The First Pull

The Olympic lifts are difficult. I seriously debated ending this post right there. But instead, I figure I'll continue with a basic discussion on the first pull of the Olympic lifts. This topic has been touched on before by sources much more credible than myself, most notably Greg Everett's excellent (and free) article The Olympic Lift Starting Position. I strongly encourage you all to read that because it is excellent and covers more than I possibly could. And while you're at it, subscribe to the Performance Menu Journal - it's an excellent resource well worth every penny.

The first pull itself is not a "pull" per se, as the barbell's movement is initiated by the legs driving against the ground. We're using the hook grip, our hips are just above our knees, our back is straight, and our lats are tight. As the barbell is elevated off the floor, our weight will shift from the balls of our feet to our heels. We will drive our knees back, putting tension into the hamstrings - this tension is dependent on your flexibility as some people will feel less than others. A key point is that our hips and chest rise at the same rate, in unison. If our hips rise early, the weight will shift forward resulting in the bar swinging out. If our chest rises early, the bar will have to travel around our knees. Note the picture below:

Note how the knees travel back and the bar is almost pulled slightly toward the body as it rises. The torso position doesn't change at all until the scoop or transition. Once again, read Everett's article for more on this aspect of the lift. You can see the knees being driven back in the below video of Andrei Aramnau:

You can see how his knees are flaired in order for the barbell to have an uninhibited upwards path. You may also note how his weight is shifted to the outside of his feet. Don't fret on that as it's part of Aramnau's personal technique; it's far more important that you focus on driving the knees backwards. The completion of the first pull should result in a vertical shin position as demonstrated below:

Adrian Zielinski, 173 @ 94

Lu Xiaojun, 174 @ 77

As you can see in both pictures, the torso inclination remains constant, the back rigid. The bar is close to the body, the shins are vertical, and the shoulders are still over the bar. This is all vital to ensuring an appropriate bar path. To see an more in-depth analysis of bar path trajectory, the below video from crackyflipside is excellent.

Many people wonder how fast the first pull should be. As Everett states in his article (which you should have read twice by now), "The sole purpose of the starting position (and first pull) is to allow an optimal second pull. The second pull of the snatch and clean is the source of the overwhelming majority of the upward acceleration of the barbell - it is the heart of the lift. The first pull serves only to optimize the second; the starting position serves to allow that second-pull-optimizing first pull." For this reason, speed is not necessarily the intended purpose. Too many beginners yank the barbell off the floor, pulling their bodies out of position and missing the lift or performing it in some disgusting fashion. Naturally, some might use this kind of evidence for rebuttal:

Let's get something straight: every lifter in that video has been lifting since they were children. Their technique is excellent because they have roughly 23,000 more total reps than any of us do. When first learning the lifts, however, positioning is paramount. Again, don't let your ego hinder your progress. As much as you may want to just throw a shitload of weight on, until proper technique is developed and ingrained, the bar should be lifted relatively slow and controlled. Once my lifters positioning is sound and their technique consistent, I tell them to move the bar "deliberately." I don't even say "fast" at that point because ensuring an appropriate bar path is still more important. True speed actually occurs from the power position, but that's an entirely different discussion.

As you can clearly see, I did not go into excessive depth on this topic because it's been tackled before, but hopefully the pictures, videos, and powerpoints have opened your eyes to the proper execution of the first pull. And seriously, if by the end of all of this, you haven't read Everett's aforementioned (free) article, then you suck. If you're interested in learning more about the Olympic lifts, my class is currently on Saturday afternoons. Feel free to email or leave comments with any questions as well. Lastly, I highly recommend Greg Everett's book Olympic Weightlifting: A Complete Guide for Athletes & Coaches. Buy it or I won't invite you to my birthday party.


The Law of Repetitive Motion

Let me take a guess? You're still working that desk job. Fine. I get it. I mean, I already told you to quit, but I guess you have bills to pay and such. Nevertheless, I'm obligated to continuously hound you lot to make minor adjustments that will have major implications on your health, posture, and performance.

Once again, sitting down for extended periods of time is bad news bears. Our glutes are in a stretched/weakened position, our hip flexors and hamstrings closed, our spine and shoulders rounded anteriorly all stupid-like, a forward head posture, and so on. I've quoted Eric Cressey numerous times, but it always bears repeating: "The best posture is a constantly changing one." So get up out of your desk chair as often as possible. Put your arms overhead, stretch your hip flexors, do some weighted neck bridges.

I'm kidding. Please don't do these. Especially at work. You'll look like a real asshole.

Basically, move around. Don't sit in front of your computer any longer than absolutely necessary. A concept I learned from Cressey is called "the law of repetitive motion." Here's the formula:

Looks a little confusing, right? He elaborates on it in this newsletter and finishes it up in this newsletter. Read them. Seriously. It's important stuff.

