weightlifting blocks

On more than one occasion I’ve walked into the gym to have Jason, my coach, say “Ok. We are starting out with snatch from the knee.” My response is always, “block or hang?” Both the blocks and the hang have particular benefits, but how do you decide which to use?

An Olympic Weightlifter has one goal: to lift more weight in the snatch and clean & jerk. To reach these goals, lifters will train in phases. They’ll use a strength cycle to increase leg strength and then work to transfer the new strength into the Olympic lifts. They may also do a phase where they put more emphasis on a weaker lifts. During these phases, athletes will often work from the blocks or the hang position to improve technique.

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What’s the Difference?

Lifting from the blocks means you are lifting from anything placed higher than ground level, with the starting position resting on a pulling block or some other form of riser. The hang may be done from any of the same positions as blocks, but the athlete is holding the weight in the position rather than having it resting on a block.

Seems easy enough, but they couldn’t be more different. Try taking 85% of your snatch max and lift it off the blocks from the knee, and then take that same percentage and lift in from the hang at the knee position. You’ll see what I mean.

Blocks: Why?

While both training techniques can start from identical positions, they accomplish different things, and a coach usually programs them for a variety of different reasons.

Greg Everett explains that blocks are “better for increasing rate of force development relative to lifts from the hang.” Meaning, from the block, you should be performing the lift from a full stop, with no prior momentum gained from pulling off the floor. Some lifters use some form of a dynamic start from the blocks, but the weight still begins at a dead stop so the lifter has to get it moving from a new position.

Jim Schmitz, US Olympic Team Coach (‘80, ‘88, ‘92), says that lifting from blocks can also help the athlete emphasize the top of the pull. I believe that both exercises can provide this stimulus, however, but the block allows for me to better feel the positions without the fatigue of the weight in my hands.

Some lifters will be able to lift more from various block positions than can from the ground. This could be because the athlete is able to place themselves in a more balanced position while the weight rests on blocks, or because of a weakness in the athlete’s traditional starting position which causes a poor execution of the full lift. According to Schmitz, a big thing to remember is to make sure your work transfers to the full lifts. Block work can become an overused exercise if the athlete doesn’t learn to convert the strength to the floor properly.

Blocks: When?

Because blocks can be utilized in a wide range of positions and rep schemes, you can use them mixed in with pulls to emphasize the top of the lift, or you can work from different positions in order to focus on an athlete’s weak point. For example, if an athlete has trouble negotiating the pull around the knee, you could have them lift from directly below the knee or directly above the knee to get a feel for the positions. Often block work can be performed relatively heavy, if not heavier than an athlete’s maximum, depending on the skill from the chosen position.

Another great use for blocks is to work around an athlete’s injuries. If an athlete has a back or knee injury, it is possible that they could still perform the Olympic movements from a different position, without the same pain. This can help to prevent strength loss through detraining and adds variety to an injury program.

It is important to be cautious while performing lifts from blocks, because missing can become dangerous. A missed lift can hit the edge of a block and bounce in any direction. Make sure the pulling blocks are clear of change plates that the bar could land on.

The Hang: Why?

From the hang, the lifter can better feel and practice proper balance rather than having the bar supported by blocks. There is also something to be said for the strength gains accumulated due to time under tension — a mid-shin hang position causes greater tension during the start of the lift than it does from the floor.

The hang also forces your backside to work more in order to hold the position in place. Men’s Olympic Weightlifting Head Coach (2000), Gayle Hatch, never used lifts from blocks while training his athletes, because he believed strongly in the isometric strength gained from holding the barbell in the correct positions.

The hang is also a great way for the athlete to emphasis the turnover and catch of the lifts. The athlete can feel if they are balanced during the execution and because of the shortened range of motion, they have less time to make balance adjustments and must be more precise.

However, Schmitz reported that the hang can produce unnecessary hip, back, and leg motion prior to the execution of the lift. Even if you perform the hand variations with a pause or stop, the lifter can still generate some dynamic motion.

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The Hang: When?

Similar to the blocks, the hang position can be used with a wide variety of starting positions. You could argue that the variety from the hang is even greater than that from the blocks, because depending on the height of your blocks, you may not be able to get your desired position. The most common variations are high hang or “hip clean,” power position, from the knee (may also be done slightly above or slightly below), and the hang from mid-shin. More detail about each position can be found here.

Rep schemes for hang lifts are consistent with that of the blocks and most traditional Olympic lifting schemes: 1-5 repetitions. As the starting position moves closer to the floor, the athlete will be able to perform the movements with a higher percentage of their true maximums.

Similarly to the blocks, some athletes will actually be able to complete more weight from the hang variations than they are capable from the floor. This is generally due to the athlete being unbalanced when performing the full lift, but it could be caused from weakness or flexibility issues from the floor. Very rarely did I have an athlete capable of lifting more from the hang, but in cases where I did, they were almost always former football players who completed a lot of reps from the hang (generally with some major rocking motion) before converting to weightlifting.

As with all exercises, I believe it is important for the athlete to understand the intentions of the exercise programmed, but this is especially true with the hang. For example, if my coach is using a hang position to strengthen the turnover of the lift in the catch, I won’t use lifting straps because straps would defeat the point. If a coach is trying to strengthen my back and programs pause lifts, I try to truly pause and not use extra motion to get the weight moving.

There you have it, block vs. hang. Remember that all of these exercises are simply used as a tool to develop the full snatch and clean & jerk. Keep in mind that there are many different opinions about how and why these lifts are used. The Russian system uses a lot of variation in the lifts starting from many different positions, while the Bulgarian system uses a more simple approach taking everything from the floor. Generally, the best approach is the one that works for you and your athletes.

Featured Image: Catalyst Athletics (@catalystathletics)

Editors note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

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