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April 27, 2020 10 min read

Power is defined as the amount of energy transferred per unit of time. When it comes to weightlifting, this essentially comes down to explosiveness. Not raw strength that gives you your 1RM, and not hypertrophy which gives you mass. This type of power highlights the strength and the time that it takes your body to release all that pent-up energy.

Power helps us in functional fitness, overall health, strong postures, and sports—so it’s no surprise that many focus on it when it comes to setting their fitness goals. Fortunately, weightlifters have a lot of options when it comes to training explosiveness. The deadlift, for example, is a bread-and-butter movement that any serious gym-rat will have in their training regime. Not even counting the many varieties of the deadlift, there are still hundreds of ways to activate next-level power.

What many people miss is the usefulness of Olympic lifts in enhancing power, the rate of development, athleticism, and general performance in, and out, of the gym. The snatch, power clean, and clean & jerk are the three Olympic lifts. They’re revered for their conditioning almost as much as they’re avoided for their technical complexity. This technical complexity causes many people to avoid them in the gym, losing out on all the benefits that they can provide. However, there is a way to get most of these benefits without having to delve too much into the technicalities. Enter; the high pull.

What Exactly is a High Pull?

The “peak” of a high pull looks much like the upright row. Both movements have you raising a barbell (or other weight) up in front of you, very close to your body. With an overhand grip, this position has your shoulders flared out and your arms at least parallel to the floor. The similarities pretty much end there however. While both work your shoulders to an extent (the high pull placing much less of a focus here), the upright row places an almost exclusive focus on the delts.

The high pull is a different beast. It utilizes basically your entire body, extending the muscles in your hips, knees, and spine. Doing wonders for your structural and postural health, the high pull is a compound exercise worthy of a place in anyone’s workout routine. In fact, this movement has much more in common with the Olympic lifts than the upright row.

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

The Olympic lifts are beasts when it comes to explosiveness. Both the snatch and the clean require the lifter to explode with energy in the triple extension of their ankles, knees, and hips—powering a barbell from the ground to an overhead position. Not to mention the lower body strength required, both lifts also take a substantial amount of shoulder mobility, core strength, and stability in order to keep control of the bar. Yet they’re also highly technical, requiring years of training to master the complex movement patterns.

The snatch focuses on finesse. Using a load that’s about 70% of the one used for the clean, the snatch has the lifter grasp the barbell with a wider grip (about the distance of the elbows when the arms are raised laterally). Deadlifting the bar into a powerful upward trajectory—driving through the hips—the lifter comes underneath the bar into an overhead squat. The movement is finished with the lifter standing upright.

On the other hand, the clean focuses on strength. The clean begins with a narrower grip on the bar (just outside the knees). The pull is nearly identical to the snatch, but the bar is instead racked on the front delts (front squat) before the lifter stands up and presses the bar straight overhead, in what’s called the jerk.

Both of these lifts consist of three pulls. Getting the bar over the knee, up to the upper thigh, and then over your head—and so they come with similar benefits. These lifts are designed around a very quick rate of force development. This means that they can lead to faster sprints, increased agility and higher jumps due the combination of strength and speed. 

These lifts also mimic a lot of sports movements. Since they’re multi-joint, large muscle movements, they’ll help you out in things like running and jumping. Paired with high volume training (3 sets of 9 reps, for example), the Olympic lifts are also excellent for elevating metabolic demands. Ultimately, this means a greater calorie burn for more weight loss and a higher maintenance cost. Nevertheless, it’s the technical difficulty of these lifts which stops most people dead in their tracks from trying them. Well, it doesn’t have to be that way.

It’s been shown that most of the explosive energy that’s created with these lifts comes through in the second pull. The most difficult aspect of these lifts is bringing the bar to the racking position. Personal trainers have a lot of difficulties teaching this aspect, and it can lead to a number of injuries. However, by taking out this final step, we can create a movement that picks up 95% of the benefits of a traditional Olympic lift—which is where we get the high pull.

