etc.), endurance exercises or partial-movement exercises. This is because they are highly technical and require a tremendous amount of skill, fast movements, mental focus and physical or metabolic energy.

Second, technique in these complex lifts begins to break down after six repetitions. Therefore, sets of 12 to 15 reps likely don’t result in a smoother technique and may be counterproductive in the effort to refine your technique. Keep your sets to a maximum of six reps and you’ll maintain good technique throughout the set. 

Determining Proper Grip Width

One of the few things that differs at the start of the two Olympic lifts is where you grip the bar. Here’s a guide to the two grips.

Grip for snatch: Raise your elbows up to the side so they’re even with your shoulders and your upper arms are parallel to the floor. Then drop your hands down so you are in a scarecrow position. Have a person behind you measure the distance from elbow to elbow across your back. Mark this distance on the bar. When you perform the snatch, these marks should be between your index and middle fingers.

Grip for clean-and jerk: Grasp the bar so that when it’s “racked” in the receiving position, your hands are just outside your shoulders.

12-Point Checklist for Starting Position

If your starting position is off, your chances of a smooth, efficient lift are dramatically decreased. Like an airplane pilot in the cockpit, run through this 12-point checklist before takeoff

  1. Bar over wide part of foot
  2. Feet in a vertical jump position
  3. Toes pointed slightly out
  4. Bar close to shins but not touching them
  5. Hips slightly higher than knees
  6. Lower back in a natural lordotic “concave” curve
  7. Arms straight with elbows rotated outward
  8. Head up with eyes focused straight ahead
  9. Shoulders slightly in front of the bar
  10. Weight on balls of feet
  11. Heels in contact with the floor
  12. All body levers feel “tight”