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Building Strength for Olympic Weightlifting

 Written by 

Damect Dominguez

 Last updated on 

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For those practicing the Snatch and Clean + Jerk, there are two main issues to conquer: (1) having proficient technique regardless of the weight on the bar, and (2) obtaining the highest 1RM possible. Much attention is given to technique, as well it should be, but we often don’t discuss what exercises are best utilized to actually build strength in the Snatch and Clean + Jerk. There is always the obvious, “You want to be better at the Snatch and Clean + Jerk? Well, then do more Snatch and Clean + Jerk!” Of course that’s true. But what ELSE is there? There are some coaches and athletes out there that feel they should max out every day. To me, however, testing your personal record (aka “P.R.”) often isn’t the answer. It may help for a limited time but will ultimately lead to overtraining, fatigue and injury. Sorry guys!

Long term progress in increasing your 1RM requires spending just as much time in the Oly Assistance Exercises as you do in the lifts themselves. These exercises are identified in three categories: Squatting, Pulling and Overhead movement. USA Weightlifting refers to these three categories as the Power Assistance Exercises. When trained correctly, exercises in these three categories should be completed during training cycles with heavier loads. Gaining strength, stability and coordination in these categories of movements translates directly to increased strength and power in your lifts. You are in essence breaking apart the lifts and working on certain segments, one at a time, to improve those areas. You certainly can’t Snatch something if you can’t get it off the floor, that’s Pulling. You definitely can’t complete the lift if you can’t stand up, welcome to Squatting. If you can’t hold the weight until a referee gives you the signal, then you might as well not have lifted it in the first place, hello Overhead!

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Let’s start with leg work, the basis for all things in the world of Olympic Weightlifting. Give me a strong base and I can do anything!

You might be thinking there’s probably not a shortage of leg work and squats in a normal CrossFitter’s training regimen. But, you are probably thinking of air squats, lunges or other actual front/back squats maybe once or twice per week. To improve in the lifts, that’s simply not enough.

A specialized Olympic weightlifter squats 4-5 times a week with heavy loads and, by the way, all the way down…yup, past parallel. Let me be clear – If you aren’t squatting past parallel, you aren’t squatting. You haven’t developed the flexibility and mobility to actually squat which means you probably shouldn’t be attempting a 1RM in the first place. Hips dropping below the height of the knees, that’s a squat. I digress…

If squatting 4-5 times per week sounds outrageous, trust me, it’s not. Not for a specialized athlete, that is, or someone trying to improve their 1RM in the Snatch and Clean + Jerk. When I program CrossFitters, I not only consider the variability of their workouts but I have to also ensure they are squatting enough to get stronger and, therefore, better. Any Olympic Weightlifting coach will tell you that solid squats will single handedly take care of a large majority of stability issues and strength deficiencies in the lifts. The more you squat, the stronger your Snatch and Clean + Jerk will be. Squatting includes many leg exercises but in general we consider the Front Squat (especially) and Back Squat as the main targets.

The Front Squat is clearly the squatting movement that translates the best into the Clean and therefore it is my favorite of all squatting movements. The bar is positioned exactly where it should be when you receive the bar during the lift. Your center of gravity is the same; your position should be exactly the same. If you squat with your feet outside your hips, as you should be doing, then when you work Front Squats your foot position should be in the same place. It all builds from one thing to the next. You have to be able to Front Squat a weight if you ever want to Clean it and usually, you will Front Squat much more than you lift. That’s exactly how you want it to be. The more you Front Squat the more you can stand up with at the bottom of a lift. It’s as simple as that.

With regard to the Back Squat, you may have heard discussions on where the bar should be placed on the lifter’s back. Is it low on the shoulder blades or high on the athlete’s traps? Since we are discussing improving the Olympic lifts, I’ll answer that for you. The bar should be supported by the athlete’s traps also known as the high-bar back squat. Placing the bar here translates better to both lifts because the athlete’s torso remains vertical as much as possible rather than bent forward over the quads.

We ultimately are in search for exercises that mimic movements in the lifts and you certainly want your torso erect when you receive the bar. If you are building strength in any other position, it won’t translate into the lifts. Just imagine trying to receive the bar bending over? It simply makes no sense. As a note, because your center of gravity is now positioned more behind you, it is easier to stay on your heels and keep your chest up on the Back Squat than it is on the Front Squat. This makes maintaining stability that much easier leading to heavier lifts. So expect to Back Squat more than you Front Squat. If you don’t, there may be mechanical issues which need to be addressed.

Single Leg Squats and Pause Squats are also beneficial variations of squat movements to incorporate in a weekly regimen, especially Pause Squats. This is where the athlete completes either a Front Squat or Back Squat but has to pause at the bottom and hold the squat before coming back up. You can imagine how much this helps build strength if you have to sit at the bottom of a Clean or Snatch to stabilize and then stand up.

