Which One is That Again?: A Functional Glossary of Weightlifting Terminology

INTRODUCTION

For the last decade, CrossFit has become significantly more popular, transcending far beyond its garage gym roots.  Much of that has to do with the methodology’s emphasis on functional movements that can and should be performed regularly by all people.  These movements teach and reinforce vast sequences of motor mechanics and coordination that can be useful to everyone in their everyday lives.  Many of these functional movements, however, are drawn from other fitness disciplines and strength sports—like weightlifting—that aren’t quite as prevalent in American mainstream sports media as Monday Night Football and March Madness.  In the United States, therefore, our exposure to these functional strength movements has been necessarily limited.

Nonetheless, there are those elite athletes in this country that have chosen to specialize in one of these niche strength sports (niche, from the American perspective), and there are even some athletes participating on school/club sports teams that may be introduced to the basics of these strength movements in training programs used to supplement sport-specific training.  It follows, then, that many Americans entering a CrossFit gym for the first time may simultaneously find themselves called upon to perform any number of diverse weightlifting movements for the very first time.

Of course, there are other fitness disciplines that are emphasized in CrossFit training programs, like gymnastics.  Some gymnastics movements can be very easy to conceptualize, visually, even when we have no prior experience with the sport, because the words that identify the movements fit nicely into our everyday vernacular.  An example would be the “pull-up”; most of us can appreciate the basic mechanical principles implied by the name: pull the body up from some fixed plane or structure to a level above that which it previously occupied at rest.

Weightlifting movements, by contrast, make their way into our daily vocabularies, but in ways that can convey completely different ideas than those that reflect the mobile components of the sport movements.  The “clean” is a clear representation of this dilemma; we see the term “clean”, and we think about a laborious activity to purify or remove filth.  The first image that comes to my own mind when I see the term “clean”, for instance, is Mrs. Doubtfire—loving father and husband—ferociously wielding a vacuum like it is an abnormally large magic wand to the sound of Steven Tyler wailing, “Dude looks like a laaaydaaay!”  Where, pray tell, is the barbell in that scenario.  The point is that, coupled with the public’s lack of exposure to the weightlifting movements, themselves, this duel meaning contaminates the words and creates confusion, especially when members at a CrossFit gym are confronted by compound phrases like “hang power clean” as they skim the day’s WOD on the white board.

In an effort to remove some of the confusion surrounding these words and phrases, I will do my best in the following sections of this article to define the various weightlifting movements, including the adjectives you may see alongside the names of the movements, and to provide you with several examples that will enable you to decipher most of the weightlifting terms you are likely to encounter in your fitness lives, if not all of them.  I have also, at the ends of several sections and sub-sections, included “*Side notes” headings to recognize information that is not essential but may, nevertheless, inform or deepen your understanding of the article’s content.  Moreover, in the final section of the article, I break all of the content down into its most basic elements by creating an easy-to-use formula for identifying weightlifting movements; for those of you simply looking for a quick guide or reference, feel free to jump to that section.  

THE WEIGHTLIFTING MOVEMENTS

The “snatch”

The first competition lift in weightlifting is the “snatch”.  Completing this movement requires athletes to move a weighted barbell from the ground to a stable, standing lock-out position overhead in a single fluid movement.  It is important to note that the position in which athletes receive the barbell overhead is not necessarily the same position as the finishing position.  In fact, it is usually not, but we will get to that shortly.  Another important aspect of the “snatch” that makes it unique from other barbell movements is the grip width employed by athletes.  The “snatch” is most often performed with a WIDER hand-grip on the barbell, relative to the other weightlifting movements.

The simplest way to remember the “snatch” is: the barbell goes from the ground directly overhead in one movement.

The “clean & jerk”

The second competition lift is the “clean & jerk”.  To make this as simple and straightforward as possible, we will discuss the “clean” and the “jerk” separately, which will also help keep things clear as we proceed to define the other movements and terms.  (Under the “*Side notes” heading at the end of this section, you will find some details about the structure of a weightlifting meet, as well as some reasoning as to why, in the sport of weightlifting, the “clean” and the “jerk” are performed together.)

