Half Lifts and Trick Lifts? Flexibility and Weightlifting

Maybe you’ve heard something along the lines of, “bodybuilders try to look good, while weightlifters try to do good.” Perhaps you’ve heard weightlifters refer to the powerlifts as “half lifts.” Meanwhile, the power lifters refer to the Olympic lifts as the “trick lifts.” Have you heard the snatch referred to as “gymnastics with a barbell”?

Gymnastics with a barbell may not be too far of a reach. Gymnasts are known for their extreme flexibility along with their speed and quickness, which are all necessary elements of the snatch and the clean and jerk. Poor flexibility will seriously limit one’s ability to succeed in the lifts. Worse, flexibility deficits may prevent the trainee from even being able to make a reasonable attempt to learn how to perform what are very skilled and technical movements.

Of the critical elements necessary to succeed in the snatch and the clean and jerk, skill and technique are at the top of the list. Of course, strength is important, too, but at some point, if one lacks speed and the ability to hit certain positions, it does not really matter how strong the lifter is. Think of it in these terms; assume you are a novice lifter starting out from scratch. Which asset would you rather have, from day one: strength or technique? Most would say technique. Once the technique is mastered, you always have the potential to add strength, to get stronger. However, if you have technique limitations, if you cannot put your body in the correct positions, it really does not matter how strong you are.

Watch any weightlifting competition, from a local junior meet on up to the world championships. How many times do you see an opener missed, or second attempt missed, and the lifter comes back and gets it on the next attempt? That is not uncommon at all. So, what happened? They missed the opener, they got stronger in the next four minutes and made weight same weight on the second? I don’t think so. In fact, it is not rare for a lifter to increase the weight after a miss, in order to get a little extra rest between the attempts, or simply to stay with the competition. Obviously, the weight was missed due to a technical problem. If you think about it, there is really only one acceptable reason to miss a lift, and that is because it is too heavy. If you are strong enough, you should complete the lift.

While there are many aspects of “technique” for weightlifting, it could be argued that speed, flexibility and balance are most important – with flexibility being the most important of the three. Look at it like this: in each element, the snatch, the clean and the jerk, the bar is raised overhead or to the shoulders, while the body is lowered, at the same time, below the bar. For example, a successful snatch will require the bar to achieve a specific height, at a speed which will allow time to get below the bar and secure it overhead. Simple logic dictates that the lift would be easier to complete if the bar did not need to be as high. More weight can be used in the dead lift than the clean because for the most part, the weight does not need to be elevated as high. More weight can be lifted in a full squat clean than a power clean simply because you squat lower doing a full clean.

In executing the snatch, more weight could be lifted if the lifter could achieve a lower bottom position, because less bar height would be required to successfully get under the bar. Likewise, a wider grip will lower the bar overhead, meaning less bar height will be necessary to achieve a locked out position. Putting a bar overhead with a jerk grip will require more height on the bar than putting it overhead with the wider snatch grip.

In terms of flexibility, to maximize success in the snatch and clean and jerk, ankle, hip and shoulder flexibility are most important. In the squat position, limited ankle flexibility will limit the depth of the squat and have a negative impact on balance. Poor hip flexibility will also limit depth in the squat and as well as make it difficult, even impossible, to support the weight on the shoulders or overhead. Poor flexibility of the shoulder girdle will make it difficult to balance and support weights overhead due to the bar being positioned too far forward, placing it out of line with the torso. In the squat clean position, poor shoulder flexibility will make the rack position more difficult.

Improve Flexibility and Maximize Success

Let’s address ankle flexibility first. In the low squat, your knees should be in front of your toes, or, in other words, your leg should be at an approximate 45 degree angle with the platform. This will naturally bring your hips forward, directly under the bar.

I know, I know, in the squat, the knees should not go forward and the leg should be perpendicular. That is a topic for another discussion, but for our purposes, think about what that position will do with your hips. They will be moved back, behind the ankles and the bar, making any reasonable depth impossible as the lifter will fall over backwards.

