Ideas and Tips for the Aspiring Weightlifter

by Jason Keen

Almost every weightlifting text has a sequence on how to perform the lifts, and usually they have a section outlining 'common mistakes'… the problem is that while most of these texts tell you 'what is going on' during the lift ("the acceleration phase begins with a knee angle of 80 degrees, and ends with a knee angle of 150…"), they often don't do a very good job of practically explaining how you can get your body to do those same things. The following are some things that I think can be of help to a fairly inexperienced and/or self-taught trainee, largely in the areas of set-up and positioning.

Right now I hear a lot in weightlifting circles about whether or not to 'teach' the double knee bend, and to what extent one should 'finish' the second pull (that is, does one want to fully plantarflex and shrug the shoulders, i.e. hit the "fired bow" position, or should one just pull fast and then get under the bar ASAP like the Greeks). These are certainly interesting topics of discussion for experienced lifters, but unfortunately I see a lot of beginners caught up in what borders on unimportant stylistic differences when they are neglecting what might be the key to improving their lifts: how they address the bar and complete the first pull.

The Start

To be sure, if you have a bad first pull, completing the lift with a respectable amount of weight will be next to impossible. Get it to your knees correctly, and good things are much more likely to happen. Again, you can find a lot of good resources for technical descriptions of what the starting position and first pull should look like, so I will just give you a list of what I 'think of' when I start a lift, from bottom to top.

* feet under the hips, toes pointed out, bar over the 'ball' of the foot (foot/toe joint),
* shins 'pressed to bar',
* knees are tracking out properly over toes,
* hips slightly higher than knees, but definitely below shoulders,
* back locked in with TIGHT arch,
* shoulders over bar,
* elbows rotated out, wrists slightly curled under, and
* head up; looking at a focal point slightly higher than eye level when I am standing up, with head and neck in a position of natural extension of the spine and back arch.

When one starts the first pull, the hips and shoulders should rise at the same rate, and the barbell should slightly swing BACK towards the lifter, with the shoulders staying out over the bar. One of the keys to making sure these things happen is to stay flat-footed for as long as possible during the pull. A simple way to help ensure this is to either wiggle your toes or 'curl up' your toes in your shoes right before you pull, so that the weight is on the middle/rear portion of the foot. Also, you can sort of start to 'isometrically' push the knees and hips rearward, and you should feel a lot of tension on the hamstrings at the start. Pull the slack 'out of the bar', and then raise the hips and shoulders by extending the knees (pushing them back) and thinking about "leg pressing the floor away from you."

The first pull should be done under control, and the second pull is done faster than the first, with the final triple extension from the power position being incredibly explosive and adding a lot of speed/momentum to the bar.

Incidentally, the mention of what I consider to be your 'power position' reminds me of the question of grip width. To be honest, I think that grip width selection on the C&J has more to do with what your needs are in relation to comfortably racking the bar during the catch and then setting up for a strong jerk. In the snatch, however, one always hears the old 'elbow to elbow' or 'fist to shoulder' rules. I think these are decent general starting guidelines, but to me they are not any simpler than what I consider to be the best way to determine where your snatch grip should be, and they don't take into consideration the *entire* length of the arm, or the arm length relative to the torso.

So, in order to find your snatch grip, use one of the tried and true grip-finding methods just to find a spot to hold onto, and deadlift the bar and stand erect. Get your tight back arch and spread the chest. Now, break at the hips and push them back *slightly*, just so you get your shoulders out over the bar. Then, bend your knees just a little bit. This should be your 'power position', or what your body will look like the instant before you initiate your final, powerful jump-shrug and really get the bar moving. Now look at where the bar is. You want it right in the crease of your hips, so that you can take the best mechanical advantage of all your levers and really power the bar up. If the bar is up on your belly, you need to bring your grip in some to put it down in that hip crease. If the bar is halfway down your thigh, you need to widen your grip. Voila. The perfect custom-made snatch grip.

An Alternative: The Frog Pull

The frog-style (or 'Miyake Pull'), while being one of the most successful pulling styles around, and about the only alternative to the traditional style I discussed above, has become somewhat of an enigma. Over the last couple of years, I have tried to find out what I could about this style, and there is just not much out there. I found only a couple mentions in old issues of Strength and Health (maybe I don't have the right issues) and there is a little section in the WLE. Other than that, nobody seems to do much analysis of this style or discuss it that much anymore. So I will simply tell you what I know:

The frog style was made famous by Japanese lifters Yoshinobu Miyake and Somebody Ohuchi. These two set somewhere around 10 world records between them in the snatch. A few American lifters switched to this style, most notably Joe Dube, and were said to have improved their snatch numbers quite a bit. I have heard that some Egyptian lifters used this style before the Japanese, but Miyake certainly made it famous.

