It is a well known fact the the Olympic lifts, when executed correctly, are some of the quickest movements in all of sports. Speed in the extension and transition under the bar are very necessary attributes for a successful lift. While we can all agree that speed is an essential element of the snatch and clean & jerk, I feel there is a lot of confusion on how to correctly generate speed in these lifts. In this article we’ll examine the common misconceptions associated with the issue of speed and introduce a different perspective in approaching its development and implementation. We’ll start off by taking a look at some of the forces that act on our body during the snatch and clean and how they might affect the speed of our lifts.
It all starts with the first pull.
Possibly the most common mistake I see with the snatch and clean is an incorrect first pull. This is the moment the bar disconnects from the floor and travels to roughly the mid-thigh, just before the transition into second pull. Too many athletes are taught to “rip” the bar off the floor as fast and as hard as they can. These coaches and athletes think they need to reach top speed right off the floor. This technique leads a myriad of issues. The primary issue is imbalance. During a balanced first pull, the bar should stay within the athlete’s center of gravity and travel back slightly towards the athlete (figure 1).
So why should the bar drift back slightly? Isn’t the most efficient path a straight line? Not when performing the Olympic lifts. The sole purpose of the first pull is to allow the athlete to efficiently get into the power position just before they begin the most violent portion of the lift. That being said, the following needs to be taken into consideration. The barbell and the athlete have two separate centers of mass, that is until the barbell is lifted off the floor. At this point the barbell and the athlete have combined to make one system with one combined center of mass. Once the athlete disconnects the bar from the floor the two separate centers of mass will combine and shift the athlete’s balance forward. The sweep of the bar path backwards helps compensate for this phenomenon. A sloppy, overly aggressive first pull will always lead to an unbalanced first pull as the bar tends to drift forward around the knees and will almost always lead to missing the lift in front (figure 2).
In addition to staying balanced over your center gravity by managing your center of mass correctly, torque on the low back will also play a role in the success of a lift. Torque is defined as the tendency of a force to rotate the body to which it is applied around an axis. For our purposes, the force is the barbell, the body is our torso, and the axis is our hips. In case this wasn’t clear: we want to eliminate as much torque as possible. When calculating torque, there is a variable called the “moment arm”. This is the perpendicular distance between the axis of rotation (hips) and the line of force (vertical line extending straight up from the center of the barbell). In addition to increases in force (more weight on the bar), a great way to increase torque is to increase the length of the moment arm. As illustrated in figure 3 we can see that the further away from our hips that the barbell travels, the more torque we will be experiencing in our back. A controlled and technical first pull will go a long way in eliminating these mechanical interferences.
So what does this have to do with speed?
If we’re trying to create an upward force at a high velocity, any unnecessary horizontal force will act as interference. In order for the bar to accelerate upward in the most efficient manner possible, we need to eliminate as much mechanical interference as possible. When I am coaching and teaching these lifts I always say that I would rather see my athletes slowly get into an effective and balanced position, than quickly get into an ineffective and unbalanced position. In other words; Don’t focus on moving your body fast, focus on positioning that allows you to move the barbell fast. When you use basic physics to your advantage you’ll find that the speed of your lifts will increase. This all starts with first pull and understanding how to take advantage of the system of levers that your body is made up of. Correct positioning throughout the pull is what will allow us to efficiently and effectively accelerate the speed of the bar, not yanking the bar off the ground like you’re double fisting lawn mower cords. The word “accelerate” indicates that there is a rate of change of velocity as it relates to time. This means that we must build up to top speed, not reach it immediately.
If you’re an athlete who finds themselves consistently missing lifts (primarily out front), the answer is not to rip the bar off the floor faster. The answer is to manage your positioning throughout the pull so that speed can be generated in a much more productive manner. Take a video of yourself from the side and watch what happens to your positioning when the bar disconnects from the floor. Does your back angle stay consistent as the bar rises and slightly sweeps back toward you? Or is there a sudden “jolt” where you lose tension in your back and the bar drifts forward around your knees? If you see the latter of those two scenarios, it’s time to chill out, and focus on balanced control and not on being the fastest “lift misser”.
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