When you think about lifts that develop power for an athlete, the most popular is unquestionably the power clean – at all levels.
In a survey of 137 Division I strength coaches, 85 percent said they used Olympic lifting movements such as the power clean to train their athletes. That percentage increases to 88 percent in the NFL. Although some sport coaches may not see the value in these exercises, especially those who train endurance athletes in running and swimming, the strength coaching profession in general has moved past the high-intensity machine era to focus primarily on free-weight exercises such as the power clean and with some programs even the power snatch.
The advantage of the power clean and (even more so) the power snatch, is that they allow the athlete to accelerate their limbs over a large range of motion. With isolation exercises, or even exercises such as squats, much of the lift involves deceleration of the bar – so that acceleration occurs only at the start of the lift. The result of having to “hold back” in this manner reduces the neuromuscular activity of the exercise – in other words, you get less “bang for your buck.” But what about high pulls?
One unique aspect of weightlifting is the lifts can be broken down into parts, which helps a beginner to learn these complex movements and an advanced lifter to focus on specific weaknesses. For example, if an athlete has problems recovering from the bottom position of a clean, they could focus more on front squats. For an athlete who is having problems with the jerk, jerks off the rack might be a good idea, as the athlete does not have to expend energy cleaning the bar to their shoulders.
The two basic types of pulls are clean pulls and snatch pulls. The athlete performs the first part of the lift, from the floor to mid-thigh, in exactly the same manner as they would with the classical or power versions of the lift. The difference is that the wrists are not turned over at the top to affix the weight on the shoulders (clean) or overhead (snatch). To the untrained eye, a high pull basically looks like a deadlift followed by an upright row, but the shifting of the hips during these pulls make it much more complex.
Pulls were once an integral part of the training of most weightlifters, but a paradigm shift occurred in the sport with the success of the Bulgarians in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. Although their country is relatively small and has relatively few resources for athletes, Bulgarian weightlifters were able to compete with the Russians and in the process broke many world records. In his first two decades as national coach Ivan Abadjiev produced a total of nine Olympic and 57 world champions. His greatest success story was Naim Suleymanoglu, who won gold in three Olympics, broke 51 world records and pound-for-pound is still considered the greatest weightlifter of all time.
Abadjiev did not believe that pulls were specific enough to the lifts to warrant including them in a workout – with the possible exception of an athlete who is injured and not capable of performing the full lifts (Abadjeiv says if you are so injured that “you can only lift a finger, then lift a finger”).
The problem is that weightlifting requires a precise attention to actively getting under the bar. After the 2012 Super Bowl, Tom Brady’s wife commented that her husband could not throw the ball and catch it – and this accurately describes the problems with pulls. In lifting you have to pull the weight and then catch it. By fully extending and using your traps and arms, you have nothing left to pull yourself under the bar – you essentially have to drop under the bar using the force of gravity. This is one reason that so many of today’s weightlifters appear so much faster than those of the past – they are working on getting under the bar much sooner and are able to more effectively use their arms and traps to pull themselves under the bar.
Besides lifting speed, you also have to consider safety. In pulls, not only are the traps and arms contracted, but the quads are too. If the athlete goes into full extension, the quads will contract; and as the athlete drops into the full squat, the quads’ ability to contract will be greatly reduced, thereby compromising their ability to “put the brakes on” and protect the knees.
One argument for pulls comes from observing the success of Chinese athletes, who dominated the men’s and women’s lifting at the 2008 Olympics and who use pulls in their training. True, but consider first that they may be successful despite doing pulls, not because of it – after all, they have a tremendously large talent pool to draw from. Also, their training volume is so high (with perhaps as much as 30 hours a week spent on training) that adding a few sets of pulls is not enough to cause any significant disruption in their pulling technique for the classical lifts.
As for how much weight to use, consider that Soviet research shows that the technique of pulls changes dramatically from that of the classical lifts when weights are used that exceed the 1RM of the classical lifts. Essentially, the maximal weights prevent the hips from moving as quickly during the part of the pull after the bar passes the knees. Further, you develop an acceleration pattern that is much different from that in the classical lifts. In other words, during a classical lift the bar accelerates after the weight passes the knees, and with a maximal weight pull the weight quickly decelerates. As a practical guideline, to minimize the poor carryover to performance do not use pulls with more than 90 percent of your 1RM in the classical lifts.
Another criticism of pulls is that you don’t put the same mental effort into them because you can’t really fail in the lift – the bar simply won’t be pulled as high. One way to resolve this is with the use of bands to give you feedback on your intensity of effort. For example, perform pulls in a power rack and set a pair of bands at a height that you want to pull the bar to. Each time you pull, the bar should hit the bands and vibrate, indicating that you are pulling the bar high enough. If you do not hit the bands, then simply reduce the amount of weight on the bar.
I should also mention that one interesting variation popularized by the East Germans was to pull the weight and then partially dip down to meet it – this technique was to better approximate the movement under the bar during the classical lift. The Chinese weightlifters can often be seen performing this variation.
At this point, let’s acknowledge that not everyone who lifts weights has any intention of being a competitive weightlifter or even performing the full lifts. So, do pulls have a place in the training of other athletes? Here are seven reasons the answer is “Yes!”