The Olympic lifts have never been so popular, but there’s also never been so much misinformation on how they’re performed.
Despite this, the Snatch and Clean and Jerk carry some unique benefits and can make a difference to the way you train.
Today, we’re going to be discussing how you can implement Olympic lifts into your training, how to perform them, and what you can use if you’re looking for quick gains without the technical difficulty.
Read on for the definitive guide to Olympic lifting for the non-specialist!
- The Olympic Lifts
- Why you should train the Olympic lifts
- What to Use and How to Integrate Olympic Lifting
- Snatch Progressions
- Clean Progressions
- Jerk and Overhead Progressions
- Closing Remarks
- A Total Beginner’s Olympic Weightlifting Program
With the rising popularity of weightlifting movements, it’s obvious there’s a lot of interest. CrossFitters and sportspeople need to know the basics but quality of information out there on the internet isn’t great. For every great resource, there are 100 awful ones!
With such a technical set of movements, you can’t afford bad habits. Whether you’re training Weightlifting for CrossFit, for sports, or just to pack on muscle, getting it right is essential.
The best weightlifters pay attention to technique and put movement before numbers. That’s why we’re going to introduce it in the form of progressions and principles of good technique.
This is a short-term investment in your long-term performance!
The Olympic Lifts
Olympic weightlifting is split into two disciplines: the snatch and the clean and jerk, both of which are performed with a 20kg, Olympic barbell.
The Snatch is a single movement from the floor to overhead. The clean takes the bar from the floor to the shoulders, before going over the head.
This might make them sound easy, but they’re certainly more complicated than it sounds.
The Snatch is widely considered the most difficult, technical movement possible with a barbell. It is a test of balance, positions, and technique.
We can use the snatch to develop power and strength, when performed properly. Snatch variations like the snatch pull or snatch balance are useful for most people. These exercises developing power and stability through the lower body and upper back/shoulders.
For sports and general fitness, the full movements probably aren’t appropriate: they take up a lot of time and you can get the benefits with simpler exercises. This is why we like to rely on pulls to keep it simple but provide all the great advantages.
If you’re in CrossFit or Strongman, however, there’s some benefit to learning and training the full snatch. There’s nothing quite as explosive or impressive when using big weights and good technique!
Clean and Jerk
This is a movement that you’ll see used more widely, in some form, for sports training. We use power cleans for things like rugby, sprinting, and bobsled. This is because they provide some of the power of a snatch without as much difficulty to learn.
The clean is an easy exercise to try, but a difficult one to perform well. A lot of athletes never learn how to do it well, so they miss out on all the benefits.
You can expect significant developments in power in the hips and legs, as well as a stronger core and back.
The jerk is the movement from the shoulders to overhead. As with the snatch, this is a fantastic exercise for training overhead strength/stability, but it has a big technical demand.
Fortunately, there are a lot of variations that provide the same athletic benefits without as much complexity. These bring increased power, strength, and challenge stability in the shoulders and core. These are great for almost any sport but particularly overhead/straight arm strength!
Why you should train the Olympic lifts
We can break these down into a few simple benefits that you’ll get from Olympic lifts or their variations. They don’t all apply the same, but they’re significant enough that you should really consider adding 1-2 exercises at a minimum.
Building More Power
This is one of the most impressive and desirable benefits from Olympic lifts. This is what we call the ability to produce large amounts of force in a short space of time. You’d also know it as “explosive strength” – it’s the basis for performance in sprints and jumps.
We love using a combination of Olympic lifts, pulls, and jumps/sprints. These work together to build power and speed in athletes and they can do the same for you. If you combine a snatch pull with box jumps, you’ll be working power and speed effectively.
This gives you a chance to work the whole range from strength to speed. This particular combination is great since it doesn’t even involve significant technical learning times.
The Olympic lifts and their respective pulls/accessories are a great way to build strength. These are great as accessories for Powerlifters and athletes. They also provide a fantastic opportunity to build strength through variation for the average physique and strength enthusiast.
The snatch deadlift is a great example. This wide-grip, bum-down variation of the deadlift is incredibly challenging on the lats and back stability. This exercise has been used by powerlifters with increasing popularity over the past decade or two.
