Jerking a weight from the shoulders to a locked out position overhead is an excellent exercise for developing dynamic strength. The jerk is an integral part of the sport of Olympic weightlifting, but it is also useful to anyone wanting to improve his shoulder and back strength.
Yes, back strength, because jerking heavy weights involves the back to a great extent, and the seemingly simple act of holding a weighted barbell overhead hits many back muscles in a different manner from any pulling movement.
There was a time when everyone who lifted weights did jerks. Many did them as part of their total fitness program, while others did them in order to prepare for competition. Bodybuilders did them also, partly because they often competed in contests, and they understood their value in upper body development.
But that time has long since passed. Very few fitness facilities have lifting platforms or areas where jerks can be done -- not that it takes much space, but there must be some sort of rack from which to take the weight, and enough room to split our feet and recover.
Doing jerks on a carpeted floor is not a good idea, nor is splitting on concrete or a slick wooden floor. So because most gyms lack an adequate place to perform this valuable exercise, it has become lost in nearly every program, except for those participating in Olympic lifting, and in the more progressive collegiate strength programs.
The jerk is a natural movement. Youngsters learn it quickly. It is not difficult to teach someone with decent flexibility how to drive a bar off his shoulders, split his feet as he racks the bar overhead, then recover while holding the weight in a locked out position.
The jerk is one of those exercises that are easy to learn but hard to master.
Jerking light to moderate weights is not arduous, but when the poundage gets heavy, the task is formidable. It is taxing physically and mentally. Driving a max weight directly over your head takes a certain amount of fortitude. Whenever a person starts doing full clean and jerks, his jerks always stay well ahead of his cleans. Eventually, however, his cleaning strength surpasses his ability to jerk the big weights, and that's when he has to start doing more in regards to improving his jerk.
Jerks can be learned without any prior conditioning on the upper body, but I have found that a lifter does better in this lift if his strength base is solid before he starts jerking. The foundation is best established with overhead or military presses.
When there were three lifts contested in Olympic weightlifting, everyone did lots of pressing out of necessity, but that lift has been largely ignored since the press was eliminated from official competition. I have the athlete do overhead presses for a month or six weeks, then add jerks to his routine. The presses help improve needed upper body strength, and they help the lifter learn the correct line for the bar moving overhead and how to fix it properly at lock out.
I'll go over some basics and them make suggestions on how to get your jerk to move upward.
The grip for most is shoulder width. You want to rack the bar on your shoulders so that you have complete control of it. Youngsters often benefit from a narrower grip, while those with broad shoulders need to grip the bar a bit wider.
A solid rack is critical. If the bar is not fixed on your shoulders correctly, you are not going to be able to drive it forcefully or in the right line. Beginners make the mistake of resting the bar across their clavicles, and this is painful. You need to form a ledge on which to rest the bar. This is accomplished by elevating your entire shoulder girdle, which may sound complicated, but it isn't. It's similar to shrugging. Simply lift your deltoids and traps upward and lock them in place. The bar needs to lie across your front deltoids.
Your elbows should not be low or parallel to the floor as in a front squat, but somewhere in between those two positions.
Keep your wrists straight. Since they come under a great deal of stress, tape them. The wrists are delicate joints and can be hurt easily, so it's wise to protect them.
Your feet should be at shoulder width with toes straight ahead. If you allow your toes to point outward, they will swing during the split and often not land where they should. When you move your feet to plant them for the split, they will move directly forward and backward. The tendency is for one or the other foot to swing inward so you end up with your feet on a straight line. This adversely affects balance and will cause you to miss the lift.
I'll mention more about foot movement later, but now I want to discuss the most important part of the jerk -- the start.
The keys to making a jerk with a heavy weight are a powerful drive off the shoulders and a perfect line of flight. The drive off your shoulders has to be concise and explosive, like a boxing punch. It cannot resemble a slow military press.
The power for driving the bar high is generated by the hips and legs, not the shoulders and arms. And the bar must be driven upward in a straight line, close to your face. If it runs forward, you are not going to be able to lock it out. Occasionally, a lifter will drive the bar too far backward, and this makes it impossible for him to lock it out overhead.
While the initial drive for the jerk comes from the powerful lower body, the arms, shoulders, and back get involved quickly. You shouldn't think about driving the bar upward, then locking it out as if they are two separate movements. Rather, once you put a jolt into the bar, follow through instantly and drive forcefully into the soaring weight. Extend high on your toes as you drive the bar upward. This helps gain more height, and it's much easier to split from that position than it is if you are flatfooted.
The split has to be lighting fast with the heavy weight because they don't hang around up there for long.
The start is a coordinated effort and so is the split. Your feet have to hit simultaneously with the locking out of the bar. If the bar is locked out before your feet hit the platform, the bar will jar loose. And if your feet land before you lock out the bar, odds are you will not complete that lift either.
These coordinated movements are what makes this lift so difficult to master and is also why it is such a wonderful exercise for athletes. Performing jerks with heavy weights builds a high degree of timing and coordination which transfers to other sports very readily.
Once the bar is locked out, don't merely hold it overhead as you start to recover. Think of pushing up into the bar aggressively. If you do not keep constant pressure on t he bar, there is a tendency for your elbows to bend.
