A Beginner’s Program for the Olympic Lifts

A Solid Neophyte Program

Start with a little Warm Up
Snatch : 8 Sets of Doubles
Clean and Jerk :8 Sets of Singles
Front Squat: 5 Sets of 5
Press : 5 Sets of 3

Go Home and Recover

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. If you don’t know why to O lift, find four good reasons to O lift here.

As this series on the Olympic lifts unfolds, I want to bring together the experiences and information that I have stolen over the years and compile them in an organized format. I want to keep a balance between the ideal and the real, yet keep bringing up ways for any lifter, in any situation, can incorporate the lifts in their training.

Okay, let’s get started. There are two basic routes to learn the Olympic lifts. The most common method is the way I came into the Olympic lifts: after six years of lifting, I had the good fortune of being exposed to the O lifts at an exhibition. I imagine that the majority of lifters have had this same route: early neighborhood lifting with the gang, some introduction in junior or senior high school, then off to the world of spas and gyms. And, through this journey, the accumulation of massive misinformation from magazines and gym experts.

Really, if I could, I would choose the other route: learning the O lifts right from the beginning. Without a time machine, and my theology background argues against the idea anyway, I can’t change my past. But, if I could…

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. The athlete sits straight down “between” the legs and continues down until “the ass is on the grass.”

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. 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!

Next, the Bulgarians teach the clean, arguing it is simpler than the snatch. This parallels my learning experience, too. Growing up with the Ted William’s Sears cement filled barbell, we all cleaned and pressed as young lifters. Later, at a local gym, I used the world’s best bar to do reps of 15 in the power clean with 135 when an older lifter told me that was all I needed to do. Of course, when I finally had some instruction from Dick Notmeyer, I learned some important facts about pulling:

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

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. 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.

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): 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. I taught this method to a group of junior discus throwers at the Olympic Training Center, very quality athletes, and several of them made personal record cleans within just a few minutes. Now, these were very good athletes, well trained throwers, adding ten to twenty pounds from a simple drill. But, they learned to use their legs and body to lift the bar rather than their “guns.”

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. 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. If you struggle with supporting the weight overhead, I have a few ideas to help .

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. In addition, the athlete would be exposed to lots of repetitions with broomsticks while learning the basic terms of training and method. For a few more ideas about improving your position, look here.

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.” His beginners use this program three days a week:

Warm Ups
Snatch : 8 Sets of Doubles
Clean and Jerk :8 Sets of Singles
Front Squat: 5 Sets of 5
Press : 5 Sets of 3
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…hee, hee, hee. Go ahead, make my day.

So, if I could go back in time:
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.

Forget nearly everything I just wrote: most people don’t come into this sport as eight year olds with a dedicated coach and facilities. However, it is worth your time to daydream a moment and think of the ideal setting. For more on Olympic lifting, take a look at this DVD:

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