When Dr. Aaron Horschig, aka Squat University, asked me to collaborate with him on the topic of “why a weightlifter would want to lift from blocks”, I was incredibly excited. Dr. Horschig is doing an incredible job informing and educating the public regarding the barbell movements. My entire life has been spent competing, coaching, and educating others about the barbell and strength in general. Of course I am going to help anyone that is trying to help with the cause especially someone that is crushing it like Dr. Horschig with his ‘Squat University’ channel. He has to be the fastest growing social media presence of anyone in the barbell world.
We use blocks at the Mash Compound rather frequently. We use blocks for three main reasons:
- Target specific aspects of the pull that individuals might be struggling.
- Max Effort and Overload for the lifts
- Easier to recover from
We use three main heights: high blocks with the bar near the hip during the power position, medium blocks with the bar at the knee, and low blocks 4-6 inches high. Of course you can use any height that targets a specific weakness of the pull that an individual might be experiencing.
We use high blocks to teach athletes timing and speed under the bar. Most athletes and coaches focus on the pull from the ground to triple joint extension, and this is definitely a part of the equation. However, the timing between the second pull (the part of the pull where the torso moves to vertical and extends at the top) and the third pull (the pull under the bar) along with the speed under the bar is the differentiator between a good weightlifter and a great weightlifter.
High Blocks from the power position eliminates any momentum that might be formed during the pull from the floor. The athlete powerfully extends at the hips and knees, and then they are forced to rip under the bar if a good lift is to be achieved. If they waste any time at the top of the lift, they will miss the peak of the barbell and risk getting beat to the catch position by the falling barbell. Once the hips and knees extend, the trajectory of the barbell is determined. Any extra effort to increase the height of the barbell is wasted effort that could be spent getting under the barbell. Some of our best athletes are incredible strong from this position, which we will talk more about later in this article.
High blocks are also great for teaching that athlete exactly where the body should be during the power position, which is knees bent 4-6 inches, shoulders on top of the bar, torso almost vertical, long arms with elbow turned out, and eyes straight ahead. This block height is invaluable for teaching new lifters proper position, timing and speed under the bar. It’s great for advanced athletes as a variation, overcoming weaknesses, and a max effort movement.
This height is great for teaching athletes where they should be in position 2 of the pull with the bar around knee height. Let’s explain this position first. At this point of the lift, the shins have moved closer to vertical as the knees have cleared the road for the barbell, the shoulders are in front of the barbell, spine is neutral, shoulders are still clearly above the hips, eyes forwards, and arms are long with elbows turned out. Turning the elbows out is important for the trajectory of the barbell. With the elbows turned out, the barbell will stay closer to the body versus traveling out and away from the body.
We use this height primarily to teach this position. Some common errors during the pull are getting the shoulders behind the bar too soon (causing the bar to swing away from the body during contact), letting the hips shoot up (causing the bar drift in front of the body), and swinging the barbell around the knees leaving it in front of the body. The goal here is to teach the athlete where they should be, and therefore, creating a better neurological pattern. Basically you are teaching the brain where it should be during this phase of the pull, so the brain does it automatically.
Most lifts are made or missed right off the floor. The most common mistake in weightlifting is yanking the barbell off the floor, hips flying up in the air, and causing the barbell to drift from the body. During the first few inches of the pull, it’s important to drive the feet through the floor, sweep the bar in towards the body, begin moving the knees out of the way of the barbell causing the shins to begin moving towards vertical, shoulders are kept well above the hips, and the shoulders slightly in front of the barbell.
Perfecting these first few inches is the most important aspect of the first pull. If the barbell starts out correctly, it sets up the second and third pull to be completed more efficiently. The blocks once again help to teach the athlete the position that they should be in during this aspect of the pull. Blocks allow the coaches to perfect the position of the athlete in relation to the barbell before any pressure is applied to the ground. Early in a lifter’s career, it is crucial to perfect these positions, and blocks are a great tool to perfect the position of the body during the separate phases of the pull.
Max Effort and Overload Work
We might not train exactly the way that Louie Simmons would prescribe, but we sure use a lot of his principles. Maximum Effort Method is a fancy term for going heavy. You can’t get good at lifting heavy weights by only lifting light ones. It’s common knowledge that the best way to add kilos to the barbell is by lifting at 90% and above. The key question is how often and at what volume.
The problem with constantly snatching and clean & jerking from the floor to a maximum is the risk of injury and the law of accommodation. Basically the body will get used to the movements and stop adapting, and then the almighty plateau sets in. We go heavy once or twice per week with Fridays being our constant max effort day. If you come to our gym on a Friday, we will be maxing out in some fashion. By using variation, we can avoid the dreaded accommodation.
Blocks are one of those variations that we love. We use them in two ways on max effort day. First, me might choose the athletes weakest portion of the pull to target. This will help to improve the athlete at that section of the pull, and it will help to minimize the load. Max Effort doesn’t always mean going to 100% of the Snatch or Clean & Jerk. I can use complexes or in this case blocks to minimize the load and still practice applying maximum effort. The athlete still learns to perform with maximum loads, but the body is spared higher overall intensities.
Some athletes are exceptionally strong at specific block heights. Nathan Damron is incredible strong at high blocks. Therefore, we use high blocks to begin the process of him lifting heavier weights. For example, he snatched 160kg from high blocks and month before he snatched it from the floor. When he Snatched 160kg from high blocks, his best from the floor was 155kg. The blocks helped him gain confidence in the lift, and started the adaptation of the body required to lift those heavy weights. We call this the overload principle. Powerlifters use this all the time with their board presses and use of the slingshot.
We use blocks a lot on Wednesday to give the body a bit of a break from full range of motion pulling. We have found that it allows our backs especially to heal up before Max Effort days on Friday. Right now, almost everyone in our gym is on competition preparation programs. Most of them are 1-5 weeks out from competition, so we use the short blocks to mimic the lifts as closely as possible for specificity reasons. This gives us just enough of a break to perform at near maximal levels on Max Out Friday without throwing off the perfection in the lifter’s timing required for all-time bests.
I hope this short article helps to explain some ways that we use blocks in the training of our athletes. There is a time and place for just about every principle or method, but the key is understanding the use of each. Now you will have some ideas where to use blocks in the training of your athletes or yourself. For more information on just about anything barbell, you can check out www.mashelite.com for thousands of articles, hundreds of podcasts, and several free programs to tryout. Yes this is my plug! I hope you enjoyed the article.
Travis Mash was a World Champion in powerlifting. He competed in a world-class level in Olympic weightlifting. He has coached professional Olympic weightlifters alongside Don McCauley and Glenn Pendlay at Team MDUSA and now coaches Mash Elite Strength weightlifting team.