The incredible strength of Olympic weightlifters has been a great advertisement for these movements. They’re a way of building explosive and positional strength without the extreme technical learning curve of the full lifts!
Building more muscle
The addition of muscle mass is a common goal. Fortunately, Olympic lifts and variations can be a great benefit here, too.
They provide another variation that brings different stimulus to your muscles. With the increased incorporation of overhead strength, you’ll see noticeable trap and upper-back gains. They’re not going to be maximally effective alone, but they can seriously improve your control and upper back.
Using exercises like push presses, snatch deadlifts, and front squats bring their own unique benefits. The beauty of the Olympic lifts is that they combine a number of different muscle groups in an integrated way.
If you’re looking to build muscle in a way that puts it to use, Olympic lifting has a wide variety of lessons you can incorporate.
What to Use and How to Integrate Olympic Lifting
Integrating the Olympic lifts to your training program is more complicated than, say, bicep curls.
The multi-joint, high-power, complicated movements stress the muscles, joints, and nervous system. This requires a little extra consideration when you add it to a complex, multi-day training program.
We’re going to cove some of the big questions on how to use Olympic lifts for strength and fitness.
How Can You Get Maximum Benefits Without the Technical Challenges?
If you don’t want to be an Olympic weightlifter, the key is to get the benefits with the minimum of technical learning.
If you’re a thrower or general fitness enthusiast, the full snatch isn’t going to be the best use of your time. Instead, learn to perform an effective snatch pull and behind-the-neck power jerk (discussed below). These provide all the benefits with a much faster skill-acquisition period.
You’re not going to necessarily see better results doing a split jerk than a power jerk, and you can learn it quickly. If you want extra benefits, you should superset them with a lighter movement like explosive step ups, box jumps, or split squat jumps.
Pick what is most specific to your goals with the least complexity or injury-risk. Often, that means picking a variation over the full lift!
Which Exercises Should you Select?
The context of your goals is key.
For muscular development, you should be focusing on the exercises with the largest active-muscular period. These are the movements where you’re maintaining tension on muscles like the snatch deadlift or push press.
For strength, you can overlap explosive and high-tension exercises. Ballistic exercises like the power jerk can improve neural efficiency in the quads, while the exercises mentioned above support muscular growth. Both are key to neuro-muscular strength.
For sports, you want to aim at the maximum power work with the least recovery-demand. This leaves you fresh to practice your sport skills. These favor ballistic exercises and isometric movements – like the power jerk, snatch pull (from blocks), and combinations with jumps.
The point is finding what you need to get better at and practicing that with your Olympic lifts. They’re a versatile set of exercises, but you need to take them as seriously as any other form of strength or power training!
How Do You Use the Olympic Lifts in Your Program?
Adding the Olympic lifts to a program shouldn’t be too much of a problem. They’re not fundamentally different to other exercises: both snatch and conventional style deadlifts are going to tire your back out.
What you need to consider is how much time you’re spending with a barbell overhead and what you’re doing to your nervous system.
We put Olympic lifts at the start of most sessions because they’re high in technical demands and too much fatigue can reduce power. This depends on what your priorities are, however. For power work, you can put them at the end and superset with box jumps.
You also want to reduce your Olympic lifting volume if you need power for other things. If you’re doing a sprint session or big squat session on Monday, you should keep Olympic lifts light and snappy over the weekend.
We recommend using 1-2 exercises per session from these progressions. These exercises have overlapping effects and muscles, so you don’t need to do them all every day. If you’re a weightlifter that’s different, but for strength or sports, 1 exercise is usually enough.
Obviously, start with the simpler exercises and practice them a little more than you think necessary before moving on. You can’t be too good at the fundamentals!
With all the moving parts in a snatch, putting time into progressions is essential. Take it a step at a time and your end lifts will show the results!
The overhead squat is the first movement we use to screen you for mobility and stability to perform the snatch. Simply put, if you can’t perform an overhead squat then you’re not ready to perform a snatch.