The essence of the frog pull is that the lifter starts with the heels close together (usually touching, though I prefer 3-4" of separation when I use a 'modified frog') and toes pointed out rather markedly. Thus, with the heels together and toes and knees 'splayed out' (say, a 60 degree angle between the knees?) and the arms in the wide snatch grip, the lifter looks like a frog.

The benefits of this pulling style are that: 1) there is not so much 'see-sawing' action during the pull; that is, the knees do not have to move backward then forward so much during the lift, and the hips move almost straight upward, not back then up then forward, 2) the back is placed in a more mechanically advantageous position throughout the lift, and 3) it is easier to do, flexibility-wise.

Whether or not to pick this style is up to the individual lifter, and there really is no right answer. I personally feel that every new lifter should at least start out by trying to learn the traditional style outlined above. I think that a lot of the appeal of the frog pull to new lifters is simply that it feels 'easier'. This is because, as I said above, it does not require quite as much flexibility, and it does not require what is usually an awkward and uncomfortable start position and lift-off for beginners, what with the hips being so high and so much isometric pressure being placed on the low back and hamstrings at the start of the traditional first pull. With the frog pull, however, you give up some power in the second pull because of the positioning of the legs and hips, and you are not able to take as much advantage of the powerful hips and lower back, in general, with the frog pull.

All this said, if you learn to do the traditional style of first pull and work on it for a good length of time (6 months to a year) and find that you always want to raise the hips too fast at the start, or you have a body shape that makes getting into the proper starting position difficult and results in as many missed lifts as made lifts, you might want to give the frog pull a shot. Be forewarned, again, that practicing the frog style will likely result in a loss of power during the finish of the second pull and the final acceleration, and it might be hard to find coaching on the finer points of your pulling style, because your coach will probably have been taught in the traditional style and tell you things like 'bring your hips up at the start' or 'push your knees back', because what you are doing will look incorrect to him, but that will not actually be the case in the frog pull.

A Few Common Errors

I hesitate to even put this section in here, because I hate for people to read the statement 'a lot of new lifters don't finish the second pull' and say to themselves "oh, hey, that is my problem!" and then spend two months ruining their pulling form by doing a long, slow over-accentuated final jump-shrug, only to find out from a coach that they just weren't going under the bar fast enough in the first place.

Because of this, what I want to focus on are not specific mistakes per se, but some of the 'big picture' issues that seem to be common important considerations for some of the lifters I have helped. If you can correct these 4 mistakes/points of technique, you will get a lot more out of your coaching. This is because, as a coach, it is difficult when a lifter comes to you making 42 different mistakes. First, it is tough to catch them all as you watch the lifter complete a rep, and second, which ones do you coach? You can't tell the lifter to focus on "keeping the hips up at the start, then pushing the knees back, then raise the shoulders as fast as the hips, then keep the bar in close to the thighs…" during any given rep, because then he is focusing on WAY too much and will confuse himself to the point of probably doing a rep worse than the one previous. So, try to work on your own and satisfy these 4 general technique suggestions, and when you get some good coaching whoever is instructing you will only have a couple of minor points to correct, and you will be well on your way to some great lifting. American Open, here you come:

