Kneeling Olympic Lifts for Speed, Power, and Performance

Kneeling Olympic Lifts for Speed, Power, and Athletic Performance

Dr. Joel Seedman, Ph.D.

I’ve recently been incorporating kneeling variations of cleans and snatches into my athletes' training programs with great success.  They actually have several similarities to muscle cleans and muscle snatches. 

And yes, these do involve a small amount of arm action to help initiate the movement, however as long as powerful glute activation and hip extension are employed it does not detract from the hips.  With this in mind performing Olympic lifts from a kneeling position provides 8 unique benefits. 

1. During Olympic lifts many individuals lack proper hip drive, oftentimes shortchanging the final phase of hip extension.  Performing Olympic lifts from a kneeling position isolates the hips as it literally forces the individual to complete the hip extension phase in order to drive the weight up.

2. When it comes to Olympic lifts the name of the game is quick and violent power, emphasizing explosive movement.  Unfortunately, many lifters rely so much on smooth mechanics and dropping under the bar that they forget to be as explosive and as violent as possible on the pulling phase.  Because the lifter won’t be able to drop under the weight (more than several inches) this forces the lifter to launch the load up with extreme aggression as anything less will result in the weight stalling out before the lift is completed. 

3. The kneeling variations also rely slightly more on brute force and sheer aggression rather than perfectly timed sequencing of events.  If you’re an Olympic lifter nailing every component of the sequence is critical.  However, most athletes aren’t interested in becoming professional Olympic lifters, therefore relying a bit more on sheer power rather than precise execution of each and every individual sequence is something to consider when programming Olympic lifts for athletes.

4. The kneeling variations of the clean and snatch are some of the most effective Olympic lifting variations I’ve ever used for teaching proper catching positions and explosive finishes.  That’s because the individual can’t simply rely on gravity to complete the finish but must, in fact, aggressively snap the weight into position immediately after the hips have launched the bar up.  This is a very important yet oftentimes underrated aspect of Olympic lifts particularly when training athletes.

5. Proper bar path and balance are two other critical factors when it comes to Olympic lifts.  Many lifters often allow the bar to get too far in front of them rather than keeping it as close to their body as possible.  When you’re performing Olympic lifts on your feet you can make up for lack of proper bar path by chasing after the bar when you catch it.  However, performing cleans and snatches from the kneeling position requires perfect bar path and balance as it’s impossible to chase the bar or make up for faulty positioning.  You either catch it perfectly as a result of proper mechanics and proper bar path or you miss the lift.  There’s no in between.

6. Core activation is a critical yet often neglected and overlooked component of Olympic lifts.  In fact catching the barbell, whether in a clean or snatch position, requires the lifter to brace their abs and stabilize their spine by firing all the muscles in their core.  The kneeling variation is very conducive for teaching this as it promotes increased core activation and spinal stabilization.

7. Kneeling Olympic lifts tend to be easier on the low back than standard variations predominantly because the lifter can use much lighter loads to produce a strong training stimulus.  In essence the lifter will use roughly half of the weight they typically use on standing variations yet the stimulus to the hips in terms of teaching high power output is still exceptionally high.  If you’re looking for max effort variations of Olympic lifts that are low-back and generally speaking very joint friendly, the kneeling variations of cleans and snatches are tough to beat.

8. Many lifter focus too much on trying to jump when performing Olympic lifts rather than emphasizing hip extension.  In fact, trying to implement an exaggerated jump and stomp, as is commonly employed by many coaches, is one of the worst cues you can implement when performing Olympic lifts, as it minimizes force output and hip extension.  The kneeling variations help to eliminate this as the only way the barbell will drive into the catch position is by using the hips, not by jumping

Dumbbell Variations

Kneeling Olympic lifts (cleans and snatches) can also be performed from a kneeling position as demonstrated by NFL Offensive Lineman Darrell Williams and collegiate high jumper Bailey Weiland. In fact many athletes will find the dumbbell variations more comfortable and natural.

Accommodating Resistance & Kneeling Olympic Lifts

Kneeling Olympic lifts can also be combined with various forms of accommodating resistance such as band resistance and band assistance.  Read more about Olympic weightlifting with accommodating resistance here.