The “clean”

Completing this movement requires athletes to move a weighted barbell from the ground to a stable, standing lock-out position at the shoulders in a single fluid movement.  (The barbell finishes at the shoulders, which differentiates it from the overhead finish of the “snatch”).  It is important to note that the position in which athletes receive the barbell on their shoulders is not necessarily the same position as the finishing position (it is usually not).  Unlike when performing the “snatch”, athletes performing the “clean” will employ a more conventional, NARROWER hand-grip width, usually just outside of the shoulders.  This will more often than not be the same grip width that is utilized for deadlifts, front squats, and the various shoulder-to-overhead movements (of which the “jerk” is one).

The simplest way to remember the “clean” is: the barbell goes from the ground directly to the shoulders in one movement.

The “jerk”

The “jerk” is one of several distinct movements requiring athletes to move a weighted barbell from the shoulders to a stable, standing lock-out position overhead.  However, before recovering to that finishing position, the barbell must first be received while the athletes are either partially squatting, fully squatting, or splitting their legs—more to follow on this.  This is the critically unique characteristic of the jerk that differentiates it from the other “shoulder-to-overhead” movements (the “pressing” movements): athletes may NOT receive the barbell with straight legs prior to recovering to the finishing position.  By incorporating the re-bending of the legs on the reception of the barbell overhead, athletes are able to push themselves under the load, as opposed to relying exclusively on the upward trajectory of the barbell.  Therein lies the utility of the movement: reducing the height that the barbell must travel upwards permits athletes to accommodate heavier loads overhead by manipulating themselves into strong and stable positions under the barbell.  The “jerk” is most often performed with a conventional, NARROWER hand-grip width, usually just outside of the shoulders.

The simplest way to remember the “jerk” is: the barbell goes from the shoulders to an overhead finishing position; but, before recovering to that finishing position, athletes receive the barbell overhead with some form of bent legs.

Summary and simplification

As we proceed through the following sections, keep in mind that: 1) the “snatch” requires a barbell to be moved from the ground directly to overhead; 2) the “clean” requires a barbell to be moved from the ground directly to the shoulders; and 3) the “jerk” is one of several movements by which a barbell is moved from the shoulders directly overhead.  Unless otherwise specified by the use of the adjective “hang”, you may always assume that the “snatch” and the “clean” are to be performed from the GROUND.

*Side notes

The sport of weightlifting is comprised of two competition lifts: 1) the “snatch”, and 2) the “clean & jerk”, this second lift having two distinguishable component movements.  The sole objective of a weightlifting competition is to get the most amount of weight from the ground to a secure finishing position overhead.  Athletes, quite simply, are provided with three attempts to accomplish this objective by way of the “snatch” (ground to overhead; ONE movement); followed by three attempts to accomplish this objective by way of the “clean & jerk” (ground to overhead; TWO movements).  Athletes will almost always be able to accommodate more weight overhead via the performance of a successful “clean & jerk” versus that achieved in a successful “snatch” attempt.

Performance in a weightlifting competition is recognized for the those athletes that accomplish moving the heaviest loads overhead for each lift, individually, as well as the accumulated total of adding the “snatch” weight and the “clean & jerk” weight.  By using specific formulas, judges are also able to determine the strongest kilogram-for-kilogram lifters (athletes lifting the heaviest loads overhead relative to their respective body weights), and those athletes are similarly recognized.

On the other hand, the sport of CrossFit incorporates each of these lifts for a different objective: to increase athletes’ overall work capacities across a wide variety of activity domains.  Generally speaking, athletes that do the most work in the fastest period of time, or within a pre-determined time window, improve their respective levels of fitness.  Accordingly, any, all, or none of the weightlifting movements may make it into the strength/skill/WOD programming for the day at a CrossFit gym, which is not bound by the same strictures of a weightlifting competition.  Nevertheless, appreciating the standards of weightlifting—the sport—will help us acclimate to the use of these movements and their respective names in the context of a CrossFit program.

GLOSSARY OF OTHER TERMS AND THEIR SPECIFIC USES

Where the barbell BEGINS

[unspecified]: movement to be initiated from the ground.

“from the ground”: movement to be initiated from the ground.

“hang”: movement to be initiated from a suspended (“hanging”) position at some space between athletes’ hips and the tops of their knees, after first bringing the barbell to a lock-out position—complete hip extension—at the hips via performance of a deadlift.  This deadlifting step cannot be overlooked or disregarded, or the rep will be perceived as simply being initiated “from the ground”, no matter how long the barbell is suspended between the knees and the hips.

