Mastering the Jerk

By Bill Starr

In Olympic Lifts

June 15, 2009

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Legendary weightlifting coach Bill Starr writes about why learning the jerk is so important.

In recent years overhead lifts have experienced a revival in strength routines, and they’re also a big part of CrossFit. Of course, with my background in Olympic lifting, I’ve always encouraged my athletes to do presses and jerks—even my female athletes. Now, more and more scholastic and collegiate strength coaches are seeing the value of these two overhead movements and adding them to their players’ programs. Similarly, CrossFit athletes are putting weight overhead in their quest for total fitness.

Everywhere you turn you’ll see ads pushing some product, exercise gadget or video that claims to enhance core strength. “Core strength” has become trendy phrase. But overhead lifting makes all the groups that constitute the core a great deal stronger in a manner few other exercises can match. Elevating a loaded barbell overhead and holding it in position for five or six seconds strengthens the muscles and attachments of the arms, shoulders, back, hips and legs.

It must be understood that jerking a heavy weight isn’t just a matter of applying raw strength to the bar, like performing a squat or deadlift. It’s knowing how to utilize several athletic attributes, such as timing, co-ordination and speed along with strength. This is exactly why the jerk is such a beneficial exercise for athletes in a wide range of sports. Jerking heavy weight is particularly beneficial to throwers in track and volleyball and basketball players who need vertical strength to excel. In addition, jerks are an asset in nearly every athletic endeavor I can think of.

When done perfectly, the jerk is an aesthetic combination of power and grace, and that’s why so many athletes take to them so readily. They’re much more than just a strengthening exercise. They’re feats of strength that require a very high degree of athleticism. Agility, timing, quickness, co-ordination and determination are needed in order to jerk a heavy poundage.

Learn how to do the lift correctly. Diligently practice your technique. Then you’ll be ready to advance to a higher level of functional strength.

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3 Comments on “Mastering the Jerk”

1

wrote …

Pg 7 at the bottom says "I recommend doing jerks in sets of no more than three
reps" Though out over head routine is: 1 rep press, 3 rep push, 5 rep jerk. I bet coach just wants us to over come the fatigue and get perfectly reset for all 5 reps. (how deviant, I love it...)

2

wrote …

Thanks very much for another great article. I have a question regarding recovery from the split landing. I've seen Coach Bs athletes move front foot first, then rear foot; this article advocates the opposite. How critical is this part of the lift, and what is the rationale behind either sequence. Should I do what is most comfortable? Appreciate any thoughts.

3

replied to comment from Eric Love

Eric, the foot recovery order that Bill Starr is advocating is related to the coaching difference mentioned of whether or not the rear leg should be straight or bent. The straight leg style tends to have more of the weight distributed on the front foot, so recovery from the rear foot first is necessary to avoid the weight overhead no longer being supported underneath. When using a bent rear leg, the weight is more evenly distributed and you recover with your front foot first and are able to push back into your rear foot with your quadriceps and tibialis anterior (muscle in shin) engaged and maintaining an even weight distribution.

Our weightlifting club and CrossFit affiliate follow Coach B's style with bent rear leg and recovery with the front foot first. The thought behind a straight leg is that locking out the joints is a stronger position, but it eliminates the activation of some very large muscles in the leg. Our observations in the gym and in competition have been that those who jerk with their rear leg straight will miss a larger percentage of their lifts with the tendency being to lose the weight forward. Forcing a straight rear leg can introduce a forward lean of the torso and moves the bar away from the hip (midline in the vertical plane). Also, by having more weight on the front foot, the margin for error is greater than if the weight is evenly distributed.

This isn't to take anything away from Bill Starr, the man is a legend. It's quite possible that most will be able to do similar weights with either technique (we'd argue that our technique will be better), but in competition (and training), consistency and making your lifts is just as important as how heavy it is.

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