Learning the Technique of the Jerk – Key Objectives

Take a long term approach

It is important to take a long-term approach, from the very first moment that training begins, toward achieving positional correctness, speed of movement and total confidence in the Jerk. Coaches and athletes should understand that learning the technique of the Jerk is a process that should not be rushed. If technical errors accumulate early in the learning process, they are hard to correct later. For example, a beginner athlete may miss crucial steps that teach pelvic alignment in the Jerk. As a result the athlete acquires a receiving position with a straight back leg and significant hyper-extension in the lumbar spine. Any such deficiencies in the technique of the Jerk will significantly diminish the athlete’s long-term performance potential.

It is therefore recommended that coaches and athletes pursue the following teaching/learning objectives:

Step #1: Teach/learn the Split Squat

Split Squats (see Figure 1 below) are a crucial exercise that should be implemented at the first instance that there is any intention to learn the technique of the Jerk.

Illustration of the Split Squats exercise
Figure 1: Split Squats

There are three key learning objectives in performing the Split Squat:

Objective 1:The athlete develops strength and confidence to take weight on their ‘back leg’ while the knee is bent. In the initial stages of learning, it is often easier for the beginner to jerk with a straight back leg but if this is not corrected, it usually leads to significant issues in performing the good technique of the Jerk with limit weights.

Objective 2: The athlete learns to maintain pelvis in normal alignment (without forward tilt of the pelvis). This is greatly important in avoiding an awkward hyper-extension in the lumbar spine. Not only is the hyper-extension an injury risk but also it usually results in the hips being behind the bar, rather than directly beneath the bar. This make it hard to stabilise limit weight overhead.

Objective 3: The athlete learns to keep front shin completely vertical at all times in the split position. It is often necessary for a coach to use hands on coaching to physically prevent the knee going forward during the split squat movement. The athlete must be able to sense their shin being vertical and that is why the coach must assist.

The actual amount of downward movement of the body while performing the split squat need only be 10-15cm. There is no need to touch the back knee on the ground. However, as can be seen in Figure 1 above, the back knee should move vertical downwards. Importantly, the athlete should practise holding the low position for 2 seconds before rising. This is an important strategy for preparing athletes for limit weights in the years to come.

Step 2: Teach/learn the Jerk Balance

After the Split Squat has been practised for around 3 sessions and the learner is achieving the above objectives, the next step is to incorporate the Jerk Balance. This exercise is a progression of the Split Squat.

The Jerk Balance Exercise illustrated
Figure 2: Jerk Balance

The main difference is that instead of practising the split position with the bar on the shoulders, the learner raises the bar overhead with arms fully locked out. The starting position in the Jerk Balance is the same as the starting position for the Split Squat. To facilitate the movement of the bar from the shoulders to above the head, the athlete uses an upward push from the legs while the feet are in the split position. During the action of raising the bar from the shoulders to overhead, the athlete purposefully drives their front foot forwards 10-15 cm. After a 2 second pause in the receiving position, the bar is lowered again tom the shoulders and the front foot is retracted back to it starting point.

This exercise has the same learning objectives as the Split Squat but also two more:

Objective 4: The athlete demonstrates the ability to hold the bar directly above the head, and furthermore the bar, head, shoulders and hips should be in vertical alignment.

Objective 5: The athlete demonstrates the ability to rapidly move their front forwards, keeping the foot very close to the ground. A common error is that in moving their foot forwards, the athlete substantially raises the foot  (see Figure 3 below) and it travels in an arc instead of a straight line. This is detrimental to fast foot speed. In the example below (Figure 3), the athlete’s heel raises 17 cm which is is nearly as much as the foot moves forwards (18.5 cm).

High foot lift in moving the foot forward in the Jerk, is not good technique.
Figure 3: High foot lift in moving the foot forward in the Jerk, is not good technique.

Step #3: Teach/learn a smooth and vertical ‘dip and drive’

This step is about teaching the following two objectives:

Objective 6: The athlete learns to “dip” with a vertical torso. This can only be achieved if the knees travel forwards during the dip. It is unfortunately very common for athletes to demonstrate a forward ‘lean’ of the trunk during the dip and this results in forward movement of the bar which is very hard, if not impossible to deal with when the bar is a near limit weight.

