Most of the ways people teach the Olympic lifts to lifters seem to be tailored to weak people, who are in the beginning of their lifting career, or really athletic people, who can already move challenging weights during the whole range of motion. I guess in the past this was not much of a problem, as gifted athletes would figure it out nonetheless and people were not so prone to come from a pure strength background without having any athleticism beyond squatting and deadlifting and benching.
As strength surpasses athletic ability, some parts of the technique can not be understand kinaesthetically (if you deadlift over 200kg, you will not feel nuances in weight shift when pulling the empty bar to shoulder's height). Consequently I present a slight modification to teach the O-lifts to the already (somewhat) strong athlete. Namely I suggest training the high pull and maybe the jerk heavily, while working on the more technical points with lighter weights adjusted to the level of skill.
Usual way to teach the O-lifts
So the usual way to teach the Olympic lifts is the so called top-down-approach, which simply means that you start with partial movements beginning where you want to have the bar in the end. So for the Snatch, you would begin with Overhead Squats (or even before, presses from behind the neck), progress through the Transition, maybe do Snatches elevated position and finally the full competition movement. The Clean and Jerk is a much longer movement and you would make a exercise sequence for the Clean and one for the Jerk. Again one would start with the Press (starting from the rack position on the deltoids, not necessarily the way you usually Press), progress through Push Presses, Power Jerks until you reach Jerks. For the Clean part you might begin with Frontsquats and again work your way through the transition until you have the full clean. Finally you need to combine these two movements and might start with a Power Clean and Power Jerk, then a Frontsquat to Power Jerk, finally culminating in the whole and glorious Clean and Jerk.
The three pulls and the catch
At core of the Olympic lifts, meaning snatch, clean and jerk, and if you like the classics, clean and press, is the pull from the floor, which ends either in the bottom position of the snatch, with the weight overhead and you sitting in the hole, or the bottom position of the clean, with you sitting in the hole of a Frontsquat. This is commonly referred to as the catch. As you probably know, this pull consists actually of three pulling movements, before you drop under the bar:
- parallel displacement
- hip extension
First pull: Parallel displacement
The first pull starts from the floor. The back angle is a little bit more upright than in the deadlift and the barbell can lie a bit more in front of the middle foot, as weights you can put overhead will always be submaximal pulls. This way the quadriceps are elongated more than in the deadlift, allowing for a longer acceleration phase.
This phase is rather easy; you accelerate the barbell from the flow in a even and smooth motion, without any jerk. Until the barbell passes the knees, the angle between back and ground does not change; hence the name parallel displacement.
Especially when you can not move much weight, this phase is not as important as the second pull. Do not fret over speed here and focus on getting in a good position for the second pull.
Second pull: Hip extension
As your knees are out of the way, your hip can extend and the angle between back and floor will change. This phase continues until your hips are fully extended. Some people teach to hump the bar during this phase, some don't. However, usually you should hear a little bit of rattle as the bar passes your hip, because, although you do not necessarily shoot for it, the bar probably should touch it.
This part of the pull is also why Olympic lifts are often taught as "jumping with a barbell" or "jumping with a shrug at the end". The most common mistake is not to extend the hip fully. A very useful indicator is looking at where you landed: if you moved vertical during the jump, your hip probably did not extend fully. You can also try this very well without weight, to see how the mechanics work out!
This phase is where the most force is transferred to the barbell. Hence it is of utmost importance to really extend the hip to its full extend.
Note that in this phase there usually is some contact of the bar with the hip. However, unlike some people believe, this fact alone does not contribute to the acceleration of the bar. Although it might be a useful cue sometimes to ensure a complete hip extension, one should not aim to purposely drive the bar back into the hip or the other way around. Actually this is a second level misunderstanding, i.e. a misunderstanding of a misunderstanding, where people where arguing about catapulting and triple extension. That discussion however is dead for the better part of a decade, as it is pretty much boils down to the time when the lifter's heels rise as part of the complete hip extension.
Third pull: Shrug
With your hip fully extended and the momentum carrying you onto your toes, you try to apply a final bit of force to the bar by shrugging. Timing is crucial here; however, it is better to shrug too late and lose a bit of force transmission from the third pull, than it is to shrug too early:
If you shrug too early, the barbell does not hang onto your fully extended arms and dropped shoulders anymore, so part of the force you generate during the hip extension is wasted on extending your arms and shoulders, instead of accelerating the bar anymore.
