Like most men, I used to see Olympic weightlifting as an odd sport full of singlets and tiny differences in technique. But ‘Oly’ lifting, as it’s known, is emerging from the shadows. For instance, the snatch and the clean and jerk are so heavily featured in CrossFit workouts that if you want to progress, you need to nail them.
The snatch is the one where you pull a barbell overhead from the floor while dropping into a deep overhead squat, then standing up. The clean and jerk is one lift in two parts: first you pull the bar off the floor and catch it, then you drop into a split stance while pushing the bar overhead. As you might imagine, these aren’t like biceps curls. You can’t just watch someone do a bunch of them and get the form right.
So I enrol for a month of Olympic lifting sessions at The Athlete Centre in Oxford. These twice-weekly classes are run by TAC’s head of strength and conditioning, and fanatical Olympic lifter, Barrie-Jon Mulder.
‘It takes serious time to become proficient in both lifts,’ Mulder tells me before our first session. ‘But they are extremely effective exercises for developing power, muscular co-ordination, flexibility and mobility.’
After a surprisingly long, 15-minute warm-up, we break down the key moves – a far more technical affair than I expected. We start by working on a hang pull, the part of the clean and jerk where you pull the bar from thigh to navel. It’s a bit like pulling your trousers up, with an explosive hip drive to speed the whole process up. ‘Starting in the hang position helps people establish how to bump the bar off the right part of their legs to get it overhead efficiently,’ explains Mulder.
Next come overhead squats, where we sink down with the bar held overhead in a wide grip – the ‘snatch grip’. ‘This improves hip mobility and helps you establish where the bar needs to be to maintain balance in the bottom position of the snatch,’ says Mulder. Before I leave, Mulder gives me a comprehensive three-times-a-week training programme I can follow in my own time.
That sinking feeling
The following week we’re on to hang cleans and split jerks, to help me master the final stage of the clean and jerk. To ensure I’m doing snappy kicks that generate as much explosiveness as possible, Mulder puts weight clips in front of me that I have to kick forward rather than jump onto. I also do snatch drills that consist of taking a bar out of a rack in a back squat position and dropping into a squat while pressing the bar overhead.
In the third week, my kung fu-style session involves doing cleans from the floor while Mulder holds out two broom handles to either side of me at navel height. The idea is that I have to just touch the broom handles as I pull the bar up my body and sink under it into a clean: anything higher and, by Olympic competition standards, my reps won’t count.
During the fourth and final week Mulder says he feels I’ve progressed enough to start doing the full moves. We start with the clean and jerk and I quickly manage to get up to 60kg.I find I perform better reps when I feel, rather than think, my way through each stage of the move. At 70kg, however, my form keeps breaking down no matter what I do. We stop, but Mulder is pleased with what we’ve achieved.
I keep losing my balance on the snatch but persist and eventually get up to 50kg. Mulder’s scream of excitement as I dump the bar after my last wobbly rep indicates I’m now a fully-fledged Olympic lifter.
There’s a huge amount of work to be done before I can consider myself proficient in either lift, but I can now take on more CrossFit workouts – and that’s what I’d set out to achieve when I embarked on this experiment.
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Nick Hutchings worked for Men’s Fitness UK, which predated, and then shared a website with, Coach. Nick worked as digital editor from 2008 to 2011, head of content until 2014, and finally editor-in-chief until 2015.