By Carl Valle
The most startling revelation I have had in the last year is the simple lack of appreciation for a great jerk lift from a well-trained athlete. Jerks have always been the second-class part of weightlifting in sports training, as they require a lot of technical proficiency just to even initiate the movement. Unlike the clean or snatch, the jerk has considerably less research and coaching information to promote its success.Jerks are second class in weightlifting for sports, as they require lots of technical skill. Click To Tweet
I have not used the jerk much in sports training, simply because it’s more demanding to do right and requires more preparation to get a return on investment. I have spent about two full months reading about the jerk every day and I’ve made some strong conclusions because of its usefulness and the risk associated with it. If you use the jerk in training, you will likely feel satisfaction from taking the time to include it, and if you don’t use it now, you may want to try it if it fits your needs. Regardless of what you do after reading this article, you will learn a lot about power development and skill acquisition from it.
Is the Jerk Valuable in Sports Performance?
Does the jerk have value in sports training to develop leg power? Yes, it does. Is it the best option or even the right option for the majority of athletes? No, it isn’t. More than ever, I use the word “optimal” with caution, because the best program is the one the athlete both enjoys and improves from.
The most common fault with the Nordic hamstring curl is the discomfort that many have behind the knee, especially at the tendons that attach to the hamstring muscles. If the athletes find it irritating, they are not going to care about fascicle length or other research. We made modifications and chose a few alternative exercises to resolve the problem, but we learned that athlete engagement in a program that works well is better than an empty weight room with the perfect program on the screen.
Video 1. The split jerk is not about the stance at the end, it’s about how the athlete applies thrust to get the bar above their head. Common errors in jerking include rushing to the support and poor timing of the dip.
Every year, the same debate continues as to whether an athlete should bother with Olympic-style weightlifting. My response is nearly always the same: It depends. Still, I would rather try than just give up too early.
When training for sports, we need more time and energy to prepare athletes, and we may be digging our own grave when we try to be more efficient with training. I understand the need for a faster and safer way to get to Rome, but year after year the analogy fails to connect with athletes for the simple reason of enjoyment of the process. Athletes need to train for years, and jump squatting with loads or plyometrics may not resonate the same in year five as it did in years one and two. It’s safe to say that the jerk is not necessary at all to get results when other options may be more practical at first glance, but it still has value and is more than worth considering.
When programming and planning workouts, most coaches like me will look at the competition schedule and work backwards to prepare the athlete based on their current abilities. While it’s a good idea for seasonal planning, I would recommend planning more for the end of their career and seeing if the training changes. When we went to the career development versus athlete development model, we realized training is more than just applied sport science.
Not all of my athletes clean, jerk, or snatch, but I am a fan of the weightlifting movements because athletes like challenges and simply ask to do them. I already wrote a general benefits of Olympic lifting article, but I didn’t really mention the jerk and it deserves its own article. The reasons I like the jerk more and more are:
- The jerk requires more development but demonstrates more robustness than most exercises.
- Jerks have different styles, such as split and power options, so athletes have choices.
- The jerk may not have the same peak outputs as the pulls, but their mechanical positions correspond well to sporting fundamentals.
- The ability to jerk well keeps the training and teaching standards of a program very high and forces a program to be honest.
Of course, other exercises like plyometrics, sprints, single leg training, power lifts, and even weighted jumps can work wonders, but that isn’t the point. The jerk is perhaps the best example of slow cooking an athlete, as a heavy jerk done right can’t be instructed by impatient and incompetent coaches. Plenty of athletes can get a heavy weight above their heads, but as the loads and speeds get higher, the jerk is a very honest exercise that teaches everyone to be humble.
Any Relevant Science on the Jerk Component of Weightlifting?
I highly doubt that we will see an “8-week Jerk Intervention in Professional Soccer” study any time soon, as very little research exists on the jerk compared to cleans or snatches. Some correlations have been made to the Olympic lifts, but most of it’s been done with the power clean or the whole lift. Since the jerk in competition requires the bar to be cleaned or pulled up, I have yet to see a study design that truly connects just the jerk and sports performance. Also, in order to study the jerk, you can’t really find a sterile training environment that has not done support lifts like squats and deadlifting to prepare an athlete.
Jerks are a tricky movement to study, as they are odd to isolate and not exciting to anyone because they are not easy entry points to team sport training. At elite levels, everyone seems to be chasing exercises to reduce injuries, such as the Copenhagen adduction exercise and Nordic hamstring exercise. While it makes sense to do what is needed to keep athletes healthy, every time I see teams play the protection game, it backfires.