1. Stay flat-footed/bar moves back- This is a mistake that can be somewhat of a combination of many things; or, at least a couple of different problems might possibly be corrected by eliminating one undesirable symptom: being on the toes as the bar passes the knees. In order to combat this problem, focus on the toe-wiggling, pushing the knees back at the start ("PUSH THE FLOOR AWAY"), and making sure the hips do not rise faster than the shoulders. You have to stay flat-footed for as long as possible.
2. Keep the bar close (and shoulders over bar)- This is a mistake that can happen because of the aforementioned problem of getting on the toes. So, if you stay flat-footed and the bar moves back at the start, you might eliminate this symptom. A common cause of not keeping the bar close during the second pull, however, is not keeping the shoulders out over the bar. This is a problem of many 'converts', and was a big problem of mine (and still is). After years of deadlifting, one instinctively wants to 'get the shoulders back and complete the lift'. However, this has two undesirable consequences: One is that you are in a poor mechanical position for exerting force on the bar at the finish of the pull, limiting your acceleration. The other is that if the shoulders move back, in order to preserve the COG the bar must move forward. This not only puts you in a less powerful position, but causes the bar to end up out and away from you, and you will have to jump forward to complete the lift. That is a no-no.
3. Finishing the pull/transition between pulling and going under- This is not so much a mistake as it is just not quite doing what will help you lift the most weight. The key here is to be sure and make the most of the triple extension, which is the powerful straightening of the lower body joints, and then getting under the bar fast. This was another problem of mine, as I had a tendency to pull hard and fast from the floor and have the bar accelerating as fast as I could with a quasi-deadlift by the time I hit the power position, and here I would simply try to 'pull the bar a little higher' with my upper back. A good drill for developing a very explosive top pull and then going under quickly is to again deadlift the bar with a snatch grip, get set, and very rapidly get into the power position I discussed earlier for finding your grip width. The bar should not go downward more than an inch or two, as we don't want you to get much of a stretch reflex or any significant length of pull so that you can do a 'strong pull' and muscle it up; we want you to work on a 'quick pull'. So, after you have gotten into a semi-power position by slightly breaking at the hips and bending the knees, EXPLOSIVELY pop the hips forward, extend the knees and the ankles, and shrug the shoulders upward. As soon as you have done all of this, you must QUICKLY drop down to receive the bar in the full snatch position. From start to finish, this drill should be taking place in the blink of an eye. I usually do a total of 3 sets of 3 reps with 40%, 50%, and 60% of my 1RM before doing my full snatches. Again, this is to develop an explosive and aggressive top pull, and build speed going under. One thing that helped me with this drill is that I stopped thinking about 'jumping' during the top pull. This is the way many people are taught, and in fact I still refer to a 'jump shrug'. I have found, however, that for myself and others, thinking of jumping tends to lead to too much upward movement and over-extension/accentuation of the movement at the ankles as well as causing the bar to drift, whereas if I think about jamming my feet through the floor in this position I get a more explosive top pull, *and* I am in a better and more stable position for going under.
4. Poor positioning when receiving the bar- Many lifters spend a lot of time working on their pull, and get quite good at it, and then seem to fall apart during the catch part of the lifts. These lifters are either not strong enough in the supporting muscles, or their technique is not good enough, to hold the weight that they can pull. To be honest, I don't think there is often that much necessity for technique improvement when it comes to holding the bar overhead in the jerk and snatch. If you have aggressively gone into the catch position, and you are holding the bar 'on bone support' and not trying to muscle it up there, then your receiving problems are probably due to balance, positioning, or strength. You can work on all of these problems with some hard work on overhead squatting for the snatch and front squatting for the clean. You can tinker with your grip width (*slightly*), how much you need to have your torso tilted forward or whether you keep it strictly vertical, if you turn the crooks of your elbows so that they face forward, etc. None of this will probably help as much, however, as just some good old fashioned hard work on the front and overhead squats. Do 3-5 sets of triples of one of these two exercises at the end of every session, and before long you will have no more problems with your recoveries.


I have gotten a lot of questions and comments via e-mail regarding this article and the section about the first pull, and why I think the first pull is so important. So, I will try to reiterate that here, and add a little more reasoning and logic that I did not include before…

First of all, again, the first pull is important because it is the start of both competition lifts. The bottom line is that if you mess up the first pull, you are screwed. So there is no need to even worry about going under the bar or finishing your top pull if you are one of those people who let the bar drift forward or throw your shoulders back at the start.

Additionally, I was informed by a reader that one does not really need to pull the bar 'back', and that this is just a convention of Olympic Weightlifting coaching, and not an actual necessity. That is, his basic argument was that the 'powerlifters and strongmen that he knows' are strong enough to just do a regular deadlift and then an explosive upright row. This view is entirely incorrect and an example of moronic thinking, and I will tell you why:

While there might very well be plenty of people who are strong enough to 'deadlift and row' national champion caliber weights out there, they will never do it with the technique this person described to me. The problem is not one of leverage, or strength, but one of balance. The lifter/barbell 'system' has a center of gravity, like any object. And, like any object, if the center of gravity moves outside the base of the object then the object will fall over. In the case of the lifter/barbell system, the base of support is the feet. If the barbell does not move back toward the shins at the start of the lift, the lifter will be thrown off-balance and will fall forward. So, whether you are of national-level caliber strength levels or not, you will need to possess national-level caliber form in order to clean and jerk a big weight. Below are two diagrams that pertain to the snatch which will not only illustrate that the bar must move back and be kept over the feet, but can be used to provide valuable technique analysis if you videotape or photograph your training and compare your technique with that of the diagrams.

The views and opinions expressed in this page are strictly those of the page author.


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