Category Archives: Olympic Weightlifting

Strength for front squats means strength for other exercises

Over the past 16 weeks or so, I have been working very hard on front squats = front squatting two times per week. I have used various rep ranges during this time and am currently reaping the results. This is what I have been doing:

Phase 1 (weeks 1-10)

Day 1: 3×8 front squats

Day 4: 8×3 front squats

This phase was actually, looking back, a technique building phase. It is not usually recommended to do front squats for high reps because the back tends to tire before the legs do and you can thoracic flexion (upper back rounding). My problem with cleans has always been that my upper back collapses, causing me to fail to squat the weight up purely because I did not have the core strength to keep my torso very upright. For the first 5 weeks or so, 8 reps of front squats was incredibly difficult for this reason – my upper back tended to round on the last couple of reps. I can happily say however, that by week 6, I had noticed a great improvement in my form. I was able to maintain good posture for the entire 8 reps/3 sets. I put this down to: increased strength, increased frequency of doing the movement and, the high time under tension that the upper body muscles have to be in when front squatting for 8 repetitions.

The 3×8 session was complemented with the 8×3 session. I went as heavy as I could with good form for 3 reps, and repeated 8 times. It may interest you to understand that, for the first 5 weeks of doing this, the weight difference between that used for the 3×8 and that used for the 8×3 was not much – because I was limited by my upper back strength. My focus on the 8×3 day was technique, not pushing all out 3 RMs. I focused on keeping the whole body tight, keeping my knees out and elbows up, and breathing.

By the time I got to week 8 of training these two sessions, I had plateaued with the 3×8 but my form had improved greatly for both 3×8 and 8×3. I decided to keep in the 3×8 and just carry on with the weights I had been doing (going up as and when I felt I could) but now to focus on strength for the other session. I reduced reps from 8×3 to 8×2 and used the 8×2 session to really get in some heavy weight with good form. I was able to maintain good form for 2 reps, which would have been a bit harder to do with 3 reps. The 3×8 day was focusing on the maintenance of good upper body posture and the 8×2 was focusing on lifting bigger numbers. By week 8, the difference in weight used between the 3×8 day and the 8×2 day was significant.

After a couple more weeks, the 3×8 wasn’t really getting any easier and I wasn’t going up in weight. The plateau wasn’t good for my self esteem so I decided to change the programme and came up with the next phase…

Phase 2 (weeks 11-14)

Day 1: 5×5 front squats

Day 4: 8×1 front squats

As you can see, day 1 is now very different. I have actually never had any success with the 5×5 scheme in all the years I’ve been training but I thought I would give it another try… I started out using the same weight that I had been using for the 3×8 for the 5×5. Doing 3 less reps felt much easier but the 5 sets still felt like a lot of work to get through. Again, I was focusing on good form for a challenging amount of weight. I never deliberately use the same weight for all sets on the 5×5, I base the weight to use on how easy/manageable the previous set was and I always try to do more than I did the week before. I go up very slowly however. I might do 4 sets at X kg and then the last set at X+1 kg. The following week, I will probably do 3 sets at X kg and 2 sets at X+1 kg. This is typically how I like to train and I feel it works very well for me.

The 8×2 was getting hard before, so I dropped it down to 8×1 and focused on getting high quality one repetitions 8 times. I was able to get the weight up fast using the 8×1 method. It was a lot less daunting only having to focus on 1 rep at a time!

It did not take long for the 5×5 weight used to go up. I was going up in weight every week consistently, supported by lifting a much heavier weight once x8 on the other day. I started to think that the 8×1 was an ‘easy way out’ because it was such low volume at this point so I changed the programme once again to something which allowed me to do 1 rep sets but in a different way…

Phase 4 (weeks 15 onwards)

Day 1: 5×5 front squats

Day 4: 54321 front squats

Day 4 was a very interesting programme! If you have not heard of it, it basically means you do 5 sets and in set 1 you do 5 reps, in set 2 you do 4 reps, set 3 is 3 reps, set 4 is 2 reps and set 5 is 1 rep. In a way it is a pyramid style of training. You put the weight up for each set. I have only been doing this for the last 3 weeks so it’s new to me but so far it has been very fun to do! I like it particularly because, there are fewer reps as the sets go on and they seem manageable because I don’t put the weight increment up by very much each time so it almost seems like I am lifting the same weight fewer times, which is very easy psychologically! Since front squats are a very unnatural exercise for me due to my poor posture (hunch back), I always focus primarily on technique and upper back rigidity and uprightness, before anything else. So I choose the right weight to allow me to maintain this form.

I am finding that having two days of 5 set front squats is a lot of volume but I know my body and I work well with lots of volume.