Perhaps the best starting point with the science of the jerk is with Dr. Garhammer. His classic study on the power outputs of weightlifters is a wonderful step to cement the idea that jerks are not the dessert of the Olympic lifts—they are part of the meat and potatoes. The jerk may not be as impressive as the peak outputs of the pulling motions, but they are very similar to jumping activities. More than a decade ago, Dr. Lake and his colleagues published another great resource on the jerk, focusing on the kinetics of the movement and looking at the essential metrics such as RFD and loading rates. Kinematically, the lifts are similar to jumping, only with the knee joint and not the hip.Jerks are not the dessert of the Olympic lifts—they are part of the main meat and potatoes. Click To Tweet
The article on short-range power motions such as the push press, a movement that we can argue is in the jerk family, demonstrated the value of vertical lifts in sports training. Many of the same researchers published a similar article a few years ago, providing specific details on the impulse of the lift compared to other lower body exercises. The challenge with jerk research is the value of unique mechanical benefits, such as landing in a split or squatting pattern. In addition to the biomechanical aspects, the transfer of common loading protocols with jerks to athletic actions like sprinting and jumping isn’t very clear compared to snatching and cleaning.
As you can see, the science isn’t there to show a direct cause and effect or transfer to performance. Direct options like resisted sprints are easier to study, and simple lifting protocols are great if the athletes are technically proficient enough to do them. With team sports such as rugby and American football, I don’t think we will soon see any evidence, outside the more popular exercises, that the jerk is an advantage to performance.
The jerk works, and if it can be done, ride the exercise until it stops supporting power development. Overall, the physiology and adaptations to weightlifting are well-established, and the jerk is one tool that you should use when appropriate.
Are There Risks Associated with Jerks and Similar Movements?
Not taking a risk is a risk. The real problem is taking unnecessary risks. Even with all the hype behind anti-fragile and resilient training, we still end up seeing teams skip workouts or train so submaximally, it’s more recovery than stimulating adaptation. Jerks are not for everyone, and some frames and bodies are not great fits for the exercise. Heavy training can lead to lumbar injuries, shoulder problems, and even some issues to the elbow and knee, but if progressed right, the risks are not as bad as the naysayers would have you believe.Most of the problems with jerks happen when athletes aren’t prepared and coaches rush the process. Click To Tweet
Most of the problems with jerks are that athletes are not prepared to jerk, and coaches rush the process. The myth that overhead athletes should not jerk is misleading—it’s just that some overhead athletes are fragile and coaches would rather they get hurt pitching or playing tennis than in training. Heavy training accelerates the root of risk; it doesn’t increase risk directly. For instance, I wouldn’t have Neymar jerk, but I wouldn’t be worried about everyone in soccer. On the other hand, the rite of passage for jerks is so narrow, I would rather eliminate it than insert it with overconfidence.
Video 2. Behind-the-neck jerks require upper back mobility and positioning, as well as great external rotation. Athletes can do behind-the-neck jerks with a countermovement without jerk blocks, but with blocks, coaches can work on the rate of force development.
The two main problems with jerks are shoulder strain and lumbar extension issues resulting from the split position or the thrust coming from the front-loaded rack position. Both are highly individual based on technique and anatomical factors. Technique is often connected to dynamic posture, so some athletes are more prone to extension issues to the spine because of both their build and mechanics. Excellent strain research on the hip and knee during a push jerk compared to jumping sheds light on how preparation and risk are tied together in exercise selection.
If an athlete is in high lordosis, the physics of adding more load and extension can’t be argued by overzealous pain science advocates. The best experts on pain are focused on chronic pain, not injury pathomechanics. Why is this an issue? Posture in activities of daily living is not the same as extreme examples in high performance sports. You don’t see peer-reviewed research on jerk injuries with athletes outside of reported findings from the sport of weightlifting, and overuse syndrome is usually the problem.
With risk of injuries to the shoulder, the primary focus should simply be loading light enough to get in the repetitions without missing any. You can get a training effect by using a load much lighter than competition, but many athletes miss reps of the jerk because of faults with too heavy a load.
Jerks are one of those exercises that shouldn’t be forced, or systematically eliminated either. Click To Tweet
Lumbar spine injuries are due to anatomy and mismanagement of extension. Using a back leg with too much anterior tilting (coming from an overly straightened leg) is usually the cause of the problem. Flexibility in the hip musculature is part of the equation, but just like spit squats, the anatomy of the hip joint and lumbar architecture is usually the culprit with many athletes. Experimenting with a split or power stance is part of the solution, but some athletes have a harder time due to their individual anatomical structure.
If most of your athlete’s success comes from the shoulder, such as pitching or hitting, jerks may not be worth it, but look at javelin and notice that athletes who make their living throwing have been jerking for decades and still throw ballistically. Determining who is a great fit for jerks is a process of comparing risk to reward, and patient overload and teaching can neutralize or lower unnecessary risk. Often, an exercise is simply not worth fighting for, and jerks are one of those exercises that should not be forced, but not systematically eliminated either.
Important Technique Differences You Should Know
Jerks are not true presses, because the primary drive forces are not coming from the shoulders. Some presses accelerate the bar from the legs through the upper body, but a jerk is more of a lower body explosion with an upper body brace in extension. I still include pressing options with athletes to teach them to be well-rounded lifters and to contrast the feeling of a jerk versus a vertical press. You also shouldn’t consider jerks as fast pressing, but I understand how many coaches fall into that trap.