This challenges the mobility of almost every problem-area of the body: ankles, hips, upper back, and shoulders. It also requires stability and control in all of the joints – so it’s worth practicing!
A good overhead squat means an ass-to-grass position with a tight back, good balance, and your heels on the floor. If you can’t achieve this, you should follow this simple progression:
Once you can perform this whole range, you’ll have a great, solid overhead squat. This carries over to CrossFit, sports, and general strength training. There’s never a bad time to improve your squatting!
This is a movement that challenges your overhead squat position, but with increased dynamic movement. We move from simple and static to dynamic and complex. The snatch balance is the first step!
You let the bar rest heavy on your shoulders with a snatch grip then drop into an overhead squat position as fast and stable as possible! You should be racing the bar down, rather than pushing it upwards.
One way of thinking about this is that you’re just going to unfold your arms and sit. This pair of movements – at the same time – puts you into a good overhead position without too much arm action!
The snatch is about sitting under the bar and ‘catching’ – you’re not meant to be pressing. Any excessive arm use will slow down your movement.
Hang Power Snatch + Overhead Squat
The hang power snatch might be as complicated as you ever need to get. This is one of the most effective ballistic movements for power and strength.
It involves lowering the bar to your mid-thigh and then exploding through the ceiling, catching the bar overhead with your hips above a ‘parallel’ position. From here, perform an overhead squat with a pause at the bottom to balance.
The key here is to keep the arms relaxed, keep your weight in the heels, and finish the lift with the legs and hips. Not the arms – this isn’t a row!
The snatch is valuable precisely because it’s all about explosive hip and knee extension. The more you use your arms, the less you’re using the big lower-body muscles.
This is a full snatch for the first time. You perform the same movement as with the power snatch but focus on catching in a full overhead squat position.
This is like a full snatch, but without having to worry about all the challenges of the pull from the floor. This takes out some of the complexity and lets you focus on the movement from the mid-thigh upwards.
This is a simple movement: bend the knees, sit back into your heels slightly, and then perform the same push upwards from the legs and hips. The point here is to stay close to the bar and catch with the same speed and stability as in the snatch balance.
Snatch Deadlift + Hang Snatch
Remember how we took out the pull from the floor to reduce complexity? We’re adding it back in with a slow, deliberate snatch deadlift.
This movement is crucial to a good snatch: if you get the deadlift wrong, everything else will go wrong when you do a full snatch.
The focus is on pushing the floor away, easing the knees back, and keeping the weight through your heels and the bar close. If you can implement these few points, you’ll have a good snatch deadlift that you can tweak from there.
This is a slower, more deliberate version of the full snatch. It allows you the chance to practice the movement from the floor without having to do everything at once.
You pause the lift just above the knee, ensuring that you’re getting your knees back out of the way from the floor. from there, you can focus on the finish of the lift from above the knee, as with the hang variations.
Focusing on the two separate positions allows you to get them both right. This is key to developing a good full snatch and reinforces the toughest movement/position (the first push until the bar passes the knees).
Getting this movement right means a good snatch is right around the corner!
Full (Competition) Snatch
This is just a matter of smoothing out the pull. If you did all of the exercises above well, there’s a good chance this step will be simple.
The full snatch should follow a simple process: ease back from the floor, keep the bar close to the body, extend up through the ceiling, and catch low. It’s never easy, but it does become easier when you progress with attention to detail!
This is where the real difficulty comes if you’re trying to get good at the Olympic lifts for competition. Being able to do a snatch and snatching well are very different challenges. This progression makes sure you’re lifting safely, but there’s a lot more to mastery!
The clean is the easiest to learn of all the Olympic lifts, but it requires big strength. This is probably the most common of all three movements to see in a weight room. Popular beginner’s strength programs incorporate power cleans and you’ve probably seen them done (badly) at your gym.
Being able to front squat effectively is as important to the clean as the OHS is to the snatch.
You need to be able to front squat effectively, since this is included in every effective clean and jerk. Getting this wrong puts you at risk of injury and poor performance, so you need to nail it before progressing.
