Cleaning Up the Pull in the Olympic Lifts: Technique and Drills for Success

Olympic lifting isn’t just for athletes who compete in meets. The various exercises dramatically improve both rate of force development and rate coding while recruiting the largest motor units. And since most sports require both strength and speed—i.e. explosive power—many athletes benefit from incorporating the Olympic lifts into their training. The obvious advantages gained from weightlifting lead to its popularity in strength and conditioning facilities around the world. The lifts—that were once relatively obscure—are now staples of training programs. But that popularity also generates inconsistency. And unfortunately, inconsistency leads to the spreading and teaching of of many different—often incorrect—lifting techniques.

One of the biggest offenses occurs in the initiation of the movement, or in the pulling phase.

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If you’re the wrong kind of aggressive in the pull, you’ll forget to be aggressive in the catch.

The pull should be aggressive, but also controlled and fluid. Because the purpose of the first pull is to disconnect the stationary barbell from its motionless position on the platform, the start of the lift should be slow and controlled. The middle portion of the lift only becomes fast because the control exerted on the first pull allows for speed to accumulate.

Pulling turns out to be the additive combination of start speed and acceleration in the middle of the lift. It results in the chain reaction of turnover and receiving the weight at the top of the movement.

Athletes often have the desire to pull the bar from the floor harshly and overemphasize the use of their upper body in order to get the barbell to the ideal position. (This could be due to five-time national champion Donny Shankle’s popularized quote to “rip the bar like you’re ripping a head off of a lion.”)

But in doing so, the barbell breaks away from your body—thus disrupting your center of gravity, making it hard to complete the lift. And it’s what I refer to as being the wrong kind of aggressive. Yanking the bar harshly transfers the angle of the back to an undesired, even dangerous, position.

This improper initial movement causes problems up the chain, too, forcing you to tug aggressively at the top of the pull. Instead of adding speed, this extra movement actually slows you down and inhibits you from being aggressive at the proper time. And that makes the transition to receiving the barbell—either overhead in the snatch or on your shoulders in the clean—more difficult to perform.

The barbell goes where you want it, not the other way around.

The pull seems more strenuous and complex, so we focus on it—maybe a little too much. Because if you put the same energy into sitting hard into a receiving position, as you do the pull, your lift will be more successful. You must place the bar overhead with intention. In weightlifting, the barbell goes where you want it to not the other way around.

Unfortunately, if you teach the start position and pull incorrectly, you cannot expect your athlete to perform the full movement properly. That’s where the power position comes into play.

Working from blocks works well with athletes who have a tendency to pull incorrectly—whether they’re veterans or beginners. Since the power position allows you to keep the bar close to the body, it naturally limits your ability to tug the bar at the top by reducing the room you have to move. The result is a more stable, controlled center of gravity, in order to optimize the force applied to the bar.

Below are two examples of how each pull is properly done from the blocks:

Snatch Pull

Clean pull

During both lifts, the athlete in the video uses the power from his lower body to guide the bar upward. He maintains perfect posture by pushing the knees out while looking ahead or slightly up.

The middle portion of the pull is predominately accomplished by a push with the legs while the elbows guide the bar up to the midsection. To get this out of my own athletes, I often cue them to push the floor away with the heels—instead of thinking about the movement as a pull. This forces the athlete to focus on not coming to their toes or being too concerned with their arm movement.

A pull should always directly correlate with the full lift. There is no purpose in teaching a pull if it has no transfer-over effect into the exercise. In the video above you see the athlete performing the snatch by allowing the bar to guide up in a smooth motion. Then he completes the lift by sitting hard under the bar, maintaining a strong overhead position.

Start small for big results

In addition to teaching more fluid traditional pulls, a way to begin attacking these common problems can be dealt with by adding warm up drills prior to each specific lift and strength exercises (pulling variations) at the end of the workout. I have my lifters start with an empty barbell, or even a PVC pipe, broomstick, or training bar.

The movements below are breakdowns of the full lifts and will teach the athlete to gain the proper feeling for certain positions. The first five exercises are warm up drills, which will help athletes who have trouble transitioning from pulling into sitting under the barbell (often noted as the third pull).

  1. Pull to front drop snatch warm-up complex:
  2. 1. Pull the bar to sternum height and pause.
  3. 2. Without tugging at the top flip the bar over head and begin to sit hard into a full squat.
  4. 3. Hold the seated position and do not rush up immediately.

Here you will learn to connect the dots between finishing the pull and transitioning into dropping under fast. Your arms should immediately be prepared to lockout overhead while maintaining a solid core. This movement teaches you to understand that when snatching to apply aggression into sitting underneath the barbell.

  1. Snatch grip front press variation
  2. 1. Without using momentum, maintain a high chest and sit hard under the bar as if you were sitting under a push jerk.
  3. 2. Poke your head through and push up into the barbell with your trapezius.

This is another drill used to mimic the movement underneath the bar. The motion must be precise and short. want to focus more on the movement which occurs underneath the bar after the pull.

  1. Behind the neck snatch press: in full squat
  • 1. Beginning in a full squat, engage in your core and push up into the bar.
  • 2. Be sure to keep your heels planted on the floor.

A true test to strength and stability: This should not be done in excess weight or reps. Typically, I utilize this during a warm up with an empty barbell in a complex for 4x4.

  1. Behind the neck Snatch grip jerk
  • 1. Slowly dip with knees out and chest up.
  • 2. Once the dip is complete, a short drop underneath the barbell happens in order to secure the lift overhead.
  • 3. The first drop is short and the second will end in a full squat.
  • 4. Visualize pulling the bar apart over head and remain in the catch for about 2-4 seconds.

It’s easy to be more concerned with standing up with the weight, as opposed to securing the lift overhead. But, many lifts are lost because of impatience and rushing.

  1. Clean drill
  • 1. Swing the weights back and forth slowly.
  • 2. Once the weights begin to come back in front of you, flip your elbows up in a rack position.
  • 3. As you flip your elbows, sit hard into a ½ squat.

Here is a great exercise if you use your arms too much in the pull. It reminds you to immediately turn the bar over fast. It’s particularly useful for beginners who are just learning how much power comes from the legs. Sometimes I will incorporate these in between working sets.

These next two examples will help athletes who struggle with general pulling technique and strength. Each exercise will focus on controlling the barbell by using the lower extremities as the main driver in gaining height in the pull.

  1. High pull to stick

This exercise ensures you’re pulling the bar high enough, and allows you to work harder at the top. Variations from the floor as well as complexes and adjusting the height can be applied.

  1. Staircase snatch muscle pull

Usually done with light to moderate weight, this is a great exercise to focus on the eccentric portion of the lift. Starting from the box, raise your elbows (picture a puppet) as high as possible while maintaining form, then slowly lower the bar allowing it to just slightly tap the staircase.

Closing Thoughts

While the olympic lifts take YEARS to master, I hope these drills and cues help you on your journey to become a better lifter.  Post any questions or comments you have below, and be sure to apply for our olympic lifting coaching program if you want help with programming and optimizing your lifts.  There are ONLY 3 SPOTS available right now, and those are on a first come first serve basis.

about the author

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Dani Tocci is an eccentric individual whose primary goal is to cultivate a positive growth mindset with everyone she works with on both a sport consulting level and with training. Having a not so typical background with degrees in art and philosophy gives her an edge on her thought process. Dani is a competitive olympic weightlifter and has had the pleasure of working with national level athletes.  Follow her on Instagram (@d_tocc) for all the happenings.