Olympic lifts are renowned for their ability to create more power. I am sure you have heard stories of Olympic lifters with extremely high vertical jumps, short sprint times faster than those of Olympic sprinters. (if not then you are likely hanging out with the wrong people).
You and your athletes aren’t leaping out of the gym and haven’t won a race against an Olympic sprinter in months (or longer), but you’re doing Olympic lifts 1, 2, or 3 days per week. So what gives?
One of the secrets of great Olympic lifting programs is the Olympic lift pull. These movements are the plateau busters, making your technique on point, and forcing you and your athletes to move bigger weights around with perfect form.
What are they?
Olympic lift pulls traditionally come in two forms (although we will talk about a couple variations), the pull (or low pull) and the high pull. In each movement the aim is to reach full hip extension, by accelerating the second pull from above the knee.
They are usually the first indoctrination with a new weight. Like Vin Diesel’s stand-in on the Fast 6 set, pulls are used before the whole scene gets filmed (or in Diesel’s case, the scene gets over acted), or in this case before the full lift gets performed. Every time I have ever reached a PR in the snatch or the clean, I “pulled” it for reps first.
Athletes use pulls to familiarize themselves with the weight on the bar, the athlete will learn to accelerate the bar from the floor and maintain position, and from above the knee and hit the proper positions along the way.
You can do pulls from the floor, from the hang or from blocks. I particularly like to do pulls from the floor because my biggest trouble spot in the Olympic lifts is keeping my chest up when moving the bar from the floor to the knee. You may have a different trouble spot, but using that type of logic should inform your decision on where to include pulls.
Pulls from a block and from the hang allow for a focus on only maximum acceleration of the bar. This is important to athletes, and lifters alike, but even more so to the athlete. Lifters need to learn how to maintain control off the floor until the bar passes the knee. Athletes are much more reliant on just overall power output to be successful in their sports meaning hang and block pulls can have a much higher benefit.
Different Types of pulls
There are plenty of variations of the pull that you can use in your programs, each has benefits and should be considered for inclusion in your program.
Clean and Snatch Deadlift
The most basic type of pull that we can do is the deadlift. This differs from the deadlift in the powerlifting sense because the entire goal is not to just pull the maximum amount of weight possible, but rather to pull the weight from the floor as we would try to pick up a maximal clean and jerk, or snatch.
Keep the torso at a consistent angle, drive through the floor, keep the chest up, and finish with the hips.
Dragging the bar up the legs, alternating grips are all not allowed. Mimic the movement of the bar leaving the ground like you are prepared to clean or snatch it.
The first pull that we use is just called a “pull” but some call it a low pull, or a straight arm pull. This is the most basic pull that we can use and is typically the first thing we do when teaching the Olympic lifts after learning the right start position.
After the initial learning phase pulls are used to overload the athlete with weights that they cannot complete for the full lift for a desired number of reps.
Completing a successful pull means that the athlete was able to both complete a successful 1st pull and 2nd pull, but no 3rd pull. This means that this lift is also well suited for athletes needing to reduce impact on their body.
In my gym we do pulls with 2 main focuses. First is to maintain the proper position of the torso throughout the first pull. This means maintaining the same or a very similar angle when the bar breaks the ground until it passes the knees, (we’ll talk a little more about what this should be in a moment.)
The second focus is to reach full hip extension at the top of the movement. I did not say triple extension, because for Olympic lifters triple extension (hip, knee, and ankle plantarflexion) and in particular ankle plantarflexion, is actually an impediment to receiving the bar. For athletes however, we are still not concerned with getting plantarflexion, but it is neither coached into or out of the athletes, unless of course plantarflexion is occurring before hip extension
The High Pull
The second type of pull that we use is called a high pull. There are 2 competing thoughts about how the high pull should be completed and I see benefit in both.
The first type of high pull is all about hip extension. Once the athlete has cleared the knees with the bar, a rapid acceleration takes place and the bar is moved through the time that the athlete reaches hip extension. At this point the athlete flexes the elbows and allows them to drift up.
This type of high pull is a great way to develop more power in the lift, and is also a great qualitative check to see if an athlete is capable of achieving enough height on their pull to then move under and receive the bar. In the video below, I am using a drill from Olympic champion Tommy Kono to check that my snatch is reaching the height necessary to move under the bar.
The second type of high pull is about making a transition to moving under the bar. So once the athlete reaches hip extension and the arms begin to flex, the athlete should begin to move their hips down and chest towards the bar. For my purposes this is best used as a drill for athletes that are having difficulty in making the transition to move under the bar.
The Pull to knee
The pull to knee is really just a variation on the deadlift, where the athlete stops the pulling motion at the knee level, and then returns to the ground. This is used when the position from the ground is the limiting factor in moving to greater weights.
Setting up in a more vertical position than most people attempt is important in this drill. With the arms aligned vertically over the bar the athlete will need to sweep the bar back into their body.
As the bar breaks the ground the torso should remain at an almost constant angle from that moment until the bar passes the knees. This drill should be used to eliminate the problem of hips drifting up as the bar leaves the ground.
Used singularly, pulls are a great way to improve technique and maximal power output. My favorite way to use pulls, though, is not by themselves, it is through the use of combos.
Typically we will use pulls in combination with a full lift to groove a particular pattern. So for instance, we could do a clean pull to knee and then put it together with a hang power clean, or take it back to the floor and do a clean. This movement would help athletes get double the reps and feel for the position that they need to be in as the bar leaves the ground.
Another awesome combo…
Any effective Olympic lifting program should have 3 things in it: The whole lift, pulls (including deadlifts), and squats. Sure there should be plenty of other stuff, like pressing, but in the most basic sense, these are the 3 things that a program needs to make athletes better Olympic lifters.
Using pulls can be as simple as adding several sets after your do your work with the full lift. Full lifts should be done prior to doing pulls to let you focus on completing the more technical lifts in the freshest state possible.
Loading of the low pull can go up to 110% of your repetition maximum at any given number, but doing so frequently may sacrifice technique over the long haul. Regardless of how you choose to load it, be very mindful of the technique you are using to complete the movements.
In my programs we only choose to go over 100% of the 1RM on few occasions, typically 1-2x per 3-4 week mesocycle. This ensures that the majority of the pulls completed in training are done with amazing technique at the 80-95% 1RM range. Scheduling these “semi-frequent” heavy sessions allow the athlete to get ready for moving some serious weight, but not tax them too much for every session.
For the everyday athlete, the pull is the perfect tool to use to bust through plateaus. We use pulls for athletes to reduce the impact of receiving the bar during in season phases and de-loading periods of training.
The pull is a big part of a good Olympic lifting program, but even more than that it is a part of any good training program for all athletes when Olympic lifting and power production are prioritized.