by Wil Fleming T-Nation
There’s an epidemic going on in the world right now that needs to be stopped. Shoulders are being ruined, elbows are being blown out, and foreheads are being crushed.
The epidemic that I speak of?
Horrible versions of the snatch, filmed and put out onto YouTube for the world to marvel at. Just like listening to Fabio talk about astrophysics can drop your IQ by 20 points, watching these videos may lead to immediate reductions in strength and muscle mass.
Well I’m here to put those videos to bed through a lengthy breakdown of my favorite lift in the world: the snatch.
Set up Tight to the Bar
Successful Olympic lifts happen when the lifter and the barbell are moving in one efficient “system.” The lifter-barbell system, as it is called, must share one center of mass, and ideally this center of mass lies within the framework of the lifter’s body. Setting up close to the barbell begins to make sure that this will happen efficiently.
Setting up too far from the barbell will move the center of mass forward of the athlete’s toes and will lead to difficulty in achieving the lift later on.
The proper distance away from the bar is different for athletes based on body dimensions but can be summed up closely for most athletes:
When standing over the bar, the athlete should see their shoelaces covered by the bar. This means that from the coach’s perspective, the bar will be over the midfoot (a much more solid base than the toes) and will be far enough away from the body to allow the lifter to get in the start position.
Stability is the name of the game when it comes to the Olympic lifts, and in the case of setting up for the snatch, stability comes from being in an optimal balance of weight towards the forefoot and the heel.
This optimal balance position is called “tripod foot” position and means that the athlete should have weight balanced between 3 points on each foot. The 3 points of contact are:
The joint at the base of the big toe.
The joint at the base of the little toe.
An optimal interplay between weight at each point in the tripod will keep the athlete in balance throughout the lift. The strategy will also allow for corrections to be made in balance throughout the lift. If an athlete is too far forward, then more weight should be distributed to the heels; if the athlete’s toes come off the ground, then more weight can be distributed to the forefoot.
Jump Width or Slightly Wider than Jump Width
The short answer for how wide your feet should be when doing the snatch is “jump width.” The long answer is a little more complex and is more like “it depends.”
Setting up for a hang snatch is a little easier than a power snatch or full snatch from the ground, and in those cases the stance should be jump-width apart. Toes should be pointed out slightly; not much, but slightly.
In the jump-width stance (about as wide as your hips), feet should be directly below your hips. When your feet are directly below your hips, force created in the posterior chain is directed straight into the ground and there is no lateral leak of power. This is a good thing. If we’re using the big movers of the back-side, ideally we’re using the fullest power potential we can create and not losing power to lateral forces.
In the power snatch and the full snatch we’ll again start to think about our starting position as jump width, but trial and error may deem this to be an inappropriate stance for some athletes.
The “depends” part comes into play when getting into the start position. The wider grip of the snatch means that athletes must get lower and closer to the ground to grip the bar. Athletes lacking in hip mobility will achieve this lower position through compensations in lumbar flexion which will, of course, eventually lead to a back that is over fatigued and more prone to injury.
A simple correction is to work on hip mobility and raise the start position on blocks for a period of time. For some athletes, though, it will be necessary to make a modification to the start position on a more permanent basis.
For those athletes, “slightly wider than jump width” is the stance of choice. In this position (the legs slightly abducted) there isn’t as great a demand on hip mobility in the starting position (but they may have to deal with a slight energy leak to lateral forces).
Lock the Lats Down
We use a cue of “lock the lats down” when hands are on the barbell. This is accomplished rather easily. When the athletes’ hands are on the bar, they should picture pinching a roll of quarters in their armpits. Another idea is to squeeze your arms towards your body. Both cues work, so it’s just about finding the right one for the right athlete.
Locking the lats down will pack your shoulders into a strong position, lend more stability to the back, and enable a tight lifter barbell system.
For starters, packing the shoulders down with the lats is a great way to start when your hands are on the barbell. Elevated shoulders will ultimately lead to shoulder pain and discomfort.
