Fixing the First Pull in the Olympic Lifts

By Matt Walter
Published on:
Learn how to perform the first pull for the clean and jerk and how to fix some of the most common errors

The first pull in the Olympic lifts is extremely important, as it sets the stage for the rest of the lift. If this pull is performed incorrectly, it can lead to errors later in the lift and reduce your strength and power. In this article, we will discuss how to perform the first pull correctly and how to correct any errors you may be making.

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Table of Contents

Technical Terms

We need to be on the same page with the following definitions before we continue.

The First Pull: Lifting the barbell from the floor to the power position, the point where the second pull begins (above the knees, around mid-thigh).

The Second Pull: Lifting the barbell from the power position to full extension of the hips, knees, and ankles. From mid-thigh to fully extended, up on toes, torso extended, traps shrugged. at which point the third pull (or “receive”) begins.

The Third Pull: Actively pulling your body beneath the barbell and receiving it in the rack position.

Why the First Pull is Critical to Your Success

The first pull sets the foundation for success in the second and third pulls

The first pull in Olympic weightlifting involves lifting the bar from its starting position on the floor until it reaches the power position, approximately at mid-thigh. The power position is the beginning of the second pull.

As athletes, we tend to focus most of our practice and precision on the second and third pulls of the snatch and clean, often ignoring how critically important the first pull is.

I get it.

The second pull is powerfully explosive and the third pull is lightning quick.

But a house is only as strong as its foundation, and faults with the first pull can derail your success long before you get to the second pull. The first pull has its own set of technical intricacies and plenty of room for error.

The Purpose of the First Pull

The first pull should put the athlete in the best possible position for the lift. Balance, speed, and timing are critical for successful second and third pulls, and the first pull sets the stage for those qualities. Although the first pull is the slowest of the three pulls, it provides the basis for the acceleration that will take place during those phases.

The transition between the first and second pull relies on balance and position. If these are off, it’s difficult to adjust and correct for a successful second pull. Especially if there’s any real weight on the bar.

For example, if the hips rise too fast relative to the knees it will be difficult to make contact against the bar with the hips during the second pull.

How to Perform the First Pull in the Olympic Lifts

Step 1: Approach a loaded barbell on the ground and take your starting position. Your weight should be evenly balanced over your entire foot and your shoulders directly over or slightly in front of the bar.

The setup for the clean with the back straight, head up, eyes forward, and hips higher than the knees

Coach’s Tip: Before starting the first pull you want to make sure your chest is up. Try a rocking start. This helps athletes keep their torsos vertical before the first pull takes place.

Step 2: Initiate the first pull by pushing away from the floor with your feet. The barbell will move slightly back toward your body and will continue in this path through the second pull.

Coach’s Tip: Before pulling the bar off the ground, take the slack out of the barbell. Begin to push your feet into the floor, maintaining your back angle. Feel the barbell touch the weight plates and forcefully contract your thighs, glutes, and lats.

Step 3: Maintain your torso angle and drive your hips up and back, your lats fully engaged and your shoulders back. Your ankles, knees, and shoulders should all rise at the same time. The up and back drive of your hips will help your knees move behind your toes as you extend, which will allow the barbell to travel in the desired path without interference from the knees.

Step 4: Continue driving away from the floor. Allow the barbell to brush against your thighs after it passes your knees. You are now into the second pull; the power position. Your weight should be more toward your heels and your shoulders directly over or slightly behind the bar.

Coach’s Tip: Somewhere during the pull, your shoulders will end up directly on top of or even slightly behind the bar. But try to keep your shoulders in front of the bar for as long as you can.

The First Pull Notes

There is no perfect bar speed for the first pull. Some have a slow first pull, others pull very fast. The only constant is that the first pull is slower and less explosive than the second and third pulls. Being too explosive off the ground can pull you out of position. Remember, balance and timing are key to a successful transition from the first pull to the second.

Move the bar in the first pull as fast as possible without sacrificing proper position or balance. The speed of the first pull should also allow you to apply maximum force and effort in the second pull.

Weightlifters tend to have a slower first. They have learned that the purpose of the first pull is to get the bar into position and ready for the incredibly explosive second pull. They have learned to be patient and focus on balance and timing.

Those with a powerlifting background often have a very fast first pull, which can often lead to being out of position for the second pull. The deadlift and squat rely on an explosive pull off the ground and a fast rebound, using the stretch-shortening cycle in the squat. Patience just isn’t rewarded with power lifts.

