The “pull” has been a staple of weightlifting programs since the Soviet era: the Russians used to split their “pulling” movements into extensions, high pulls and deadlifts. The point of this article is to cover the difference between these movements and why, in my opinion, the deadlift is more than sufficient for proper weightlifting technique development.
The deadlift in weightlifting refers to either a snatch deadlift or clean deadlift: movements where we perform the first and second phase of the movements.
These movements should be performed at a higher intensity than the full lifts, focusing on controlling the bar and the body through the correct positions and using the right muscles at the right time.
The pull, by contrast, focuses on going through these same positions but finishing in the tall, extended position that we see in so many gyms: the athlete focuses on staying as tall as possible for as long as possible in order to train the extension portion of the lift.
The problem I have with pulls is that we should not be focusing on staying as tall as possible for as long as possible.
Rather, the focus of most weightlifters’ training should be reaching extension then rapidly changing direction and dropping under the bar.
Whilst it is essential to reach a tall, balanced extension position, this can be achieved through a variety of other means which don’t encourage the lifter to stay tall.
When we see pulls performed, it is often the case that athletes actually pull the bar through the upper body in an attempt to increase bar height and hold onto the tall position for as long as possible. This misses the point of the extension!
We only need to reach full extension for a split second before we begin to drop under the bar. The full extension position must be achieved but we should not try and hold the position: it is called full extension because it is the tallest point, after which we drop under the bar and focus on receiving the bar in a strong catch position.
The deadlift can be used to develop this change of direction by focusing on full relaxation through the arms and upper traps (counterintuitively, the looser the arms, the faster we can get under the bar) and getting as tall as possible in the finish position.
The pull, however, cues the athlete to keep pulling upwards on a bar that has already reached maximum momentum!
Pulls also tend to alter the focus of a lifter’s movement away from proper positioning towards maximum speed. Naturally, we want lifters to improve their maximum speed but this is important only from the mid-thigh until we drop under the bar – in these movements we want to be as fast as possible. However, when we are focusing on generating maximum bar height during the pull movements, athletes tend to exaggerate the production of force through the hips to the detriment of positioning, balance and tempo.
We see this often in British athletes (even at the top level) where pulls are executed with almost no regard for the essential positions through the first and second phases. Athletes who fail to get the knees back during the first phase or extend through the front of the foot in the classic lifts are usually those who perform the most pulls, are least effective in the deadlifts and lack speed changing direction to dropping under the bar.
The reason that we perform “pulling” movements (the exercises that focus on developing back and leg strength by emulating the positions from the floor to the hip) is to develop strength for the classical lifts. We do not compete in the snatch deadlift or the clean deadlift and I am shocked by the way that some athletes in CrossFit or weightlifting focus on shifting the most weight possible despite losing position or posture on the way!
This will not transfer over to the full lifts: try snatching best weights with a round back! Rather, we should focus on these postural and positional demands – I have my athletes perform slow eccentrics to increase back strength without adding more weight and ruining positions. If you need to develop strength in the back and legs for your snatch and clean, try that and you’ll quickly realise that you don’t need to go so heavy to build serious strength!
There is still a need to routinely practice the extension position without performing pulls that focus on the upper body. Since many athletes struggle to reach the fully extended position through the knees and hips – and many other athletes hyperextend the hips – it is important to develop the extension through practice.
I like to use snatches and cleans from blocks to focus on extension through the knees and hips, focusing on extending directly upwards (avoiding throwing the shoulders backwards or pushing the hips through) and training the tempo of the movement.
This allows us to achieve a tall extension position whilst also working on the change of direction and a strong receiving position.
There are very few situations in which pulls are appropriate, but I do find the way that Chinese weightlifters perform the pulls very interesting. Contrary to the way that pulls are performed “in the west”, east Asian athletes and the Chinese in particular perform pulls that involve the athlete moving downwards after they have reached full extension.
These “high pulls” (for the snatch), “fast pulls” (for the clean) or “panda pulls”, as they have been called, seem to me to be the best example of a pull that actually develops the correct tempo. Chinese weightlifting focuses on tempo a great deal and this kind of pull aims at a rhythmic change of direction that we should all be able to perform effectively.
I have never personally used these pulls or had my athletes perform them, but there seems to be some positive applications for those who feel like they need to train pulls. Blocks, hangs and deadlifts should be sufficient for most athletes. It may be worth mentioning briefly the term ‘pull’. In this case, the pull appears to be pulling of the body under the bar rather than pulling the bar upwards to achieve greater height.
Finally, we need to remember that the power of an athlete’s extension is a product of only three real factors: technique (which we have covered above), leg strength and the ability to rapidly produce force.
If your extension is weak and you’re only missing lifts because you can’t get the bar high enough (a phenomenally rare problem, especially among British athletes), you should be working on the strength of your legs and back, as well as performing extra power-output training.
Bar height comes from a positive leg drive against the floor and the extension of the hips as the lifter imparts their force in to the floor. No further height on the bar should be required apart from fully extended knees and hips with the bar remaining on loose arms: Additionally, athletes who want to improve should be performing plyometric exercises to improve their power output which will results in great force generation and bar height without over-pulling the bar or relying on the upper body or an exaggerated extension.
The pull is the most over-used and misunderstood movements in the training of amateur weightlifters and is where we see some of the most stubborn technical errors develop. I’ve talked at length about the importance of focusing on lower-body extension and reducing the contribution of the upper body: the pull does the exact opposite of this and actively encourages “hanging onto” the bar in the top position and stalling when we should be dropping under the bar.
There are far better ways to improve the athlete’s extension through improved strength, power and positioning, all of which must be incorporated into a program and structured towards weightlifting-specific performance.
Too often I see that program design that throws a variety of exercises at the athlete without any concern for the demands of Weightlifting or is simply ignorant of the way that elite weightlifters are developed. Weightlifting requires a balanced approach and a balanced approach requires a skilled, experienced and passionate coach.
In conclusion, the best way to think about it is that it’s not a pull, it’s a leg drive from the floor.
Thanks for reading