When learning Olympic weightlifting technique there are key positions that need to be taught from the start and that all lifters should be familiar with. These are the start, hang, power and receiving positions. Some will pick up the key positions straight away, for others it will take weeks. Either way, proficiency at the basics is crucial. Solidifying the key positions right from the start puts an athlete – competitive weightlifter or otherwise – in a strong position to lift successfully, avoid injury and develop their own individual style.
Even at the Olympic level no two lifters will display identical technique. The more experienced a lifter becomes, the more scope for developing their own unique variances. Until someone is at this level of experience, understanding ‘textbook’ technique should be first priority.
Finer details of Olympic lifting technique, for example foot angle and hip height during the starting position, will vary from lifter to lifter depending on individual anatomy and mobility. However, the basics of the key positions are displayed by every lifter and that’s why, when learning, a long time is spent ensuring the beginner is aware of, and has solidified, these positions, first with an empty barbell, then with gradually increasing load.
Before we even think about positions it’s important to be holding the bar appropriately; a hook grip is used for the Olympic lifts. The heavier the weight gets, the more important this will become. Embed it from the start. Warm ups with a bar, pipe or broomstick should also be performed with a hook grip.
Key Points of hook grip
- Wrap your thumb around the bar
- Wrap your first and second fingers over your thumb to secure the hook grip
- Some people prefer to have the first and second fingers over the thumb, some prefer just the first finger
- Wrap the rest of your fingers around the bar
When learning the Olympic lifts, begin with a slow and deliberate set up and a ‘static start’ so you can get used to how the starting position feels. Develop a sequence you run through that brings you into the starting position.
Take time on each set up. Put yourself in a position to succeed by being aware of what you are doing, why you are doing it and what effect it’s going to have. You’re performing the same movement every time you lift, the set up should also be the same.
Key Points of Starting Position
Starting positions will look different depending on individual anatomy and mobility, but the basics are:
Feet and Knees
- Feet straight or turned slightly out
- Weight through the middle of the foot
- Knees are out and can be slightly ahead of the bar (shins may be touching the bar lightly)
Hips and Back
- Hips will range from being slightly below, in line with or slightly above the knees. This will vary depending on the lifter
- Back is rigid and neutral
- Tension is created in the lower, mid and upper back
- Arms are internally rotated and the elbows are pointing out along the barbell towards the weight plates
- Internal rotation of arms should not cause internal rotation of the shoulders or any loss of tension or positioning of the scapula/upper back
- Arms are relaxed and grip is strong enough to hold on to the bar, but the aim is not to rip the bar or create tension in the arms
- When viewed from the side the arms should appear about vertical.
Shoulders, Chest and Head
- Shoulders are in line with the bar
- Chest is up
- Eyes are looking straight ahead
Some people prefer to set up from a relaxed standing position (top down) and others will prefer to set up from a relaxed squatting position. Here is how the starting position is achieved from the top-down and the bottom-up:
- Assume your stance
- Hip hinge until your hands reach the bar
- Hook grip the bar and pull your hips down into the starting position, following all of the key points mentioned above
- Assume your stance
- Bend over and hook grip the bar
- Squat down into a deep squat, disregarding trunk tension etc.
- From here, establish the starting position by following all of the key points mentioned previously
The first pull will take you and the barbell in to what is known as the hang position.* This position sees the barbell arrive at approximately knee level and represents the end of the first pull and the start of the transition into the second pull.
The hang position feeds into the crucial triple extension of the second pull and subsequently a more upright position. It is therefore important to be in a strong ‘hang position’ as it sets you up for the rest, and most explosive part, of the lift. Olympic lifts are often taught from the hang position. The more familiar and comfortable an athlete can become with the hang position the better.
*There are several positional variations commonly referred to as the hang position – hang, mid hang and high hang. All are legitimate positions in their own right, but for the purposes of this article, ‘hang position’ refers to the position that is adopted when the barbell reaches approximately knee level.
