Preparing for the Olympic Lifts
by Charles A. Smith
There is absolutely no doubt whatever in my mind that a man who is entering the ranks of the Olympic Lifters needs a course of schedule of specialized training. Some time ago, I wrote three articles. One was called “Your First Contest” ad the other two, “Weightlifting Exercises for Bodybuilders” and Bodybuilding Exercises for Weightlifters.” The first article dealt with platform procedure and gave a few “pre-meet” training tips. The other two covered the advantages contained in the respective schedules of Olympic men and those who train for strength AND proportion. Had I realized it at the time, these articles contained the seeds of the present series, for, looking back on them I can see the REAL meaning behind the ideas in those early articles – a new slant that at the time they were written was still in the world of UNBORN ideas – in the womb of the mind, tho not yet emerged into the world.
There are certain instructors and authorities who claim they know everything there IS to know about lifting, or that they know MORE than anyone else. Such an attitude is foolhardy and blind, and if it isn’t these, then it is hypocritical for the man who expresses such an opinion is obviously seeking personal GAIN and GLORY. I can truthfully say that during the years I have associated with lifting, there hasn’t been a single training period pass in which I didn’t learn something new; not a single lift meet attended that failed to reveal some novel development or fresh idea for future training. The inquiring mind is a progressive one! The complacent and self-satisfied . . . stagnant.
A few days ago I attended the annual New York City Development Meets. These are held every year for novices who have never previously competed, or have yet to win a Metropolitan Championship. During the time I was acting as an official, I had the opportunity to keep track of the athletes’ faults of style and peculiarities. Nearly all of them, with the exception of the “veterans,” showed an inability to stand firm and steady under a weight when it was overhead, or else could not keep their balance when down in a deep split or squat. Others were unable to lock out, didn’t know the rules, adopted bad positions at the bar, started out too high in their commencing poundages, didn’t keep track of their opponents’ poundages and lead, were badly dressed, had on lifting boots that were handicaps to their performance, didn’t make use of the chalk box, and various other small details that by themselves didn’t amount to much, but combined with one of the major mistakes handicapped them still further in their lifting style.
While it may seem petty to quibble about such minute problems of dress and hand chalking, it is this very attention to detail that makes for success. I have yet to see a lifter INSIST on the use of collars, or stoop over to adjust the plates, yet I can remember HUNDREDS of occasions that a lifter has failed to press or snatch a poundage well within his power, because of his lack of consideration for these incidentals. If we forget the minor problems then we get into the habit of thrusting aside attempts to solve the major ones – such as correct preparation for the Olympic Lifts. If we are not concerned with the beginning, then we can be just as slack in how we progress.
Bodybuilders start their careers with an intensive schedule of exercises – presses, curls, rowing motions and squats, with maybe a few deadlifts thrown in here and there. This method of working out is entirely suited to attain the goal towards which they struggle. Weightlifters usually go right into Olympic lifting, using the press, snatch and clean & jerk with some stiff-legged deadlifts and deep knee bends thrown in for good measure at the end of their training period. For the advanced lifter, this is just what the doctor ordered – but what of the special problems raised when the bodybuilder wants to enter Olympic competition, what happens to the man who has never touched a weight or has undergone a period of bodybuilding and seeks to commence competitive lifting?
Too many young men go right into Olympic lifting without the benefit of previous weight training and with absolutely no shred of the BASIC POWER which is already in the possession of the bodybuilder. Too many bodybuilders enter Olympic competitions with little or no preparation and without realizing the great barrier between the two phases of weight training. There is a world of difference between the basic “STATIC” movements or exercises of the bodybuilder, and the “ACTIVE” lifts of the Olympic man. While the body culturist exercises each muscle group individually and without GENERAL body movements, the weightlifter calls into play, in each of his three lifts, every muscle in the body with the arms, trunk, back and thighs moving RAPIDLY THROUGH SPACE in every lift. Thus, as I see it, and I would stress that this is PURELY my PERSONAL opinion, the bodybuilder lacks the preparation that would accustom him to move RAPIDLY with extremely heavy weights, while the weightlifter is missing the sustaining strength and ALL ROUND basic power of the bodybuilder and as a consequence, has ONE weak link somewhere in the chain of his development that lets him down when the limit poundages are approached, or when heavy weights are used.
