The Importance of “Back”

There are two dichotomous styles of weightlifting. One is sort of a relic of the past and puts an emphasis on jumping the bar up while the other focuses on efficiently getting under the bar. In “Jump/shrug vs ‘Catapult‘” I briefly discussed the differences between these techniques. The primary difference is that if the bar is jumped vertically, the lifter and bar become “floaty”, making it difficult to have an efficient turnover to rack the bar. The “get under” method sets the lifter up to not only have greater turnover speed, but to use more efficient mechanical positioning to maximize their force production.

The key is that the “get under” method is necessary for lifting loads that are significantly greater than body weight. Personally I can tell the difference between the two methods; I was taught to use the jump method and have taught myself the “get under” technique, though I’m probably not perfect. I’m lifting the same PR loads weighing 15 pounds lighter and without back squatting for a couple of months. The “jump” method is good for general strength and conditioning (especially with non-lifting sport athletes), but it’s less efficient when trying to lift the most weight (i.e. Olympic weightlifting).

This post isn’t meant to be a full biomechanical analysis of the “get under” technique (that can come later), but the technique’s starting position and execution better produce a stretch reflex on both the quads and hamstrings. This not only allows these muscles to produce force maximally, yet makes the bar-lifter mechanics more efficient. For example, if a person is snatching significantly more than their body weight, then manipulating the bar-lifter center of mass is important, but it’s not as simple as making the bar “go up” vertically.

There are two standard cues used after the initial motor pathway of the lift are learned: “bar back” and “finish in the heels”. Keeping the bar back prevents it from swinging forward, disrupting the delicate bar-lifter system. Even slight alterations to center of mass with very heavy loads will create exponential mechanical problems that result in a failed lift. Finishing in the heels ensures that the lifter doesn’t put an emphasis on “up”, prevents the lifter from floating, and sets them up to transfer into their heals in the bottom of a snatch or clean. It also facilitates the finish “arched back” position — a necessary difference to snatch or clean heavy loads.

To keep the bar back, a lifter will actively need to extend their shoulder joint (if the elbow is straight, shoulder extension pushes the wrist behind the body — see the “Anatomy Motion Explained” video for a review). This same thing occurs on a deadlift to prevent the bar from swinging forward, but it’s absolutely critical in the Olympic lifts. It’s the difference between a good lift and a bad lift. For some, it can be the difference between a good lift and annihilating their dugan and coin purse. Observe what happens when the bar isn’t kept back:

Okay, this might be an extreme example. My arm length may facilitate nut crunching, but leaving the bar out front changed the mechanics to bring the bar into my body at a different trajectory. Let’s look at the same problem on the snatch from earlier in the same training session. I had not snatched 130 in a while, and I was feeling good in warm-ups that particular August day. You’ll see that I miss 130 three times in a row. You’ll also see that it seems like I easily complete the lift, and then it falls forward. It’s because my lack of “keeping the bar back” puts the bar in a slightly forward position — maybe by a few  centimeters — and results in a missed lift. I even spiked my adrenaline for the second and third lifts to no avail. Finally, on the fourth attempt, I focused on keeping the bar back and made a good lift with significantly lower adrenaline levels.

As a side note, look how different the mechanics are from this video. Yikes.

I learned why keeping the bar back was important by missing a doable snatch three times in a row and smashing my sausage on a clean. Most of you probably won’t be able to discern your problems on the spot, so I suggest watching the Pendlay teaching progressions on Cal Strength’s website and routinely executing the basic cues (like “bar back” and “finish in your heels”). Your beef bugle will thank you.

29 thoughts on “The Importance of “Back”

  1. I love the specific mechanics of lifts posts, like this one and the press fix last week.
    On that note, I just figured out the cue of screwing my feet into the floor to keep my knees out. All that happened is that my toes could set a little more forward, my knees stayed out, depth got lower and torque was felt all the way from the floor, to the knees then to the hips. The difference is nothing short of amazing, an epiphany if you will. Knees out you say? Screw your feet into the floor! Holy shit, is that what you’ve been trying to say all this time?