Fixing Errors in the First Pull

Do Not Round Your Back

The first pull has many small nuances that can mean the difference between success and failure. Here are some common errors and how to fix them:

Hips Rising Too Fast

This is a common error that can often lead to the bar getting ahead of the lifter, causing them to round their lower back and pull with their arms first. This puts the lifter out of position for the second pull and reduces the amount of force that can be applied.

Fixing the Error

Focus on keeping your back angle constant as you initiate the first pull. The hips should rise at the same pace as the shoulders and knees. Do not allow your hips to shoot up first; think about driving your mid-foot into the floor and keeping your shins vertical.

Keep your shoulders down and back, your lats fully engaged, and squeeze the bar.

Corrective Drills

Hang power clean or hang power snatches. Even though the hang power movements begin at the second pull, it can be helpful to spend some time teaching your body where it should end up at the end of the first pull.

10-second pause after pulling the slack out of the barbell. Get into position and pull the barbell into the weight plates, but do not lift the barbell off the ground. Hold this position for 10 seconds, squeezing your thighs, glutes, and lats as hard as you can. You’ll likely start to shake. Then pull to the power position and pause again.

This is a great drill for teaching your body where everything is and how everything should feel before you pull the bar off the ground.

Bar Hitting or Swinging Around Knees

Another common error is when the bar hits or swings around the knees. This can often lead to losing balance and having to fight for position.

There are two main causes of this common error, one is an error in setup and the other is an error in execution.

Setup error. You setup and start with your shoulders behind the bar or with the bar too close to your shins.

Fixing the Error

A good starting point is with the barbell directly over the mid-foot. If you have long legs, try setting up with the barbell directly over the horizontal shoelace nearest the toe box of your lifters. If you have short legs, set up with the bar more toward the tie of your laces.

Check to make sure your shoulders are directly above or slightly in front of the bar at the start. A good cue is your arms should be vertical when viewed from the side.

Execution error: You open your hips too early. This is usually caused by trying to get your torso vertical sooner than you should. Patience is key with the Olympic lifts.

All of these errors cause the bar to impact the knees and the lifter to actively push the barbell out and swing it in front of the knees.

Fixing the Error

Keep your shins vertical as you pull the bar up. The bar should brush against your legs, but not swing around your knees. Allow the bar to brush against your thighs after it goes past your knees as you drive away from the floor.

Pulling Too Slowly Off the Floor

The first pull will always be slower than the second and third pulls. However, pulling too slowly off the floor will weaken the second, most explosive pull.

New lifters may benefit from purposefully pulling slowly from the floor. There are so many components to master that taking your time and being patient will help you learn position, balance, and timing. Once the technique is mastered, though, excessive slowness is no longer helpful.

Fixing the Error

The clean deadlift and snatch deadlift are great exercises that are often used to help lifters improve their strength. Because you are only deadlifting the weight and not trying to clean or snatch it, you are able to handle much heavier loads. However, the clean and snatch deadlift can also be used to increase the speed of the first pull.

The first rep should be a normal clean deadlift, with the second rep being a touch-and-go. The key is to not let the bar rest on the floor, but rather touch and quickly rebound back up. This will help you get used to pulling the bar from the floor as quickly as possible without losing balance or position.

Or try a neurological primer bar. Set up two barbells. One with 100-110% of your max clean, the other with 75-80%. Clean deadlift the first barbell for 1 rep, then rest 60-90 seconds. Now, clean deadlift the second, lighter barbell for 1 rep. Pull as fast as you can while maintaining immaculate technique. The first bar will prime your system for a heavy weight. It will be expecting that weight the second time, making the lighter barbell move very quickly.

Yanking the Bar off the Floor

I mentioned this in the How To section. The pull off the floor needs to be explosive, yet smooth and controlled. Some lifters will “yank” the bar off the floor.

Yanking the bar off the floor can cause two unwanted things to happen.

First, when you yank the bar off the floor, it often causes the hips to shoot up first followed by the shoulders. We’ve discussed this error.

Second, when you yank the bar off the floor, the sleeves will come in contact violently with the center holes of the weight plates. This can cause a momentary downward force on the barbell as it receives resistance from the plates.

Fixing the Error

You want to pull the slack out of the bar and feel its resistance against the plates before you pull the bar off the floor. Try the pauses I mentioned earlier if this is a common fault of yours.