 

The point of this article was to actually explain the carryover from all this front squatting I’ve been doing. Now I’ve read in lots of different places that front squats don’t tend to carryover to back squat strength. For me, I disagree. My back squat weight has gone up significantly after all this work on the front squats. I am back squatting once a week in addition to front squatting twice a week and I definitely feel stronger in the back squat (and the numbers show it!). Not only has my back squat got stronger, my clean and jerk, and my clean and jerk separately, have all got stronger too. I imagine that practising the upright posture of the front squat for lots of reps and lots of sets over a long period of time (several months now), has really carried over to the start position for the jerk, probably due to strong abdominal muscles and a very rigid torso. My rack position has obviously also been getting a lot of practice and I no longer have any issues with elbow position or elbows dropping. My elbows feel tight, up and strong.

I am extremely happy with all the work I’ve been doing and the results are really showing. At the moment, I have no issues with my front squat – I am getting stronger every week, form is excellent at the moment, and other exercises have improved as a consequence of all the front squatting. I think I finally understand and agree with what lots of sporting experts say when they say that the front squat is a great athletic exercise and can make you a good all round athlete.

Breaking down the front squat into its quarters

I go through phases of finding one out of the three classic movements (the snatch and the clean and jerk separately) most difficult. I am going to talk a bit about the clean today – or more specifically – the front squat part of the clean.

If you have been following the blog, I have previously talked about having a relatively weak front squat that was holding back my clean progress, which led me to do the Smolov squat routine. I had some gains briefly during and after Smolov but they didn’t last and two months later I was still struggling with the front squat, although not all was lost because my technique had improved massively. It was only after Smolov that I realised how ‘un-optimal’ my front squat form had previously been, whereas I used to think it rocked. Lol

So anyway, I have been playing with my front squats a bit more and the last few weeks I have been training its “quarter” movements. Some people have a problem with quarter squatting but, if you are an advanced lifter, the quarter squat has its place. Only when you exclusively quarter squat is there a real problem. Continue reading

Throwing the bar up in the jerk

I’m going through a time where the jerks are hard, hence this post. I wonder if you have been watching the Commonwealth Games weightlifting? If so, you will notice that the majority of athletes who fail their clean and jerk execute a successful clean but then lose the jerk. How frustrating for them.

As a beginner to Olympic lifting, I always thought the jerk was some sort of “shoulder press with the legs splitting like a lunge” lol. It is not this – at all. One thing I’ve learned about Olympic lifting over the years is that the terminology you use to describe the actions has a big impact on how you execute those actions. Continue reading

The proper way to Snatch High Pull

alis snatch high pull

Anyone who Olympic lifts knows that it is a continuous learning process and that there is always something you can do to get better at it. I also do believe that if you don’t practice a lift enough, you won’t get better at it.

Common “weaknesses” of my snatch have always been the tendency for the barbell to swing out in front of my body and a failure to complete triple extension. These are different problems but they are very much linked. After all, the perfect snatch is one smooth lift and not the individual components that make up that single lift. This means that every component will have an impact on the rest. You know the drill, a poor snatch set up position will almost guarantee a failed – or very messy – lift.

In this post I want to focus on the second pull, how that links to the failure to complete triple extension, and the proper way to snatch high pull (which is, in essence, the second pull in the snatch). Continue reading

When your elbows and upper back collapse in the clean

Last year I wrote about the importance of keeping your elbows up during front squats. Reading this article back now makes me realise how far I’ve come in my technique! As well as strength getting better for front squats, technique has also improved enormously. I like to put this technique improvement down to the Smolov squat routine making me front squat high volume, high weight four times a week!

I do however, still have a tendency to drop my elbows, often in the front squat and all the time in the very bottom position of the clean. This is terribly frustrating for me because when my elbows drop, my upper back collapses, the bar falls forward and I miss the lift.

Having spoken to Neil Dougan, an experienced weightlifting coach, he has suggested that this particular problem can usually be attributed to two things:

  1. Glute medius activation
  2. Tight lats at the connection to the humerus

Let’s look at each of these in more detail:

Gluteus medius activation

In the bottom position of the front squat, the purpose of the gluteus medius is external hip rotation and the gluteal group does not fire until the athlete is in the bottom position of the squat. Proper activation of the glutes abducts the hips and allows the athlete to ascend out of the squat with good form. When this muscle is inhibited, the ascent becomes more difficult – knees can collapse inward, the pelvis can lose stability, elbows drop and the back ends up collapsing.

There are some good ways to activate this muscle group before weightlifting. Glute-ham raises (GDRs) and squats with a mini band just below the knees are two of the best. The squats are demonstrated here in this video:

Tight lats

People who front squat the first time often find themselves with back DOMS! This is because the lats are used intensely during front squats in order to stabilise the body and keep the torso as upright as possible. For someone to keep their elbows up during a set of front squats, requires intense activation of the latissimus dorsi muscles, particularly at their insertion to the humerus bone. You can feel this part of the lats by putting your arms out in the clean-grip front squat position and feeling just underneath your underarm on the side of your back. When your arms are in this position, your lats need to be tight and solid in order to keep the barbell stable and the torso vertical.