Jerks are unique lifts that athletes can do from the front rack position or from the back (behind the neck). Athletes can receive or catch jerks in a split stance or in a symmetrical power stance, depending on their needs and the preference of the coach. I personally like a split stance, as athletes tend to feel comfortable moving fast, but if an athlete naturally feels good keeping their feet and legs together, I am fine with that as well.
Video 3. A squat stance is much different than a split stance, but both have similarities with the dip and thrust. While the kinetic and kinematic data may look different, the general benefits are the same.
Split stances require the athlete to have rather even distribution of pressure from the front and back legs. Athletes need enough pressure to keep the center of mass of the system load (barbell and body) steady, as a heavy load will radically raise the balance point higher. A split stance is not a split squat—while they may look similar, the goal of barbell reception is balance, not the creation of a unilateral squat action. While there is scant research on performance transfer to sport in sport science, analysis of technique is very good with respect to load and the way competitors can revive the bar after the drive or thrusting period.
Video 4. Push presses can be fast or they can be strength-oriented, but if they are slow they are not jerks. If training for maximal strength, a leg drive can assist athletes that need help initiating the movement.
Due to the needs of sports performance, I don’t care about maximal load, but do think loads near the 80-85% threshold are great for athletes who want to add capacity to their power development training. As long as the technique is efficient in expressing vertical force safely, I am not worried about absolute loads, provided they stay in similar ratios as snatching and cleaning. The bar path must be vertical and not pushed out for fear of hitting the chin or nose, as most new lifters worry about head clearance.
Video 5. Jerk boxes or jerk blocks are very useful for getting in quality work because they eliminate the cleaning of the weight. While you can rack the weights after the jerk, the blocks provide a direct way of literally removing the heavy lifting and heavy landing of the weights.
Jerks with boxes or blocks are special to me, as I find many athletes who are great weightlifters will welcome a change as a breath of fresh air. Remember, jerks have some obvious but sometimes overlooked baggage: The bar needs to start in the rack position of an athlete. While you can walk the bar out from a barbell stand or cage, jerk boxes make dropping the weight a little more convenient for those doing higher volumes. Jerk boxes are also great for those needing plyometrics, and can be made to help with pulling higher than the ground if needed. A good set of jerk boxes is a cardinal sign that athletes are likely training and not just exercising hard.
Tracking Jerks with Velocity and Displacement
It is very difficult to use velocity-based training equipment to evaluate what is happening with barbell stroke from the rack position to full extension when jerking. Accelerometers and LPT systems like Tendo or GymAware only know change in length or change in acceleration. Barbell motion in conjunction with body motion is too much for one sensor to take, so coaches will have some difficulty deciphering what is truly going on.
For example, the horizontal movement of the barbell is only a few centimeters with competitive lifters, but vertical displacement is very reactive with jerks. Bar displacement from the ground and from the athlete are two completely separate measurements. With squats or pulling actions, the bar and the body are “dancing together” as one functional unit. Jerks are still dancing, but they are hardly uniform.
Video 6. It is not hard to appraise jerks, as the exercise’s finish is very obvious. Focusing on the dip and thrust with VBT options is far different, because the movements are short and very rapid.
So, is bar tracking impossible? No, of course not. But the bar and what happens kinetically with force analysis must be interpreted separately because they are not interchangeable measures, and that is a good thing. The use of force plates with jerks is fine provided that the athlete is power jerking, as split style is very hard to set up in a training setting.
Lab analysis is great for research, but most coaches want setups that have good workflow and don’t interfere with the comfort of athletes. Embedding force plates into a weightlifting station is great for the few, but a GymAware can provide enough valid feedback to make adjustments. Some slow-motion delayed video is great for those with a flat screen and smartphone, but using the video recording and playback is far more potent when working with small groups. Team systems should be near instantaneous, as the sheer volume of athletes and time constraints make individual video feedback nearly impossible. Regardless, recording does allow for dedicated athletes to review their training immediately post session if they have the time.The secret to the jerk lift is knowing both endpoints of distance and time with the movement. Click To Tweet
The secret to jerks is knowing both endpoints of distance and time with the movement, from dip to completing the lift. An athlete is technically proficient somewhere between the institution of the thrust and full extension, but from a power-generation standpoint, when the athlete ceases to push they are at the mercy of Isaac Newton and all they can do is work with the power they expressed. The jerk, due to constraints of the racked position using a countermovement, can’t be done any other way than by thrusting after a short knee bend. Pulling has plenty of derivatives; jerking mainly has two styles of receiving, but not with the propulsion of the bar.
Before You Add the Jerk into Your Program
The jerk demands a lot of training and patience to be polished, and if you don’t have the time necessary to do it right, don’t bother. It’s easy to place an exercise in a program and hope it works out because an athlete is talented, but jerks are not for the lazy or fearful. For many athletes, a good jerk will require more confidence than cleaning and snatching, and it’s best to respect the jerk lifts by making them a priority.Let’s not scrap exercises like the jerk just because they aren’t easy or convenient. Click To Tweet
We have a long way to go before we see an increased adoption of the jerk. Although I am still on my own journey, let’s not scrap exercises just because they are not easy or convenient. Sometimes the struggle is worth fighting for, and I believe the jerk is one of those special exercises.