The jerk (of clean and jerk fame and not Steve Martin fame) is one of the most under utilized lifts we have in our arsenal. At some point having your athletes go to an overhead position got a bad rap and the jerk, sadly enough, went along with it.
Because of the rap sheet that overhead pressing has been saddled with, lots of athletes don’t even know how to jerk, or even where to begin. So I laid it all out on the Internet: exactly how to jerk, exactly how to teach the jerk, and ways to fix your jerk if you are having trouble with the technique.
This post is everything you need to know about how to jerk.
Benefits of the Jerk
A lot of the benefits associated with the jerk can be found in my other Olympic lifting post on the Power Clean LINK. Gaining power, and improving sports performance are just as likely to happen when athletes do the jerk as when they do the power clean.
Balance Explosive Qualities
As the power clean is to hip dominant movement, the jerk is to quad dominant movement. There is very little hip hinging that goes along with the jerk, so athletes that do the jerk will gain power and explosive ability in quad dominant movement to balance themselves out.
Upper Body Strength
Even though much of the movement is generated and created by the lower body, it takes a lot of strength to hold heavy weights overhead. By explosively moving the bar overhead athletes will need to be required to stabilize and support rather than just push but will still create greater upper body strength.
Single Leg Strength
Landing in the split position requires great stability in the lead leg, similar to the striking of the foot to the ground while in sprinting. Single leg strength and stability is often the limiting factor for athletes looking to get faster and even stronger in bilateral stance (like the squat).
The jerk can be broken down into two parts, the set up and the execution (which is really broken down to 2 or 3 parts too). Like any movement if the set up is incorrect it will be very difficult to execute in the correct positions.
The Set Up
Setting up properly isn’t just as simple as getting in the exact position you use to come up from a clean. If you are doing a clean and jerk it is important to re-set your body in the positions below rather than just going with where you stand at the end of your clean.
The bar position on the athlete’s body is one of the most important aspects of the jerk. The bar should rest high on the chest and across the front of the athlete’s upper shoulder. To keep the bar off of the neck the scapula should be protracted and elevated.
The width of the feet is highly individual but should be near hip width to shoulder width regardless of the athlete. The athlete should have their toes angled outward up to 30 degrees to facilitate the “dip” portion of the lift later on. The most important thing to remember is that the feet must remain flat while the bar is racked at the chest. They will remain flat through most of the movement.
The grip position for the jerk can be just as wide as for the clean, but most athletes will find it beneficial to have a grip slightly wider than what they would use for the clean. As the athlete dips, the bar will flex slightly and gravity will assist in its downward momentum, a wider grip will increase the base of support through the dip phase and allow for a faster recovery.
The actual arm position for the jerk can vary depending upon the athlete. Some athletes will feel very comfortable with the upper arms parallel to the floor, in the same manner that they receive a clean. Most athletes, however, will need to adjust their grip so that their forearms and upper arms are beneath the bar. It should be noted that the weight of the bar will still be resting on the shoulders and chest rather than on the wrists.
Posture and Core
The posture should be tight and braced throughout the jerk. Athletes need to remember that their lower body is generating the force and it is being displayed through the upper body, in this mode the core is working to re-direct force. The most likely error that I see in novice athletes is a flexed thoracic spine, athletes should extend the thoracic spine to keep the most neutral position possible.
The execution can be broken down into 3 parts: the dip, the drive, and the split. It should be noted though that once the drive has been initiated there is little that can be changed and then motor patterns that are firmly established will kick in.
Once the athlete is set up in the proper positioning the next step is to begin harnessing the power of the stretch shortening cycle to complete the lift. Technically speaking athletes should dip with their knees “out,” meaning the femur must be externally rotated, and go over the toes. The upper body should remain almost completely vertical to reduce any forward movement of the bar. This position is in contrast to the hip dominant position of the clean and snatch, and is what ultimately makes the jerk the most awesome quad dominant movement in the world.
It is super important that throughout the dip portion of the jerk that the athlete maintain flat feet rather than move towards the toes. The depth of the dip before the drive phase should be roughly to a quarter squat level, but to specify a certain distance is not appropriate, most athletes will have a feel of the proper depth for them, indications that they are at the wrong depth will be apparent as they struggle to change directions.
This minimal depth will allow for the greatest power during the drive, and should be executed quickly. The bottom of the dip is the braking portion where downward momentum is stopped. To really get down to it, the goal of the dip should be complete the movement quickly and on balance.
