The reason why weightlitfting is such a great form of exercise, aside from the obvious physical sexiness, is there is no feeling of accomplishment better than conquering something that weights one, two or three times as much as you do. It’s mental, it’s physical and it resonates deeply each and every time you PR, regardless if you’re powerlifting or Olympic lifting.
On the flip side, no activity can be so frustrating since the results are entirely black and white. You either move the weight or it defeats you. In my days as collegiate athlete, we used powerlifting to prepare for activity of sport. Getting stronger and increasing our weight was task-specific to our sport, so the failures in our training were ultimately not that meaningful.
However, when weightlifting is the sport, the results are much more in your face and demoralizing when you suck at it.
There is no shortage of philosophy or school of thought to help get you out of that rut or past that movement that is giving you difficulty. While the prescription of accessory lifts to get you past a sticking point can certainly be appropriate and beneficial, often times, it just takes a slight mechanical adjustment rather than complete strength overhaul.
Here are seven tweaks to common exercises that may get you past a sticking point.
Problem: Can’t Ascend Powerfully Out of Squat Stance
Solution: Point Your Toes Out
I am a believer in the school of thought that says the positioning of your toes and feet when you squat should be dictated by your natural stance, or gait. For example, when you are having a conversation face to face with a person, your feet will naturally fall a certain direction when you stand. Some people are straight on, others duck footed. I am the latter so when I squat my toes go way out to the side.
However, often times people overcompensate and tend to point their toes straight ahead when it’s not how they would naturally stand, or vice versa. Forcing alignment of the toes in a direction not conducive with your body’s make can be damaging on the knees over time.
Pointing your toes outward will open up your hips, giving you both increased range of motion and more power off the floor. You’ll feel a lot stronger and generate more force back against the ground, making the more difficult concentric portion of the lift easier.
It’s definitely not for everyone but give it a try on your warm-up sets next time you squat if power is an issue. I’ve seen it immediately work mid lift for folks upwards of 300# and beyond. Instantly improved depth and push back on the floor.
It could be also be an issue of bar placement.
Problem: Failing Grip
Solution: Switch to Hook Grip
Caveat: I do not currently use the hook grip on cleans, but I do on snatches. I believe it works very well on cleans as I have seen and coached members to use it, it just personally feels very uncomfortable and reduces my confidence in the lift off. For those who have switched to it, I’ve seen lifts go up ten pounds instantly as the increased friction it provides keep the bar on your person for longer, but it does take some getting used to at lighter load and increased volume. This is particularly true with the snatch as the overhead release can be tricky.
Coaches who like the hook grip REALLY like the hook grip. I’m told renown coach Mike Burgener is such an emphatic supporter of the hook grip makes his athletes do burpees if they don’t employ it, and I am not here to doubt its effectiveness or the methods of an expert. Promoting the hook grip is not an original thought by any means, it’s been around for years and is used in the Olympics by many.
However, I also know that grip is the single most important aspect of any pulling exercise and if you are not confident with your grip, you won’t accomplish the lift, so we don’t force this grip.
While recently training in a workshop with Hall of Fame USA Weightlifting Coach Bob Takano I asked him about the hook grip and he said flatly, “use what is comfortable”. Each lifter is different and should be decided based on hand size, grip strength and overall feel of the bar.
I’ve seen folks in the gym transfer to the hook grip and instantly take their hang clean over 200 pounds, a very grip intensive exercise. On the flip side, we’ve also seen multiple 250# + hang cleans so it can certainly be bypassed.
If grip is an issue, I would definitely try it. It just might be the easy answer for your problems getting the bar to chest.
Problem 1: Can’t Move the Weight Off the Floor
Solution 1: Narrow Your Stance
The obvious answer to this problem is to prescribe defecit deadlifts, rack pulls or sumo stance pulls in order to better target glutes and power off the floor. Those exercises definitely work and if you are having trouble moving the weight on lift off, those will help you.
However, sometimes it can be more obvious than that and you can save the shenanigans of the accessory lifts.
Often times deadlifters simply set up far too wide with their feet, creating a movement pattern using weak levers before the movement even begins.
