Saturday, January 14, 2012

quick lifts by bill starr

Add Strength with the Quick Lifts

by Bill Starr
quick lifts by bill starr

One of the best things about weight training is that there are so many ways to improve your functional strength. To me, functional strength is all that matters, for if you can’t use your new power in some manner, what’s the purpose of training? There are dozens of excellent exercises for the various parts of the body. There are also many variations of set-and-rep sequences. Some coaches believe in using higher reps and less weight, while others say that handling heavy weights for lower reps is the ticket to success. There are systems designed for the rank beginner, the intermediate and the advanced lifter.

All of the methods of achieving a higher level of strength fitness are based on some logical principal and, in fact, they’ll all help you get stronger. At least that’s almost always true. Individual variances play a major role in the process of gaining strength. The program that works best for you often depends on your athletic background, age, limits due to old injuries, ability to recover and the amount of time you can afford to spend in the gym. What’s good for the goose is not always right for the gander.

There are, however, some truisms that apply to all systems. One is that working your muscles and attachments at a faster-than-normal speed influences growth in a positive manner. Changing the speed of movement you use on an exercise helps jar the body out of complacency, a state it always seeks. Training with weights isn’t a normal situation. It’s contrary to what the body really desires, which is to relax with a cool drink and the remote control in hand.

Sweating and straining over heavy barbells and dumbells in a hot, smelly gym for an hour or more doesn’t fit into the physical self’s notion of an ideal day. Fortunately, we humans have some control over our minds, and that allows those of us who have determined that resistance training is beneficial – which may mean better health, more vitality, improved physical appearance and/or enhanced athletic skills – to make ourselves believe that the time spent in the gym is actually enjoyable. And, when the numbers are consistently moving up and we’re adding muscle and defining our physiques positively, it’s fun.

One of the sad facts about any form of physical training, however, is that eventually your body will adapt to the work being done and fall into complacency once more. When that happens, progress comes to a halt. Now, if people have achieved a rather high level of strength fitness, plateauing isn’t so disturbing, for in some instances they’re happy with their physical state. Even so, most are eager to push the numbers up and do something to kick their bodies into gear in order to make even more gains.

Changing the speed of exercises is an excellent way to jar your body out of a homeostatic state, but the approach has to be sensible, as many exercises should not be done in a rapid motion. To do bench presses in a snappy fashion or try to squat too fast is merely inviting injury.

The solution is to incorporate some exercises into your weekly routine that can be done quickly. In fact, they must be done quickly, as it’s the only safe way to perform them. There are a number of these so-called quick lifts, and they’re part of every Olympic lifter’s repertoire. That’s one reason why many who train for general fitness avoid them: They’re under the impression that in order to do any of the quick lifts you have to be gifted with better-than-average coordination, speed and timing. The quick lifts, they reason, are much too complicated to even attempt, let alone put into a weekly routine.

Not so! Some quick movements can be inserted into anyone’s routine, regardless of his or her current level of strength, background in weight training or even athletic ability. It is, of course, a fact that the more athletic people are, the faster they’ll master the quick movements, but even awkward folks will benefit. I’ve also found that many who seem to be rather clumsy initially end up doing the lifts perfectly in time. Keep in mind that some of the better Olympic lifters over the years weren’t the least bit gifted athletically. They achieved success in the sport only because they were willing to work hard.

There’s yet another common fallacy concerning the quick lifts – the belief that you must do them perfectly in order to achieve any strength benefits. If you’re aiming to compete in Olympic lifting, perfection is a necessity, but it’s not a requirement if your goal is to improve your overall level of strength. Obviously, the more precise the technique the better, for that enables you to use more weight, but you don’t have to do the movements perfectly to benefit from them.

There are two quick lifts I recommend: the power snatch and the clean & jerk, or in some cases just the jerk. They’re enough to start with. Once you’ve mastered the form on them, you may decide to add a few more quick lifts, but these will serve you well, for you can do them with a minimum amount of equipment and achieve the skills rather easily. Also, they’re safe, so you can do them in a home gym.

I should add that you’ll find a set of bumper plates to be most useful. They’re really worth the investment and have become affordable in recent years. A pair of 10-kilo, or 25 pound, rubber plates will enable anyone to do power snatches right away.

