Considering how to best improve your clean and jerk is truly analogous to the saying, “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.” While there are perhaps a couple dozen reasons to miss a clean & jerk, it comes down to failure in one of three parts: the rack (failure to shoulder the bar), the squat (failure to recover from the bottom position), or the jerk (failure to secure the barbell overhead). A random review of 81 missed C&Js across six weight classes from last year’s world weightlifting championships revealed that 60% of the missed C&Js were missed in the jerk portion, while 32% were missed due to failure to rack the bar, and only 8% failed because the lifter was unable to stand with the weight. Of course, statistics can be misleading. For example, a jerk could be missed because the lifter’s legs are deficient and, while able to get out of the bottom position and stand, after a grinding clean, there was nothing left for the jerk. Or, perhaps the lifter is simply tired or following himself. Regardless, most with experience in weightlifting would agree that more jerks are missed than the other two possibilities combined.
I don’t know which would be more frustrating: making easy cleans and missing jerks, or having a big jerk – being able to stand with anything you can shoulder, and jerk anything that you can clean, but always missing the heavy cleans in the rack and never getting to display your jerks, except when working off a squat rack. While it may not be as much fun, common sense dictates that training should be focused on your weaknesses. Many lifters fail to do that; instead they emphasize what they are good at. It’s human nature to enjoy something we excel in doing.
Improving Your Jerk
While one of the United States’ greatest lifters once said, “if you want to improve your jerk, do jerks,” it may not always be that simple. Assume there are no glaring technique errors and the issue at hand is relative to strength. Think about your missed jerks, those that are missed simply because they are too heavy. What part is heavy? Does the bar feel heavy on your chest after the clean? What about the dip? Does it seem difficult to reverse the dip and accelerate the drive off the chest? How about the split position? Does the weight feel heavy overhead, or does it not even reach lockout? Does recovery from the split seem difficult and once accomplished, do you have a difficult time supporting the weight overhead, losing the bar if it is even slightly out of position? There are specific remedies for all of the above.
If the weight feels heavy on your chest or in the dip and drive portion, consider jerk drives or quarter front squats. These are overload movements and, while it is not mandatory, best performed on jerk boxes. If doing jerk drives, use the exact movement you would in the actual jerk and dip no lower, or higher. Use weights that are around 110% of your jerk. You want a reasonable amount of speed, and you do not want to break positions. Keep the reps low, no more than three. For the quarter squats, you may go up to 125%. Both exercises should help your support strength with the bar shouldered.
Believe it or not, another exercise to consider is the bench press. Most weightlifters do not bench press, but some have found that it has helped both the jerk and overhead strength in the snatch. The added upper chest and shoulder strength provides a better “platform” from which to jerk. Incline presses are another option.
Weightlifters are strongest in the legs, hips, lower and upper back, proportionately less so in the arms, chest and shoulders. If you find it easy to drive the barbell off your chest, but lack arm strength to get it to the finished lock out position, or keep it there, there are many options available which should help. Probably the first one to try is the classic push press. In this exercise, you use your legs to drive the bar off your chest but once extended, your legs remain locked and you use the shoulders and arms to finish the lift, usually pressing the weight out from around the top of the forehead. This exercise also requires a precise dip and drive, as any bar out of the groove is unsalvageable as the feet do not move before or after. Regular presses are fine, but you will not be able to use enough weight to challenge yourself at the finish portion of the movement, as the most difficult piece of that lift is getting the bar off your chest. With the push press, you use the legs, just like in the jerk, and can therefore use a heavier weight to work the top part of the lift, as well as work on your dip and drive.
Another popular exercise is the push jerk, or power jerk, which is the same as the push press, except the legs re-bend into a partial squat, without splitting the feet forward or rearward. This exercise will allow the use of more weight and force you to “push” yourself under the bar. Bar placement is important as well, as you will not be able to adjust to a forward or backward barbell since the legs are not in the split position.
Work from the recovery position is indicated if you routinely get the weights locked out, but lose them prior to getting your feet in line. Two exercises come to mind immediately. First, jerk recoveries, which are done in a power rack. Position the pins at the height the bar would be in the split jerk position. Take the split position under the bar with your arms locked out and using your legs from the split, lift the bar off the pins, then recover with the feet together in the finish position. Heavy weights may be utilized. Another good exercise is holding the bar in the split jerk position, overhead, for an extended period. This can be part of a regular C&J and the split position can be held for five to ten seconds and weights in the 80-90% range can be used. While positions and balance will be stressed, caution should be used as this exercise is taxing on the shoulders. Don’t do this on a heavy jerk day.
If you find the weight always feels heavy overhead, lockouts can be used to increase support strength. Another power rack exercise, similar to the jerk recoveries, position the weight on the pins just at the top of the head and simply press it to lock out from there. Overhead supports are another option. This is an overload exercise also done in a power rack. Place the pins so the barbell is about three to four inches from the overhead height. Get under it with locked arms and bent legs. Keeping the arms locked, push the bar off the pins by extending the legs and hold the weight overhead for several seconds. Some lifters have used as much as 120% of their jerk. It is also hard on the shoulders, but any 100% weight that gets overhead in a competition will stay locked out.
Dependent on what your jerk weakness may be, there should be something here that will help improve upon it, perhaps even making the jerk the easiest part of the lift.