A girl working out in a gym.

The Benefits of the High Pull

As we mentioned, the high pull works your entire body. Your traps, rhomboids, abdominals, glutes, delts and hamstrings will be activated— along with a number of other muscles and stabilizers. Since you don’t have to worry about catching the bar, you can also focus on lifting more. This means a higher level of fitness and greater power output in the long term.

The regular pull also has the benefits of speed, power, strength, balance, and posture. But it doesn’t have the benefit of training the mechanics and strength of the arms. This is because the upper body is crucial in that third pull which brings the bar to maximum height. This height also reinforces a more vertically oriented extension which is helpful when training the traditional snatch or clean and jerk.  

And this is only for a clean and snatch high pull. If you’re looking to do just a regular high pull with a barbell, you can start in a position which has you grasping the bar just underneath your knees. This will mean there’s less distance for the bar to travel, and therefore, fewer chances to impart force onto the barbell. You’ll be required to generate power more quickly and for less time, resulting in higher peak power outputs—excellent training for athleticism and performance enhancement. We’ll start with this basic barbell high pull before moving on to variations.

The Barbell High Pull

Step 1:

Standing with feet shoulder-width apart, hold the barbell just in front of your shins. You should be overhand gripping the bar, with your hands just outside of your legs. Ideally, you’ll want to use a hook-grip, which has you wrapping your thumb underneath the index and middle fingers. Keep a slightly arched back, keeping your weight on the midfoot.

Step 2:

After an initial extension to get the bar above the knee, you’ll want to aggressively extend the hips and knees. You’ll be essentially standing up by shifting your hips forward and pulling the barbell straight up. Focus on keeping your lats engaged and pulling the bar up.

Step 3:

With the force driven by your lower body, you’ll want to pull the elbows up and to the sides, keeping the barbell close to your body as it flies up. The aggressiveness of the initial push should have your heel leaving the ground as the triple extension completes. The goal here is to have your elbows elevated as much as possible, with the bar coming up close to your chin. Depending on the weight, your elbows might not be fully raised. But if the arms engage and pull after the initial extension, it still qualifies as a high pull.

Step 4:

Reverse the movement, allowing the bar to fall. Start slowing its descent before it reaches the initial position of the exercise—slightly below the knees.

Things to Keep in Mind

As with any complex movement, there are a number of things to remember when considering form in the high pull. It’s essential that you keep your back straight and neutral, especially during the extension. This will help in preventing you from losing balance and falling forwards. Keeping your core and glutes activated will also take some of the stress off your lower back, effectively helping your technique.

The hip and knee joints should extend at the exact same time. Any asynchronization in the exercise can lead to poor form and potential injury. Keep an eye on the angles that your body creates when performing the exercise. If along the bar path you notice that only your legs or your back is extended, then it’s time to take a step back and reassess your positioning.

It’s also important to remember that your back and legs are the strongest muscles in your body. During that explosive phase, it’s imperative that you use these muscles to drive the bar up—not your upper body. While in the high pull your upper body does engage as your elbows bend and you drive the bar up, most of that power should be coming from the lower body. For example, if you feel that you’re going on your toes at the end of the movement in order to get extra height, you’re most likely doing the exercise wrong. Inertia rather than your own strength should drive the extension of your body. 

Don’t allow the weight to be too heavy. Especially when you’re starting out, make sure that you’re comfortably able to explosively raise the bar up. This isn’t meant to be a deadlift, so if you’re grinding out reps like with your deadlifts, then it’s time to use a lighter load. The emphasis here is on energy over time, so it’s essential that you make these movements fast and explosive. With a load that’s too heavy, there’s also the chance that you might begin pulling your chest down to meet the bar. While you might be doing it subconsciously, this usually signifies that the weight is simply too heavy.