  2. On occasion, when trying to get way under the bar I actually drop the bar behind me. Is that just a matter of not activating the shoulders or is there too much swing happening?

  3. My friend (who coincidentally is also named Justin) was on the Candian olympic team about 15 years ago. He told me that he was training with a guy who actually ripped his beef bugle off entirely this way. As in he had to have surgery and will never have to worry about Maury telling him he’s the father. That was all the warning I ever needed.

  4. Is your ‘soldier’ still working or did you experienced further damage?
    Answer ASAP please, my training session is about to start and I am scared to death!

  5. I am having a hard time seeing the difference between the “deadlift/jump” method Rip teaches and the method Pendlay shows in his videos. The start position seems to be the biggest difference, where Rip advocates a higher starting hip position like the deadlift. Rip also teaches it as the power movements not the full squat movement. Most of Pendlay’s cues and positioning though seemed pretty identical to what I learned at a Rip seminar. It seems to me the only adjustment to Rip’s methods would be to pull yourself under the bar for the full movements. Am I missing something? Is Rip’s method not the same as the jump/shrug method you mentioned here?

    I’ll be the first to admit I’m no expert at analyzing the lifts but just trying to go off my experience. Thanks.

  6. Last week’s snatch attempt at 165# put the bar way out front and me on my back. It is amazing how much a difference a small deviation can make. I walked away thinking that I’d not kept the bar nearly close enough, and also from being a bit timid in the catch and not wanting to lose it backward. Technique posts like this are great reminders of what to work on, so thank you Justin.

  7. I’ve recently made a few adjustments to my clean and snatch set-up/technique to try to transition to the “catapult” method and I’ve actually tied or broke PRs in both lifts without lifting shoes or a belt. The main points that help me are – setting up with the bar over the base of the toes (the low end of the shoe strings) versus over the middle of the foot, keeping the ass down and chest up (that’s the way we like to…oh nevermind), and of course keeping the bar back and finishing in the heels.

    The only time I ever almost decapitated my pet lizard was doing “Isabel” – 30 power snatches @ 135# for time. Go figure.

  8. Is the idea here that rather than emphasizing the shrug upwards with the shoulders, that the shrug is entirely backwards? or is this more of how you position the shoulder joint at the start, i.e. tension in the back direction at the beginning of the first pull?

  9. I’m sure I’ve missed it at some point, but (Justin) could you refer me to a good beginner program for the Olympic Lifts? Meaning videos, workouts, etc. Would be much appreciated. And yes, I mean in addition to Cal Strength’s website.

  10. Please dont ever say to lift on the heels again. Theres ton’s of research dating back to the Soviet Era that clearly states that the weight only goes as far back as “over the ankle” after the 1st pull, after that the hips come back in, quads re-engage and you finish on toes, aka ball of your foot. There are literally 0 papers that state lifting on the heels is correct.

    Also you cannot compare a jump/shrug to the catapult, because the catapult is just plain wrong. Also stating that a jump shrug leaves you floaty is a misnomer, because that just means the lifter isnt engaging the arms, hips, and traps quick enough. Anyone can leave the ground using any technique, but its the speed that which the lifter engages the arms that determines floatiness. This is a timing issue, not a technique issue.

    • Weight on the heels is merely a cue to keep them from allowing the weight to be too much on the forefoot and the bar going forward of the body. And to start to load the hamstrings before the repositioning of the DKR or scoop, whatever the hell you want to call it.

      Once that happens, it’s all over.

      You might finish on the toes, yes-Duh; but you do not purposefully rock into the ball of the foot to jump off as it will make you forward and we just said that is shitty.

      You push through the heels, they lift off the floor as you “jump” or “snap” the hips and you end up on the ball of the foot at the end of the 2nd pull.

  11. The real question is: how do I stop my dick flapping up and down like a YO YO when doing power shrugs? It’s impossible to do them heavy without the bar enjoying a side serving of beef on the way up.

  12. Do you have any experience in coaching the split snatch and split clean? I have an ankle that prevents me from front squatting due to limited dorsiflexion (it is a bone/cartilage issue not soft tissue). I haven’t found many resources out there for the split versions of the olympic lifts. Do you know of any?

