Squatting to Build Olympic Lifts
- Use high-bar squats to build a higher tolerance to increased training volume or positional strength in Olympic lifts.
- When squatting for general strength, stick to 5-8 repetitions per set.
- For building positional strength in the lifts, stick to 2-3 repetitions.
- Use pause squats in sets of 3 reps (pause for 3 seconds) to improve your first pull and ability to stand-up from heavy Snatches and Cleans.
- Try keeping your balance on the mid-foot to properly load the legs during this critical assistance exercise. And for sure, never bend over at the hip! We don’t want any stripper squats.
A few common questions I hear all the time from beginner to intermediate lifters is “Why do we squat, and what’s the best way to squat to improve the Olympic lifts?”
Today I will discuss two reasons why the squat is so critical for weightlifting. Also, I’d like to share some specific squatting techniques that are sure to help you Snatch, Clean & Jerk bigger weights with far less effort.
There are two ways we can approach squat training for the Olympic lifts. The first is to spend time building general strength, so that your body can get used to higher volume training (and buttloads of work!). The second way to train the squat is to focus on building “positional strength,” which is how you will learn to apply your newfound strength to the lifts effectively.
Let me explain.
Squatting for general strength and preparation.
In this phase, we’re going to use the high-bar squat to prepare your entire body for the cumulative stresses of weightlifting.
If we think about training as if it causes a short-term fever in the body, then our job is to first build our tolerance to this fever. That’s why barbells are so great! Just like with a medication, we can easily increase our dose by exact increments to get the desired, measured response.
So, during this first phase of training, your primary job in the squat is to accumulate “time under tension” by doing five or more repetitions per set (4-5 sets is great). That amount of work will certainly stress the joints and connective tissues, but it will also thoroughly fatigue and activate just about all of your muscle tissue. That level of work is required if you want to MAXIMIZE your strength and long-term weightlifting performance.
Nervous System Adaptation
The Snatch, Clean & Jerk will certainly challenge your nervous system, connective tissues, and fast-twitch muscles. However, these lifts DON’T provide your slow-twitch and postural muscles with an opportunity to work and adapt. That’s why it’s so incredibly important to perform higher repetition work during your “offseason,” which comes after any big weightlifting meets like the American Open, or fitness competitions like Regionals or the CrossFit games.
Bottom line: Your body needs periods of time during the year to heal, recover and grow through proper rest, nutrition, and a shift in training focus. Taking the time for higher-repetition work will give you exactly what you need.
Squatting for positional strength.
If we look at the Olympic lifts in phases, we can address which sections need more help with key assistance exercises.
When a lifter moves out of a general strength training phase, their focus can then shift to using their new overall strength to improve the Snatch and Clean & Jerk. That’s because these lifts are usually a percentage of our general strength, so when we get stronger overall, our capacity to withstand loads of heavy Snatches, Cleans & Jerks also improves. That’s absolutely critical to understand.
For more developed weightlifters, the high-bar back squat should be roughly 130% of your 1RM Clean & Jerk maximum, while the Snatch should be about 80% of your best C&J. This is how I know if a lifter should focus more general strength, or lift-specific weaknesses.
For example, let’s say a coach decides that her lifter needs improvement their Clean performance. In this case, her first and second pull looks great, but the lifter is also getting stuck at the bottom when trying to stand up with 90% or more of their best lift. This is a great opportunity to use the squat to eliminate this weakness.
Here’s a great way to train the squat to eliminate this positional weakness. Work up to 100% of your Clean max on the Back Squat. Squat slowly to parallel without using a bounce, then pause there for three seconds. I got this gem from the Russians when they visited Waxman’s Gym in November of 2013. See the picture below for an example.
The logic behind this is that lifters generally do not get stuck at the bottom of a clean. But they DO often get stuck at parallel, because the legs have the least leverage while trying to stand with an upright torso.
Pause squatting trains the nervous system to activate all those secondary muscle fibers that generally don’t get activated when you execute the lifts at full speed. This will help build your positional strength in what was previously a “weak” portion of the lift. If all goes right, next time the lifter should be able to stand up much easier during heavy Cleans.
The type of squatting we are discussing here assumes the balance is on the lifter’s mid-foot or arches. If you are squatting with the weight on your heels, that is fine as well. I just want to be very clear with these recommendations, because how you load the body in weightlifting is everything.
No matter what, the lifter should avoid “Stripper-butt” good morning style squats (see below), because that will shift the emphasis away from the leg musculature and onto the lower back. Sure, you might get stronger, but you will never get better at standing up with big Cleans.
So, choose your squatting style wisely!
I hope you found this information useful. If you’ve got any squatting questions, just leave them in the comments below. We’d love to help you out.
Now, go squat!