The most common mistakes here are pulling too early and pulling with your arms. While the first mistake is pretty much a matter of exercising a lot, the second one often stems from being a bit too focused on getting the bar up instead of displaying great technique. The best hint here is: You notice when the timing is right, because the bar feels a thousandfold lighter than when the timing is off. Try to find that sweet spot.
How or even if you catch the bar depends on the exercise you are doing. If you are just looking to develop power then doing high pulls might be the exercise of your choosing, as the catch is arguably the most difficult and dangerous part of the lift. When it comes to the full clean and or snatch, it boils down to your ability to squat down and stabilize the weight – a skill which has to be exercised on its own and the reason why programs targeted at general athletes only include the power versions of the corresponding lifts (although they are still more difficult and dangerous than just doing high pulls).
There is not much technique behind the catch, as it is essentially a front or an overhead squat, initiated with a break at the hips and knees. What is more important is that one starts decelerating the bar as early as possible. In particular it is not uncommon to catch the bar in a half or quarter squat position, as long as the weights are lighter, however, to move the most weight one clearly has to master to catch the bar quite low and still be able to stop it on the way down.
O-lifts for Powerlifters
Nowadays there are a lot of trainees who are not the classical sportsman, but picked up powerlifting or any other strength sport as pastime later in life, not before the early twenties. As such they are often already quite strong, but lacking an athletic background, the complex Olympic lifts present a challenge.
As alluded in the beginning, I propose to work the high pulls heavy, receiving the bar and partial exercises more lightly
Heavy high pulls
Heavy high pulls are a great exercise on its own, but especially in the context of learning the timing in the Olympic lifts, they are golden. Starting with something around 10-30% of your max deadlift, you accelerate the bar through the three pulls, only to let it go down without catch after the last pull. Using sets of three to six repetitions, you can try to refine your timing. The great thing about this exercise is the feedback it provides: Usually pulling a weight to about chest's height is quite hard, however, once you get close to good weightlifting technique, it feels much lighter and goes up much farther, by about a factor of two. So while you might struggle hard to get 50kg to your chest without any technique, once you hit the sweet spot, pulling 100kg to chest or shoulder's height is almost easier. Further feedback is provided by the change in foot position after each lift. If you are jumping forward, usually your hip extension is not complete (try it!).
This can be programmed as a lighter deadlift session. If you pull sumo you probably can get away with either variant, however, if you pull conventional I suggest to use the snatch grip high pull as it is further removed from your competition lift.
A similar approach can be taken with the jerk, which can be trained from the racks just as one would maybe train the push press. I usually do not struggle with this part of the lift other than balancing on my feet, so I prioritize heavy (overhead) lunges over practicing what I already can do well.
Light technique drills and full exercies
Finally there are many smaller technique drills one can practice whenever. The warm-up is a good place as one is still mentally fresh and it helps, but in the end it depends on your priorities and your schedule. I usually work through the transition, then snatches or clean pulls from the hang or from blocks, and then try to do a few sets of the full snatch or the full clean (as long as my jerk or even push press surpasses my full clean I do not bother with this part of the movement).
Even though I train the Olympic lifts only a few months per year, I still manage to make some solid progress in these months.
I think the division into heavy pulling work and lighter receiving work is for some people necessary, as they have not the refined kinaesthetic awareness of somebody truly athletic. While it certainly can be developed over time, in the already strong individual pulling the empty bar a thousand times will never make it "click". One has to present a weight sufficiently heavy for its mechanics to be actually registered.
It is somewhat similar to teaching the deadlift to newbies. Few people are ever challenged by 30kg or 40kg and they can just move the bar around their knees, and they just do not get how to pull. Only when it gets a tad heavier they are actually forced to move in a way that the knees are not in the bar path, technique will be understood and can be trained somewhat autonomously, as then the hit in the knee provides instantaneous feedback.
But in contrast to deadlifts, where one would go up with the weight, I recommend to go down with the weight once you can reproduce proper technique with the higher weight. You know you are strong enough, but it teaches your sensory machinery, if you get a feel with less of a stimulus. Furthermore it is less taxing and at some point you will be able to use a weight in the full lift, which is at least sufficiently heavy to train proper pulling mechanics.