Variations of the High Pull

The high pull has a number of variations that all introduce different focuses and aspects to keep in mind. Although the barbell is the classic tool for this, it’s important to shop around and see what works best for you. The underlying benefits of great strength concentrated in a short period remain the same.

The Kettlebell High Pull

Although very similar to the one-handed kettlebell swing, the kettlebell high pull is slightly more technical in that it requires a pull and a push at the top of the swinging motion. Much like the traditional high pull, using a kettlebell has the same benefit of full-body conditioning and being a highly cardiovascular exercise.

It’s also more dynamic than a one-handed kettlebell swing, and so calorie burning is maximized. This is especially true when it comes to kettlebell. Since you have less control over it than a barbell, more of your stabilizer muscles will need to be engaged. Lastly, it’s a great movement for improving posture and “un-rounding” shoulders.

Step 1:

In a squatting position and holding onto the kettlebell between your legs, keep your back straight. In order to begin the motion, activate and snap the hips forward, sending the kettlebell forwards and up.

Step 2:

Pull the kettlebell towards your shoulder at the top of the movement with the elbow. Your Arm should be parallel with the ground and the kettlebell right to the side of your face. Remember to maintain a good alignment with the wrist, forearm, elbow, and weight. As you reach the top of the movement, squeeze your glutes and stand tall, engaging your core through the motion.

Step 3:

Your heel should once again leave the floor momentarily, as inertia drives you up. Keep a tight grip on the load as you reverse the motion and finish in the original position. To begin, explosively snap the hips forward again.

A man picking up dumbbells to workout with.

The Dumbbell High Pull

Similar to the classic high pull, the benefit of the dumbbells is that they’ll allow a greater range of motion when you reach the top of the movement. Not limited by the bar, your elbows should be able to go higher, and you’ll feel more tension in that area. While you won’t be able to pull as heavy of a load, this can be a good way to get used to the motions in Olympic lifts and make sure that your form is on point.

Step 1:

Grasping a pair of dumbbells with an overhand grip, go into the squat position with your feet at shoulder-width apart. Hold the dumbbells in front of your shins, slightly below knee level. Keep your chest up and back straight.

Step 2:

Exploding once again, initiate the extension in your hips and knees, and bring the dumbbells up to your shoulders with elbows bent out. Remember to engage your core and press your hips forward. The dumbbells should stay close to your body throughout the entire movement.

Step 3:

Push the dumbbells back out from your shoulders and let them fall back into the starting position, controlling their descent.

The Snatch High Pull versus the Clean High Pull

While the classic snatch and clean & jerk have much less in common than their high pull variants, there are still some important differences between the two Olympic lifts. The biggest difference lies in where the bar is grasped. The clean grip is narrower than the snatch grip, which affects the ability of your elbow and shoulder to flexion. Since the height requirement for your elbow is “as high as possible,” the mechanics between these two variants don’t matter all that much.

The biggest difference is in comfort. Many people find that the wider snatch pull is easier to complete in a high pull because your arms are further apart, and your elbows have a higher range of bending. Whichever you choose, what matters is that your upper body is at least somewhat engaged in the exercise.

This would make a difference in terms of a regular pull since your elbows aren’t meant to bend. With a wider grip, the snatch would allow you to bring the bar higher as it kept to a bar path following your body more closely. The clean would have a more vertical ascent.

The benefit of snatch and clean high pulls over the other variants is that their movements are usually begun from the ground. This would place an emphasis on the first pull motion of the exercise, focusing on the lower body driving up past the knees. If your goal is to do the snatch or the clean, it’s probably best to master the high pull variant of these.

High Pull Yourself into the Next Power Level

When it comes to explosive energy, there’s few movements that can help you like the Olympic lifts can. While technically challenging, the high pull allows us to take the greatest benefits from these and utilize them in our own training.

This explosive energy is useful in all parts of our lives—from the gym to the dance club. While the high pull will help us cultivate this energy, a lot of rest and good food is what’s essential in crushing limits and setting new ones.