Keep the elbows high, back tight, and sit to the heels as described in this video:
The point is to maintain strong upright posture throughout the movement and keep the knees out and heels down. These are the basics, and if you can front squat like this, you’re ready to train the clean.
Hang Power Clean + Front Squat
As with the snatch, we introduce you to the full movement wit has little complexity as possible. The hang power clean is a great way to get familiar with the finish and catch movements.
Simply bend the knees and ease the hips back, as in the hang snatch. Keep the bar close and weight in your heels before finishing upwards with the hips and legs. Drop under the bar, keeping the back tight and the elbows as high as possible.
You’ll need to keep the core and upper back tight into the catch. This is going to be important when we start using big weights or when transitioning to the full clean.
Once you’ve caught the bar, lower yourself into the front squat position you’ve just practiced. Stand up straight away, rather than pausing – you don’t want to hang around at the bottom of a heavy clean!
This is a more complete variation – it trains the finish and squat positions discussed above. Taking the pull out keeps everything else simple and lets you focus on the finish without overcompensating.
The hang clean is a great way of training power and changing direction with heavy weights. You’re going to need to get good at this to improve your full clean – whether you jerk the bar or not.
This is the same finish as the hang power clean, but you catch it at full depth in a front squat. This can make a significant difference to your lift as it adds an element of timing and change of direction. This is worth practicing until you find a good rhythm!
Clean Deadlift + Hang Clean
For CrossFit and weightlifting, you need to get the full movement nailed down. Adding a clean deadlift to your full hang clean is a good way to start putting it all together.
The improvements in back strength and positioning are going to be key when you get to lifting from the floor.
The essentials of the deadlift are the same as in the snatch: relaxed arms, ease the bar back from the floor, and focus on a positive leg drive. The idea is to push the floor away and stay tight in the back.
You should try and emulate the hang position on the way upwards, as this will improve your full clean!
This is where we put the clean deadlift and hang clean together. Pause above the knee, at the hang position, and then finish.
There’s no lifting and lowering here: you’re performing a smooth pull with a stop in the middle. The focus before the pause is keeping the chest up and easing the knees back. After the pause, it’s all about keeping your weight in your heels and hips close to the bar.
The rest of the lift is simply what you practiced before: keeping close and catching in a full front squat position with the elbows high!
Full (Competition) Clean
At this point, all you need to do is smooth out the pull into a single movement. The positions should be the same as the clean deadlift or paused clean, but without stopping!
You’re pushing with your legs throughout the whole movement to produce force. Then stay close and catch hard. Try to bounce straight out of the catch position – this is a good habit for making heavy lifts easier.
Now you’re able to clean, you’ll want to repeat until you’re reliable with your technique. Then you’re ready to add in the jerk, which is another challenge all by itself…
Jerk and Overhead Progressions
This is going to cover everything from the press to the split jerk. While this covers a wide range of exercises, they all overlap with their ability to produce shoulder and upper back strength. They’re also very important to develop power and strength for sport and performance.
You know the overhead press, but it needs to be changed slightly for the Olympic lifts.
You want to be able to press the bar into the most stable overhead position. If you’re not used to this, it can feel like a totally new exercise!
Keeping the core tight, give yourself a double chin and press the bar overhead. The final position should have your head through the bar and the bar locked overhead just behind the ears.
This keeps the upper back tight and balances you in preparation for the jerk. If you’re going to be handling heavy weights, you need a solid and reliable overhead position!
This is the same as the regular overhead press but for two differences: you start in a split position and the bar is behind the neck.
This allows you to practice the split position without any distractions or other movements to worry about. Just get into position, get your balance, and press the bar upwards.
Keep your front knee directly above the front heel, the hips “squared” forwards, and the back knee bent. At all times, the hips should be under the bar and the chest remains tall.
Your body should stay in the same place while you’re pressing: only the shoulders and elbows should move. The core, hips, and knees need to remain stable. If they can’t, then you need to adjust your split position since there’s something wrong with the position.
Push Press (or Behind the Neck Push Press)
This is a great exercise to practice the drive for the jerk. It comes in two varieties: the push press and the behind-the-neck variation.
