The Two Phases of the Olympic Lifts: A Beginner's Guide

Weightlifting is an amazing sport that has spawned the development of incredibly intricate technique and training methodology in order to produce continued world class performance by some of the greatest athletes on the planet. We use the training methods for weightlifting in CrossFit because they produce fantastic results for fitness as well. Weightlifting helps us to build strength through complete ranges of motion, develop coordination, increase flexibility (and challenges us to work a little extra on our flexibility outside of the gym). Along with these physical benefits, the challenge of learning the lifts makes them extremely rewarding and fun as well.

Having spent some time around the competitive lifters at Catalyst Athletics I picked up a ton of great information I like to share with my athletes. No one person is going to respond to a single set of cues to become a champion, but finding the right starting point to explain the lifts without over complicating things can really help to facilitate faster learning of these technical lifts from the beginning stages.

When you lift you have to initiate a first pull from the floor, stay over the bar until you finish your explosive drive upward in the second pull, have an accurate and aggressive third pull that leads to a balanced receipt of the bar in the overhead position with the feet landing milliseconds earlier, all the while keeping the body tight enough to support the load yet relaxed enough to move freely and with coordination. What’s more is these movements need to happen naturally and fluidly. Thinking about all these little pieces will create a train wreck for advanced athletes, over complicating things for a beginner will only create confusion and inhibit progress. 

From my experience both coaching and participating in group classes, athletes end up receiving a much abbreviated explanation of all these components in a period of minutes. If you’ve ever been in this overwhelming situation, you know that nothing gets retained and you are then forced to do your best to get the bar above your head any way you can. Down the line, this leads to extremely hard to break bad habits. 

Bad habits and imperfect technique may not sound like a big deal since most people do CrossFit simply to have fun and stay healthy. Trouble is, because it is fun, people stick with CrossFit for months and years. Eventually, when deciding to get better at lifting, you will have a million bad habits to break and work through. A greater understanding of the two basic phases that take place during the classic lifts is really easy to teach and can go a long way into getting folks moving in the right direction. 

Phase one is when the bar moves upwards. This phase is performed with the strength of the legs. The arms simply hold the bar in place, and perform zero work in the capacity of raising the bar away from the ground. Quality coaching plus effort from the athlete is of course required, but from this standpoint both coach and athlete can be on the same page and work to progress from a shared starting point. 

Phase two is moving the body down and around the bar. This happens after phase one and is the cause of the abrupt change of direction necessary to perform the lifts successfully at heavier and heavier loads. The arms are the driver of this phase, pulling hard in an effort to move the body underneath the bar, rather than raise it up. 

A general understanding of the goal of the snatch and clean and jerk can go a long way in helping to understand what is supposed to happen. Once you have this basic understanding additionals cues and components can be layered with an understanding that the overall goal remains the same. Up with the legs, down with the arms.

If you go back up to the photo of Lu Xiaojun at the top you can see in the first 8 frames is all phase 1 and then the next 3 frames constitute phase 2. Phase 2 is clearly fast. The rest is just stabilizing the bar and standing up.