The greatest lifters in the world actually use the dip and the subsequent oscillation of the bar as they change direction to assist in the execution of the lift. A great technical “feel” for the lift is necessary to do this, and a $1500 bar doesn’t hurt either.
Once the dip is completed to the quarter squat level, explosive extension of the knee and hip should immediately follow. The torso should remain vertical, or even extended in the sagittal plane so that the bar may achieve a vertical, linear path.
Athletes that pause at the bottom of the dip before the drive phase are losing the potential energy that is being generated through the dip. The drive phase will create space between the lifter and the barbell. The goal of this phase for novice lifters is to create enough drive to move the bar to forehead level.
The split of the feet is ultimately the part of the lift that gives most people issues. There are many successful approaches to the split that I will discuss momentarily but each split should put the athlete a similar position.
Selection of the lead foot
To select which foot will be the lead foot just stand behind the athlete and give them a slight push, the foot with which they step forward to regain their balance will be their lead foot in the split jerk.
For most right-handed people that will be their left foot, for most left handed athletes that will be their right foot. There are exceptions however as I am right handed but execute the jerk with my right foot forward.
In training athletes it is important to alternate jerks with each foot forward. Only the competitive Olympic lifter should work primarily with one foot forward of the other.
The Goal of the Split
The ultimate goal of the split jerk is to expand the base of support in the sagittal plane to hold weight overhead. It really is that simple. It is for this reason that most athletes choose to do a split jerk over a squat jerk or power jerk, an expanded base of support provides more stability overhead.
The Position of the Split
Looking at the best Olympic lifters in the world will show that there are many varied positions for the split jerk. Some athletes have a low split, some have a high split, some spread their feet extremely far, while others keep their feet relative close.
With all of the positions athletes are producing a stabilizing force in the sagittal plane that will prevent them from toppling over. Despite the number of variations that you can find, there is an ideal position that produces the most stability for nearly every athlete.
The ideal position for most athletes is the 90/90 split squat extended. To find this position have athletes get in a ½ kneeling stance with the front and back leg at flexed at the knee to 90 degrees. This position will allow the athlete to maintain a bend in the back leg, but more importantly an extremely stable vertical shin position on the front leg.
The front foot should face forward and the back foot should be dorsiflexed and even slightly internally rotated. The width of the stance should be consistent with the width of the athletes hips or slightly wider.
Getting into Position
There are two common ways, or frames of thought, to get in the correct position. Essentially they will both do the same thing, but some athletes take to one set of cueing more than the other.
Punching the lead foot forward
This method for teaching the jerk is excellent for some lifters, it makes them think about driving the lead foot forward and keeping the feet low to the ground. The big draw back is that some athletes translate this cue to mean that their weight should shift forward and often times will catch the jerk with some anterior knee glide in the lead leg.
Jump and split
This is a method that I have been working with more recently. In this the athlete focuses on the aggressive drive phase until they get separation from the platform, at which point rather than drive the foot forward they should drive the lead knee up. This method gets athletes into a more advantageous receiving position more times than not, but sometimes can lead to passivity in the drive portion of the jerk.
Below is a comparison of these two strategies for getting into the right position.
Recovery from the Split
Recovering from the split position can cause a lot of problems for athletes when doing it wrong. Quite simply the athlete should recover with their front foot back towards the center first and then follow with the rear foot. Moving the rear foot first will cause a forward weight shift that will increase the likelihood of a missed lift.
Overhead Bar Position
When the athlete jerks the bar should end up in line with their spine. This can be cued in a variety of ways but it is effectively done by saying in line with or slightly behind the ears. This position grants the greatest stability overhead.
Learn How to Jerk
Learning to jerk is a multi-step process that should familiarize the athlete with the positions and stability necessary to complete this lift in the right way. Just putting jerks in your program and hitting “Play” is not the way to go. Take the time to teach your athletes the proper way to jerk through drills and strength training.
Overhead pressing can be done with a variety of tools before beginning to jerk. Using DB’s allows athletes that do not yet have the proper shoulder mobility to press safely and effectively overhead. Doing presses from the standing position is a great idea, but other variations are needed as well. To get some of the feel of the jerk have your athletes do the presses from a ½ kneeling or split stance using one dumbbell at a time. This position will teach the athletes the balance and core strength that are necessary to stick some solid weights overhead.
