When Should I Use a Split Jerk in the Sport of Fitness?
The Split Jerk is a technique that is used to lift a load overhead that is heavy. In the Sport of Weightlifting (aka. Snatch and Clean & Jerk) it is the most commonly used technique to lift a maximal load. In the Sport of Fitness, there are certainly times where lifting a max load is required. Sometimes this will be strength work, sometimes mixed modal scenarios like an Open workout where a very heavy barbell is programmed in the middle or end of a workout (e.g. 15.1A, 16.2, 17.4, 18.4, 19.2, 20.4).
However, most testing scenarios involve a sub-maximal weight moved many times. In these scenarios, the athlete will benefit from using a push jerk or power jerk because this allows them to keep feet stationary and save valuable seconds.
However, above a certain threshold in relative load (maybe 85-90% of your Push Jerk) most athletes will benefit from moving to the Split Jerk because consistency and strength is more important than cycle speed.
This guide to Split Jerks will focus on the technique that allows you to move a maximal load, in whatever scenario you choose to use it.
Mobility – Strength – Skill
To maximize your potential, capacity and efficiency for the Split Jerk you must master the movement’s specific mobility, strength and skill demands. Renowned CrossFit Coach, Ben Bergeron, calls mobility, strength and skill the three-headed monster. Let’s take on the monster one “head” at a time.
One of the reasons why athletes can often Split Jerk more than they can Power Jerk or Squat Jerk is because the demands for mobility are less. The split allows an athlete to keep their torso upright, reducing the shoulder range of motion needed. Athletes with mobile shoulders actually be stronger in a Power Jerk or Squat Jerk than they are the Split Jerk. However, this isn’t the norm. One female Games athlete who fits into this mold is Colleen Fotsch.
Now, let’s get into the mobility requirements for the Split Jerk:
1) The Front Rack: The goal of the front rack is to create a shelf for the bar to sit on. The bar needs to find the same place on the shoulder each rep, which can be more challenging in the jerk because the bar was usually just cleaned from the floor. Reset the bar before the jerk and make sure the shoulder is in front of the bar, creating the most stable platform from which to launch.
The front rack involves three many joints:
1.1) The Shoulder: The shoulder is the most important joint for the front rack. If you are experiencing pain or discomfort in the elbow or the wrists, there is probably an issue with mobility and/or positioning of the shoulder.
To be accurate, there are four joints that make up the shoulder, but for simplicity’s sake I’ll just refer to the collective as the shoulder. There are two main demands for the shoulder in the front rack: flexion and external rotation. Think elbows high and wide. Do so while keeping a full grip on the bar. A fingertip grip isn’t an ideal starting position for the jerk, where it is perfectly acceptable in a clean or front squat.
Here is my favorite mobilization for the Shoulder…
1.2) The Elbow: The elbow must be able to fold fully so the upper arm collapses over the lower arm (elbow flexion). Inflexible elbows can be from a combination of… 1) a tightness in the ligaments of the elbow, 2) an inability of the biceps to compress (soft tissue not pliable) and 3) tightness in the triceps, especially the long head since it crosses the shoulder and elbow joint.
Here is my favorite mobilization for the Shoulder…
1.3) The Wrist: The wrist plays a relatively small role in the overall picture of front rack mobility. Beginners often cite wrist pain from cleans or front squats and assume that it is either 1) a problem with wrist mobility… or 2) an inherent problem with weightlifting that they will be forced to deal with or stop doing the movement. The reality is wrist pain is rarely caused from the wrist. Usually it is caused by the elbows dropping due to tightness on the muscles that act on the shoulder: the lats, pecs and long heads of the triceps and biceps (which cross over the shoulder joint). Downstream (distal) perceived mobility or stability issues is usually a sign up upstream (proximal) instabilities and tightness.
Here is my favorite mobilization for the Wrist…
Related Read: Why Your Mobility Isn’t Improving
2) T-Spine Extension: The Thoracic Spine (or T-Spine) is the upper back segment that attaches to your ribcage. The T-Spine is often a limiter in mobility because most people spend much of their day sitting, often with poor posture. Good luck claiming T-Spine extension under a heavy load and fatigue if you don’t do it when you are sitting around outside of the gym. If you want to get a better overhead position, you better address your habits first. Pay attention to your posture and the shapes you make while you sit, stand and sleep.
Perceived tightness in the upper back can be due to the hands being placed too narrow on the bar. Moving the hands outside of the shoulders allows you to open up your chest and create an easier posture for the front rack. Moving your hands wider will demand more of your shoulder external rotation, but this position often feels more comfortable for athletes. It also literally gives you ‘breathing room’ when under general metabolic fatigue.
In the Front Rack, before you dip for your Split Jerk, think about having elbows front, down and wide.
