Written by Jesse Irizarry
Learning the snatch and clean & jerk is the pursuit of a true craft. Every athlete who has competed in weightlifting and every coach of the sport knows this. Nothing improves the lifts better than practicing the lifts, plain and simple. The complexity of the movements demand a ton of practice with challenging weight and consistent technique.
But technique without strength is incomplete. The two qualities are dependent on each other. Weightlifters and CrossFitters truly dedicated to learning, at some point, will become obsessed with perfecting a certain technique. But some get too far down that path and never add any significant load to the bar. They’ll snatch 70kg with the most beautiful form you’ve ever seen but fall apart if you add 5kg. That’s all well and good if you’re just looking to master the movement, but it’s a problem if you want to compete.
Lifting a heavy barbell from the floor to overhead requires the ability to maintain proper positions at each stage of the movement. Consistent practice of great technique is a must and plays a huge part. But, you also need the necessary strength to maintain these positions and transition once it gets heavy. If you’re looking to compete in CrossFit and not just to master the artistry of the snatch and clean & jerk, you’ll be adding heavier loads, sometimes in an already fatigued state, and it is especially important you have this strength.
If you’re a relatively new CrossFit competitor with intermediate experience with the lifts and you miss a lift because of some deviation in your pull, drive, lockout, whatever, drilling more technique work with an empty bar may not help. Provided your mechanics are sound and you work diligently on this, you may have some specific weakness preventing you from maintaining this technique.
Different Athletes, Similar Problem
As a college strength coach, I held one particular position in which I was expected to increase athletes’ maxes in the Olympic lifts, specifically the clean. Regardless of my thoughts on if there are more effective and transferable methods to practice power output, I was in a system in which I had to produce numbers to keep my job. Any coach from this world understands this reality.
I was determined to not only improve maxes in the clean safely, but to also build general strength in the athletes that was helpful and transferrable to their sport. I wanted to do something crazy – actually help them win games.
With multiple teams, each with more than 20 athletes, I looked at the common limiting factor to heavier cleans that would actually boost sport performance. No surprise, it was lack of strength in the posterior chain.
So I had my athletes prioritize posterior chain-dominant lifts in their lower-body training and kept the cleans in the 70-85% 1RM range so they could challenge the movement with repetition and with a weight that allowed for optimal technique and minimal chance of injury.
In the end, most all of the athletes got huge PRs in the clean and, more importantly, built a base of strength helpful to their sport.
Identifying Your Weakness As An Intermediate Level Athlete
Fast forward a couple of years and I found myself as one of the coaches to a competitive CrossFit team. With my background in weightlifting, I quickly took responsibility of developing their Olympic lifts. Almost immediately, I noticed they had similar gaps in strength as my college players.
These lagging weaknesses, I observed, were due to the exclusivity of movement done by many general CrossFitters. The big movements that are focused on in most boxes are no doubt amazing for beginners building general work and movement capacity; however, when an individual wants to transition from recreation to competition, he or she is usually an intermediate-level athlete with intermediate-level problems. As mentioned, these intermediate-level athletes sometimes need to focus on specific areas of development to reach their ceiling of potential in the Olympic lifts. Neglecting this can lead to bigger problems down the road.
Create Your Outline
The general model to address this weak link involved rotating posterior-chain lifts such as good mornings, hip thrusts, snatch grip RDLs, and upper-body focused movements like Pendlay Rows.
While strength is the focus, there’s no need for max effort of weekly rotating lifts. Instead, use moderate rep ranges (3-5) and outline an entire block of training dedicated to building capacity. Only rotate lifts when strength stops increasing or it no longer has a positive transfer to the Olympic lifts.
But haphazardly adding weight to the bar isn’t my recommendation. I recommend a more calculated approach to push the limits of strength that includes the use of relative intensity, which I explained in my last article.
Nobody wants to become a hero of assistance lifts (or at least you shouldn’t), but when coming up with a plan to use secondary lifts to address weak links, you need to know what you’re capable of doing with each movement. To figure out a starting point, you can find and base your numbers on a 3-rep max. Yeah, I just recommended finding a 3RM for an assistance lift. Why the hell not?
Draft Your Blueprint
To make sure you’re causing enough stress with these movements, take the 3-rep max that you found and calculate a 1-rep max. Now that you have this, you can plan to hit percentages at or above 85% of this 1RM. This will be the range that develops limit strength. The numbers, of course, won’t be exact, but the point is that it gives you a baseline. With this general reference point, the details can be planned out.
The first step is to choose the lift that you believe to have the greatest transfer to the specific strength for the Olympic lifts for you or your athlete. If that’s good mornings, set up a four-week block of training. Use the first week to find your 3-rep max. After that, vary the number of sets each week but keep them in the 5-rep range.