There are some good exercises to activate and strengthen the lats. Upright rows with a very narrow grip help strengthen trapezius and the rotator cuff muscles. The rotator cuff is a group of four tendons that covers the humeral head which is the area of muscle we are interested in (where the lat inserts to the humerus bone). Another superb exercise would be the snatch-grip deadlift. This exercise is a good technique for teaching athletes how to activate their lats during the snatch/clean pull – and this “feeling” of lat activation will carry over nicely to the “elbows up” position in the front squat/clean.

Neil Dougan recommends this lat stretch:

To activate your lats before lifting, another trick is to use a resistance band or mini band. Put the band on a chin up bar and stand beneath it. Raise your left arm overhead and place your right foot forward for stability. Now pull very slightly but firmly on the band and you should feel your lat working. Change arms/legs. It’s a very slight movement but very effective. Be sure not to use your arms or anything else to fight the resistance, this is a specific lat exercise.

Hope these tips help.

When the bar swings out in front – Tall Snatches

Once the bar reaches my pockets (the creases of my hips), it swings out in front of me. This is not supposed to happen. In a good snatch, the bar is supposed to be as close to your body as possible so that the barbell and the body are a ‘single system.’

This picture illustrates a great third pull. The bar is very close to the lifter’s body:

snatch high pulls

third pull

The problem: the bar swings out in front

We can narrow this down to being a problem primarily with the third pull and the tall snatch is a superb exercise for nailing the third pull.

The fix: the tall snatch

What is the tall snatch?

It is a snatch from a ‘high hang’ or ‘tall’ position. You start on your tip toes, the bar at your hips. There is no knee bend. You have a very vertical torso. There is no downward dip/drive to initiate the lift – you just shrug and pull from the high hang and continue the lift as you would in the full snatch.

There is no room for the bar to swing out in the tall snatch. You will notice that it is near impossible NOT to pull the bar straight up in an upwards path.

The key to a good tall snatch is the aim to get your arms into a “scarecrow-like” posture, which ensures the bar stays close. At the end point of the third pull, the combination of the pulling power and the bar being so close to the body leads to a vigorous pull under the bar into the bottom of the overhead squat position.

It is because the bar begins so high in the tall position that speed is imperative in this exercise. So the tall snatch is also an excellent exercise choice for improving your speed getting under the bar.

The tall snatch is an assistance exercise to ASSIST you in becoming stronger in the full snatch. It is best used with light weights and the goal is speed.

The brand new ‘Hooked Store’

I am excited to announce the launch of a very awesome new online weightlifting shop! Hooked Store is now my favourite place to shop for weightlifting and fitness equipment all in the UK – that means no import tax or customs charges for the things you want that are usually only available in China or the US!

Great website, great prices, great products. Abbie, owner of Hooked Store and Lady in Weighting, is continually adding new ranges and new stock so keep checking back.

What are you waiting for? Check it out now!

The ‘bounce’ in the squat clean

The full (or “squat”) clean consists roughly of 1) a first pull 2) a second pull 3) a front squat. The ideal scenario would be that you have the strength to simply front squat up out of that rock bottom position. You don’t have to think much about your technique, you simply squat the weight up. In some scenarios however, the lifter does not have adequate leg strength to simply ‘squat’ the weight up out of the hole. This is often the case for those who have front squats that are very close in weight to the weight they can clean. At present I am one of these lifters, but I am working on changing that… Continue reading

Elbows up and front squats

Recently I’ve been having problems with staying upright during front squats. “Elbows up” has been the most successful cue for me to keep as vertical as possible.

The benefits of front squatting

It’s an obvious one, but (for myself at least) the biggest benefit of front squatting, is how helpful it is in its carryover to the Clean. If you are primarily training the Olympic lifts, front squats should be an essential, core part of your training programme. A sensible Olympic lifter will always make sure his or her front squat is better than their clean. In my mind, the basic sequence of the Clean & Jerk lift is 5 movements, which are: 1) Pull 2) Receive 3) Front Squat 4) Recovery 5) Jerk

Notice that the front squat is number 3 out of a total of 5. You do not want to be failing the front squat part of the Clean & Jerk. You have already expended energy on numbers 1 and 2, but you still need lots of energy for numbers 4 and 5.

So that being said, if your front squat is a good weight more your clean, you will have a greater chance of having a successful Clean & Jerk. Most Olympic lifters can clean about 90% of their front squat. At the moment, I am only able to clean 85% of my front squat. And it shows. I am often unable to front squat up out of the clean during training. Hence I am working on improving my front squat. Ideally, I would feel most comfortable with my max front squat being about 10kg more than my max clean. Continue reading