The Olympic lifts are some of the most fun, challenging and rewarding movements one can do in the gym. The lifts are a beautiful and violent chorus of movement. The snatch (bringing the bar from the ground to overhead in a single movement) and the clean and jerk (bringing the bar from the ground to the shoulder and then overhead) require athlete to move weights fast under high loads. The moves develop tremendous flexibility, coordination, speed and balance as well as strength and power. That is why there is so much “bang for your buck” in training them. Practicing the Olympic lift will no doubt make you fitter and more athletic so everyone should be practicing them. Having said that, the complexity of these lifts, make them a love of passion and frustration. Much like a golf swing, when you hit that perfect shot, hitting that perfect snatch where the lift just feels right is an addictive experience. These are cerebral lifts that require concentration and focus. Most people struggle with the positioning and speed of these lifts before strength becomes a limiting factor, making knowledge and practice a vital piece in development.
The first pull of the Olympic lifts is probably the biggest issue for most novice and intermediate lifters. This is the initial pull off the floor to the middle of the thigh, before athletes aggressively open their hips to elevate the bar. In essence, the first pull is meant to set you up for success. When done properly, it will maximize your strongest position and keep the bar in an ideal spot for top leverage. It is a positioning pull, meaning that the emphasis is not on speed, but maintaining the proper position. Here are some mechanics of the first pull, that are different to the traditional deadlift.
Set up: Start with the feet hip width apart and the bar over the last laces of the shoe (right before your toes start). This is a bit farther forward than the traditional deadlift. With the hands outside the shoulders grab the bar with a hook grip (fingers wrapped over the thumb). Lower the hips until the shins touch the bar, this may be a bit lower than your deadlift setup. The weight in your feet should be distributed 60:40 between that heel and the ball of your foot.
The First Pull: Keeping the back tight. Stand up while PUSHING THE KNEES BACK and KEEPING THE CHEST RISING. Go slowly and allow the bar path to drift back towards the heel. This is the major difference between an Olympic lifting pull and a deadlift. The bar path is not completely straight. This allows the bar to land in the proper position at the hip to maximize leverage when aggressively opening the hips. When done properly that bar should actually make contact with the hip or upper thigh.
Athletes have a tendency to rush the first pull or just pull it straight up like a deadlift. This will compromise the explosiveness and speed of the lift in the next phase. You may see a pull that look all like one speed without the rapid explosiveness we are looking for in the middle. Consider this video showing the bar path of Olympic Lifting champion Xiaojun Lu. Watch the height of his hips as he starts to pull and how he pushes his knees back creating a bar path that drifts from the front of his foot back towards the heel.
The Olympic lift are a ton of fun to tinker around with. Most people are limited not by strength but by skill, making technique practice vital. Sometimes a new tip or cue can totally change the game and lead to a new PR!