Teaching Olympic Weightlifting to Beginners

Olympic Weightlifting is becoming more and more popular, while also being an integral part of CrossFit. These movements are extremely beneficial in developing power, speed, balance and flexibility with the athletes. However, teaching these movements correctly is a long, time consuming process. As a coach and athlete, I have been exposed to a lot of different athletes by visiting boxes, at local competitions (CrossFit and weightlifting) and during my weightlifting clinics, where these movements are performed. There is always one thing that stands out from the rest: Many athletes struggle to maintain the correct positions throughout the lift, which results in poor execution. Because of this, athletes are prolonging the rate at which they should effectively progress in their technique and risk potential injury.

Learning Weightlifting

Without going to in depth with this article, I would like to cover some of the basics from a coach’s point of view. A lot of us are familiar with the 3-position progression starting at the top and working our way down. I personally have found this to be the best progression for teaching athletes, and especially CrossFitters. At this point, it’s up to the coach to develop different cues that are easy to understand and get the body to do what it is suppose to. Not every athlete identifies well with certain cues, so it’s important to recognize this and have backups. If there were only one way to coach the Olympic Lifts, then we would all be doing it exactly the same and using the same cues. The goal is not to all speak the exact same language, but to effectively get our athletes’ bodies to produce the most amount of power as needed, while maintaining good pull positions to end up in a strong catch position. While there is no one size fits all technique for weightlifting, there is a general guideline for the muscles and levers to be used to produce the most efficient lifts.

stacy pp

When it comes to teaching athletes, I feel it’s extremely important not to let them do too much too soon. Starting with position one, aka high hang or power position, this is where athletes develop the basic movement patterns of driving with the legs, keeping the bar close and actively pulling themselves under the bar. The greater the distance the bar travels the more that can go wrong with a lift. So keeping things to a minimum really helps the athlete understand the positions as they go, as well as it lets them develop correct motor patterns. I see too many times athletes using their hips in the wrong manner that translates to the bar getting too far away from their bodies, and becomes inconsistent to catch at the moderate to heavy weights. Starting with the power position and limiting the athletes to this position really helps ingrain the vertical drive of not only the body, but the bar. You must think of your hips upper cutting the bar and not jabbing it. Ever hit your pubic bone during a snatch? It really hurts doesn’t it? This is most likely a caused from going the wrong direction with your hips, out not up. Will there be contact with the bar and the hips? Yes! However, I would describe it as more of a brush as you upper cut the bar. Now let’s not forget that this is not the only way to lift, this is just what I feel is the best starting point for beginners or athletes struggling to continue to progress due to the amount of success I have had with it. I have worked with many athletes that have lifted decent numbers prior, but weren’t moving as efficiently and powerfully as possible, so we came back to position one to “relearn” essentially.

I once conducted an experiment with a CrossFit athlete from another gym regarding the benefits of going back to the basics. I felt that I could take an athlete and, within 6 sessions, have them match or beat their PR (from the ground) from the power position. The outcome had great results, within 4 sessions the athlete achieved exactly what I expected. What I was expecting to learn and teach the athlete is that they had the strength to lift more weight with improved positioning and/or technique. So being able to match a PR from the power position was a way to show the athlete exactly that. If you can drive 3-4 inches and get under a PR weight just imagine what you can do with a little more acceleration on the bar prior to that position. The athlete also benefited by becoming more aware of the importance to take a step back to make sure technique is put before heavier weights. The first 3 sessions consisted of a lot of bar work and some very light weights. Once I saw the athlete could consistently move correctly I allowed them to add weight on the 4th session, and that’s when they tied their best PR. You would be amazed at how easy it is for athletes to mess up the power position, even though the least amount of movement is required to execute the lift. I always have athletes tell me they feel they do it better when they add weight to the bar. To me, it doesn’t matter how it feels, it matters how well you move through the positions. If you can’t perform a perfect looking snatch with a PVC pipe, then what’s the point of adding weight? Relying on a weighted barbell to move correctly does not train your body’s motor pattern. I find that hundreds to thousands of reps going through the position with a PVC pipes really makes a big difference in overall movement.

