A beginner’s guide to the Olympic lifts
By guest author Ron Dykstra
I am not a world class coach or athlete, just a regular guy who has always liked exercise, and has competed in Olympic lifting on three occasions, typically against men and women far better than myself. A former training partner described me as a “stubborn” lifter, rather than a good one, if you know what I mean.
I asked for and got a weight set on my 9th or 10th birthday, and it was just what you’d imagine, a straight bar, 110lbs of vinyl covered weight, and a tiny little bench. A humble start, but I was going to become a gladiator with that tiny setup. To do so I began emulating those men and women that looked the strongest: the bodybuilders. They were hyoooge, so clearly they were also the strongest people in the world, right?
Not so right, as it turns out. After reading many, many years worth of borderline worthless magazine information, much of it written by ghostwriters and not athletes, I was burned out on this style of “training”. High volume moderate weight training using multiple techniques to extend sets performed twice a day just did not work for me. I guess I wasn’t taking enough “Get Swole” or whatever magic bullet the magazines were shilling for. My training goals were not realized, but I stubbornly continued to lift, and one day I met a tribe of lifters that were not pumpers, posers, or complete narcissists: Enter the weightlifter.
Weightlifting is that weight bearing sport that is contested in the Olympics, that being the snatch and the clean and jerk, each of which is contested for three lifts, the best attempt from each category added together to form a total. The best total in each weight class wins. Weightlifting is often referred to as Olympic lifting or O-lifting. This is not to be confused with power lifting, which is not contested in the Olympics, but is if anything a more popular sport in North America, and consists of the bench press, squat and deadlift, again added to form the best total.
Which one is better? They are both fantastic when learned as part of an integrated whole body exercise system. They, in my opinion, should both be used to complement one another. Not everyone agrees with this opinion, and there are a large number of reasons why, but for the moment let it suffice that they are both good and noble physical endeavours, though they emphasize a different set of priorities, and generally attract different athletes.
In case you missed the extensive television coverage of weightlifting at the last Olympics (please note the heavy sarcasm) here is a brief description of the two lifts so that we can form a mental image.
(See links to videos at the end of this article.)
The lifter approaches the bar with feet shoulder width apart and takes a very wide grip on the bar. A collar to collar grip is common for a six foot tall athlete. To determine your own grip, stand before a mirror, hold arms straight out to the sides and take note of where your elbows are. Your grip should be this wide. [Krista’s note: another way to figure this out is to grip a bar wide enough that the bar sits at the level of your hip crease, i.e. where your thigh joins your hip.]
After taking a grip the lifter drops the hips into a squat position, hips pushed back, shoulders over the bar, eyes up, chin down, core very tight. Your arms should be like cables; no slack or bending, but loose. The lifter stands with the bar by pushing the feet into the floor, and the moment the bar passes the knees the lifter explosively jumps straight up, violently shrugging the trapezius upward, and then immediately jumps the body downward. The bar will rise with straight arms until it hits its apex, while simultaneously you move your body down, rotating it down and under the bar. In the full version of this movement you will end in a full, wide, jumped out squat with the bar overhead, just behind the ears. Stand to complete the movement.
clean & jerk
The lifter approaches the bar with feet shoulder width apart and takes a grip just outside the calves. Foot spacing and grip width do vary from athlete to athlete; find a comfort zone for yourself. Push your knees outwards to touch your forearms, keep arms totally straight. Again, initiate the pull by pushing your feet into the platform. This part of the movement is very like the leg press that many will be familiar with.
Once the bar travels past knee height, jump straight up explosively, violently shrugging the trapezius upward. While the bar is still moving, you must do two things simultaneously; jump your feet outward (not too far) and body downward, while whipping your elbows under the bar. This is the ‘clean’. Correctly done, this will leave you in a low squat with the barbell balanced across the front shoulders and the chest proudly up. Stand.
Once you are in a solid standing athletic stance, take a deep breath, push the hips back into a quarter squat while allowing the knees to travel forward and outward, and jump into a one foot forward, one foot back receiving position (You may instinctively know which foot to jump forward, and which to jump back, but if not a simple test will reveal it; stand relaxed and have a partner push you suddenly from behind. You will step forward onto one foot; that is your forward foot in the jerk). At the same time continue the upward movement by assisting the already moving barbell with a violent overhead shove from the shoulders and triceps. You will be in a split squat with the barbell overhead.
From this position, step the front foot back a half step, the back foot forward a half step and then again the front foot back a half step. This will put your feet side by side with little disturbance to the balance of the barbell overhead. You have now completed the ‘jerk’ portion of the clean & jerk. Done! Note: never press when jerking. The bar should fly to arm’s length unless you are doing it wrong.
why would you want to learn the Olympic lifts?
