The Kettlebell Snatch: A Simple Tool for Complex Benefits
It's been thirteen years since I did my first RKC (Russian Kettlebell Certification). I wasn’t completely sold on the idea of kettlebells at first, mostly because I was looking at the individual exercises and not the system of movement that was created around this single, simple implement. What made me come around on kettlebells wasn’t an Eastern European secret, or a nostalgic tie to old strongmen. It was simply how kettlebells made great functional training more accessible and helped me create better training solutions.
Over time, I developed a strong affinity for some specific kettlebell drills. While many were falling in love with the swing, I couldn’t find anything better than the kettlebell snatch. Below I'll discuss the utility of the snatch, and how to build a strong foundation for performing this movement.
The Kettlebell Snatch as a Movement Screen
Corrective exercise is a hot topic, and exercises like the kettlebell snatch provide a ton of feedback on your movement capability and where some of your needs lie. Novices may not necessarily jump right into kettlebell snatches; however, if you have been training for a while and want to know why certain movements and workouts aren’t working for you, the kettlebell snatch can be a useful tool. It can tell you a lot about these areas:
Core Stability: At the beginning and the end of the kettlebell snatch are two important plank positions. People often forget this concept and lose control of their core. Properly establishing a good beginning and end are essentials in successfully performing the snatch.
Overhead Mobility: People with poor thoracic mobility continue to try to knock out overhead movements, and then blame the exercises for bothering their shoulders. The overhead position of the kettlebell snatch is both an extended plank and shoulder mobility screen; you should be able to attain the position in the video below.
Core Strength: Most times, we think of core strength as the ability to perform planks and resist forces forward and backward. But in the kettlebell snatch, we have forces trying to rotate us. The kettlebell snatch is a great 3-D core exercise and we have to not just watch movement forward and backwards, but side to side and in rotation as well.
- Hip Hinge: A well-executed kettlebell snatch looks effortless even though great power is being exerted. This is achieved from the proper execution of the hip hinge. The correct movement pattern allows you to use the glutes and hamstrings to create power, and avoid placing the emphasis on your quads, back, and arms.
The Swing vs. the Snatch
Swings and snatches have long been connected in the new kettlebell world; however, there are some distinct differences. Let’s examine how swings and snatches impact one another and if you should be using one to help the other.
When learning how to do a proper snatch, many people are taught that “a snatch is a swing that ends up overhead.” While this sounds simple, becoming successful with snatches requires you to get you out of the idea of a swing. Even though both use a strong hip hinge to produce the movement, the swing has more of a horizontal component than vertical path of the snatch.
In the snatch, the weight must go up, rather than out. This mistake of letting the bell swing out causes issues such as the infamous smack on the wrist, or pulling the lifter backward as they try to catch the top of the snatch. Kettlebell expert Joe Chalakee discusses the difference:
“The swing is an arcing motion, the bell goes back between your legs with arms straight and, for simplicity, the bell swings to chest height. The path is an arc or curving motion. A snatch is what I refer to as a vertical pull. The bell is going as close to parallel to the body stopping with one's arm locked out over head in one uninterrupted movement."
Here are some points to remember when transitioning from the swing to the snatch:
- As in the swing, the movement starts by hiking the bell back between the legs.
- As it comes out, pull the bell up vertically with your arm close and parallel to the body. The pull is from the elbow, meaning you lead the bell up with the elbow.
- Finish with the arm locked out over head.
- To bring the bell down for the top, it's not a toss and catch into a swing. It's a fast pull down of the bell from the locked out position. The pull down starts with the elbow.
- Don't worry about the bell, it will fall over on its own. Just lead it to the back swing. The bell will feel "lighter" than its actual weight and easy to control.
Build a Foundation for Snatching
Like any exercise program, you need to build a foundation. A strong base for kettlebell snatches requires both using other exercises to teach the qualities of a snatch, and introducing the kettlebell snatch wisely into your training so you don’t experience shoulder discomfort from overzealous training.
The best way to build your kettlebell snatch is not snatching over and over again. Instead, you can build skills and train by using exercises that teach components of the movement. Starting your training by snatching it is like a running a marathon before you jog a mile.
Kettlebell Clean and Press
Besides the snatch, the clean and press is my favorite kettlebell drill. The clean will teach you how to build an explosive hip hinge while moving the weight in an upward motion, which will translate to the snatch. The clean also teaches you how to graduate force. Instead of trying to snatch by using all of your might to lift the weight, the clean will help you find the right amount of force. The trick is to find a weight that will make you want to use your lower body to lift it, not your arms.
The snatch and the swing create long lever arms on the body, which can potentially cause problems in your low back and shoulder. Learning how to properly absorb force with a shorter lever arm, as in the clean, can provide a safer method to identify problems and teach better movement habits.
Need a kettlebell clean tutorial?
Understanding how to press a kettlebell overhead can go a long way in making the snatch more successful. Catching a big weight overhead can be intimidating, which often results in the loss of proper positioning and posture. Learning how feel confident and stable while holding weight overhead is of paramount importance.
The overhead press also teaches two important concepts. First is idea that you aren’t trying to lift the weight with your arm, as much as apply force into the ground. When you master that concept, you tend to avoid “yanking” the weight. Second, you learn how to brace and use your upper back to absorb the force instead of the low back and shoulder. You shouldn’t feel your shoulder on a properly-executed snatch.
Body Saw and Tactical Lunge
The body saw teaches correct core bracing through the creation of tension and linkage through your extremities. This is a key skill to learn in performing ballistic kettlebell drills with maximal efficiency. The body saw also teaches you how to use your lats. This is a powerful tool for improving performance.
At first glance, the tactical lunge doesn't seem very relevant to learning the snatch. But since the snatch is a hip hinge, you need hip mobility. Lunging of any kind can help you identify issues with hip mobility as well as improve it at the same time. Hip hinging also requires glute and hamstring activation, and the reverse lunge helps you quickly identify if you are using these muscles or lifting with your low back.
The fun part of the tactical lunge comes in when you start passing the kettlebell through your legs. Adding in the pass challenges your hip and core stability, as well as your power production and posture. This simple-looking drill will identify movement imbalances and an inability to create stability and power at the same time.
Kettlebell Snatch Skill Drills
The exercises above will help you develop the strength and stability foundation for snatching. But there are some very important skill specifics to consider as well.
In the video below, we show the problem with a snatch that is too much like a swing. Coach Chalakee then describes a great cue that teaches the proper motion and positioning of the kettlebell snatch. Finally, we show how you can use a high pull as an iterative step toward the full motion of the snatch.
A Simple Tool for Complex Benefits
The beauty of the kettlebell snatch is that it is attainable for anyone. As Pavel Tstsouline once wrote, “kettlebells are the working man’s Olympic lifting.” That doesn’t mean that it isn’t sophisticated or challenging, or doesn't require proper technique. Rather, you don’t need to commit expensive equipment, tons of space, or decades of practice to experience the benefits.
Kettlebell snatches can provide far more than the conditioning tool that many relegate them to. Nailing the technique and building efficiency will allow you to take advantage of the unique attributes and advantages of the kettlebell snatch.
Ready to double the fun? Try some double kettlebell snatches: