If you’ve ever watched online videos of experienced Oly lifters you may have been amazed at how fast and explosive many of them look. It’s impressive, it’s as if you blink you’ll miss something. From experience, I can tell you that top coaches will develop quickness in their lifters. That speed is something everyone should strive to obtain. But what makes a lift look fast isn’t just how quickly the athlete propels the bar from their legs but rather how quickly they receive the barbell. It’s that ability to get under it with control that makes it all so mesmerizing. Here we’ll focus on three ways to develop speed in the snatch and clean and jerk: drill work, eccentric vs. concentric movements, and simply just learning to move quickly.
First, let’s talk basic anatomy. Each of us is born with certain types of muscle fibers each in certain amounts. Specifically, we’ll refer to what are called slow twitch (Type I) and fast twitch (Type II) muscle fibers. How much of each type of fiber each of us has can predetermine which workouts or even sports we may be better at. Slow twitch (Type I) muscle fibers are activated more in low intensity, long distance endurance movements such as running, biking, swimming, and other oxidative exercises like planks, or jumping rope. In contrast, fast twitch (Type II) muscle fibers fire when we perform high intensity, short burst movements such as sprinting, heavy lifting, high jumping, and other glycolytic exercises such as power cleans, tire flips, or split jerks. This is the realm within which we must operate in order to become quick and explosive in Oly lifting. Simple, right? Good, I’m done with science and ready for practical application….
Certain drills help develop speed under the bar by creating the proper “hip-to-leg sequence” during the snatch and clean and jerk. This sequence consists of bringing the bar into the hips then immediately, without hesitation, letting the legs take over in the vertical jump. Keeping the sequence minimizes overextension of the hips and redirects the barbell vertically. Less hips equals more leg drive. Performing the Snatch and Clean & Jerk correctly will create weightlessness on the bar. It’s at that point when you should be on your way underneath it, with sharp speed, before gravity brings down the bar.
Start with the barbell behind the neck with a snatch grip. Jump or kick the bar off your traps and immediately dive under it, with arms locked out overhead, into the overhead squat position. Stand, reset and repeat.
This is an advanced version of the snatch balance where there is no jump. With the barbell behind the neck holding a snatch grip, fall as fast as possible into the overhead squat position, beating the bar to the ground. If done right, the barbell doesn’t even move, only you do.
Power Position Snatch
Greg Everett, of Catalyst Athletics, calls these dip snatches. Start with the barbell at your waist in a snatch grip. Jump the bar vertically and pull yourself under the bar into the bottom of the overhead squat position. Stand, reset and repeat.
Power Position Clean
Start with the barbell at your waist with a clean grip. Jump the bar vertically and pull yourself under the bar into the bottom of the front squat position. Stand, reset and repeat.
Known in CrossFit as push jerks, power jerks begin with the bar on the shoulders in the rack position. Simply dip, drive, and re-dip to receive the bar. The difference is that there is a purposeful outward shifting of the feet to receive the bar. There is no split like in a traditional split jerk so the athlete can really focus on “catching” the bar overhead.
Snatch or Clean from Blocks
Elevated blocks are useful tools to develop strength and proper mechanics from varying heights off the floor. However, if you’re looking to develop speed the blocks must be set up high, about where the barbell (with plates of course) would fall above the knee.
These drills are just some ways to help you move quickly with the bar. You don’t have to use heavy weight when practicing them. In fact, the lighter the better. You can add weight as you progress so long as you maintain quickness. Heck, you can even include these drills in a WOD. The idea is to sequence these movements with velocity, not attempt 1RMs with them.
Note: To accomplish these drills you need to first be comfortable in low positions under the bar, otherwise the speed you’re trying to create will be slow to develop. Start by feeling comfortable and happy at the bottom of a squat, then progress with the drills. Drills are only as good as your ability to execute them.
Eccentric vs. Concentric movements
In squat, press and deadlift movements there are eccentric (slow, negative) motions followed by concentric (flex, contracting) motions. The way you execute these exercises can make a world of a difference in how you develop speed. Let’s take the back squat as an example. Once the weight is on the back of the neck, you have to make your way down to the bottom while resisting the weight, then redirect upward to stand. Beginners often move slowly in both directions. But what if I told you that you can become fast in the snatch and clean and jerk if you force the upward movement faster than going down? The idea is to move down with control but explode up as fast as possible. You’d have to execute it that way each and every rep, of every set, of every day, and every week. RDLs are executed the same way in my gym. Once the bar is set up at the waist to begin the rep, I teach my athletes to move downward toward the floor with ease and control, and when they redirect upward, they explode as quickly as possible back to the waist. They’ll then take a breath or two then repeat….slow down, fast up!
The idea of a slow eccentric motion followed by an opposite fast concentric movement will develop your overall speed. It will transfer beautifully to the snatch and clean. I apply this concept to the push press (from the overhead position, downward to the shoulders, then quickly explosion back to the overhead), front squats (same as back squats described above), even in the bench press. There’s nothing wrong with lowering the barbell with ease and control to the chest followed by a massive explosion back up.
What’s yet another, easy step to develop speed? Move quicker. Yep, that’s it! You want to be fast? Then move fast…in everything. There’s a point where you don’t have to rely on drills or tricks to become fast. Just perform each rep quickly. If you think it isn’t easy, it actually is. If you switch your mindset to attack every rep of every exercise as fast as you can, you’ll find that you’re developing your fast twitch (Type II) muscle fibers. Whether it’s a butterfly sit-up or an air squat, whatever it is, just rep it as fast as you can. Your body, no matter your genetic makeup, has the ability of becoming more than what it is. Like a runner who trains long hours on the pavement, you can train your body to be faster, and more explosive. It’s all in how you approach the movement. So while you’re practicing some drills or focusing on the eccentric vs. concentric movements I mentioned above, also consider just executing fast. It goes without saying that to move fast you must already have proper technique.
Beginners out there, take your time learning the proficiency of the movement. When learning Olympic lifting, you should focus first on position, then movement, then speed, and lastly load. You should never skip any one step, which could take days or even months to achieve. For those who are ready for it and those who will be there soon, remember: the speed will come once you make it a priority, even over those 1RMs.