The power snatch works the back in a very dynamic way because of the speed of the exercise and the wide grip it calls for. It really hits the lats and traps in an unusual manner and is one of the bet exercises for strengthening the rear deltoids. The rear delts are extremely difficult to hit directly with any amount of weight because the bar has to be elevated very high in order for them to become involved. Most movements that work the rear delts, such as upright rows, don’t let you use much weight, but relatively speaking, you can use a considerable amount on power snatches.

The wider grip works the rear delts uniquely as well. Lifting a loaded barbell over your head brings them into play much more forcefully than any other exercise. What’s more, the snatch is much safer than some exercises used for the target muscles, such as behind-the-neck presses.

There’s an added bonus for the back. Holding a barbell over your head helps activate some muscles that are seldom used. Whenever I start trainees on power snatches, I ask them the next day, “Where did you get sore?” The answer is always two places – the rear delts and high middle back, both are hard to strengthen.

I’ve found that power snatches put less stress on the shoulders than power cleans, which makes them ideal for people who have some sort of shoulder problem or lack the flexibility to rack a power clean properly.

Power snatches fit nicely in a weekly strength routine on the light day, for they have built-in limitations. Compared to the other Olympic lifts, you cannot use much weight on them. They’re a very high-skill movement, requiring a high degree of coordination, timing and quickness, which makes them desirable for any athlete. I’m a firm believer that the more exercises like that athletes incorporate into their routines, the better.

Some experts argue that doing high-skill movements in the weight room doesn’t carry over to any specific sport, but none of them works with 200 athletes, as I do. My experience has taught me that when athletes learn to do a complicated, high-skill exercise, using a decent amount of weight, the skill is very transferable – even in sports such as tennis and fencing, which don’t put as much emphasis on strength as some of the others.

Even if you aren’t weight training for an athletic endeavor, though, the power snatch is still a great exercise because it works so many useful muscles in an entirely different manner from other exercises. Many trainees find they can’t snap the weights dynamically to the locked-arms position, especially when they put some weight on the bar. The bar sticks at eye level, and they end up having to press it to arm’s length.

Power snatches are beneficial even if your form isn’t perfect. Of course, if your form is so sloppy that you risk injury, then you should avoid doing power snatches; but, if you’re pulling the bar correctly off the floor, keeping it close to your body through the middle and trying to snap it overhead, it will serve you well, for you’ll be working the same muscles the Olympic lifters work. Just keep in mind that by definition a high-skill exercise requires more patience and perseverance than a basic, simple movement.

The main thing is to keep the line of pull right. If the bar tends to pause at eye level when the weight gets heavy and you’re forced to press it out, that’s okay, even desirable. At that point the exercise becomes a combination movement, and I like to put as many of those as I can into a strength program. I have beginners start with light weights until they can do power snatches in decent form. By that I mean they keep the bar close to their bodies and snap it to the locked-arms position. After they learn how to do the lift correctly, with any amount of weight, I have them start increasing the poundage.

Eventually, they’ll get to a weight that they cannot snap to lockout but have to press out to the finish. I encourage that, for it really works the shoulders and back. On the final rep of the heavier sets I always have them hold the barbell over their heads for at least five seconds, longer if they can. That’s the icing on the cake, as it forces the muscles of the shoulders, back, hips and legs to work in a new way.

As mentioned above, the power snatch – and that includes the version where you press out your heavier sets – fits nicely into a weekly routine on the light day. That may be Tuesday on a four-day schedule or Wednesday on a three-day plan. For example, if you do deadlifts on Monday, you can come back the very next day and do power snatches because the weight used in the quick lift is relatively light. Lifters who handle 315x5 on their deadlifts will usually handle 155 or 165x3 on power snatches. Note that I said three reps, for after a couple of warmup sets of five reps or more, you should do all the sets of a quick movement in triples. With a high-skill movement the exercise isn’t as effective once your form starts to falter, so low reps help prevent you from breaking form.

Doing power snatches with 155 after deadlifting 315 isn’t all that demanding, but over several months the numbers will add up and help to increase your total workload appreciably. Plus, there isn’t any pressure to keep moving the weights up on the power snatch. It will plateau and stay there for some time – which isn’t a point of concern unless you happen to be an Olympic weightlifter. On the days when the bar is really jumping, you can move the top-end sets up and add a few extra sets, but on days when you feel extra tired and your coordination is off, you can handle less weight and just concentrate on doing the movement as correctly as you can.

