From the Floor to Overhead

by Dan John

Squat right. Clean right. Put the bar overhead. Repeat. That is usually my little formula for teaching people the basics of getting strong. But, people always insist on the follow up questions: What do I do now? How do I measure up? 

I can remember being told that the Olympic Lifts were dead just a few years ago. The machines, the “protocols,” the safety issues, and the this’s and that’s had put the nails in the coffin for those who snatch and clean and jerk. Do a snatch at a spa and the first question from the spandex bunch is “what does that build?” Then, the owner kicks you out for scaring the grandmas in the step aerobic class. 

But recently, there has been a surge of interest in the sport and the lifts. Football coaches, breaking from the decades of “following the follower” and non-productive training, have embraced the snatch and clean as basic training for their athletes. Of course, track and field athletes, at least at the elite level, seem to have continued pulling and pushing in the increasingly darker ends of gyms and spas. The internet, for all its problems, seems to have been part of this phenomenon that has found a resurgence in the popularity of the O lifts. 

Starting the true neophyte off in the O lifts is a matter of debate, but I would follow the Bulgarian method. Simply, the Bulgarians begin by teaching a perfect deep back squat. This means that the athlete has a high bar placement on the upper traps, the chest is held up, and the lower back tucked in.

What does “between the legs” mean? One of the true keys to squatting and the O lifts is this simple concept. I teach it this way: have the athlete stand arms length from a door knob. Grab the handle with both hands and get your chest “up.” Up? I have the athlete imagine being on a California beach when a swimsuit model walks by. 

Immediately, the athlete puffs up the chest which tightens the lower back and locks the whole upper body. The lats naturally spread a bit and the shoulders come back “a little.” Continuing with the arms in the “hammer throwing” position, with the Muscle Beach chest, lean back away from the door. 

Now, lower yourself down. How? Well, I teach young lifters to think that their feet were stuck to the ceiling and they would have to pull their butt to the ceiling. Sure, an odd image, but it works. What people discover at this moment is a basic physiological fact: the legs are NOT stuck like stilts under the torso. Rather, the torso is slung between the legs.

As you go down, leaning back with arms straight, you will discover one of the true keys of lifting: you squat “between your legs.” You do not fold and unfold like an accordion, you sink between your legs. Don’t just sit and read this: do it! To develop the ability to squat snatch or squat clean hinges on this principle! 

Foot stance, hand grip, and most questions are not as relevant as the key point of sitting between your legs. I must admit, I usually just have someone jump two or three times. Note where they land on jumps two and three. Have them look at their heel to toe alignment. “That” is the stance. A touch wider, a touch narrower, it takes a few tries, but I think it is fairly natural.

The best way to fix squat problems is to...squat. I think that alternating the three great variations (back, front and overhead) as well as occasionally adding the “old” lifts like Jefferson or straddle the bar squats or Hip Belt Squats (a special belt with chains is attached to the weight and you simply squat up and down) is the best way to fix problems. Overhead squats teach the arch of the lower back better than any drill, as well as providing a superior back isometric. Front Squats certainly push the stress more to the quads as well as demanding increased flexibility. Back squats clearly help the other two variations by pushing the load higher. So... if your struggling on one: focus on the others! 

To Summarize: 

1] Sit “between your legs” 

2] Minimize shin movement 

3] Keep a big chest and big arch in your back 

4] Every time you get hurt, not sore, squatting...have someone watch your shins; they shouldn’t be coming forward very much at all.

5] Done correctly, squats may be the single exercise you need to do for success in sports.

Next, the Bulgarians teach the clean, arguing it is simpler than the snatch. This parallels my learning experience, too. Growing up with the Ted Williams' Sears cement filled barbell, we all cleaned and pressed as young lifters. 

1] That Muscle Beach chest position, with the lower back locked in and lats puffed et al, must be maintained throughout the lifts. 

2] As you address the bar, the “get set” position, think of your arms as ropes or cables. Keep them long and loose. 

3] I like to start with my hands on the bar and my legs “sorta” straight, then squeeze my hips down to the starting position. It helps for me to flex my lats and literally pull my butt down BEFORE I begin the pull.

4] The best advice I know to get the bar going up is to “Push the Floor Away.” You need to hold the hips and shoulders in the same angle to the floor for “as long as you can.” Physics and physiology will help you finish the lift correctly. Former champ, Russ Knipp argues that all you ever do in pulling, throughout the whole clean or snatch is to focus on pushing the floor down. Think of this first part, the “first pull,” as a leg press on a machine. An even better image is to think of pushing your heels all the way through the earth. 

5] For new lifters, I stress a drill that sounds crazy, but works well. I teach new lifters to take the bar from the floor to about two inches above the knee as SLOWLY as possible, one inch a second. Why? It teaches the core truth of lifting (and throwing events): proper acceleration. When the bar gets to that spot two inches above the knee: jump! That’s it. Snatch or clean, you have just learned the key principles. 

After mastering the clean, while continuing doing the squats, it is time to put the bar overhead. In the ideal world, the athlete would have a set of tall boxes two feet lower than shoulder height. The bar would be placed on these high boxes, the athlete would grab the bar, place it on the chest and stand tall. Standard racks work well…very well, in fact…but there is nothing that builds confidence more than a safe place to dump a lift. Pad the floors, if you must, and consider buying bumper plates…those rubber plates that cushion the sound and protect the gym. 

Over a period of weeks, the athlete would learn the true military press, the power press (the lifter starts the press with a leg push), the power jerk (after starting the lift with the legs, the athlete “catches” the bar with bent legs when the momentum stops), the split jerk (the athlete dips the bar by bending the knees, drives it over head, then catches the bar by slapping the feet fore and aft) and the behind the neck variations of the same lifts. 