Here is my favorite mobilization for the T-Spine…
The Kettlebell Anchored T-Spine Opener is another great option to prep movements like cleans and snatches. Think about pulling the rib cage down with your abs, as if you were preparing to get punched in the gut.
Often athletes who have the mobility to strict press or push press assume they have enough mobility to jerk efficiently as well. However, there is a big difference between grinding through a press with your chest turned up (stabilizing with your pecs and delts) and dynamically claiming a lockout position with the ribcage down, abs on and the bar over the base of your neck (stabilizing with your upper back). To illustrate my point, watch this Log Press in Strongman versus this Split Jerk in Weightlifting. They are both pressing overhead, but that is where the similarities end.
The ability to dynamically move from one position to another and “dance” around the bar is an extremely important skill for Weightlifting, including the Split Jerk. You will want to make sure to have a surplus of overhead mobility so you aren’t right up against your end range. That’s a recipe for missing lifts and getting injured.
Here is my favorite mobilization for your Overhead Position…
The whole point of a jerk is that you get under a weight that you normally couldn’t press. The reason why athletes jerk more than they push press and push press more than they strict press is because each variation in that progression uses the legs more than the previous.
In the Split Jerk, the legs lift the bar and the arms push your body down.
To understand what body segment needs to be strong for a proper Split jerk, think of the movement following the pattern: legs, arms, legs.
Legs: The athlete dips with the bar in the front rack and then aggressively changes directions. The bar deforms (bends) and the whip from the bar combined with violent leg drive propel the bar upward.
Arms: The bar has come off the shoulders due to momentum and the lifter is on her toes. The lifter quickly more her feet to the split position. The arms drive the lifter down under the bar. The feet land in position and the arms receive the weight of the bar with arms locked out overhead.
Legs: The lifter continues to fight for perfectly straight elbows and creates height on the bar before recovering the feet, ideally front foot back then back foot forward.
If you visualized each phase of that movement, you can get a pretty solid idea of where and how you need to be strong for an effective jerk:
Stable Core & Back: The starting place for all movement is the core. It’s how the movement of the limbs is generated. So if you want to have a strong jerk, you need to have a strong core. The only way you are able to effectively apply force on the bar from the legs is if your core doesn’t move. If the front rack slips because of poor mid-back or core strength and stability, then there will be an ineffective transfer of power from the legs to the bar.
Having strong limbs and a weak core is like shooting a cannon from a canoe.”Alison McConnell | Author of Breath Strong, Perform Better
Explosive Legs: If you are able to translate power to the bar because you have a strong core, then the height to which you drive the bar is determined by your leg strength and explosiveness. Essentially, the drive phase of the jerk is a jump. Is that an oversimplification? Sure. But in terms of understanding the leg strength and explosiveness necessary for an effective jerk it’s a helpful thought.
Stacked Upper Body Joints: You arms don’t need to be strong to push your body under the bar. After all, you’re working with gravity. However, when you receive the full weight of the bar overhead in the catch, you better be in the right position. For one, the bar better not be out in front of your Center of Mass, which is a common problem I’ll address below.
Besides where there bar is placed, it is extremely important that you create the right shape with your body to support a max effort load. The only way you will be able to withstand a load with your arms that your legs could barely lift is if your joints are perfectly stacked. In other words, the wrist is over the elbow and the elbow is over the shoulder. The most common reason for a missed jerk due to the upper body is the elbows bending.
Think: When the arms bend the power ends.
I separate the Split Jerk into five distinct phases: the Setup, the Dip, the Drive, the Split and the Recovery.
Phase 1: The Setup
The setup is just that: it’s setting you up to layer the rest of the phases of the lift successfully.
If your setup is off, your entire lift will be off from the beginning. Give yourself a fighting chance be nailing the setup. Every. Single. Rep.
The biggest thing with your setup is consistency. Put your elbows in the same place (front, down, wide). Grasp the bar the same way (full hand). Place the bar at the same place (across your collar bones and behind your delts). Breathe, brace and create tension through your midsection the same way (get a breath and don’t let it go until you finish the rep). You have to be consistent and precise to jerk big weights.
I encourage you to watch some of the lifters on hookgrip clean and jerk. You will see each one has a distinct setup for their jerk. They always set their brace the same way. They always move their elbows to the same spot. They take about the same amount of time between the clean and the jerk in their lifts, etc.
Phase 2: The Dip
Each phase builds on the previous. You can only successfully dip and drive the bar to the correct place if the bar has been setup the right way. For example, if the bar is in front of your shoulders in the front rack (Phase 1), the bar will slide during the change of direction in the dip (Phase 2) and drive (Phase 3) and cause the bar to lack height.