Objective 7: The athlete learns to control the speed of the dip, keeping the chest up and spine braced. If the athlete dips too fast it is likely that at the instant there is a change of direction of the bar (from downward movement to upward movement), the athlete will lose postural control, the chest and elbows drop and the athlete ‘buckles”. If this happens, it would be usual for the Jerk to be unsuccessful. It is often the case that perceptions of barbell heaviness tend to cause athletes to lose composure in the dip, drop too fast and buckle.

The Dip and Drive phase of the Jerk
Figure 6: The upper body must stay perfectly upright (vertical) in the dip.

Step #4: Teach/learn rapid movement under the bar

This step is about ensuring that the athlete learns to rapidly move into the ‘split’ receiving position in a fast and efficient manner. This is a significant aspect of acquiring good technique of the Jerk. There should be a focus on moving feet very fast into the split position and it is necessary for the trajectory of the foot movement to be as close to the floor as possible. To achieve the learning of fast foot movement, it is necessary for the beginner athlete to practise with light weights.

Objective 8: The athlete understands the need to practise speed of movement, particularly foot movement, into the receiving position for the Jerk. The athlete should also be guided to appreciate that this speed of movement under the bar is a key factor for success in the jerk.

Step #5: Teach control and balance in the receiving position

Many, many Clean and Jerks are lost at the very last moment. The athlete appears to have succeeded only to rush the recovery and lose control of the weight. It should be appreciated that a maximally heavy weight overhead is a very difficult balance issue and athletes must practise control and balance in the receiving position at all training intensities.

Objective 9: The athlete practises a slow and controlled recovery from the receiving position to the finish position, moving their front foot first. This is a very important, often overlooked aspect of the technique of the jerk.

Key Issues of Jerk Technique Explained

Yanko Rusev (Bulgaria) performs the Clean & Jerk
Figure 1: The Jerk performed by Yanko Rusev (Bulgaria).

This article focuses on Jerk technique, the second part of the competition movement known as the Clean and Jerk. In particular, the article discusses the conventional technique of the ‘Split Jerk’ which is employed by the vast majority of Weightlifters worldwide. While the author acknowledges that World Champions have used the ‘Power Jerk’ or ‘Squat Jerk’ techniques, the Split Jerk technique is recommended as the most effective and the safest.

From this point on, the Split Jerk technique will be referred to simply as “The Jerk”

Key Issues of Jerk Technique

The Jerk is a highly complex movement that many athletes in Weightlifting find harder to master than the Snatch. In the Jerk, athletes must overcome several key issues if they are to become good exponents of the lift. These key issues are:

