Bodyweight tabatas, burpees, and HIIT training can be fun, but if you spend enough time in the gym, you just may find yourself exploring Olympic lifting. Moves like the power clean-and-jerk and barbell snatch can build strength, explosive power, and serious muscle — and they just plain look cool, too.
They’re also highly technical, and they can seem so intimidating that you won’t know how to get started learning them. And your body may not quite have the mobility and coordination to handle them, either, no matter how many fitness classes you’ve attended. And failing at Olympic lifts can lead to both injury and frustration.
So ease into them. Master these starter moves for each Olympic lift, doing 3 to 4 sets of 4 to 6 reps for these movements. Do no more than two of these exercises in any given workout.
They’ll help you build confidence, comfort, and strength before gradually progressing to the moves you most want to do, and reveal the issues you have to work on most before you can master the toughest Olympic lifts. Best of all, these starter moves also help you build explosive power and strength; depending on your fitness goals, you may not even need to progress to the traditional Olympic lifts.
THE BARBELL POWER CLEAN
The clean-and-jerk is one of the most classic lifts in the Summer Olympics, and the clean has emerged as one of the gold standards of training. It involves lifting a barbell from the ground, then “pulling” it up and onto your shoulders, squatting under it just slightly, then standing up fully. But it requires a ton of shoulder, wrist, and upper back flexibility, as well as coordination and timing to “dive” under the bar after you lift it to your hips.
First off, don’t start the lift from the floor. Start with a hang clean, which has you holding the barbell at your hips. This will allow you to focus on the second phase of the clean, the one that’s trickiest. A power clean involves two pulls, a “first” pull that has you essentially deadlifting the bar from the ground, and a “second” pull that has you exploding from your hips to drive the bar as high as possible, then squatting beneath it and standing up.
This second pull is filled with technical challenge, and the hang clean let’s you focus on that. It’ll also help you save your lower back from overload. To do the hang clean, start with the bar at your hips, and hinge forward just slightly, never letting the bar fall past your lower thigh. Quickly and explosively “pop” the weight upwards by driving forward with your hips, hopping off the ground just slightly, then shrug the weight upwards. Catch the weight as high as possible, then slightly bend your knees to slide your torso under it. Once it’s “racked” on your shoulders, stand up.
Leave the “first” pull, which is essentially a deadlift, for later. The other beauty of the hang clean: You won’t be able to use as much weight as you can in a power clean, which means less chance of injury as you’re learning the mechanics.
Mastering that hip “pop” is also critical to your power clean success; to do that, you’ll use a separate move, the seated dumbbell hang clean. To do this, sit at the edge of a bench holding two medium-weight dumbbells. Hinge forward just slightly, working to keep a flat back, then pop back straight up, and explode the dumbbells upwards as you do. Take care to not make this a dumbbell curl, though; treat your arms like rope. It’s the hip pop that drives the dumbbells up to your shoulders.
The jerk is the finishing portion of the clean-and-jerk, perhaps the most storied weightlifting move in the Summer Olympics. After you’ve cleaned the weight to your shoulders, you have to lift it overhead. Yes, it seems like a military press, but it’s not, because instead of working only your shoulders and triceps, you’re using your entire body to propel the weight upwards.
To do this you bend your knees, then explosively jump upwards, propelling the bar off your shoulders. As you do this, you split your legs into a lunge position, lowering your torso, then “catch” the bar overhead, locking out your elbows. To finish the lift, you stand up from the lunge position.
Thing is, getting that bar overhead is ultra-challenging, especially if you’ve had a history of shoulder injuries, or if you work a desk job and lack proper back strength and stability.
Try the dumbbell single-arm split jerk. This lets you train your shoulders and explosive strength, just as you would while doing a standard jerk, but the dumbbell is more forgiving of poor shoulder mobility.
To do the split jerk, start standing, with your feet hip-width apart, holding a dumbbell at your shoulder, your other arm positioned to help you maintain balance. Squat back slightly with your legs, a quick “dip” that’s smaller than a half-squat. Then explode upwards (it’s OK to actually jump an inch or so off the ground). Use that momentum to press the dumbbell upwards. At the same time, athletically split your stance so your dominant leg is forwards. Place more of the weight on that front leg.
With the weight overhead, return to your original stance, then slowly lower the weight. Repeat for 4 to 6 reps, alternating the front leg every rep. Alternate the arm you train every set.
THE BARBELL SNATCH
The barbell snatch just may be the most athletic movement in all of weight training. Your goal here: raise a barbell from the floor to overhead in one fluid motion. You’ll need mobile shoulders to do this, and explosive, powerful legs, and you’ll need plenty of core strength, too.
Much like the power clean, the snatch can be fixed quickly by shortening the range of the pull. So get into the tall kneeling position, sitting on your shins, with your thighs perpendicular to the ground and begin snatching this way, using just the barbell, or a barbell loaded with light weight. (You can also do this exercise with dumbbells.)
Your goal is, once again, to be explosive with your hips, which then propel the barbell into that overhead position. Squeeze your back muscles once the bar is overhead. Remember: You’re training explosive power with Olympic lifts, so you don’t want to try to muscle the bar up.
You can also try the snatch step. You won’t be able to lift heavy weight with this move, but it’ll hone your athletic ability in the same way the snatch does. To do this, hold a light barbell at your hips with a wide grip, and a two-foot box in front of you. Explode your hips forward, driving the bar upwards; as you do this, take a step onto the box with your main leg. You’re aiming for your head and chest to travel “through the window” you create with your arms overhead.
Olympic lifting, even with these scaled-down exercises, is challenging and demands a great deal from your body, in ways very different than traditional weight training or standard group fitness workouts. Follow these rules to get the most out of your Olympic movement training — and to stay safe, too.
- Train Olympic lifts no more than three times a week. Your body isn’t meant to do these workouts daily, so you need to be rested.
- Supplement Olympic lift training with standard weight training. You need a good base of strength to handle Olympic lifts, so you’ll need to master and own such basic gym exercises as military presses, squats, and deadlifts.
- Do plenty of back training. A strong back will keep your shoulders safe while you’re Olympic lifting, and it does more than that, too. Both the clean and the snatch provide a heavy challenge for your pulling muscles; the strength you build doing pull-ups, lat pulldowns, and rows will improve your core Olympic lifts.
- Make time for mobility. Olympic lifts aren’t all strength and power. They also require plenty of flexibility and mobility. If you bench press all the time and don’t stretch your chest, you’ll find it hard to find a clean overhead position, because of a lack of pectoral flexibility. Throughout each week, make time to foam roll and stretch your pectorals, as well as your hamstrings, glutes, and calves.
By Lee Boyce