We press in the scapular plane when using dumbbells to provide the greatest stability, rather than pressing with a completely pronated grip. Pressing in the scapular plane also mimics the jerk and the correct positioning of the arms better than a pronated grip.
The last step in using an overhead press is to do barbell overhead presses from a split stance. At this point the athlete has likely developed strength for great overhead stability.
The dip is the part of the movement in which athletes will most likely go wrong, so it is super-duper important that they learn to do it correctly. Practice the dip with semi-challenging weights and have the athletes execute the downward movement. Their knees should not travel forward towards the big toes, but out towards the little toes. The depth of the dip is fairly individual, as some athletes are more comfortable at slightly greater depths than others and they all work as long as the athlete is not losing potential energy or getting in the wrong position.
The next step is to begin using the push press movement to feel the change in direction needed to execute a solid jerk. By now the athlete should be comfortable with the dip movement and will need to work on their drive phase.
The dip and drive portion of the lift will be exactly like the athlete is going to split jerk, but rather than leaving the ground and re-bending the knees the athlete should drive through the toes and press the bar out for the remainder of the lift. In essence this is a dynamic and explosive start to a movement followed by a strength type finish.
Behind the neck power jerk
Once the athlete has become comfortable with the technique of the push press they can move on to the behind the neck power jerk. The power jerk will mirror the push press for the dip and drive portion, but the athlete will receive the bar in an athletic position, feet slightly wider than the drive position. The level of the squat under will be greatly dependent on the athletes mobility, and the comfort level that they have with the overhead position.
One of the biggest difficulties with the power jerk position is that there is no adjustment in the sagittal plane to prevent toppling over. For this reason we often teach this movement from behind the neck. In the behind the neck position the bar can travel a straight path to overhead and remains over the base of support more easily.
Footwork drills for the jerk are done to establish a pattern of receiving the bar in the correct position. An athlete should strive for motor mastery, with the goal being to land in the split position. Set up in the bottom of a 90/90 split squat and mark the position of the feet with chalk or tape. The goal of each rep is to land with the feet in the same position as the chalk marks.
With no weight the athlete should set up in their dip and drive position. Once the athlete has completed their dip and drive they will split to the marked position using either the jump and split or the foot punch strategy.
Half jerks require just a barbell to complete and mimic the timing of the traditional jerk very closely. The athlete will start in the full 90/90 position extended with the bar overhead. They should bring the front foot back towards the body by 8-12 inches and bring the bar to forehead level. From this closer position they will drive the front foot up and forward and the bar overhead. The big key to this movement is that there is no movement of the hips in the sagittal plane, the hips will only rise and fall and will not move forward and back.
Behind the Neck Split Jerk
Finally we can begin to piece it all together. With the bar resting high on the back of the shoulders it is time to venture into using the split jerk. Dip and drive aggressively and execute the lift with either a punch and split or a foot drive methodology. Behind the neck split jerks are a great tool to use when doing jerks as a stand-alone movement.
The power jerk from the front racked position is an excellent tool to use while training athletes. It is a great power producing movement and allows the athlete to maintain a familiar athletic base, this is an excellent training tool for general athletes.
Several of the world’s best Olympic lifters have employed this technique to hit huge weights in competition. Typically those athletes are extremely strong overhead and their drive phase moves the barbell much higher than normal athletes are able.
Very few lifters, and even fewer athletes in training employ the squat jerk. This style requires great stability overhead, extreme mobility, and allows for very little technical variation.
In truth I am amazed by any lifter that is able to squat jerk any amount of weight!
Common Jerk Errors
There are plenty of errors that can occur while completing the jerk that can make an athlete miss the lift or not reach their full potential. For many years I received the bar in a stance that was too narrow. Once I was able to correct this problem I was able to become much more comfortable overhead. Some of the most common problems are listed below.
Bar forward at receiving position
A lot of errors in the Jerk occur when the athlete initiates the dip portion of the lift, and many of these will result in problems at the receiving positon. When the bar is forward in the receiving position the athlete may miss the lift which is an obvious sign of a problem, but many times could even make the lift. When making the lift and the bar is forward you will likely see a forward knee glide on the lead leg, or a recovery that will make the athlete step under and forward to the bar.
Potential Cause: Dipping to the toes
Dipping to the toes or the heels coming off the ground will lead to a forward shift of the weight and a likely missed lift forward or a need to recover forward and under the bar.
