Best Pulling Variations For Olympic Weightlifting
One of the key aspects behind hitting monstrous lifts behind the sport of Olympic weightlifting is making sure the weight feels light off of the floor. A lot of coaches love to focus on different movements: the back squat, the front squat--amazing movements that are pivotal to the sport of Olympic weightlifting. But oftentimes coaches forget to focus on the pull. They forget to focus on different positions in the pull. Next thing, the coach’s lifter approaches a heavyweight at a big-time competition and they Clarke the lift, just deadlift the bar because it feels heavy. This goes back to the fact that proper pulling variations were not implemented throughout the training program.
Here at Garage Strength, we have noticed that shorter limbed weightlifters really struggle with various pulls. We have tried to troubleshoot what pulls transfer really well to the position off the floor; we also have tried to figure out which pulls transfer very well from the knee to the hip. It is important to recognize that there are different areas that tend to cause different issues and need to be focused on.
Let’s look at four key lifts (and a bonus lift!) to improve pulling strength and positions in the sport of Olympic weightlifting.
4. Clean Pull / Pause Liftoff / Slow Eccentric
This will improve strength right off the floor tremendously. The athlete will begin by setting up for their clean. They will raise the bar about two to three inches off the floor and statically hold the weight there for two to three seconds, lower the bar back to the floor, reset quickly and go with a traditional clean pull. But wait there's more. After finishing the traditional clean pull, we want the Olympic weightlifting athlete to perform a two to four-second eccentric.
What this does is provide a lot more volume on the liftoff position. A lot of lifters tend to get pulled onto their toes with heavier weights. Having them perform this movement over the course of eight to twelve weeks, we will start to see the lifter drive more through their heels, engaging their glutes, quads, and lower back a little bit more in conjunction right off the floor to keep the bar closer.
Remember that we have to educate our lifters about the point of the pulls. Express what is the point of pulling from the floor to the knee. Let them know what needs to be accomplished going past the knee and what is ideal from the reciprocation point to the hip. Lifters have to perform these pulling movements with a technical mindset.
So, when doing the liftoff, the knees need to come back, keeping the bar back. When the clean pull occurs, again the knees clear back and then reciprocate forward as the bar passes the knees. Then the lifter needs to stay on the heels into hip contact and then finish with a big shrug and plantar flexion. Finally, the lifter needs to lower through the slow eccentric. Now typically, lifters using the slow eccentric will actually move the bar how the body wants it done. Then what we tend to see on the second and third rep the liftoff and pull are performed even better despite being fatigued. This occurs because the pauses potentiate the nervous system and the slow eccentric educates the body on the proper movement. The nervous system starts to remember and is educated on what the specific positions need to be.
Do this once a week for six to seven sets of two to three reps.
3. Deficit Snatch Pull
This movement can be performed on a two to four-inch riser (depending on how tall the lifter is) that provides enough room for the feet and gives ample clearance for the bar and weights. Having a plate under each foot tends to do the trick.
At Garage Strength, we really only like using deficit pulls with the snatch. We typically do not use the deficit with clean pulls. The clean pull can be so heavy and, because it is so deep, can put a lot of unneeded pressure on that lower back.
With that said, we love using the deficit snatch pull with shorter-legged lifters. Basically, if we can improve a short-legged lifter’s pull, they are going to be monsters. Short-legged lifters tend to be able to squat like monsters. By putting the riser, the deficit, increasing the range of motion, we can teach short leg lifters how to pull like long-legged lifters.
Now as the bar gets to the knees, we want knees to clear back, pushing through the heels and midfoot, grabbing with the entire foot, and once navigating through no man’s land the knees will come back through finishing with making contact just past the reciprocation point. Again, slow eccentric on the way back down. We are big proponents of focusing on a slow eccentric when lowering pulls.
The key concept here is that deficit snatch pulls teach short-legged lifters how to pull like long-legged lifters, transferring to their lifts very well. A lot of shorter limbed lifters want to push their knees forward and keep them forward off the floor. But if we can strengthen their hamstrings and posterior chain, we can take these quad dominant athletes and really start to enhance their weakness. As their weakness drives forward and makes progress, they will become better lifters.
Only utilize this movement once a week for five to eight sets for two to four reps.
Bonus Exercise: Single Leg Squat
We know this sounds weird, but we love using the single leg squat (Bulgarian split squat) because it hammers the glutes, hamstrings, and lower back, forcing them to coordinate and be stable. If athletes can do this consistently, they start to pull very, very symmetrically, improving their pulling strength off the floor. It is also a great squat accessory.
2. Pauses Below The Knee
Any type of pull where a pause below the knee occurs will improve pulling strength tremendously. When doing a pull the knees clear back and the bar needs to stay tight. If the knees stay forward, the bar goes around the knees and goes forward, pulling the lifter onto their toes. This doesn’t help engage the posterior chain.
Now if the knees clear back, the hamstrings will be loaded (quads as well) and set the lifter up for a nice cocontraction at the knee joint. Why we like the pause below the knee is because it helps beginner lifters, someone who struggles to get their knees back off the floor or a lifter who has been taught to spread their knees wide, having them pause below the knee for three to four seconds to ingrain and strengthen that position. It will strengthen the lower back and hamstrings.
The pause can be performed during the concentric or the eccentric. So we might have a lifter pause below the knee for two to three seconds then finish the pull. We might have another lifter who struggles to feel the movement pattern, we will have them pause below the knee (the beginning of no man’s land) during the eccentric.
At Garage Strength, we refer to below the knee to just above the knee (the reciprocation point) as no man’s land. This area, no man’s land, is the most disadvantageous position in the pull. It is where almost every single lift is lost, especially right below the knee. However, by pausing in that position, we strengthen the position and create confidence in the lifter, improving technique and confidence as well.
1. Snatch Pull To A Target
Think about where the sternum is located on the body. Where the sternum is almost always the height that the bar needs to be pulled to get under the bar in the snatch. Doesn’t matter how tall or short the lifter is, the sternum is the target point. Get the bar to the sternum.
Find out where that sternum position is, set up a squat stand, and put a PVC pipe across the position tied down by bands. The whole goal is to hit the PVC pipe with the pull. The big thing here is that the athlete will start to think about the pulling position with the upper body. See when the best snatchers in the world make contact, they finish with their elbows back, kind of like a backward upright row. So when doing snatch pulls to a target, we want hip contact and a big shrug with the upper back and the elbows flexing slightly to help get to the target.
We like having our athletes perform this movement pretty consistently when about two programs out from a peak. It helps the athlete feel a heavy load, giving them confidence in pulling it nice and high to get under it and hit big PR’s. Just make sure the athlete is focusing on getting the knees back and through off the floor with a big upper body. Typically we will do seven doubles or triples, and almost always, on the last rep, we will have our lifters do a six-second eccentric.
We don’t like to utilize clean pulls to a target.
The pull is an incredibly technical movement when performing the Olympic lifts. The ability to hold strong positions enhances the body’s ability to maintain technical mastery at third attempt weights. By using pauses, timed eccentrics, targets, and deficits, the pull can be strengthened. Not only will the physical capabilities of the athlete improve, but their technical mastery will solidify. And it won’t hurt at all that the weight feels lighter, giving the athlete tremendous confidence to pull and get under the bar.
Dane Miller is the owner and founder of Garage Strength Sports Performance. He works with a select handful of clients on building comprehensive programs for fitness and nutrition. Several times a year he leads a workshop for coaches, trainers, and fitness enthusiasts.