For numerous decades, the Olympic lifts (the clean and jerk and the snatch) and their various exercise derivatives have been a mainstay in many strength and conditioning (S&C) programs. Recently, there has been some controversy with regard to the validity of the benefits and the advocacy of including the “catch” during the execution of these exercises. While a formal instruction in the technical performance of the Olympic lifts is not the intended content of this commentary, provided are considerations for the inclusion of the catch during the performance of the Olympic lifts and their derivatives (i.e., power clean, power snatch).
I would like to thank Hall of Fame S&C coaches Al Vermeil, Johnny Parker, Al Miller, and Don Chu, and Coach Mike Gattone, Senior Director of Sports Performance and Coaching Education for USA Weightlifting, for their years of friendship and for all they have taught me about the technical aspects and benefits of Olympic weightlifting, as well as the overall training and coaching of athletes. I have included some of this information in this article.
The value of the Olympic lifts to enhance the physical qualities of both strength and power (rate of force development, acceleration impulse) is well supported in the scientific literature as well as numerous other educational materials. Publications by prominent researchers have compared the Olympic lifts that include the constituent of the catch to the pulling derivatives of these traditional exercises that exclude the catching of the barbell. Some of this research has found little difference between the two techniques, while others report greater performance potential utilizing the weightlifting pulling derivatives.I am not aware of any recommendations in the research to omit the catching of the barbell during the execution of the Olympic lifts. Click To Tweet
Regardless of these reported outcomes, I am not aware of any recommendations in the content to omit the catching of the barbell during the execution of the Olympic lifts. In fact, many researchers have recommended a combined inclusion of the Olympic lifts, comprising the catch, along with the pulling derivatives during the athlete’s training. I should also note that there are outstanding S&C professionals who have been successful utilizing the pulling derivatives without the catching of the barbell in the training of their athletes. Thus, the question arises, “Is the catching of the barbell during the performance of the Olympic lifts really advantageous?”
Prior to discussing the advantages of catching the barbell, it is important to recognize that no single exercise or exercise derivative is a safe “cut and paste” application for each individual athlete. If the athlete presents or historically reports a medical contraindication and/or orthopedic pathology that prohibits their participation in the performance of the Olympic lifts, the catching of the barbell, or any derivative of these activities, or any other exercise(s), they should not be a consideration for the athlete’s program design.
When presented with a contraindication for specific exercise(s) performance, there are likely alternative corresponding exercises that may be safely appropriate for inclusion for the enhancement of the same desired physical quality. However, in the absence of any exercise contraindication, why wouldn’t those athletes who are inexperienced in performing the Olympic lifts, including the catching of the barbell, participate in these activities as long as a viable process for a safe exercise teaching progression via an experienced and reputable coach is available? As with any other unfamiliar or poorly executed exercise or drill, the Olympic lifts may be taught, improved, and perfected over (training) time.
Exercise intensity is an additional consideration in regard to the application of unaccustomed stress, a requirement for physical adaptation to take place. High-intensity programming of any exercise also has the potential for vulnerability to the athlete. “High intensity” does not necessarily assume substantially heavy loads or maximal velocities but denotes an appropriate programmed level of intensity to which the athlete is unaccustomed. The exposure of an athlete’s vulnerability relates to all exercises executed with a programmed application of unaccustomed levels of stress (intensity).
During the sports rehabilitation and training of an athlete—especially during the training of the post-rehabilitated athlete—whether teaching a complex exercise, activity, or drill, including the programming of high exercise intensities, empirically the concern for athlete vulnerability is reduced if the sports rehabilitation and S&C professionals:
- Are aware of the athlete’s medical history, psychological state (i.e., the presence of kinesiophobia), and important environmental circumstances.
- Have an organized system of exercise advancement to safely and appropriately address and coach (teach) this undertaking.