How To Perform The Power Snatch

Assume your basic foot stance. If you aren’t sure what that should be, try this approach. Stand on the lifting platform, shut your eyes and place your feet as if you’re about to do a standing broad jump. That’s the right foot spacing, for it will give you the most thrust. Your grip will be very wide. Using an Olympic bar, place your ring finger on the outside of the score on each side. If you don’t have the benefit of an Olympic bar or your bar isn’t scored, experiment. Wider is better than too close, but if your grip is too wide, the lift might irritate your shoulders. Try some different grips until you find the one that serves you best.

When pulling with the wider grip, many people have a tendency to round their backs. Before you break the bar off the floor, concentrate on getting your back very flat. You can accomplish that by pulling your shoulder blades tightly together, which will flatten your upper back. When that area is tight and flat, the rest will follow.

Perhaps the most important point to remember when doing power snatches is to keep the bar close to your body throughout the movement – as in ridiculously close. The bar must travel right up to shins, be close enough in the middle to hit your belt – which you shouldn’t be wearing, by the way – and tucked in tightly at the top, so tightly that it brushes your chest on the way up. In other words, it can never be too close.

It’s a good idea during the learning phase to start the bar off the floor rather delicately, as opposed to quickly. When people try to hurry the bar off the floor, they usually bend their arms in the process. That’s another key point: Your arms must stay straight until the bar has passed your midsection. If your elbows bend too soon, you won’t have any snap at the finish, where you need it most. That’s one of the hardest things to learn. Feel your traps shrug before you bend your arms. The traps will elevate the bar, and then you can use your arms and shoulders to drive it overhead. Most people worry too much about getting the bar in proper position overhead. Don’t be overly concerned at first. Just get it overhead, lock out your arms firmly, lower the bar and do the next rep. Eventually, you’ll become more exact. When the bar is fixed overhead, it should be slightly back. If you could draw a line from the back of your head upward, that’s where the bar should be. It’s the strongest overhead position, for it places the bar directly over your spine and hips.

Be cautious when lowering the bar back to the floor. Beginners almost always round their backs far too much. First lower the bar back to your hips, cradling it in your lap momentarily before placing it on the floor. Don’t bounce the plates off the floor on the reps. Stop at the bottom and reset your back so that you do each rep as correctly as possible.

Try to think of this exercise as a whip. It starts slowly, then picks up speed until at the very conclusion the bar is a blur. You’re trying to throw the bar upward. Once it’s locked out, hold it momentarily, and you’ll feel it working your back in a way nothing else does. Stay with a light weight until you get the form down. Your form doesn’t have to be perfect, just functional. Then you can run the poundages up and on the heavier sets press out the weights. Some days you may want to stay light and do snappy movements for all your sets. I usually recommend 2 sets of 5 as warmups, then 4 or more sets of 3, working up to a max poundage. Many trainees like to take the same top-end weight for 3 to 5 sets. When the can handle that easily, they move the numbers up the next time they do power snatches.

The other quick lift I believe is useful for people who want to develop their overall strength, particularly athletes, is the clean and jerk or jerk. If you can power clean and jerk, fine; if not, then the jerk portion of the exercise still has value. The jerk is one of the few exercises for the shoulder girdle that you can do in a dynamic fashion. Push presses fit into that category, too, as do push jerks; however, it’s a bad idea to attempt to do flat benches, inclines or even overhead military presses extremely fast, for that always causes problems. Jerking a weight overhead, on the other hand, is something you can do explosively. If fact, you have to do it explosively, or it isn’t really a jerk.

Whenever I suggest that people should insert this lift into their routines, they usually balk, stating that it’s much too complicated. That isn’t true, for I’ve found that the jerk is really a natural movement for most trainees – once they’ve been taught correct form. Like the power snatch, it really helps to strengthen the back muscles that support the weight overhead. I like this exercise, for it makes you call upon many athletic qualities: coordination, timing and foot speed. It is, without a doubt, one of the very best exercises in all of weightlifting for enhancing foot speed. That makes it ideal for all athletes, but especially those who rely on quick feet, such as shot putters and interior linemen in football.

Jerking a weight overhead is a unique movement. It requires that you change your mental keys in the middle of the exercise. You have to think about thrusting the bar upward forcefully, then instantly shift your concentration into your feet so they’ll respond correctly. If your timing is off, the lift usually fails. As with the power snatch, I allow a bit of pressing out of the bar at the top on jerks, but, in fact, when the weigh gets heavy, if you don’t jerk it in the proper groove, there’s really little chance of actually pressing it out. The line on the heavier weights is most precise.

