In the gym I see many people adding the Olympic lifts to their workout routines/lifting repertoire. This is all well and good as the Olympic lifts can add explosive power to sporting performance. But if they’re not thought through, they can add extra load to already overloaded areas – i.e. overhead movements can put more stress on the rotator cuff muscles for swimmers, rounders players, plasterers, decorators who don’t need this extra stress.
The issue with the Olympic lifts is that people jump straight in at the deep end and do not take their time to get to learn the lift, breaking each portion of the lift down: getting competent in one area of the lift before moving onto the next area. The Olympic lifts are not like a bench press. Technique is important and should be mastered, but generally people will push through the lift, loading the weight up yet losing the benefits of the lift as they muscle the bar up. The question is, where do the Olympic lifts, and any lift you perform for that matter, fit in on the following diagram? Are you currently training across the whole spectrum or just in one block?
Now, a lot of people look to the Olympic lifts as they hear they are the best exercises for power, and yes they can be, if done correctly and properly. But there are other exercises, plyometrics and/or the use of medicine balls, which can have a better improvement to performance than a poorly executed clean. If you are looking to increase power and don’t have a access to a barbell, after you have finished reading this article on tips to move better, look at the Honest Fitness guide to plyometrics.
If you are still wondering where the Olympic lifts start then I am sorry but before we break the Olympic lifts down into bite size parts there are a few movement issues that we are likely to have to clear up first, before you even think about picking up a bar. Due to the way we live and train today, previous injuries, our training history (new or old) or just poor technique the following exercise are those which I/we here at Honest Fitness, believe will help you become a better lifter and able to get into better starting and catching positions for the Olympic lifts. If you need to spend several weeks or even months doing the following exercise, then do, don’t rush into the Olympic lifts. Look to implement them in your training plan if possible don’t add them as extra work, for example:
1, replace your current 5 minute cycle used to warm up with some mobility drills or add some mobility drills between sets of exercise in your ‘rest’
2, after you have finished your warm up using mobility drills perform some jump and land exercises as this is when you are freshest. You need to be able to catch the bar in the correct manner. To save time add bring your core exercises here and super set jump and land with a core exercise.
3, now come the squats and deadlifts – front, back, overhead, even if not a leg day do some light squats.
4, the hip hinge can be added in with your strength exercises or as a movement exercises between sets of an exercise.
If you cannot get into good positions then sequencing is going to be difficult and you will not be completing the movement correctly and may struggle to get competent in the Olympic lifts. All our joints interact with one another, what goes on at one joint will affect the movement at another. For example, if the ankles are locked up the body looks to another joint to find movement which the ankles are not allowing, this is not good for the joint as it becomes overworked and may not be designed to allow this range of movement. Let’s break the mobility areas down from the bottom up.
*The person that I tend to look at for mobility exercises is Eric Cressey. The clips and links for these mobility exercises will come from his youtube videos.
The ankles is generally where you will see issues, tight ankles can be the difference between good squatting depth and poor squatting depth.
*Did you know Olympic lifting shoes have a heel inserted into the shoe? This creates artificial ankle mobility – allowing for depth on a lift. To see/feel the difference perform a normal body weight squat and then try with again with your heels raised by about 1cm using weight plates or a thick mat. Notice any difference in your depth?
Hip mobility can be the difference between you getting down into a deep squat with your thighs below parallel as opposed to you bending down from the waist, lowering your shoulders, whilst keeping your hips at the same height – more of a good morning exercise than a squat.
Squat to Stand
Wall Hip Flexor Mobilisation
Your thoracic region is important and can be the reason your shoulders round (besides too much benching and/or sitting as a desk), neck pain and/or lower back pain. The thoracic spine should allow movement – rotation, flexion and extension – all beneficial to the front squat and overhead squat. If this is not moving correctly you are likely start to use your lumbar spine to get movement – which is designed to resist flexion, extension, rotation – this is not a good thing.
