Back and Posterior Chain Strength in Olympic Lifting

Posted on Thursday, November 03, 2011 1:24 PM

Today's topic is back strength in weightlifting, including the whole posterior chain.  On returning from the 2010 Junior Worlds, Glenn Pendlay  remarked that the difference  between the medal winners and the rest of the lifters was that "The top guys were LEAN usually, and, VERY musculasr all across the upper back... not neccessarily high traps, but just very thick and muscular on the backs of the shoulders, around the shoulder blades, between the shoulder blades, etc..."


Since this has the endorsement of Glenn, Pete Roselli, and many other coaches, let's begin with the upper back.  Why do we need a strong upper back in the lifts?  Well, the upper back holds the bar close to your body, puts it into your hips for a good second pull, and enables you to get under the bar faster.  When you pull the bar from the floor, you want your shoulder blades retracted but the lats flared:  I call this the Conan position, because I always want to look like Arnold as Conan the Barbarian.  The shoulders are back in good posture, the lats are flared.  This action is similar, if not exactly the same, as the "packing the shoulder" in Kettlebells.  Lock that shoulder joint in, use your back to keep that bar close to you, and good things follow.  I'll give us an ample of a normal lifter doing these things, or trying to, so we can all relate better.


In the next picture, my brother-in-law Pete is pulling a 149 kg clean.  While I'd like to see his shoulder blades tighter, this is a pretty good job.  If his scapular are retracted a bit more, the bar will be higher at this point in his pull, making for a faster transition into the second pull and therefore an easier lift.  We want that extra height to enable a more forceful delivery of the hips in the second pull. This clean is 62 kilos more than Pete weighs, and for a part-time lifter in his 30s, that isn't bad.  











 But what Pete does well is hold this position into his second pull, shown here:

You also see here a nice description of the flared lats.  Those flared lats are the reason this bar is so close to Pete's hips.  With the bar that close to his hips, it's easy for Pete to finish the pull on his heels (I know he isn't on his heels right now, but he's also done the pull and is getting under the bar already; I know this because I am a coach and it's my job).  


So, we have a demonstration of a decent lifter keeping his back tight and how it improves the lift.  So, what happens with a great lifter? Here's Chigishev in his pull position.  Notice how high the bar is while his hips are still relatively low.  That's some strong backness (Sally, Christine, Brandi, and the rest of the blocky fans, this is also for you).  I like this picture because you can see that his lats are flared, his shoulder blades are retracted, and his elbows are out (yes, there is an arm bend, no it is not bad).  So, we now know the benefits of keeping the back tight, but how to make it strong?


We make sure to pay attention when we pull, and we make sure to train our weaknesses.  Do some dumbbell rows and Pendlay rows; do pulls from blocks and finish the snatch pulls with high elbows once in a while (I always recommend doing this for one week out of four, or for a four week cycle out of every few months); do some real pull-ups or do pull-ups with a band if you can't do a pull-up (no kipping).  How often should you do these things?  I'd say do some back strengthening stuff once a week as a part of the "extras"; four sets of six in Pendlay rows, a few sets of pull-ups, maybe dumbbell rows.  Don't overthink it.  


And now for the lower back and hamstrings.  Yes, you need them when you lift.  You think Chigishev has a weak lower back and weak hamstrings?   Go here for talk about RDLs:


And to add to this discussion of making your lower back stronger, you'll need to do some Glute Ham Raises.  Yes @fitters, the GHD should be sued for something besides GHD sit-ups (horrible things, those GHD Sit-ups.  They'll ruin your body.  If you subbed Glute Ham Raises in every time you had a GHD sit-up workout, you'd be well on your way to strength)  Here is how to use that fancy bench properly:  I don't like going past parallel on these with my upper body.  I also like doing them slower.  But whatever.  Do them as extras a day or two a week; do not do them if you have to do heavy lifts or back squats the next day.


The posterior chain strength is especially important for tall lifters, and is the reason I'm writing this now.  Mike, you need some back strength big man.  The flexibility isn't the problem as much as the strength is.  You can do 140/180 but you need the strong to get into those positions.   

Michael McKennaComment