What are the two things you notice about most of the top international lifters that you idolize and look up to? Is it their broad roadmap of a back or their tree trunks for legs? If one or both of those was your answer then you know some of key pieces to being a great weightlifter. Yes the snatch and the clean & jerk are the contested lifts and what you total determines your placing in competition but if you don’t want to fold in half during a lift you better be squatting and pulling regularly in your training.
Before we get too far ahead of ourselves I am going to preface this whole article saying that squats and pulls are accessory movements in your training. The contested lifts are the snatch and clean & jerk and all other movements help improve those two so that makes anything else an accessory or supplemental movement. Now squats and pulls are the most important accessory movements in my opinion, but nonetheless any way you cut it that’s what they are. If these two movements are top priority (above the snatch or clean and jerk) in your training you are either A) doing it wrong, B) competing in Powerlifting, or C) in need of a new coach. Of course you have training cycles with an emphasis on the squat or pull but the number one priority should be to improve your total, plain and simple.
Now the squat and pull are two of the oldest tests of strength that you literally start practicing from day one. Your first squat PR came when you stood all the way up, whether it was assisted by a coach or not, for the first time. And when you picked up your first object from the ground and stood up with it, guess what? My point is these are two simple movements that every strength athlete does in some form or fashion and should be looking to improve if they have aspirations on being elite. But when looking at your training how do you determine which is more important and how often should they be performed?
This is a no-brainer but still needs to be said. When it comes to strength work, you should be focusing on what you are weak at. According to the Power Ratio Graph an athlete should be able to snatch 65% and 80% of their Back Squat and Clean Deadlift. The important thing to note is that the Clean Deadlift is not your traditional deadlift. There is no rounding of the back, mixed grip, or over-extension of the hips at the top of the pull. A Clean Deadlift simply follows the same line of pull while keeping the shoulders out over the bar till the top of the movement. Carrying on, if you do some quick math on your lifts and you are lacking in one or both areas of efficiency then guess what you should be addressing in your training? If you are not snatching or clean and jerking those percentages then you should be simply doing maintenance work with the pulls and squats while focusing hard on improving your lifts.
If your lifts are very close in efficiency to either or back squat or clean deadlift then you need to be focusing on the bigger deficiency in your training. When I am writing training cycles for my lifters I am constantly plugging their back squat in to the graph and seeing where the numbers fall. This provides me with more than enough feedback as to the direction their training takes. The main point is to find out where your weakness lies: the Squat, Pull, or the lifts, and plan your training accordingly. Retest after the cycle is complete, check the numbers, and keep repeating this process. It’s simple enough but there seems to be a lot of misinformation these days on how to get better in the sport. Find out where your weakness lies, address it and maintain the other areas while it’s being addressed. Keep in mind that there will always be an area that is off and that you are in a constant state of adjusting and readjusting your training.
This one can get a bit more tricky depending on who you talk to. When you watch a lifter execute the snatch or the clean, where are they struggling? Are they struggling to hold positions throughout the pull? Is there a specific part of the pull where they struggle more than others? How is their speed? How easy is it for them to stand up the weight? Are they able to hold a straight back as they stand up? Do they have enough legs left after a tough clean to stick the jerk? There are probably even more questions that can be asked but these are a few I ask when watching an athlete lift that help assess where we need to focus their squatting and pulling.
If they stand up any weight on the bar but look like they are about to snap in half during the pull, well guess what we’re doing? But an often overlooked aspect of training the pull is WHERE are they struggling. Is it hard to break the floor? Do they lose tension around the knees? Are they not able to squeeze the bar back into the power position? Watching the different phases of the pull and if the athlete is holding positions well gives you even more insight on where to focus in their pull training. Pulls with pauses at various positions may be the answer to losing tension various spots. Maybe adding in a tempo for the pull, descent, or both can cure a lifter’s ills. But also try starting the pull from various heights using blocks so the athlete has to focus on creating tension and starting the pull where they normally wouldn’t be. A lack of efficiency in movement causes the athlete to waste energy that can be applied elsewhere, so watch the lifter and address where they need help in the pull. All of these options and then some can help an athlete fix their pull and get them on the road to some big lifts.
The same can be said for the squat but the biggest indicator is an athlete not being able to stand up a lift or not having enough in the tank to stick the jerk after a tough clean. It could be that they get out of position standing up or they simply don’t have the legs to stand up. The same diagnosis on the pulls can be applied here. Pauses at various position or in the hole can help strength positions tremendously as well as adding tempo work in the descent or ascent of the lift.
The most obvious way to build strength in both the pull and squat is the type of lift, the sets, the reps, and percentages of weight being used, but that is an entire article for another time. The biggest thing is to watch the lifter and be astute to where they are struggling in the lift and address. Chances are if you are looking at the numbers from Point #1, watching the lift will make that glaring obvious, but sometimes the simple eye test will get the job done.
Where the athlete is at in their training can also play a big factor in where emphasis is being placed in the squat or pull. The further out from the competition the volume should be higher with the intensity being lower. This means including rep ranges from 5-10 with percentages in the 60-80% range. I am also a proponent of the full ROM of the lifts being performed during this time. As a meet gets closer the intensity goes up as the reps go down just like the lifts would. But a factor I like to play around with depending on the athlete is partial ROM pulls. This allows the athlete to feel the heavier weights and still execute part of the lift, particularly where they are weakest in the pull, but doesn’t fatigue the athlete as much due to the partial ROM.
Within two weeks of a big meet, athletes should only be pulling 1-2 times, 14-18 days out and maximum once in the 1-7 days out range. As for squats, I see no reason to back them off until 2-3 days before a big meet. One way that I prevent major fatigue in the squat is starting two weeks out squats go to heavy singles with pauses. This is a great tool as it allows for athletes to push the intensity, but they are not going to a true max because athletes cannot pause near their 1RM. Many different training methodologies have employed this method with great success so give it a shot.
At the end of the day, each athlete is different so they will respond to a wide variety of training stimuli in the squat and pull based on what phase of training they are in. There will need to be some experimentation until you find the right mix and that athlete may even change from cycle to cycle so be astute and make sure to be properly tracking the progress of that athlete.
When talking weightlifting specifically, the goal is to increase their total (snatch and clean & jerk). After their main work, the next one or two movements depending on the day should be the squat and/or pull. But how, when, and why should be a case by case basis. As a coach, your athletes are relying on you to figure that out for them so look at the big picture then break it down from there. If you have more specific questions comment below or message us at [email protected] Be sure to also check out our YouTube and Instagram page for our team training, informational videos, and training tips to help you reach your goals. See you on the platform!