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Only The Strong Shall Survive: Analyzing The Jerk

A Quick Lift for Size and Power

In recent years there’s been a renewed interest in the Olympic lifts in high school and collegiate strength programs. Coaches have figured out that if their athletes do one or more of the quick lifts, they become quicker, more coordinated and, of course, stronger. They’ve also discovered that the strength gained from performing these dynamic movements transfers quite readily to any sport.

Those of us who have backgrounds in Olympic weightlifting can only smile because we’ve always preached that gospel. Unfortunately, our message generally fell on deaf ears. The change has come about because a large number of world-class athletes in such high-profile sports as basketball, baseball, tennis and volleyball have stated how much the quick lifts have enhanced their skills.

That’s all well and good, but most of the zealous coaches who decide to insert a quick movement into their strength programs don’t take the time to learn the technique involved. As a result, their athletes end up using meager weights, which have little positive influence on building athletic qualities. Even worse, they get hurt.

That’s often the case with the jerk. Typically, coaches will attend a convention and hear an authority recommend including jerks for the reasons I mentioned above, but they make no effort to learn how to do the lift correctly and add it to their programs before their athletes are physically prepared to do this complicated movement.

The act of jerking a weight from the shoulders to a locked-out position overhead is a natural movement. I can teach anyone, even an eight-year-old, how to do a technically correct jerk in a single session. That may sound as if I’m contradicting myself’Is the jerk a simple lift or a complicated one? It’s both. It’s rather easy to perform jerks with light to moderate weights but an entirely different matter to do one with a maximum weight on the bar. Trying to jerk maximum poundage is extremely difficult.

If your intent is to include the jerk as a fitness exercise, to add some spice to your workouts and enhance a few athletic attributes, then it’s fine to use token weights. Serious strength athletes, however, have to load up the bar because jerking 135 isn’t going to bring the same results in terms of strength as handling 300 pounds. In other words, people who include jerks in their programs for the express purpose of improving overall power have to pay close attention to form.

While it’s true that trainees can learn to do jerks rather quickly, they need some preliminary work to prepare them for the exercise. I want to make certain that my athletes’ shoulders, arms and backs, especially their upper backs, are all strong enough to handle the stress of jerking. If those areas aren’t developed enough, they won’t be able to use any amount of weight on the jerk and could easily harm themselves.

The best exercise for establishing a solid foundation from which to jerk is the overhead press. You perform the press more deliberately and it’s more of a pure strength move than the jerk, and those are good points when you’re building a firm base. A jerk, when done correctly, doesn’t involve the arms to a great extent. You drive the bar upward with your powerful hips and legs, then finish with your shoulders. The arms do little until you finally lock out overhead.

When you’re attempting heavy weights, however, the locking-out part becomes critical. It requires strength in the shoulders and back and also in the arms. So it’s smart to improve your triceps strength because you’re going to need it.

Pressing helps with the jerk by establishing the correct line in which the bar must travel upward. When you learn how to press a weight, you know how to fix the bar firmly on your shoulders. The repetitions enhance strength in your deltoids, triceps and upper back.

I’ve found that it’s much easier to teach people how to jerk after they’ve learned how to press than it is to start them off with the jerk without any prior overhead work. Always do standing presses, not seated ones. The reason should be obvious. One of the more difficult parts of jerking is controlling the bar once it’s locked out overhead. Holding a heavy weight overhead involves every muscle in your body, from your feet to the top of your upper back to your wrists and abs. You must strengthen those groups before you can handle a heavy weight successfully.

I should add that doing any form of overhead work is one of the best ways to eliminate rotator cuff problems. Supporting heavy weights overhead forces the muscles of the rotator cuff to work, and in the process they become stronger.

The best grip spacing for pressing a barbell is shoulder width. An easy method of finding it is to extend your thumbs on an Olympic bar until they barely touch the smooth middle. That fits most trainees, unless they happen to be unusually small or large.

Knowing how to rack the bar for a press is a key point. The bar has to rest on your front deltoids, not your clavicles. That’s easily accomplished simply by elevating your shoulder girdle to form a ledge of muscle.

You don’t set your elbows high or low; you set them in between. You have to keep your wrists locked throughout the lift. Cocking or moving your wrists during the flight of the bar causes you to generate less power into the bar, and it’s also stressful to your wrists. I find it useful for beginners to tape their wrists when doing overhead lifting. The tape takes much of the stress off those delicate joints and reminds you to keep them straight.

When my lifters are learning the basic form of the press, I have them take the bar out of a rack rather than clean it. As soon as they display good technique, however, I have them clean the weight before pressing it.

Here are the two most common mistakes I see people make when performing presses: 1) They place one foot behind the other, and 2) they look up at the bar as it passes their heads. Whenever you press a weight with one foot well behind the other, you weaken your base and place an uneven stress on your hips and back. People do that because it makes it easier to maintain balance, but it’s incorrect. Your feet should always be in line, shoulder width apart, and planted firmly on the floor.

The other mistake, looking up at the bar, causes the bar to float forward, and when the bar moves forward, the leverage goes against you. You must drive the bar upward extremely close to your head. It should almost touch your nose. When it moves past your head, guide your head into the gap you’ve created. That allows you to keep the bar directly over your power base. Once you lock the bar out, position it so it’s fixed over the back of your head. That’s your strongest overhead position, over your spine and hips.

On the final rep of each set of presses hold the bar overhead for five or six seconds. That’s most useful for building supporting strength in your back and shoulders, and it will come in handy once you start jerking.

