There is a lot of misinformation surrounding the “pull” in weightlifting
What is actually meant by this, how it should be performed and what its purpose is.
A “pull” is the exertion of force against an object to bring it closer to yourself: this is what happens when we perform a chin up or barbell row, where we are bringing the bar to ourselves (and ourselves to the bar).
What people generally refer to as the pull in weightlifting technique is the movement of the bar from the floor until the athlete achieves full extension (complete extension through the knees and hips).
Setting Up And The First Phase: Control From The Floor
Thinking of the extension in this way is fundamentally wrong – the “pull” portion of the movement is actually a positive extension against the floor using the big, powerful muscles of the quad and glutes.
Often in my seminars, I see athletes who have only ever been taught to pull and they have the same predictable problems in both their Snatch and Clean. When we “pull” on the bar we lose effective positions, tempo and speed – these are all necessary to performing a good lift in either the Snatch or Clean.
By changing the way that we view and practice the extension, rather than pulling, we can easily improve technique and lift more weight in the long-term.
Telling an athlete to pull a bar in the setup or first phase (from the start of the lift until the athlete passes the knees) is perhaps the easiest way to totally ruin a lift. The setup position is incredibly important to performing a solid lift and relies on the athlete keeping a high chest and tight back.
Performing both of these together requires the arms to remain long and the shoulder blades to be back and down – this results in a stretch feeling through the arms and upper traps. If we are pulling the bar, we will create too much tension in the arms which will throw off our position from the floor.
During the first phase, any poor positions will become obvious. If we are trying to pull the bar away from the floor rather than pushing against the floor, the athlete is likely to end up with their weight on their toes.
This could occur because there is an active pull with the arms or simply because focusing on the pull has resulted in ‘yanking’ the bar from the floor. This throws off the balance and totally ruins any leverage we might have had against the bar – cutting the legs out of the lift entirely.
I often say that we can tell if a lift is going to be good before it even reaches the knees: when we see the bar travel around the knees or the hips shoot up at the start of the lift, we know that the athlete has done something wrong.
Second Phase: From Knees To Full Extension
The second phase (between passing the knee and reaching full extension) is where I see most athletes attempting to pull the bar up rather than extending through the lower body.
The first thing to notice about pulling with the arms during this portion of the movement is that it produces an obvious delay between extension upwards and moving downwards to the receiving position.
This change of direction should be lightning-quick and the more we actively pull through the upper body, the slower our change of direction will be. Whatever time is spent shrugging the bar upwards could be better spent dropping under the bar into a solid receiving position.
By keeping the bar low while the lifter gets as tall as possible, we avoid this delay and can immediately drop under the bar. Many athletes feel like this will not allow the bar to get high enough, but this is only because they are slow getting under: you only need the bar to come high enough for you to get under it!
Too much height and the lifter will be unable to drop into the deep receiving position. More likely, they will catch the bar high and ride it in. I will address this as a separate blog.
Another reason that we might pull through the upper body is because there is something fundamentally wrong with the positions through the second phase.
In athletes who are technically poor, the shoulders are usually too far over or behind the bar in the second phase, the upper body can be used to guide the bar into the correct position overhead. However, these athletes are compensating for poor positions during the second phase, rather than fixing them.
If an athlete has their balance in the rear of the foot, chest high, back tight, arms relaxed and shoulders above the bar (rather than over it), vertical extension and a fast drop under will put the bar into the perfect position overhead without requiring them to use the upper body to find the right position.
If we stop pulling against the bar and start pushing against the floor, we can reduce poor hip positioning off the floor and eliminate the need to throw the shoulders back at the top of the second pull: this is how to fix the bar in the correct overhead position.
Remaining long in the arms and driving upwards through the lower body requires real discipline, control and great timing.
Finishing The Problem: Turning A “Pull” Into An Extension
So, how do we fix this problem? The first thing that needs to happen is that coaches need to stop coaching a 1st and 2nd pull.
I would encourage the term 1st and 2nd ‘phase’ of the lifts – extending upwards through the lower body is more than sufficient to produce the vertical force necessary to drop under the bar.
This will mean coaching new athletes to lift properly rather than allowing them to compensate for poor technique. However, in those athletes who have already been (mis)coached to perform the lift as a pull, it is important to return to the basics and drill technique.
This might mean a great deal of time using an empty bar: being able to perform such movements with an empty bar is a good precursor to performing those movements with heavy weight.
If you’re technically proficient, you should be able to move the barbell quickly and through the right positions regardless of the weight that is loaded. We are aiming for full extension of the hips and knees, not hyperextension of the back!
My favourite movements for solving this problem are Snatches and Cleans from the mid-thigh, either from blocks or hangs, as well as properly-executed Snatch balances. Lifts from the block or hang should focus on a stretched upper body (particularly traps and arms) and an upwards extension where the bar stays low but the athlete finishes as tall as possible with the head “through the ceiling”.
When performed from the mid-thigh with the proper tempo, this can rapidly improve an athlete’s technique and speed from a fully extended position to dropping under the bar. The Snatch balance should also be performed with specificity in mind; I often see athletes try to heave the weight overhead and push through the upper body: this has nothing to do with the Snatch and will only reinforce bad habits.
When we lift like this, we’re exaggerating the involvement of the upper body – exactly the opposite of what we want in a Snatch. Instead, I teach athletes to perform this exercise by letting the barbell sit heavy on the shoulders, keeping stable through the hips and legs and simply dropping underneath the bar.
A proper Snatch balance is simply a race downwards against the bar: you should be dropping into a strong receiving position as fast as possible. Performing the movement like this will improve speed and confidence whilst simulating the kind of tempo and movement we want to develop when dropping under the bar in the full Snatch.
Closing Remarks: Being Disciplined And Lifting More
It is clear to me that the way that we think about the extension can change the way that we coach and perform the movement in a big way. When we begin to put time and effort into the technique used, we can improve the consistency of the lifts (especially those at 80% or greater intensity) and total weights lifted whilst also reducing the chance of injury.
The importance of coaching and practising good technique cannot be overstated and continuing to discuss “pulling” the bar only teaches athletes the wrong positions and encourages upper body involvement at the expense of a positive leg drive.
Try swapping your “pull” for an extension and you’ll see huge improvements in the technique and, over time, the weights that you are able to lift!
Thanks for reading
Michaela Breeze MBE