  13. For Q&A:

    After a few months of training interruptions, I’ve got plenty of time and energy to train for the next 6-8 months. I should be able to eat, sleep and lift well. I just started Texas Method back up, starting with pretty conservative starting weights relative to what I can actually lift. I’m not scheduled to hit any volume or intensity PRs for about 3 months. After running Texas Method last time, I switched to Hepburn singles/pump sets, which was great and I got a lot of progress out of it. But I want to try somethign new. Hepburn was really, really fucking hard. Harder than TM for sure. But I want to do the hardest thing possible while I still can, so I’m thinking of doing a 13-week Smolov cycle after TM. So when I inevitably start stalling on TM around January or February, I’d take a week off and then start Smolov instead of resetting on TM.

    I read what you said about Smolov here http://70sbig.com/blog/2012/09/qa-43/. This guy’s circumstances are a little different than mine though. I have plenty of time to train and sleep since it’ll be my main priority. Could you write a little bit more about what you think of Smolov for a guy with pretty good recovery capabilities?

    Basically there are two things going on here. I exercise and lift weights because I want to be as strong and fit as possible. But I also think that the discomfort of lifting builds character, so if I can get awesome results by going through more discomfort via something like Smolov, I’m all for it. I just turned 26, my PRs are sq415, bench295, dl452. I would say I have anything but Low-T (bro). I don’t use drugs for lifting or anything, just plenty of eggs, beef, fruits and vegetables. Thanks in advance!!!

    • why the hell would you program TM to hit NO intensity day PRs for THREE FUCKING MONTHS!? I can understand having maybe 2 or at the most 3 weeks to get used to the schedule / ramp up to some PR weights. but the whole POINT of TM or any intermediate program is to hit PRs in either weekly, bi weekly, or in some cases monthly. BUT 3 months to hit any sort of PR (not even 1rm like a 2-5RM on any of your lifts) sounds like a bad deal.

      Eat some carbs, get your protein, take a week or two to get used to the schedule and smash some PRs Maslow.

      • I agree with this man. Maybe do some ascending triples your first ID to try and figure out where your strength is currently sitting. It’s good to be conservative at first but you can definitely be too conservative.

      • Thanks for the feedback. I see what you guys are saying and maybe I’ll take your advice and bump up my weights through LP before going on TM again. The thing is I was doing a singles program before, so the top weights I was lifting were just for one rep, and I increased my 1RM by 45 lbs through that program. I hit those PRs in early April. I also haven’t been able to train really hard and consistently since early June to due travel, getting married and more travel, so the weight I can do right now is low by comparison. So it will take me a little while longer to get into PR territory since with TM I’ll be doing x5 or x3 for the top weights. But the really sad thing is that I weighed myself after lifting yesterday and I came in at a 90s Small 187 lbs. (Down from ~200). (I’m 5’9″) I’m still curious about Smolov.

        • Totally get it man. But after pounding singles, then doing nothing. The transition wont be bad at all.

          ill use my squat as an example. my PR is 455. If I wanted to ramp to something to beat that. (ill use 5’s as an example)

          My volume day would start out light. Like 70% of my max for 3 sets of 5. So 320.

          320 x 3 sets of 5 reps for volume my first week.(this is a medium volume if you’re using prileprin’s chart)

          then my first intesity would be something in the 80-85ish% range. So 370 or so for 5. (estimated max of 430)

          that first week would be easily doable even if coming off a layoff. If youre really nervous take your best maxes and shave 10% of them and use those same percentages I just posted for your first week.

          So then next week I would keep my volume the same probably do them beltless.

          intensity would be 375 or 380×5, So on and so forth. adding 5-10lbs each week till that set of 5 becomes a 9.5 on the RPE scale, then I would stick with 5lb jumps till a failed 5’s intensity day. then transition to 3’s on that day but probably bumping up the volume day percentage and keeping it at 5’s. just to kind of recoup some volume.

          Might even drop 10% off my 3’s intensity weight once completed and do some back off work too. But thats just me and probably not something you would want to do.

          just some thoughts! Good luck dude!

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