*Side notes

If one were to perform a “snatch” or a “clean” from a position just above the knees, without having initiated that sequence after first performing a full deadlift, the movement would be termed a “halt”, “pause”, or “segmented” lift, and it would not be considered a “hang” lift at all.  Furthermore, in weightlifting training programs, “hang” lifts are performed from various spaces between the ground and the hips (i.e. a “high hang” from the hips, a “hang” from above the knees, or a “low hang” from below the knees); performance of same is not restricted to the space between the knees and the hips.  “Hang” lifts are exclusively utilized as training tools/exercises in the sport of weightlifting and are never performed for evaluation in a competition setting.  In fact, they are prohibited on the competition stage at a weightlifting meet.

On the other hand, the restriction imposed by CrossFit—that “hang” lifts must be limited to the space between the knees and the hips—is a useful convention employed to standardize the movement and enforce uniformity in a competition context.  The restriction establishes manageable and clear parameters within which the movement can be evaluated and applies same without distinction or discrimination to all athletes performing the movement.

Where the barbell is RECEIVED at or prior to the finishing lock-out position

[unspecified] “snatch”: barbell may be received overhead, according to athletes’ personal preferences, in any position at or below the requisite finishing lock-out position (i.e. in a partial overhead squat, a full overhead squat, or with straight legs).

[unspecified] “clean”: barbell may be received on the shoulders, according to athletes’ personal preferences, in any position at or below the requisite finishing lock-out position (i.e. in a partial front squat, a full front squat, or with straight legs).

“muscle”: barbell must be received with the legs in a stable, standing lock-out position (i.e. with straight legs); athletes may not re-bend their knees to any degree in an effort to “get under” the barbell.

“power”: athletes must re-bend their knees to receive the barbell, but may not descend into a full squat such that the hip crease drops below the top of the knee cap (i.e. athletes may not break “parallel” upon receiving the barbell).

“squat”: athletes must receive the barbell as they descend into a full squat such that the hip crease does drop below the top of the knee cap (i.e. athletes must break “parallel” upon receiving the barbell).

“split”: athletes must receive the barbell with one leg bent and firmly planted just forward of the body and one leg reaching behind the body in a partial lunge position, prior to returning their feet to a parallel stance in a stable, standing lock-out position.

*Side notes

It is important to note that all of the adjectives included in the “Where the barbell is RECEIVED…” section are not exclusive to the “snatch” and the “clean”, and the same terms can just as easily be applied to the “jerk”.  Interestingly, a “muscle jerk” is an oxymoron (although, still an applicable term).  If assigned, the “muscle” adjective would cancel out the unique requirement of the “jerk”—namely, the re-bending of the legs upon reception of the barbell overhead.  The resulting movement would be a simple “push press”, which will be covered in the next section.  Consequently, you will never encounter a “muscle jerk” in your CrossFit programming (in theory, at least).  You may be asked to perform a “push press”, on the other hand, or a “jerk” preceded by any of the other aforementioned adjectives: “power”, “squat”, or “split”.

GLOSSARTY OF “SHOULDER-TO-OVERHEAD” TERMS

“press”/ “strict press”/ “military press”: athletes are permitted the use of only their cores, upper bodies, and arms to move the barbell from the shoulders directly to an overhead lock-out position; athletes may NOT use their legs.

“push”: refers only to the initiation of a “shoulder-to-overhead” movement, whereby athletes must use their legs to drive the barbell off of their shoulders by bending the knees, dropping the hips a few inches (“dip”), and then rapidly extending the hips upwards (“drive”).  This adjective can be used with either a “press” or a “jerk” movement (examples and implications to follow in the next section).

“jerk”: athletes must move a barbell from the shoulders directly to a stable, standing lock-out position overhead, only after the barbell has first been received while the athletes are either partially squatting, fully squatting, or splitting their legs. Athletes must re-bend their knees to receive the barbell directly overhead, prior to returning to a stable, standing lock-out position.

*Side notes

Technically, in the sport of weightlifting, any re-bending of the arms during the execution of a “jerk”—even if resulting in a successful recovery from the lapse—constitutes a “press out” and disqualifies the attempt.  The bar must be received with straight arms and bent legs, and the stability of the straight arms must be maintained throughout the entire recovery for the movement to meet the standards of the “jerk”.  This, however, is not necessarily the case in the sport of CrossFit, where “pressing out” may be permitted and constitute a successful attempt, depending on the situation.