Since I know some of you jerks didn't read it, the basic point is constantly putting your body in poor positions, either through bad form/technique or simply lackluster posture, can drastically increase the potential for injury to the affected tissues. For instance, do you ever experience shoulder pain? Is it normally in your right shoulder? Did you every think it may be from sitting at a computer, moving that goddamn mouse around all day?

You little dick.

I'm not saying this is the sole reason you may have shoulder pain, but don't be so quick to blame the exercise. Yes, performing a push press incorrectly might contribute to the problem, but possessing already weakened tissues in the shoulder girdle is likely a culprit as well. Basically, I want you to be more conscious of the positions you put yourself in everyday. Maybe move the mouse to the left side of the desk. Sure, it'll be frustrating at first, but improved dexterity is never a bad thing. Stretch your hamstrings and hip flexors. Do some birddogs. Think about your posture, sit up straight and true, tuck in your shirt, and have a sense of pride for God's sake. In fact, go take lap...

There's more to this whole exercise thing than weights and workouts. Put and keep yourself in favorable positions at all times and you'll improve your performance, decrease your likelihood of injury, and look and feel better. Being proactive always trumps being reactive.


Rep Maxes

Working up to a maximum effort set on the barbell lifts is a challenging endeavor you'll be asked to do frequently when training. These sets can be 1-rep maxes (1RM), 3RM, 5RM, or any crazy number really. Technically speaking, you can do 20RM sets, but the effect is a lot different than 5-reps or less. Low rep / heavy weight sets help improve our neuromuscular efficiency. Without getting too sciencey, this is basically how effectively we recruit contractile/motor units. Basically, neural efficiency results in our muscles firing properly and in the correct order. This has less to do with the actual size of our muscles, but rather how they work synergistically with our brains. This is how smaller, less muscular people can be drunk-gorilla strong. For instance, Taner Sagir has absurd neuromuscular efficiency:

So how do we improve this? We lift heavy. Often. That's the simplest explanation I can muster without bullshitting or boring you. With CrossFit Balance's current programming, you'll be asked to max on a variety of lifts three times per week, descending from 5RM to 3RM to 1RM (or possibly 3RM to 2RM to 1RM). This is based off of Mike Rutherford's excellent Max Effort Black Box program. The problem I see most often with people is not knowing how to appropriately work up to these heavy sets. So, let's get to it...

Finding A Range

First and foremost, if you've been training for a while, you should have a general idea of what weight you're capable of lifting. This reinforces the importance of tracking your progress. If you have no idea what you squatted last week, how the hell will you know what to squat this week? So, for the sweet love of Christ's Chin, please make sure to write down your numbers. Drawing from your past performances, you should have a range from which to pull numbers you can feasibly lift. Quick/easy example: If you can squat 225x5, then you can almost certainly squat 235lbs for a single.

If you've never attempted a 1RM on a particular lift before, but have gone for 3 or 5 or whatever-rep maxes, you can use the following formula recommended by Jim Wendler: weight x reps x .0333 + weight

1) Your 5RM squat = 225x5
2) 225 multiplied by 5 = 1125
3) 1125 x .0333 = ~37
4) 37 + 225 = 262

So, generally, if you can squat 225x5, you should probably be able to squat 262lbs for a 1RM. This obviously isn't exact and may not be entirely applicable to women, but again, it will help give you a range to work from. Naturally, factors like lack of experience, fear of heavier weight, and so forth will play a role. Figuring out your 3-5RM maxes will take more work since there isn't a fancy formula for them. Also, it should be noted that this formula is better served for the powerlifts since the Olympic lifts are much more technique dependent, but I'll get more into that later.

So, once you have an idea of what you're going to lift, an effective warm-up will be paramount. Many people struggle to find the balance between sets/reps/load and will either do way too many warm-up sets or not nearly enough.

Working To Your Number

Before you even get to the bar, you should have already done a basic warm-up consisting of foam rolling, mobility, and some light calisthenics. This will help reduce the risk of injury, improve range of motion, lubricate the joints, and hopefully assist in setting some PR's. Don't go for a max cold. Also, if you know you're working to a max on the bench or back squat, be sure to have a spotter. More importantly, make sure he or she knows how to spot. And just to keep things thorough, you can't spot a deadlift, press, push press, snatch, clean, front squat, or jerk - these either happen or the lifter just safely drops the bar.

Don't ever do this. Or I will kill you.

So, now that you've done a basic warm-up, begin with an empty barbell. I think this is very important before lifting any significant weight. One or two quick sets of 5-8 with an unloaded barbell will help reinforce solid technique, warm up the body, and groove the movement pattern into your muscle memory. After that, you will begin adding weight. The weight you choose will hinge on a variety of factors, such as what rep max you're going for, what lift you're performing, and what color plate you think is most pretty.

