Using your hips in the Olympic Lifts

Using your hips in the Olympic Lifts

The movement of the second phase is paramount to a good Olympic lift.

Whether it’s the snatch or clean, any pull from the floor will encounter the make-or-break moment when it passes the knees. If you’ve done everything right, this is where you will win or lose the battle against the weight.

Today we’re discussing how you should be treating this crucial movement. Whether you’re a scrub in weightlifting or CrossFit, improving this aspect of your lifting will make you much less bad.

Stick with us, you’re about to learn some practically-useful stuff…

The second pull: setting the scene for a good finish

The second pull occurs above the knee and ends when you stop going upwards, changing direction to receive the bar. This is true in both the snatch and clean, so we can talk about the two as being roughly the same for today.

Once the bar passes the knees, there are a few things that should already be in place. If these elements are compromised, then there’s not much you can do to fix them – and should practice the first phase more.

Here are the obvious signs you messed up the first pull:

  • Arms relaxed, keeping the bar close from the lats
  • The back is tight and slightly arched, secured by an active core and hips
  • The weight is distributed though the whole foot, favouring the rear half
  • The chest is visible from the front, and the hips haven’t shot up

Once again, if you’re experiencing any of these you need to go back to square one. A good second phase is key for good lifting, but won’t make up for a bad first phase. Anything after a bad first ‘pull’ is just compensating for your mistakes.

What’s the goal of the second pull?

The second phase is all about getting the bar to the hips and performing a great extension. Thus, it’s going to be the last time you have significant control over the bar: after the extension, it’s pretty fast and difficult to change.

The problem is that, equally, most lifters struggle in the second phase. It’s not like any normal barbell movement (e.g. a deadlift) so it can feel pretty alien and unfamiliar.

It’s easy to get to this point and just swing yourself back, throw the bar up and out, and bollocks it up completely. In fact, that’s what I see in most beginners and it’s a common problem that any coach will have to address time and time again.

Here are some signs it’s gone wrong:

  • Your shoulders are behind the bar in the second phase
  • The back is rounded or not-arched (both in need of work)
  • The weight is through the toes, with the heels off the floor
  • You keep missing the bar out front, and you can’t figure out why
  • Every time you catch a clean/snatch, you’re struggling to hold it in place
  • You walk out a lot of your lifts
  • You keep hitting yourself in the pubis
  • The bar is far from the thighs as you come to the hips

Figure 1 - A common, and effective, showing of how the hip hinge should look without any weight. Worth practicing all by itself.

These are common, and there are many factors, but the one we’re talking about today is the simplest and most important. We’re going to discuss swinging the shoulders back vs leading with the hips in the Olympic lifts.

Right and Wrong: The Second Pull

A proper second phase involves maintaining tension against the floor with the legs, but also beginning to sweep the bar to the hips and raise the chest. The problem is you’re probably not doing that very well (if you’re reading this article, especially).

The two methods of moving – bringing the shoulders back or the hips forward – might sound like the same thing. They may even look similar if you’re not sure what to look for, but they’re significantly different.

The main differences come from the activation of the muscles of the hips. The glutes are perhaps the most significant, and thinking about the shoulders rather than the hip explains a bunch of problems. Inactive glutes from the shoulder-focused second phase leaves you with a soft back, crap finish, and ultimately a good chance at botching the lift.

Doing it Wrong: Shoulder-Swinging

Throwing the shoulders back tends to produce hips moving through the bar, rather than with it. This bumps the bar out and produces an enormous arc to the bar path, introducing huge unpredictability and wasting force in your lifts.

This also tends to mess up your footwork, make catching the bar very difficult, and ruining the catch position posture if you do manage to get it. This “bump and row” is common in CrossFitters and those who are relatively new to weightlifting (because you can get away with it at light weights).

However, as mentioned, it introduces unpredictability and wastes the force applied by the legs and hips. This force could – with better technique – be used to lift more weight or make the lift easier.

Figure 2 - a great horrible example courtesy of Rich Froning. Though he looks pretty jacked, this is what happens when you lead with the shoulders. Don’t emulate people because they’re successful – sometimes it’s in spite of their technical flaws.

Doing it Right: Lead with the hip hinge

The alternative – and proper way of performing a snatch or clean – is to lead with the hips. Taking the same second phase from above, the athlete stays back with their weight, keeps the bar close from the lats, and rotates at the hips.

This is not only effective for lifting the chest without moving the shoulders behind the bar too early, but supports the arch of the back. It can also support a proper balance of hip and leg drive in the finish of the lift, rather than swinging back without active hips.

Performing the snatch or clean in this way produces a more consistent, efficient barpath. It comes from the proper movement of the hips as a hinge, rather than just slamming them into the bar or “scooping” without any idea of how the hips work.

Obviously, you still need to drive with the legs and focus on bringing the chest up. However, using the hips allows you to achieve this while staying over the bar longer – key for better power/positioning.

Figure 3 - A great example of how leading with the hips should look: the second phase progresses without the shoulder coming behind the barbell.

Knees out, bring the bar to your hips (or thighs, in a clean), and keep your torso up using the hips. If you can achieve all 3 of these simultaneously, you’re going to look a little more like a real weightlifter next time you pick up a barbell.

Practicing and Strengthening the Second Pull

Mastering this movement is not easy – especially under load – but neither is weightlifting. The movement can be practiced in a variety of ways so we’re going to take you through some, so you can try and feel the hinge of the hips.

We’ll break them down into light, medium, and heavy. This should allow you to accessorise at the end of a training session without turning up to the next session with a sore back and no ‘pop’ in your legs.

Light (Bar Work and Light Lifting)

Paused variation of lighter movements like the muscle snatch/clean are going to be useful. Equally, getting plenty of practice in the 50-65% range with hang powers can be a good way of drilling this hinge and extend movement.

Alternatively, spend more time using light weights and barbell drills. There’s never a bad time to get back to basics and just use light weights until you move well. PVC pipes are a bit too light, but empty bar work is usually the foundation for good technique.

After all, if you can’t do it right with an empty bar, why are you trying with a max lift?     

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4GMiNI504iE

Medium (Variations and Elements)

Romanian deadlifts with the snatch/clean grip can be useful. They’re only going to be useful if you limit yourself to the proper positions and movements, however. Equally, hang pulls/deadlifts with 70-80% can be really useful for feeling out the proper positions.

Block variations also have value here. Whether it’s the full lift, powers, or pulls, the blocks at/above knee can simplify the movement. Just make sure that you integrate these changes into the full lifts through hangs, pauses, and just paying attention to technique when you practice.

Simply put, make the movement simpler and use weights you can handle effectively. Stick in the 70% region for your practice reps, and make them as consistent as possible.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4J8Mhh92VBQ

Heavy (Deadlifts and Pulls)

The paused snatch/clean deadlift is going to be key. Pause at the start of the second phase and think about leading with the hips from there. Isometric pauses can gas you quickly, so take the weight down from a regular deadlift and just focus on posture/how you’re moving.

For another way of making the snatch/clean deadlifts more horrible, try performing them floating. This means no floor contact between reps – but actively holding the position just off the floor. This allows you to break the lift down more simply: push down and ease the knees back, then perform the second pull using the hips to hinge.

The lowering portion allows you to really emphasise these movements and, if you’re not scared of hard work, they’ll also build a strong and meaty back!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z4Cs8mDYFvw

Final thoughts

Whether you’re struggling with the second pull now or not, you need to improve it. While your mind is doggedly set on that next milestone lift, you’re missing the big picture.

The point isn’t to hit that next PB: it’s to build a movement pattern that lets you hit lifetime goals. Spend some time working out the finer points of the lift and you’ll hit that next PB…and the next one…and the next one…

Good movement is never a waste of time and this is just one tip that will make a huge change to your performance. Take the time, get it right, then integrate it into the full lift.


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