Understanding the Olympic Lifts 
By: Greg Everett 

Throughout the learning process, a continually improving understanding of the principles and mechanics of the Olympic lifts will remain an important component of technique development and coaching. The fundamental principles of the snatch, clean and jerk are universal, although expressed in distinctive manners. Described in the simplest possible terms, all three lifts employ the generation of force against the ground to first accelerate the barbell upward, then use force against the inertia of the barbell to accelerate the athlete downward and into position to receive the bar. Despite the segmented description, the lifts are performed with remarkable fluidity in their ideal execution. 

The snatch and clean will be considered primarily in terms of three different phases in order to aid analysis—the first pull, second pull, and third pull. In addition to these phases, there will be the starting position, receiving position, and recovery. Other manners of dissecting the lifts exist, but the three-pull method is both simple and logical and consequently seems to be more effective in communication among athletes and coaches.

The first pull is the phase in which the barbell is lifted from the floor to the point at which the scoop occurs—typically when the barbell reaches approximately mid-thigh level. The second pull is the phase beginning with the scoop and finishing with the final upward extension of the athlete. The third pull is the athlete’s transition from the extended position into the receiving position under the barbell. 

The principles of physics dictating the results of the lifter’s movements are described by the constant interaction of Newton’s Laws of Motion:

Law of Inertia: Every body perseveres in its state of being at rest or of moving uniformly straight forward, except insofar as it is compelled to change its state by force impressed. In other words, an object will maintain its present motion or lack thereof unless and until acted upon by an external force. A barbell will remain on the platform until a lifter imparts force onto it; likewise, a moving barbell will continue traveling upward due to the lifter’s force as long as that applied force and/or the resulting momentum remains greater than the force of gravity acting on the barbell in the opposite direction. 

Law of Acceleration: The rate of change of momentum of a body is proportional to the resultant force acting on the body and is in the same direction. An object’s acceleration is proportional to the applied force, but inversely proportional to its mass. That is, more force will create greater acceleration on a given object, but the greater an object’s mass, the less acceleration will be created by a given magnitude of force application. To increase the acceleration of a given barbell, more force must be applied. 

Law of Reciprocal Actions: All forces occur in pairs, and these two forces are equal in magnitude and opposite in direction. This law is most commonly paraphrased as, For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. When a lifter imparts force against the ground to lift the barbell, the ground delivers the same magnitude of force in return. The earth’s far greater mass than the lifter/barbell unit results in all noticeable movement being undertaken by the lifter and the bar, as is predicted by the Law of Acceleration. 

In the initial stage of the snatch or clean, the athlete generates muscular force with the legs and hips against the platform, lifting and accelerating the barbell upward. When the athlete reaches the peak of productive body extension and can consequently no longer drive against the platform, the barbell will have been accelerated as much as will be possible and will now possess upward momentum, which would continue its upward travel temporarily even with the removal of any further force application by the athlete. 

However, if performing the lift correctly, the lifter will not cease applying force to the barbell at this point. The effort to pull the barbell upward will continue aggressively with the arms, but the lifter will cease applying force against the platform through the feet. As predicted by the law of reciprocal actions, this attempt to elevate the bar without connection to the platform will result in both the barbell continuing its upward travel and the lifter beginning and continuing his or her downward travel. The degree to which each object travels relative to each other will depend on their relative masses; that is, the heavier the barbell relative to the athlete, the less it will travel upward and the more the lifter will travel downward. In effect, during this final phase of the lift, the barbell acts as an anchor in space against which the lifter pulls to bring him- or herself underneath it. 

What distinguishes a power snatch or power clean from a snatch or clean is the interplay of force application, barbell mass and athlete mass. If a lifter applies maximal force to the barbell, the depth at which it must be received will be dictated entirely by the mass of the barbell relative to the mass of the athlete. That is, a light barbell will accelerate more and travel higher, whereas the heavier barbell will accelerate less and not travel as high. 

The force application can of course be controlled by the lifter, however. A light barbell can be received in the full squat position by reducing the force applied to accelerate the barbell upward. The lifter’s effort to pull under the bar when not applying force against the platform will continue the barbell’s upward motion to a greater degree the lighter the barbell is, requiring even less initial acceleration and a reduction of force during the pull under to receive the bar at full depth. 

The previous applies equally to the jerk—the difference is merely that instead of pulling the barbell, the lifter pushes it. 

The entirety of these principles can be distilled into some simple rules for the execution of the lifts. During the first and second pulls, the lifter must maintain contact with the platform until maximal body extension is achieved in order to impart maximal acceleration on the barbell; in order to move into position under the barbell to receive it, the lifter must actively and aggressively continue pulling the barbell with the pressure of the feet against the platform removed; and the transition between these phases of the lift must be as rapid as possible.

Greg Everett is the owner of Catalyst Athletics, publisher of The Performance Menu Journal and author of Olympic Weightlifting: A Complete Guide for Athletes & CoachesOlympic Weightlifting for Sports, and The Portable Greg Everett, and is the writer, director, producer, editor, etc of the independent documentary American Weightlifting. Follow him on Facebook here.

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