The body builder has power PLUS but lacks the timing of the trained Olympic man. He may be able to pull a tremendous poundage up to eye level with brute force, but the effort takes it only that far. Consider how, with speed and timing, he might be able to snatch that weight. Or supposing he has the speed as well as strength, but his balance is at fault. He cannot stand firm when heavy weights are overhead because of his inability to exercise control over them, unable to direct them where he wills. The lost timing, the speed and control, cancel all the advantages of strength.
The weightlifter has trained solely to improve his speed and technique. He can, up to a point, control a weight. He has speed and balance, and yet his attempts contain a greater proportion of failures than successes. He forgets that successful lifting is composed of SPEED, STYLE AND STRENGTH and he tends to rely on the first two qualities alone, forgetting that POWER is, perhaps, the most important. His cleans and snatches are desperate struggles, lacking the force behind them that characterizes the lift of the strong man. He can, through his style, jerk a weight to arm’s length, but has no sustaining power to hold it there while the judge signals the completion of the lift. Or, he might hold it overhead and sink slowly to the ground when in the deep split position because of missing thigh and back power.
The bodybuilder has the strength, but needs the special preparation – moving fast with heavy poundages, building some small measure of splitting or squatting technique and style – learning to keep his balance when his center of gravity has been raised by the weight held overhead – developing a powerful finishing thrust to his presses or the will to keep the weight moving through the area of the sticking point when pressing – these things he needs and these things he MUST acquire.
The would-be Olympic man has a tougher problem. First, he should undergo an intensive body building period in which are prominent all the “foundation” exercises – the presses – with dumbells and barbells, on the floor and bench and in the standing position. He needs the deep knee bends and the various rowing motions – again with barbells and dumbells and he also must include the dead lifts the good morning exercise. All these exercises which accepted as the normal parts of a schedule by the body builder must be used by the Olympic beginner for at least three months and up to a period of SIX months. After this, he can start using the preparation exercises to follow, and after another SIX month period he is ready to start his ACTUAL Olympic lift training.
Assistance Exercises for Olympic Lift Preparation
Each problem of PREPARATION training will be dealt with separately. It is up to you to read the movements through carefully and, determine your own faults and lack of speed. First try out each lift on its own, making attempts at your limit. In each lift, the press, the snatch and the clean and jerk, obtain the opinion of a coach or experienced bystander as to what you need and where you fall short! Never mind the style or technique but DO get them to tell you if you lack balance or stability when the weight is overhead or first or second pull or speed or timing – whether you can get past the sticking point and if you can, are you able to lock out. Determine if your jerk is powerful and split low or shallow. Get a definite opinion on every one of the points raised in this article from someone in the know, and when you have that opinion ACT.
In all these preparation exercises, you MUST cultivate the habit of moving FAST with all your poundages. Then, speed of action will become a HABIT, a reflex action, something you do instinctively without a thought about it. Developing pull in all lifts is essential because the weights MUST be kept moving from he moment they leave the ground until they are safely overhead as in the snatch, or have arrived at the shoulders for pressing or jerking. This should be so very obvious that its mention here ought to be unnecessary, but few lifters realize the importance of pull and how it can affect the lift as a whole . . .
Take a weight equal to your best snatch, or if you don’t have this indication, one that you can handle for EIGHT easy reps. Place it on the ground in front of you and grasp it with a normal shoulder width grip. From this position stand up with the weight so that you have it hanging at arm’s length in front of and across the thighs. From here, bend slightly forward with the trunk and the legs and then return to upright position pulling the weight with all the power in you to CHIN level. Return to starting position and repeat. Commence with 8 reps, 2 sets and work up to 2 sets of 12 reps.