Yoga Press Ups
Bent Over Thoracic Spine Rotation
Thoracic Extension Foam Roller
2, Jump and Land
Into your teens and adulthood you are unlikely to have spent much time landing and jumping – even if you play football I doubt you have thought much about your landing position or even practiced it. In many sports injuries, especially to the Anterior Cruciate Ligament, people get injured not on the takeoff but during the landing or changing direction. So make sure you are happy landing with your bodyweight before you start adding any loads. The Olympic lifts are about producing force to lift the weight, but you also have to absorb this force when catching the weight on your shoulders / overhead. Here we are looking at preventing your knees folding in/coming together upon landing or taking off – or when squatting!
Jump and land progressions
1, Eccentric loading
Stand with your feet about shoulder width apart, arms stretched out in-front parallel to the floor. Drive your arms down to your side as fast as you can and drop into a half squat position and hold for a second or three. When you drop prevent the knees turning in. Land softy, not on your heels or toes but the ball of your foot and use the muscles to absorb the force.
2, Drop Landing
Stand on a box or step which is not too high, the usual steps you get in a gym will be fine to start with. Look to progress to that is around your knee height. Standing feet shoulder width apart, step off the box and land with both feet on the floor at the same time, feet shoulder width apart. Eccentrically load the hamstring by dropping into a half squat position as you land (absorbing the energy) hold for a second or three in a half squat position. Land softy, not on your heels or toes but the ball of your foot and use the muscles to absorb the force.
3, Box Jump
Using the stretch shortening cycle load up the hamstring and jump up onto a box. Make sure at the start (throughout the takeoff) and landing your feet are shoulder width apart, knees do not turn in and your drop no deeper than your takeoff position – half squat position. Land softy, not on your heels or toes but the ball of your foot and use the muscles to absorb the force.
4, Single Leg Box Jump
Start with a regular small step you see in the gym. Start with one leg and jump up onto the step landing on one leg, land with the same technique as all the other jumps, only on one leg and prevent the knee turning in on the takeoff and landing. Land softy, not on your heels or toes but the ball of your foot and use the muscles to absorb the force.
5, Hurdle Jump and Stick
Look to start, to start with the small speed, agility quickness hurdle you get and progress to higher hurdles when you feel comfortable (12-30 inches). Start in the same position as the box jump, half squat, feet shoulder width, knees not turning out. Jump up and over the hurdle and Land softy, not on your heels or toes but the ball of your foot and use the muscles to absorb the force. Hold this position for a second or three and jump over the next hurdle.
*on all of the exercises mentioned above look to complete 3 sets of 5 repetitions.
For more plyometric progressions see the article on Plyometrics
3, Squats and Deadlifts
Re-master the squat, pay attention to the overhead and front squat, essential for both Olympic lifts. During the clean you receive the bar on the shoulders as it moves down, whilst the snatch you have to drop under and receive/catch the bar overhead.
Front Squat – the best way start is with the goblet front squat to make sure we learn the basic movement principles then progress to the front squat with a barbell.
Overhead squats – start with a PC pipe/wooden dowel, learn to feel comfortable with the bar overhead and ensure the movement is correct. If you cannot get your hips to parallel then you may need to work on your mobility at the ankles and hips.
Position feet so shoulder width or a little bit wider, turn your feet out about 30-45 degrees. Your knees should follow the path of yours toes as you squat.
-Place the bar behind your clavicle, on top of your shoulders in-front of your neck, stick your chest forward and lift it up. Keep it in this position as you squat, this prevents the bar slipping forwards. If squatting in-front of a mirror keep the logo on your chest visible in the mirror at all times.
-Take a grip around a thumbs length from the end of the smooth part of the bar, this should be outside your shoulder width. Keep your head facing forwards (not down or up).
-The grip should be relaxed and bar should be resting on your shoulders (clavicles), push your elbows forwards and up, upper arms should be parallel to the floor – the bar position may feel uncomfortable on your shoulders (clavicle), neck and wrists to begin with.
-Start the movement by moving the hips back (hip hinge), keep the chest up, back straight, elbows high and squat down until your thighs are parallel, or lower, to the floor. If your back rounds or technique goes, squat to this depth and back up** As you squat up and down push the knees out so they track the path of the toes. Return to start by driving up through the heels, keep chest up, avoid leaning forward and bring the hips back under the bar.