This is where your rep/load approach gets important. Essentially, your reps should decrease as your weight increases. I sometimes describe this as "pryamidding down" although in retrospect, I have no idea why I call it that. I also have no idea where I get off trying to use "pyramid" as a verb, but I digress. So, let's look at an example. Let's say the workout is to work up to a 3RM back squat. Your best 3RM is 225lbs and you'd like to set a PR. Here is a potential approach:

Barbell x 8 reps
95 x 6 reps
155 x 5 reps
185 x 4 reps
205 x 3 reps
225 x 3 reps
235 x 3 reps

So as the load increases, the reps decrease. This helps prime our central nervous system to lift heavy weight. What is also important is that your rest periods must increase as well. The heavier, more taxing the weight becomes, the more rest your body will need to lift at its full potential. When lifting maximum loads, you should be resting at least three minutes between sets, if not more. One minute will not nearly be enough and fifteen minutes would be far too long.

I've read that renowned strength coach Charles Poliquin recommends the following when working to 1RM back squat:

4 @ estimated 40%, rest 10 seconds
4 @ estimated 40%, rest 10 seconds
3 @ estimated 60%, rest 30 seconds
2 @ estimated 75%, rest 60 seconds
1 @ estimated 80%, rest 120 seconds
1 @ estimated 85%, rest 120 seconds
1 @ estimated 90%, rest 180 seconds
1 @ estimated 95%, rest 240 seconds
1 @ estimated 100%, rest 240 seconds

Now, this is incredibly precise and may not even be feasible without some assistance. You would obviously have to have your percentages sorted out beforehand and have the bar loaded in a specific manner. Nevertheless, the concept of load increasing while reps decrease remains.

Other Factors

Form: After attending the 2009 CrossFit Games, there was one thing that kind of irked me. The deadlift event, which was cleverly conceived and exciting to watch, left me with a slightly bad taste in my mouth. For the sake placing as high as possible, many people's form went to absolute shit. I don't fault them for this at all - they were in the midst of a competition and did whatever they could to score points. Plus, they were all seasoned CrossFitters and knew the potential risks of poor deadlift form. Again, none of that bothered me. What pissed me off is hearing people exclaim, "Oh yeah, that's a PR!" Seriously? Do you know why so many people "PR'd" that day? Because in training, none of them are dumb enough to do this:

My point is this: don't call something a PR if it's a dangerous or plain disgustingly performed lift. If I receive a jerk or snatch with my elbows partially bent, then it doesn't count. In training or in a meet, it won't be a personal record. If you don't go below parallel on a squat, then it wasn't a complete lift; and how could you logically compare it to your previous full-depth efforts? I'm not saying the lift in question needs to be performed with the grace and elegance of Jackie Onassis, but if not performed correctly, you didn't set a personal record and you run the risk of getting hurt. Okay sorry, rant over.

Experience: If you're just coming out of Foundations or generally new to lifting heavy weights, be patient. Don't get all Gung Ho like Michael Keaton and throw 600lbs on the bar to try and impress the girl (or guy) smothered in Lululemon. What's most important is familiarizing yourself with the lifts, developing sound/safe technique, and building slowly. This will result in steady strength improvements and almost eliminate any chance of injury.

The Rep Scheme: The daily rep scheme will vary from time to time i.e. 5x5, 5x3, 5x1, or maybe 5-4-3-3-3. Unless the workout is designed for straight sets (the same weight for all sets), do not feel chained to a rep scheme. If the ultimate goal is lift a 3RM and you've got more in the tank, keep going. Oftentimes, I see people smoke a weight with ease and then stop. "What are you doing?" "Oh, that was my fifth set." "I don't care, it wasn't your max - put some more weight on the damn bar." Don't sell yourself short - if you're lifting safely, set some personal records.

Power lifts vs. Olympic lifts: This is also important. The difference between these types of lifts means that warming up and approaching your sets will be a lot different. For one, I personally don't think the Olympic lifts should be done for more than three reps at a time. Load increases will vary between the power and Olympic lifts as well because the O-lifts are so damn technique-dependent. Don't get me wrong, the deadlift still requires some technique, but it's not nearly as complex as a snatch. If the workout calls for a 2RM power snatch and you're not confident in your technique, then don't go for a 2RM. Do sets of a two with a light-to-moderate weight and drill your technique in. Proficiency in the Olympic lifts takes a long-ass time and there is no reason whatsoever to rush it and develop bad habits and shit technique.

So there you have it: a long, excessively verbose discussion on finding your rep max. If you have any questions, feel free to ask and I will find someone much smarter than me to answer them. Now, get off the goddamn internet and go lift some heavy weights.

Saved By The Bell couldn't get rid of this Max fast enough