  1. The extreme heaviness of the barbell. Although Weightlifters are masters of ‘heaviness’, an exceptional performer in the Clean and Jerk will lift in excess of 80% of their best Back Squat. In addition to excellence of Jerk technique, the athlete will need great courage, will power and tenacity to complete a Clean and Jerk that is near to the limit of their strength capacity.
  2. Achieving and maintaining a lockout of the elbows with the weight overhead. If an athlete, for anatomical reasons, has a difficulty in maintaining an elbow lockout, then the likelihood of reduced performance potential in the Jerk increases significantly.
  3. Even when both elbows are locked out, the athlete will experience significant difficulty in maintaining balance and control of the weight overhead. This is a matter of physics. In the situation where the athlete has a barbell of twice bodyweight overhead, the combined centre of mass (of the barbell and lifter) will be situated at approximately neck height or higher (see figure 2 below). The higher the combined centre of mass, the greater the balance problem.
Combined Centre of Mass in Jerk Technique
Figure 2: The heavier the barbell the higher the combined centre of mass rises
  • The Jerk is a movement that is unforgiving of any weakness in the position of the body in the receiving position. An athlete may elevate the bar high enough, and have sufficient lockout strength in the arms, but if the rest of the body is not positioned correctly to support the bar, then the lift is likely to be lost. A common receiving position error as depicted by Figure 3 below, shows the weight of the bar toward the front of the base with hips are behind the bar and a pronounced forward lean of the torso. These factors tend to cause the athlete to have significant difficulty in maintaining stability of the bar overhead.
  • Forward Jerk Receiving Position Error
    Figure 3: A common issue is a receiving position where the weight of the bar is to the front of the base of support reducing the athlete’s ability to stabilise the weight overhead.
  • The receiving position as shown by Figure 3 above is very likely to result in forward movement of the bar as the athlete struggles with the receiving position. This error of Jerk technique occurs not only because the weight is distributed toward the front of the base of support, but also because there will be an uneven amount of force emanating from both legs. The ideal situation as depicted by Figure 4 below, is a weight distribution over the centre of the base, and equal amount of force derived from each leg, and an equal amount of pressure through each foot.
  • Jerk technique: Equal weight distribution on both feet.
    Figure 4: The ideal situation in the Jerk receiving position is that there is an equal amount of pressure on both feet. In other words, there is an equal amount of force from both legs to support the body and the bar.
  • Another all too common issue in the Jerk is Pelvic Rotation as depicted in Figure 5 below. Rotation of the Pelvis in a forward direction results in a hyper-extension of the lumbar spine, or Lordosis. Under heavy load (with a barbell overhead), it is ideal for the spinal shape to remain normal. Any adverse or exaggerated curvature of the spine increases the risk of injury. The cause of such pelvic rotation in the Jerk can be: (1) As a result of errors in the learning process for the Jerk Receiving position and/or (2) Tightness in hip flexors.  These issues are described later in this article.
  • Pelvic Tilt in the Jerk
    Figure 5: A straight back leg in the jerk is associated with pelvic rotation and increased lumbar curvature

    Learning Jerk Technique

    It is important to take a long-term approach, from the very first moment that training begins, toward achieving total confidence and positional correctness in Jerk technique. Coaches should understand that the skill learning process should not be rushed. Errors that accumulate early in the learning process are hard to correct later. It is unfortunate that beginning athletes can often succeed with Jerks despite poor technique but as the athlete progresses to higher levels of qualification, the special issues described above will undoubtedly diminish the athlete’s performance potential unless appropriate attention is given to the following key learning objectives:

    1. A smooth and purposeful ‘dip and drive’
    2. Rapid and efficient movement under the bar
    3. Positional correctness of the body in the receiving position
    4. Controlled recovery to the finish position

    The Dip Phase of the Jerk

    Not all aspects of the Dip and Drive are well understood. Easy to understand, but not easily achieved, is the need to elevate the bar in one direction only – vertically upwards. This directional control requires an absolute avoidance of any rotation of the upper body during the dip, in other words the body must stay totally vertical as displayed in Figure 5. It is critical for the athlete to ‘bear down’ through the heels in the Dip to prevent forward movement of weight distribution to the front of the foot.

    The Dip and Drive phase of the Jerk
    Figure 6: The upper body must stay perfectly upright (vertical) in the dip.

    A common fault in the dip is an inability to “dip straight” (keep the torso vertical). This incorrect action, displayed in Figure 6,  will send the barbell forwards. Even a slight rotation of the body will have an undesirable effect. Once the barbell is moving forwards it gains momentum and becomes very hard, and often impossible, to stop. In Figure 6 it can also be seen that the forward movement of barbell is so dramatic that even at the bottom of the dip the barbell is no longer over the base of support.

    Forward rotation of the upper body in the dip
    Figure 6: A common error in the Jerk Dip – forward rotation of the torso with centre of pressure moving forwards to the toes.

    Another common fault in Jerk technique is forward movement of the ‘centre of pressure’ during the dip. The ‘centre of pressure’ is the effective point of application of force through the foot into the floor. Figure 7 portrays the common fault where the athlete starts the dip with the centre of pressure toward the heel but as the bottom of the dip is reached, the centre of pressure has moved forwards to the ball of the foot. The probable effect of this is forward movement of the body during the dip and as a consequence the bar gains forward momentum. This issue is also the root cause of the problem depicted in Figure 6 above.

