I first wrote about the jerk last September. In that article, I reviewed basic concepts of the jerk such as the how the potential for stability varies with the base of support and the differential recruitment of the lower limbs during the catch or recovery. However, for some unknown reason, it seems that in general the snatch and the clean always get all the attention and the jerk is barely ever discussed. I am guilty of this too, since most of the technique articles I write cover mostly the snatch. I shall make wrong right.
The jerk will always be easier if it follows an easy clean, where the athlete rack the bar dynamically and stand up catching the bounce. However, you will often see athletes do a very easy clean only to miss the jerk. To improve their jerk, these athletes should be aware of the following concepts.
1. Foot position
Much has been said about the position in which the feet should land. Again, I will refer you to my description of the base of support from my last article on that very same topic. Consider the fact that the whole point of the jerk is to give momentum to the bar, so that you can push yourself under and lock the bar above your head. How can you complete this task without stability?
Athletes that always catch the bar forward or always recover from the jerk by bring back the back leg first are, in other words, athletes lifting in unstable positions. The concept of base of support is useful to prevent this from happening. Put simply, you need your base of support to be long and wide so your center of gravity is lower to the ground. This gives you more leeway to stabilize the weight.
Also doing so puts you in advantageous positions where the mechanics of the body is favored. I have seen so many athletes clean easily a weight, only to jerk it without going for a long and wide base of support because that’s their favored split position (although it’s wrong). It makes them very inconstant. Allow me to explain what I mean by wrong split positions. In most of these cases, the knee of the forward leg is actually in front of the ankle of the same foot. The athlete just cannot push himself to stabilize himself nor could he recover correctly (hence the recovery using the back leg first… or should I say, the ‘’saving’’ of the lift).
Most of the time, this is coupled with a very straight back leg. While there is no doubt that some athletes do well using the straight back leg technique, most fail because it is often coupled with having the torso inclined forward. This is due to over extension of the hip on that side. In contrast, athletes who bend well the back leg will often have the hips in a neutral position and a more upright torso. Overhead lunges, in the optimal split stance for your body, are probably the best exercise to improve your flexibility and getting used to bending the back leg.
2. Overhead stability
As just covered, overhead stability will be much improved if the feet are in the proper position, meaning the feet are outside of the medial line and if the athlete reached well enough. However, even if your base of support has the potential for great stability, many are still unstable overhead.
More often than not, this is due to an unstable torso. Either the core is weak, or in some cases, the shoulders are not stable enough, meaning the shoulder musculature does not fixate (ie : make immobile) the shoulders. Both issues can be fixed with the use of various type of standing presses or push presses, amongst other things.
A known American weightlifting writer has written an article about how using presses and push presses is a bad idea to improve the jerk. His argument is that the shoulder pressing muscles are not used in the same way in the Jerk. His point is that the pressing movements are not specific enough and thus, their benefits are limited when it comes to improve the jerk.
Although the recruitment of specific muscles, the type of muscle contraction and even the timing of muscle recruitment are different – at least to some extent- in both movements, it does not make the pressing movement useless. There is such a thing as too much specificity in weightlifting – and it often leads to muscular imbalances.
Pressing a barbell above head is a slower movement, which means that stabilizing muscles (ie: the core for the most part) work for a longer period of time. Slower movements mean you have more control thus you can make changes as the movement is happening. Moreover, you cannot press heavy weights above head and be unstable. Finally, the ‘’punching of the head’’ (head forward) as the bar clears the face is a very important skill to have when you are executing a jerk. It brings the bar back over the shoulders, in line with the hips and right in the middle of the base of support.
To say that presses are only a shoulder exercise is inaccurate. One should not only analyze the action of prime movers and should look at the whole picture. Doing so will shed light on the benefits – or lack of benefits- of an exercise. Presses are a valid tool to improve ‘’head punching’’, improve overhead stability and core bracing, and teaches to be aware of where the bar is travelling. Presses should not be overdone and should only complement/supplement your clean and jerks, rather than replace it completely. They should also not prevent you from doing your jerks (ie: due to soreness, for instance). Personally, I cycle them in and out in my programming.
3. We want to see your double chin
A lifter of mine said I should make sure to write about this funny cue of mine: ‘’show me your double chin’’. The first time I said it, people laughed because nobody really wants to be seen in that type of position. After the good laugh, she tried doing what I told her to do and she made her jerks much better. They were more stable, she had better position and the bar traveled much better overhead.
This cue, although funny, is fundamental to the success of the jerk. Most people jerk the bar forward for two reasons. The first reason is that they are afraid of hitting their chin. Believe it or not, sometimes it is even unconscious. The second reason is that, as they dip, the torso inclines forward. This is often due to the lifter associated the dip with a jumping motion as people uses the back quite a bit when jumping for height.
Thus, whenever I say show me your double chin, what I really want is for your chin to be tucked in. The result of this is not negligible. The upper back musculature becomes more involved because the lifter has to be in a more upright position to tuck the chin in. This makes it impossible for the lifter to incline forward as they dip. Since naturally the center of gravity of a normal standing human being is in the midfoot, tucking the chin in brings the center of gravity towards the heel. This is important because the barbell is trying to bring you to your toes as gravity is acting on it. Also, the chin is no longer over the bar making the fear of hitting it disappear. If you are similar to my athletes, I know you will benefit from following this cue. Try it and get back to me.