Squat Jerk Ultimate Guide (and Why It’s Not Right for Everyone)

The squat jerk is a jerk style used in Olympic weightlifting, and has been used for both competition jerks as well as a jerk variation to improve overall jerk timing and positioning. Unlike the split and power jerk styles seen in competition, the squat jerk has a lifter assume an overhead squat in a deep, stable, and extremely challenging position (in terms of mobility).

Determining which jerk style is best for training and competition should not be taken lightly, which is why we have set out to discuss everything you need to know about the squat jerk and if it is right for you.

In this squat jerk exercise guide we will discuss:

  • Squat Jerk Form and Technique
  • Pros and Cons of the Squat Jerk
  • Muscles Worked by Squat Jerk
  • Squat Jerk Sets, Reps, and Weight Recommendations
  • Squat Jerk Variations and Alternatives
  • and more…

How to Do the Squat Jerk: Form and Technique

Below is a step-by-step guide on how to properly set up and perform the squat jerk.

Squat Jerk Start Position
Squat Jerk Start Position

Step 1: Start with the hands gripping a barbell slightly wider than shoulder width, with the feet about hip width, toes slightly turned out). Be sure to assume an erect position with the chest, chin, and elbows high.

Balance should be kept within the full foot, with a slight preference for the heel. The bar should be resting on the top of the shoulders, either taken from the squat rack or clean. The grip width will vary, however this should be an identical positioning one would take for a push press, power jerk, or split jerk.

Squat Jerk Dip Phase
Squat Jerk Dip Phase

Step 2: Bend the knees and hips evenly to allow the hips to drop in line over the heels. Be sure to keep the torso erect and avoid dropping the chest, chin, or elbows forwards.

This dip phase should be identical to the push press, power jerk, and split jerk. The depth and speed of this dip will vary based on an athlete’s strengths and body, however it is typically 3-6 inches for most individuals.

Squat Jerk Drive Phase 1
Squat Jerk Drive Phase 1

Step 3: At the depth of the dip, immediately and abruptly change direction with the legs and hips to drive the torso vertically, with zero forward lean. This is called the drive phase

The lifter must remain erect during the drive phase, using the quadriceps, calves, glutes, and body to drive the barbell momentum vertically. Only after the body has lifted the bar that the lifter begins to extend the shoulders and elbows overhead.

Squat Jerk Drive Phase 2
Squat Jerk Drive Phase 2

Step 4: The drive phase should last as long as the lifter can drive the barbell up off the body with the legs. The goal is to gain as much vertical momentum through the legs, torso, shoulders, and arms into the barbell.

The end of the drive phase should look occur after the lifter has extended the ankles, knees, and hips. At this moment, the lifter then begins to press themselves under the barbell (by pressing up on the bar with the hands).

Squat Jerk Receiving Position 1
Squat Jerk Receiving Position 1

Step 5: After the drive phase, the lifter slides or moves the feet open while simultaneously pushing the barbell upwards as it continues in the vertical path overhead.

This is a fast and fluid phase of the lift. It is important that the lifter meets the barbell with a rigid torso and locked out arms, often at about parallel. At this point, the lifter should attempt to absorb the load (while it is secured overhead) by allowing the ankles, knees, and hips to bend into the squatted position.

Squat Jerk Receiving Position 2
Squat Jerk Receiving Position 2

Step 6: The lifter should then assume a stable overhead squat position, using the upper back and shoulders to contract and resist elbow flexion.

This should be done by allowing the knees, ankles, and hips to flex to absorb the downwards momentum of the loaded barbell overhead.

Squat Jerk End Position
Squat Jerk End Position

Step 7: Once the lifter has assumed a low and stable position, they should squat the load upwards with a rigid core and torso.

The lifter finished the lift by standing full erect with the barbell locked out overhead.

What Is a Squat Jerk?

The squat jerk is a jerk style that can be used to move a barbell from the front rack to the overhead position. Like most jerk methods, the lifter drives the bar off the body using the legs, hips, and torso. The receiving position, however, varies from the split and the power jerk in that the lifter assumes a fully squatted overhead position (much like a snatch receiving position) with the hands at clean and jerk width. Below is a video of the squat jerk, complete with a video tutorial on proper set up and execution of the lift.

Squat Jerk – Muscles Worked

The squat jerk targets many of the same muscles as most jerks and overhead lifts, with the primary movers being discussed below.

