In managing the training of beginner and intermediate weightlifters the most commonly used exercises for the development of strength and technique are pulls. Snatch pulls, clean pulls, drive pulls and panda pulls are done in practically every training session of new lifters and in some countries advanced lifters as well. Pulls and their many variations take precedence over squats during preparation phases throughout the year. In Russian and former Soviet bloc countries there are pulling phases in training cycles where squats are done twice a week and pulls everyday.. A close examination of why pulls are important in a weightlifters development will help the reader gain an understanding of how to use them.
There are several reasons pulls are important for weightlifters. They acclimate the body for heavier workloads as lifters progress. Muscle and connective tissue must become stronger to adapt to the stresses weightlifting creates. Pulls develop neuromuscular coordination and reinforce correct technique and body positioning by exploiting the potential of the primary muscle groups used (quads, hamstrings, glutes, lower back). Overdeveloped quads by excessive squatting limits the speed with which hamstrings operate which is to flex the knees, extend the hips, and stabilize the trunk before the final acceleration or explosion phase of a snatch or clean. A disproportionate amount of strength between an agonist muscle (quads) to its antagonist muscles (hamstrings) limits neuromuscular coordination in that no matter how strong the quads are the hamstrings must act as a “brake” while the quads extend so the knee and/or hips joints don’t straighten so fast they tear. Training must emphasize the development of agonist and antagonist muscles to develop strength and efficiency of movement.
Any beginner will benefit from breaking the snatch and clean down to their basic phases to teach correct posture and timing as they learn to pull from the floor to the knees, knees to the hip pocket and so on. Consider my SPP pull exercise (covered in previous blog post How to achieve optimal transition to the 2nd pull). I currently coach a -105 kg lifter named Joe. Joe deadlifts 320 kg for 2 reps with little training. His back squat is 290 kg. When he began training with me he had several major technical issues. He pulled too fast from the floor which resulted in knocking the bar out front and receiving snatches and cleans in an unstable position. Having him stand on a raised surface with half the heels off forced him to get in a stable set position, use his quads to begin pulling and find the correct speed from the floor. Pull too fast or slow from this setup you will lose balance. Strong lifters like this will not find correct body positioning or timing by simply doing snatches and/or cleans. You can correct a multitude of technical errors quickly by using pulls.
Joe deadlifting 320 kg for 2 reps at -105 kg bodyweight
The 2 most widely used pull variations are drive pulls and panda pulls. Drive pulls are the most commonly used Internationally. Drive pulls are done by pulling from the floor then thrusting the legs to full extension followed by an immediate and quick shrug. Some lifers fully extend the legs and ankles while others stay flat footed. Reasons for this vary but in questioning a lot of International coaches and lifters over the years this is due to the height of a lifter and their foot size. Taller lifters with larger feet tend to stay more flat footed due to greater pulling leverage. Shorter lifters with smaller feet drive forcefully to full extension to fully utilize the quads in propelling the bar upwards. The height of lifters and the length of their legs determine the amplitude the bar needs to be pulled. Coaches who only teach drive pulls are adamant that there be no rebending of the arms or knees such as seen in panda pulls. Loading for drive pulls can be fairly heavy going over 110% of maximum performance in the snatch or clean.
-105 kg Olympic champion Aleksey Torokhity demonstrates drive pulls.
Panda pulls are predominantly done by Chinese lifters though not exclusively. The origins of this pull can be traced back to the Soviet Union with a coach named Rudolf Plukfelder (seen at the right on the photo). Rudolf coached many of the great champions to emerge in the late 1960’s to early 1970’s such as Vasily Alexeev, David Rigert and Gennady Ivanchenko. Other countries soon picked this up and some variations of panda pulls were done by lifters from Germany, Uzbekistan and Belarus eventually making its way to China.
Panda pulls are done for the same reasons drive pulls are with a deliberate rebending of the knees and shrugging the elbows quickly to lower the body into the beginning stages of the receiving position. Panda pulls help correct overpulling or overextending which is common for beginners. In other words they help minimize the transition time between reaching full extension and successfully lowering the body into a receiving position. It takes more practice to become proficient at panda pulls but due diligence will pay off. Loading for panda pulls is around 100-105% of maximum.
Generating enough vertical momentum then getting low fast are two of the most important skills for weightlifting and can take the longest to learn. By doing pulls one can obtain these skills much faster than by primarily training on snatches and cleans. Many times all a lifter needs to do to improve is try other exercises to help find the skills lacking in the classical lifts. If a lifter starts getting pulled forward or raising the hips too fast when initiating a snatch or clean attempt then drive pulls are useful in fixing these errors. On the other hand, a lifter can pull well from the floor but is slow to transition to the receiving position then panda pulls can quickly fix this.
The reason I place such an important emphasis on pulls for weightlifters in the beginning and intermediate stages of training is that they are safe. Pulls do not compress the spine like squats nor are they as taxing on the body as snatches or cleans which means faster recovery. When a lifter becomes more proficient in the snatch and clean & jerk then more time is devoted in specializing in these lifts. Even in the training of advanced lifters there are preparation phases that are pulling phases or squat phases to strengthen any weaknesses a lifter has before competition preparation begins.
It is often said in sport you are only as strong as your weakest link. The development of a weightlifter isn't just about leg strength in terms of squatting. The belief that it is by many coaches and lifters have been at their own peril. It is also about leg strength when it comes to pulling and strengthening the many other muscles that stabilize the body while performing a snatch or clean & jerk.