Strength and conditioning (S&C) programs incorporate power snatches and power cleans to enhance an athlete's ability to produce power or speed strength. One alternative or an addition to the S&C program is the pull. The pull has 2 primary forms: the clean grip and snatch grip styles (Figure 1a and 1b). These can be further broken down to the pull and “high pull.” There are differences between the clean and snatch grip styles, but the basic movements remain similar.
Pulls are typically explosive lifts that start with the bar resting on the platform or adjustable pulling blocks, the athlete centered on the bar, back is in slightly lordotic curve position, knees and hip flexed, and a pronated grip on the bar. The back position should remain flat or in a slightly lordotic position, and back muscles (latissimus dorsi, etc.) contracted to emphasize both safety and technical proficiency. The athlete will maintain the slight lordotic curve of the back throughout the pull, a double-knee bend will occur as the bar transitions from below the knee joint to above it, followed by a speed-strength explosive triple extension of the hip, knee, and ankle.
Bar position below the knee should be close to the shins as it travels vertically, with the knees extending to move out of the way while the slightly lordotic arched back and hip rise at the same time. Specific details of pull instruction are discussed later in this article. The pull exercise finishes (Figure 2) when the bar is around waist level and when the body is vertically erect, followed by an explosive triple extension of the lower extremities and the explosive vertical elevation of the shoulders (9,12,11,15,16). The high pull continues from this finish pull position as the arms pull the bar in an upright row motion, until the bar has reached approximately the chest level and elbows are above the bar (Figure 3).
These pulling exercises should not be confused with simple deadlifts or an upright row because the mechanics and the speed of the exercise movements are significantly different (9). Pulls are performed with speed to enhance power, whereas the deadlift and upright row movements are slower, emphasizing the traditional strength enhancement. The faster the athletes can produce force in moving an object (i.e., barbell) over a distance, the more explosive they are. Training at a high rate of speed with the pull could increase the athlete's overall lower-body power. It is the purpose of this article to explain the technique and instruction (coaching) of the pull, thus providing the S&C professional with the information to correctly apply the pull or high pull.
TECHNIQUE OF “FULL” PULL
The pull, in its entirety, starts with motion from floor or on blocks of various heights and finishes with the full extension of the legs and back (Figure 4a-e). Figure 3 depicts the high pull position, which is described later in this article. The clean pull will be the movement discussed in detail within this section. However, the specific characteristics of the snatch pull will be interjected to establish distinction between the 2. Snatch pulls will have a grip width at approximately 1.5 times the clean grip width. It should be noted that the athlete's back alignment should be between 35° and 45° angles at the start of the pull and will finish perpendicular in relation to the platform at the completion of the pull. The back alignment, along with other segment angles, throughout the pull is determined by the athlete's height, limb length, back and leg extensor strength, height of bar from the platform, and the pull variation used (19).
The clean pull begins with the athletes standing behind the loaded bar on the floor or on pulling blocks, with their legs approximately hip width apart (2,9,12,11). Feet should be in a neutral position with the bar over the “ball” (metatarsal-phalangeal joint) of foot (4,9). The athlete squats down grasping the bar in a pronated grip so that the arms are just outside the thighs. Elbows should be rotated outward so that both are laterally pointing away from the body. This outward rotation of the elbows will help maintain a vertical bar path and prevent a horizontal path if the bar were to be pulled upward with a curling action. At this point, the athletes raise their hips slightly higher than the knees and “set the back,” putting the spine in a slight lordotic curve position or what may be termed a flat back (3,15,17).
The athlete could have varying head positions adjusting for the athlete's personal preferences by maintaining a neutral head position absent of neck flexion or extension (Figure 4a), looking straight ahead or slightly upward with shoulders aligned directly over or slightly in front of the bar for any of the head positions. The shoulders should remain in this position until the midthigh position (14). The bar should be close to but not necessarily in firm contact with the shins; however, slightly touching the shins during the first pull is acceptable (2,9,12,11,15,17). The elbows should be rotated pointing outward before initiating both versions of the pull (2,7,9).
