I spent most of the Mondays in September and October talking about ways to get your lady friend into lifting weights. The goal wasn’t necessarily to brain wash her and turn her into a lifter, but to teach and implement quality barbell training and high intensity conditioning. Today I want to talk about transitioning from the “slow lifts” to the Olympic lifts. This will not be approached from the perspective of a weightlifter with the result of having a girl compete in weightlifting (although that’s cool). Instead, we’re merely going to add things to the program to have a general strength and conditioning focus that is fun.
By this time the lady in question will understand the utility in lifting and enjoy it. If she didn’t have any experience with lifting, it may be a good idea to get about half a year of lifting before worrying about this transition. Even if the gal has an athletic background, mastering the intricacies of body position while lifting can take time (every girl won’t be like Eva Twardokens or Lindsay Taylor). Pre-existing musculature, strength, coordination, injuries, and skill will dictate when the transition should happen, but if there is no lifting history and athletic history is limited to high school, then don’t rush it. Remember, the idea with gals who are skeptical of lifting is to progress them slowly yet consistently. In order to shift into the snatch and clean and jerk, here are some preliminary lifts to use for a while to ease the transition.
The Front Squat
The first amendment to a standard program is to throw in front squats about once a week. If she was already high barring, then this won’t be a big change, but if she was low barring this will help quite a bit. I’ve seen the front squat solidify positioning in the LB squat and develop quadriceps musculature faster than the low bar. Even more important is that it teaches a good rack position. The elbows should be up and in, and the bar can rest back in the fingers (as opposed to gripping the bar in the fists). Note that the elbows should be “in”; this puts the shoulder in external rotation to allow a good “chest up” position with the shoulders “back and down” in their socket. If the elbows are in, then she won’t need to think about any of that, but will need to maintain the “chest to chin” cue I’ve mentioned here before. The squat itself has the same cues as a high bar squat: “shove the knees out” and “heels out of the bottom” (shortened to “knees out” and “heels”). The rack position consists of passive cues that she shouldn’t have to think about (but should be corrected from day one) while the “knees” and “heels” cues are active cues that typically need emphasis while the movement occurs. The following position is a pretty good rack position, although I’d see if she can bring them “in” or closer together a little more.
Use the front squat every week, but not exclusively. If there are three training sessions a week, make one a front squat session. If there are only two sessions, then front squat on one of them. If high bar is already being used, consider front squatting before or after the HB squat on a volume-type day to teach the rack position.
The push-press can act as the intermediary between the regular standing press and the jerk. It also is a programming boost to pressing strength as it will allow more weight to be handled through a similar range of motion. The rack position in this movement is slightly different than the front squat, but it’s imperative to get it right. The grip may have to be more narrow than the front squat grip, yet it can be a finger width or two wider than the press grip (but no wider; the grip-width mechanics of the press still apply in the push-press). If possible, she can have more hand contact on the bar and even wrapping her fingers, but this is secondary to having the bar sit on her deltoids and upper chest. The bar must have as much surface area contact as possible on the anterior shoulders so that the dip/drive applied from the legs and hips travels through the torso and into the bar instead of through the torso, through the shoulders, down the arms, through the elbows and wrists, through the hands, and then into the bar. It’s okay to have the elbows pointed forward in a push-press rack like they are in a front squat rack. Just like in the jerk, the mechanics in the bottom range of motion are irrelevant because the power of the legs and hips is what actually moves the bar off the shoulders. The goal is to have a solid rack position to to drive the bar off the shoulders, and then smoothly lock it out with press mechanics (i.e. don’t internally rotate). All of the rack positions for the push-press on google are terrible (male or female), but I found one that is pretty good (see below). The fact that it looks similar to the front squat rack is fine. The fact that it’s only being done with 60kg is embarrassing.
The Hang Power Clean
Many Olympic lifting coaches hate the idea of jumping the bar upward, yet I’ve seen more novices and kids stand up with a bar and sit down to only become good at nothing. I’m just being a dickhead, but I believe that there is utility in teaching a powerful vertical jump in the Olympic movements early on as it will instill powerful pulls to move the bar up (the getting under it can come later). Non-Olympic lifters will benefit most from “jumping the bar” up as well as it helps improve their power more than focusing on getting under the bar. To finish this tangent, “getting under the bar” is a more advanced thing to worry about.
For someone who hasn’t done a quality power clean, this “jumping” idea is important. I like to use Rippetoe’s power clean teaching method because it’s absurdly simple and effective with beginners. I’ve taught an uncoordinated 65 year old cyclist how to power clean in less than five minutes (a lovable friend of ours in Texas; I won’t speak for Rip, but this was an accomplishment). In any case, that teaching method is in the Starting Strength books and is probably in some videos online (the DVD Rip sells has it, and it teaches it better than the book). The power clean is just a jump and a catch. Nothing more. Jump the bar to the shoulders. Very, very simple.
However, instead of doing the full progression, we’re just going to work with the “jumping position”, the jump, and the catch. Sometimes there aren’t bumper plates in a gym. Other gyms have them, but not any that are lighter than 25lbs (for 95 total lbs). The hang power clean will let the girl learn how to do the jump effectively with a weight that is easy to learn with. All she has to do is push her hips back to get to the jumping position, jump, and catch it on the shoulders (see image below). Note that in the “jumping position”, the shoulders are in front of the bar; this is important for stretching the hamstrings and utilizing them effectively in the jump.
In the first few sessions, focus on a vertical jump and the receiving position. The feet placement isn’t a big deal, but avoid allowing her to sprawl. If she’s been lifting for half a year and has done front squats and push-press, I’d be willing to bet she won’t sprawl the feet out or have much difficulty with the rack position. Remember that the front squat teaches the rack position and the push-press gets her comfortable with things flying past her face (giggity). Assuming that the jump and rack positions are solid, then say, “hands and feet together” for a cue to make the rack position and feet hitting the floor occur at the same time. This will speed up the rack and make it look snappy. Snappiness is important for female lifters because they often lack the aggressive speed needed for solid Olympic weightlifting.
By using the front squat, push-press, and hang power clean, your lady lifter will not get overloaded with trying to several motor pathways at once. Don’t implement them all at the same time. The front squat and push-press can often begin together, but weight for her to get comfortable on the front squat before messing with the hang power clean. While it may be possible to jump right into the snatch and clean and jerk, by allowing for a steady progression to learn pieces of the movements, you’ll ensure a successful transition. Set your lady up for success instead of failure and she’ll love and adhere to lifting better than constantly failing.