Level up for the CrossFit Open: How to ROCK Barbell Cycling

Friday, December 16, 2016 - 10:14
With the 2017 CrossFit Open just a few months away it is the perfect time to dial in your skills and up your game. There are few key skills and capacities you can work on now so that when the Open does come around you will feel fitter than ever.

In this first article I want to help everyone with their barbell movements, specifically how to improve “cycling” them. One of the most common questions I get as a coach is “how can I improve my during a hard WOD?”. The efficiency in doing multiple unbroken reps with a bar (whether it be power snatches, cleans or jerks) is what we refer to as Barbell Cycling

Cycling is an advanced skill. It is a sport-specific skill, i.e. it is a specialty for CrossFit as a sport. In Olympic Weightlifting participants do not hold onto the barbell and hit high repetition sets at light-to-moderate loads. However, this skill can be a GAME CHANGER come Open time.

As cycling is an advanced skill it must be practiced in order to maintain consistency and efficiency. As a coach I am looking to help you find the most efficient variation of the barbell movements.

This means breaking down the phases which make up a movement as a whole:

  • the ascending motion (bar travelling up)

  • the descending motion (bar coming down to the floor) and;

  • the use of touch points /breath control which allows you to lift consistently, smoothly and at a set speed.

Once a personal efficient technique is established, you (the athlete) and I (the coach) look at how to consistently execute each rep and whether to use either the Muscle Snatch/Clean or the Power Snatch/Clean.


The Muscle Snatch/Clean

Using the power of the shrug, and pure shoulder strength the muscle lifts are the quickest way to move a barbell fast dependent on the weight. A good guide is anything under around 40% of your max lift you may choose to muscle the lift continuously in order to keep moving at a fast pace. In relation to the clean it allows you to focus on the strength of the pull, length of extension and speed of the elbows within the turnover.


The Power Snatch/Power Clean

A natural barbell progression where the weight is too heavy to sustain a muscle snatch/clean. A workout which shows a great example of barbell cycling using the power snatch/power clean is one of the famous benchmark workouts, Isabel (30 Snatches for time) or Grace (30 Clean and Jerks for time). Being only slightly slower than the Muscle Snatch/Clean, the Power Snatch/Clean is seen as one of the most effective ways to cycle the barbell through a various number of reps.

While both options allow you to move the barbell quite quickly, there are a few aspects of the lifts including proper set up on the ascent as well as the descent which make all the difference.

The Ascent (going up - concentric)

Start with feet shoulder width apart- starting with your feet a little wider allows you to keep your feet in the same stance throughout all of your reps. If you were to constantly switch from hip-width to shoulder width precious seconds can be wasted!

Hips slightly higher than usual- allowing the knees to stay back and out of the way letting that bar path be as straight as possible.

Keep the bar close: The closer the bar, the easier the lift. Coaches are constantly telling their athletes to “stay tight.” Once the barbell comes away from the body, the instant reaction is to chase the barbell, with the athlete coming forward rather than driving straight up.

Aggressive in the turnover: Punch that barbell overhead! If you are too soft in the overhead position the bar begins to takes control. You need to control the barbell and focus on a strong lockout. You may also hear your coach constantly yelling “fast elbows!”. A faster turnover will result in a better catch position as the bar will land upon your shoulders.

The Descent (lowering the barbell - eccentric)

Lead with your hips: Shoot your hips back with the majority of weight being within your heels. This will load up your legs to generate the power to execute the next rep. Think of It more like a hip hinge rather than a squat. As always, keep your midline stability in check.

Fast turnover:  Flip over those elbows over the bar as quick and as controlled as possible.

Keep the bar close:  Similar to the ascent, as you lower the barbell that bar path is just as important as it is on the way up.  When lowering the barbell down quickly, the weight becomes a challenge, trying to pull you in various different positions. Use your Lats to pull the bar close and keep your midline tight to maintain an efficient bar path.

Touch points: At times you may see athletes stopping at various locations on the body before fully descending towards the floor. Whether it be the hips, or the thighs. The less touch points made throughout the lift, the quicker the cycle, although this can come to a cost of your form and ability. You need to play to your strengths, if going straight from the catch position down to the floor is smooth and effective then your ability to cycle the barbell will be high.  If you think you are better off taking a quick rest or touch point by coming down to the thigh before resetting to the floor, this is fine also. Every athlete is different so you can use various techniques to work to your advantage.

Remember to breathe!

Probably one of the most important factors when it comes to barbell cycling. Having improved control over your breathe will allow you stay composed even in the toughest workouts. Focusing on staying smooth, steady and consistent will be essential to helping you stay in the zone and to hold on to that bar!

So what now? Put these lessons into action and practice. Here is a way to practice and train barbell cycling so that you have it in your wheelhouse before the Open:

  • Practice small range (sub-maximal) sets with a light and manageable weight. The goal is skill adaptation, NOT to build strength

  • Progressively increase the rep range rather than increasing the weight. Once you’re efficiently able to cycle 12 to 15 reps of a barbell movement you can then return to small ranges with a heavier weight.

  • Practice small sets within a workout at intensity! Over time you will grow in confidence and ability. Then, when the time is right, you can unleash your new skill during the Open!

Look out for my next part of the series where we will focus on how to make everyone’s least favourite movement one of the most efficient. The thruster!