June 26, 2013
Olympic Weightlifting: Mastering The Jerk
By Daniel Camargo
June 26, 2013
Olympic Weightlifting is known for the two competition lifts at the Olympic Games: the Snatch and Clean & Jerk. However, when we consider those movements and all the assistance exercises, for the purpose of fitness and functional training, there are actually three movements to consider: the Snatch, Clean and the Jerk. Sure, people treat the Clean & Jerk as one movement and certainly for good reason; as Olympic lifts aren’t considered complete until the barbell is over the athlete’s head. Yet, when training the Clean & Jerk, remember that the Clean serves a different purpose than the Jerk, and attention should be given to each separately. Doing so will allow for a solid completion once the two are put together in a single movement. How do you do this? Let’s discuss…
The Two Parts
As they say, sometimes the simplest of things can cause the most difficulty. When compared to the Snatch and the Clean, the Jerk is the easiest lift as it requires less moving parts. You move straight up and down and the bar has very little distance to travel. Yet, many struggle to complete the Jerk comfortably. The most common faults are (a) the lifter falling forward when the weight is overhead and (b) the lifter muscling the bar up (or pressing it up) instead of having a fluid elbow lock out. To combat these faults, I break up the Jerk into two simple parts: the Dip & Drive and the Split. That’s it! Everything else will fall in line with practice.
The Dip & Drive
The Dip & Drive, or jump, is basically the slight break of the knee, and I mean slight, followed by a propulsion upwards. When working the Dip & Drive, an imaginary line of symmetry should run vertically from your ankles, knees, hips, torso, shoulders, barbell, through your ears and overhead. (Image 1) No matter how heavy the bar feels, you must keep this imaginary line of symmetry as you complete the Jerk. Deviating from this imaginary line will send the bar in a different direction than intended, making it harder for you to complete the lift. The ability to lift heavy weight overhead is dependent on your ability to lift the bar vertically and in no horizontal direction. To get the Jerk, focus on is keeping the line of symmetry and propelling that bar straight up overhead.
Next, consider your grip. Yes, it’s perfectly fine to have a wider grip in the Jerk than what you used for the Clean, but it’s not necessary. (Image 2) Please don’t feel like you need modify your grip, just know that it is common and preferred by many lifters. It’s okay to have a wider grip because the Jerk is different than the Clean. A wider grip allows for greater comfort in the shoulders, a shorter distance to travel overhead and more stability in the overhead position. You’re already top-heavy when in the overhead position, so having a wider grip will put the barbell a little closer to your head giving you a greater sense of control. Not sure how wide your grip should be? Do whatever feels comfortable. That’s it! No angle measurement, no degrees to calculate, no inches to determine and no geometry to figure out, just comfort. You’ll know what feels right. Don’t overthink it.
As the Dip, or the drop, is initiated stay on your heels. This means both your weight and the barbell’s weight should be distributed towards the heel of both feet, not towards the ball of your feet and definitely not towards your toes. Why? Because staying on your heels is the only way to stay on that imaginary line of symmetry. Drifting towards the toes will make you lose contact with the imaginary line and will cause you to run forward. (Image 3)
To make sure you keep your weight on your heels, allow your knees to bow outward instead of forward over your toes. (Image 4) Letting your knees shift out will keep your hips vertical on the imaginary line of symmetry, which will also keep your torso erect. Keeping your torso erect during the Jerk is an absolute must.
We’ve all heard the importance of the “core” in sports and fitness. Core this and core that. What exactly does that mean? Basically it’s the stability of your trunk or torso. CrossFit does a great job of describing this, especially in its Level 1 Coaching Course. HQ refers to it in terms of your midline stability. If you picture your whole body and cut off your legs, arms and head, what you have left is what coaches stress is your core. It’s more than just your abs. If you’re one of those people who does every ab exercise imaginable to strengthen your core, you’re missing a ton of other muscle groups e.g. your chest, upper back, middle of back, lower back and obliques. If you understand this, then you understand that during the Dip & Drive, your core must remain solid, unbreakable, and rigid. If you soften it, usually by collapsing your chest, you’ll make the weight feel heavier than it is. If your trunk is stable, like a pillar, you will be able to produce the right amount of force to propel as necessary.
At this point, the athlete is in the Drive portion of the Jerk. The athlete should only travel a short and shallow depth. As stated in the definition, the Dip is a slight bend of the knee. I realize it’s counterintuitive to think a shallow, quick jump can create a ton of vertical energy, but stay with me on this. Dipping too low becomes a squat. A squat is slow and static and using it for the purpose of the Jerk ends up looking more like a Thruster. Energy is being produced into the barbell catapulting it vertically, yes, still on the imaginary line of symmetry. As it’s traveling past your face into the overhead position, there is one slight obstacle to worry about…your chin.
If you’re smiling to yourself, you’ve probably struck your chin with the barbell at least once before. Guess what? Me too! Although it’s been a long time since, you never forget the feeling. To keep your chin safe, tilt your chin up right before you commit to the Dip & Drive. Keep your eyes fixated on an object directly in front of you to help you keep your balance. Allowing your chin to tilt slightly up, with your head rotated, not slid back, will clear the bar’s path making your chin a non-issue. Do not shift your head or neck back. Your head and neck remain in the same spot horizontally. Some athletes find tilting their chin up, with eyes focused straight ahead, actually helps them fall back on their heels to accomplish the tracking of the line of symmetry. (There’s that term again!)
The last part of the Dip & Drive is how you move your arms. Remember, the dip is the drop or slight break of the knees and the Drive is the extension or jump. A common mistake athletes make is engaging their arms too soon. Energy is transferred from the hips into the torso then to the chest and directly into the barbell. Trying to press too soon blunts the energy and inevitably ruins the lift. This is often seen when athletes are executing a heavy lift, in excitement, huffing and puffing, and under pressure. They rush the need to apply force on the bar and begin pressing their arms before the rest of the body can finish the job. Try delaying your arms. Let the hips perform the Dip & Drive thoroughly to its completion at full extension. Then, at the last second, when there’s no more force that can be applied to the bar, split or catch the bar overhead for those doing Push Jerks.
There are some important aspects to the split. First, make your feet hit the ground at the same time you lock out your arms in the overhead position. (Image 5) I often use the term “lock & land” to cue the lifter properly. The elbows and feet should hit simultaneously.
Feet placement seems to be a struggle for many people. Which foot should be forward and which should be back? The answer is the same as it was regarding grip, do what’s comfortable. Switch your feet and try it out. There’s no right or wrong; it’s all about comfort. There are many ways to determine which foot you should try first. I usually ask athletes to stand as if they were going to run a sprint. (Image 6) Chances are you’ll automatically place one foot in front of the other. Whatever stance feels natural is a good indicator of what position makes you feel powerful. Start there.
Feet recovery is the final stage. While keeping contact with the imaginary line of symmetry, follow the “1-2 process”. Bring your front foot back to starting position first (1), then your back foot forward (2). Why the 1-2? Control. You’ll have more control over your final position if you lead with your front foot than if you lead with your back foot. Starting with the front foot will also help stabilize you back onto the imaginary line of symmetry. Once your feet are back together on the same plane, you can drop your weight. Primarily as a safety precaution, waiting until you’re back in line to drop the weight will show you have full control of the barbell. The bar should never be dropped intentionally during the split. After all, dropping the barbell any time before the lifter is standing erect, with feet on the same plane, would denote a no-lift or failed attempt during competition.
Here’s a great video from Olympic Lifting veteran and coach Daniel Camargo further explaining the Jerk.