Learning and Training the Proper Technique for the Barbell Snatch
Contributor - Cycling, Olympic Weightlifting
The snatch lift is one of two competitive movements in the Olympic sport of weightlifting. Originally known as one of the two “quick lifts,” (the other being the clean and jerk) the snatch contrasted the more pure strength lift, the press, which was dropped from competition in 1972.
A skilled weightlifter may generate 2,500 to 5,500 watts of power when performing a snatch. This makes the snatch a favorite exercise for those seeking to develop power to be used in other sports on the playing field or court. Although kettlebells, sandbags, or cables, may be raised overhead in an action labeled snatching, it is only when a barbell is snatched with proper technique as described below that the mechanics of the lift produce the power figures that make this lift popular.1
A lifter starts the snatch by grasping the bar with a fairly wide, overhand grip and then lowering the hips to a safe and effective starting posture that includes a flat back (neutral spine). The legs perform the initial pull, or first pull, via knee extension. The lifter’s torso angle remains approximately the same as the barbell comes from the platform to knee height. The arms are kept straight during this phase.
Elite lifters then engage in what’s called a transition phase in which the lifter quickly repositions to a biomechanically strong posture popularly known as the power position. Strong hamstring and spinal erector muscles are needed in order to raise the barbell past the knees by hip extension. This engagement of the hamstrings causes the stretch-reflex action that flexes the knees and brings the hips close to the bar. Lifters actually make contact with the bar approximately at the level of the crease between the thighs and the hips. The lifter’s feet remain flat, with the arms still straight.
This posture, when successfully achieved, resembles a partial squat, but the bar is obviously in the hands. The lower body then explodes upward, propelling the barbell up as the lifter goes quickly through what is called a triple extension position. This means the ankle, knee, and hip joints are now all fully extended. It’s important to keep the barbell close to the torso throughout this explosive second pull.
Without hesitation, the lifter then exerts force against the weights as he or she pulls down against the barbell. This is the only time the elbows bend, with the still-rising bar kept close to the descending lifter’s torso. Utilizing the efficient spinning action of the Olympic bar, the wrists flip the bar overhead as the lifter lowers into a receiving position. This position might be a partial squat, in which case the lift is called a power snatch. The receiving position could be a low, wide lunge position, in which case this is a split snatch. Finally, the form of snatching performed by nearly all elite lifters, the squat snatch involves catching the bar at arms’ length overhead while the lifter is in a full squat position.
Regardless of the receiving position used, the lifter steadies his or her balance and recovers to a full standing position. In competition, the signal is given to lower the bar once the lifter and weights are stable. In training, lifters return the weights to the platform and execute any further repetitions called for in the training program.
It takes less than one second for an experienced lifter to snatch a heavy barbell to arms’ length overhead. Watching a snatch performed by an elite lifter leads many a neophyte to imagine the weights are swung overhead. In fact, the bar is kept very close to the body throughout the pull. Trajectory tracings of world records show only minimal horizontal displacement of the barbell.
First Things First
Especially in light of the recent publicized injury resulting from the loss of a snatch from overhead, it is crucial that beginners experience how to safely drop a missed snatch. Once it’s determined that a lifter can successfully hit a squat snatch overhead position (an overhead squat with an empty bar), then the lifter should rehearse dropping the bar both in front and behind.
The easiest and most effective dropping practice is to keep the arms straight, thus keeping the bar as far from the body as possible. In front, it’s simply a matter of guiding the bar back to the platform. When losing a snatch behind, keeping the arms straight and performing a “dislocate” action of the shoulders while the jumping forward creates a safe distance from the falling weights.
Practice this repeatedly so that safely dropping a barbell back to the platform becomes an automatic response.
Learning to Snatch
The snatch is most easily taught in segments, starting at the top and working downward. Ideally, this is done with the barbell located on special pulling blocks. Minus blocks, the lift can be taught from the hang position, a term applied to any position when the bar is not on the platform. This method is thoroughly covered in the USA Weightlifting Level I (Sports Performance Coach) course.2 A brief overview follows.
First, learning the explosive second pull from the power position keeps a beginner’s focus on this simple muscular action executed at maximum speed. With blocks, no fatigue of grip or postural muscles occurs between reps. The primary emphasis here is on explosively triple-extending the lower body, keeping the bar close to the torso, and actively pulling yourself under the rising barbell.
The next step is the most difficult, and it involves lowering the bar to just below the knees. From here the lifter works through the transition stage, returning to the power position. Then the lift continues as previously practiced. A novice can learn this sequence in a one-two step process, but it’s crucial to realize that the eventual execution of the snatch cannot have any hesitation. With repeated practice (and this may take several weeks to master), the snatch from below the knees should be executed as maximum speed.
Finally, the barbell is placed on the platform. Now the lifter practices the first pull, i.e. lifting the bar to knee height, pausing for a second or two, then slowly returning to the platform. Once the lift-off is mastered the lifter can segmentally do a one-two-three sequence of first pull, power position, execution.
Beyond the initial learning stages a lifter should never execute the snatch in segments. It’s important to work on the full movement from the platform as soon as the sequencing becomes somewhat automatic.
Training the Snatch
Experienced lifters usually perform the snatch in repetition schemes no greater than three. For a novice, using a light weight and drilling technique only, up to five reps can be employed. From a weightlifting point of view it makes no sense to perform more than five reps. Doing so leads to a reduction in power exhibited, improves the odds of technique breakdown, and increases the chance of injury.
The snatch is a challenging, yet rewarding, lift to master. But, it does take time to learn the proper technique. Nothing can replace proper instruction from a qualified coach.
1. Ross, et al., "Snatch Trajectory of Elite Girevoy (Kettlebell) Sport Athletes and Its Implication to Strength and Conditioning Coaching." International Journal of Sports Science and Coaching, United Kingdom. Currently in review.
2. USA Weightlifting “Level 1 Sports Performance Coaching Course Manual." January 2010, pp. 31-35.
Photo 1 courtesy of Becca Borawski Jenkins.
Photos 2 & 3 courtesy of CrossFit Impulse.
Photo 4 courtesy of Andrew Lockey.