How Should the Feet Move in the Olympic Lifts?

This article is a hard one to write.

It’s difficult because I am probably going to make some people I care about deeply upset with me. However, I have my athletes assuming I feel a certain way about the lifts, and the truth is I don’t feel that way at all. So I’m going to risk addressing the issue in this article.

Specifically, I’m referring to plantar flexion (fancy term for extending up on the balls of the feet) during the extension of the second pull and moving one’s feet during the catch phase of the snatch and the clean. Let me give my thoughts on those two issues concerning the pull, and I am going to attempt to build my case with science and common sense.

In America, there are two ways of thinking:

  1. minimal to no plantar flexion and minimal foot movement
  2. massive extension as tall as possible on the toes, and the feet move from hip width (during the pull) to about shoulder width (during the catch phase)

The Case for Minimal Extension and Minimal Foot Movement (Catapult)

I am familiar with my former mentor’s view on plantar flexion and foot movement, so I will start there. Coach Don McCauley (a great coach, by the way) believes in minimal plantar flexion and minimal movement of the feet. He loves the hookgripusa video of Ella Grizzle, as she has no foot movement and minimal extension. Yurik Vardanian was an example of a lifter with minimal extension and minimal foot movement. Yurik was an amazing weightlifter. There is no doubting that.

The thought process behind the minimal extension and minimal foot movement is to focus more on getting around and under the bar. The fear Don has is that lifters will spend too much time up top trying to pull the bar higher, and therefore miss their opportunity to get under the bar during its peak. I totally understand that, and I agree with a lot of what he’s saying.

The Case for Maximal Extension and Moving the Feet (Triple Extension)

On the other side of the coin, you have my friends Coach Sean Waxman (also a mentor) and Coach Spencer Arnold (my best friend in the sport of weightlifting). Simply put, they believe one should finish as tall as possible – gaining as much height as possible – on the bar. They believe an athlete normally starts with their feet underneath the hips during the pull phase, and then the athlete jumps the feet out during the catch phase.

The thought is the feet are hip width during the pull to produce the most power. Most athletes perform the vertical leap with their feet at about hip width. Therefore, the thought is that position must be where the body is able to produce the most power. (There isn’t a lot of science to back this up one way or the other, but it makes the most sense.) Then they believe the athlete jumps their feet out to receive the bar where most people feel comfortable performing the squat, which is typically about shoulder width.

Now I have spoken with both men, and they agree a lot of this is determined by each athlete’s anthropometrics and the anatomical structure of their hips. Simply put, hip to shoulder is a great starting point, but it will all depend on the athlete. It’s hard to refute this view because it seems to make the most sense. Or does it?

So what are my thoughts?

I am glad you asked because I am happy to finally tell everyone where I stand. Here’s the thing. My mother will tell you that from a young age I have never followed anyone blindly. I got in a lot of trouble in sixth grade simply for asking too many questions. My teacher would make some outrageous statements that didn’t set well with me, so I was constantly having him defend his opinions. He called it arguing, but I called it clarification.

I encourage all of you to never follow someone without question. That’s a great way to head down a bad path. Whether it’s religion or politics, you need to form your own opinions. When it comes to weightlifting or strength and conditioning, we have science to guide us. However, there simply isn’t a ton of quality research to answer all of our questions, or this would be put to bed already. Here’s what I believe, and why I believe it.

Extension

First, when it comes to extension, I believe an athlete should pull the bar as high as possible. However, what does that even mean? The moment the hips extend, the bar trajectory is decided. For the majority of athletes, that means there will be extension on the toes. So why do some people extend onto the balls of their feet and some do not extend that much? It’s a great question without a proven answer, but I have a solid theory.

The gastrocnemius is a bi-articular muscle, which means it crosses two joints (the knee and ankle). When the knee extends in the powerful way as demonstrated during the snatch, clean, or even vertical leap, power is transferred from the origin of the gastrocnemius (upper leg) down the leg to aid in the extension of the ankle by pulling on the calcaneus. I have to assume that the degree to which one extends is directly related to where the gastrocnemius inserts into the calcaneus with that massive Achilles tendon. I personally don’t believe anyone can control the height they raise onto the balls of their feet no more than they can control the height during a vertical leap.