The second step is to plan what percent of 1RM you plan to hit each week. But first, you have to calculate the 1-rep max off of what you did for 3 reps. After you’ve done that, look back at the equivalents chart from my last article. You’ll see that the absolute intensity for 5 reps is 85.7%. Once again, this means that you could hypothetically only do 5 reps at this percent of 1RM before failing. It’s a 100% effort. This is your specific reference point to make sure you’re using the right weights.
The third step, now that you have your estimated 1RM, is to figure out where to start your progression based on relative intensity. Fair warning, figuring this out when you’re not familiar with the numbers isn’t easy. So for example, say that you plan to do 5 reps at 80%. To figure out the relative intensity (RI), take .80 and divide it by the absolute intensity for 5 reps which, once again, is .857. You’ll come up with .933 or 93% RI.
You’d want to start lower than this so that you can use a basic linear progression and progress weight each week. Instead, aim for a RI of 85%, which, like mentioned above, is the lower end to develop limit strength. If you start lower and take a few more guesses, you’ll eventually find that 73% of 1RM is a RI of 85% 1RM. Remember divide .73 by
.857 to get .851 or 85% or 1RM. Much better starting off point.
This may be a lot of work on the front end, but it gets easier with use and it’s a more accurate approach than just picking a random weight that may feel heavy one day but really only represents 60% of 1RM.
Now that you have a starting weight, you can progress simply by adding just 5kg to the bar each week. Putting it all together, four weeks of training can look something like this:
Week 1: Work up to 3RM with whatever lift you choose, then -5%, -10% for 1 set of 3 each. (Calculate 1RM based off this number for next week.)
Week 2: 4×5 at 73% 1RM (85% RI)
Week 3: 5×5 last week’s weight + 5kg
Week 4: 3×5 last week’s weight + 5kg
Creating Your Training Week
Now to take this starting point and organize it into a training week that makes sense for you. Let’s say, for example, you train five times a week and are in a cycle of training emphasizing the Olympic lifts training the snatch three times a week and the clean or clean & jerk variation twice a week.
Keeping the lifts in the 70%-85% 1RM range and pushing the posterior chain work, a typical training week could be laid out similar to this:
Snatch – 5×3 70-73%
Squat – 8×3 70%
Good mornings – Work up to 3RM then -5%, -10% for 1×3 each
Clean & jerk – 6×3+1 70-75% (3+1 is 3 cleans followed by 1 jerk)
Front squat – 6×2 80%
Power Snatch + Snatch – 6×2 75%
Clean – 5×2 78%
Good mornings – 3×6-8 60% or Day 1
Snatch – 3×2 75%, 2×1 80%
Squat – 5×3 73%
When designing this, the Olympic lifts – although in a specific range – can be programmed with a simple linear progression. Next week, the volume can be dropped and the percentages bumped up a little while still keeping the intensity in that same range as the good mornings follow the progression already outlined. The second day of good mornings can always be done with 60% of the first day regardless of what week, as it’s simply a volume day to build muscle in the areas of focus.
You’ll also notice I included the squat and front squat in this example. The Olympic-style squat and front squat have some of the greatest transfer of specific strength to the Olympic lifts so you’ll want to stay in touch with them even while pushing the posterior chain lifts in a similar way to this outline.
This is just a rough example and doesn’t take into account all of the work needed to be competitive in the sport of CrossFit.
The Constant Shift Toward Specificity
Just like the top in every sport, elite CrossFit competitors can focus their training almost exclusively on the lifts, movements, and specific workouts as they’re done in competition because they have no more general weak links. The natural progression of training for an athlete should go from general to specific. CrossFit is very broad in terms of what can be considered sport practice, but there are no doubt staples in the sport, two of which are the snatch and clean & jerk.
But an intermediate athlete hasn’t always eliminated all their lagging weaknesses. Focused attention on training strength in the posterior chain to hold posture needed to maintain technical proficiency in the movement is a big piece of the puzzle.
Training like this shouldn’t be thought of as long-term but rather a strategy in eliminating relative weaknesses. Through experience coaching a few competitive weightlifters and many powerlifters, I’ve seen firsthand that eventually nothing improves the lifts like just simply practicing them with varying intensities and volume. This is especially true when dealing with the complexity in weightlifting. Specificity of load even eventually plays into this. I’ve heard Travis Mash say that lifts below 85% of 1RM in the snatch and clean & jerk can be thought of as different lifts from anything above this. Although far less, my experience tells me the same.
Take the time to seek out and eliminate any weakness in movement and musculature and earn the right to practice just the movements.
Jesse Irizarry is a Division 1 collegiate strength and conditioning coach who gets fired if he doesn’t produce actual results. He is on a personal vendetta against the nonsense being presented as strength training and performance advice. Jesse coaches athletes of all kinds, helps them reach their full potential, and keeps a blog at www.jdiperformance.com.