EXAMPLES AND IMPLICATIONS

Now that we have defined all of the weightlifting movements and the applicable descriptive terminology, let us explore some examples to illustrate how these terms are combined to create different movements.  Whenever, in the following, I use the phrase “from the hips” in conjunction with the term “hang”, it is implicit that the barbell was first deadlifted all the way to a standing lock-out position (complete hip extension) at the hips, as that is a mandatory pre-requisite for performing any and all “hang” movements.  Moreover, by “hips”, I am referring to any space between the knees and the hips.

1) “snatch”

a) movement begins from the ground;
b) barbell is moved from the ground directly to an overhead position in a single fluid movement;
c) athletes may receive the barbell overhead in a standing position, a partial overhead squat, or a full overhead squat, according to their preference, prior to completing the movement in the standing finishing position.

2) “hang clean”

a) movement begins from the hips;
b) barbell is moved from the hips to the shoulders in a single fluid movement;
c) athletes may receive the barbell on the shoulders in a standing position, a partial front squat, or a full front squat, according to their preference, prior to completing the movement in the standing finishing position.

3) “power snatch”

a) movement begins from the ground;
b) barbell is moved from the ground directly to an overhead position in a single fluid movement;
c) athletes must receive the barbell overhead in a partial overhead squat prior to completing the movement in the standing finishing position.

4) “hang power clean”

a) movement begins from the hips;
b) barbell is moved from the hips to the shoulders in a single fluid movement;
c) athletes must receive the barbell on the shoulders in a partial front squat prior to completing the movement in the standing finishing position.

5) “squat snatch”

a) movement begins from the ground;
b) barbell is moved from the ground directly to an overhead position in a single fluid movement;
c) athletes must receive the barbell overhead in a full overhead squat prior to completing the movement in the standing finishing position.

6) “hang muscle clean”

a) movement begins from the hips:
b) barbell is moved from the hips to the shoulders in a single fluid movement;
c) athletes must receive the barbell on the shoulders with their legs straight as they complete the movement in the standing finishing position (no front squatting of any kind permitted).

7) “split snatch”

a) movement begins from the ground;
b) barbell is moved from the ground directly to an overhead position in a single fluid movement;
c) athletes must receive the barbell overhead as they “split” their feet in a partial lunge (one leg firmly planted just forward of the body; other foot reaching behind the body), prior to completing the movement by returning their feet to a parallel stance in a standing finishing position.

8) “hang split clean”

a) movement begins from the hips;
b) barbell is moved from the hips to the shoulders in a single fluid movement;
c) athletes must receive the barbell on the shoulders as they “split” their feet in a partial lunge (one leg firmly planted just forward of the body; other foot reaching behind the body), prior to completing the movement by returning their feet to a parallel stance in a standing finishing position.

9) “push press”

a) movement begins with the barbell on the shoulders;
b) barbell is moved from the shoulders directly to an overhead position in a single fluid movement, AFTER athletes first “dip” (bend knees slightly, dropping the hips) and subsequently “drive” (violently extend the hips) the barbell upwards off of the shoulders with the legs;
c) athletes must receive the barbell overhead with straight legs as they complete the movement in the standing finishing position (no re-bend of the legs after initial “dip” and “drive”).

10) “power jerk” (“push jerk”)

a) movement begins with the barbell on the shoulders;
b) barbell is moved from the shoulders directly to an overhead position in a single fluid movement, AFTER athletes first “dip” (bend knees slightly, dropping the hips) and subsequently “drive” (violently extend the hips) the barbell upwards off of the shoulders with their legs;
c) athletes must receive the barbell overhead in a partial squat prior to completing the movement in a standing finishing position (must re-bend legs after initial “dip” and “drive”).

With respect to these examples, I assigned all of the “snatches” as being from the ground, and all of the “clean” examples were preceded by the word “hang”, requiring them to start from the hips.  I could just as easily have flipped the two or done some combination of both, but I opted against it in favor of consistency and espousing some sense of order to facilitate retention.  Please note that any “cleans”, “snatches”, or further derivatives of either movement may be performed from ground or from the hips (“hang”).  Also, with respect to the last example, you will notice that “power jerk” and “push jerk” were described as one.  Although they technically differ from each other in a very nuanced way—that I will not even attempt to articulate here because it will almost assuredly never come up—the two are for the most part used interchangeably to identify the same motor sequence.  That sequence can be simplified as follows: straight legs > “dip” > “drive” > re-“dip” > straight legs.  

