With over 20 years of Olympic Weightlifting experience, I’m used to the sport being relatively misunderstood. Most often it’s confused with powerlifting, bodybuilding or other forms of weight training. To this day, the sport and movements are still somewhat misinterpreted. That said, it’s critical to learn more about the movements given the recent expansions into Oly Lifting by several fitness industries, specifically CrossFit and sports performance. The number of participants has grown the popularity of Olympic Weightlifting exponentially over the last decade. It’s now my pleasure to share my love for the sport to new people every day.
This brings me to a point that may be hard for some readers to accept. Having grown up in a world where athletes only learned from coaches, I’m here to tell you that you absolutely cannot learn to execute Olympic Weightlifting movements the right way simply from watching online videos. There are a few video tutorials that can be useful but you still need to practice, learn and improve your lifts with an experienced Olympic Weightlifting coach or qualified CrossFit Trainer. Many online videos, in my opinion, lead to the proliferation of bad habits that would otherwise be avoided had you simply worked with a coach.
It’s not to say you won’t pick up bad habits while learning from a coach, but you’re certainly more likely to learn the right way with someone watching your every move from the start. As you gain experience, record yourself and watch your lifts with (or without) your coach. It can be extremely helpful.
There are a handful of bad habits I catch during training sessions, seminars or certs. The smallest detail can make the biggest difference in the execution of a lift and generally, these details are quite easy to address.
Bad Habit #1: Focusing on the Shrug
This one makes the top of the list, no question about it! There are still athletes who focus on “the shrug” when learning to execute the Snatch or Clean. It’s not entirely their fault as this was a widely used style of teaching and it’s been passed along from coach to athlete over and over. For those of you who use this tactic, allow me to make a recommendation – stop! During a lift, shrugging occurs naturally in the body anyway. Focusing on it only overemphasizes something that will happen on its own.
Nine times out of ten, when I see someone either (a) shrug too early in the execution of the movement or (b) hold the shoulders at the top of the shrug too long, I know exactly how they’ve been taught. They inevitably ruin the flow of the movement and we know how technique is affected when this happens.
Avoid even mentioning the shrug if you are teaching it and avoid focusing on it if you are lifting. Skip that part of the instruction and see what happens. You may find that you will execute the movements more efficiently and minimize unnecessarily delay in the learning process.
Bad Habit #2: Overthinking It
Though I learned the Snatch and Clean + Jerk 23 years ago and have been coaching them the last 12 years, I haven’t forgotten what it feels like to learn the first time. The discomfort of holding awkward positions with a barbell is something that stays with you. Believe me, I’m sure everyone reading this remembers how weird it felt the first few times they lifted a bar. It’s with absolute empathy that I say to newer athletes, overthinking it will ruin your lifts faster than the amount of weight on the barbell ever could.
I realize how easy it is to overcomplicate technique. You often fix one problem only to have another come out of nowhere. Or worse, you analyze every single position in your head as you’re lifting, only to mess up the whole lift. Sound familiar? Well, you’re not alone. As I said in my opening, these are the common mistakes, the bad habits. Keep the few most important basic principles in your mind and train your heart out. Specialized weightlifters or elite athletes are the only athletes who have the need to breakdown these movements and that’s to evaluate the precise details of each millisecond. They’re the ones who spend countless hours analyzing, adding, changing, and manipulating their form just to gain that extra kilogram over the competition. They’re the ones with the experience necessary to evaluate small details over time. They’re the ones with the performance goals that need to be met. I can assure you as a former elite athlete myself, someone at this level is still only working on one or two aspects of their lift at a time. Never the whole lift at once. There is simply too much information to process. For most people, the K.I.S.S. principle is in full effect. Keep It Simple …. You know the rest!
Bad Habit #3: Overteaching
It’s tough to address the overthinking athlete without also addressing the overteaching trainer. It’s thrilling to show trainers how to teach the Snatch and Clean + Jerk. It’s one of my favorite things to do. In doing so over the years, I’ve learned that new trainers may overteach the lift; that is, they try to produce the perfect lift too early in an athlete’s learning process. If that sounds like you, read through the Overthinking section and keep it simple. If an athlete needs to fix several bad habits, pick your battles wisely. Address the mistakes that have the greatest return on the time invested. Prioritize what needs to be fixed and start at the top, even if it takes several sessions to make your way to the bottom.
To the CrossFit Trainer: Yes, this can be done with large groups, too. What you have to do with one, you can do with many at the same time. Keep it in sync. Often, if you choose to address one major fault it could automatically fix several others without you even bringing it up. I’ll repeat: there’s simply too much information to process.
Bad Habit #4: Sporting the Wrong Shoes
People aren’t expected to wear weightlifting shoes on the first day they learn the Snatch and/or Clean + Jerk. However, those who do any consistent training should invest in a good pair of shoes, the most important piece of gear you need as a lifter.
Weightlifting shoes are designed to make lifts more efficient. You don’t see Olympic weightlifters walking on the platform barefoot, in tennis shoes, those flat laced shoes or in the five-toe deals. That footwear is designed for other applications and work well for their purposes but are inefficient for Oly lifting.