Overuse of the upper traps will lead to early fatigue and while I haven’t seen much written on the exact involvement of the upper trap and the shrug movement in completion of the lift, it’s an important part of the lift. Tired traps will not be able to contribute to the lift. Pack the shoulders down by locking in your lats.
Locking the lats also leads to greater stability in the lower back. The origin of the lats is spread vertically down the lower back. When activating this muscle it synergistically assists the lumbar extensors in keeping the lumbar spine, well, extended.
The lats should remain tight until the 2nd pull is initiated. Once the arms become involved, it’s necessary to forget the idea of lat tightness and focus on the fast, relaxed movement of the elbows above the bar. The lats are powerful and if held tight throughout the lift, they’ll inhibit the motion of the arms up and under the bar. That being said, even in a hang snatch, “lock the lats in” is one of the first cues we use.
I can’t stress enough the importance of the idea of a “tight lifter-barbell system.” This idea and a lack of understanding or execution of this idea is at the root of many problems that athletes have in completing the Olympic lifts. The lats being tight leads to this tight system and a better execution of the snatch or the clean.
Hip Hinge to Above the Knee
Regardless of whether one is starting in the hang snatch position or the floor start (like in the power snatch, or full snatch), a hinge is the first movement that needs to occur.
Start each movement by unlocking the knees and then hinging until the hands are at knee level. If you’re doing a floor start, your hands will be free at this point.
If you’re doing a hang snatch, the bar will be in your hands and tight to the body. Both instances – hang and power – require the exact same hip hinge position when the bar or your body are above the knee. That is a constant
Squat to the Bar
The next step is to squat to the bar. When the bar is on the floor, the Olympic lifts are a combination of deep hip angles and deep knee angles.
However, when the bar is in the hang snatch position, the bar is above the knee and the movement is primarily a hip hinge (with slight knee movement). To put together the deep knee and hip angles, we start by RDL’ing/hinging to the knee level and then squatting vertically to the bar.
When in the RDL position at the knee level, the torso is roughly 30 degrees above horizontal (the floor in this case), and ideally we’ll again start at about 30 degrees above horizontal to begin the lift-off from the floor.
Squatting involves the vertical displacement of the hips and will allow this 30-degree angle to be maintained until you reach the bar at rest on the ground.
If there were to be horizontal movement of the hips, thus putting the torso at an angle less than 30 degrees above horizontal, you’ll find it difficult to pull from the ground and maintain a tight lifter-barbell system.
To summarize, to get to the bar on the ground:
Hinge to your knee level.
Squat to the bar.
Neutral-ish Neck but Eyes Up
Finding the optimal spinal position in the Olympic lifts is extremely important. Flexion will not do at any point, but a balance between completely neutral and extension is necessary to move efficiently and strongly in the lifts.
The super simple answer to where your neck and in turn, your eyes, should go when you have your hands on the bar is, “keep it neutral.” Cervical spine hyperextension can lead to corresponding lumbar hyperextension, which can in turn lead to some serious pain in the lumbar spine later. We want to avoid this at all costs, so if worse comes to worse, keep the neck completely neutral.
The optimal position isn’t entirely neutral, though. The optimal position is a slightly extended neck/cervical spine, and in turn, a slightly extended lumbar spine.
Let me qualify the statement about the lumbar spine. It should be slightly extended, only to the point that there’s some activation of the spinal erectors to lend more stiffness in the lift and help to avoid spinal flexion.
Keep your eyes on the horizon and let them look forward throughout the lift and don’t focus your gaze on the floor or the ceiling.
Knuckles Back and Down, Elbows Out
The role of the arms is not to screw up the rest of the lift. If the arms are too active, then they’ll likely do just that: screw up your lift.
If, on the other hand, they’re too passive, and no thought at all goes into what your hands or arms are doing in the lift, they won’t be doing their job to keep the lift in the right trajectory.
For the snatch (and even the clean), the goal of the hands and arms is to keep the bar tight to the body; to not let the trajectory arc away from the body.
To accomplish this task is rather simple. Prior to starting the lift, as your hands are first placed on the bar, neutralize the wrists so the knuckles are pointing directly towards the ground and internally rotate the upper arm so that your elbows are pointing laterally.
