The sport of weightlifting is a polarizing enigma. Some think the snatch and the clean and jerk are the epitome of strength and athleticism. Others find them dangerous, hardcore, and completely out of the realm of normalcy.
As a weightlifting competitor and CrossFitter, I'm firmly in the pro-snatch camp. I think it's a shame people don't do the "Olympic" lifts and feel sad when trainers clutch their pearls at the thought of allowing their clients to perform such "dangerous maneuvers." As it turns out, weightlifting training and competitions are actually safer than other sports.1 With the right coach and the right equipment, there's no reason to forgo your interest in weightlifting because these moves look scary.
The snatch and the clean and jerk aren't bodybuilding lifts, though. Doing them won't help you build particular body parts like that troublesome upper pec or that lagging vastus medialis. These lifts will, however, aid your mobility, make you a more powerful athlete, increase your lean muscle mass, and, believe it or not, tax your cardiovascular system.
Now, before you run to the nearest platform to grip it and rip it, slow your roll. You can't throw plates on a barbell and hope you can get it over your head. That would be like dumping an 8 year old into the front seat of your car, handing him the keys to the ignition, and then giving him the green light—now that's scary.
The snatch and the clean and jerk are difficult lifts. To do them safely takes a lot of flexibility, speed, and power. So before you even attempt the real thing, try these progression lifts. They'll help you develop the mobility, speed, and power you need to snatch or clean and jerk successfully.
Clean Foundation Moves
EXERCISE 1: Front squat (Front rack position)
If you're a bodybuilder, you've probably been doing front squats with the bar resting on your shoulders and your arms crossed over the top of it. If you want to clean, drop the habit. Start doing front squats with the bar in your hands and your elbows pointed forward. It gets really difficult to pull the bar off the ground and onto your shoulders if you can't bring your elbows up to near-shoulder level. If you can't even hold the bar in that position without wanting to scream in agony, it's time to start practicing more mobility.
For most people, the enigma of the clean stems from a lack of flexibility. To do a clean, your T-spine, lumbar, and shoulders have to be supple and strong. You may be able to hold the bar in a front rack position, but as soon as you squat down, you freeze. You don't have to front squat 250 to work on your mobility. Grab an empty bar and practice holding the bar in the front rack and squatting down.
It's also important to squat to full depth—that means your hip hinge needs to be below your knees. One of the keys to a good clean is getting under the bar quickly. Do one right, and all the sudden you'll be ass to grass with a bunch of weight on your shoulders.
If you can, sit at the bottom of a light front squat. Practice keeping your chest up and your spine neutral. Don't round forward. Allow your back and your shoulders to stretch. Learn how to get comfortable in this position.
EXERCISE 2: Clean Pull
Undoubtedly, you've practiced the deadlift. The clean pull is similar, but you'll actually be pulling the bar as high as you can. This is an important movement to practice because it's what you'll do before you fall under the bar in a real clean.
For the clean pull, keep your arms just slightly bent and the bar close to your body. The point is not to use your biceps to pull the bar up, but to practice using the energy stored in your ankles, knees, and hips—we call this triple extension—to drive the bar upward. Before the bar even leaves the ground, make sure your lats and hamstrings are engaged.
As you pull, don't let the bar drift forward. To be good at the clean, you have to learn to control the bar and make it do what you want it to. Don't let the bar control the movement. Use light weight to begin so you get the feel of how your muscles are working. Your form should stay the same, no matter how heavy you load the bar.
EXERCISE 3: Plyometrics (Box jump, depth jump, box skip)
True plyometrics aren't exactly "lifts," but they will help you learn how to produce more power. To jump on or off of a box, your muscles have to stretch and then contract rapidly. The faster your muscles can do this, the more force they can produce. Force, as any good student of physiology knows, is a primary piece of power. And power is an essential aspect of performing the clean.
Adding plyos to your regimen is beneficial no matter what your goals are. Jumping on or off of a box will fire up your central nervous system (CNS). Your CNS is responsible for delivering messages to your muscles from your brain. If your CNS works quickly and efficiently, you'll be much better at doing complex movements.
Jerk Foundation Moves
EXERCISE 1: Push Press
The push press differs from a strict press in that you get to use momentum from your legs to help you lift the bar over your head. To do a clean and jerk, you need to get comfortable having weight over your head. It might be scary at first, but by doing this lift you'll build strong, stable shoulders and an iron core that, together, are more than capable of putting up big numbers.
I see a lot of people doing this lift with a lot of chest action. The bar goes more forward,than out and there's a lot of scary back-arching going on. The push press is not a standing incline bench press.
Grab the bar with your hands slightly more than shoulder-width apart. The movement should begin with a dip in your knees; don't start by sticking your ass out. As you push upward with your legs, think about that energy traveling all the way up your shoulders, through your arms, and into the bar. As your arms reach full extension, poke your head through and let your whole body take the weight.
EXERCISE 2: Push Jerk
A push jerk is a little different than a push press because you re-bend your knees after you dip and drive the bar over your head. This movement is a little more complicated and thus takes a bit more athleticism and coordination.
The point of doing a push jerk is to work on "catching" the bar with your legs. In other words, your knees absorb some of the weight as the bar goes over your head. You should be able to push jerk more than you push press.
The lift actually ends when you re-straighten your knees and your arms are at full extension. Just like in the push press, your head should poke through your arms. If someone was standing to the side watching you, she would be able to see at least a little bit of your ears.
Snatch Foundation Moves
EXERCISE 1: Overhead Squat
Maybe one of the most difficult exercises ever invented, the overhead squat is the king of exposing your weaknesses. If you have any sticky points in your shoulders, back, or hips, the overhead squat will make you feel like an old lady.
The overhead squat is a great foundation because the bottom portion mimics perfectly the landing position of the snatch. If you can sit—with your hips below your knees—and the bar over your head without wanting to cry like a little girl, you've got the start of a squeaky-clean snatch.
The overhead squat is also great for working balance, stability, and mobility. Even if you aren't interested in ever trying the snatch, throwing an overhead squat into your regimen will only help you.
EXERCISE 2: Snatch Balance (Drop snatch)
The snatch balance is a fun little exercise that's challenging at every level. Even with light weight, putting together the speed and coordination necessary for this lift can be difficult.
Start with the bar racked across your shoulders like you would for a back squat. Your hands will be wide, like they would be for a snatch. Dip like you would for a push press and then drive upward. As the weight unloads from your shoulders, drop into the bottom of an overhead squat position.
It takes speed to get down and athleticism to figure out how to drive the bar up and then squat down in rapid succession. And, like the overhead squat, it requires a lot of mobility.
What do you think?
Have any other ideas for weightlifting progression moves? Having trouble with any of these movements? Hit me up in the comments below!
- Name: Cassie Smith
- Height: 5'6"
- Weight: 145 lbs
- Occupation: Associate editor of Jyoto.info, CrossFit athlete, and weightlifting competitor