Triple Flexion During the Olympic Weightlifting Performance
The discussion for the inclusion of the Olympic lifts during the course of the athlete’s training frequently includes the concept of triple extension. Triple joint extension occurs at the hips, knees, and ankles for the appropriate application of a directed force in such athletic activities as starting from the blocks, the initiation of a jump, etc. The same triple extension transpires for an effective application of an acceleration impulse during the performance of the Olympic lifts (figure 1). This acceleration impulse is produced with the intention of creating a high-velocity vertical displacement of the weighted barbell to overcome its inertia.
During these same conversations, the advantages of triple flexion are not often considered. Deceleration is a fundamental constituent of multidirectional speed to allow athletes to effectively change their state of momentum. High-velocity eccentric muscle contractions, along with the associated eccentric rate of force development (ERFD), are required for optimal high-velocity deceleration efficiency and effectiveness during such activities as landing from a jump, change of direction (COD), arm deceleration during throwing, stride leg braking forces at the time of the penultimate foot contact, and the transition of the lower extremity from the swing phase to ground contact in sprinting, to name a few.
The reversal of high-velocity movements requires the production of great eccentric muscle tension for efficient and effective deceleration, including at times the complete halting of the body and/or extremity(ies). The highest level of eccentric muscle tension correlates to movements that occur at high velocity as exhibited in the force-velocity curve (figure 2).
Many athletic injuries happen during the deceleration component of a high-velocity task including, but not limited to, landing from a jump, COD from a high linear velocity, and rapid deceleration braking-type tasks. The catching of the barbell transpires through a coordinated effort between the lower and upper extremities during a deceleration (triple flexion) of the athlete that occurs following an initiated high-velocity task (triple extension). Upon completion of the applied acceleration impulse, the athlete attempts to appropriately position themselves under the barbell by reversing their direction via a high-velocity descent and rapid change in posture (figures 3a and 3b) in preparation for receiving the barbell.
The greater the barbell’s ascending velocity, the faster the corresponding eccentric velocity of the athlete’s descent to assume a correct body posture for a successful catch of the barbell. Barbell velocities can be significant, and those for elite weightlifters that occur during the second pull of the snatch can be found in figure 4.
The initial high-velocity descent of the athlete that occurs prior to the catch carries on as the athlete continues to decelerate the “system” of the barbell weight in addition to their body weight to eventually assume a deep knee bend position. During the descent there is also a synchronous stabilization of the torso and upper extremities to catch and suitably maintain the proper position of the weighted barbell. The athlete then ascends to conclude the exercise in the erect standing position. The ability to decelerate at high velocity with accompanying strength and stability is essential to ensure a safe and optimal athletic performance when confronted with the required deceleration that transpires during various athletic endeavors.
Enhancing the athlete’s ability to produce high-velocity concentric (acceleration impulse, RFD) and eccentric (ERFD) qualities will also help to instill confidence in the application of force, as well as the acceptance of ground reactive forces. This is especially significant for the post-rehabilitated athlete who may present with kinesiophobia during training. Participation in competitive athletics requires the athlete to accept and redirect high levels of force.
Weaker athletes tend to rely more on ligaments for joint stability in high-intensity situations when compared to stronger athletes. Stronger athletes avoid a condition known as “ligament dominance,” a term coined by researcher and anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) expert Dr. Tim Hewett. Ligament dominance takes place when the knee joint (or any joint) is more dependent upon the structure of ligaments for stability than the supporting joint musculature while resisting high levels of applied stress. Placing an emphasis on the ligaments instead of strong supporting musculature for joint stability may often result in undesirable orthopedic consequences.