Now that we have the outline of the how’s and whys covered, let’s talk about cues and coaching this position. I always teach the snatch first so once they get it down the clean will be a breeze to learn, the jerk is a whole other project. I have the athlete start by standing tall with the proper grip. The grip I go for is to have the athlete’s hands wide enough to get the bar to sit at the hip crease. If an athlete dips, the bar should not move from that position. Some athletes cannot use this method due to body type or previous injury, so every now and again you will have to adjust for them specifically. Now that we have the proper grip, I will have the athlete dip 3-4 inches maintaining a vertical torso. The athlete should let the knees track forward but the weight will remain in the heel from the hips driving straight down. Most faults for this position will come from the athlete sliding their butt back, which causes the chest to drop. In this position you are almost always guaranteed to hit the bar out and away from bringing the hips forward since you can’t drive vertically with the chest forward. If the athlete can dip vertically pushing the hips down through the ankles, the chest will stay tall and give the best position to drive that bar vertically and keep it close. In the dip an athlete will have their feet slightly toed out and the knees will travel inline with them. This is an important position, so I spend a lot of time drilling athletes to get more comfortable in it. A cue I like to use is that you are scratching your back on a wall. Or I can use a pvc pipe and if their shoulders and butt aren’t both touching it through the dip then they most likely have dropped the chest and are out of position.

The next step is to get tall. Some coaches use the cue jump, I do not use that cue. I find that athletes end up going the wrong way too long because jumping is done differently how we are taught growing up then what is needed in weightlifting. I prefer to cue the athlete to push through the platform aggressively to reach full extension. Of course many coaches will debate this statement. However, I have learned from multiple coaches who have coached athletes to the Olympics and they have used both cues successfully. I just have my preference for the way I coach. Once the athlete reaches full extension they will pick up their feet and pull themselves under the bar and land in their catch or squat position. As they pull under I will cue snap the wrists and pull tight as if they are trying to pull the bar apart. I also make sure the athlete lands in a wide enough position that they have a stable base. Not too wide that their knees collapse, but as wide as they comfortably can while maintaining a good squat position. I have seen a lot of missed lifts due to a narrow catch positions where they lacked the stability to save a lift that otherwise could have easily been saved. There are a lot of other cues and drills I use to teach this power position but these are my go to cues. I feel it’s important to use the least amount of cues as possible and let the athlete translate them and see what happens. Some may surprise you and pick it up very easily while others may need some more help. A lot of athletes tend to over think the lifts, especially while trying to perform the lifts and that causes all kinds of problems. A person cannot think as quickly as they move so if you are thinking of multiple cues and trying to perform them quickly the result is usually missed positions and poor execution. On the topic of over thinking the lifts, I have athletes move as slow as necessary to make sure the can understand what it is they are doing. Once they get a feel for the movement they are performing I will have them speed up the lift but only as much as they can without making mistakes. This also goes inline with athletes that struggle to get under the bar, or the ones that power snatch everything then ride it down. A common problem is that they move too fast upwards and they cannot effectively change direction to get under the bar soon enough resulting in an over pull. To correct this I have athletes focus on only applying as much power needed to move the bar efficiently then focus on a fast turnover to pull under. There is no sense in extending like you are snatching 135# when you only have 65# on the bar. It only results in poor non efficient movements. So back to cues, I only use them every few lifts to make sure I find the common mistake they are making and that I don’t cue them on something that maybe was a fluke and they rarely make that mistake. I also make sure I cue what comes first in the lift. For example, I will correct your poor dip position before I correct your catch position if you made mistakes on both during a lift.

Once athletes have mastered the power position and only once they have shown consistency of the movement, will I allow them to learn position two (from the knees). This I will save for the next installment. When it comes to teaching the lifts to beginners in my gym I only allow athletes to pull from positions they shown competency in. If you are a new CrossFitter at my gym, then you will most definitely not being executing full lifts and will be started at the power position during the strength portion and the WOD. When it comes to my barbell club, I teach the exact same way. Athletes must earn the right to move on to the next position. It’s for their own good whether they fully understand it or not. 99% of the time my members have completely understood it and thank me for not letting them get in their own way of being successful at the lifts.

This video shows a brand new athlete going through the stages of the power position with me. Shown are his first two sessions learning the snatch. He was only allowed to increase weight once he could demonstrated 3 sets of 3 reps without being corrected. It’s hard work but it pays off immensely in the long run to be successful.

2 comments to Teaching Olympic Weightlifting to Beginners

  • Keith

    I use to be a baseball and hockey athlete while back and still use some of the strength training, my question is I am trying to help my wife get into shape and I know the best total body strength exercises are from olympic style strength training. I had been teaching her deadlifts, romanian deadlifts, and going up doing hang cleans, push presses, and finally front squats, is this a good way to teach her since she is a beginner or am I doing something wrong. I want her to benefit from this type of training. Thank you

    • paramountbarbell

      Keith, unfortunately I never got the notification of your comment, so this is a super late reply. As for teaching someone the olympic lifts I find that for mastering the technical movements (and building the motor patterns) of the body a top down approach works best. However, the approach you have been taking will work well for building general strength in the positions the body goes through during the lifts. So the article is written how I would teach a beginner the olympic lifts, but I also will run them through general strength lifts with lots of focus on squatting, posterior chain and core work. -Chris

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