Ever wonder how someone learned to master a lift like the snatch or the clean and jerk? I run into a lot of people who think athletes just walk in the gym with the ability to do these things, but the truth is far from that. Most of us learned these lifts through carefully chosen progressions and a long-term plan for development. Even those who stumble on an ability to do these lifts probably learned to squat and deadlift before they learned to do the more complicated lifts. Every single person has a different starting point, but to be honest most people start out with no ability to do these lifts with any load. We all took a serious amount of time working on basics of the movements first then added load as they started to feel more natural. Proper positions become so much more important when lifts become more complicated, therefore we must have some knowledge and experience with other lifts to have the physical awareness to perform a snatch or a clean and jerk proficiently. If we don't have any knowledge of how to perform a squat, we have no business snatching. This is where progressions come in. If I have an athlete come to me looking to learn to snatch the first things I look at are the athletes ability to press, pull, and squat. These are the 3 basic movements we will do repeatedly in the gym and if we develop a proper understanding of efficient positions these principles will apply to every press, pull, and squat we do. If we know the basic principles of proper positioning and tension the snatch and clean and jerk become much safer lifts and people can learn them. We get into trouble when people don't have the knowledge, experience, and proper instruction to achieve these positions. If anyone tells you the snatch is too dangerous, the truth is they don't know how to even begin training to do one. There is a pretty simple, well-known way of learning these lifts safely and anyone can do so. All you have to do is dissect the lifts into parts and learn the positions of each part, or a progression. Without progressions and a proper plan it is going to be too dangerous to learn to snatch, but if you can use your brain and master parts of a movement it becomes possible to do so safely.
What is an Efficient Position?
An efficient position is the most biomechanically advantageous orientation for the body to do a specific movement, for example when an athlete is squatting the most efficient placement for the barbell and distribution of load is the midfoot. Any variation in the load moving over the toes/balls of the feet, or backward movement over the heels will result in a loss of power production and the athlete will have to work significantly harder to do the same movement (because the movement is inefficient). This results in less weight on the bar and less improvement from all of your hard work. An inefficient position will also result in greater fatigue and reduce the ability for the athlete to do work over time. Proper balance, muscular stability, and strength will result in proper positions when coached properly. Load is a secondary result of learning the snatch or clean and jerk, technique is always first and is always most important in any lift. For new athletes it is a lot more important they understand when they are in position and when they are out of position in these lifts than to lift a new PR. As athletes grow and manage to maintain proper positions with heavier and heavier loads PR's will come. The biggest mistake by anyone who is trying to learn to snatch is to be impatient with the loads on the bar. It really doesn't matter what you snatch when you are learning. When you get a PR snatch overhead it only cares if you are in the proper position to receive the lift, and if you aren't it will let you know quickly. If you haven't taken your time to learn efficient positions you will immediately go to whatever is comfortable to you and probably fail the lift. The athlete that has spent countless reps in proper positions will default to a proper position and will (if strong and stable enough) complete their rep much easier, even if the load is a higher percentage because they stayed in biomechanically advantageous positions and have proper muscle recruitment to do a movement.
How Do I Decide What Progressions to Do?
The progressions are not an exact science and no-one has a perfect method of putting the parts together for everyone. USA Weightlifting has a great system of progressions for weightlifters in the American Development Model (ADM). The system of progressions takes the parts of the lifts that are most basic first and progresses to more-and-more complex movements to put them together in the end. The reason for this is to try to master different parts of the lifts before attempting to do it all together. It would take someone a long time to learn all of the parts of the snatch and progress in every area if we just snatched all the time, but if we focus on a part of the movement we can improve a lot more at that aspect of the movement than we could otherwise. I like to keep my approach to selecting progressions simple as well, especially at the start of a program. The first thing is to find the most basic movements that are a portion of the movement you want to learn, and these will be your progressions. For example to learn a snatch the first parts to learn are the halting snatch deadlift and the overhead squat. These are the 2 most basic movements that are a part of the snatch. Then we would progress to some Snatch Pulls and Snatch Balance, here we learn to go under the bar and how to use the hips to accelerate the bar upwards. Then would come powers and block lifts to learn the pull-under the bar along with the "catch" phase of the lift. Finally we put it all together and start snatching from the floor and working on complexes. This whole program we should be working on strength in the back squat/front squat and deadlifts/clean deadlifts after your technique work. The strength movements will progress from higher volume and lower intensity to higher intensity and lower volume as you progress with the goal of finishing your program as explosive as possible. Once again we can not always focus on 1 rep max strength. We have to vary what we do to improve and get stronger and by progressing from higher volume to higher intensity we train ourselves to do more work without fatiguing early in our programs, then we progress to more explosive heavier sets later on in programs. We also use progressions in accessory movements by starting with fixing imbalances and weaknesses early in programs to limit injuries, then progress by adding complexity to those movements or working on different weaknesses that arise as we train. To boil it down, you should use a progression in every aspect of your training. This is how weightlifters can get so good at such a complex movement. Without breaking down the parts and working on individual aspects of the lifts it would be nearly impossible to master the more complex lifts like a snatch or a jerk, and without increasing the difficulty of movements we would all plateau. Develop a plan of progressions to get you to your goals, it will save you a lot of time and frustration in the gym from not improving with all of your hard work. I can't think of a better way to close this than with one of my favorite quotes.
"He who fails to plan is planning to fail"
- Winston Churchill
Don't plan to fail.
USA Weightlifting Level 1 Coach