A little while ago, Strength Plus magazine posted a question asking whether you would ever try, or coach someone on, the squat jerk. The question is likely to be raised again given that at the resent 2011 Arnold Classic, during the “Island vs Mainland” competition, Kedrick Ferris bombed out using the squat jerk and Pat Mendes missed his final two attempts using the power jerk (Pat’s recovering from an injury, so he wasn’t in top form, and considering that, he did remarkably well). Contrary to the beliefs of some, I don’t think they’d have done any better with the split jerk. They found a style that works for them, and they’re best of doing what feels natural.
It wasn’t that long ago (given the timeline of the earth!) that people believed that the squat snatch was a stupid idea. It used to be that everyone used the split style for both the snatch and the clean and the jerk. But, a few bold experimenters showed that the naysayers were wrong. The squat clean and the squat snatch proved to be more efficient. Bottom line: lifters could lift more weight if they squatted.
(The transition took a while. First people switched to the squat clean, but still split snatched – like Bill Starr. It wasn’t until the early 70’s before the last serious split snatchers left the building … I’m one of the only lifters under 50 who still split snatches in the country – world? – in competition.)
Sports are a lot like “real” life in at least one important way: they evolve by way of natural selection. In weightlifting, inefficient styles die and fall by the way side in favor of styles that promise the lifter more weight on the bar. More weight on the bar means a greater chance at winning. In sports, winning IS life.
For most of us, that attitude is stupid, of course. The sport we play is a vehicle through which we actively improve on ourselves, making us stronger, healthier, better people. But, at the elite level, winning really is everything to these folks. That attitude drives a kind of evolutionary process that is quite efficient at pushing a sport forward toward greater and greater heights.
The Split Jerk: Old Faithful
(The lifter in the photo is Victor Kanygin (USSR) during the European Championships, 1972. Thanks to Fred Lowe for the information about this photo!)
What has made the split jerk so popular, and why is it still around, despite the fact that the split snatch and the split clean have gone the way of the Brontosaurus?
In any split variation, the primary benefit is fore and aft control. Because of your legs being split, you’re very stable forward and back. In practice, what this means is that if you throw the bar a bit too far forward during the drive, it’s savable, you just jump into it more. (I’ve saved many snatches this way that would have been lost if I was a squat snatcher.) When weights are as heavy as they are in a clean and jerk, this added measure of control is a huge plus.
Another bonus is that the split jerk doesn’t require as much flexibility. If you didn’t come to weightlifting at the age of 12, you may not be as flexible as you’d like to be in the shoulders and hips. A split takes this concern out of the equation. You still have to be flexible, just not AS flexible as you would for a squat jerk. (The only reason this is true is because you are only splitting down to a “power” position. The old-time split snatchers and cleaners split to a “full” position which requires massive flexibility.)
The downside of any split version is that you can’t drive into the ground as long, because you need time to split your feet all the way out before you catch the bar. The split takes time, and you have to cut short the foot contact with the ground in order to get it. It may seem imperceptible to the naked eye, but that extra split second can be crucial. It is one of the primary reasons people switched to the squat snatch/clean. The bar simply cannot get as high when you are a splitter without doing extra work to make it happen.
I am of the opinion that the “triple extension” is a hold-over from the splitting days. Forcefully getting up on the toes, and shrugging at the top, gave splitters the extra height they needed to split under the bar. Now that everyone squats, the triple extension is dying away in favor of a flat-footed “super” drive.
The Power Jerk: A Transitional Form?
The power jerk solves the problem of the split jerk, and allows you to drive into the ground for longer, thereby imparting more force onto the bar resulting in more height. The second advantage of not having to split your feet is that they can land in the receiving position much faster. Like the split, in the power jerk you don’t go down to “rock bottom”. The depth of a power jerk is similar to that of a split jerk. (By the way, some folk call the power jerk a “push jerk”. They are the same thing.)
The downside is that you’ve given up your fore and aft control. Losing the bar in front or behind is much more likely in this style. You also need to be more flexible in the shoulders. While in the ideal world of unicorns and ballet slippers all lifters should catch their jerks right above the back of their heads (or farther behind if you lean your torso forward), in the real world, many lifters with less than optimal flexibility will catch the bar a bit farther forward. With the split jerk, this position is recoverable. In a power jerk, it is not. The bar MUST be in the right spot, or you will miss.
The Squat Jerk: Enter the Dragon
The last (teleological?) phase of the evolution of the Olympic weightlifter in its quest towards perfection is the squat jerk. The lifter is able to handle the heaviest of weights, get maximum drive-time onto the bar, and can land in the receiving position faster than in the split.
The downside is a near total loss of stability. Being a deep overhead squat, with your hands in a narrower grip than you have in the snatch, with a weight that was hard enough to front squat up with makes this style brutal, to say the least. But, if you can hit it just right, the rewards are a bigger jerk.
WARNING! A mistake often made with the squat jerk is one that is also made with the snatch: the lifter dives too fast under the bar! You never want to be in a position in this sport where the bar lands ON you. You must be in control at all times. Drive the bar up and catch it exactly where it ends up. If the bar is very heavy, you may need to squat under it to stay in control. This is how squat jerking came about. The weights are very heavy, once you catch the bar in the power position, you may not have any choice but to ride it down. But, there is never a case when you will have to CATCH the bar in the bottom position.
Conclusion: Which is “Best”?
I currently have 5 lifters doing some variant of the Power/Squat jerk. Brandon and Roy do so exclusively, Amy uses it when she wants to lay off an injured knee, and Dave and Peter are giving it the old college try (I expect Dave to use it at Masters Nationals this year). But, the rest of us all split.
I see this as a simple matter of choice, and doing what “feels” right for you. For many lifters, the split position feels very natural, but squatting doesn’t. Some lifters are the opposite. If you’ve been struggling in your split jerks, you might give the power jerk a try. If you feel great with it at light weights, see if you can squat down lower once you catch it.
You’ll need a ton of flexibility to do the squat jerk. Don’t even attempt it if you’re already struggling with flexibility in the snatch! Stick to the power jerk, if you don’t want to split. But, for those of you with great mobility, who feel awkward splitting, and have a fearless personality, the squat jerk may be right up your alley. Don’t let the naysayers dissuade you.