For the purpose of this article, I am going to assume you are someone who has learned the basics of the Olympic lifts. You understand that you are using your entire body to lift a barbell off the floor and using your posterior chain to create momentum and elevation on the barbell so that it gets either to your shoulders or over your head. I am also going to assume that you know the difference between a power snatch and a squat snatch as well as the difference between a power clean and a squat clean.Many coaches and athletes will lean towards teaching/learning the power versions of the lifts before the squat variations because they are simpler and easier to learn. When one first starts Olympic lifting, it is common for their PRs to be the power version instead of the full version, even though in theory the squat versions are stronger. The reason being that by actively pulling yourself under the bar into a full squat, you don’t have to pull the bar as high and thus you can accommodate more weight.
Understanding the Third Pull
I want to take some time to talk about getting under the bar, or what is known as the third pull: the portion of the lift in which the athlete needs to be actively engaged in getting under the bar. This doesn’t mean that you are dropping and falling under the bar; rather, it means you are pulling your body under the barbell faster than gravity is pulling the barbell back to the floor.
Too many CrossFitters miss lifts in both everyday training sessions and in competitions this way: even though they jump the barbell up to face height, they still miss the lift. After the big pop from the hips, they try to pull and press the barbell up above their head (in the case of a snatch). In this process they have expended lots of energy into a failed lift; however, if they had rather pulled under the barbell, they would have had a greater chance of making the lift. Typically, people have trouble learning this portion of the lift for one of two reasons:
- They have not spent time doing technique work that focuses on the third pull, and it is a foreign concept to them, OR
- They are just scared. They freeze in action because pulling yourself under a heavily-loaded barbell feels like/seems like a scary thing.
I personally spent about a decade of my younger life on a skateboard jumping off ramps and down stairs, so that natural response to not do dangerous things is pretty subdued. For some people, though, this can be a big mental block more than an understanding of how things work. So let’s talk about some exercises and drills that can help people get better at the full lifts.
Exercises & Drills to Improve Full Oly Lifts
Hi-Hang Snatch and/or Clean
Working the snatch from the hi-hang or the hip (as some coaches call it) can be great for helping people understand the idea of getting under the bar. They don’t have to think about lifting the bar from the floor and negotiating around the knees and up the legs. The bar will be starting in almost perfect position in the crease of the hip. From the hip, the athlete should start with a small dip similar to a dip in a push press or a split jerk, drive up, and then pull under. An experienced lifter should be able to lift almost as much from the hi-hang as from the floor, assuming their third pull is strong. Typically, newer athletes can’t generate as much pop from the hip, so powering the weight overhead can be more difficult to get away with.
With my athletes, I will usually have them repeat a weight anywhere from 3-5 times successfully before I let them make the bar heavier. This repetition helps build confidence in getting under the barbell. I also have my athletes spend lots of time “camping,” meaning I have them pause and hold for a few seconds at the bottom of the snatch or clean to help build stability and strength down in the bottom position. I want my people to be so comfortable in the bottom that they could have some tea, crumpets and a nice conversation while spending time down there.
Heaving snatch balance
The heaving snatch balance is a fantastic exercise, designed to help you get stronger and more confident under the bar in an overhead squat position. The bar starts loaded on the back across the upper traps, hands set up in the same width as your snatch grip width. From there, you will pop the bar off your shoulders slightly and begin pushing yourself into the bottom of the squat. With the heaving snatch balance you are most likely going to catch the bar somewhere in mid-squat. From here, I like to teach people to “land and ride”: as soon as the squat is established, I want my athletes to ride down to the bottom and stand up. This is much different than driving the bar up like a push press and doing an overhead squat as two separate movements.
Most people should be able to snatch balance more weight than they can snatch. This drill is going to be more useful than just overhead squatting because it is much more dynamic and requires more coordination to make the lift. When practicing the snatch balance, remember that this movement is designed to help your snatch, so don’t worry about going super heavy if you aren’t stable and secure. Spend more time on volume and repetition rather than max weight.
Pause front squats
I am a big fan of pause front squats for a couple of reasons. First, it will help you build flexibility and strength in the rock bottom of the squat. Secondly, it will help you learn how to bounce out of the clean and stand up more weight. I typically have my athletes perform the pause front squat with about a 3-5 second pause at the bottom before standing up. You can choose whether or not you implement a bounce out of the bottom or a strict stand up. Both are useful, so switching it up for variety is a good idea.
Similar to the snatch balance and the hang work, this is going to help build strength in that deep bottom position as well as build mental confidence in being that deep with weight on top. The main thing to remember for the pause front squat is that it is an active position where the knees are flaring out, elbows are pulled up, and the back is as tight as possible. Sometimes people will hit bottom and more or less turn off and let things relax in the position, which defeats the purpose of the exercise. Don’t just sink!
General mobility work
Do it! The Internet is full of amazing information on how to open up your hips, back, and shoulders for better squatting and lifting. I am sure you have watched a K-star mobilityWOD video or two. What are you waiting for? Start investing in a better and more mobile body. Make time before and after your WOD/training for doing some self-myofascial release, flossing, and stretching. The time will pay off in fewer injuries and stronger lifts.