The Big Pull
by Paul Anderson
To develop pulling power we must first realize that the journey the barbell takes from the floor to the chest, or overhead, comes in three different phases with three different muscle groups involved. We all know that the first movement of the bar from the floor is made possible by the muscles in the thighs and hips. This condition continues until the bar travels over halfway up the shins. Then the lower back starts lending aid and almost completely takes over until the bar is hanging in the dead lift position. During this stage, some lifters will say that they “kick the bar,” meaning that they give an “explosion movement” to add momentum for the clean or the snatch. Some would be content to say that this is about all there is to a pulling movement for deadlifting or Olympic lifting, which would mean that there are only two different phases to the pull. I personally believe that many lifters have failed to reach their potential by suffering under this misconception. On the contrary, there are three distinct movements in developing and performing pulling power. The last phase is mostly performed by the trapezius muscle and enables the lifter to give that last little something that pulls in a heavy clean or lacks out a heavy snatch.
Several years ago I was training with an outstanding lifter who was complaining about his lack of cleaning ability. During the course of the evening, he was showing me how high he could pull 450 pounds. Indeed, he could give it quite a high boost with his strong legs and back, but a glance around his neck and shoulders revealed almost no trapezius power, and here lay the answer to why he could not pull in the poundage.
If we watched a varied assortment of lifters perform, we would perhaps be a little confused about these three different steps in the pull. Some start the barbell very, very slowly from the floor in the first pull, and then give a tremendous burst on the second and whip the bar over with the third. Others start the bar very fast from the floor, and in this case the second explosion movement is not as evident, but we still see the final tug coming from the trapezius area. Even in the “S” style and the heave out on the second pull, the three distinct phases are evident. So no matter how we perform our cleaning and snatching movements, we still go through the three different pulls.
My main purpose, of course, is not to advocate a personal philosophy about lifting movements, but to tell you how these various movements can be strengthened. Let’s start with the first pull from the floor up to near the knees. I believe that we will all agree that the best exercise to strengthen this area is the deadlift. The deadlift certainly gives a tremendous amount of strength to this first, flat-footed pull, and enables the lifter to enter the second pull with great confidence, because the barbell feels so well within his capacity. I personally believe that the deadlift should be practiced in sets of threes, working up to about three or four sets. My main reason for limiting the number of reps is because of the breathing problem while holding a heavy deadlift. There are other assistant lifts to help with the first pull: the squat, half squat, and quarter squat. So, let us say for the first pull we should practice heavy deadlifts, squats, half squats, and quarter squats.
For the second pull I can recommend several different movements. One is the high pull, using the rise on toes and “explosive movement” as the second pull begins. I believe in working up to about five sets of three to four repetitions in this exercise. Since the lower back plays such an important part in this second pull we should concentrate a great deal on that area. One of the greatest exercises for this muscle group is the old “good morning exercise. Many lifters say that this movement is very uncomfortable because the barbell has a tendency to roll up on the neck. This can be eliminated by putting a very large pad on the bar so some of the weight will always remain on the back and shoulders. In the good morning exercise always remember to do the lift properly, and not place too much emphasis on the poundage. We want all of the stress directly on the lower back. I remember at one time when I was working on a good morning routine I was amazed at the heavy poundage I was working into. But, in turn, I was a little disappointed in the pulling power developed. On analyzing the situation I was not doing the lift properly, because of a cheating stance I had developed. True, I was not bending my knees, but I was extending my hips far behind me which eliminated much of the weight leverage. This was defeating the purpose I had in mind for the movement – strengthening my lower back. I recommend working up to about eight repetitions in the good morning exercise, doing about three sets. Another good low back developer is the stiff-legged deadlift. This also puts a direct strain on the lower back. When performing this routine include the stiff-legged deadlift and work up to about three sets of three repetitions.
Now let us move to the last little pull with the trapezius. As for this final stage of the pull, I cannot recommend any better exercises than doing regular shrugging motions with a barbell or continental cleans.
This shrugging motion should be done by lowering the bar from three to four inches below the waist and giving as high a pull as possible, attempting something like an upright rowing motion. These should be done in high repetitions (up to 10 reps), with a weight that can be pulled 6” above the waist. The continental clean should be done off of a comfortable heavy belt, pulling the bar to the cleaning position, lowering it to the belt once more, cleaning again, repeating this movement up to about five repetitions. In another article a couple of years ago (see Blog – January 30, 2008) I explained how I had used a much heavier belt with heavy steel hooks to perform this movement. This heavier belt gave me the opportunity to use greater weight than could be used on a regular continental belt. Either way, a great third pull can be developed.
By combining all these pulling movements I am sure that your deadlift, cleaning and snatching power will increase.