REVIEW AND FINAL THOUGHTS

The list of examples provided in the previous section, although thorough, is not exhaustive; there are many combinations of the aforementioned terms and adjectives that are likely to come up in CrossFit programming, as well as some you are unlikely to encounter in practice (like the “squat jerk”, which is not emphasized in many weightlifting or CrossFit training programs in the United States).  Nevertheless, the examples progressed in a specific sequence formulated to highlight how the additional or substituted terms alter the mechanics of the basic movements—“snatch” and “clean”.  The same principles apply with respect to the overhead movements.  Adjectives like “power”, “squat”, and “split” simply dictate the positions in which athletes must receive and secure the barbell overhead after it has been moved from its initial position at the shoulders, prior to returning to a stable, standing lock-out finishing position.

Once the lifts themselves become clear…

1) Movement options:

a) ground to overhead (“snatch”);
b) ground to shoulders (“clean”);
c) shoulders to overhead (“jerk”, “press”).

…the rest is like plugging any supplemental terms into a simple formula that divines two things, with minimal options applicable thereto…

1) Where the barbell begins:

a) on the ground ([unspecified], “from the ground”) ;
b) from the hips (“hang”); or
c) from the shoulders (“jerk”, “press”).

2) Where the barbell is received:

a) while standing upright with straight legs (“muscle”);
b) while in a partial squat (“power”);
c) while in a full squat (“squat”);
d) with the feet separated, one in front of and the other behind the body, in a partial lunge (“split”); or
e) according to athletes’ preferences for any of the above ([unspecified]).

The adjective “push”, if that continues to seem evasive, is a term that can only be applied to “shoulder-to-overhead” movements.  It simply means athletes performing such movements are required to use their legs as a power source at the initiation of the movement by bending the knees slightly, dropping the hips a few inches, and violently extending same upwards to launch the barbell off of the shoulders towards the heavens.

Noticeably absent from our discussion, however, was a thorough analysis to accompany the brief references to hand-width grip on the barbell when performing “snatches”, “cleans”, or “jerks” (or “presses”).  Nor was there even a mention of appropriate footwork and proper stance (width, direction of feet, etc.) as applied to each of the movements.  This was a deliberate circumvention in order to avoid clutter, and including same may have caused focus to deviate from the already robust web of weightlifting terminology.  With respect to this missing piece, I will provide you now with the following general rule (a most basic rule, to be sure): whenever the barbell must be “launched” from one position (ground/hips/shoulders) in order to be received at an alternative position on or above the body, athletes should maintain a NARROWER footing (similar to a deadlift stance) from the start of the movement through the launching phase, and then transition to a slightly WIDER footing (similar to a squat stance) by the time they receive the barbell on the shoulders or overhead.  Stances will always remain unique to each individual based on a host of anatomical and other factors.

Finally, I did my best throughout the discussion to use the word “barbell” as consistently as possible.  On that point, I would now like to add that: each one of the movements we discussed above may be performed with any number of [odd] objects aside from a barbell (i.e. dumbbells, wall balls, shower rods, delivery boxes, etc.).  Perhaps more importantly, the supplemental terms and adjectives we discussed above are equally applicable in such cases.  Although grips and stances may necessarily vary, depending on the size, shape, and physical properties of the loads to be moved, the uses of any of the previously defined terms will have the same effects on the mechanics of the movements as if they were being performed with a barbell.

I hope the above has successfully de-mystified weightlifting terminology for you, or at least clarified some aspects of the lifts so that you can begin to put the pieces together for yourselves.  There is a reason this article was so long, and that is so you may have a detailed manual at your disposal to consult and learn from as time permits or as you see fit.  It can simply be used as a reference tool, like performing a quick Google search, or it can be read rigorously like the examinable chapter of a college textbook.  With the glossary and examples, alone, you now have the raw material to decipher, on paper, many (if not all) of those weightlifting terms you may encounter in your CrossFit programming.

Also, please be aware that context is important.  This article was an attempt to reconcile how weightlifting terminology may be used in the context of a CrossFit program by providing the applicable background information and practical definitions for these terms.  In practice, these terms will almost certainly be used differently were you to encounter them at a weightlifting club.  Like other sports, weightlifting has its own vernacular more readily accessible to persons involved in that training context.  Movement standards in CrossFit can also waver from those that are enforced in the sport of weightlifting.  As always, do not hesitate to ask about anything you do not know or understand—that is why I am here.

Brian Bieschke