Now relax. Your arms are in the right position and their only goal is to stay out of the way and then punch aggressively once you need them later.
The Truth About Your Snatch Grip
The biggest problem with most pieces of advice written on the snatch grip is the dependence on various markings and lines on a bar. These recommendations usually center on where the knurling ends or a ring here and there.
If you always train with the same bar, then there’s no great issue with this advice but in cases in which one must train with a different bar, in a different gym, you can be left in the dark as to where to grip the bar.
There’s a simpler solution to always find a consistent grip width for the snatch:
Stand tall with your arms extended and the bar gripped in your hands. Widen your grip until the bar is resting across the crease in your hip. To ensure that you’re at the correct height, flex your hip until your hip is at 90 degrees. If your hip can’t flex to 90 degrees, you’ll need to move your hands wider. This is a starting point for your snatch grip – it may be a little wider or narrower, but this will get you close.
There’s just one more thing about the grip – use a hook grip.
I know it’s going to make your thumbs “hurt,” but I have 12 year old children using it and not complaining, so I don’t need to hear you whine about it.
Powering Up Your Start Position
Most problems with the snatch, and clean for that matter, happen from the floor to the knee. Screw up early in the lift and you have little chance of making the lift later on.
There are several ways to start moving the bar from the ground, including the static start and multiple versions of a dynamic start.
The rocking start is my variation of choice when it comes to the snatch. It requires greater hip mobility and can be difficult to do, but for athletes that struggle with keeping their chest up as the bar breaks from the ground, this is a perfect way to get the bar moving.
Get to the bar in the normal way (hips back, chest up). Once in the start position, keep the chest up and sink the hips even lower. You’ll end up in a nearly vertical torso position. Once the hips are actually below the bar, let them begin to rise, and as the torso reaches the magic 30-degree angle, the bar breaks with the ground.
Going a little further, you’ll sometimes see this method performed with athletes in a “duck stance,” i.e., their feet and knees will be turned out slightly and their torso should be extremely vertical.
The bar will rise vertically rather than back in this stance. It’s a perfectly acceptable strategy, but keep in mind that athletes still need to have a 30-degree torso angle when the bar passes the knees. A too vertical torso will lead to more problems than casting Vin Diesel in the lead role of Downton Abbey.
How to Power Snatch: The Performance
Drive Through the Heels
At the moment of lift off, the athlete should think “drive through the heels,” but maintain contact with the platform with the entire foot.
The cue, “drive through the heels,” can be misleading if the athlete removes any weight from his toe during the lift off. Using drive through the heels is an effort to ensure that the athlete does not get pulled to his toes while lifting off.
Knees Back, Translate the Torso
The initial lift-off from the floor should be done by extension of the knees. Driving the knees back but lifting the torso is what we’re aiming for. The torso should remain in the same relationship to the ground (30 degrees above horizontal) throughout the first pull.
In this way, we’re looking to translate the position of the torso vertically through space. This will maintain the powerful RDL/hips loaded position above the knee. The knees should continue driving back until almost reaching extension as the bar begins to pass the knee.
There’s one thing to be careful of when athletes are driving their knees back. At no time should the shins go “behind vertical.” At maximum, the shins should be perpendicular to the platform.
Bar Sweeps Back
Up to this point we’ve spoken much about the position and movement of the body in the power snatch. The bar, however, does make a slight movement off the floor back toward the body to maintain the tight lifter-barbell system.
The one exception to this is for athletes that have long legs. In those athletes the knees will be in front of the bar while the bar is at rest on the ground. In these cases it’s nearly impossible to move the bar backwards into the body. The goal remains the same, but as a coach you’ll not see a backwards trajectory of the bar.
Slow off the Floor
A big mistake I see athletes make is jerking the bar from the ground. The first pull should not be a violent movement; rather it should be a smooth movement that may even look slow. A goal of the first pull is to set up the second, more violent pull and a fast first pull will likely inhibit the athlete’s ability to be efficient in the second pull.