If you are reading on this site, you probably already dig training that has a more functional aspect to it. Cursory inspection of this site reveals an interest in boxing, calisthenics, and weight training. But why learn a sport that is complicated, takes years to master, and has the potential for injury? You could just take another yoga class, or spin, or keep doing the kind of lifting you have been doing, right? By all means, do the things you already know you like. You might like weightlifting or O-lifts, though, if the following applies to you:
- You want to get stronger without “bulking up”
- You want to become more explosive for a sport
- You like doing things that make other people in the gym stare
It appears that a lot of the female populace fears weight training out of the mistaken belief that they will put on too much muscle. Krista addresses that with great accuracy elsewhere on this site, but let me assert a simple metabolic truth; Olympic lifting done with low volume and little to no eccentric (the controlled lowering of the barbell) does not build a great deal of muscle. It will develop explosive muscle yes, but not with huge amounts of sarcoplasmic hypertrophy.
Why then was Vasily Alekseyev so huge? Because he was always going to be a big man, because he ate a huge amount of food, used anabolic steroids and did a large volume of exercise to support the O-lifts. My first lifting coach was a Venezuelan lifter who was a Pan-Am games competitor. He weighed 56kg, or about 120lbs, and was maybe five and a half feet tall. He was the fastest human being I have ever seen, and watching him lift changed everything for me. The guy was all rubber and string. I outweighed him by about 44kg (97 lb), and he out-lifted me in every lift that seemed to matter. [Krista’s note: I once saw this little Venezuelan dude jerk 315 lbs in the gym. No shit! I had to count the plates on the bar several times to make sure I wasn’t wrong. That is, by the way, three plates per side, although it’s still less than the world record 168 kg or about 370 lb clean and jerk by Haile “Pocket Hercules” Mutlu lifting at 56 kg and 4’9″ tall] It was humiliating, but instructional. Suffice it to say, that a lifetime of Olympic lifting had not made him “too big”, and he was a talented athlete, so maybe Jill Average can rest easy about that fear. If, by the way, you find that you easily gain muscle without trying, please get in contact with me immediately. I want to do what you are doing.
Strength and conditioning coaches and specialists the world over are on the “Olympic lifts for explosivity” bandwagon. There are some very notable exceptions to that statement, but I don’t think that it is overstating the point to say that a lot of coaches are trying to increase their athlete’s explosivity with the O-lifts. Why is that? Simply put, they are dynamic by nature. There is no way to perform a slow O-lift if you are using any weight; it is go fast, or go home. They teach an athlete to accelerate quickly, from the ground up, which is of incredible benefit to such athletes as boxers, wrestlers, volleyball and football players, and any other sport where quick movements spell the difference between victory and defeat. I don’t even really need to sell this, almost everyone agrees that O-lifts can help an athlete develop more “pop”.
how to get started
Okay, the O-lifts are weird. They have funny names that immediately bring out the dirty little kid in people. If you have ever seen them performed, they are often accompanied by loud shouts or grunts of effort, and nearly always terminated with a thunderous dropping of the bar onto the platform. The last thing most people want is to share gym space with a bunch of shouting weight droppers.
But if you are reading this site, you are already not most people. Maybe you have in the past endured and/or enjoyed the stares that typically go along with trying something new in the gym. Maybe you learned how to do a chinup, and promptly began to lust after a weighted chin, or a one armed chin (!). People watched you learn how to do this unusual thing, and you learned to deal with being watched. If that is the kind of person you are, try the Olympic lifts. Those gym mullets will really be staring when you have learned how to throw the equivalent of your bodyweight overhead! Most of them will be struggling to bench the same percentage.
I learned the O-lifts by meeting people who were involved in the sport, talking to them, and then working with individuals and coaches who had much more experience than me. To learn anything I had to get humble, ask questions, and learn to accept criticism. For someone who had trained most of their life, this was very difficult. To facilitate the learning process, may I recommend the following approach:
- Seek out qualified coaches
- Look, listen and learn and then actually DO what the coach suggests
- Take on external opinions; do not assume you know what you are doing
- Train in a gym that has a lifting platform and bumper plates
If you are in a position to pay a coach, then do so. Your progress will be quicker, no doubt. If you just want to get your feet wet, consider attending a meet or a seminar, or train with an experienced lifter who can show you the ropes. I myself have never paid a coach, but have been very lucky to learn from qualified individuals who were generous with their time, and you may find this the case also. Typically the O-lifting community recognizes their fringe status in the exercise world, and very much welcome and encourage new lifters. This has certainly been the case for me, which has been a pleasant surprise. To get in touch with the Ontario Weightlifting Association, or any of the clubs affiliated with it in your area, click on the following site:
If you really want to learn about the O-lifts but don’t have the time or money to seek out coaching, you are going to have a tough time of it. A site that really helped me out a lot, however, is Dan John’s site. You may want to check out “The Book” tab first, but take your time and read what this site has to offer. There is a huge amount of relevant lifting and throwing information on it, and the author Dan John has been training, competing and coaching since, well, forever I think. He has a very clear instructional voice and approach, and helped me out a great deal when I got started. He will even answer emails for training advice, though he does not suffer fools gladly.
