Top 4 Shoulder Strength Exercises For Olympic Weightlifting
Catching a snatch and stabilizing a jerk takes tremendous overhead strength, technique and chutzpah. Fearlessness and loads of strength is the only way a person is throwing double body weight up overhead.
Right up front, we know that in the sport of olympic weightlifting there’s going to be a lot of overhead work. In competition, the first movement that needs to be executed is the snatch. The snatch is a ballistic movement in which the barbell travels in one movement from the floor to overhead. The snatch puts a lot of stress on the thoracic spine, shoulders and elbows. Overtime, issues can develop if we don’t manage our shoulders properly, if we don’t deal with mobility properly, or if we don’t approach training from a giant, holistic approach.
In the clean and jerk, the second (and third) lift in competition, the barbell travels from the floor to the shoulders in the first movement, the clean, and then the barbell travels from the shoulders to overhead in the jerk. Both movements put a decent amount of stress on the shoulders, especially the jerk. Now think about someone who has to run under a jerk that is too far forward, maybe taking a step backwards if the bar is too far past their hips in the split position. A lot of factors come into play. Athletes who power jerk or squat jerk are going to experience even more stress on the shoulders, needing tremendous thoracic mobility.
Olympic weightlifters need to be stable. They can’t just have passive flexibility. They have to have mobility. Think of mobility as the concept of having flexibility with active stability function built into that range of motion. That is where the shoulder exercises come into play.
For athletes to be successful long term in the sport of weightlifting, they have to have strong shoulders. They have to have healthy shoulders. And on top of all that, healthy, strong shoulders will contribute to how rapidly the athlete can lock out catching snatches and jerks. And so, utilizing the best shoulder exercises is imperative for long term success. Face it, to become an elite weightlifter, it takes years. It isn’t a one year, two year time frame. It is a 5+, 7-8+ year journey to build up the capacity to push for a senior, world or olympic team.
That’s a long time. Let’s look at how to maintain shoulder health and develop shoulder strength to have greater success in the sport of olympic weightlifting!
4. Bradford Press
The bradford press starts in the front rack position--the same position the athlete uses for a front squat or the catch in the clean. From there, the athlete needs to press the bar just over the head. Then they are going to clear their head, getting their elbows back behind their scaps and trunk, bringing the bar in an eccentric fashion all the way down to the shoulders and then press from behind the neck, back up and over the head to the front rack position. This is done rapidly, as if touching and going.
At Garage Strength, we love this movement for a few reasons. We love this exercise because it is an old school bodybuilding movement, but it is also creating a ton of time under tension through multiple different ranges. When there is time under tension, the body fatigues, which stimulates some serious growth in the upper back and shoulders. In addition, when weightlifters bring the bar behind their head they start to retract their scaps. They’re not even aware they are doing it. Their scaps will light up. People who struggle with this may start having little back spasms in their rhomboids. What is happening is they are being tricked into learning scap reaction.
Now, when the lifter goes back to the front rack, the lifter maintains and holds the scap retraction in the front position. This helps weightlifters from collapsing forward when catching cleans. This is huge for helping with trunk control. So not only is the bradford press going to help you build shoulder strength, but it is also going to eventually transfer to the athlete’s front squat and clean.
This is a difficult movement. Start light and add weight over time and those shoulders will get nice and swole. We recommend using these for four to five sets for nine reps on each side (4x9/9).
3. Taipei Pulls
This is a movement that Garage Strength stole from the Taipei lifters at a world championship competition. The movement is done with a snatch grip. The lifter lowers the bar to the high hang position and commences to pull the bar as high and as tight as possible in rapid succession. We like this movement because it helps build and develop the rear delts, the traps and it also helps light up the posterior chain which is going to improve the coordination of the athlete’s posterior chain with their upper body--a strong muscle is good; multiple strong muscles operating in coordination is better, stronger and capable of lifting more weight.
We’ve all seen weightlifters loop a snatch forward. They don’t get their elbows back behind the trunk. They don’t shrug properly. So not only will the Taipei pull build up the upper back, the rhomboids, rear delt and traps, but it is also going to improve the pulling position and finish. Now the athlete will be able to keep the bar tighter off the hip and, in turn, the bar will be in a much better position when catching it.
Athletes won’t have to try to catch the bar forward, really cranking the bar back, nor are they going to catch it behind or dive with that catch forward. These are positions that can lead to catastrophic injuries in the sport. Yes, we get that they may be necessary positions in the heat of battle, going for the podium, gold or win in a maximum attempt, but they are less than ideal and quite unnecessary in training for long term development.
