Progressing into the Olympic Lifts

The Olympic lifts (snatch and clean and jerk) are fundamental movements in most strength and conditioning programs. The full lifts and their variations are demanding yet incredible expressions of strength, balance, timing, mobility, and mental toughness. Performing them in your program not only develops powerful hip extension and rapid recruitment of the posterior chain, but also improves the ability to absorb force with proper hip and knee positions. While the benefits are numerous, getting athletes to a sufficient level of skill and understanding is no easy task.

Unfortunately, not all of us are born with ideal mobility or ingrained with perfect movement patterns prior to picking up a barbell. Many coaches tend to avoid these lifts because of the amount of "relearning" needed - time that might be better spent practicing a movement that can be easily accomplished. While less time consuming, this method can often be less effective in teaching and adapting the athlete to be more explosive. Rather than having to avoid the pieces of Olympic weightlifting that make it problematic, there are certain progressions that can be implemented to make the learning of these specific skills easier and allow for more quality explosive training in the weight room. 

1.  Explosive Bodyweight Movements

Prior to barbell explosive training, athletes should feel comfortable jumping in a multitude of different varieties, directions, and against different obstacles. Box jumps are a great resource for the novice trainee and can always be scaled as the athlete gets better and better. The more skilled an athlete gets at basic plyometric skills, the easier the transition to weighted explosive movements. Key coaching cues include focusing on extending fully before jumping upwards onto the box, and focusing on a stretch reflex after loading the hips and hamstrings. Following a quick loading of the hips, the athlete should try and maximize triple extension during the jump and successfully land in a stable position. The same is said when training single-leg box jumps, broad jumps, or explosive step-ups.

The video below was posted to Instagram by recent World Champion weightlifter, Apti Aukhadov (85kg weight class). He demonstrates not only incredible explosive power, but safe landing and loading mechanics. Note that even as a master of Olympic weightlifting, box jumps are still part of his program.

2.  Romanian Deadlifts (RDLs)

RDLs help ingrain proper hip and low-back movement mechanics, setting the foundation for Olympic lifts.

RDLs help ingrain proper hip and low-back movement mechanics, setting the foundation for Olympic lifts.

Once athletes become proficient in explosive bodyweight movements, the next step is to introduce loading. This can be tricky for novice athletes, who tend to be quad-dominant and inexperienced at properly loading the posterior chain. This is where Romanian Deadlifts (RDLs) can play an important role. While the RDL does not involve explosive hip extension like the Olympic lifts, performing RDLs helps ingrain proper spine and hip angles, which sets the foundation for explosive hip extension later on.

 Athletes can utilize this movement to feel the right amount of tension across the hamstrings while maintaining an active lumbar spine. Becoming proficient in dumbbell or barbell RDLs will help athletes train to sit the hips BACKWARDS while maintaining a proud chest and an actively-engaged thoracic spine. These positions are important to practice before moving into the explosive demands of Olympic weightlifting variations, not only for safety, but for developing the right mechanics to increase power.



3. High Pulls

In High Pulls, notice how hip extension leads to a powerful pull, with dumbbells staying close to the body. Because the athlete doesn't have to worry about catching the weight in a High Pull, they can focus on powerful hip extension mechanics.

In High Pulls, notice how hip extension leads to a powerful pull, with dumbbells staying close to the body. Because the athlete doesn't have to worry about catching the weight in a High Pull, they can focus on powerful hip extension mechanics.

The next step following RDLs is to develop a powerful hip extension to drive the weight upwards. High Pulls isolate the explosive second pull of the Olympic lifts and the loaded hip positions of RDLs, but do not require the athlete to catch the bar. High pulls can be practiced with plates, dumbbells, or barbells. These movements are perfect for athletes struggling with overhead or front-rack mobility constraints, or for athletes who simply aren't ready to perform Olympic lifts with a barbell.

4. Dumbbell Variations

Performing cleans and snatches with dumbbells allows athletes to practice the mechanics of the full lifts with less loading. The added unilateral demand of using each arm independently can help identify some proprioceptive issues (like the timing of the hip extension and control of the dumbbell away from the body) and hone fine motor skills. Lighter loads mean athletes can perform more repetitions, which creates more metabolic stress (and therefore adaptation) than the barbell equivalents allow for. Dumbbell cleans and snatches are the final step in progressing athletes into the Olympic lifts safely.

The DB One-Arm Snatch is a foundational movement in many Volt programs. It trains explosive hip extension and powerful pulling mechanics, while developing stability in the overhead position. 

The DB One-Arm Snatch is a foundational movement in many Volt programs. It trains explosive hip extension and powerful pulling mechanics, while developing stability in the overhead position. 

If you or someone you are working with is having trouble with barbell-based Olympic lifting, this progression offers some quick-fix alternatives that may help solve whatever issue is taking place. If you're planning on adding some Olympic lifting into your program, you may benefit from taking a few weeks and solely training each one of the movements. Once you've learned how to make the hips the primary generator of force, you'll be amazed how easy you'll pick up Olympic lifting. 


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Jace Derwin is one of the regular contributors to the Volt blog. He is a CSCS-certified strength coach, the lead Sports Performance Specialist at Volt and a Lift Big Eat Big athlete.
Learn more about Jace and read his other posts | @VoltCoachJace