Lifting something heavy is simple engineering. You want your foundation and your levers moving as efficiently as possible and when your ankles are not aligned with your knees and hips, you are not in a strong lifting position.
Here is a an example of a deadlift set up that is too wide (you have to scroll down to #1).
Solution 2: White Out Your Knuckles
While targeting glutes and deficits is the most effective way to work on speed off the floor, people often times forget about the aspect of plain ole’ grip. After all, you are moving something hundreds of pounds, shouldn’t you have a firm grasp on that which doesn’t want to be moved?
One trick I learned from StrongLifts.com is to spend an extra few seconds at the bar setting up proper grip, which is in the middle of your hand towards the end of your palm, not in your finger tips and not towards your thumbs. Once in this position, grip the bar with all of your might producing the “white knuckle effect.” This secures a tight, immobile bar that is more likely to fight gravity on the pull.
Problem: Can’t Create Enough Leverage
Solution: Drop Your Elbows
I have never been a teacher or lifter that aggressively points elbows out prior to the jerk, regardless if a trainee is resetting after a clean or taking off the rack. Personally, I am in my strongest power position when my elbows point more towards the floor than straight ahead.
This is entirely dependent on the lifter and where he/she feels strongest.
It is easy to lose energy on the jerk if you cannot seamlessly drive the weight up from the 90 degree elbow position, so if you are not highly seasoned then I definitely recommend you point your elbows more towards the floor than the wall in front of you.
This is not like the front squat where downward elbows will push your weight forward and lose your balance. This set-up places the wrist and elbow more in line with the upward movement of the jerk, allowing a more rapid application of force.
Don’t force elbows up if you don’t feel powerful, it’s simply not required or ideal for all lifters, so if you are having trouble in that position try spacing your hands and angling them down a bit.
Problem: Feel Like You’re “Muscling Up” a Hang Clean
Solution: Improve Your Descent Angle
One of the single most important parts of completing a single heavy hang clean is creating momentum on the descent, and that is dictated by chest to knee angle.
An inefficient hang clean will have the athletes knees far out in front of the chest, with the chest remaining back and centered over the hips on the descent. A lot of people teach this, just slide the bar down the thigh and remain upright, but you are leaving a lot of power on the table that way. You won’t generate a ton of force off the ground this way, so if you feel as though you are muscling up the weight, you are probably stuck in that “chest back” position.
You want more of a “power angle” with your hips back and your chest forward, almost as if you were going to continue that rep down into a deadlift.
The object here is to move the weight from above knee to catch and front rack position. How you start should be all about power and completely flexible to generate that needed power. Every action has an equal or opposite reaction and if you dip forward, you’ll typically swing back to proper extension before pulling yourself under.
If you don’t feel as if you’re getting maximum drive off the ground then try a more forward leaning descent.
Problem: Lose Balance on Heavy Weight
Solution: Quit Treating it Like a Back Squat
The eccentric portion of a back squat and front squat are totally different and if you try and emulate the back squat with your front squat then you’re in for some trouble.
On a back squat, you shoot your weight into your heels on the descent and it’s more of a simultaneous backward/downward angle, almost like you are riding an escalator.
On a front squat, your knees are going to be past your toes way more and your butt is essentially going straight down on the descent. You don’t sit back into your heels on a heavy front squat. You could try but I promise you won’t stand the weight up.
“Butt back” is an insufficient cue when front squatting. While “butt back” will get the weight properly in your heels, it sends too much weight into the heels. When you front squat heavy weight, you’re going to have some weight in your toes and your knees are certainly going to go way past your toes. Don’t be afraid of it.
This article is not meant to re-invent the wheel. If your lifts are fine and you feel strong and balanced, don’t fix what ain’t broke. However, these will help you if you experience some of these common problems and I recommend you troubleshoot them before overhauling your programming.
Dave Thomas is the Founder of Performance360 in Mission Beach, San Diego. He is a Certified Personal Trainer, Certified Kettlebell Instructor and Certified Level 1 USA Olympic Weightlifting Coach.