Deep Knee Bend Exercises’ Relationship to Strength Development
Conversations with S&C professionals include declarations that the same eccentric contraction progression (descent) of the catch, and subsequent deep knee bend, that occurs during the Olympic lifts also transpires during the execution of other exercises such as the squat. Squatting-type exercises provide similar triple flexion eccentrics that are essential for the athlete’s strength enhancement; however, these eccentric exercise movements do not require or produce the same high-velocity descent, resulting in the eccentric muscle tension and associated ERFD that is produced during the Olympic lifts.While squatting-type exercises provide similar essential triple flexion eccentrics as Olympic lifts, they do not require or produce the same high-velocity descent. Click To Tweet
As an analogy, athletes traveling at maximum linear velocities would have to produce a greater ERFD and associated eccentric muscle tension with a very short deceleration runway requiring an abrupt deceleration and/or stopping of the body when compared to the presence of a very long runway allowing for a gradual deceleration. The catch component of the Olympic lifts has a very “short runway” to rapidly reverse (decelerate) the athlete’s body position as compared to the extended “long runway” of the squat exercise, which is performed at a lower velocity of descent. The squat-type category of exercises, although important for an athlete’s training, does not provide the additional benefits of the anticipation of the catch or preparatory exercise movement to enhance barbell velocity prior to the athlete’s deceleration.
The Triple Extension Relationship to Triple Flexion
The execution of the Olympic lifts requires an appropriately applied and directed accelerated impulse to propel the weighted barbell in the proper vertical direction (figure 1). The triple extension that results from the applied impulse may be considered the front-side mechanics of the Olympic lifts, resulting in a suitable backside mechanics where a rapid descent and appropriate posture transpire to safely catch and secure the barbell during the clean and snatch exercises. An optimally executed triple flexion is directly correlated to the athlete’s optimally executed triple extension as is synonymous to the sprinting cycle where optimal backside mechanics is contingent upon optimal front side mechanics.
Ideal triple extension is not just about applying a concentric acceleration impulse to the ground surface area, but also ensuring a precise high-velocity reversal of the athlete’s posture for an appropriate and safe barbell catch, support of the barbell, and deep knee bend triple flexion exercise conclusion.
Exercise Preparatory Movement and Exercise Depth
The preparatory exercise movement is an important component of the Olympic lifts. Bearing in mind that the resulting eccentric muscle tension (backside mechanics) directly corresponds to the concentric barbell velocity (front-side mechanics), a preparatory movement prior to the acceleration impulse will result in a greater overall barbell velocity when compared to exercises initiated from a stationary (dead stop) position.
Dr. Loren Chiu, an outstanding researcher, former competitive weightlifter, and friend, provided me with an analogy of this preparatory movement component of the Olympic lifts years ago. In the sport of drag racing, the drag racer accelerates from a dead stop starting position, as a race starts from a velocity of zero. In comparison, NASCAR racers exhibit a preparatory movement via their established pace velocity while circling the racetrack. Prior to their attempt to pass the race car directly in front of them, NASCAR race drivers will initiate their acceleration velocity from a higher preparatory movement (pace) velocity. Thus, the race car velocity at the precise moment of acceleration is higher in the NASCAR vehicle when compared to the zero velocity of the drag racer.
During the performance of the Olympic lifts, the first pull is the preparatory movement that occurs prior to the greater acceleration of the barbell that ensues at the initiation of the second pull. The preparatory movement of the first pull allows for a greater barbell acceleration velocity at the time the ascending barbell reaches the same height as a barbell exercise initiated from a stationary position upon blocks.
In both exercise conditions the weighted barbell will eventually decelerate to a velocity of zero at the moment of peak barbell height. However, a higher-velocity barbell will achieve a higher peak height, and the anticipation of catching a higher-velocity barbell affords a higher-velocity triple flexion of the athlete to position themselves under the barbell. The preparatory movement of the first pull results in a higher-velocity barbell when compared to non-preparatory pull velocities, resulting in a higher-velocity triple flexion descent. This high-velocity triple flexion descent will only occur with the inclusion of the catch.