Initiation of bar movement in the first pull is created by extension of the knees while the back and hip rise in unison. The first pull is the motion of the bar from the floor to the inferior aspect of the knee joint (Figure 5a and 5b). Two common errors in the first pull include allowing the hip to elevate without maintaining a slight lordotic curve of the spine and placing the athlete in a straight-legged deadlift position. And secondly, there should not be a noticeable spinal movement such as torso extension or flexion. The speed of the bar will build during the first pull but will not accelerate dramatically until the start of second pull.
There is a slight decrease in speed during the movement of the lift as the bar moves from below the knee joint to above it. Enoka (3) stated, “ … while the barbell undergoes a phase of deceleration, it continues to move upward throughout the entire pull.” This decrease in bar speed should not be significant enough to be noticed with the naked eye. Enoka (3) also stated, “Although the second knee bend was associated with the unweighting phase, the realignment permitted the enhanced re-employment, during Weightlifting II, of muscles utilized in Weightlifting I, i.e. knee joint extensors.” Weightlifting I and II are used by Enoka (3) as descriptors of the first and second pull phases.
This motion of the bar between the first and second pulls accentuates an eccentric action in the leg musculature (3). The steps to achieve the optimal bar motion occur as the bar reaches the knee level, the knees extend to avoid contact with the bar as the back and hip continue to rise. Once the bar is superior to the knees, they will flex again in an action called the “double-knee bend” (1,2,6,9,15). However, the double-knee bend may not always occur naturally in every lifter during the teaching progression of the pull. Therefore, it is advisable to teach the athlete the technique of the double-knee bend to acquire efficient jumping ability (1). This rebending or reflexing of the knees will bring the lower legs under the bar, placing the person in a more advantageous position to begin accelerating the bar in the second pull (Figure 6).
The second pull is the movement of the bar from the upper third of the thigh (or the position achieved after the double-knee bend) to the hip level with a maximum vertical acceleration, generated by explosive leg and hip muscular contractions. The bar may lightly glide against thighs but should not be allowed to drag against them because this would result in bar deceleration. During the second pull, hip extension will occur in coordination with knee extension. The elbows remain extended, avoiding the temptation to generate vertical force at this time (2,9). As the bar approaches the mid thigh, the athlete's shoulders will undergo some posterior displacement as a result of the hip extension; however, the slight lordotic curve of the spine is maintained (Figure 7). The position at the mid thigh is termed the “power position” and allows the lifter to be in a mechanical advantage to generate vertical force.
At the midthigh position, the ankles, knees, and hips will be flexed with feet remaining flat on the platform. Because the 3 leg joints are extended by the muscles of the lower extremity, the heels will rise off the floor followed by continued vertical acceleration of the bar aided by contraction of the trapezius (12,15,16). As the bar reaches the hip, there should be no horizontal impact or a “bounce” of the bar off the thighs because this would alter bar path, creating a disadvantageous horizontal movement (9,15). Figure 4e displays a moment in time when the bar glides past the hip, potentially reaching the athlete's belt line. This is also the phase of the pull where a full triple extension is present, heels are off the ground, shoulders are elevated, and back is vertical while elbows remain extended.
After the pull is completed, the bar is either released in a controlled manner to the platform if using bumper plates or decelerated with the legs and repeated. Caution should be taken with the deceleration of the bar for individuals with a history of low back injuries. The proper deceleration of the bar is done by flexing the knees and hip, during dorsiflexion of the ankle. Deceleration of the bar through hip flexion will only place unnecessary stress on the low back area and should not be allowed to be repeated by the athlete. Table 1 lists technical errors to watch for during pulling activities.
A high pull entails the same technique as described in the traditional pull from the floor with an additional arm movement at the end of the final pull phase (Figure 3). As the athletes go into their final pull, the shoulders will abduct and the elbows will flex, resulting in a pulling of the bar in a vertical motion (12,11). The high pull is finished when the bar is at approximately the lower chest level and the upper arms (humerus) are close to parallel with the floor.
