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Explosive Lifting - Part 1

At first glance, what we call “explosive” lifting (traditional competitive weightlifting) may seem inappropriate or unnecessary for the professional personal trainers to include in their exercise repertoires. After all, so called “Olympic” weightlifting is a highly complex sport, not easily mastered by just anyone in the weightroom. Do you, as a personal trainer, really have an eager audience wanting to know the ins and outs of the snatch and the clean and jerk lifts?

These lifts also normally require a good deal of “coaching.” Personal trainers are the perfect means for providing such support, but that also means you must learn enough about these complicated movements to be able to qualify for “coach” status.

Interestingly, over the past 10 or so years, there has been an increased interest within the strength profession to know more about this form of exercise and how it applies to the average fitness club member.

Without a doubt, explosive lifting is probably not needed by clients, other than for those engaged in strength/power sports and/or those in need of some variety in their training. There are many who would argue that Olympic-style weightlifting is not the cat’s meow. Others think it is absolutely the Holy Grail. Explosive lifting draws many detractors, and many of the claims are completely unfounded. Check any number of online forums, and you'll see numerous arguments pop up about the pros and cons of this form of training.

Certainly, competitive weightlifting presents many challenges in terms of mastery. But it also provides numerous benefits for those who take the time to correctly learn the required techniques. Even with the varied client population present with most personal trainers, there are many reasons for learning and incorporating this style of training with your clients.

I don’t entirely disagree with those who point to potential problems with explosive lifting, but I do counter their resistance by saying this difficulty is true of those who perform the lifts improperly (i.e., unsafely). I go a step further and challenge those in a coaching role to learn enough about this form of training to provide safe, effective and fun explosive training for all.

This article addresses the rationale for incorporating explosive lifting across many different populations and discusses some of the preliminary steps a personal trainer should take to understand and implement explosive lifting.

A Brief History of Weightlifting

Weightlifting was introduced to the first modern Olympic Games in 1896 and has remained an exciting and popular part of international sporting competition ever since. The sport has gone through several evolutionary steps to the point where we now see two lifts performed: the snatch and the clean and jerk.

The snatch is pretty much a single movement of pulling a barbell from its starting position on the platform overhead in one single motion. When a novice first views the snatch, most think the bar is swung overhead in an arcing motion. Quite the contrary, the bar remains very close to the body throughout the lift, with a relatively straight line proving to be the shortest distance between two points.


The clean and jerk is a two part lift, first bringing the bar from the ground to the shoulders in one “clean” movement. The clean is followed by the jerk portion of the lift, which is an explosive and coordinated effort of both the lower and upper body muscles.

Clean Jerk

Both lifts are characterized by explosive, powerful execution that results in the barbell being lifted overhead (snatch or jerk) or on the chest (clean) in less than one second.

Males and females of all ages and bodyweights compete in weightlifting. (This can be another draw for those who want to try but do not want to get too big.) In competition, lifters are given three attempts in each discipline. Each lifter’s highest successful snatch and the highest successful clean and jerk are combined to form a “total.” This total amount of weight lifted determines the placings within a particular bodyweight category.

Weightlifters are not necessarily heavily muscled individuals, although this can vary quite a bit. Weightlifters tend to have pronounced muscular development in the glutes and quads, along with the spinal erector muscles of the lower back and the trapezius muscles of the upper back. Weightlifters do not depend on their arms and shoulders to raise the barbell. The lower body is much stronger, and by maximizing lifting technique, weightlifters use their legs to provide the impetus for lifting, both initially from the ground and in a jumping action to accelerate the bar overhead.

In order to lift more weight (which is, after all, the aim of the sport), weightlifters have to switch muscular action within the blink of an eye. After explosively jumping and pulling the weight upward, they accelerate themselves under the rising barbell. This results in their catching the weight overhead at arms’ length (snatch) or on the shoulders (clean). Of the two lifts, the snatch is the more precarious and difficult movement to learn.

Benefits of Weightlifting

Let’s assume you are not in the market for training weightlifters, and you don’t intend to change professions from personal training to weightlifting coach. Why bother to learn and incorporate these lifts?

Obviously, weightlifting (explosive lifting) produces excellent muscular strength. Everyone can benefit from getting stronger. Since weightlifters tend to perform very few repetitions in each set (due mostly to the nature of the lift), the weights are greater than if moderate or high reps were used. Heavier weights plus fewer reps equals greater strength. Professionals in the strength and conditioning field have no doubt encountered the false belief of many, especially females, that lifting heavy weights will cause them to “bulk up” (whatever that means). I leave you to defuse this obstacle by properly educating your clients about these variables.

More important for success in weightlifting and nearly every sport is power or explosive speed strength. How fast you can move your own body and that of an opponent (barbell, wrestler, shot put, etc.) is usually more important for sporting success than pure strength. Weightlifters of all sizes are regularly shown to be among the most powerful athletes on the globe, with vertical jumps routinely in excess of 36 inches.

