Olympic Lifting for Monsters

Explosive Variations for Big Boys

Big Bodies, Unrealistic Expectations

The expectations placed on big guys and their gym activities are screwy. Take a look at conditioning "challenges" and workouts for time, for example. It's obvious that small people created them for small people, as big guys have lots more mass to move and consequently need more time to recover.

Similarly, in the case of Olympic lifts, it's easy to be led astray by lifters who carry far less muscle mass than big guys do, or have extremities or an overall body size that promotes a much shorter pulling distance. Leverages matter, and some individuals are simply better suited for Olympic lifts than others.

That doesn't mean that guys who are 6-foot plus can't find ways to reap all of their benefits.

True clean and snatch variations (the "full" versions of the lifts you see on TV) are performed from the floor and involve a full front or overhead squat for the catch phase of the lift. Naturally, anybody who does these lifts needs to be proficient at full range squatting, deadlifting with a neutral spine, and overhead squatting.

However, if someone is in the habit of just barely breaking parallel with squats, or pulling from blocks or pins for deadlifts, then they have no business attempting full cleans or snatches from the floor into a full squat position with a barbell.

Instead, big guys need to remember that the "power" position is their friend. Catching loads in the "power" position with cleans and snatches refers to a knee angle at or above 90 degrees of parallel when catching.

It's a safer way to pull and eliminates the deep squat from the equation. As far as cleans go, performing hang power cleans, snatches, or block power cleans and jerks can be a good way to get the benefits of the Olympic lifts without the mobility demands of front and overhead squatting.

Hang Power Clean

Power Clean and Jerk

While it's arguable that O-lifts like barbell cleans, jerks, and snatches are within the realms of possibility for anyone, there will surely be those who are just plain too beefy, tight, immobile, or even uncoordinated to safely perform these movements.

It'd be smart for them to break these Olympic lifts down to their derivatives or simplified versions. This way, they won't miss out on being explosive, and they can sidestep any issues that could risk injuries to the joints.

Trap Bar Power Pulls

In most schools of thought, cleans and snatches involve the lifter actually leaving the ground. That's tough to do if they're not good at deadlifting in the first place, and even tougher to do if they decide to pull from blocks (since they'll have to be that much more explosive due to a shorter pulling space).

Using a trap bar and performing power pulls solves this problem. The high handles allow for a much needed extra 5 or so inches of added height to the bar, and the hex bar setup accommodates taller lifters for whom barbell deadlifts can be geometrical torture.

Remember these key points:

  • Don't involve the arms. The elbows shouldn't bend.
  • Land in the same spot from where take off occurred. Don't jump forward or backward.
  • Lower the bar fairly quickly, as though it's being magnetically pulled to the floor.
  • Pause, let the bar settle, and repeat.
  • Focus on sets of 4-8 reps.

Barbell High Pulls

If the catch position for a clean isn't an option for a big guy (because the arms are too beefy or from lack of flexibility), or practicing it continually does more harm than good, it should be scrapped and replaced with high pulls. This can enable a lifter to work on force transfer through the trunk.

The focus should be high elbows. The hands should never be higher than the elbows during this lift. Pull from a dead stop to reset between reps. Each rep should be treated like its own set, and sets should be in the 3-6 rep range.

Seated Dumbbell Snatch

Using two dumbbells instead of a barbell for a snatch solves shoulder mobility issues that sometimes pop up when the hands are tethered to a wide, internally-rotated grip on a barbell.

Sitting down on a bench instead of standing makes this movement entirely upper body dominant, creating virtually no allowance for cheating once the weight is heavy enough. There'll only be one way to lift the load overhead.

Snatch Step

If a big guy is really feeling his oats, he should lower the weight he normally use for a hang barbell snatch and add a step. This will effectively train explosiveness, timing, coordination, and strength.

The step or box shouldn't bring the knee higher than parallel to the floor, and the movement needs to be "attacked" to be truly effective. That means lunging into the box rather than falling away from it. The trailing leg should end up fully extended on each rep.

Since we're talking about Olympic lifts and being explosive, it's prudent to bring up jumping of all kinds.

The objective is to set up a low box and jump onto it, attempting to land as quietly as possible. If successful, try a box that's about 4 inches higher. The second the landing becomes audible, though, the box is likely too high to deliver an appropriate training effect while keeping the joints safe. (This "silent" proviso can be a very humbling revelation.)

Learning to jump well can help with Olympic lift variations. It teaches the body to transfer forces from the ground all the way through to the ends of the extremities (in this case, the arms).

Remember these rules for jumping, though:

  • Just like power pulls and high pulls, each rep should be treated like its own set. Avoid pulling a CrossFit where speed and number of reps are prioritized.
  • The landing needs to be quiet, followed by STEPPING down instead of jumping down. If the box is too high to step off, an intermediate box should be used to step down to first.
  • The arms should be used for assistance, but not by pointing the arms down and turning into a human rocket ship. Rather, they should assist the jump, as if going up for a rebound in basketball.
  • The muscles should be "quieted" between reps. Just like any other explosive bout of action – a 40 yard sprint, an Olympic lift, or a fastball – there should be an instant where the muscles are settled and the body is still before the feat is attempted.
  • The focus should be sets fewer than 8 reps. Quality over quantity. If volume is needed, more sets should be added, not more reps.

As a side note, always remember that tendons and ligaments need to be prepared to jump, so if it's been a while, big guys need to ease into it. It's important to note, too, that jumping capability should be based on how well one can land.