The exercise depth distance that transpires during the post-catch descent has a significant influence upon muscle activity. Relative muscular effort (RME) is the term for the absolute muscle effort as related to the maximum strength of a muscle.7,8 As an example, the RME of the deltoid and rotator cuff muscle groups of the shoulder complex would be lower during the task of placing a book on a high bookshelf when compared to pressing 200 pounds overhead. The gluteal as well as the quadriceps muscle groups are significant contributors to the athlete’s ability to optimally and effectively decelerate and redirect (COD) from high-velocity eccentric forces to high-velocity concentric movements. Greater exercise depth (distance), along with the associated applied barbell weight (intensity), has been demonstrated to best influence gluteal and quadriceps muscle activity.8
Exercise depth also improves and maintains joint mobility, joint stability, and the soft tissue compliance (flexibility) of the body. When performing the clean and the snatch exercises, the athlete assumes a deep knee bend position while supporting a weighted barbell. In the snatch, this deep knee bend position occurs with the arms positioned (extended) directly overhead. The overhead squat is a commonly utilized test to determine an athlete’s joint mobility and soft tissue compliance. The snatch mimics an overhead squat performance, thus maintaining both mobility and soft tissue compliance qualities. The athlete’s support of the overhead weighted barbell in this deep knee bend position also requires joint stability. Joint mobility, stability, and soft tissue compliance are significant attributes of the Olympic lifts that occur only with the inclusion of the catch.Joint mobility, stability, and soft tissue compliance are significant attributes of the Olympic lifts that occur only with the inclusion of the catch. Click To Tweet
Most athletic endeavors require the athlete to be able to frequently decelerate and change direction during competition. The athlete will only travel at velocities that directly correspond to their “braking” abilities. This is observed frequently in the sports rehabilitation setting, where the presence of kinesiophobia is prohibitive in the application and receiving of ground reaction forces. This is especially true in the case of the postoperative anterior cruciate ligament reconstructed (ACLR) knee athlete.
The inability to tolerate ground reaction forces has negative consequences for the ACLR athlete’s ability to produce high-velocity movements and redirect. It is very unlikely that anyone would drive a car over 100 mph if the car’s brakes couldn’t effectively stop it from these velocities. The clean and the snatch provide the qualities of strength and exercise velocity both concentrically (RFD, impulse) and eccentrically (ERFD), as well as the benefits of a deep knee bend exercise depth, all within the performance of a single exercise. However, for all of these physical quality benefits to materialize during this single exercise performance, it is necessary to catch the barbell.
Arm Length Discrepancy and the Snatch Grip
It is fairly common to work with athletes who present with leg length discrepancies, especially in the rehabilitation setting. However, there are also occasions, although less common, when athletes may present with upper extremity (arm) length discrepancies. When an athlete presents with an upper extremity limb length discrepancy, the snatch grip is a consideration for exercise performance.
The modified hand placement adjustment of the wider snatch grip allows the athlete to execute any exercise performance, including overhead tasks, while maintaining a parallel position of the barbell as related to the ground surface area. This is especially important when making the catch during the execution of the snatch exercise.
The Double Peak in Muscle Activation
It is acknowledged that intended exercise muscle activation produces both force and stiffness. Pinto2 and McGill2,3 have demonstrated that muscle activation and relaxation must be coordinated and precise to regulate movement while enhancing performance that requires both strength and velocity. As the muscle force generated creates a higher-velocity joint movement, the associated muscle stiffness slows joint velocity. Therefore, to increase levels of joint (limb) velocity, and in the case of a “striking” impact force (e.g., a hand, fist, foot, or body delivering a blow), the activation of muscles occurs in pulses.
These pulses are initiated by means of muscle activation, followed by a brief period of muscle relaxation, and conclude, once again, with muscle activation. This double pulse specific sequenced pattern phenomenon is introduced as muscle activity (force) initiates limb motion; however, as corresponding muscle stiffness attempts to reduce limb velocity, an immediate rapid relaxation transpires to enhance limb velocity. A concluding additional muscle activation then reestablishes muscle stiffness, resulting in an effective mass at the moment of high-impact strike force.3
Superior athletic performance has been linked to the rate of muscle relaxation in world champion golfers and Olympic sprinters5 and, yes, Olympic weightlifters as well6. Therefore, how is it possible for this double pulse muscle activation process of initial contraction (first pull), relaxation (at the conclusion of the acceleration impulse of the second pull), and second contraction (catching of the barbell) to occur during the execution of the Olympic lifts without the inclusion of the catch of the barbell?