The most challenging piece of the dip is having your hips move vertically through space. If your hips start out too far back (back to the setup again), then they will slide forward at the bottom and you’ll shoot the bar in forward, causing you to miss the rep or chase it forward. If your hips start out too far forward, then your weight stays on the ball of your foot and again you push the weight out in front.
I explain this more here…
So the key is having the hips trace the same line of action on the way down and on the way back up.
A helpful drill to get a feel for this is standing with your back up against a wall. Dip four inches and stand, sliding your back down and up the wall. That’s how you should move in the dip and dive of your jerk: torso upright, hips tracing the same line of action.
If you are continually pushing the bar out in front, my advice would be to control the speed of the dip, working to keep your weight in the middle of your foot. This will keep you from getting out of position, which is the most important thing for a successful drive phase.
Phase 3: The Drive
The drive is all about generating momentum or speed on the bar. It’s like a jump in the sense that in order to produce maximum height there needs to be a counter movement. You load your tissues and create elastic energy by lowering.
The lower – raise (eccentric – concentric) combination is known as the Stretch-Shortening Cycle (SSC). That’s the scientific way of saying you’re taking advantage of the elasticity of your soft tissue (i.e. tendons and muscles) to create a slingshot effect.
As soon as you reach the depth of your dip, violently change directions and extend as quickly as you can. Think about trying to snap the bar in half by how quickly you change directions and apply force. This will ensure you get adequate height on the bar while also taking advantage of the bar whip.
Bar whip? Oh yeah, there’s that elastic energy again.
Phase 4: The Split
Stick with the drive until you’ve fully reached triple extension (hips, knees, ankles). Only then do you move to the split. While your feet are moving, the arms push the body under the bar. The more aggressively you punch your body under the less problems you will face by the bar reversing directions and you struggling against its momentum. The goal is to catch the bar with your hips high and rigid. Many beginners think that the split should be much like a lunge, which usually results in the hips not being stable and therefore missed lifts. Think: drive high, catch high.
Really the split comes down to two factors: consistent footwork and speed under the bar.
I’ve created a series of drills for each of these two factors to help you improve in each and master the split.
In this first video, I go over how to find you ideal split position before covering drills to maximize your consistency with foot position.
Here I cover how to get under the bar faster and maximize your ability to catch big weights overhead.
Phase 5: The Recovery
If you’ve been precise in how you completed the first four phases of the Split Jerk, the final recovery phase should be no problem. The only times when the recovery becomes challenging is if the bar is out of position, typically out in front. The goal is to control the weight, rather than chase it.
When the bar is received over your Center of Mass, I would recommend recovering 1) front foot back, then 2) back foot forward.
If the order becomes reversed, it is usually a symptom that the weight got pushed out in front.
One thing that will help you create consistency in your recovery is creating upward momentum before moving your feet. Think about pushing up on the bar as you as you receive the weight and creating some upward momentum with your hips. Once the bar starts moving upward, then recover your feet back under your body.
Athletes go wrong when they try to recover their feet before gaining vertical momentum on the bar.
This results in horizontal momentum (the bar moving forward or backward) rather than it moving straight up. It’s a battle you don’t want to fight.
Once you have recovered the weight back to a standing posture, show control before dropping it.
TLDR: Here’s the Summary
1) The Front Rack: The organization of 3 body joints: the Shoulder, Elbow & Wrist
2) T-Spine Extension: The upper back must be able to fully extend
3) Overhead: The shoulder must be able to fully open to support the load with stacked joints
1) Hips & Legs …are the prime movers so they must be strong
2) Core & T-Spine …must be strong to prevent movement
3) Stacked Upper Body Joints …The shoulders, elbows and wrist must be mobile yet rigid to maintain a load much heavier than you could press
5 Phases to the Split Jerk…
The Setup: Elbows low, wide and in front. Core and T-Spine stiff. Hips centered under weight. Full foot.
The Dip: Upper body doesn’t move. Hips remain centered under the load. Controlled descent speed with mid-foot pressure.
The Drive: Aggressive change of direction. Bend the bar and take advantage of the whip. Dive up and back, over the base of the neck. Full triple extension: hips, knees and ankles.
The Split: Arms punch the upper body down. Catch high and rigid. Front shin vertical. Back leg bent. Back heel up. Upper body stacked.
The Recovery: Hips get height first. Front foot backward. Back foot forward. Control the lockout.
- Using a fingertip grip: no full hand grip
- Keeping the elbows high, like a front squat
- Failing to brace the core and T-Spine
- Setting the hips too far forward or too far back in the dip
- Pushing the bar out in front and chasing the weight
- Shorting the dive phase: not enough bar height
- Locking out too early: Bar Crashes
- Failing to lock out: Arms stay bent
- Horizontal momentum in recovery: no vertical momentum
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