To correct this mistake:
Work on the dip portion of the lift and focus on maintaining a tripod foot position throughout the dip. The athlete should focus on keeping the heels down during the dip phase and in so doing will maintain a more stable platform from which to push and will be more balanced when overhead.
Potential Cause: Knees forward or valgus
If an athlete allows their knees to travel forward or collapse inward during the dip phase of the lift they will likely end up with a “bar forward” position overhead. When the knees travel forward there is a corresponding shift of the hips forward (and center of mass) causing the drive of the bar to be forward as well.
To correct this mistake:
Have your athletes practice the dip portion of the lift. While doing this they should focus on making the knees go out over the little toe rather than over the big toe. This movement help to maintain a more vertical torso position and result in the bar staying overhead and not travelling forward.
Potential Cause: Bar Slide
The idea of bar slide is that during the drive portion of the lift the bar begins to slide down the chest of the athlete. This is pretty common among athletes that are new to the jerk. The bar sliding down the chest will put the bar forward of the athlete’s center of mass and also accelerating at a slower rate than the rest of the body. Typically this error will lead to the bar being driven forward.
To correct this mistake:
The best way to correct a mistake like this is to work on keeping the bar high across the shoulder through the dip portion of the lift. If you jerk with elbows up then this shouldn’t be a problem, but if you bring your elbows under the bar as you prepare for the jerk it means that you must work on maintaining constant tension on the bar. Remember to elevate and protract the shoulder blades to get in the right position every time!
Think about the core positioning and the effectiveness of the bracing position that the athlete is in when preparing for the dip. If the athlete is not strong enough to handle the position then the weight is too heavy and some additional core stability work might be necessary.
Problems with your feet while receiving the bar.
There are several problems that can happen independent of the dip and drive portion of the jerk that only occur when receiving the bar. These will likely lead the athlete to becoming more unstable overhead and increase the likelihood of a missed lift.
Potential Cause: Narrow base in receiving position
When receiving the bar the athlete should aim to keep their feet the same width as their hips. Some athletes though will jerk to a narrower position than the one in which they started. This leads to issues with overhead stability from side to side, as well as the always present sagittal plane stability issues. Think of this in this way, the goal is to receive the bar on stable railroad tracks, not on a balance beam.
To correct this mistake:
Try jerking with a “block” between your legs. This block could be anything from a strip of tape to a broomstick, but the goal is to give immediate feedback as to the success of the lift. Using something like a broomstick should only be done with light weight until the athlete has shown they can not end up standing on the object (you can imagine how that might turn out, NOT GOOD).
Potential issue: Short/Long Feet
The position of optimal stability overhead is a 90/90 split squat extended. While many people have done a tremendous job of putting massive weight overhead with shorter or longer foot positions, our goal is to coach athletes into the 90/90 position. When athletes miss this position or show inconsistency many problems can occur about which we will have no control, because there is inconsistency.
To Correct this Mistake:
Mark out the proper position for the athlete to hit at the conclusion of each jerk, this can be done with tape, marker or paint. The goal of each jerk then is to provide visual evidence of the proper position and the athlete’s relationship with that correct position. A lot of repetition when learning and preparing to jerk is necessary to make this happen the right way.
Jerk assistance exercises
Many of the movements we use to teach the jerk can be employed to improve the technique and strength to get better at the jerk. We also use other valuable movements in improving the ability of the athlete to complete the lift.
Halting Jerks are an excellent training tool to use to create more confidence in the traditional jerk. Rather than take advantage of the stretch shortening cycle the athlete will pause at the bottom of the dip position for 2-3 seconds and then drive up overhead.
The idea behind this is to help overcome the great amount of weight in the bottom of the dip it will be beneficial to develop isometric strength. While the practicality of this movement may be in question there is much evidence that this is one hell of a movement, and definitely helps athletes build comfort in the jerk.
To really groove the footwork associated with the jerk “footwork combos” is a great tool to use. 3-5 repetitions should be done with no weight or very little weight in rapid succession with the goal being to land in the correct overhead position with each “jerk”. Immediately following the last light jerk the athlete should attempt a jerk with a more challenging weight.
Split Stance Pressing
The Jerk is the most dynamic lift that we can perform in the weightroom but one that also requires great strength and stability. To account for this need, we do plenty of split stance presses with the bar behind or in front of the neck. Look for a neutral posture and pelvis while overhead.
Well there it is, everything I know about the jerk and jerk technique. If you liked this article or learned something from this article please share it with your friends on facebook or twitter, I would greatly appreciate it.