Cut the Catch: How Not Catching the Bar on Olympic Lifts Unlocks Greater Strength and Power

Pulls could be the secret to producing Olympic lift power without the need to learn complicated technique.

Athletes, regardless of sport, need power. Power is the ability to express strength quickly. It shows up in jumping, throwing, kicking, hitting, sprinting, starting/stopping and changing directions. In other words, it's important for just about every sports skill.

Strength and conditioning coaches understand that power is essential to sports performance. As a result, there are a lot of exercises to train power. One of the most popular types of exercises are the Olympic lifts.

The Olympic lifts include variations of the Clean, Snatch and Jerk. Regardless of the exercise, all three of them have movements in common. All of them start with the bar on the floor (Snatch, Clean) or on the shoulders (Jerk). They have an initial movement that helps to put the bar into position. In the Snatch and Clean, this is when the bar is lifted from the floor to thigh height. In the Jerk, this is when a quick quarter squat is performed with the bar on the front of the shoulders. After that, there's an explosive movement that moves the bar. Finally, each of these lifts has a part when an athlete moves under the bar and "catches" it. In the Clean, the bar is "caught" on the front of the shoulders. In the Snatch and Jerk, it is caught overhead.

The argument for using these lifts as part of a strength and conditioning program to develop power is that they are performed standing up, just like sports. They involve the entire body moving, just like sports. Regardless of the weight on the bar, the exercises have to be done in about a second and a half to be successful, which means they are very explosive.

Here's the challenge with these exercises: they are extremely hard to learn to perform correctly. I've often described them as doing gymnastics with a barbell. And, like gymnastics, you won't have much success learning these lifts without a good coach. It also takes a long time to learn the techniques associated with these Olympic lifts. It is not unusual to take up to six months to learn these lifts.

The good news is that there's a variation of the Olympic lifts that can save much of these technique headaches. These variations are called Pulls. Pulls basically involve doing all the parts of the lift except actually moving under the bar and "catching" it. In other words, Pulls are about performing the explosive part of the lift (and therefore developing power) without worrying about catching the bar (which is the hardest part). Paul Comfort, a researcher at the University of Salford, has done a lot of research looking at Pulls and power development. His research has found that High Pulls are actually superior to the full movement (i.e., catching the bar) in terms of power development, force production and rate of force development—all of which are essential for athletes.

RELATED: Build Max Power With These Pulling Exercises

If that's the case, why aren't we all just doing Pulls? Well, the thought process goes that when we "catch" the bar in Olympic lifts, we have to absorb that impact. The argument is that the absorption of the impact is important for developing our total body strength. However, Comfort's lab also found that "catching" the bar isn't better for developing this strength than the High Pull or than another exercise called Jump Squats. In other words, the argument for catching the bar doesn't hold up.

How to Perform Pulls

For this article, I'm going to describe both Clean and Snatch-Grip Pulls. The setup for both is similar. The barbell is placed on the floor. Approach it with the feet hip-width apart. Squat down and take either a clean-width grip on the bar (typically a bit wider than shoulder width) or a snatch-width grip (typically wider than the clean-width grip). Stick the chest out and pull the shoulders back. Raise the hips high enough so that if a line is drawn straight down from the shoulders to the ground, it will end up in front of the bar.

Keeping the arms straight, extend the hips and knees and lift the bar so that it reaches the height of the thighs. From here, you're required to do several movements simultaneously. This includes violently extending the hips so the shoulders move behind the bar. As you do this, rise onto your toes and shrug your shoulders up. Lower the bar back to the floor and repeat.

There is another variation of the pull exercise called a "High Pull." This exercise is performed exactly like the one previously described with one key difference. As the hips are extended, the shoulders are shrugged and you move onto your toes, relax your arms and allow them to flex—letting you bring the bar to the height of your chest.

How to Use Pulls

If we're doing Pulls then we don't have to worry about platforms and special bumper plates, because we don't need to drop the barbell if we get into trouble. That means we can use barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells or even sandbags to perform the Pulls. This allows for a lot of variety.

So, how do you use Pulls? Just like the Olympic lifts, the focus needs to be on correct technique and speed of movement. So we want to avoid doing more than six repetitions a set. We still want to do three to five sets an exercise. We also want full recovery between each set. We should be training at 60-80% of maximum because our focus is on speed of movement. Just like the Olympic lifts, they should be performed toward the beginning of a workout while the athlete is still fresh.

Below is an example of weekly workouts using the pull exercise:

Monday

  • Back Squats, 3x4-8@85%
  • Romanian Deadlifts, 3x4-8
  • Bench Press, 3x4-8@85%
  • Bent-over Rows, 3x4-8
  • Military Press, 3x4-8

Tuesday

  • Snatch High Pulls, 3x6@70%
  • Clean Pulls, 3x6@70%
  • Jump Squats, 3x4-8@30%

Wednesday

  • Off Day

Thursday

  • Split Squats, 3x12-15@60%
  • Lunges, 3x12-15
  • Good Mornings, 3x6-10
  • Back Raises, 3x15-20

Friday

  • Superset: Dumbbell Bench Press and Single-Arm Dumbbell Row, 3x12-15 each
  • Superset: Dips and Pull-Ups, 3xAMRAP
  • Superset: Front Raises, Side Raises, Rear Delt Raises, 3x10 each

Photo Credit: RyanJLane/iStock

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Topics: LOWER BODY | POWER CLEAN | HANG CLEAN | STRENGTH COACH | POWER | PULLS | CLEAN | STRENGTH AND CONDITIONING | SNATCH