Upper Trap, Back and Scapular Stabilizers

The upper traps, back, and scapular stabilizers are targeted greatly due to the increased range of motion and stability needed to assume a deep, narrow grip overhead squat. These muscles work to isometrically contract to resist the downwards momentum of the barbell at all times.

Quadriceps, Calves, and Glutes

The quadriceps and hips work to extend the ankles, knees, and hips to drive the torso vertically through the barbell. In doing so, these large muscles groups work in unison (triple extension) to accelerate the barbell overhead to allow a lifter to assume a low and stable receiving position.

Shoulders

The shoulder work to press the already upwards moving (created by the legs driving the barbell overhead) barbell overhead. While they are not the primary muscle groups (the legs are) responsible for hoisting the bar overhead, they are critical in stabilizing the loads above the lifter while in the squatted position.

Core

The core muscles and erectors (lower back) must work to resist spinal rotation, flexion, and hyperextension while in a deep overhead squat position; which requires great core strength and control.

Should You Squat Jerk?

The is a good question often asked by all level lifters these days. If we watch elite lifters, some will split jerk, some will power jerk, and some will squat jerk; each showing their style to be effective at building champions. The utilization of the squat jerk varies based upon the below factors:

Flexibility/Mobility Limitations

It should come as no surprise to hear that the squat jerk requires great hip, shoulder, and thoracic mobility and stability, and is often the reason why so many athletes cannot perform such a movement at near maximal and maximal loads. That said, these issues can often affect into the other positions in the all lifts, making it important to at least be able to perform squat jerks in some capacity, regardless of the lifter’s style.

If however, a lifter has good mobility, strength, and chooses to use this style, they should be able to do so at loads greater than their best jerk method in competition. The reasoning behind this is you want to lift the most amount of weight as you can in competition, so be sure to use your strongest, most confident jerk style at that time.

Strengths/Weaknesses of a Lifter

Depending on the strength and weakness of a lifter, coaches and athletes can make decisions based on which movements, technique adjustments, and jerk variations they will use. As a lifter advances in their career, coaches must also evolve with the way the  individual’s training process. If a lifter tends to have greater mobility yet has issues driving heavy bars off the body in the jerk drive, the squat jerk MAY be a solution since it requires less lifting of the bar off the body. If however, a lifter has hip, knee, ankle, or shoulder limitations, they most likely will be limited in their ability to quickly receive the bar in a low, stable overhead position. If this is the case, the coach should (1) choose a jerk method to best minimize injury and maximize success, (2) address those mobility concerns, and (3) slowly integrate the power jerk for lighter skill sets to help develop a better overall jerk and squat position.

Anthropometrics of a Lifter

Lifters will often see a lift on social media or in a gym and say, “That worked for them, I should do that.” In reality, most lifters should choose movements and body positions based on their individual bone structure, body, and strengths. While this is not to say a successful lifter’s techniques won’t work for you (in fact most of them would, since nearly all methods have the same underlying principles), but rather that coaches and lifters should look at the individual limitations and abilities when making these types of decisions.

For example, lifters who have longer legs relative to their torsos will often have issues maintaining an upright stable position in the squat jerk at high loads (80+% of clean and jerk max). If this is the case, coaches need to make the decision of whether it is worth pushing squat jerks on athletes just because it works for other athletes (and vice versa). In the end, lifters should be able to perform all styles of jerks with moderate loads (50-70%), however the decision to utilize squat jerks as the competitive jerk style should be based upon a lifter’s natural build and strengths; rather than having them try to assume positions that they simply cannot assume (due to body structure).

Who Could Benefit from Squat Jerks?

We break down who can benefit from performing squat jerks, and why.

Beginner Weightlifters

Many beginner weightlifters may lack the mobility, timing, and precision to perform squat jerks, however this does not mean they should avoid them. By using the regressions and complexes below, coaches can work to develop proper mobility, overhead strength, timing, and balance to become fluent in squat jerking. Even lifters who do not squat jerk in competition will find benefit on adding lighter loaded squat jerks as it has direct application to power, push, and split jerks.

Weightlifters Needing Better Timing/Fluidity in the Jerk

As discussed above, the timing and fluidity needed in the squat jerk are high, making it a great training exercise to develop those properties in lifters who may be lacking them. Often, a lifter can “save” a lift in the split or power jerk by jumping/stepping forward. However, in the squat jerk, the margin of error is very small, making the lifter focus on body positioning (vertical), timing, and stability in the receiving position to a higher degree.