In the split, your front foot doesn't move very far, only about the length of your foot, and your knee should extend out over you toe. The rear foot, on the other hand, extends back a fair distance. How far? It depends on how high you've driven the bar. Rick Holbrook didn't split much at all because he didn't have to. His drive was so strong that the bar shot high overhead, and he only needed a short split to lock it out. It was perfect. Others who did not have such a great drive off their shoulders would often split very deep, almost into a split snatch position, and were able to recover successfully. The less you have to split, the better.
Foot speed is crucial when jerking maximum poundage. Barski was an exceptional jerker, and his key was to think about slamming his front foot into the platform. When he did this, everything else fell into place. So bang your feet into the platform. Make some noise. Don't tippy-toe into the split like a ballet dancer.
Once the bar is locked out, it should be set over the back of your head, not in the front of in the middle of it. If you were to draw a line up from the back of your head, that's where the bar should be.
Not everyone is in agreement about the best way to recover from the split, but here is how I teach it. The first move should be with the rear foot, not the front one. If you pull the front foot back first, you have no way to control the bar if it wants to run forward. Move the rear foot a baby step, then the front foot, then the rear foot again.
With maximum poundage, several baby steps might be required to maintain control while you recover. On the other hand, I've seen great lifters move their front foot first, so do what works best for you. But if you find that you are losing many of your jerks during recovery, you might want to try another method.
Most failed jerks are lost at the start for these reasons:
The bar is thrown too far forward;
It is not extended high enough;
The lifter drops into his dip too fast so that the bar leaves his shoulders; or
He dips too low, limiting his upward thrust.
The bar is generally hurled forward because the lifter leans as he dips, and more often than not, it has nothing to do with strength. It's a mental mistake and can be corrected with some drill, concentrating on keeping the torso perfectly upright.
Dropping down into the dip and leaving a gap between your shoulders and the bar is another mental mistake and is easily removed. Learn to pull the bar down into your frontal deltoids and take it with you when you dip. The reason why lifters dip too low is they believe this will give them a more powerful thrust, but it's not true. Dipping too low limits the power you can generate into the start.
A short, controlled dip of four to six inches, where you maintain an erect upper body and lock the bar to your shoulders, is the way to get a good start. The lack of height in the start of the jerk is due to the lifter not learning how to extend fully, not giving that extra nudge at the top or climbing high enough on this toes.
Luckily, all these shortcomings can be corrected with some specific exercises.
Push jerks are good because the duplicate the movement and force you to think more elevation than when you split since you are not moving your feet. And since you do not have to move your feet, you can concentrate on the drive and extension. The push jerk is also helpful in teaching you how to follow through behind the initial thrust. When doing these, keep in mind that you are trying to improve on the three major faults in most starts: throwing the bar forward, dipping too low, and not extending the bar high enough.
Push jerks are best done in triples. Your rack will slip a bit after each rep, and if it slips out of position too much, you will not be able to drive it upward as dynamically, and the line of flight will be adversely affected. Plus, it will put too much stress on your wrists.
With the lighter weights, try to drive the bar to arms' length without re-bending your knees. As the weights get heavier, you will have to re-bend your knees to lock out the bar overhead, but do not let your elbows bend or press out the weight. You want to learn to drive and lock out the bar all in one fast, fluid motion.
Another exercise that many York lifters did to help improve the drive for their jerks was overhead starts.
These are done like push presses, but you are not wanting to lock out the bar. You are only trying to drive the bar as high as you can, then resist it momentarily at the top. For these to be beneficial, you must load up the bar and eventually use 75 to 100 pounds more than you are jerking. Do triples on these, unless your rack slips a great deal, which is not uncommon, since so much weight is being handled. If your rack does slip, do doubles or even singles if necessary. If the crashing of the bar back on your shoulders starts to take its toll, wrap a towel around your neck to serve as a cushion.
An extension of this exercise is to do some short-stroke front squats. It's best to do these inside a power rack for safety's sake. Set the pins at a height where you want to go when you dip for the jerk. Load up the bar, do a rep, trying to explode off the pins, and extend up on your toes. Lower the bar back to the pins in a controlled fashion, reset, and do another rep. On the early sets, do five, then lower the reps to threes when the weight gets really heavy.
The power rack is an excellent piece of equipment for helping you with your lockout. This can be done in several ways.
One is to go into the deepest part of your split, then move the bar from the pins for an inch or two and hold it there for an 8-10 second count.
A variation of this movement is to start from the deep split and actually stand up with the bar. Obviously, you will not be able to handle as much weight if you stand up with the bar as you do when you simply break it off the pins, but there's no reason why you can't do both exercises.
If your problem is foot placement, take some chalk and draw on the platform exactly where you want your feet to hit when you split. After each rep, check to see how you did and make the necessary adjustments if you were off.
If your weak point is timing, drill on the movement. You can use a broomstick or an empty bar, but until you have the foot placement timed precisely with the lockout with a light weight, you cannot expect to ever handle heavy poundage.
Many Olympic lifters benefitted from jumping rope. It helped their foot speed and placement.
Most Olympic contests are won with the last clean and jerk. If you excel in the jerk, you emerge the winner, even if the clean was very hard. If you need to do more work on this exercise, start now.
Your jerk can never be too strong.
Enjoy Your Lifting!
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