How to Start Using Your Arms

Olympic lifting is largely about leg drive. We get it. Every coach talks about lifting with your legs. It IS all about the LEGS.

But what about the ARMS? I mean, after all, they are attached to the bar, aren’t they?

If you are going to climb the ranks of the Olympic lifting mountain, you are going to have to learn how to pull with your arms to FINISH THE LIFTS.

If you are only thinking about lifting with your legs, your turnover is going to be slow and your lockout will be weak.

Here is why people get using the arms all wrong:

In the beginnings stages of learning the lift, and especially during the first year of lifting, coaches are trying to get the athletes to conceptualize the unloading of the bar. That is – making the bar weightless for a brief moment.

I agree that using the legs and hips to unload the bar has to be the most important concept in the beginning, and it is understandable that coaches tend to do everything in their power to get athletes to get the arms out of the lift. If the job is done well, athletes will actually start looking like Olympic weightlifters.

Typically, when a coach starts asking the athletes to get their upper bodies more involved in the lifts, there is a disruption of timing. This makes sense because up until this point, it has been hammered home to the athlete that the lifts are all done with the lower body.

In general, the athletes will hang out at the top of the lift a little too long in order to justify “finishing the pull” and this will slow the athletes transition significantly.

As an athlete progresses as a lifter, the goal is to increase speed under the bar. At the Lift Lab, we often say “speed kills”. It is important to understand that speed off the floor will change, but the speed under the bar never does.

This makes sense because at some point the load becomes so heavy that an athlete can not pick up the bar any faster. Conversely, as the load increases, the weight can be used as an anchor point for the transition and the speed under the bar can actually increase.

For an example, look no further than Alex Lee. He is a great example of speed under the bar. The best lifters are faster in their transition under the bar as the load increase because they can use the load to hammer the weight with their upper body and pull themselves under the bar after they unload it with their hips – both in the snatch and the clean.

We ask our athletes to “keep pulling” in reference to their arms, but your cues are going to be unique to you. For us, we want the athlete to think about getting their fists to the lockout position. “Pull your fists behind you” is one we use quite a bit. Some coaches reference elbows, and at one point, we did too. But for us, it makes more sense to talk about the finished product than something that happens in the middle.

For example, if I swing a baseball bat I am looking to throw my hands at the ball, not my elbows… make sense? If it doesn’t, email me.

The good news is that I’m not going to leave you hanging on how to drill using the arms.

Here are 3 progressions to instantly improve your Olympic lifts.

To drill arm action in the Olympic lifts, I like to use these three drills. I put them in order of progression, starting with the easiest first and the most complex last.

Make sure to master the preceding drill before moving on to the next.

First things first, to learn to pull with your lats and not your biceps, we use the GHD bar sweep.

Here is why we do this drill: athletes have to learn to stay tight with their backs without bending at the arms. Keeping the back locked in is key to maintaining and improving timing as they work to improve timing under the bar. For those who are new to the sport, this is also a good general strengthening exercise that will build strength for all positions.

Once an athlete has learned to keep their back tight and sweep the bar into their body, they will start working on their timing. The second drill is the push pop drill. This drill will help the athlete understand hip contact and use the bar sweep drill.

In the video below, pay close attention to the toes and the fists. You will see the bar being swept into the body without bending the elbows as she pushes to the top.[/embedyt]

Finally, once the athlete has a good understanding of keeping the bar tight to the hip, the final drill shown will help the transition of the bar to its final resting place. Ironically, the third drill is typically where people start. Pay close attention to the athletes as they work on these foundational movements – this is where bad habits can be developed that may take a while to be undone. Here is the drill – notice the good and the bad shown in the video.

As a final note, there was one thing I remember learning in 2005 from a Mike Burgener video. He said that “when the arms bend, the power ends.” That quote stuck with me for a long time an dI think it drives home an important concept. Teaching athletes timing is a hard thing to do. If they use the arms too early, they are going to limit the ever important leg drive. If they get the arms going too late, they are going to be slow in the lockout. This is why it is important to build the foundation and drill athletes properly. I thank Mike for putting that in my head – it has been a valuable lesson.

As always if you have any questions or comments I would love to hear from you. Please email me;

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