Teaching The Olympic Lifts – Don’t Run Before You Walk!

The desired outcome for any progression that teaches the Olympic Lifts is for the athlete to learn how to perform the Olympic Lifts! This seems like a statement of the obvious. However, in order to meet the desired outcome of technical mastery of the Snatch and Clean and Jerk, one should not start with the Snatch and Clean and Jerk.

The process of learning the Olympic Lifts is no different than the process of acquiring proficiency in any motor task as for example walking vs. running. As a child develops there are many reasons why walking comes before running. The two that are most germane to this discussion are strength and coordination.

At some point in the developmental process a child will crawl, stand, walk, and then finally, run. The child will instinctually progress from one stage to the next when a sufficient amount of strength is developed. I understand that this is a simplified view of the developmental process however; it stands as a great template for the development of teaching progressions for complex motor tasks such as the Snatch and Clean and Jerk.

If your Olympic lifting progression throws people directly into learning the Olympic lifts you are running before you are walking. As in the aforementioned developmental process, a child does not run before he or she can walk. Very often, when learning the Olympic lifts for the first time, athletes lack the proper “structure” and this prevents them from acquiring the desired “function.”

Structural Training in Weightlifting

As the extremities flex, extend, and rotate during the execution of a lift, the torso must remain rigid. When learning the Olympic Lifts, it is not the strength in the extremities that limits the athlete; it is the strength in the torso. In other words they lack sufficient structure.

It has been my experience with beginning lifters that majority of their errors revolve around poor torso preparation (poor structural preparation). And the biggest problem with many teaching progressions is the lack of sufficient information on how to keep the torso engaged, especially in the power position.

I frequently hear coaches give beginning athletes cues such as, “tight back, lumbar curve, keep the bar close, and chest up.” All of these cues give the athletes the desired outcome however, more often then not they do not understand the process (or function) required in order to achieve said outcome. One cannot say to beginning athletes as they are about to perform a Hang Power Snatch “Ok now… take a big breath, perform the valsava and kegel, medially rotate your arms, slightly flex the wrists, flex the knee to approximately 150º, incline your torso to approximately 30º, keep the bar and your balance over your metatarsals, extend the shoulder to keep the bar close to the body by depressing the scapula, contract traps 2 and 3 and the posterior delts and go!” However, you are assuming they know all of this when you proceed directly into the Olympic lifts.

When starting athletes with the lifts I have found it useful to begin with 7 “structural” exercises, which are categorized into two groups, foundational and position specific.

Foundational Exercises

The foundational exercises include, the Back Squat, Press/Behind Neck, and Good Morning. These exercises require minimal amounts of motor ability and skill. Nevertheless, they are powerful tools for creating kinesthetic awareness as well as a baseline level of strength. With only a minimal amount of resistance you will be able to dramatically improve the athletes inter/intramuscular coordination as well as their facilititory and inhibitory response mechanisms. It’s these effects that are the “foundation” for developing strength. More specifically, these exercises will introduce the motor patterns needed for torso stabilization while squatting, supporting weight above the head, and most importantly bending over with the knees slightly unlocked and their shoulders ahead of their toes. This last position is vital for success in the Olympic Lifts, but the explanation of how to achieve this position is very often overlooked in many exercise progressions. Without question the majority of technical errors in the lifts are caused by improper position in the start of the 2nd pull. This position needs to be taught and reinforced before more complex motor patterns are introduced.

Position-Specific Exercises

The position-specific exercises include the Overhead Squat, Front Squat, RDL, and Dead Lift. These exercises introduce the athlete to the specific positions, which will be required in order to learn the Olympic Lifts. There is a higher degree of kinesthetic awareness and torso involvement required in these exercises. Because the athlete has previously developed a mental construct of what is required in order to properly squat, support weight above the head, and bend over, you are not introducing motor abilities and patterns foreign to the athlete. You are just building on abilities and patterns previously acquired and the athlete becomes comfortable and stable in the positions required during the Olympic Lifts.

Once athletes can perform all of these exercises properly they will have developed four vital fitness components, which act as a medium for successfully and easily learning the Olympic Lifts:

  • 1. Full range of motion of all joints
  • 2. Reduction/elimination of bilateral deficit
  • 3. Improved strength and coordination of the body as a whole through improved motor function
  • 4. An understanding and an aptitude for the positions required

This method of sequential skill acquisition allows the athletes to easily develop vital but basic skill sets as well as the proper structure which will allow for easier and more efficient learning of more complex skill sets as they progress.

Now when you teach your athletes the Hang Power Snatch they already understand what the power position is, how to keep the torso tight, and how to keep the bar close to the body because they have performed and understand the Good Morning and the RDL. You won’t have to instruct them on how to support the weight above their head because they have performed and understand the Press and Overhead Squat. It allows them to focus on one task at a time.

When athletes begins learning the Olympic lifts they must only focus on the gross motor skills required for lifting the barbell with precision and speed so they can develop a “feel” for the movements. Getting bogged down in the details of individual muscle action or being apprehensive due to weakness, dysfunction, or uncertainty, will only retard an athlete’s progress.

Fight until your very last breath!
-Sean-