Jessica Asks: I've been religiously watching your videos for about a month now and am amazed at the speed at which Aimee gets under the bar!! I’m still a novice at Olympic lifting but have been doing CrossFit here in Miami for over three years. I know she has a huge amount of experience and training but are there any exercises and or techniques that will improve my speed in that area?
: There two main things to consider when we’re talking about speed in the Olympic lifts. First is the obvious: being able to make your muscles contract at a high rate of speed, which makes the associated joint(s) move at a similarly high rate of speed. The second is the speed of changing the direction of movement during the snatch, clean or jerk, i.e. transitioning from moving the body up to moving the body down. This is not really related to the rate of muscle contraction directly, but is a function of timing and skill.
The rate of muscular contraction can be trained of course, but much of an individual’s speed is simply genetic, the result of factors like muscle fiber type dominance, anatomical differences that improve mechanics, neurological function, etc. In any case, there is certainly a genetic ceiling on maximal speed characteristics irrespective of training methodology. This is where truly elite athletes come from: individuals who are genetically predisposed to being excellent at certain physical tasks and who then put in the time and work to develop those innate abilities to the absolute maximum degree.
The skill element I mentioned can be influenced much more by training. There are certainly genetic limitations on motor learning and skill development, but quite a bit can be done to improve on what you have. Much of the appearance of speed in the Olympic lifts is less from the speed of muscle contraction (e.g. the actual extension of the body to elevate the bar) and more from the speed at which the lifter switches from lifting the bar to pulling himself under it. This is what creates the sense of explosion.
In order to maximize this element of the lifts (which is arguably more important that the actual upward speed of the bar), you need to optimize the mechanics of the lift and your timing in executing each segment of the total movement. This means ensuring proper balance and position during the pulling phase of the lift, using your body appropriately by relying on your lower body to accelerate the barbell upward and not interfering with a tense upper body, keeping the barbell in as close to the body as possible, making sure it contacts completely and at the correct time and location, not hesitating in the top of the extension, and performing the second and third pulls as a single continuous action (all of this applies to the jerk but obviously you need to change the details).
So the summary of the above is simply: learn the lifts well and continue the pursuit of technical mastery, and along with that will come continually improving speed.
One of the most overlooked elements of weightlifting that will contribute to the appearance of speed (and the success) of your lifts is the pull (or push) under the bar. The pull under the bar in the snatch and clean and the push under the bar in the jerk must be just as violent and aggressive as the upward acceleration of the bar that precedes it. Incidentally, this is largely why Aimee looks so fast when she snatches—she moves under the bar extremely quickly.
There are ways to train that will help improve both of the elements of speed described above. Lifts from high blocks or hang positions and power variations are the most common ways to work on speed; all of these exercises will help improve the actual rate of force development and help you improve your timing and technique in various ways. Hang and block lifts can also strengthen the pull under, as can high-pulls, muscle snatches and cleans, and tall snatches and cleans. Jumping exercises are also helpful for basic speed development.
It’s important to keep in mind that if you’re training specifically to improve speed, you need to load the exercise appropriately. Depending somewhat on the exercise, this means in the 50-70% range. Remember that if you’re training speed, you need to train speed; stick with the lighter weights for this, and train the other characteristics with your heavier weights. For example, if you need to be snatching 80%+ in a workout (which you generally do) but want to spend some time working on speed, do a few sets with 60-70% first, focusing on speed, before continuing on to the heavier snatches.
Finally, in weightlifting, it's critical that essentially all concentric movements are performed with maximal speed unless there is a specific and compelling reason in a particular instance not to. This includes not just the competition lifts, but exercises like pulls and squats. This will help develop the ability to accelerate heavy weights as much as possible, and will instill the mindset of aggression also necessary for optimal lifting.