The anticipated “impact” of the weighted barbell prior to the catch requires a second muscle activation and resulting stiffness that some coaches describe as bracing and stabilizing. The stiffness that occurs during the second pulse of muscle activity, resulting in a more effective mass, may be beneficial to enhance the ability of those athletes who commonly deliver a strike force (e.g., an MMA fighter, a football linebacker making a tackle) or better protect the athlete at the moment of receiving a strike force (e.g., an MMA fighter, a football running back being tackled).
Optimal limb and joint velocity is not only dependent upon the athlete’s ability to initiate high-velocity force (strength, impulse), “but by the rate of muscle activation and relaxation.”4 Coach Vermeil reminded me of the words of Coach Charlie Francis, who stated that great athletes not only activate their muscles rapidly but have the ability to relax them rapidly as well.
A simple analogy for this concept would be the cracking of a bullwhip (figure 5). The applied “double peak” wave observed with the bullwhip transpires with an initial muscle (activation) force peak (A) applied to the bullwhip, followed by relaxation (B), and concluding with a second force activation (C) to result in the high-impact force (crack) of the whip. The double peak force applied through a bullwhip is substantial, as a cracking sound is heard as the tip of the bullwhip moves faster than the speed of sound, creating a “mini” sonic boom.
The Body Position When Receiving the Barbell (the Catch)
As the athlete anticipates the “catching” of the weighted barbell by bracing and stabilizing their body, the lower extremity joint angles assumed (especially during the power clean) are very similar to the lower extremity joint angles that occur during the following activities:
- The initiation and application of a forceful impact to an opponent (e.g., boxer throwing a punch, football blocking).
- Accepting an externally applied forceful impact from an opponent (e.g., boxer receiving a punch, football linemen striking each other).
- Jump landings, as the catch may be considered and employed as a lead-up to plyometric activities.
The Split Jerk
Conversations about the catching of the barbell are usually linked to the clean and the snatch exercises and their exercise derivatives (i.e., power clean, power snatch). Fewer discussions include the catch of the barbell during performance of the split jerk.
The split jerk is an exercise that accompanies the clean (clean and jerk), or it may be performed as its own exercise entity. The split jerk, like the clean and snatch, is primarily a lower extremity exercise that starts via an acceleration impulse initiated by the lower extremities. As occurs with both the clean and the snatch, the execution of the split jerk also includes an exercise preparatory movement.
After completing a successful catch of the barbell, the jerk is initiated from the front racked position. At this point, the athlete dips a few inches by bending the knees, keeps the body erect (figure 6a), and reverses direction by applying an acceleration impulse into the ground by rapidly extending their knees to propel the barbell upward from its racked position on the shoulders (6b). The “dip” performed by the athlete prior to the execution of the jerk is an exercise preparatory movement resulting in high levels of peak power (6923 W) as well as mean power (4321 W)9,10 of generated forces by the lower extremities. What is just as significant as the power produced is the rate of the work done during the execution of the jerk.10 These forces are then transferred through the kinetic chain of the body to the upper extremities as the barbell travels overhead.
As transpires with the clean and snatch exercises, the athlete reverses their direction after the upward takeoff of a high-velocity barbell by rapidly dropping and decelerating the body under the barbell (figure 6c) to assume a position of an anterior stride leg, a posterior extended opposite lower extremity, and extended arms directly overhead (figure 6d). They should align the extended arms with the ears (olecranon of the elbow) as they stabilize the torso with the weighted barbell positioned overhead. The athlete then concludes the split jerk exercise to assume a bilateral erect standing position with both arms maintaining their overhead extended position (6e).
The split jerk helps the overhead athlete (i.e., pitchers, javelin throwers, volleyball players, etc.) enhance arm velocity. High-velocity deceleration (braking) transpires from the anterior extending lower extremity to conclude in a stable stationary position. Pitchers with higher baseball (arm) velocities were those who demonstrated the following:
- Greater stride leg extension.