Any exercise or stretch that puts the ankle/foot into flexion will suffice, but arguably the best way to train flexibility is to assume the required position and hold it for a sustained count. Some will, while sitting in the bottom position, place an empty bar across the thighs. This pushes the knees further forward, while stretching the calves and Achilles. Another simple ankle stretch is done standing, facing a wall. One foot is forward while the other is back, similar to a split in the jerk. Both hands are on the wall. The back foot remains flat on the floor while the knee is forced forward towards the wall. You should feel a stretch over the back of the leg.

As important as ankle flexibility is to a proper bottom position, hip flexibility is even more important. In fact, those with poor bottom positions often assume it is due to poor ankle flexibility when it is the hips that are the problem. The ideal position, in the squat, is the hips between the ankles.

If you were to look at a lifter, from the side, in the bottom of the snatch, you should be able to draw a straight line, perpendicular to the platform, through the ankle, hips, shoulder and bar. In reality, few lifters can get into this position. Typically, the hips will be slightly to the rear of the ankles, while the shoulders are slightly forward due to the forward lean required to compensate for the rearward hips, and the bar will be behind the shoulders so everything is in balance—ankles forward, hips back, shoulders forward, bar back. Of course, if the bar is not back far enough, it will be lost forward due to the forward lean of the torso. Conversely, if the bar is too far back, excessive stress is placed on the shoulders and it will drift behind. Add to the equation a bar that is pulled out of position and things get more complicated and precarious.

There are a couple of simple exercises to help reinforce an upright squat position. This first one can be used with either front or back squats. Take a broomstick and have a coach or training partner stand behind you. With the broomstick straight up at 90 degrees, your coach stands behind you and places it anywhere from six inches to a foot (or more) behind you. As you squat, you focus on keeping the hips from touching the broomstick. To do so, you will need to keep your chest up and push your knees forward, which will bring the hips forward, where they will be closer to actually getting between the ankles, directly under the shoulders and not behind them. As you improve, the broomstick can be moved closer to you.

Another common exercise is the freehand squat while standing with the back to the wall. If you stand against a wall, heels, hips, and shoulders touching the wall, and attempt to squat you will likely find it impossible to get below a half squat. Move the feet away from the wall, you’ll get a little lower. The intent is to be able to get into the bottom squat with the feet as close to the wall as possible.

Tight shoulders will prohibit a solid rack position in the clean and make it more difficult to fix the bar directly overhead. In the snatch, the bar, when overhead, should be about six to eight inches from the top of your head. A wider grip would bring the bar closer to the head, essentially lowering the bar. A wider grip makes it easier to adjust for weights out of the groove or accommodate for less than perfect squat or jerk positions. On the other side, a wider grip lends towards instability and places increased stress on the shoulders. You have to find the “happy median,” whatever works best for you. As most lifters squat with the hips slightly rearward, the bar needs to be back behind the head in the overhead position in the snatch. Decreased shoulder flexibility negatively impacts the ability to do that.

One of the simplest, easiest and best exercises is the shoulder dislocate. Done with a broomstick or PVC pipe, take a wide grip and move the bar from overhead to behind your back, keeping your arms extended throughout. Gradually, move the grip in and repeat until you cannot complete the movement while keeping the arms locked. Using an empty bar, taking a clean grip and doing an overhead squat is a great exercise for shoulder flexibility. Doing snatches with a clean grip is another one. The “Sots” press will help balance and positions, as well as flexibility. This is an exercise made famous by a Russian weightlifter, Victor Sots. It is a press done from the bottom squat clean position. Obviously, light weights are used, though Sots was known to do these with up to 160 kilos. Success will require perfect upright positions, balance, and ankle, hip and shoulder flexibility.

Even a slight increase in flexibility can add five to ten kilos to your lifts and it just takes some thought and fifteen minutes of work each workout. Better yet, spend a few minutes each day, even twice a day and see increased benefits.