Finally, the athlete would slide the hands out to the snatch grip, push the floor away, jump and “snatch” the bar overhead. Throughout this basic training, the athlete would be exposed to variations of the squat (basically the front and overhead squat) and lots of flexibility work, as well as an orientation to the history of the sport and the rules of the sport.

If you have no interest at all in these lifts…shocking! is a simple addition to add to your workout:

Pressouts. I learned this trick from Pacifica Barbell Club coach Dick Notmeyer. Simply, at the end of any overhead lift, including presses, jerks, or push jerks or presses, finish the set with “pressouts.” As you stand tall, with arms locked out overhead, bend your elbows so the bar moves no more than three inches. Continue to do this up to eight times. Now, put the bar down. As simple as this seems, this exercise builds the whole support system. Soon, you may notice the serratus muscles, the “fingers” on the rib cage, becoming a lot more noticeable. As your body tightens to compensate during the pressouts, you are building support strength. 

This idea may be used any time. Try sneaking the pressouts into a workout, by the way, it also works in bench presses, but have a good spotter. You’ll see the difference in your ability to support the big weights. Now, let’s go from floor to overhead with the bar. Why?

1] Great for cardiovascular conditioning… try it and see! 

2] True measure of strength 

3] Impress your friends! 

4] Get functional strength 

5] Lift in REAL meets!

I’m telling you, the best single investment you can make is a piece of PVC pipe or an old broomstick. Use the stick to perfect your positions. In addition, the athlete would be exposed to lots of repetitions with broomsticks while learning the basic terms of training and method. You will be amazed at how much sweat this stick can produce!

Dave Turner’s Hercules Barbell Club beginners use a simple program for learning and developing the rudiments of strength. Three days a week, the team members go through a ten minute warm up of shoulder “dislocates” with broomsticks, overhead squats with broomsticks, followed by front squats, then a “cardio-like” few minutes of snatches and clean and jerks with the broomsticks. Dave reinforces the terms used in lifting: “Get set,” “Push the floor,” “Jump,” “Dip,” and “Down.”

Then, Dave’s team does the following simple workout three days a week: 

Warm Ups with the Broomstick

Snatch: 8 Sets of Doubles (A “Double” is two perfect repetitions)

Clean and Jerk: 8 Sets of Singles (A “Single” is a perfect repetition)

Front Squat: 5 Sets of 5 Repetitions

Press: 5 Sets of 3 Repetitions

If your form is perfect, you add weight the next workout, if not, you stay at this weight. I know, I know, it looks easy on paper. Try it...then, tell me it is easy. 

Dave is teaching his lifters how to lift during the warm ups! I stole this idea for my discus throwers and our throwers warm up with the basic movements…over and over and over again…of “Stretch-1-2-3.” They hear the terms, do the movements and warm up their bodies and their techniques at the same time. 

Next, Dave’s workout is always the same…with one variation. The athletes all do the same program but they start at different lifts. A typical variation: 

Clean and Jerk: 8 Sets of Singles

Front Squat: 5 Sets of 5

Press: 5 Sets of 3

Snatch: 8 Sets of Doubles

So, one day, an athlete might start at the Clean and Jerk and finish with the Snatch, the next workout Front Squat first, the next Press, and the next week begin with the Snatches and finish with the Presses. A little variety is nice…that’s all the beginner needs! But, just a little…

The genius of Dave’s system is two fold; first, the athletes are preparing from the moment they enter the gym to lift on the platform at a meet. All their training is focused on the two meet lifts: the Snatch and the Clean and Jerk. The Front Squats and the Presses are the “strength” moves. 

“Yes” is the answer to what most people then ask: “this isn’t what the guys in the NFL/Bulgarian Olympic Team/World Champion¬ships do, right?” That’s right, they don’t do this stuff now. But, you can almost be certain that the great ones had a long period of learning the basics. 

Performance of the Lifts 

One thing Dick Notmeyer, coach of the PBBC, was ad¬amant about, perhaps even obsessed about, was the insistence that his lifters never “power” the weight up but always take the lift to the deep position. He felt that power lifts taught the wrong pull and would fail the lifter on maximum attempts. I think the beginning lifter would be wise to follow this advice. The more experienced an athlete is as they enter the sport of O lifting the more likely it is for this athlete to find that their power is far beyond their technique. Hang in there for a few months and learn to do it right! 

What’s a “Power” Movement?

Simply, it is lifting the bar as high as you can versus “just” high enough to squat under the bar.

So, somebody asked me, “What would you do if you could get in a Time Machine and start all over again?”

1] I would have an excellent coach.

2] I would have excellent facilities.

3] I would have the patience to take the first few years to learn the sport with light weights and broomsticks.

4] I would have started at age 8.

But, since there is no magic machine to do this…let’s start doing it right right now!

Some standards I have used with boys in the high school setting:

No, it’s not perfect. I don’t have weight classes nor do these take into account all the varieties of humanity. But, it’s funny…having a standard seemed to make the kids make the standard. Could this be the secret to success?


1] As a coach, with beginners, I need to be ruthless in cutting to the core of what works and spend all of our time repping those things that work. A freshman team is not like the NFL, your local church basketball team is not the same as coaching the Lakers, and you shouldn’t train a beginner like a member of the Bulgarian National Weightlifting Team!

2] The job of a coach is to think tactically. Part of preparation for competi¬tion is to put the athlete in a setting that reflects competition. An endless variation of “if-then” does not prepare the beginning athlete for competition. The novice needs to do “this.” One thing. If you follow this advice, you will soon find that your athletes make very few mistakes in competition. Recently, Jimmy Johnson said on Fox Sports that “you always play the guy who makes the fewest mistakes, not the guy with all the talent.” There’s a gem right there.



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