**if you cannot get to parallel or below try to work out why this is, is it mobility or technical adjustment. Work on this and correct this before continuing to squat deep. For example, regress to box squats.
-Start with a PVC pipe held above your head, hands gripping around the same distance apart as from your left shoulder to the end of your right hand.
-Spread you feet shoulder width apart, point your toes out slightly and keep your feet on the floor
-Bend at the ankles, hips and knees to lower your body to the floor, until thighs are at least parallel to the floor
-Look straight ahead, keep the spine neutral and arms stretch overhead
-Look to keep your hips over your heels
-If the bar is in front of you and your hips are higher than your knees, then you should look to work on mobility and flexibility before you move onto weighted overhead squats.
Deadlift – lift off
Now lifting the bar from the floor up to the knees is, does not use the traditional deadlift technique used in powerlifting.
For a technical aspect, practice the lifting the bar to the knees, start with light weights and emphasis on your technique.
-place feet hip width apart, align the bar over the end of your trainers laces, nearest your toes
-bend down hold of the bar using the hook grip, take the grip according to a snatch or clean. Wrap your index finger around your thumb – which is already placed against the bar
-the first part of the lift-off causes the bar to come towards the shins, this tightens up the lats and scapulae retracts giving you a strong base of support
-extend the knees and hips only – shoulders and hips rise at the same pace. So although the legs are extending the torso stays as the same angle to the ground as the start position.
-stop when the bar reaches your knees – here your shoulders should be in-front of the barbell, balance is moved from the front of the foot to the rear, but not on your heels.
*if you look at the S shape pull of the bar in the Olympic lift, the is pulled back towards the hips. Different lifters with show different curves, but through looking at the S curve you can see the stages of the lift. With the deadlift (lift-off) focusing on pulling the bar back towards the body.
4, Hip Hinge
The hip hinge is the basic movement at the start of any clean and snatch movements, specifically the hang clean and hang snatch. The hip hinge movement is also an essential part of the Romanian deadlift and kettlebell swing.
The hip hinge loads up the posterior change (hamstrings, glutes), much like a bow and arrow (Dan John).
Before you look to master Olympic lifts, start with the hip hinge: first a body weight hip hinge, before moving onto a KB hip Hinge, then look to progress to using the barbell.
The hip hinge is not a squat, it is a movement pattern that looks at maximal hip movement whilst having minimal knee bend (slight knee bend is fine).
-Stand about 1 foot in front of a wall, feet shoulder width apart, toes facing forwards
-Contract the core, place your little fingers on your hip.
-Start the movement by pushing your hips back to the wall, with minimal knee bend. The hips should move back, don’t just bend from the waist, they should not stay in the same place they started.
-As the hips move back, bend at the hips and bow, keeping your spine neutral and core engaged. Keep the head in line with the spine, looking to the floor as you push the hips back
-If your back starts to round, stop and return to the start. If you can touch the wall, keeping the spine neutral and minimal knee bend, move the feet forwards a little and repeat.
-When the hips are pushed back, you should feel the hamstrings ‘load up’. Avoid an excessive bend at the knee joint, this turns the movement into a squat.
Once you have mastered this exercise/movement pattern, try with a kettlebell. Start with the kettlebell positioned between your feet, in line with the ankles. Deadlift the weight up and start the movement from the top position. Keep the spine neutral and bend at the hips. Push the kettlebell between the ankles as you bend down. Again if your back starts to round, stop and return to the start. As you push the hips back you should feel the hamstring load.
Go give these exercises a go to see if improvements in your movement patterns. The next article on Olympic lifts will look to break the lifts down into bite size teachable pieces, allowing you to perform the lifts safely and with the correct technique.
Eric Cressey www.ericcressey.com
Boyle, M. (2004). Functional Training for Sports: super conditioning for today’s athlete. Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL.
Newton, H. (2006). Explosive Lifting for Sports. Enhanced Edition. Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL.