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Keep Your Heels Down For More Powerful Pulls

August 14, 2006 01:46 PM

In this article I will discuss a simple maneuver which will improve your pulling power. I have integrated this maneuver in my own training and teach it to my kettlebell clients and athletes. My hope is that the new girevik as well as the experienced lifter will find this information helpful. Related points of discussion include the RKC Hard Style Principle of "Compressing the Ground," the pulling motion, balance and the role of the hip-snap.

Compress the Ground?
The importance of compressing the ground cannot be overstressed. For all intents and purposes, the primary force exerted when picking up a weight involves pushing the feet into the deck. You will recall Newton's Third Law of Motion states that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Generally speaking, when picking up a weight, the greater the force which is applied to the ground the greater the weight which can be lifted. This applies not only to "grinding" pulls like the deadlift but to explosive lifts as well. The more powerful and explosive the force that is applied to the ground, the more powerful and explosive will be the reaction of the weight. Compressing the ground effectively is essential to a strong pull.

?With Flat Feet
One consideration determining how effective a girevik will be when applying force to the ground is the size of the base of support. The girevik's base of support is, of course, the feet. The larger the base of support the greater is the force which can be applied to the ground. A flat footed stance provides a larger base of support than when standing on the toes, thus more force can be applied to the ground flat footed than when standing on the toes. Since more force can be applied flat-footed a girevik should always pull with a flat footed stance.

Get Vertical
The primary direction of the body in all pulling motions from the floor is vertical. A common model used when learning pulling motions is the vertical jump and while this model works very well for the most part, one small yet significant modification to the jumping motion is required to make it more applicable to lifting weights: jump flat footed. Keep the heels pressed down and do not go up on the toes.

Many Olympic Weightlifters have astounding vertical leaps. American weightlifter Shane Hamman at 5'9" tall and 350 pounds bodyweight reportedly has a 36" vertical. Armenian super-heavyweight Ashot Danielyan can high jump two meters. On the other hand, the legendary Bulgarian Antonio Krastev could only elevate a few inches but was famous for his speed going under the bar, a far more important skill in weightlifting than vertical jumping ability. Vertical jumping ability may be a good indicator of power potential but catching big air is not the point of lifting weights. What the weightlifter really wants is a motion that will make the barbell jump higher. The way to accomplish this is to perform the vertical jump flat footed. Once again: the larger the base of support the greater the force which can be applied to the ground. The greater the force applied to the ground, the heavier the weight which can be lifted.

There is a coaching adage used in weightlifting which also applies to kettlebells: If you want to make the body go higher, jump off the toes. If you want to make the bar go higher, jump flat footed.

Stay Balanced for Optimum Power
Whether one is lifting a barbell or kettlebell the combined Center of Gravity (CoG) of the girevik and the weight must be kept over the base of support. If the combined CoG moves outside the base of support, the girevik experiences a loss of balance. It is not an uncommon problem for gireviks to be pulled off balance when learning new exercises or incorporating a new, heavier weight for the first time. Balance issues also arise if the hips are scooped too horizontally, more about that later.

One thing which will help fix getting pulled forward is to endeavor to keep the body balanced directly over the middle of the heel for the majority of the exercise. Besides remedying balance issues, the mid-heel balance point improves power production. If the balance is maintained behind the ball of the foot and towards the heel the entire foot will be utilized for "compressing the ground." Also, driving through the heels also seems to enhance the verticality of the lifting motion. A drill for learning the balance over the heels is to "take the toes out of the lift" by pressing the tops of the toes into the top of the athletic shoe. This will force you to compress the ground with the most immobile part of the foot, between the heel and the ball.

Width of the stance is also an important consideration. Wider stances are more stable but the ideal jumping stance would have the feet driving straight down under the hips since vertical power is lost angularly as the legs abduct. Because many kettlebell ballistic lifts involve swinging the kettlebell between the legs a compromise must be reached between the ideal jumping stance and the clearance required for safe swinging. Obviously double swings, cleans and snatches will require even more room. Swings outside the legs may require a narrower than ideal jumping stance and one can expect a loss of stability as well.