I know the finish of the snatch or clean isn’t the exact movement as performed in a vertical leap, but the intent to extend at the hips and knees sure is. So I believe in full extension where extension of the hips and knees are concerned. I don’t believe anyone should purposely rise onto his or her toes, and I don’t believe anyone should purposely not rise onto the balls of their feet. The amount of plantar flexion is directly related to the follow-through of the pull and where the Achilles tendon attaches.

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Pull

However, I believe anything extra performed after hip and knee extension is a delay putting that athlete at a disadvantage to getting under the bar. Therefore, extend the hips and knees, and then move directly to getting under the bar. Any arm or shrug action should be directed at ripping under the bar. I believe any shrug or arm action to directly make the bar rise any higher is a waste of time. I stand firm in believing the difference between a good and a great athlete is the timing between the pull upward and the change of direction under the bar. However, I totally believe an athlete should pull the bar with as much power as possible, peaking the bar as high as possible (which only makes sense to me).

One other thing to consider is some athletes are going to naturally produce more power in their pulls. I think Coach Spencer Arnold has the best examples of a powerful athlete and a fast athlete. He coaches Jessie Bradley, a Team USA athlete who produces more power in her pull than most NFL linebackers. The height of her bar is naturally higher than most other athletes. He also coaches Jourdan Delacruz, also a Team USA athlete. Jourdan is a naturally fast athlete. She doesn’t pull the bar extraordinarily high, but she can get under just about any bar.

Now should Jourdan try to be more like Jessie, or should Jessie try to be more like Jourdan? No! Jessie should and does work on her speed under the bar. Jourdan should and does work on the power in her pull. Spencer uses velocity based training to work on the qualities of strength. He doesn’t try to have either girl raise up on the balls of her feet any more or any less. They are very different athletes, and he works with the gifts each girl has been given.

The Feet

So what about the feet during the pull and catch phase? I don’t believe there is a one-size-fits-all solution. If I had the means, I would have every one of my athletes test the velocity of their pull with their feet in multiple places in relation to their shoulders and hips. Wherever they produced the most velocity is exactly where I would have their feet during the pull. Most coaches who have been in the business long enough can use their eye. However, I love having concrete data.

In my experience, starting with the feet underneath the hips is where most athletes produce the most power. Therefore, this is a good starting point for most athletes. In turn, most athletes squat the most weight with their feet around shoulder width, especially considering the importance of a vertical torso (vertical torso is specific to the catch position in weightlifting). In weightlifting it’s not simply about the strongest position, but in reality it’s about the strongest position as it relates to the specificity of the Olympic lifts. The shoulder width position also allows the hips to sit down in between the feet for the lowest possible catch position. In summary, it’s all about achieving the strongest and most stable position while also achieving the lowest possible position with a vertical torso.

At the end of the day, it all depends on the anatomical structure of each athlete’s hip along with his or her anthropometrics. I’ve witnessed exceptions to the rule, but the majority seem to fall into the hip width pull and shoulder width catch. I recommend starting with these positions, and then slowly playing around with different positions. It shouldn’t take long before you find the right positions for your athlete. Of course, there is a sure fire way to determine which positions are best for your athletes. You could always use a tendo unit to measure velocity of the pull. You could take 85% bar weight, and then perform two to three pulls at hip width, two to three pulls two inches wider, and two to three pulls an additional two inches wider. Whichever position you or your athlete produces the most velocity from is the position you should practice pulling from.

Catch Position

The next test would involve a front squat and overhead squat. Wherever you or your athlete can sit the lowest with a vertical torso is the catch position. Of course you would still want to test those positions for strength and stability, but I would recommend focusing on strengthening that position for the catch phase. After these tests, you would have your pull position and catch position.