A good analogy is the following that I picked up somewhere along the line, but cannot recall well enough to give the proper attribution:
“Imagine a car moving past you at 60 miles per hour. If you were to stand off to the side and try to shove this car to make it move faster you would have a difficult time putting your hands on the back bumper long enough to make it go any faster. Now imagine the same car moving past you at 10 miles per hour. As this car rolls by you will have plenty of time to really put some serious force into the car and make it accelerate.
A bar moving quickly as it passes the knees is like the first car, you will have no ability to accelerate it to speed in the second pull.”
At the Knees
Once the bar is at the knees, several things should be occurring, although this is a difficult place to coach the athlete because the system is already in motion. It is however, a great place to break down video and make adjustments to later lifts.
The feet should be flat so the athlete can transition correctly for the second pull. The hips should still be higher than the knees (very little hip extension has occurred up to this point, any movement being primarily knee extension). The torso should still be roughly 30 degrees above the horizontal. The arms should also remain straight – athletes that have bent their arms by this point will have difficulty with completing the second pull.
Creating the Triangle – The Second Pull
A really important concept that I like to teach my athletes is that once in the above knee position, they’ve created what’s called a “power triangle.” This triangle consists of their entire arm, their torso, and the angle of their hips.
From this point on the only goal, and the only way to make a successful second pull is to flatten, or close the triangle. This is a vivid image that can help any athlete hit the correct positions.
Close the Triangle
Once above the knees, it’s important not to rush the bar just yet. Rushing the bar at this point shows up when the knees begin to slide forward underneath the bar immediately after the bar passes the knees.
This movement does not “close the triangle.” The only way to close the triangle is to begin driving the hips forward to extension. The speed of the bar has begun to increase at this point, but is not at its maximum just yet. The bar will be in a mid-thigh position by this point.
Knees Forward (scoop/double knee bend)
A lot is made about the knee bend during the second pull. Entire articles have been written about just the double knee bend and some would make this post look like small potatoes. The fact is this, in a good snatch, the knee bend occurs to align the body in a position to create vertical movement.
Pure hip extension from the above knee position will create too much horizontal projection and the athlete will jump forward. To counteract this it ‘s necessary to perform the double knee bend (or scoop, or transition) for vertical projection. It’s highly debatable as to whether this fact should be coached, or even mentioned to a novice lifter. This movement is a natural phenomenon that is easily seen in typical jumping mechanics.
Finish the Hips and Knees
Once the bar has reached a high thigh position, and the torso has come to nearly vertical, the hips and knees will both be nearly extended. At this point the athlete should finish driving the hips and knees to extension. Athletes may drive up through the toes in this phase and will achieve FULL extension. This is the highest speed portion of the entire lift.
As I’ve lifted more and more and trained higher level athletes it’s become apparent that plantarflexion of the ankle (sometimes improperly called ankle extension) is not a part of the pull. I, repeat, it is not something to be coached.
At best, ankle plantarflexion is a result of a powerful second pull, or a mechanism of pulling under the bar. At worst, ankle extension makes it difficult for the athlete to get back under the bar as it increases the distance that an athlete must travel to get their heels to the ground and the hips in the right position.
Taking a look at high level lifters, you’ll often see what amounts to a flat footed pull. This flat foot position is a trained efficiency. To coach this position, encourage athletes to complete as much of the lift as possible without extending to the toes. “Heels, heels, heels, toes!” is the common cue used in my gym to coach athletes in the right position and tempo.
Relaxed Arms, Elbows High
After the power spike of the second pull, the bar will have tons of inertial energy and it is important to take advantage of it. Just as a boxer keeps his arms relaxed before throwing a punch, maintaining a relaxed arm is important for maximal speed later. The elbows should remain out and above the bar to guide the bar in a path that’s tight to the body.
Punch the Hands
The arms have stayed relaxed to a great degree up to this point, but once the athlete hits the “high pull” position it’s time to use the arms forcefully. The action of the arms at this phase is best described as punching the hands overhead. The hand punch should result in a receiving position that’s in-line with the spine and over the ears.