To get Arthur Drechsler’s highly regarded The Weightlifting Encyclopedia, a great book I’m still working through, click here.
Also check out Randy Hauer’s e-strength solutions site and his little booklet on beginning the O-lifts.
There are ways to derive the benefits of Olympic type lifts without a full commitment to learning the full movements, competing or hiring a coach. In fact, while a basic understanding of the classic lifts is essential, many coaches who want to use the lifts to improve their trainee’s athleticism and not to improve them as weightlifters per se use a variation of the classic lifts in their training. This delivers the same physical benefits as the two classic movements, typically with a much less steep learning curve, which is of great benefit when you are dealing with someone for only a season or two. Here is where we run into the power variations of the snatch and C & J. Some coaches, such as the esteemed Mike Boyle, prefer an even more truncated version, known as hang snatches and hang cleans. His argument is that the hang version is the great equalizer between athletes of different physical types. For example, the smaller female athlete will undoubtedly do much better at the classic movements than a very tall basketball player. This is because full squats and even correct pulls off the ground will suit the shorter athlete’s levers much better than the taller athlete’s. [Krista’s note: Hey! Let them suffer for a change! Power to the short peeps!]
putting OLs into your program
If you are already using a full body program you could incorporate the hang snatch or clean into one or two of those days. Alternate them from week to week, or if they really grab your attention, from workout to workout. Explosive movements are best trained with a low repetition and higher set scheme. To keep things simple, let’s think of it in terms of 3-5 sets of 3-5 repetitions. This is just a starting point, but it’s easy to remember. After a thorough dynamic warmup (which is another article altogether) try the following on one of your training days:
Hang clean or snatch 3-5 sets x 3-5 reps. Use very light weight: either a broomstick, piece of PVC pipe or very light weight bar. Don’t worry that it isn’t heavy enough; even this work will groom your nervous system to explode. Stand with the bar at waist height. Take the correct grip for your chosen lift. Push the hips back, dip forward with an arched back, jump straight up with a violent shrug and either whip the elbows under the bar (clean) or rotate the bar overhead (snatch). In either case keep the bar very close to the body by keeping the elbows rotated outward. Return the bar to start and repeat. Do not reverse curl the bar or lower slowly; jump it up, jump it down, catching it with straight arms.
[Krista’s note: Check out Google Video or YouTube for other demonstrations.]
Squat variation 5 x 5. Squatting is covered elsewhere in the site. Rotate between back squat, front squat and overhead squat.
1-arm Dumbbell Incline Bench 4 x 8-12. This fantastic movement stresses the core and shoulder stabilizers as well as the prime movers. [Krista’s note: Try it on a swiss ball too, rotating the body with the arm as you “punch” up]
Abdominal movement of your choice; whatever strikes your fancy, just make sure you do it. Oh, and no crunches, ‘cause be real. Reverse crunches are fine, as is ab-wheel, hanging leg raise, wood chops and planking variations.
Now if you are absolutely mental to learn the classic movements, repetitive practice is the key. Most great weightlifters start at a very young age and receive coaching all their lives, so don’t underestimate the number of low repetition sets you should be doing to learn. This program has been touted by Brooks Kubik and Dan John:
Snatch: 8 sets x 2 reps
Clean & Jerk: 8 sets x 1 rep
Front Squat: 5 sets x 5 reps
This can be done on three times per week program, but you can also try it every day, time permitting, with a broomstick or light bar. In any lifting program, weight increases must be earned with perfected form. No muscling up the bar with bent arms, and rounded lower backs, please.
This is truly the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Olympic lifts, but the main point here is that these lifts have many uses, can be scaled to fit anyone’s physical regime, and will provide athletic benefit to a regular fitness program. Try these movements or some variation of them and you may be surprised to discover how fun they can be. I’m not kidding, it’s very satisfying to pounce on an unsuspecting bar and hurl it overhead. While you are busy having fun, you will be making yourself into a better athlete.
Many thanks to Krista, a truly generous spirit, who has often given more brain power to my training questions than they warranted.
Nice snatch, Ron. Hee hee hee.