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Top 5 Ways To Improve Your Olympic Lifts

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In CrossFit we employ some pretty challenging disciplines to our fitness.  Gymnastics and olympic weightlifting are both high-skill sports that take a lifetime to master.  But that doesn’t mean they are inaccessible to the beginner.  If that were the case, nobody would ever get involved in the sports!  Today, we’ll focus on weightlifting.

Because there seems to be about 10 million things to think about and possibly do wrong when snatching or cleaning a barbell, we often get lost.  It becomes hard to see the forest for the trees.  We get caught up in the minutia and lose sight of the bigger picture.  When that happens, even the best in the world must always fall back on the fundamentals.  These are the most important aspects of the lifts that can be overlooked when we examine things too closely.  Here are 5 fundamentals that you can and should always fall back on when you’re about to lift or you are in the middle of a session and find yourself struggling.

  1. Keep The Bar Over Your Foot – More specifically, keep the bar slightly in front of your heel bone and behind the balls of your feet.  This will keep you balanced throughout the lift, and keep your bar path vertical.  Also, and most importantly, it will give you the most leverage to lift the weight.

    Graph showing bar position throughout all phases of the snatch
  2. Brace Your Midline – I was once told by a Spanish olympian that my back was “round like a pizza” at a weightlifting seminar.  That kind of humiliation sticks with you…  On the upside, it has made me far better at lifting.  Bracing your midline throughout the lift will keep your spine in a strong neutral position, which is safe.  And it will also allow you to generate far more power.  It’s important for safety as well as performance.

    Chad Vaughn. American record holder in 77kg weight class.
  3. Stay Over The Bar – It’s so tempting to thrust the hips toward the bar and get that chest vertical as soon as possible.  But this is mechanically less powerful.  What results in more power, a better bar path, and overall awesomeness is to move the bar toward the hip and waiting a bit longer to open the hips.  Warning: it will feel like you are waiting FOREVER to move through the second pull.

    Lǚ Xiǎojūn – Current world record holder in 77kg snatch
  4. Finish! – Here, impatience can once again get the best of us.  Your brain will start screaming “get under the bar!” before you hit full extension of the hips, knees and ankles.  The “Finish” position is so important, that if you aren’t reaching it, you can take at least 10% off your max lifts.  It may feel clunky and contrived at first to hit full extension, but the heavier the weight gets, the more important this becomes.

    Apti Khamzatovich Aukhadov. Russian 85kg weightlifter
  5. Pull Under Aggressively – Beginners often just fall under the bar.  To become better, you’ll have to be active in your 3rd pull.  It can’t just be a 3rd “fall”.  The conundrum here is that when we focus on pulling under the bar, we often fail to “finish” (remember fundamental 4 above?).  To achieve your best lifts, you’ll have to do both.  Finish first, then pull under aggressively.  This change of direction is one of the most challenging aspects of weightlifting.  But it’s also something that separates beginners from intermediate/advanced lifters.

    Casey Burgener pulling under 225kg (495 pounds)

Mastering the fundamentals requires a LOT of repetition with focus. The majority of those repetitions must be with light-to-moderate weight.  As we work into heavier loads, the fundamentals will be tested.  And as we see where we falter, we take some weight off the bar, groove the fundamentals and then work back up and retest.  Analogously, you wouldn’t practice your golf swing by pulling out the driver as you arrive at the driving range and hitting every ball as hard as you can.  If you did, you’d likely wonder why you aren’t getting any better.  You have to work at low intensity where you are able to integrate cognitive thought.  As the intensity goes up, your conscious thought recedes and your body necessarily relies on the habits you built through focused work.

If you focus on the fundamentals, are willing to fail, and are patient with yourself, you can and will become a very good weightlifter!