The development of a teaching progression for the Olympic lifts is something that every coach who teaches the lifts will do one way or another—some will never move past the borrowing from others stage (which is fine, of course), others will gradually develop one over a long period of time (sometimes intentionally, sometimes just naturally), and others will set out right out of the gate to create an original progression (it may not be any good, but at least it's original!).
This article will present some framework and foundational concepts that can be used to create your own teaching progression. This is based on the talk I gave at Ethan Reeve’s annual clinic at Wake Forest University in January 2013.
I consider there to be five primary elements of a teaching progression. That is, these are five things that must be addressed directly for the progression to be effective. These are positions, balance, posture, explosion mechanics, and relocation mechanics.
In the squat, the feet should be flat on the floor (this means fore and aft and side to side). This will be affected not only by general balance or imbalance, but also by the foot stance. For example, turning the toes out too much will often cause the feet to roll onto the inside edges, as will having too wide of a stance.
The spine should be in its neutral curvature or slightly hyperextended in the lumbar area and flattened in the thoracic area. The closer the trunk is to vertical, the closer the spine should be to neutral, as this is the position in which it best resists compressive force; the more forward the trunk is leaned, the more extended the spine should be (to its maximal degree of slight hyperextension) to both shorten the lever slightly, improve the ability of the spinal extensors to hold the spine in position, and create a hedge against injurious lumbar flexion.
The thighs should be approximately parallel to the feet—looking straight down at the thigh, it should be aligned with the foot and directly above it or very slightly inside of it. The hips should be open (thighs/feet turned out) to a degree that allows the athlete to sit into full depth with proper posture along with the proper alignment of the foot and thigh.
These positions will help ensure the optimal performance of the lifts, as well as help keep the lifter’s joints safe.
In the pull of the snatch or clean, the lifter’s spine should be extended slightly beyond the natural curve. The entire length of the spine is ideally set in a continuous arch by slightly hyperextending the lumbar spine and flattening the thoracic spine as much as possible.
The feet should be turned out slightly based on the athlete’s comfort. Generally a stance that places the heels approximately under the hips is preferable, but this can be widened if the athlete feels it’s more effective.
The arms should be internally rotated to orient the points of the elbows to the sides without the shoulders rounding forward. This will set the athlete up to relocate under the bar properly.
In the overhead position of either the snatch or the jerk, the barbell should be located over the base of the neck with the head push forward slightly. The arms should be approximately vertical when viewed from the side. The shoulder blades should be retracted aggressively and upwardly rotated somewhat. This position can be achieved easily by attempting to squeeze the top inside edges of the shoulder blades together. The active and aggressive effort to maintain this scapular position creates a solid foundation for the arms to hold the bar.
The elbows must be extended completely and forcefully, with the bony points oriented approximately halfway between down and back. The exact orientation will change somewhat based on how the lifter is built. The bar should be resting across the palm of the hand, with the wrist extended and the hand relaxed to allow it to settle in securely. In this position, the bar should be above the forearm (rather than behind it) very slightly behind its center point. The grip should be only tight enough to maintain control of this position—overgripping the bar will prevent the hand and wrist from settling into the proper position and will limit the speed and forcefulness of the elbow extension.
The rack position of the clean will be an important factor in a lift’s success. Most importantly, the barbell must be supported on the shoulders rather than in the arms. In order to position the bar properly, the shoulders must be protracted maximally and elevated somewhat while preventing the upper back from flexing. The protraction of the shoulder blades will create a space between the highest point of the deltoids and the throat in which the bar can settle securely—the bar must be in this groove, not on top of the shoulders, where it will not be secure from simply rolling down and forward. Elevating the shoulder blades will increase the depth of this groove for the bar, but will also keep it from contacting the clavicles, which can be painful, and will help prevent the carotid arteries from being occluded and causing dizziness. The shoulders should only be elevated enough to get the bar off the clavicles—there should not be significant space between the bar and the collarbones.
