When I had just started to work online with Western athletes and asked them to provide their training logs or at least to describe their past training experience, I was surprised to learn that almost all of them completely neglected pulling work. That may be the result of significant popularity of Bulgarian methods, but most likely it comes from the lack of understanding why they need to do pulls.
The answer may be vividly demonstrated by letting them watch the video of their lifts and the video of Chinese or Russian lifters (both countries incorporate significant volume of pulling work into their national teams’ routines). Lack of pulling work in the base period leads to unstable technique, occasional form breakdown and poor control of the bar. You cannot get a perfect second pull if you neglect your pulls—it is as simple as it is.
I find it strange that many people do not understand this. It is not questioned that we separate clean into few phases—pulling phase, drop phase and recovery phase. We practice technique drills to make the drop phase better, we increase our front squats so that we can have some strength reserve to recover from the bottom position easily. So why would not we want our pull to have a strength reserve and good technique also?
My belief is that the only thing that may justify neglecting pulls in your routine is complete lack of understanding how to use them. And that is not surprising as there are numerous types of pulls—they can be done from the platform, from the blocks of from one of 3 hang positions. They can be finished with a jump, with a second pull or you may cut the range of motion right at the power position. You can vary style of your pulls, making them either static or dynamic. And last you can do them from a deficit. Each type of pull has its own place in the macrocycle and its own rules for picking the right intensity zone.
A complete guide to pulling would probably require a little book to be written. At least it requires a deep understanding of what periodization is and how it should be applied. However, in this article I will share few ideas what you can use the pulls for.
Getting Your Pull Faster
The more acceleration you give to the bar, the higher it will be pulled. You would want to pull from the platform to increase your pulling speed. No need to go beyond 100% of your snatch or clean for this. Try to stick to the work in 90-100% intensity zone and incorporate this exercise into your routine closer to the meet date.
E.g. from my preparation: when I was preparing for 200kg snatch, I started to do snatch pulls from the platform with 190-200kg for 2-3 reps in the competition period. As I was going to snatch 200kg I wanted to make sure that I was absolutely comfortable with pulling this weight.
Getting Your Technique Stable
Proper technique in the clean or snatch means that you keep the right angles in every joint throughout the whole motion. When you go for PR on the meet, if you have never done the heavy pulling work, you will face a weight that you have never even held in your arms. Most likely your muscles will not be ready to maintain proper joint angles, which will lead to a technique breakdown. Doing hang or block pulls with a weight of 100 to 150% of your maximum clean or snatch is a good solution. Such pulls would better suit the base period of preparation and closer to the meet date you shall decrease their number and work for 2-3 reps only.
E.g. from my preparation: I will quote my 200kg snatch preparation again. In the base period I have done hang snatch pulls from various positions with 270 kg for 5 reps and even higher when working with blocks. Closer to the meet date I left only few of those and worked with 250-260kg for 2-3 reps.
Training with Knee Injuries
If you have ever experienced knee injury, you know that it puts many limitations on your training. Squatting is definitely not an option until your knee gets better, along with cleans and snatches. That leads to a reasonable question: How can you maintain your strength level while recovering?
Your squat may go down a little, just face it. But that is one of the reasons we would like our front squat to have some reserve comparing to our clean.
First you may think that the back strength and pulling technique will not suffer that much as you can switch to power clean and power snatch. But bear in mind that the weight will be less than in case of full clean and snatch, and if your injury lasts for a long time, that will most likely get you out of the groove when you will come to the big numbers again.
Apart from power clean and snatch, make sure that while your knee is not yet ready for the training without any limitations, you do a solid amount of heavy pulls. You will be surprised to see that when you get back to normal training, your clean and snatch may not even lose a single kilo.
To avoid any misunderstanding, the whole thing above applies to minor knee injuries, where usually the pain is felt either when going below parallel in squats or from the impact on the knee joint when you receive the bar in clean or snatch. For any significant injuries, even the pulling work may be dangerous and should be avoided unless your doctor allows it. This paragraph is mostly driven by my experience as a professional weightlifter, where my whole career depended on my performance and quitting preparation because of injury was not an option. For amateur lifters, I would highly recommend minimizing all risks in every possible manner.
Learning or Correcting the Technique
If you have just started learning Olympic lifts, getting you to perform competition lifts right from the start is stupid and ineffective idea. You need to break the movement into several parts and learn them one by one. For this purpose, nothing can be better than hang pulls.
You do hang pulls from the mid-thigh and when it is more or less fine, you may try hang clean/snatch from that position and continue to develop your pulling technique working on hang pulls from knee level. In such way you will slowly but effectively end up with coming to mid-shin level and then to the platform.
This applies not only to beginners, but also to those who have already lifted some weights but realized that their technique really needs improvement. If the biggest mistake of yours is not keeping the bar close in the second pull or not finishing the pull with a solid shrug, there is no need to repeat classical lift to fix it. That demands much more energy and lacks focus on your mistakes, which most likely will not allow you to concentrate on them and break the wrong movement pattern.
A much more efficient way is to pick the pulling variation that address specifically your mistakes and work on it. You should never be embarrassed to go back to basics!
Pulls can be a good thing to combine with clean and snatch. These combinations are very effective in the course of learning Olympic lifts. There are many reasons to try it, but before addressing them I would give an example of such combination.
In a single set you perform:
1 hang clean pull from mid-thigh level
1 hang clean pull from knee level
3 hang clean from knee level
It works like this: In the first repetition you memorize a proper power position for second pull and focus on doing it right, in the second repetition you accelerate the bar from the knee level to power position and repeat the second pull again and then you come to the cleans. By that time, you have already found your groove with second pull and can make a solid clean.
One may argue, why would not I simply do 5 hang cleans instead? The answer is simple: if you have troubles with your second pull, most likely the first and second repetitions in the set of 5 would be not that good in terms of form. The third repetition would be much better after you get the local movement pattern from the first two. And the fourth and fifth would be not that good again, as you shall be already tired given that 5 reps is a huge number for cleans.
Even more advanced athletes can find a room for such combinations. They allow you to get more training volume and when you do it with solid weights it makes cleans a little bit harder (as you do them after 1 or 2 pulling reps), though not so hard that it impairs technique.
I hope this article at least managed to encouraged some of you to give the pulling work a try. Keep experimenting, try different options and analyze the result. Do not forget that to be a champion you need to be smart, not only strong!