Ask Greg: Issue 91
Greg Everett

Jessica Asks: I've been religiously watching your videos for about a month now and am amazed at the speed at which Aimee gets under the bar!! I’m still a novice at Olympic lifting but have been doing CrossFit here in Miami for over three years. I know she has a huge amount of experience and training but are there any exercises and or techniques that will improve my speed in that area?

Greg Says
: There two main things to consider when we’re talking about speed in the Olympic lifts. First is the obvious: being able to make your muscles contract at a high rate of speed, which makes the associated joint(s) move at a similarly high rate of speed. The second is the speed of changing the direction of movement during the snatch, clean or jerk, i.e. transitioning from moving the body up to moving the body down. This is not really related to the rate of muscle contraction directly, but is a function of timing and skill.

The rate of muscular contraction can be trained of course, but much of an individual’s speed is simply genetic, the result of factors like muscle fiber type dominance, anatomical differences that improve mechanics, neurological function, etc. In any case, there is certainly a genetic ceiling on maximal speed characteristics irrespective of training methodology. This is where truly elite athletes come from: individuals who are genetically predisposed to being excellent at certain physical tasks and who then put in the time and work to develop those innate abilities to their absolute maximal degree.

The skill element I mentioned can be influenced much more by training. There are certainly genetic limitations on motor learning and skill development, but quite a bit can be done to improve on what you have. Much of the appearance of speed in the Olympic lifts is less from the speed of muscle contraction (e.g. the actual extension of the body to elevate the bar) and more from the speed at which the lifter switches from lifting the bar to pulling himself under it. This is what creates the sense of explosion.

In order to maximize this element of the lifts (which is arguably more important that the actual upward speed of the bar), you need to optimize the mechanics of the lift and your timing in executing each segment of the total movement. This means ensuring proper balance and position during the pulling phase of the lift, using your body appropriately by relying on your lower body to accelerate the barbell upward and not interfering with a tense upper body, keeping the barbell in as close to the body as possible and making sure it contacts completely and at the correct time and location (all of this applies to the jerk but obviously you need to change the details).

So the summary of the above is simply: learn the lifts well and continue the pursuit of technical mastery, and along with that will come continually improving speed.

One of the most overlooked elements of weightlifting that will contribute to the appearance of speed (and the success) of your lifts is the pull (or push) under the bar. The pull under the bar in the snatch and clean and the push under the bar in the jerk must be just as violent and aggressive as the upward acceleration of the bar that precedes it. Incidentally, this is largely why Aimee looks so fast when she snatches—she moves under the bar extremely quickly.

There are ways to train that will help improve both of the elements of speed described above. Lifts from high blocks or hang positions and power variations are the most common ways to work on speed; all of these exercises will help improve the actual rate of force development and help you improve your timing and technique in various ways. Hang and block lifts can also strengthen the pull under, as can high-pulls, muscle snatches and cleans, and tall snatches and cleans.

Finally, it’s important to keep in mind that if you’re training specifically to improve speed, you need to load the exercise appropriately. Depending somewhat on the exercise, this means in the 60-80% range. Remember that if you’re training speed, you need to train speed; stick with the lighter weights for this, and train the other characteristics with your heavier weights. For example, if you need to be snatching 80%+ in a workout (which you generally do) but want to spend some time working on speed, do a few sets with 60-70% first, focusing on speed, before continuing on to the heavier snatches.

Matt Asks: I am an older (37 not sure if this matters) and working on learning the Olympic lifts. I have been teaching myself the Olympic lifts from your book and the great videos on your website after being introduced to it through CrossFit. I am following the program on the Catalyst website as best I can (and not doing CrossFit at the same time, I read your caution in the FAQs) but have a few questions.

Mainly right now my [power] snatch or clean is far more weight than what I can do with a full depth clean or snatch. I think that it’s mainly a squat strength issue with flexibility issues contributing, especially in the snatch. I have been working flexibility in the overhead position as much as possible and really focusing on my front squat and OHS. My main question is, following the Catalyst program when it says xx% snatch or xx% clean should I just perform a xx% power clean or xx% power snatch at the higher weight, work on my full depth snatch and cleans at lower weights during my warm-up & movement preparations, and wait until my flexibility and squat issues resolve (this is what I have been doing) or should I suck up my pride and do only as much as I can get full depth on when the workout calls for an xx% clean or snatch and only do the power version when the work out calls for it? Sorry for the long winded question but I'm an engineer and brevity at the expense of detail is not one of our strong suits. Thanks for all you do to help and spread your knowledge.

Greg Says
: First, always use the heavier of the lifts to calculate your pulls and deadlifts (e.g. if you power snatch more than you snatch, use your power snatch max to base pull percentages on). In your case, you likely need to increase pull and deadlift weights beyond this anyway and largely work on feel.

Next, the primary goal for you is developing the flexibility and strength in the squat positions to allow you to perform the full lifts. This can be a pretty long and tedious process, but diligence and consistency will pay off big returns. No matter what the workout on a given day is, you need to spend some time in the overhead squat and/or front squat position. This can mean, as you suggest, warming up with the full lifts and then reverting to power when necessary, or it can mean adding overhead squats and front squats to your workouts with light to moderate weights—enough to make you work, but not so much that they interfere with the program and take up valuable recovery capacity. The more time you spend in these positions, the faster they will develop to the necessary degree.

I would also suggest always ending your snatch or clean workouts with a couple sets of the full lifts. Consider these back-off or drop sets—after you do your snatches or cleans (as power snatches and power cleans if the weight forces you to), drop the weight to whatever will allow you to perform the squat lifts and do 2-3 sets of 2-3 reps with the full squat.

Additionally, for all snatch-related lifts with a full squat (snatch, overhead squat, snatch balance, etc.), hold the bottom position for 2-3 seconds before recovering. This will help with the flexibility, strength, comfort and confidence in that bottom position. Don’t pause in the bottom of your cleans—you want to keep practicing changing directions quickly. However, when you do front squats and back squats, hold the bottom position on a couple of the early reps in the set, and finish the set with a normal tempo squat. (This is more important for the front squat because we want to develop that speed and timing for the clean; doing all your back squats with a pause in the bottom for a period of time is perfectly fine.)

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