If you have ever been lucky enough to watch an elite level lifter jerk in person, you have probably thought “what the hell, they make it look so simple. They barely move, I just don't get it.” At the world weightlifting championships this year I was able to witness Om Yun Choi clean and jerk well over triple body weight. Think about that. Take your body weight, triple it, and put it over your head. An absolutely absurd thought for most, but to then do it with what looked like ease is insane. Training, and endless repetitions, set him up for this success without question. But what can the less competitive weightlifter, or fitness athlete, do to get this lift better?
Thanks to hookgrip everyone has the ability to see these incredible comparisons of full speed movements, and then 1/30th speed movement, one after another all over instagram. In each video we see the same thing over and over; a top level athlete who throws the bar overhead with incredible ease, almost as if they are not moving enough to get it there. All they do is bend their knees and then drive it into position. There is no movement of the arms, torso, or head at all. So where does the movement, momentum, and power come from in the jerk?
- This movement is driven almost entirely by flexing and extending at the knee (there was a well written meta-analysis which did a great job of effectively showing this). That means that your quads are the primary muscle used to create force for the jerk, specifically your vastus medialis oblique or VMO (the portion of your quad that looks like a tear drop). Yes, almost all of the other muscles in your body are used to create rigidity and stability throughout your body. However, the quads are responsible for the power output that drives the bar overhead. Not your arms, or your back, or your chest, even though all of those are used eventually.
Here is where we could get into technique on where to place your hands, position your elbows, or move your head when jerking, but that is not what this article is about. We are going to look at the exercises that will improve terminal knee extension, which is used almost exclusively to create power in the jerk. These exercises below will help you develop more strength, and power with the muscles needed for the jerk.
Occasionally I get to work with Kate Brierley on her weightlifting technique. Kate is a fairly well accomplished athlete who competes in GRID, and will certainly make it to the CrossFit Games soon. She is a perfect example of how developing big and powerful VMO’s makes life much easier. As you can see in the picture above, her VMO’s almost jump off the screen at you. Because these are so well developed (and yes her technique is on point) she is able to jerk nearly anything. Seriously, nearly anything. But how do you get quads like those?
Let’s start with some really basic movements that can have a huge impact. For starters, leg extensions. Yeah, that’s right. The machine you used to use in the fitness center. It does exactly what you need it to for the jerk. The majority of the work with these machines is done at the end of the ROM, which means it attacks the VMO, and will begin to bring the lagging portion of knee extension up to par with the sections that the squat developed. So hop on this machine, and build your VMO, and you can thank me for the quad pump later.
Okay so a lot of gyms now don't have machines. A huge mistake, but that's for another day) What can you do to improve your quad strength, size, and terminal knee extension? This is a great time for an exercise which is also underutilized by most populations called Terminal Knee Extension or TKE (the link will show you so I don't spend 15 lines explaining it). All you need is a band and something to wrap it around. This exercise is great for increasing the ability of your quads to extend at or near the end ROM.
Finally we can talk about a more fitness snob friendly movement, the step up. I love this exercise and use it for every single one of my athletes. There is often confusion about how high the box should be, and the answer is that it completely depends on what you are looking to get out of the movement. If you're looking for increased glute or hamstring activation, then the box you use needs to put your knee above your hip. However, if your goal is to use it to improve your VMO and your jerking potential, then the box can put your knee well below the hip. This way the focus of the exercise is on the quad, and you will be able to add much more weight. This stimulates greater development of the quad, mostly the VMO, which research shows is the most called upon during a jerk. Forget the fact that big defined quads make you feel and look great.
Now I am 100% not saying that you should never do step ups with your hip below your knee, or that leg extensions and TKE’s are all you need to get strong and lift heavy weight. If that's what you're thinking, you're either being obtuse or trying to find fault in the argument because it doesn't agree with your views. But I will show you in the next paragraph how squats alone will not maximize your ability for terminal knee extension.
Let’s talk about the squat now. Is the squat a good exercise to develop strength and size in the quads? The answer is yes. However, the squat is not great at developing the VMO, or strength towards the end range of knee extension. Without getting too in depth, it is simply because the easiest part of the squat is at or near the top (where the VMO is activated). The hardest part being somewhere in the middle because it changes based on each individual's lever length. But that middle portion causes stimulation of the vastus lateralis, and rectus femoris. This can leave athletes, even really strong ones, with an underdeveloped vastus medialis oblique. Now there are variations of the squat that do a better job of recruiting the VMO for sure. But remember before you start strapping bands to the bar, adding chains, and making up an absurd rep scheme, there are simpler exercises that can help you develop the muscles you need to jerk heavy weights.
To jerk big you need strong quads, and more specifically strong VMO’s. So take the time to give yourself the advantage over the weight, and develop skin popping quads like our friend Kate Brierley.