The average height for any male Olympic Weightlifter is ranged from 5’2’’ in the 62kg class to just over 6’0’’in the 105kg class. Translation, by most accounts Olympic Weightlifting is not a tall man’s sport. At 6’4’’ myself, I stand out, just a bit. Metaphorically speaking those 4 inches can mean a lifetime and distances that span the globe in this sport.
Unfortunately for me, I love Olympic Weightlifting. The more I’m told that this is not for me, the more and more I accept and look forward to the challenge. It is remarkably beautiful what the body can accomplish, lifting extreme loads in a blink of an eye.
Several years back I had the pleasure to speak with the great Travis Mash who bluntly pointed out that there have been great lifters over 6’0’’, but don’t quit your day job just yet. With those words deeply seared into the back of my head, I began to explore how I can turn my “disadvantage” to an opportunity to learn and improve an athlete and coach.
Like many with my height disadvantage, my biggest struggle had always been getting under the bar, getting under it quickly, and all the elements that go along with it, footwork, change of direction, speed, mobility, stability, and confidence. I strongly believe the following guidelines can be applied to all lifters and CrossFitters, no matter the gender, age, or height.
We will concentrate on the Snatch, but many if not most of the principles apply to the Clean as well. There may be hope for us just yet 😉
First and foremost, if you are not able to get into the right positions in either of the lifts due to mobility restrictions, we are going nowhere fast. The Olympic squat, for example, requires a great deal of mobility, flexibility, and stability. The deeper we can get the more room we create for ourselves to get under and receive the bar in a lower position. This is critical as the loads get heavier. This mostly involves mobilizing everyone favorites; ankles, hips, wrists, and thoracic spine.
What I find gets missed quite often in our ability to receive the bar overhead is our ability to fully and freely extend our arms in a stable locked out position (think overhead in Snatch or Jerk). Both the pec minor and the latissimus dorsi will lock you up and pull your arms and chest down preventing proper position.
These are a couple of great tools to employ:
If you have any restrictions, again address these first.
Think quick, balanced feet. In the sport of Olympic Weightlifting speed is king. If our feet are stuck in quicksand or unbalanced, we will not provide our body the opportunity to transition into the deep squat receiving position we just mentioned, allowing for greater stability (more on that later).
How far you move your feet depends on your start (pulling) and receiving (position). The receiving position should be consistent across all squat variations and lifts (Snatch and Clean).
A great exercise for teaching and learning the correct footwork and the speed at which to move them to simply stand tall in a fully extended position and drop into your receiving position. No external load is needed. Just work on the speed of the transition (from extension to squat). If you think you are moving fast, move them faster.
In addition to being able to move fast with your feet, also work on landing flat footed and balanced, versus on your toes (heels or inversion) which can pull you forward and once again limit stability. The takeaway is to ensure foot speed and just high enough of the floor to allow for that movement to occur rapidly between the two positions - “jumping out and under (down)”.
Now that we have laid a foundation of suppleness and speed, we can move forward to the fun part. The Olympics lifts can be described in many ways, but if I had to describe them in three words it would be “change of direction”. We go up so we can come down. It sounds very simple but much more difficult to execute.
My go-to exercise is the tall snatch and my favorite part of the tall snatch (or tall clean) is watching athlete’s brains spin as they try to figure it out. There is no countermovement involved and is a great transition from the first two points. With the tall snatch, we isolate and emphasize the pull under the bar and focus on speed and aggressiveness. Imagine a person’s face you really dislike and punch under that bar.
If you or your gym has the equipment, snatches or cleans from the blocks are also great at developing the speed and acceleration of the bar to each position from different pulling positions for the explosive change of direction required in the successful completion of both lifts. Again, no countermovement is involved as we focus on the transition to get under and receive the bar.
Everything felt great coming off the floor, the transition was impeccable, hit that bottom to receive the lift lighting fast but you just didn’t receive it correctly or were unable to stand up with it. There could be a number of reasons why it wasn’t a successfully lift but for the sake of our conversation, we will target stability and strength. The following three exercises need to be programmed for our athletes
• Snatch Balance - A trifecta of mobility, footwork, speed getting under the bar. Avoid letting your torso shift/incline forward as you dip and focus on maintaining a vertical torso throughout the movement:
• Tempo Overhead Squats - Slow eccentrics, with a pause in the bottom position, and slow concentric with a short pause at the top can provide the stimulus we want (for example 3,3,3,1) This might appear counterintuitive to our discussion on greater speed, but we also need to be able to control that speed in a proficient manner. This is where the temp overhead squats can prove very useful, with the added focus on balanced foot in bottom position.
• The Press In Snatch - Too often athletes rush out of the bottom. Similar to the Overhead Squat above, in the press in the snatch, an athlete will spend an extended time in the receiving position while also developing strength in the overhead once we are under the barbell. The press in the snatch will also expose any glaring mobility restrictions in the upper body:
The most overused advice but because it is true, it will take time. You need to prepare to take a dedicated approach to addressing your weakness. Discipline, dedication and time under the bar are key to your development.
With all the movements outlined above, we want to drive neurological adaptation as much as physiological. A great way to do this is to prime the athlete with these movements as part of their warm-up protocol. Especially for beginner to intermediate athletes, working with the PVC or barbell for the tall snatch, snatch balance, and press in snatch before a training session is ideal. As an athlete progresses in their development, we can start to introduce load to these movements to supplement the main lifts in their training. For example, the snatch balance should continue to develop to around one hundred percent of the athletes best lift. However, no matter what, never never never sacrifice speed or technique for the sake of load. And remember that cheer from high school, be aggressive, B E aggressive. I see too many athletes being way to nice to the bar and the floor. It’s ok to be a little angry, get aggressive and let the platform be your outlet. Wishing you the best in your Olympic Weightlifting journey, but faster ⚡️⚡️
Pawel Wencel is the co-creator and host of Uncharted Performance, website and podcast dedicated to maximizing our potential inside and outside of the gym, as well as Coach and Media Director at Black Flag Athletics. Pawel possesses over 15 years of experience in strength training through the exploration and adaptation of various training methods, including CrossFit, Olympic Weightlifting, Strongman, Powerlifting, and Bodybuilding. He is keen on athletes, members and clients utilizing their strength and movement practice to get outside, travel, hike, and find adventure outside the confines of the gym. He holds the following certifications: CrossFit Level 1, CrossFit Scaling, FMS Level 1, and USAW Level 1. His claim to fame is a great set of legs :) For more of Uncharted Performance check them out on their website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter and whenever in Cleveland come visit Black Flag. The Podcast is available on iTunes, Stitcher, and Google Play.