First, the elevated heel in weightlifting shoes reduce the Achilles stretch allowing a lifter to execute a proper full squat. The solid, hard sole maximizes the force applied by the lifter against the floor when lifting the bar. When you pick up a barbell, you drive your feet against the floor. The floor then drives back up against you (remember your Physics classes?). The solid sole allows the power produced to go directly from you into the ground and from the ground back into you, effectively powering your pull on the bar. Sneakers have a soft sole that is made to flex and absorb. This reduces the force you’ve produced, lowering your power output. It’s like lifting on a mattress so to speak.
Another issue with non-Olympic weightlifting shoes is the lack of stability afforded by them. The stiff upper/outer shell of Oly shoes is designed to give lifters all-around stability and in the end, give you a solid foundation in all directions under heavy load. There are some sneaker/weightlifting hybrid shoes, such as the Reebok CrossFit Oly-Lifter Shoe. These will work just fine as well. They include the necessary fundamentals – a solid, raised heal and strong upper/outer shell. They do have a more flexible front of the foot designed for WODs but they satisfy the points above and qualify wonderfully as a solid lifting shoe.
Bad Habit #5: Missing the Power Position
The power position is just about the single most important position in both the Snatch and Clean. It is the point where the barbell has been raised from the ground, is at waist level, and the lifter is standing erect with bent knees. USA Weightlifting also refers to this position as the point in the lift where the “power spike” occurs. This is when the lifter propels the bar upward executing a triple-joint extension (jumping). Everyone has seen a skilled lifter perform this technique. To the untrained eye it looks as if the lifter smacks the barbell with his/her thighs.
Learning to use the power position can single-handedly fix other technical errors. Trainers should introduce this position from the beginning and athletes who aren’t using it should. For details on the power position, check out the June/July issue of BoxLife. Missing the power position is one of the worse habits for an athlete.
Bad Habit #6: Forgetting to Hook Grip
The hook grip is a unique method of holding the barbell, proven to give you the strongest grip possible. With it, you apply more torque to the bar. No serious weightlifter lifts the bar without it. To hook grip, wrap your fingers around the barbell with your thumb underneath your other fingers as much as possible. You may only be able to get your index finger to slightly overlap your thumb, that’s ok. Use a hook grip no matter what. In a sense, you are locking your thumb into the bar much like wearing straps. Yes, there’s an adjustment phase, lasting normally 3-5 days, where your thumb may be a bit sore. Not to mention the overall feel of the grip seeming unnatural. But hey, I bet the back of your neck hurt when you first learned to back squat. You will get over this too. I promise!
Some athletes have smaller hands. Olympic weightlifters use barbells with smaller diameters for women. A woman’s bar is thinner, shorter in length and weighs 15kg (33lbs), making the hook grip possible. The hook grip is a must for any pulling movement. Pulls, Snatch and Clean movements all require the hook grip. Once the bar is overhead or at your shoulders in preparation for the Jerk, you can release the hook grip if you choose.
The only exception to not use the hook grip is during a WOD with high reps of Snatch or Clean, as in “Grace” or “Isabel”, calling for 30 reps for time. It may be challenging to maintain your grip with the rapid change of direction on the bar. In this case, it’s all forearm; tap and go. Your lifts will be better with a hook grip but your time may be slower. It’s your choice. The hook grip is most useful on heavy training, maximal effort and intervals of low repetition or where there are a few seconds between reps and you can reset your body for another effort.
Bad Habit #7: Wearing Gloves
I can understand wearing gloves for general weight training or when using machine equipment. Gloves may, in fact, protect your hands from developing or tearing callouses during exercises with lower intensities or simpler movements. However, whenever newer Crossfitters wear gloves to my box, we quickly, but politely and professionally, have them removed. There are no gloves in Olympic Weightlifting – ever!
With the intensity of Olympic routines and the multi-joint movements we use daily, gloves become an obstruction to the movement. More importantly, you can damage your wrist if you can’t properly rotate your hands around the bar (in the case of gloves with wide wrist straps). Exercise gloves often have extra padding which makes it even harder to hook grip the bar, especially for those lifters with smaller hands. The barbell is thick. Adding more material between the hand and barbell will cause a weaker grip. Under heavy perspiration, your hand will slip and slide within the glove causing an unsecured latch on the barbell. Finally, the fabric is not designed to slide effortlessly around the knurling on the bar. It will inhibit the ability to transition the bar quickly in your receiving position and that hindrance can lead to damage in your joint.
Use chalk to keep your hands dry. It allows you a bare hand and natural hook grip on the barbell. There is far too much movement happening during the Snatch or Clean + Jerk to risk a weak or slippery grip. Will your hands toughen up a bit? Can you develop callouses that may tear from time to time? You bet. But so do the hands of baseball players, gymnasts, catapult athletes, discus throwers and shot putters. They live to survive training and their game. It’s okay. You will too.