The Hip-Snap Reconsidered
Years ago there was some consensus among weightlifting coaches that the hip-snap was a main source of power production in the snatch and clean. This view has waned considerably. These days, the explosive hip action of a top lifter is conceived of as a technical maneuver that ideally transitions the lifter from the first pull position to the explosive vertical jump position in as little time as possible and with as little loss of bar speed as possible. Rather than being the cause of power production, the hip-snap is more properly viewed as an effect of proper power production. In some circles, the hip-snap is considered to be a stretch-reflex reaction, a reflex, not a volitional movement at all. This reflex results from proper body position at the completion of the first pull: vertical shins, hips well back, shoulders in front of the bar, feet flat on the floor. Because the body positions are similar and because the hip-snap in weightlifting and kettlebell swings, snatches and cleans are both part of the vertical jump kinesthetic chain, I think this interpretation of the hip-snap as an effect has real value when applied to the kettlebell lifts.

I realize coming from an RKC this may sound like heresy, but it isn't really ? allow me to elaborate a little more. Sometimes the instruction to "snap the hips harder" gets misinterpreted and results in making more mischief than power. If the victim conceives of the hip-snap as the only power source and attempts to produce more power by only trying to snap the hips harder, there is a tendency to neglect "compressing the ground" in favor of attempting to drive the hips more forcefully, usually in a mostly horizontal direction. Not only does this horizontal "scooping" movement not generate any appreciable power, it creates eccentric, horizontal forces which interrupt the verticality of the movement and undermines the base of support by pulling the lifter off the heels and on to the toes. Conversely, when the hip-snap occurs in the context of a properly executed vertical jump, flat footed with the force directed through the heels, the hips not only describe a more vertical path, they will contribute momentum to the vertical direction of the lift. Also don't "cut the pull short." Keep driving with the feet through the deck all the way through until the knees are locked, patellae are pulled up tight and the body is straight and (more or less) perpendicular to the ground.

There is a four part "a-ha" drill I use is to teach the role of the hip-snap so that my victims understand when I instruct them to "snap the hips harder" it is really a shorthand command for jumping harder and applying more force to the ground. No kettlebell is used in the drill. First, from the get set/back swing position the victim performs several vertical jumps (flat footed of course) as high as possible while observing the speed and feel of the hip action and the amount of effort exerted by the legs. Second, I ask for a vertical jump as high as possible but executed with no hip movement at all. Third, I request a vertical jump with no leg extension at all and only hip action involved. The last two requests are virtually impossible to fulfill. Finally, step one is repeated to reinforce the desired effect and kinesthetic perceptions. This drill usually gets the point across about the proper integration of leg extension, compressing the ground, extending the torso and snapping the hips.

Personally, I like to use the hip-snap as a diagnostic cue. If it is crisp and powerful and mechanical I've found that there won't be much left to correct in the way of major form issues. However, if the hip-snap is sluggish it can be indicative of a number of things: insufficient force being applied to the ground, a too-heavy kettlebell, incorrect body position or mechanics, or if I am getting my job done, fatigue. In that case, the fix is simple. Put the bell down.

To summarize:
  1. Effective Compression of the Ground is key to elevating weights. Driving into the ground forcefully through the heels with flat feet will result in being able to lift heavier weights farther and faster. Remember: If you want the body to go higher, jump off the toes. If you want the weight to go higher, jump flat footed.
  2. Jump straight up. While the kettlebell may describe an arc during swings, the primary motion of the body is still a vertical jump. Jam the feet into the deck. Endeavor to keep the same flat footed, drive through the heel, vertical jump groove whether performing dead hang snatches or swing snatches.

Randy Hauer, RKC is also a USAW Club Coach, Sports Performance Coach and athlete. As a GS athlete he has achieved two CMS rankings in the 24kg Long Cycle Clean and Jerk; one in the +90kg division and the other in the 90kg division. His goal is to get a third CMS this year in the 80kg division.

Randy is a partner and co-founder of Old School Strength and Health, LLC, a sports performance coaching business. He lives in West Chester, PA. He can be reached at