Flexibility and coordination are required to get the body safely into the best receiving position. Most weightlifters again score extremely high on standard measures of flexibility. Personal trainers need to determine if their clients are appropriately flexible enough to even begin explosive training. If not, a great deal of remedial work needs to be done long before attempting the full lifts.

Excellent mental focus and the ability to execute a complex movement very quickly separate weightlifters from many other athletes.

From a number of perspectives, all of these qualities may be attractive and provide rapid success for personal training clients. But proceed cautiously and be sure this is the right prescription.

Step #1: Check Flexibility

For each lift, the competitive weightlifter has several styles available to elevate the barbell and secure it overhead. The most common technique for the snatch is what’s called the squat style, in which the lifter, after exploding upward, pulls himself under the rising bar and catches the barbell overhead. This requires outstanding flexibility (wrists, shoulders, elbows, lower back, ankles, etc.) and balance to master, so we need to start here, making sure this position can be achieved.  

So, long before your client practices even partial lift training, certain flexibility prerequisites must be demonstrated.

Enter the overhead squat, an increasingly popular exercise with personal trainers, sports performance coaches and rehab specialists. With a dowel or PVC “bar” overhead, the lifter executes a full squat, keeping the bar directly over the shoulder joint, the entire spinal column flat and the feet flat on the platform. The torso should have only a minimal amount of forward inclination.

Not everyone will be able to do the overhead squat successfully. Take this as a serious warning that you should improve the lifter’s flexibility and balance before going further. You also may want to explore other styles besides the squat snatch.

During this time, you client needs to be practicing other, non-explosive lifts in order to continue to gain strength.

Some people simply won’t be able to do an overhead squat. If you determine learning this lift is a lost cause, then shift your thinking to teach either the split snatch or the power snatch. In the former, the pull is performed exactly the same, but instead of squatting under the rising barbell, the lifter quickly splits one foot forward and one backward, landing in a deep lunge position. The lifter’s body is again lowered under the bar (are you starting to see the pattern that weightlifting is not only about lifting up but moving down?).

For those who choose to use the split snatch, there must first be a successful exhibition of a solid, deep lunge. Minus the flexibility or strength to lunge consistently, you need to adjust your goals to instead teach only the power snatch.

The power snatch uses the same pulling technique, but instead of squatting or splitting into a low receiving position, the lifter lowers himself about six inches into a partial squat position. Because the weight must be pulled higher, less weight is used.

The same varieties are available in the clean. The bar’s position on the clavicles, rather than overhead, does make the squat clean a bit easier to master, especially in terms of balance, than the squat snatch. Realize you may have to advise clients with different abilities to perform different styles of either the snatch or the clean.

The jerk is usually only performed in a split technique, although competitive weightlifters sometimes utilize a power (partial squat) or squat technique for the jerk. For your purposes, let’s simply stay with the split jerk. But note that a key part of the instruction for the jerk is learning the push press and the power jerk.

Does it make any difference which lift you teach first? No, there’s no magic order to learning the snatch and the clean and jerk. There are some secrets to making the process simple, including the popular “top down” system of coaching. This process includes first learning the most explosive portion of the pulling action. After successful mastery of this partial snatch or clean, clients take on the more difficult part of the lift, which is when the barbell is around the knees. The final learning stage is to pick the barbell up from the floor, which most people find fairly simple and straightforward.

Step #2: Check Strength

Personal trainers must accept the fact that explosive lifting is an advanced form of training. It lies very far over to one side of the exercise continuum, away from the simple, somewhat mindless exercise routines of many. It is not designed for absolute novices in the weightroom, although with proper screening you could start technique training early on. This would require the assurance that the lifter is flexible and strong enough to engage in this type of training right from the beginning. Without this, you must address the areas that are lacking, while continuing general resistance training for overall improvement.

There is no quick and easy test to determine whether or not your client is strong enough to begin explosive lifting. But you can assess the overall fitness picture with tests of your own design and feel comfortable with your prescription.

Does your client demonstrate adequate “core stability?” In addition to the overhead squat, check to see if your client can successfully hold a strict “plank” position for one to two minutes. Also confirm he can hold his torso parallel to the floor in a back extension posture.

Successful completion of push ups should demonstrate adequate upper body pushing strength. Can your client easily hold an empty bar overhead with wrists extended, elbows locked and shoulders properly aligned alongside the ears?

You can assume the average client cannot perform a pull up or a chin up. But you may wish to determine adequate upper body pulling strength via an inclined pull up in the Smith machine. Failure to do this move may suggest more general weight training is needed to gain basic strength before starting explosive lifting.

Certainly, you need to know your clients can safely and effectively execute squats (or lunges). If they don’t have the lower body strength and/or balance to do squats, explosive lifting has to be relegated to a future training plan that will be initiated after adequate starting strength is exhibited.

OK, you’ve read this far, and you’re interested in including explosive lifting for some of your athletes or clients. You’ve done the initial testing and know whether or not this form of advanced training is appropriate. In the next article in this series, I’ll discuss in detail how to introduce the snatch.

Photos courtesy of Newton Sports.