The former is specific t weightlifting, while the “BTN” push press is great for sport development. It takes out a lot of the complexities of the front rack but allows you to build serious overhead strength, stability, and control in the upper back.
Push Presses start in the “front rack” from the clean. Keeping the arms relaxed, you ‘dip’ keeping the weight in the heels and drive through the bar. The legs do most of the work and you just finish the lift by pushing through the bar with the arms.
You want to stay as upright as possible throughout, keeping the core tight and weight through the heels. Keep the back and core tight at all times – this keeps your spine safe and helps transfer leg-force to the bar.
Power Jerk (or Behind the Neck Power Jerk)
This is similar to a push press but, once you finish the drive, you’re going to come under the bar and move your feet outwards to a squat stance.
This is a way of training the ‘throw and catch’ associated with the jerk. This is a way of developing the dip and drive, as well as handling bigger weights than the push press.
This also has a behind the neck variation. This is a great way of building power for athletes – we see it used to great effect in track athlete training for sprinters and throwers.
This is also a great way to train relaxed arms and an upright torso in the jerk, building good patterns. If you’re not looking to be a weightlifter, but want to play with power training, we strongly recommend this pair of movements!
This is like a regular split jerk – with the dip and drive we practiced above and a split catch – but with pauses.
There are 2 pauses: one at the bottom of the dip and one when you catch the bar in the split position. This drills the right position for when you’re moving dynamically, as well as highlighting when you’re unstable.
Progressing with this exercise is a great way to ensure you’re performing the most fundamental elements of the jerk effectively. If you’re staying in the heels during the dip and then catching in the right split position, this should feel very comfortable.
If not, you know where you need more work and training!
Power Jerk + Jerk
This short complex combines the power jerk with the split jerk.
The power jerk is a way of focusing on the dip and drive, as well as core tightness and balance. We then perform the same movement but catch in the split position. This 1-2 combination allows us to work on different aspects of the movement in isolation.
If you do the power jerk right, you just need to do the same thing but with your hips in and front foot out. This is a great exercise to make the correct dip and drive ‘second nature’.
If you’re ever in a pinch and want to improve your jerks, this is a great exercise and a reliable choice. Take your time, finish the drive portion!
The full thing: split jerks.
You’ve already done these, so repetition is the goal. You want to repeat this movement with and without weight until it feels very comfortable.
This is another example of a heavily technical exercise. You’re going to need to practice this movement 1000s of times to achieve mastery – so you need to get started!
Focus on repetition work around 70-80% wherever possible to drill the movement and footwork. Relax your arms, throw and catch, and keep your hips in!
The Olympic lifts respond to strength and technical attention. They are a complicated set of exercises but – as we’ve seen – there are many ways of making them work for you.
You don’t need to be an Olympian to make these exercises work. You just need to put technique first and remember that a better movement is an investment in long-term progress.
Using these movements properly is a great way to bring about new gains in strength, musculature, and athleticism. Whatever your goals, there’s a benefit to moving big weights with speed and power.
Now you know what you’re meant to be doing, all we can say is go practice! Mastery in these lifts takes years and decades – but you can start making a difference to your own performance today if you approach them properly!
A Total Beginner’s Olympic Weightlifting Program
This is a program that gives you a standard way of training after you’ve followed these progressions. It’s designed to be used with light weights in the Olympic lifts, but allows you to practice with some structure.
It also aims to improve your mobility and control – things that are key to weightlifting, but often left out. The point of a beginner program like this is just to reinforce the lessons learned in the progressions outlined above.
If you’re looking to get better, this is a good place to start. As ever, focus on the technical aspects of the lifts. If you rush the weights, you’ll only end up being weaker and lifting less in the long-term!
There’s a reason there are no weights on this program: you should be focusing on movement. The point is to use weights that are light enough to practice the movements.
Think you can lift more? Good, you’ll be able to breeze the weights when it’s time. The best athletes start with the technique and efficiency, then add strength and weight to the mix.
On this program, it’s always better to go lighter with your snatches, cleans, and jerks. You can push the weight on the strength work (like squats and deadlifts), but keep the Olympic lifts light!