While learning proper form, use the five-sets-of-five formula. Then you can start doing some heavier triples, doubles or singles. Once you’re satisfied that your form is good, the next step is to start doing push jerks. That teaches you how to forcefully drive the bar off your shoulders. The movement is exactly the same as it is for the split jerk, but since all you have to think about is driving the bar upward, it’s easier to do.

Everything is the same for push jerks as it was for presses: hand spacing, rack, foot position and the bar’s line of flight. The big difference in the push jerk is that you drive the bar upward with your hips and legs rather than your shoulders. Dip slightly and explode the bar to arm’s length. That’s a push jerk. Of course, it’s not quite as simple as that.

There’s a tendency for beginners to dip too low. They think that the lower they dip, the more muscles they can involve in the start. It makes sense on paper but not on the platform. If you dip too low, you’ll find it’s much more difficult to accelerate the bar upward and drive it in the correct line. The dip is a short, powerful stroke. Your entire body has to be rigid as you dip, and you cannot lean even slightly. With practice you’ll be able to explode the bar upward.

The push jerk is exactly what its name implies, which means you don’t want to press it out at the top at all. The push press is another exercise. The push jerk is really a drill to help you learn to drive the bar upward dynamically and then extend it to lockout instantly. That’s what you must do when you jerk. There can be no pressing out of a jerk.

It’s permissible to bend your knees when locking out a heavy weight. After a few workouts you’ll find a rhythm to doing these: a powerful drive, a quick follow-through with your arms and you lock the weight out.

It’s best to do push jerks right after you do some presses. The presses help establish the groove, and they also warm up your muscles thoroughly for the heavier weights you use on the push jerks. Just don’t do a complete press workout and then proceed to push jerks. That’s too much until you become more advanced.

Do push jerks in threes. The bar has a tendency to slip out of the ideal rack after each rep, when you reset it on your shoulders, and doing a shorter set will keep it from getting too far out of the correct rack. Otherwise, your wrists take too much stress. After a month to six weeks of pressing and push-jerking, you’re ready to do split jerks. Since you already know how to drive the bar off your shoulders, guide it through the correct line and lock it out solidly, you can concentrate on your feet’which happens to be the most difficult part of the exercise. It takes an instantaneous switch in mental keys to plant your feet in the exact position on the platform after you’ve driven the bar upward. Jerking a heavy weight isn’t a matter of raw strength, like performing a squat or deadlift. It’s a matter of applying athletic attributes such as timing, coordination and speed.

That’s the primary reason it’s so difficult to master technique on the jerk, but it’s also the reason the lift is so beneficial for enhancing those athletic skills.

Which foot you move forward is purely an individual matter. It’s like being left-handed or right-handed. Use the one that feels more natural. Your front foot should only travel a short distance, roughly the length of your foot. Your rear foot, in contrast, moves much farther because your rear leg is your lever leg. You need to learn early on to land your rear foot on your toes and not plant your foot flat on the platform. That’s a common mistake and will eventually have an adverse effect on the jerk. When you hit the bottom of your split, you should be in the same mechanical position as if you were doing a lunge but not quite as deep. Your lead knee is out over your toe and your rear leg is locked.

Another key form point is that both your feet have to hit the platform at exactly the same instant. If one hits after the other, it will affect the lockout on any heavy attempt because it makes your base shaky. Timing it so your feet slam down simultaneously comes with practice.

Before you start the jerk, you must make certain that your feet are on a line, at shoulder width, with your toes pointed straight ahead. After you recover from a full clean, your feet will be wide, and your toes will be pointed outward. Take a moment and reset your feet. There’s a good reason for doing that. On a correctly done jerk your feet move in a direct line, either forward or backward. If one or both swing inward or outward, your foundation will be adversely affected. What’s more, the swinging motion takes time, and time is an essential factor in jerking a heavy weight.

Bob Bednarski, certainly one of the greatest jerkers in American weightlifting history, used to concentrate on only one key before he jerked a weight: slamming his front foot into the platform. He knew that when he did that, it helped him move his feet faster and ensured that he’d have a solid base when he locked out the bar overhead. If your feet aren’t making any noise when they hit the platform, you aren’t slamming them hard enough.

Lots of beginners get in the habit of staying in the split for too long after they’ve jerked the weight and locked it out. That isn’t a good idea. Once you have the weight under control, recover, with your feet on a line once again. Then you can hold it for a time if you like.

There are different opinions about how to recover from a split, but this is how I teach it. It’s a three-phase process: You take a baby step with your back foot, a baby step with your front foot and, finally, a step with the back foot. Other coaches teach lifters to move the front foot first, but I believe that leaves the bar dangling without a strong base. If you’re more comfortable and confident moving your front foot first, though, by all means do it.

I recommend doing jerks in threes for the same reason I suggested lower reps for push jerks. You can do fives for a couple of warmup sets, but once you put any amount of weight on the bar, stay with threes. Again, the reason for doing threes’or sometimes even doubles’is that the bar will always move out of the ideal position after each rep. If it gets too far out of position, you can’t use proper form and your wrists will take a terrible beating. It’s better to limit the reps and add a few extra sets if you want more work.

It’s all right to stay with light-to-moderate poundages while you’re learning the form points, but once you feel confident that you’re doing the lift correctly, don’t be afraid to load some weight on the bar. In many instances technique improves when you use heavier weights because you’re forced to drive the bar harder off your shoulders, move your feet faster and concentrate better.

Give jerks a try. You may discover that you have a natural aptitude for them. They’re excellent for any serious strength athlete and also useful for fitness advocates who want to include a high-skill exercise in their routines.

Editor’s note: Bill Starr was a strength and conditioning coach at Johns Hopkins University from 1989 to 2000. He’s the author of The Strongest Shall Survive and Defying Gravity. IM

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