Developing Stability and Balance
One of the most common faults of lifters when they start Olympic lifting is the inability to hold a weight above them without staggering all over the platform. This can be due to many factors – foot placing and spacing, or lower back and thigh weakness. When you are in a deep split make sure your feet are on different planes or spacings instead of IN LINE with one another. Thus, you will have a broader and firmer base on which to support the weight overhead. Take a LIGHT weight to start this exercise UNTIL you have learned the style. Then, take a poundage equal to your best snatch. Your grip should be shoulder width or just a TRIFLE more – DON’T take too wide a hand spacing. THRUST your front splitting foot forward about 18 inches WITHOUT bending it at the knee. At this point, with the weight overhead, you are like an inverted “Y” with your legs forming the two branches and the body and arms the trunk. Sink down into a deep split WITHOUT moving the feet, and without allowing the knee of the rear foot to touch the platform. Hold this deep position for a short pause and return to the starting position. DON’T look up at the weight and DO thrust the head forward. Start off with a weight you can EASILY handle for 8 reps, 2 sets. Work up to 2 sets of 15 reps.
Developing Jerking Power
a.) Again let me stress that ALL movements should be as fast as you can make them. Particularly in this exercise is speed desirable. Place a box in front of the racks at a height that will permit you to DIP down about 10 inches before you touch it. Stand in between the box and the squat racks and with a normal handspacing, such as you use for the press or jerk, lift the barbell off the racks and across the shoulders – just like you had cleaned it for the press or jerk. From here, sit down and as soon as you feel your buttocks touch the box, return to upright position at once, rising on the toes in a “Jump.” Perform the exercise with energy and with SPEED and keep the back straight. Start off with 2 sets of 8 reps and work up to 2 sets of 15 reps before increasing the weight.
b.) Take a weight equal to your best press and clean it to the shoulders. From this position, give a SLIGHT HEAVE with the legs so that the weight just reaches above the crown of the head and from here and without pause press it out. You could call this exercise the “JERK OUT’ but the important point is NOT to make the jerk too strong, but to control the thrust of the thighs so that the weight is taken aloft by a 70-30 effort of ARMS and legs with the accent on ARM POWER. Start off with the weight indicated above for 3 sets of 5 reps and work up to 3 sets of 8 reps.
Developing Lockout Power, Overcoming the Sticking Point
Again we need a pair of squat racks and a bench. At first, start off with a light weight until you get used to the movement and then use a weight 20 pounds BELOW your best press. Place this weight on squat racks which have been raised so that when you sit on the bench between them the bar is about an inch above your head. Take your usual pressing position AFTER seating yourself on the bench under and SLIGHTLY BEHIND the bar. From here press the weight to arm’s length WITH NO ASSISTANCE from back bends, and return it to the squat rack and repeat. Use 2 sets of 8 reps, working up to 2 sets of 12 before increasing the weight.
Developing Splitting Speed
Start off this exercise with a very light weight, one that you can comfortably handle until you are used to the movement. Jerk the weight to arm’s length with both hands – your hand spacing should be the same that you use for pressing. From The arm’s length position LOWER the weight to just above the head and HOLD IT THERE. From this position split suddenly and fiercely under the bar, allowing the arms to shoot to their full length WITHOUT EXERTING ANY PRESSURE ON THE BARBELL. The arms should NOT put the slightest pressure on the bar – all the work is done by the legs and the swiftness and fierceness of the split. When you are used to the movement a good weight to use is one that you can press 10 times. Start off with 2 sets of 8 reps, work up to 2 sets of 15 reps.
You will notice that I have dealt with PULL, BALANCE and STABILITY, JERKING POWER, DEVELOPING LOCK OUT POWER and overcoming sticking point, and finally DEVELOPING SPLITTING SPEED. These problems are dealt with generally, as they affect the beginner. They will be dealt with more fully, and as they influence the more advanced lifter, in later articles. Keep on these exercises for at LEAST six months and cram the poundages – increase them as soon as you reach the number of sets and reps. YOU MUST LEARN to use SPEED and work up to HEAVY POUNDAGES.