I see a lot of young weightlifters and fitness athletes get frustrated when it comes time to putting heavy barbells overhead.
Heavy clean and jerk attempts are brutal, but that’s one of the things I love most about this sport. It’s one thing to pull a limit load up your body correctly, but you still have to catch that barbell and stand tall. You buy-in with two tough lifts before you have the right to face the jerk.
It’s no wonder so many people struggle with this lift when the barbell gets heavy – They aren’t prepared for a fight. But we can fix that.
I highly recommend you focus on one problem at a time. Trying to learn the jerk after doing heavy cleans is a surefire way to never master them. Your clean technique might not be ironed out yet. Also, you just won’t get enough pure attempts at practicing the jerk. Let’s talk programming. I like to see at least one day per week focusing specifically on cleans, one day for jerks, and one day for heavy clean and jerks. You can do more than that, but I wouldn’t do less. This type of focus is a necessary staple of any successful program. Here is an example of how it might look:
- Monday: Clean & jerk day (Solid ~90% lifts)
- Wednesday: Clean day (no jerks unless from rack)
- Thursday: Jerk day (out of racks/blocks)
- Saturday: Heavy clean & jerk day (learn to fight!)
- Lighter variations of the lifts can be performed on other days as skill improves.
Another consideration is forcing bad jerks. You are going to feel stale, tired and beat-up from time to time. In those instances, bad repetitions and poor movement habits will only beat you up further. Understand this – The jerk is ALL technique. It’s the easiest lift to fix, but also the easiest to overdo. You can beat yourself into the ground quickly. Less is more. Having a fresh pair of legs and fine tuned nervous system is critical to making consistent heavy jerks. So, be smart. Take care in how you balance your heavy work and lighter technical days. Keep in mind that your jerk result should be about 5-10%+ greater than your clean and jerk. That may be surprising to you, but if you can get that kind of load out of the racks and overhead, you probably won’t be missing heavy clean & jerk attempts when it counts. Your confidence with limit loads will be much improved. Until your jerk falls in that 5-10%+ range (5-10kg+) they will always be a wild card in your performance/total/consistency. So, the quicker you can improve, the better.
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Here are my favorite drills to fix the jerk, hand-picked based on the most common issues I see. Follow those steps in sequence.
1. The jerk balances is your friend.
Drill proper split, drive, timing, and balance. Learn to properly engage the barbell and transfer motion smoothly. Learn to get the front foot through far enough to allow for a proper leg split and back foot drive.
2. Jerk more often.
There is no better way to master this lift then to drill it, either out of the blocks or rack. I love both. The racks are nice as you get a better feel for engaging and getting under the bar. You have to bring the barbell back down to the front rack position after each rep, which is a mandatory skill for the weightlifter, so stop avoiding it! The only trouble is missing and having to re-rack the bar, but that’s also good reinforcement to not miss a lift. The blocks are nice as you can get way more volume in with less time and wear and tear on the body. However, proper equipment is not always available.
3. Utilize back-off sets.
Yes, even more jerks! This is where the real automatic mastery comes in. This is how you learn to always be tight, fast, automatic, and perfect. We need both heavy AND light weights to master technique and apply it to our sporting needs. Once you have hit the top lift for the day, back off and tighten up. The weights will feel light, your confidence will be high, and you will routinely crush weights that would normally give you some trouble. Rest briefly, then do some reps with 5-20kg less than the top weight for the day (5-15% drop). But understand, on these back offs, there can be NO misses! Treat these lifts like a true max effort. Drill perfect movement. If you miss, take off some weight.
4. Do jerk recoveries to build competence, balance, stability, and awareness in the overhead position, as well as to develop a proper lockout.
This is an eye-opening drill the first few times you do them because you immediately realize the jerk has NOTHING to do with pressing strength. It’s actually all hips and bone doing the work. When I say bone, I mean your true lockout strength. The load should rest on locked arms, not on tense muscles. The hips drive the weight, the bones lockout. There is no pressing. The gun show can wait.
We do supports in a few ways:
- Recovery from power jerk position. This will take the slack out of your jerk so you can feel how strong your lockout really is. Once mastered use this move as an overload exercise or to develop your power/squat jerk further.
- Recovery from split position. This drill will help you find a comfortable, strong balance point during the big split, or while you’re in the COG position.
- Recovery after starting with eyes at bar, drop to split, then recover from the split. Once the previous varieties are mastered, this is my favorite version. It teaches your the dynamic action of attacking the perfect receiving position, then standing up instantly.
When one variation becomes remedial or too easy, phase it out and start pushing another (unless you have time/ability for all variations). You should be able to handle 110%+ of your best jerk on each, but DO NOT FORCE THIS! Do the work, be patient, and let the numbers come. Once you hit around +10%, use these drills to maintain your jerk. A well-oiled machine will keep running for a long time.
5. Do presses from the split.
Not that you need the pressing help, but you do need to get stable in the split, and more aware of the bar path from the front rack to receiving position. Being balanced enough to press well gives you much better stability and awareness during fast jerks. The lockout will feel so much better. Strong arms are critical. When flexibility is the limiting factor, the behind the neck split press is great to help develop the split position further (as is the behind the neck jerk). With ample amounts of front rack flexibility work.
6. Don’t skip the complexes!
I know they are hard, but that’s the whole idea. They will get you into jerking shape in no time. Here are my 3 favorite combinations:
- I clean, 1 jerk, to 1 jerk from behind the neck. After you perform your first jerk you carefully take the bar down behind the head and do another jerk. This helps you to get a proper straight dip and drop/split under the bar, which is great if you drive your jerks out front, or if you need to improve your mobility. If you complain about the barbell hurting your neck, you don’t deserve a big jerk!
- 1 clean, 2 jerks. Simple.
- Jerk with a pause in the dip and split. This allows you to get better balance/stability/cog effect during key points in the jerk. As a coach I can quickly cue the lifter to: 1) be more on their front foot, 2) drop the torso or bend back knee, 3) get the head through. In all cases, lifters can make the key adjustment and hold the split for a strong 3 count…Great justifiable punishment with quick results!
7. Put together a training sequence of complimentary moves.
This can all be adjusted a bit, but on average this is a 45-60 minute sequence if you really get after it, and it’s great for a Thursday jerk-focused workout (mind the order):
- Jerk balances (5-10 min): 3 x 5 sets with 30-40 % (hold the split for a brief pause).
- Jerk ramp-up (15 min): build to a heavy set of 3, then 2, the 1. The first two sets are a great warm-up and rhythm builder.
- Back off sets: drop 5-20kg or 5-15% from your top single, then hit 1 rep every 60 seconds for a total of 7 repetitions. No misses are allowed!
- Jerk recoveries (10-15 min): I like to use 3, 5, and 10 second holds. We’ll usually ramp up with the weight on sets of 3 reps, then often times finish with a heavy single or two. You can also do some back off sets with longer holds.
I could say plenty more about the jerk, but something tells me you have enough to think about already. Get to work on these drills, be patient and stay in balance. It will show overhead in no time at all.