When the bar is overhead the athlete should actively press up with their upper traps and try to spread the bar apart. There’s nothing passive about holding weights overhead and this is the most active and “strong” position we can create. Don’t worry much about packed shoulders, worry about not letting the bar land on top of your dome.
A common mistake is receiving the bar too far back or too far forward. Lifts that are received forward are typically missed, but it’s lifts that are received too far back that are the real problem. When received behind the body, imagine an image where the torso and the arms make 2 sides of a triangle. As such, there’s great stress placed on the shoulders. Remember to “punch up, not back.”
Hips Back, Feet Flat
This step will occur simultaneously to punching the hands. Athletes should aim to receive the bar in an athletic position just as they would land from a jump. The useful cue we use is to tell the athletes to think, “toe, heel, hip.”
This means toes to the ground, heels follow, hips go down and away from the bar. The athlete will widen his feet slightly from a hip width/jump width stance to a shoulder width/squat width stance to receive the bar. The athlete should also have very little forward or backward travel at the time they receive the bar.
To get a good handle on the width you need the feet to be at landing, have an athlete do 3 consecutive vertical jumps and stick the last landing. This last jump is the position, width, and knee bend that should occur in a good power snatch.
How the Hell do you Get Down There?
It takes a special athlete to be able to complete a good-looking full (squat) snatch. Many athletes will lack the mobility to get into the correct position to receive the bar. This is the last progression we’ll use when incorporating Olympic lifts into athletes’ programs because of this difficulty.
The world’s most explosive athletes use this technique to complete the snatch in competition, so the upside in terms of potential weight used is great. The full snatch is an even greater total body exercise because of the need for great leg strength to come up from the full overhead squat position.
An easy progression from power snatch to full snatch is the following:
Power snatch + overhead squat. Complete the power snatch and then following the rep, descend into an overhead squat.
Power snatch to overhead squat. Receive a power snatch in the 1Ú2 squat or higher position and then ride the bar down into the bottom of an overhead squat.
Full snatch. Aggressively pull under the bar after completing the 2nd pull.
The best lifters in the world aren’t separated by their ability to pull the bar to higher heights and higher speeds. The true separation point is the speed with which they can move under the bar. This is an important point to consider when coaching the full snatch and full clean.
Ask me about a problem with the snatch and you’ll likely get a common prescription – snatch deadlifts and snatch balances.
Most problems at the receiving position can be solved with the snatch balance. This movement mimics the timing and effort that’s required in the catch of the snatch and teaches you to not be a passive participant in the movement. It’s my panacea of snatch related exercises.
Selecting Loads for the Snatch
For goodness sake, can we start by saying that under no circumstances is 30 consecutive snatches for time ever a good loading strategy? With that out of the way, let’s move on to the right way to load the snatch.
The 100% snatch should be about 78% of your 100% clean and jerk. This percentage increases as the athlete becomes more highly trained. The clean is much more about strength and at some point as strength plateaus, your snatch will begin to catch up to your clean.
The power snatch is typically around 80% of your 100% snatch. Pulls and deadlifts can be based off of the 100% number as well.
For novice lifters, much of their training should be centered around using 50% of their 100% snatch. This weight will allow lifters to learn the motor patterns associated with the movement at a less challenging weight. Advanced lifters will get little out of a 50% snatch for reps, and a much greater portion of lifts will be done at 70-80% of their snatch 1RM.
For lifters of all levels the greatest majority of reps should be performed between 70-85% of the 100% snatch and Prilepin’s table can be used fairly accurately to determine the repetitions and sets necessary at each intensity zone.
Percent Zone Rep Range per Set Total Reps
70-75% 3 to 6 18
80-85% 2 to 4 15
90% 1 to 2 10
I’m a big believer that those learning the snatch should spend more time working with just a bar or up to 50% of their bodyweight than anything else. Every athlete that I work with spends a significant amount of time working with just the bar prior to loading. Spend the time to learn the movement and then have confidence to attack big weights later on.
Wrapping it Up
By no means should you take everything I said in this article and start to add it to your program. Just pick a portion of the lift and start to make it work.
Then move on to the next problem spot and do the same thing until you’ve attained mastery of this magnificent lift.