Generally the hands should be open with only the fingers under the bar and the elbows lifted as much as possible. In some cases, lifters will find it helpful to maintain a fuller grip on the bar. This should be used in such cases, but the lifter must still lift the elbows as much as possible to help secure the position and extend the upper back.
The rack position for the jerk is similar to that of the clean. The barbell should be supported on the shoulders instead of by the arms, the shoulder blades protracted and slightly elevated, and the bar sitting in the same groove between the tops of the shoulders and the throat.
However, the ideal position will move the palms of the hands under the bar rather than just the fingers, and the elbows should be move down (always at least slightly in front of the bar) and spread to the sides. This sets the lifter up for better pressing mechanics to relocate under the bar after the drive. The grip should be relaxed to ensure that the bar is settled in and connected tightly to the lifter’s trunk to transfer maximal leg drive into it.
The weight should be balanced slightly behind mid-foot in the squat—I like to say at the front edge of the heel for an easy reference point. The balance and pressure over the foot will often shift forward somewhat in the very bottom of the squat, but this is acceptable as long as the athlete’s posture remains intact and he or she moves the weight back to where it belongs immediately upon recovery from the bottom position.
Snatch & Clean
The balance over the foot should be slightly behind mid-foot like in the squat, although in the starting position, it will be balanced across the foot and immediately upon separation of the bar from the floor, it will be farther forward toward the balls of the foot. As part of the pull from the floor, the lifter must shift the balance back toward the heels immediately. The pressure on the foot will move from toward the balls of the feet as the bar first separates, back toward the heel during most of the pull, and then finish on the balls of the feet as the lifter extends in finish of the pull.
The balance over the foot in the jerk should remain over the heel throughout the lift. This can be one of the most difficult things for many lifters to do. The pressure will shift from the heel during the dip and start of the drive onto the balls of the feet as the lifter finishes the drive and the ankles extend.
Snatch & Clean
In the starting position of the snatch and clean, the lifter’s arms should be approximately vertical when viewed from the side, placing the shoulders directly above the bar (the leading edge of the shoulders will be very slightly in front of the bar). The trunk should be upright and the head and eyes directed forward.
For the dip and drive of the jerk, the trunk must remain vertical. We imagine a vertical line passing through the lifter’s ankle and hip and the center of the bar (when viewing the lifter from the side); these three points should never diverge from this line as the lifter dips and drives. In other words, the hips travel straight down and straight up through flexion of the knees only.
The mechanics of the final upward explosion of the lift should be taught properly to attain maximal performance of the snatch and clean. Athletes will naturally tend to perform this action less than optimally because the ideal position from which to initiate the explosion is not a comfortable or natural one.
The feet should be flat with the weight balanced toward the heel. The barbell should be in light contact with the mid- to upper-thigh, the shins vertical, and the shoulders slightly in front of the bar.
The movement of the final explosion from this position is a concerted violent extension of the knees and hips—the athlete will snap the hips open to slight hyperextension while punching the legs down against the floor. While this is occurring, the athlete must be actively pushing the bar back into the hips with the lats.
The relocation of the athlete under the barbell following the final explosion of the lift is an active and aggressive movement. The arms should still be internally rotated as they were set in the start of the lift so the athlete can pull the elbows up and out to the sides. This movement accelerates the athlete down while keeping the athlete and barbell in immediate proximity. Only after this aggressive pull of the elbows up and out is the bar turned over into the rack position (clean) or overhead position (snatch)—without the momentum generated from this movement, the turnover cannot occur properly.
The lifter must remain tightly connected to the bar throughout this entire movement—never should the two become separated, as this will prevent the lifter from completely controlling the position of the bar and body, and will result in the barbell crashing down onto the lifter in the receiving position, making its stabilization much more difficult, even if the position happens to be sound.
With these fundamentals in mind, competent coaches should be able to create drills that teach athletes to perform the lifts well. Don’t be afraid to rely on existing teaching progressions until you feel comfortable branching out on your own; and don’t be original for originality’s sake if it compromises the effectiveness of your coaching and teaching.