The Split Style Isn’t Dead

The split style died with weightlifters decades ago but it appears that its funeral was a bit premature.

In the early days of competitive weightlifting (think of the Gay Nineties and France’s Belle Epoch) weightlifting technique was very rudimentary. Since the lifts were not yet standardized there was little incentive to perfect technique. If a weight (often a fixed weight globe barbell) had to be lifted to the chest it would usually be continental pulled by those of the Germanic nations or cleaned in what could be called a “splot” style (part split, part squat) by most everyone else. Both styles were quite awkward looking.

After 1900 the more aesthetically minded French developed the “clean” style of pulling where, starting with a shoulder width stance, the barbell was pulled upwards while one foot was driven out front while the other was sent out the back. No contact with the legs or upper body was allowed (hence “clean”). This “split” technique was very stable fore and aft but could be precarious laterally.

The Germans and Austrians lost the First World War and due to still-raw post-war feelings their continental pull was abolished for competition. At the same time the lifts were then standardized around cleans and snatches, and have remained so ever since. The French saw to it that splitting thus became the standard way to pull for the next half-century.

Over time the German speaking lifters got their revenge by developing the new squat style. They might have developed it further but once again they had trouble with their neighbours which would end their long hegemony in the sport. After that war it remained for the Americans to discover the full potentialities of the style.

Although Bill Good and bodybuilding legend John Grimek had used it in the 1930s to great effect it was not until the late 1940s that things really began to change. That was when a humble man named Larry Barnholth of Akron, OH would rationalize the style and make it stable enough to gain converts.

His star pupil was one Pete George who would win six world titles. This ensured that the squat would pick up steam through the 1950s. For nearly two decades splitters and squatters co-existed, each claiming the superiority of their style. But each year saw the ratio moving more in the squatters’ favor as its superiority was eventually recognized.

By 1970 splitters were all but extinct. Only a few old timers remained. Only Waldemar Baszanowski still held world records in that style while his contemporaries converted to the squat. Meanwhile virtually all new lifters were taught to squat from day one. I think I saw exactly one lifter using the split at the 2015 World Championships. It appeared to in rigor. However, just at a time when the style was considered dead it started to do a Lazarus-like act, returning to some existence if not real prominence. This was caused by two developments.

Masters Lifting

This first was Masters-age weightlifting which picked up steam after the 1980s. Many older lifters, long retired, picked up the sport again in order to relive their lifting days and to regain the shape they had then. Some were old enough that the split was all they ever used in their pulls. For them it was simply a matter of relearning their old technique.

Others may have squatted in their primes but found that their joint flexibility was not what it used to be. Some of these resorted to power snatches and power cleans when they could no longer hit the low positions. The rest decided that a switch to the split might be in order especially if they could squeeze out a bit more poundage that way.

Masters lifters have their own competitions but they also frequently enter open-age events as well. As such splitters are once again a more common sight in meets, so much so that younger referees have to be taught about the “no knee-touch” rule.

This rebirth of splitters has not usually been accompanied by improved split technique. This is because few of these new splitters are elite lifters. They thus have little real incentive to improve their form. Overhead positions in the squat style require good flexibility. Splitting is friendlier to those older lifters without this ability. Since their splits are a compromise between that style or not lifting at all, they are happy even if they split imperfectly.

Things are different down below though. In order to do a full split, full enough to get as low as a squatter, one has to have excellent ankle, knee and hip mobility, adductor looseness, foot displacement speed, plus the stability to get to that position and recover with heavy weights. Few non-elite lifters of that era could actually get as low as the champs then.

They only split because their squatting ability was even worse. It was possible to do a high, bad split with poor mobility but it was impossible to do any squat lift without loose shoulders. So a lot of tight-jointed lifters had to be content with lower performances.

In summing up it is easier for most athletes to do a workable high split than a good full squat but if you want perfection then it is the split that is probably more difficult.

CrossFit and Sport Training

This brings us to the second reason the split is reappearing. As mentioned above perfecting this technique does require great athletic qualities. With the rise in popularity in CrossFit and Olympic lifting derived exercises in general sport training many coaches have learned to appreciate it virtues. Why then should their athletes use the split style?

  1. Its lesser demand for shoulder mobility allows less-flexible athletes to train and benefit from snatches.
  2. Its greater hip flexibility demands develops strength and flexibility there.
  3. Improves lunging strength and stability for athletes who need to perform this action such as hockey, tennis, fencing, speed skaters, and so on.
  4. This all develops foot speed, foot positioning, timing, body coordination, and lateral balance.
  5. Since splitting takes more time it then requires a higher and/or faster pull. This is not a good situation for weightlifters but is ideal for many other athletes who need to develop these qualities.