Weightlifters Needing Greater Overhead Stability

Overhead squats, pressing, and jerks are all dependent on a strong, stable overhead position. Performing squat jerks, assuming the lifter has already been able to do overhead squats with both snatch and jerk grips, behind the neck push presses, and behind the neck power jerks; can be extremely helpful in increasing overhead stability for the jerk.

Lifters with Strong Lower Bodies 

The squat jerk not only requires high degrees of shoulder mobility and strength, it demands a lifter to essentially squat heavy loads twice in one attempt (the clean and then again, in the squat jerk). Many lifters may like the idea of the squat jerk, however they must possess a high amounts of leg strength reserve to be able to hit heavy squat jerks successfully after max or near-maximal cleans (in competition). If a lifter has issues driving heavy loads high off the body, yet still has strong legs, they may try to see if the squat jerk could help them in competition. Note, that strong legs allow for strong jerk drives, so this may also not be the best indicator of whether or not an athlete should purely squat jerk.

Squat Jerk Sets, Reps, and Weight Recommendations

Below are common set and rep schemes to develop movement, hypertrophy, strength, and muscle endurance in the squat jerk.

Movement Integrity – Reps, Sets, and Weight Recommendations

The squat jerk is a foundational jerk variation that can help beginners understand body positioning, timing, bar placement, and develop greater stability in the overhead positions of the jerk/snatch.

  • 3-5 sets of 3-5 repetitions with light to moderate loads

Strength, Power, and Weightlifting Skill – Reps, Sets, and Weight Recommendations

The squat jerk can be used to build strength, power, and jerk timing by using the below sets, reps, and loading schemes below.

  • 3-5+ sets of 1-3 repetitions with heavy loading, resting as needed

Squat Jerk Variations

Below are three (3) squat jerk variations coaches can use to progress this exercise on most training programs.

Pause in Dip Squat Jerk

By adding a pause at the bottom of the dip phase in the squat jerk, you force a lifter to (1) establish better control and braking abilities (2) increase awareness at what the proper dip depth should be in the jerk (3) increase a lifter’s dependency on using the legs to drive the load upwards, as they cannot use momentum or simple start pressing the weight up with the upper body, and lastly (4) you increase leg power. All of these reasons suggest the pause squat jerk is a good variation for lifters who fail to keep a vertical torso and bar path, do not utilize the legs, or have mental blocks in the dip and drive phase of the jerk.

Behind the Neck Squat Jerk

Behind the neck (BTN) squat jerks are a great exercise to establish a better bar path and receiving position overhead, as the lifter simply drives the load off the upper traps in a vertical fashion. When going from the front of the body, the lifter must navigate the head around the barbell, making it slightly more complex.

No Foot Squat Jerks

No foot squat jerks can be done similarly to the standard squat jerk, however in this variation the lifter does not move their feet. Therefore, they should start with the feet in the squatting position (width). By not allowing foot movement, the lifter must maximize vertical trajectory, body balance, and leg drive. If all of this is on point, they will find better fluidity, speed, and a smoother receiving position in the full squat jerk.

Behind the Neck Squat Jerk + Overhead Squat + Squat Jerk

This squat jerk complex can be done to increase overhead strength, barbell placement, and overall technique. Behind the neck jerks are a great way to help a lifter establish a better relationship with the positions, alignments, and timing of the lift in a deconstructed fashion. 

Squat Jerk Alternatives

Below are three (3) squat jerk alternatives that can used in the sport of Olympic weightlifting in the event a lifter has issues securing a balance, stable, and low position in the squat jerk.

Power Jerk

The power jerk is one of the precursor movements to the squat jerk. By mastering the power jerk, a lifter can develop proper timing, overhead strength, and power without having limitations in their mobility and balance when receiving in the jerk grip overhead squat. Lifters who have mobility issues or weak overhead squat strength can use power jerks to place heavier loads overhead, more effectively.

Split Jerk

The split jerk is a common jerk method used in Olympic weightlifting which allows a lifter to assume a slightly lower receiving position than the power jerk, yet not need the mobility and stability necessary for the squat jerk, however does require more power  to drive the barbell higher overhead.

Power Jerk + Overhead Squat

As discussed above, the power jerk is a prerequisite to the squat jerk. When paired with the overhead squat (in a complex), the lifter can also start to develop body control, balance, and overhead strength necessary for the squat jerk depth. As time goes on, the lifter can start to minimize the pause and resetting of the body between the power jerk and the overhead squat to seamlessly transition from the power jerk into the overhead squat, which would be the squat jerk.

Featured Image: J2FIT Weightlifting, Mike Dewar

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