The debate about how coaches should teach the pull in Olympic Weightlifting has been ongoing for quite some time. After discussing the topic with a few well established coaches, I have realized a few simple facts. First, there are two sides to every debate. Good versus Evil, Dogs versus Cats, Packers versus Bears, Michigan versus Ohio State (go blue!), etc. Any position will have opposition. Second, no matter how hard you try, you will never change the mind of someone who has entrenched themselves on a side, no matter how right or wrong you may be. And third, it doesn’t matter if the other side doesn’t agree. If you believe that what you teach is better, you should be happy the competition is using an inferior system! That being said, I am going to discuss how I learned, what I teach, and why I believe it to be the optimal way to perform the pull in Weightlifting.
I will use the Snatch movement as the frame of reference for this discussion. The entire pull will be covered, but because the pull from the floor attracts little controversy I will cover it briefly. I will focus primarily on the pull after the barbell has reached the knee.
The First Pull/Lift-Off:
The first pull, or lift-off, is the movement of the barbell from the floor to just above the knee. This phase is probably the most technical segment, and some believe it to be the most crucial aspect of the entire pull. The reason for this belief is that any mistakes occurring early in a lift will cause problems later in the movement. This is one reason behind teaching the lifts from the top down, but correcting errors from the bottom up. Fixing problems earlier in a lift will often, but not always, solve problems later on. As the barbell separates from the floor, the hips should be higher than the knees, and the shoulders above the hips. In addition to this, the shoulders should be over or slightly in front of the bar. This relationship between the hips, shoulders, and barbell should be maintained through the duration of the first pull. The weight should be in the middle of the foot at the start, and should shift to the heels as the barbell separates from the floor. This causes the initial movement of the barbell to be towards the lifter (Garhammer, J. “Biomechanical profiles of Olympic weightlifters”. Int. J. Sport Biomechanics 1(2): 122-130, 1985.). The entire first pull, as many before have stated, is a misnomer. It is predominantly a push with the legs. Everything else involved is responsible for holding position.
The tempo of the Snatch is not to be ignored. The position from the floor to the knee is so crucial that when many lifters think about speed too early in the lift, they tend to lose position. Speed off the floor can be developed later in a lifter’s career, after they have ingrained the proper movement pattern. The pull from the floor to the knee is like the wind up of a pitcher’s delivery in baseball. Speed can be developed with practice, but proper position must always be maintained to take full advantage of the movement.
The part of the lift that connects the first and second pulls is the transition. Some people teach a three pull breakdown, in which case this is the second pull. This is when the lifter takes advantage of the tension built up in the hamstrings through the first pull to accelerate through the top of the second pull. Research has shown the barbell will accelerate off the floor, slow slightly in the middle of the movement, then accelerate again to peak velocity as it nears the top (Garhammer, J. “Biomechanical profiles of Olympic weightlifters”. Int. J. Sport Biomechanics 1(2): 122-130, 1985.). Because of this, it isn’t until the bar passes the knee that acceleration should be the focus. A useful cue is, “smooth off the floor, then accelerate past the knee”. This acceleration will not peak until the top of the second pull. The actual transition phase is when the lifter repositions their hips beneath the shoulders, with the knees still bent, to prepare to push vertically. Some people use the term ”power position” or ”high hang” for this position. This movement has been dubbed the “double knee bend” in the past and while yes that does happen, I do not believe it is something to be taught. If coached properly, the “double knee bend” will happen naturally and in a more fluid manner than if an attempt is made to break it down. One useful cue I use to get a lifter to perform the “double knee bend” is to tell the lifter to “jump”. Will the lifter actually jump? No. Is this one cue (of many) that can be used to make an athlete move a particular way? Yes! When you tell an athlete to jump, they will naturally put themselves in a position to get vertical. In weightlifting, vertical is truly the name of the game. This movement will not be identical to the maximal vertical jump, but it can be an effective tool to get an athlete into position. That being stated, it is not the only way, nor does it work with everyone.
The Second Pull
After the lifter has reached the end of the transition, or power position, the second pull is technically simple. “There is a rapid straightening of the legs and torso with a subsequent lifting onto the toes and raising of the shoulder joints up and back during the ’explosion’.” (Roman, R. The Training of the Weightlifter). The elevation of the shoulder is sometimes referred to as a shrug. There is much debate surrounding this aspect of the movement. One perspective is that this elevation of the shoulders is finishing the pull upward. Some say that the shrug is the beginning of pulling under the bar. I believe that the shrug succeeds in both. This shrug is an ideal movement to keep tension on the bar throughout the change of direction. It allows the legs to complete their ballistic push without having to cut the movement short in an attempt to quickly get under the bar. Elevating the bar with the trapezius is significantly stronger than pulling with the arms alone, so it seems that not using such a tool would be unwise.
The final aspect of the second pull that is debated is the elevation onto the toes at the end. “As the bar reaches the upper third of the thighs, the trainee should rise onto the toes with a powerful effort, fully extend the knees and hip joints while simultaneously forcefully shrugging the shoulders and bending the arms.” (A.A. Krabov, “Teaching the Technique of the Competition Exercises”; The 1983 Weightlifting Yearbook). This quote taken out of context can be somewhat confusing as it relates to when things are happening, but it is the purposeful mention of rising to the toes that should be noted. Whether this is a result of actively pushing to the toes or a follow-through from the push through the heels is reasonable to debate. Let us revisit the baseball pitcher analogy. Imagine how well they would be able to throw the ball if you told them they had to keep their trail foot on the rubber after they release the ball. Sure, maybe one or two pitchers could still throw well, but performance would suffer in the vast majority.
I have just described one of a countless number of ways to teach what is happening through the pull in the sport of Weightlifting. There is no single method that “the rest of the world” uses, nor is there a single way that works best for everyone. Many athletes and coaches have been successful using a variety of methods from all parts of the world. Also, one must remember that each lifter will likely show slight variations in all positions as a result of limb lengths, flexibility, and a range of other factors. To succeed in this sport, one must truly believe in what they are doing and/or coaching. What we don’t want to do is to alienate a potential tool for development, whether it falls within the parameters of our “camp” or it is something the “other side” uses. We are all either educators, practitioners, or both, and we should be open to the possibility that someone else may know things that we don’t, and we should take that as an opportunity to learn. In casual conversation with a three time Olympian, I jokingly said, “it almost looks like you have been doing this (Weightlifting) for a while”. His reply was “I’ll figure this out yet”. The implication that someone who has been immersed in this sport for 40+ years still has so much to learn should not be ignored. There is no single method for how to teach the pull or any other aspect of the lifts, just like there are different thought processes on programming. This is what gives sport its flavor! What we need to avoid is taking the exception to the standard and making it the new standard. As Bob Takano wrote, “…if one or two lifters favor a certain anomalous technique, while well over 95% of the medal winners prefer a more standard technique, a well-educated coach will be able to study the biomechanics and determine whether this new technical variant is really advantageous or simply an idiosyncrasy that may be unique to the anatomy of the lifters in question.”Colin Burns is an 85kg Weightlifter based out of Ann Arbor, Michigan. Burns placed 5th at ther 2012 US Weightlifting Nationals with lifts of 155kg in the snatch and 175kg in the clean & jerk. Before pursuing weightlifting, Burns was an All-Conference running back for the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and a top ranked Judo athlete. Burns trained in Judo at the US Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs for 3 years. Colin is a graduate of the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs with his degree in Health Science, as well as being a USAW Sports Performance Coach and CSCS holder. Burns has served as a physical preparation coach for the US Olympic Training Center, University of Wisconsn Badgers football program and University of Michigan Olympic sports programs.