Olympic lifting is one of the most high-level, skill-based, athletic activities one can perform. No other style of lifting demands the same level of coordination, concentration, and detail than a heavy clean and jerk or snatch.
Olympic lifts require coaching cues to develop proper motor patterns
I’ve been incredibly lucky in my coaching career to have been brought up by some true masters in the game. About two months into my coaching career, I attended the NSCA’s Sport Specific Training Conference in Anaheim in January of 2000 and listened to Mike Burgener teach the lifts.
I was mesmerized by him and fell in love with every word coming out of his mouth (and his unique skill of killing all of us in two short hours with a PVC pipe). I immediately sought him out, and he opened his home and his infinite knowledge to me. I spent the next three years paying visits and assisting him at USAW certs.
Not only does Mike have decades of wisdom to share, but the cueing he uses can somehow get a room full of novices on the same page. That’s powerful. The following are cues you may or may not have heard when teaching Olympic lifting. Many of them I have created out of necessity. They are my go-to cues for almost everyone, and I’ve had tremendous success with each of them.
Cue #1: Ice Water in Your Veins
Olympic lifting is as much psychological as it is physical. Anyone who has developed proficiency at the Olympic lifts will agree that max attempts can be incredibly stressful and invoke significant levels of fear.
Therefore, many lifters want to get into a lather prior to going after a heavy attempt. This usually involves screaming and yelling, jumping around, and trying to use aggressiveness to fuel the attempts.
I’ve got some bad news for those of you who do this. Realistically, you want to do the exact opposite. Watch high-level weightlifters train. They all have an emotionless approach to the bar. They have mastered a thousand-mile stare.
Over-excitability disrupts the flow of the motor program. I tell my athletes they need to have no emotional connection to the attempt. Once you have successfully completed the lift, go berserk, but not a moment sooner.
Ice water in your veins.
Cue #2: Commit to Shooting the Elbows
This cue is pure gold if you’re working with a lifter who isn’t getting their elbows around the full distance when they catch. I see it fifty times a day. Lifters need to make a formal decision that no matter what, they are going to shoot the elbows the full distance as fast as they can.
In some attempts, you will see lifters do the exact opposite. They’ve almost resigned themselves to the fact that they can’t get the weight, and the arms never engage. If this is the case with one of your athletes, you have to convince them that the elbows are non-negotiable.
The elbows need to be automatic and they need to finish with pace. So pull your athletes aside and convince them that even before they touch the bar, they need to make a deal with themselves that hell or high water, they are going to shoot the elbows. It works.
Commit to shooting the elbows.
Cue #3: Knuckles Down
The feeling of losing grip leads to a guaranteed failed attempt, especially for young lifters. Problems with grip are some of the first errors coaches encounter with someone who’s starting out. This is with or without using a hook.
In my experience with the thousands of lifters I’ve worked with, almost everyone will naturally have their wrists in slight extension when they grip the bar. If you look at the location of the bar in the hand when the wrists are in any level of extension, the pressure of the bar moves to the fingertips.
Think of doing a fingertip pull up. It’s ten times harder than a full grip pull up. If you don’t have your knuckles down, you use the fingertip pull up grip to pull hundreds of kilos off of the ground. Knuckles down does three important things:
- Because you have to now put your wrist into slight flexion, the bar rests in the meat of the hands instead of the fingertips. So out the gate, you are in a stronger position by virtue of a surer grip.
- Using a hook grip (like most experienced lifters do) moves a large portion of the pressure off the thumb.
- The intention of driving your knuckles straight down keeps the elbows straight for longer.
Left: Correct, knuckles down; Right: Incorrect. knuckles out.
Cue #4: Drive the Ground Away on the First Pull
The first pull can be tricky for young lifters because they want to clear their knees for the bar path. If we don’t teach that piece properly, novice lifters will either grind the shins with the bar or drive the knees back without lifting the hips up. Even though we go through a whole section helping these athletes conceptualize the need to clear the knees, in many instances it still gets muddy.
Thinking about driving the floor away while standing up with the bar organizes not only muscular coordination that fits the task, but also clears the knees from the bar. Lifters end up in a great position and are able to transition effectively.
Drive the ground away on the first pull.
Cue #5: Shrug Yourself Down
It took me several years to finally teach the third pull. I found that the minute you tell your athletes to pull themselves under the bar, they inevitably begin to pull with their arms during the second pull. And as Coach B says, “When the elbow bends, the power ends.”
Until this cue came along, I had come to the conclusion that if I was only going to be working with beginners to intermediates, I was not going to teach the third pull. In the old days, we would teach the kids that the shrug was the last-ditch attempt to get vertical lift on the bar.
Now, even though we understand that the shrug helps bring the bar up a smidge higher and buys us a fraction of a second more time to get down, we teach the shrug is the point where the drop to catch begins.
If you have a lifter who is willing and able to snap their shrug – as they should be – you likely will have an athlete who is willing and able to drop into their catch fast. Win-win.
Shrug yourself down.
Cue #6: Throw Your Bridge to the Corner
I studied Baguazhang for a lot of years and was an offensive lineman for thirteen years. The “bridge” (or what we have come to refer to as the back bridge bar) is this imaginary bar that covers the rear of the athlete from shoulder to shoulder.
When you are trying to gain a leverage advantage in a tight space against an opponent, you have a considerable advantage if you can manipulate their bridge by pushing and pulling to gain control of their upper body. Wrestlers, linemen, and BJJ fighters will know what I’m talking about, even if our terminology differs.
Know the bridge, throw the bridge to gain a better hip extension
To get a lifter to finish their hips, we explain the bridge and then instruct them to throw their bridge to the corner of the room where the wall and roof meet. As an FYI, the platforms in my facility are up against the wall, close to the corner of the room.
You could use a light fixture or something like that if your set up is dramatically different. If this bridge idea does not resonate with you, the base of the neck is something we all can understand. Either way, for a successful catch, we want the hips to finish and gain full extension into slight hyperextension to deliver the bar.
Throw your bridge to the corner.
Cue #7: Catch Like a Mountain
How many times have you caught a clean, only to be buckled by the weight once you and the bar meet? It happens a lot, especially with novice lifters. They spend all their energy pulling, so they soften at the bottom of the catch and fold up.
I tell lifters who have this problem that they need to be a mountain at the bottom. Full tension throughout the body will allow their structure to tolerate the load. The visual of a mountain gives them the feel of something big and solid. Most novices think they are having a technique hiccup when in reality, they just need to think strong. I get nearly perfect results from this cue.
Catch like a mountain.
Cue #8: Feel Your Obliques in the Squat
This one struck me several months ago when I was trying to generate greater degrees of tension in my vertical pressing. I’ve had several back injuries in the past, so much of the tinkering, I do with techniques comes from the need to create structure and stability for my back. The more you compress the same-side oblique to create a column of stability, the stronger the entire motion feels.
On the ascent from the bottom of the squat, most of us have to chase our center and power through a very deep ass-to-grass squat. Then you get to this point, feel for your obliques. Draw your attention to your obliques and lock them down, creating a pillar of structure for your midline. When you take your attention to your obliques, there is a level of an increased feeling of stability as you stand up.
Feel your obliques in the squat.
We all have some quirky cues to get what we need out of our athletes. These are just a few of mine.
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