Anyone who has been watching international weightlifting competitions over the last few years will have noticed a small but increasing number of lifters using the squat jerk. What was once a novelty is now being taken seriously by coaches around the world.
In this post, we’ll look at why this is and talk about what you need to know to decide whether you should be trying this style of jerk.
You don’t have to go back very far in the history of weightlifting to find a time when the snatch and the clean were performed with a split rather than a squat. In both cases, a few lifters with better than usual mobility found that they could use a squat to get lower under the bar. As they didn’t need to get the bar as high, they could make heavier lifts than was possible with the split variation. The squat variations were taken up by more lifters and developed further. Eventually, the split snatch and split clean became unusual in competition. They have now almost completely disappeared, only seeing use by competitors with very limited mobility, such as some masters lifters.
So, the direction of travel with weightlifting technique is for squat variations to replace split variations as lifters discover that the higher potential weights are worth the extra work on mobility and technique. The jerk has resisted this trend so far but could that be in the process of changing?
The obvious advantage of a squat jerk over the split variation is that dropping lower means that the bar does not need to be driven so high. Clearly this has the potential to enable bigger weights to be jerked, provided the lifter has the leg strength to stand up out of the deep squat position.
There are some other potential benefits though.
In the split jerk, lifters never get full extension on the drive part of the lift as they have to break it off to move the feet into the split position. In the squat jerk, the lifter may be able to continue the drive for just a little bit longer. This may not be relevant to all styles of squat jerking though – some lifters and coaches are experimenting with a style of squat jerking that almost entirely focusses on dropping under the bar rather than driving it upwards before dropping.
Speaking of the drop, the long drop distance of the squat jerk may give lifters a little more time to achieve a good lockout before their arms take the weight of the bar. For some lifters, this may help avoid missed lifts due to a failed lockout.
Many weightlifters suffer from strength imbalances between their legs, often caused by years of split jerk training. These imbalances can need time consuming training to rectify. The squat jerk, by it’s nature, will not induce any imbalance between left and right legs. This could give an advantage to lifters who use the squat variation over many years by enabling them to focus on the lift itself rather than correcting imbalances.
So given all these potential benefits, why isn’t everyone squat jerking?
The biggest problem with the squat jerk is the mobility requirement. The receive position is like a snatch receive position with a much narrower grip, with the greater mobility challenges that this presents. Without specific mobility work, most weightlifters will not be able to get into a properly deep receive position and will only be able to perform a power jerk, which may not provide any more depth than a split jerk. Some lifters are trying a wider jerk hand width, which helps with mobility but makes maintaining lockout more challenging.
Assuming you have the mobility to get into a deep squat jerk receive position, the next problem you will face is the margin of error. In a split jerk, if the bar is slightly forward or behind of the ideal position, it is possible to correct by shifting weight slightly between the feet. In a squat jerk, this is not possible so, if the bar is even slightly out of position after the drive, the lift will be lost. This may be why some coaches are introducing squat jerks that minimise the drive component of the lift; to reduce the potential for the bar to move forward or back.
The squat jerk is considered high risk as a competition lift and with good reason. There have been several high profile bomb-outs from those using it and, given the relatively small number of lifters currently using it at world level, this seems significant. However, it is worth bearing in mind that that both the squat clean and the squat snatch were similarly seen as high risk in the early days of their use in competition.
The third challenge of the squat jerk is the tremendous leg strength that is required to complete it. In competition, it will always be attempted immediately after a heavy clean so, in order to be successful, the lifter will need to drive up out of a deep squat twice in quick succession.
Should You Use the Squat Jerk?
Now that we’ve looked at the good and bad sides of the squat jerk compared to the split jerk, the obvious question to ask is “should I use it?”
The bottom line is that, to be able to use the squat jerk, you will need to have the mobility for it. If you can’t get into a deep, stable, overhead squat with a reasonably narrow grip, you need to work on mobility before you introduce squat jerks into your training. Attempting them without the right mobility will just lead to learning a bad movement pattern. On the plus side, improving your overhead mobility and stability will help with your snatch even if you don’t end up using the squat jerk.
You are also going to need to be prepared for lots of missed jerks if you have days when you are at all inconsistent with your technique. Some lifters will shrug this off while others will find that it bothers them.
For existing lifters, assuming you meet the mobility requirement, our advice would be to consider what is currently limiting your clean and jerk. If you always jerk what you can clean then clearly there is little to gain by changing jerk style until you have gained significant leg strength. On the other hand, if you stand up with cleans easily but are limited by the jerk, you may want to find out if you can jerk more in the squat variation.
For new lifters and especially younger lifters who are mobile enough, we would recommend that you try the squat jerk at light weights alongside the split jerk. As your strength and skills develop, it could be valuable to have the option to use it.
Many thanks to Ivan, one of our senior lifters, who prompted us to take a serious look at the squat jerk.