When people insert the jerk into their routine, they almost always find that they’re unable to support much weight overhead. That’s a good discovery, as it indicates that there’s a weak area in their structure. In a short period of time the weaker area, usually in the upper back, will become stronger, and that newfound strength will have a positive effect on all other shoulder exercises.

If people can power clean without any difficulty, I have them power clean a weight, then jerk it. That’s because it’s actually easier to jerk a weigh after cleaning it than it is to take it from a rack and jerk it. Eventually, though, you’ll need to do the jerks from a rack, for most people can handle much more weight on the jerk than they can power clean.

Where should you put the jerks in your weekly program? You must do them on a day when you’re fresh. Since they’re a high-skill exercise, it’s a mistake to attempt to do them when you’re tired. You should do them on your heavy day or, if they fit well for you, on your medium days. As with the power snatches, you can do the first few sets for 5 reps to warm up, then drop the reps to 3. Also a with the power snatches, there’s no pressure to move the weights up every week. On perky days you can handle more than on droopy ones, but you’ll be rewarded regardless.

How To Perform The Jerk

I’ve found that the jerk comes naturally for most people. Once they’ve been taught the correct form, they do it rather easily. If you can clean a weight without the movement’s bothering your elbows or shoulders, start out doing that. Eventually, though, you should move to the rack to do the heavier jerks, for that will enable you to concentrate on your form.

The first step is to spend a bit of time stretching your shoulder girdle. Very few people have the necessary flexibility to rack a barbell on their shoulders right away. That’s often discouraging, but it shouldn’t be, for in a matter of a few weeks almost everyone can acquire the needed flexibility. It’s simply a matter of spending some time stretching out your shoulders, which you can do at home. Lift your elbows upward while pressing down on your hand, guiding it gently back towards your shoulder. Prior to doing any jerks, set a bar inside the power rack and stretch out your elbows and shoulders.

I also allow beginners and anyone who doesn’t plan on entering an Olympic meet to place a towel around their necks when learning to perform the jerk. That provides a helpful cushion, but once you achieve adequate flexibility, you have to lose the towel.

With the bar locked tightly to your front deltoids, take it off the rack. You should learn to elevate your shoulder girdle slightly so the bar rests on your front delts, not on your collarbones. Your elbows should be set in the same position they’d be in if you were planning on overhead pressing the weight. Some trainees like to put them a bit higher.

Once the bar is firmly in place, take a short dip, less than a quarter squat. Don’t go too low, for that will carry you out of position, but a short dip will give you a powerful upward thrust. Drive the bar upward, very close to your face. It should nearly touch your chin. While the bar is flying upward, you move your feet. It’s just a quick split, with one foot moving in front. Which foot you shift to the front is up to you. One side will feel much more natural than the other, like being right-handed or left-handed.

At this point the time factor becomes important. The instant the bar hits the lockout position , your feet slam into the floor. Any deviation will adversely affect the success o the lift, especially when you use heavy weights.

As for the all-important foot position, you begin the jerk with your feet in the same strong thrusting position you use for the power snatch, which is typically a bit narrower than shoulder width. When you drive the bar upward, you rise high on your toes. That serves two purposes: It helps elevate the bar higher, and it enables you to move faster. You can split more readily when you’re on your toes than when you’re flat-footed. Your front foot travels about a foot, while your rear foot goes much farther. With light weights the rear foot may only reach back about a yard, for that’s all the split you need, but when the weights get heavy, the rear foot will have to go so far back that the final split resembles a lunge. It’s not a deep lunge, however, for too deep a split isn’t recommended. As in a lunge, your rear foot should be on its toes.

The real success with the jerk is to get a strong upward thrust, for without that nothing else matters. If you drive the bar upward with enough force, a small split will be enough to make the lift. Once the bar is fixed overhead, bring your feet back to parallel, keeping the bar locked out all the while. Reset and do the next rep. When the bar is overhead, it should be in the same powerful position I mentioned for the finish of the power snatch – slightly back, forming an invisible straight line from your ankles, up to your hips and back through your shoulders directly into the bar overhead.

Lower the bar back to your shoulders deliberately; don’t let it crash. Use the same set-and-rep formula as listed for power snatches: 2 sets of 5, followed by as many sets of 3 as you can manage.

Most people discover right away that quick lifts are fun to do. There’s a sense of satisfaction when the bar hits the right slot and jumps overhead.

So, if you’re seeking variety and feel the need for something different to attack your shoulders and back, insert one or both of these quick movements into your routine. They’re great additions to any strength-training program.


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