Elbows Facing Backwards

It may feel weird to new lifters, but the elbows should be pointed out, not back, at the start of the clean and snatch. If the elbows are pointed backward, the bar is more likely to fly out in front and away from your body during the second pull.

Fixing the Error

Focus on keeping your elbows out, your knuckles pointing toward the floor, and your shoulders down.

Starting With Bent Arms

Your arms should stay straight for as long as possible. Preferably all the way until you shrug and pull yourself under the bar at the beginning of the third pull. Athletes tend to bend their arms when the weight gets heavy. Your arms feel the heavy load of the barbell and naturally tense and flex, bending at the elbows. But when your arms bend you lose your power, your elbows tend to face backward, and the barbell ends up traveling away from your body.

Fixing the Error

Think of your arms as ropes that simply connect your body to the bar. Let them hang long and straight.

Clean and snatch pulls are great exercises to help correct this error. Because these movements take away their pull and the thought of having to pull under the bar, you may feel more inclined to let your arms hang straight.

Corrective Exercises

There is a wide range of drills that can help fix errors in the first pull. Deadlift variations and pauses are my favorites for correcting errors and engraining positions.

Try the clean deadlift, snatch deadlift, clean pull, and snatch pull to fix any of the errors we’ve discussed. As well as pauses before lifting the barbell off the ground, below the knee, and just above the knee.

Video: Dmitry Klokov Teaches You How to Strengthen the First Pull

Complexes are another great way to go. The following use two movements. The first movement focuses on position and technique, followed by the full clean or snatch.

  • Clean deadlift + clean
  • Clean pull + clean
  • Halting snatch deadlift + snatch

This last set of corrective exercises focuses on strengthening the legs. If your legs aren’t strong, you’re not going to get off the ground quickly.

  • Clean deadlift or snatch deadlift
  • Clean or snatch deadlift from a deficit (stand on a 45 LB plate or low box)
  • Pause back squat
  • Pause front squat
  • Back or front squat from pins

My Favorite Barbells and Plates for Weightlifting

Bumper Plates

Rogue Crumb Bumper Plates – Crumb bumpers are amazing for home gyms! They are incredibly durable and are much quieter than typical bumper plates. And, if you plan on training outside at any point, these are the plates you need.

Titan Fitness 230-pound Economy Bumper Plate Set – This is the set I have at home.

Titan Fitness 230-Pound Elite Bumper Plate Set – This set is more expensive than the last, but they are incredible.

Barbells

I use each of the barbells listed below on a regular basis. They are incredible all-purpose barbells at great prices.

Again Faster Team Barbell 2.0 – This is the barbell I have and use at home. I love it. You can get this in both 20kg and 15kg versions.

Rogue Bar 2.0 – This is an incredible all-purpose barbell, and is one of the bars used at the CrossFit Games. In my humble opinion, this is the best barbell that most people can buy (along with the Bella bar for women).

Rogue Bella Bar 2.0 – Modeled after the Rogue Bar 2.0 but designed for women with a 25mm shaft and 15kg (33lb) weight. This is an incredible all-purpose barbell and is the bar the women use at the CrossFit Games.

Rogue IWF Approved Olympic Weightlifting Bar – if you need a true, dedicated Olympic lifting bar, you won’t be the quality or price of this one. It comes in both 28mm and 25mm shaft diameters, designed for male and female competitors.

Conclusion: Fixing the First Pull in the Olympic Lifts

The first pull in the Olympic lifts is critical to setting up the explosive second pull. However, it’s rarely given the time, attention, and focus that the second and third pulls receive. There are many nuances that can make or break your first pull success, from how you start to what position your elbows should be in when pulling off the ground. It’s important to identify these errors before they cause problems for you later on during the lift. The article has outlined some great exercises plus tips on correcting first-pull errors so that you have an efficient and powerful first pull every time!

What cues have helped you correct your own errors?

Learn how to perform and program the hang clean
Learn how to perform and program the hang power snatch
Learn how to perform and program the Olympic clean and jerk
Learn how to correctly perform the power snatch
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AUTHOR

Matt has been a personal trainer for more than 18 years. He is also a Certified Holistic Nutritionist, has a master's degree in teaching, and is a former competitive powerlifter and CrossFit athlete. His passion is helping others get in shape from mid-life and beyond.

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