To most people this would seem the logical way to determine pulling and catching position. However some might say finding a position that allows for better timing trumps a pulling position that creates the most velocity. You might hear someone say a wider pulling position allows someone to get around the bar quicker because they don’t have to move their feet. Therefore a little less velocity is offset by better timing and speed around the bar. Of course, there isn’t a way to prove this or a study to look at. I’d like to use Gym Aware or some other device to measure the velocity under the bar with 1. moving the feet and 2. not moving the feet. Maybe Coach Spencer Arnold could perform that study for us, since he has a Gym Aware device to measure velocity.

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So we have defined both camps (catapult and triple extension), and I have offered my thoughts. Personally I don’t think I fall within either camp, and I hate being labeled as either. I am a weightlifting coach who will use whatever method, technique, or program possible to help my athletes reach their goals. I’ve heard several people talk about America being behind the rest of the world regarding technique. I’ve witnessed both camps use examples of athletes on the Internet to prove their point. So is America behind the rest of the world regarding technique? Are we teaching something other coaches from around the world aren’t teaching?

American Weightlifting and the World

First let me say a few things. I’m tired of people ragging on weightlifting in America. America now takes home medals at every international competition we show up at. Harrison Maurus and CJ Cummings break world records at almost every international competition when they compete. Our men’s and women’s team won the Youth World Championships. Our Junior Women’s team won the Junior Worlds in 2018, and the Senior Women’s team won fourth overall at the 2018 Senior World Championships. It was exciting at the 2018 Senior World Championships to coach Meredith Alwine, a junior athlete at the time, to sixth in the world. However even crazier was the fact that fifth place went to Mattie Rogers – another American. Yes, two American women in the top six spots in the world championships.

My point is American weightlifting has transformed in comparison to the last Olympic quadrennial. We are no longer just showing up at the World Championships. We are there to win medals, period! Phil Andrews and the folks at USA Weightlifting are a big part of this. Expectations have changed, and they needed to change. The truth is I wouldn’t have stayed in the sport unless those expectations had changed. I want to be a part of a winning culture. It’s just a mindset thing, and the folks at USA Weightlifting (Phil, Mike Gattone, Pyrros, Lorene, and all the rest of them) have cultivated a whole new paradigm I am proud to be a part of.

So now the question is, “Does the rest of the world really have a different technique than the athletes in America?” Here’s what I did to find out. I went on Hookgrip’s YouTube page and I literally took the first six videos that contained either the snatch, clean and jerk, or both. I analyzed the videos for two questions:

  • Was there plantar flexion (extension at the ankle) during extension?
  • Did the athlete move his or her feet into a wider position during the catch phase?

Here’s what I found:

Video #1 – Salwan and Safaa from Iraq

In the snatch, both athletes extended onto the balls of their feet and both athletes moved their feet out. In the clean and jerk, one athlete extended at the ankles and moved his feet, and the other athlete demonstrated very little ankle extension and didn’t appear to move his feet.

Video #2 – Hassona from Qatar

In the snatch, there was noticeable ankle extension and foot movement. In the clean there was minimal, yet present, ankle extension, and definite foot movement.

Video #3 – Yokubov from Uzbekistan

In the snatch and clean, there was massive ankle extension and massive foot movement.

Video #4 – Mosquera and De Las Salas from Colombia

In the snatch and clean, there was massive ankle extension and foot movement.

Video #5 – Training at the Taiwan National Training Center

Every athlete in the video demonstrated ankle extension and foot movement in the snatch and clean. I would like to point out that most of them, not all, performed panda pulls instead of traditional snatch and clean pulls – emphasizing a shrug up at the top. Panda pulls are snatch and clean pulls that end with the beginning of the third pull. Here’s an example.
I use these pulls instead of traditional pulls if an athlete is hanging around at the top of the pull too long.

Video #6 – Moradi from Iran

In the snatch and clean, he demonstrated full ankle extension and aggressively moved his feet.

World Results

Obviously, it would appear most athletes perform plantar flexion, and most appear to move their feet out when transitioning from the pull to the catch phase. I encourage all of you to perform the same test by checking out Hookgrip’s awesome YouTube page.