Considering the time and extent of CrossFit training, however, I recommend focusing on Front and Back Squats. Concentrate on leg work for just a few weeks and the results will be astonishing. Keep in mind, because Squatting engages all the large muscle groups in the body there is nothing wrong with repeating the exercises frequently. Squats are not isolated exercises such as Machine Bench Press, Curls, or Tricep Extensions, for example…not that CrossFitters would admit to actually doing any of those exercises!


With strength covered above, we can focus on developing the power (i.e. Speed) needed to actually do something with that strength. Many people use the terms “Strength” and “Power” interchangeably but by definition they are different. “Power” has the element of speed and velocity. Picking up any object is a matter of strength, sure. But picking up that same object quickly is a matter of power. As such, Olympic Weightlifting is primarily about power which is supported by strength. You want to be stronger so you are more powerful. In order to develop strength with power you have to spend time on the pulling segments of the lifts. You know when you pick the bar off the ground, get it past your knees, and get it up high enough so you can drop under it? Yup, that’s the pulling part where you have to apply as much force and power to the bar so that you are able to receive it.

To improve your first pull (ground to Power Position) you would practice regular Pulls with either the Clean or Snatch grip. In this exercise you are performing only the initial segment of the lift from the ground, navigating your knees and into the Power Position with the pop of your hips to extend through to your shoulders as you would in the regular lift. You simply aren’t pulling the bar up past this point and are keeping your arms straight throughout the movement with only a slight bend at the very end when you hit the Power Position. Regular pulls should be done with heavy loads – 105% – 110% of your target weight. So if you are going off of a 220 Clean workout, you should be doing pulls with 230lbs or 240lbs. If you can’t pick the bar off the ground with speed and transition into the Power Position, you won’t be able to Clean your target weight. This is why simply doing deadlifts or RDLs (Romanian Deadlifts) won’t exclusively complement your training to improve the lifts as much. Those are strength development pulling movements, which you also need, but Pulls enable you to improve Power production.

Moving on to include your second pull (from the Power Position to your highest point before you transition under the bar) which is where High Pulls in either the Snatch or Clean grip will benefit you. If you practice getting the bar all the way to the full extension and following through with your arms pulling that bar all the way to chest, you will build power and strength in that part of the movement. It also helps lifters to keep the bar close at the top of an extension as they can feel the weight better. Traditionally, High Pulls are done with around 75% of your target weight and that bar should be reaching your chest if not higher.

Other pulling movements such as RDLs or any other exercises developing the practitioner’s speed from the ground into the extension, or 2nd Pull of the Snatch and Clean + Jerk (triple extension) will certainly be helpful. This develops the body’s ability to not only move weight vertically but to do so quickly, exactly as one would do during the Oly lifts.


We could not work on leg strength or body speed without working on what can be considered the final product…holding the weight overhead. After all, that’s the point of both the Oly lifts. A Snatch or Clean + Jerk isn’t complete until the barbell is fully overhead with arms locked out. Thus, the third and final Assistance Exercise category that must be given attention is developing Overhead strength.

Strict Press, Push Press, Power Jerks, Push Jerks, Split Jerks and Overhead Squats (yup that also falls under Squatting movements – two birds, one stone!) and any other heavy upper body movement must be part of the weekly training. Further, working on overhead strength should be done from a standing position as opposed to sitting or in a machine. Standing tall will mimic the Snatch and Jerk accurately forcing the practitioner to master stability and core functionality. Sitting on a bench or working in a machine may increase isolated strength but it will neglect everything else happening in your body during an Oly lift. We simply don’t get to isolate any part of the body during the lifts and so you shouldn’t do that when you are trying to get better at them. Moreover, it’s important that the end position of any Overhead Assistance Exercise be completed with the arms fully locked out and straight, with the barbell centered over the back of the lifter’s head. You are most stable with the bar centered over you which is why the bar should be behind your head. Full range of motion is critical and working these Overhead movements will help to not only build your strength but improve that mobility.

Here’s a list of some Assistance Exercises to consider:

Back SquatRDL (Romanian Deadlife)Strict Press
Front SquatDeadliftPush Press
Pause SquatSnatch High PullPower Jerk
Single Leg SquatClean High PullRack Jerk
Deep Box JumpSnatch Grip DeadliftBehind the Neck Jerk
Overhead SquatSnatch Grip RDLSnatch Press
 Lift OffsMuscle Snatch
  Press in Split Posititon
  Behind the Neck Press


Damect is the visionary who brought BoxLife Magazine to life. As the author of “Training Day – 400+ original WODs,” he has played a pivotal role in shaping the CrossFit community. His passion for the sport and dedication to the community are the foundation upon which BoxLife was built.

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