    Centre of Pressure moving forwards
    Figure 7: The athlete must minimise any forward movement of the centre of pressure during the dip phase.

    Other aspects of the Dip and Drive for the Jerk are not well understood. In particular, the velocity of the dip is critical to success. The higher the downward velocity of the bar, the greater ‘impact’ of the bar at the bottom of the dip. The impact, that is the abrupt stopping of the bar and changing its direction to upwards, must be absorbed by the body. The effect of this impact can be seen in slow-motion video and is typically manifest in the ‘buckling’ (loss of rigidity) of the torso, that is bending of the spine, dropping of elbows and partial collapse of chest. On the other hand, there are also beneficial effects of absorbing the kinetic energy of the barbell in the dip. To some extent, the body acts like a spring and the ‘recoil’ is the upward movement of the bar (The Drive). Therefore, if the velocity of the dip is too slow, the athlete looses some of the beneficial spring effect. Furthermore, there is also the complicated issue of the spring in the bar, which increases in magnitude the greater the weight. It is important to control the dip velocity. If it is too rapid or too slow, there can negative consequences.

    In Figure 8 below, X is the start of the Dip and Z is the bottom of the Dip. Y is an arbitrary point at which barbell downward velocity begins to slow. The distance between X and Y (marked in Figure 8 as the distance d1) is the “fall” distance. This is not a free fall as the athlete is resisting the downward movement of the bar. However during the “fall”, the bar will be accelerating. The distance between Y and Z (marked in Figure 8 as d2) is the “impact” distance and is characterised by deceleration of the bar until it comes to a stop at Z. During the “impact” distance, the athlete is exerting great force to decelerate the barbell to zero and change its direction to upward.

    Jerk Dip Descent Speed
    Figure 8: The speed of descent in the Jerk Dip has important implications for success.

    The following spreadsheet illustrates that the consequence of a more rapid dip during the fall distance (in the Jerk) is that more force is required to decelerate and change the direction of the bar. The difference between Case 1 and Case 2, is that in Case 2 the fall time is 0.25 sec or 25% longer duration than Case 1 which is 0.20 sec. Therefore the downward velocity over the “fall distance” is faster in Case 1 (1.18 m/sec) than in Case 2 (0.944 m/sec). The result of the slow dip speed in Case 2, is that force required to turn the bar around is 717 Newtons, and this is significantly less than the force required in  Case 1 (897 Newtons).

    Dip_Velocity_Calculations

    There may be a limit to which each athlete can produce sufficient force at the bottom of the Dip without significant “buckling” of the body. The issue is that coaches and athletes are not aware that a fast Dip can be problematic. The incorrect assumption made is that a faster Dip stores more kinetic energy, and therefore a more ballistic Dip and Drive gives the athlete a better chance of elevating the bar to the height needed. However this assumption does not take account of the athlete’s limited ability to avoid “buckling” which causes the kinetic energy to be absorbed in body position changes rather than transmitted to the barbell.

    Jerk Receiving Position with Straight Back Leg

    Straight Back Leg in Jerk
    The consequences of a straight back leg.

    It is unfortunately common to see weightlifters with significant deficiencies in the Jerk receiving position. The Jerk receiving position is not easily mastered and for many, problems tend to be ongoing throughout the lifting career.

    Of particular concern, athletes can easily acquire a “straight back leg” receiving position (see illustration on right) and, as a result, a problematic tilt of the pelvis caused by tight hip flexors. This pelvic tilt (illustrated and explained above) is problematic because it increases the lordotic curve of the lumber region of the spine. Any abnormal curvature of the spine increases the risk of injury.

    Moreover, the “straight back leg” receiving position in the Jerk is often accompanied by a forward lean of the trunk and a greatly uneven distribution of weight on the feet. As a result, the athlete will suffer instability as the weight will move towards the front of the base and will likely continue moving forward.   In the above illustration the stripes on the athlete’s uniform provide an excellent guide to the degree of pelvic tilt, and lumber curvature. You can see that there is a significant change in angle between the upper and lower torso.