One other thing I would like to point out is that I spent all day analyzing video with absolutely zero bias. I simply wanted the truth. I noticed the exact same mistakes I see everyday at my own gym. I noticed Rostami, the great 94kg Olympic Champion from Iran, performing pulls with a big emphasis on shrugging up and performing massive amounts of ankle extension. Now of course, when he lifted, his timing was perfect, and he spent zero extra time at the top of the pull before ripping underneath.

Simplifying it

So what’s my conclusion? Based on what I know from science, what I have experienced during my years of coaching, and my observations from today, I have to say most people will demonstrate some degree of ankle extension and most will jump their feet out. I still don’t believe an athlete should emphasize coming up on the toes. I simply believe it is something that happens as a follow-through of hip and knee extension. You can read my earlier explanation of the bi-articular gastrocnemius. I believe most athletes perform the pull with his or her feet underneath the body as to produce the most power, and most athletes will jump their feet out into a better receiving position.

Personally, I believe better timing in the transition from the second to the third pull comes with practice more than a stance or even from some verbal cue a coach is giving. Did Michael Jordan become an amazing basketball player because he had a coach cueing him on how to shoot the ball? No, he became amazing because he practiced all the time. The guidance of his coaches definitely helped to sharpen his skills, but it was the hours of practice that perfected his shot.

Coaches like to believe they have way more control than they really do. At the end of the day, we give our athletes solid programming, teach them a technique that fits their body structure, and we keep them on track. How far they go is really up to:

  1. their genetics!
  2. their work ethic!
  3. their ability to understand movement!
  4. the durability of their body to not get injured!
  5. how strong their mind is!

I would caution all coaches from scouring the Internet for videos that match your preferred technique. I would also suggest matching the technique to fit the athlete, and not trying to force an athlete to fit any preconceived notion of a technique you deem superior. If you perform the exercise I did today with Hookgrip’s YouTube page, you will see a lot of massive lifts performed a lot of different ways.

Real life concerns and application

I will end with what really inspired this article. One of my athletes, Meredith Alwine (Junior American record holder, silver medalist, sixth place at Senior World Championships, and currently second overall in America for Robi points), sent me a text and explained she had been sent a video of a Youth World team member snatching. Meredith is an amazing lifter with beautiful movement. The part that concerned me is that Meredith was told she should move her feet out to match the athlete in the video. The youth lifter in the video is ranked fifth overall as a youth.

The first thing I did was check places first through fourth in the Youth category in America to see how those girls moved. All four girls demonstrated ankle extension, and all four girls moved their feet out in the catch phase. Does this mean I think this Youth lifter in the video should move her feet in during the pull and jump them out during the catch? No way! My point is that just because a few athletes perform a technique you prefer doesn’t mean everyone should change their technique to lift like that person.

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So almost 3,700 words later, I hope this article can finally put to bed this whole debate about ankle extension and feet moving during the pull. It probably won’t, but I think I have properly defined my take on the subject and supported it with concrete facts. At the end of the day, there isn’t enough real research to prove any of our theories. There have been world records set with several variations of technique. Both camps I discussed earlier (catapult and triple extension) have developed amazing athletes who have gone on to compete for Team USA. I suggest we all lose the dogmatic ways of looking at technique, and agree there simply aren’t any absolutes.

With that being said, if an athlete is continuing to progress meet after meet (like Meredith), please don’t suggest she should change her technique – especially if you aren’t me, her actual coach. However, to all of you coaches out there, if you see something that might help one of my athletes, please call, text, or email me. I am the most open coach in America. I am constantly going to Coach Waxman, Coach Arnold, and Coach McCauley for suggestions. However, when you go to the athlete, it can be confusing – especially if I am telling her something different.

If someone wants to argue with the statements in this article, I guess they can. I will never place myself in either camp, as I simply prefer to be referred to as a weightlifting coach. I will continue fitting the technique to the athlete, and hopefully I will continue sending athletes to the Youth, Junior, and World Championships year after year.

Most importantly, I hope this article will help all of you younger coaches make important decisions regarding technique. Finally, I hope this will once and for all clarify my views on technique especially where plantar flexion and foot movement are concerned.

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