Common errors during the high pull include pulling the bar up to clavicle height, which results in the likelihood that the athlete is performing external shoulder rotation, and pulling the bar vertically into the chest. Additionally, the most common error is when the chest is pulled downward toward the bar. The cause of these errors could be a number of factors but frequently is due to increasing the load too quickly. If loads are progressed too quickly, the athlete may compensate for decreased bar height through flexion of the trunk, lowering the chest to the bar. To correct this dropping of the chest or external shoulder rotation, have the athlete perform an upright row with a clean or snatch grip. This corrective exercise will teach the athlete to keep the bar close to the torso while raising the bar by “pulling through the elbows.” The coach should help the athlete with the arm motions by assisting in the movement without any external loading (i.e., barbell).
Another flaw that can be seen during the final pull is back (spinal) hyperextension or an excessive posterior displacement of the upper body. This motion could be created from swinging the bar with the arms or bouncing the bar off the hip. This should be corrected early in the athlete's learning process to avoid injury and maximize performance. One method of correcting excessive back extension is by the coaches holding their hands about 4-6 in. above the athletes' shoulders while they are standing erect. The athlete then lowers to a designated pulling point (floor, knee, mid thigh, etc.) with an empty bar only and works on jumping, vertically striking the coaches' hands with their shoulders. This method could be included during the warm-up time as a means to familiarize the athlete with the motor pattern. Volume can vary on the length of the training session, but it would be prudent to use no more than 5 consecutive repetitions (reps), 3-5 sets, focusing on the technique of the pull.
COACHING THE PULLS
An important element in coaching the pulls is where to observe the athlete during the exercises. Standing at a 45° angle in relation to the athlete's position will provide the visual observance of flaws from the sagittal or frontal plane. It would be prudent for a coach to observe from different positions because technical flaws may not be noticeable from certain planes. By changing the coaching perspective, it will allow for continued progression of the athlete and appropriate exercise selection.
The top-down method is an efficient way to introduce explosive lifts to an athlete by dividing each section into smaller movements (7,9). The previously discussed technical points are applied here but in reverse order starting with the midthigh pull or power position pull. The “hang” position describes the starting point of the bar from a position where the plates on the bar are not in contact with the floor or pulling blocks. In this instance, the athlete assumes the power position and completes the pull from this bar height while focusing on maximizing the acceleration of the bar. It is critical that all variations of the pull motions should be performed with the same body positions and emphasize on proper execution of the explosive triple extension. If technical errors occur during hang pulls or pulls from blocks, these errors may result in a transfer of poor technique to the other weightlifting movements. Avoidance of such errors is best accomplished via constant reinforcement of appropriate pulling technique.
The starting placement of the bar can be continually lowered, providing the entire pull is technically proficient from the power position at each stage of the progression. Learning the pull from above the knees will teach the athlete to keep the bar close to the thighs without bouncing it away from the body. Additionally, the hang pull is started from a static position, requiring the athlete to generate power instantaneously much like a sprinter at the start of the gun, enhancing rate of force development. One error that could occur at the beginning of the hang pull position is a “rocking” action or a hip extension to flexion before the initiation of the pull (16). The athlete should focus on a vertical acceleration of the bar from the start minus the addition of counter movements. As the athletes successfully master the above knee pull, they can be introduced to the transition phase of the pull by starting the pull from below knee level.
Below knee pulls will start about 2 to 4 in. inferior to the patella, with a slight flexion of the knees. This is the end point for the first pull and where the athlete will learn the double-knee bend. It may be necessary to teach this double-knee bend motion separately with a short lift from below knee to above knee. The below knee pull familiarizes the athlete with the concept of lifting the bar in a controlled manner, positioning them into the second pull position ready for the explosive component. Make sure that the athlete works on moving the knees out of the way of the bar, not moving the bar around the knees. Otherwise, they will be experiencing abrasions on the shins and knees. Because this bar movement becomes fluid and the vertical explosive component is mastered, they can be introduced to starting from the floor.