Key Points of Hang Position
- Barbell is positioned at or just above the knee, after having been pulled slightly back towards the body during the first pull
- Weight is shifted to the back half of your foot
- Knees are out and extended (not locked straight)
- The angle of the torso, relative to the floor, is pretty much the same as it was in the starting position. In other words, your torso is not yet upright and your…
- Shoulders are slightly over (in front of) the barbell
- Arms are still ‘relaxed’ (passively extended). You should be gripping the bar as tightly as is required but without tearing it in half or actively create tension in the arms, doing so will create problems later in the lift
The power position is a particularly important position for beginners and is often drilled extensively as part of warm ups. It is from this position that you will complete the triple extension and begin your relocation under the bar to receive it. Generating the explosive power required for a successful lift comes from the power position and many coaches describe this position as the absolute key, often coaching familiarity with it before anything else.
In the power position the knees have ‘re-bended’ or ‘scooped under’ the barbell and the torso is approximately vertical. It can feel unnatural at first due to the combination of the torso being upright and the knees being forward; this combination is generally one to avoid when performing other resistance training exercises such as squats and deadlifts. However, for Olympic lifts it is a necessary position and natural part of the movement.
The power position is often used as the starting position when working on other aspects of the lifts, such as the third pull, and helps make sure the lifter doesn’t rise up on to the balls of the feet too early – the aim is to stay flat footed as long as possible, as this prolongs the time spent pushing into the floor and thus generating upward force, which is crucial during the first two pulls of the Olympic lifts.
Key Points of the Power Position
- Tall and upright posture
- Feet are flat on the ground with your weight evenly distributed as it has now begun shifting from the heels to the balls of the foot
- Knees are out, slightly bent and forward (after having ‘re-bended’)
- Hips are approximately vertical
- Barbell positioned close to body and at the crease of hips (snatch grip) or upper thighs (clean grip)
- Arms still relaxed and internally rotated (bony points of elbow facing out towards the weight plates on the end of the barbell)
A lifter should be comfortable with the positions in which they receive the bar prior to learning the Olympic lifts. Transitioning into a deep front or overhead squat under the demands of speed and load is very challenging and someone who cannot front or overhead squat from a standstill is going to struggle with full cleans and snatches.
This doesn’t mean that the lifter can’t or shouldn’t learn to Olympic lift, it just means that they will likely only be able to power snatch/clean initially until their mobility and motor control is sufficient for them to adopt the receiving positions. Basically, as you would expect, it’s sensible ensure you can front and overhead squat from a standstill before you attempt to move explosively into these positions and ‘catch’ a loaded barbell.
Moving quickly into the receiving positions can be practiced with no barbell and then an unloaded barbell. Get used to landing your feet in the same position each time. This will provide the maximum stability and put you in the strongest position to squat the bar up.
Landing with the feet in awkward positions (excessively wide, one forward one back etc.) will put you in a weak position for squatting the bar up and will also place strain on your joints. That said, it’s difficult to land in precisely the same point each time, so be aware there will be slight variations in landing stance, these variations should be slight and consistent though.
Key Points of Receiving Positions
- Aim to land feet in same position every time
- Land flat footed (not toes then mid foot then heels or vice versa)
- Knees out and torso upright. The receiving position should look strong and stable, as it would in a quality front or overhead squat
- Punch the elbows forward (clean) and up (snatch) during the transition into the receiving position
- Try to avoid jumping forward or back when learning. Aim to keep your feet in the same horizontal plane as they started, albeit in a wider stance
When learning the Olympic lifts it’s important to get familiar with the key positions. Use the warm ups to drill these positions with an unloaded barbell, repeating and pausing at each position to create familiarity and provide a feel for the correct postures. Start off by transitioning slowly between the positions and then pick up the speed as positional sense improves. Increase the load gradually and always focus on the technique. Rushing into loading the barbell will only create problems further down the line; it’s easier to establish good patterns from the start than have to unwire bad ones that have been embedded after months or years of bad practice.
Jon Reid is a personal trainer based in central Edinburgh. If you want to learn how to Olympic lift or want to improve your strength and power for sports performance then get in touch at email@example.com or via the enquiry form on the Olympic weightlifting page.