Single Leg Kneeling Hang Cleans

Although a majority of Olympic lifts & power variations I use with my athletes emphasize explosive power output, I periodically employ variations that emphasize motor control, balance, & stability while also exhibiting various elements of power & speed. That’s because power & speed without control are useless.

In this particular drill I’m demonstrating a clean variation that combines 3 of my favorite olympic lifting modifications namely kneeling Olympic lifts, dumbbell Olympic lifts, & single leg Olympic lifts. You’ll notice I have my support leg elevated on a small box in order to give my elevated leg room to swing through on both the eccentric & concentric phases.

Essentially we’re isolating unilateral hip extension, elements of hip mobility, core stabilization, unilateral hip speed, knee drive, lumbopelvic hip control, & shoulder stability, as well as deceleration & force absorption in an asymmetrical offset half kneeling position. Yes, that’s quite few biomotor qualities being addressed however this also does wonders for teaching athletes to eliminate extraneous motion & energy leaks during other high force activities including traditional Olympic lifts, plyometrics, & explosive drills. In fact, if there’s any misalignment, postural deviation, or form aberration in your Olympic lifts you’ll lose balance almost immediately as these truly expose & target a number of neuromuscular & biomechanical issues throughout the kinetic chain.

You’ll also be forced to keep your core fully engaged in order to maintain a high degree of spinal rigidity – a critical component for maximizing motor control as well as force production & force absorption.

Kneeling Jump Cleans and Kneeling Jump Snatches from Louie Simmons - Westside Barbell

At Westside Barbell, Louie Simmons teaches the kneeling jump clean and kneeling jump snatch by starting from the knees and ending on the feet in the bottom of the catch.  Now I have the utmost respect for Louie Simmons as he’s one of the top strength coaches in the world, so this is not a knock against him, it simply highlights my own personal views on the topic.  With that said the jumping variations he advocates involve less emphasis on hip extension and more on a quick jump.  In my opinion this can actually promote faulty Olympic lifting mechanics since, as previously discussed, the jump is not ideal. 

In addition, due to the nature of the kneeling jump, the jump variations require the lifter to catch the bar significantly in front of the body rather than directly above it, thereby promoting another common flaw, that of “chasing the barbell” when attempting to catch the load.  With Olympic lifting, bar path, including the catch position, is one of the most critical factors. Therefore performing any drill that would alter ideal bar path mechanics and promote a compromised catch position is not optimal.

The jump variations also require the lifter to catch their body in a collapsed squat position.  Although the ultra deep squat is par for the course when it comes to competitive Olympic weightlifting, this is not ideal for other athletes as it can alter their ideal squat form, the goal of which is a 90 degree or parallel squat, not ATG collapsed squat. This in turn can negatively impact their jumping and sprinting performance, not to mention their joints and connective tissue.

Lastly, the kneeling jump variations require the lifter to use unusually light loads (often times just the barbell) as going heavier can make the lifts feel nearly impossible and in many aspects quite dangerous and unnatural.  The kneeling variations I’m recommending involve safe mechanics that also happen to mimic the standing variations, particularly the power variations, thereby enhancing technique and form rather than degrading them. 

Now it should also be noted that at Westside barbell they often use the kneeling jump variations to improve jump performance and are most likely less concerned about the actual transfer to weightlifting performance.  However, in my opinion it may be wiser to simply perform weighted kneeling jumps rather than combining the kneeling jump with the Olympic lifts.

Here’s a quick video so you can decide for yourself. The above commentary simply reflects my own personal thoughts on the topic.  Perhaps many lifters will find merit in both methods.

Training Protocols and Recommendations

Although kneeling Olympic lifts can be performed on the floor I find that kneeling on a small 2-4 inch box allows the lifter to have a more solid base under their center of gravity as the feet can more naturally anchor into the floor.  It also allows the lifter to use the large bumper plates without them touching the floor.

Lastly the slight elevation is very conducive for performing cleans and snatches from the floor (rather than the hang position as previously described) as the height tends to be just right for pulling from the dead stop position. 

Whether you perform them from the hang position or from the floor, I typically recommend 4-5 sets of 2-4 reps on either movement, using 40-60% of your traditional loads.