Block pulls follow similar technical aspects as the hang positions, although the bar will rest on wood or metal structure called pulling blocks or trays if attached to a power rack. The block pulls require athletes to increase the tension of the back and leg muscles to “set” them in a position ready to initiate force. Absence of increasing this tension could lead the athlete to flexing the spine, pulling with bent elbows, or increase the potential of swinging the bar. Coaching points for block pulls are similar to those for the pull from the floor, but extra emphasis on setting the back, extending the elbows, tensing the back muscles, and rapid development of force should be made because of the starting bar position. Any error in the beginning phase of the pull off blocks may result in a reduced power output or efficiency (more work to execute the lift) while reinforcing poor pulling technique. The higher starting position of pulling off blocks could reduce the stress imposed on individuals with back problems that are created by the extra range of motion in the hip and lower angle of the back when starting a pull from the floor.
As techniques in block or hang pull improve, they may be progressed to full pulls from the floor as previously discussed. The load used from the floor should be reduced at least for the first few sets or sessions after transitioning from the block, to familiarize an individual with pulling the bar from the floor. A guide for load application would be to use between 60 and 120% of the snatch or clean and jerk lifts 1-rep maximum (13). When determining the precise load, one must always consider the possible interaction of the pull in relation to exercise order, the fatigue of the athlete, and if the pull is being used for technique refinement or strength enhancement (13).
The relative intensity of the load for the athletes would be increased to a level that is appropriate for their training phase or mastery level. Once the pull has been mastered from the floor, the other starting positions (i.e., from knees, mid thigh, etc.) can still be used for continued reinforcement of a particular motor pattern or as an additional strengthening exercise. Table 2 shows the pull progression that uses the top-down method, which can be used from a hang or block position while accounting for variations in the athlete's ability to learn the movement.
CONCLUDING COACHING POINTS
The pull is an exercise that could be used to help an athlete increase strength and power or master the technique during pulling phase of the snatch or clean. Associated with increasing power is the potential to improve an athlete's vertical jump height because of the similar leg actions seen between snatch/clean pulls and jumping. The pulling movement mimics not only jumping but also any sport where an explosive triple extension is performed, which addresses most ground-based sports. Therefore, when developing a training program for improving strength and power in the triple extension, the pull should be a consideration if not a necessity.
The high pull as a means to teach the athlete to finish the pull during a traditional snatch or clean lift offers a training advantage by focusing on a particular portion of the full lift. Furthermore, the development of athletic skills requiring the coordination of using the legs and upper extremities could be accomplished through the high pull alone. Athletes can develop the ability to generate power from the legs to move the bar while incorporating the arms to continue vertical motion of the bar once it passes the belt line. Table 3 lists some activities, with the exception of weightlifting, that could benefit from the incorporation of a pull or high pull. By comparing the instructional and technical points of the pull and high pull, the S&C professional can ascertain the differences, positives, and errors in each. Overall, there should be no differentiation from the start position to the end of the second pulling phase between a pull and a high pull. As previously mentioned, the high pull is just a continuation of the vertical displacement of the bar, resulting in elbow flexion and shoulder abduction.
The pull can be used for a variety of sports that require leg power for events such as sprint starts, jumping, or moving and resisting an opponent. Although this exercise may not be considered “specific” in some literature (5,8,10,18), there can be no doubt that it does improve a person's strength and power attributes. Pulls are not a replacement exercise for squatting, pressing, or rowing exercises but may be used as an alternative form of an explosive lift. One point to remember is when teaching the pull, it has different motions than the deadlift and should be treated as a different exercise. Whether you use a snatch or clean grip, pull from block or hang positions, or progress to the floor, all pulls should be explosive in nature produced by a triple extension of the legs. Pulls will only be as effective as the other exercises used in planning of progression, technical coaching, and overall development of an S&C program.
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