Utilizing the Taipei pull will help the upper body be more aware of what the posterior chain is doing and is going to dramatically improve the finish. We like to use these at the end of a workout for anywhere from five to six sets of four to five reps.
2. Snatch Press (In The Hole)
We love the snatch press in the hole!
Right away, the athlete needs to establish their snatch grip. From there, they want the bar in that high bar back squat position right at the bottom of the neck. The athlete needs to think that if they are standing upright, that they are pressing straight and vertical.
What we have tended to notice is that a lot of lifters who are tight in their thoracic spine can be seen pressing in a manner in which their elbows actually rotate backwards. Not what we want. We want to think about the crook of the elbow pressing vertically. Not only do we want the elbows pressing vertically, we also want to have our shoulder blades hugging the spine.
Now if we are talking about the snatch press standing, it is nice because you can press and you can really feel where you want that bar to be. It is going to help thoracic mobility. It’s going to help stability in catching the snatch. We want our lifters to think about pressing to where they want to catch a power snatch when doing the snatch press standing.
Let’s go ahead and put the lifter down in the hole, nice and deep in the bottom of a squat. Lifters often struggle with this movement off the bat. That’s okay, start them off standing and then gradually put them down into the squat. Cue the athletes to put a lot of pressure through the heels and mid-part of the foot. Through the front part of the foot we want the athlete to think about grabbing the floor and, while grabbing, they’re pushing their hips down. So, the hips are pushing down into the heels and the athlete is pressing vertically, making sure the elbows aren’t going back, but keeping the crook vertical. This should be the position that the sntach is being caught in.
From there, the sntach press in the hole will train athletes how to catch snatches properly. Not only will the lift improve ankle mobility, but it will dramatically improve thoracic mobility. It’s also going to improve strength in the catch position. Not to brag, but here at Garage Strength we have had female lifters work up to fifty kilos for four to five reps. That’s strong, strong!
This is a tremendously hard exercise. Focus on the technique and start light, like super light. We don’t want too much bouncing in the hips. We want dynamic trunk control. We even recommend using this movement to diagnose mobility issues (for instance, if the chest is diving forward the athlete probably has poor ankle mobility). This exercise is good for building serious shoulder strength and carries over well to the snatch. It also teaches overall technical precision. It is also good for getting the shoulder to wake up in a warm up.
We recommend using snatch presses in the hole for four to six sets for anywhere from four to seven reps. Some programs we will do these for two to three days in a week--if this is the case, vary intensity; for instance, one day push the weight on the barbell, another day go lighter and another day use it as a warm up.
1. Scott’s Press
Named after Larry Scott, one of the best old school bodybuilders of all time. This is a phenomenal exercise for anyone with thoracic mobility issues, motor unit control or trouble retracting their scaps. The Scott’s press will force the athlete to retract their scaps. Some people will not only get a spasm inside their rhomboids but will get it in their traps and erectors.
One of the reasons this is such a unique movement is because there is no elbow extension involved. When performing this movement with dumbbells or bands, we want to establish the elbows at about a ninety-degree angle. While holding the dumbbells or bands, we want to get our elbows to rise as high as we possibly can and, just before the dumbbells would make contact, we want to bring the load down to just below nipple height and then back up.
This movement puts the shoulders through a full range of motion. It kills the rear delt. It lights up the traps and rhomboids. And best of all, it is going to get the scaps moving as effectively as possible.
A lot of lifters who struggle with the stability in the catch, twitching out, need to start hammering scott’s presses with pretty high volume, like four or five sets of seventeen reps, at the end of the week, before a day off to create lot of sarcoplasmic hypertrophy to increase the size of the muscles which can then put out a little bit more force and help with stability. It is also going to help the athlete operate the upper back as effectively as possible.
Again, this is an old school bodybuilding movement that is time tested.
Shoulder health is paramount to longevity. Being mobile and stable within the positions of the olympic lifts is tantamount to achieving success that takes years to come by. Keeping the shoulders healthy requires work and dedication, just like everything else in life. Remember to implement the old school bodybuilding movements like the Bradford Press and Scott’s Press to help keep those shoulders invigorated. In addition, utilize Taipei pulls and snatch presses in the hole to learn how to coordinate multiple muscles to not only get stronger, but become more technically efficient in the competitive lifts.
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.