Disadvantages of the Split

There are some disadvantages to splitting, mostly to weightlifters. The extra time and pulling height so desired by some athletes is not wanted by lifters. In addition:

  1. There is often more unconscious “arm pulling” by splitters as they think about clearing the knees on the way up.
  2. Since such arm-pulling is less efficient this often ends with insufficient height on the pull which in turn leads to pressing-outs the bar, which is not allowed.
  3. Lifters anticipate the coming split so they tend to pull on one leg, sending their rear leg back too soon. This results not only in lost power but having the barbell move somewhat sideways.
  4. When splitting the feet there is tendency to place the feet on the same fore-aft line (tight-roping) instead of moving each one straight forward/backward.
  5. Climbing out of the split can be arduous if the lifter is not properly positioned. It is easy to lose a good lift by catching the bar off balance.

There are a number of other things to consider. The most obvious is the peculiar strength considerations of a splitter, namely what additional exercises are needed. There are some splitters that may think they can jettison their squat program. Not true. Squats are still a valuable exercise for all trainees, but those who do split snatches and cleans should also do lunges. This is needed for strength, flexibility, as well as even development.

Lunges are essentially single leg squats. They can be done with both feet on the floor or with the so-called Bulgarian method where the rear leg is rested on a bench or chair so that the front leg is isolated more. Needless to say, one should lunge with both legs, not just the one you always send forward. Do one set with the left leg forward, then one with the right, then back to left. This will ensure even development.

Which Leg?

What leg should go forward in a split lift? The dominant leg? The other leg? This is not as easy to answer as assumed since different people will assume a different leg. At this point it is helpful to realize that about 90 percent of the world is right-handed.

Most of those are also right-footed but not all are by any means. Such people, referred to as “cross-dominant” might write with their right hand but kick a soccer ball with their left foot. This is common in soccer, especially as they have to learn to kick with both feet.

Weightlifters it appears also have some cross-dominants. I had noticed that most lifters do indeed throw the non-dominant foot forward. This may be because we exert control with the back foot more while the front foot is more passively involved after it lands. However, not all do by any means.

I am one myself. I put my left forward the first time I ever jerked and I never saw a need to change. I thus assumed that this was the norm for right-handers. The left leg thus serves a non-dominant duty in stabilizing the jerk while the right leg is involved in the more precision adjustment duties of the dominant side. This made sense to me at the time. However, I have now made a cursory analysis of my extensive collection of weightlifting pictures.

Most jerkers are indeed sending their left leg forward, but by nowhere near a 9:1 margin. This indicates that either there are a lot more left handed lifters than normal (unlikely) or that there are a lot of cross-dominant lifters out there. The latter seems to be the case although it appears not to be directly related to native leg dominance. Many lifters have tried it both ways and find they prefer one or the other, and that’s that. Some change later while others are forced to change when injured, without ill effects.

This choice is decided via empirical testing. New lifters will make several trials splitting each way and will finally choose the one most comfortable. Some coaches will do the push test. They push the lifter forward. The startled lifter will then instinctively throw out one leg or the other to regain control. Whichever leg they throw out, that’s the one they will throw forward in the jerk.

Hints for the Split Style

Be sure to move both legs. Many novices tend to pull on one leg and only move the rear leg, and not the forward leg. This results in a too-narrow split, poor balance, and increased injury risk.

The splitting of the legs after the pull must happen extremely fast in order to successfully perform a split snatch or a split clean.

The receiving position is as follows:

  • Front leg – The ankle is dorsiflexed while the knee is well forward of the toes and foot flat on the platform.
  • Real leg – The foot is balanced on the toes while the knee is nearly straight while not touching the platform
  • Torso – Upper body is fully perpendicular to the platform
  • Hips – The hips are below the level of the forward knee
  • Barbell – Straight overhead in snatch, not in dislocate position. No difference in clean.

As in the jerk it’s advised that the forward foot travel about 1.5 times the length of the foot. However, in the snatch or the clean the split will be deeper, so the feet will end up farther apart.

Skim the platform while moving the feet. Do not slam the front foot.

Recovery is identical to that recommended for the split jerk, namely, push up and back first with the front leg. Shuffle the front foot rearward up to half the split distance. Then either take another partial step backward or bring the rear foot forward. In this manner the bar remains in essentially the same vertical plane, thus avoiding any horizontal movement.

The above apply generally to CrossFitters and general trainees as well as weightlifters, with the exception that they may not need to split as low as the lifters. This is especially true if flexibility and adductor strength is not so important.

The split style died with weightlifters decades ago but it appears that its funeral was a bit premature. There is value in all things, even one that may seem antiquated to today’s observers.

Why not get back to the gym and give it a look.