- Higher braking ground reaction forces from the extended stride leg.
- Posterior directed landing (braking) forces of the stride leg landing foot, reflecting a balance of inertial forces of the body moving forward to create baseball velocity.
- The landing (stride) leg serving as an anchor, transforming forward and vertical momentum into rotational components.
- The ability to “drive” the body over a stabilized stride leg.
- Increased forward motion of the trunk via stride knee extension during the acceleration phase of pitching.
The split jerk provides the following benefits for the overhead athlete during exercise execution:
- Enhanced stride leg extension.
- Enhanced stride leg landing (braking) ground reaction forces.
- Enhanced stride leg landing stability as well as overall body stability.
- Enhanced eccentric rate of force development to decelerate and “brake” the stride of the lower extremity from an initial high velocity.
- Maintaining a fully extended (shoulder flexion) overhead arm range of motion since deficits in throwing arm flexion of 5 degrees or more have resulted in an almost 3x increase in elbow injuries in throwers.11
The split jerk can also play a significant role in the preparation of the athlete for optimal COD capabilities. The ability to change direction effectively includes the significant role of the penultimate foot contact. The penultimate foot contact is the second to last foot contact with the ground surface area prior to moving in the new intended direction.12 The penultimate foot contact serves two main purposes:12
- Facilitate the ideal body position for an effective push-off during the final COD foot contact.
- Serve as a braking step to reduce the body’s momentum prior to the final foot contact push-off for COD. This is especially important in COD angles greater than 60 degrees.
The enhancement of the athlete’s breaking force capability during the penultimate foot contact also ensures the athlete maintains a higher entry velocity, resulting in a faster COD speed with a corresponding reduction in in the ground reaction force on the turning plant step limb13. A reduction in ground reaction force has significant implications, as non-contact ACL injuries often occur on the planted lower extremity turning limb during sudden deceleration prior to the athlete’s attempted COD. The stride leg extension and associated braking force components of the split jerk are advantageous for both arm velocity and the safe and ideal COD capabilities of the athlete. The split jerk can only be performed with the inclusion of the catching of the barbell.
The Many Advantages of the Catch
Sports rehabilitation and S&C professionals have successfully utilized various exercises and training program designs to enhance an athlete’s physical qualities during their rehabilitation, as well as their athletic performance training. There certainly isn’t any single exercise that is “one size fits all” in the continuum of exercises available for both sports rehabilitation and training. Athletes are individuals who differ from each other with regard to their various medical, physical, psychological, and environmental circumstances, and training experiences. If there was one absolute best exercise and training program design, all sports rehabilitation and S&C professionals would utilize it.
Often, there appears to be a perceived exercise taboo, or assumption that certain exercises are dangerous for inclusion in an athlete’s training. It should be acknowledged that all unaccustomed training exercises and all unaccustomed applied exercise intensities present vulnerability to the athlete. We have rehabilitated many athletes in our physical therapy clinics who have been injured performing many various types of training exercises including single leg exercises, double leg exercises, and even the Olympic pulling derivatives without the inclusion of the catch.A professional’s poor judgement and inappropriate selection/programming of an exercise for a particular athlete sets the stage for vulnerability, not the exercise itself. Click To Tweet
If an exercise was truly “safe,” as would occur in the routine application of accustomed exercises and exercise intensities, how could physical adaptation possibly take place? What is truly unwarranted is a professional’s poor judgment and inappropriate selection and programming of an exercise for a particular athlete’s sports rehabilitation and/or performance training. These are the conditions that set the stage for vulnerability, not the exercise itself.
The intent of this article was to present the benefits of the catch component of the Olympic lifts for consideration and inclusion during the training of athletes. The Olympic lifts, as well as the catching of the barbell, provide many advantages for an athlete, as shown in figure 7. In order for the athlete to take advantage of all the benefits provided by the Olympic lifts that transpire during a single executed exercise performance, they much include the catch of the barbell.
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