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Only the Strong Shall Survive: New Gains

The snatch has value to all athletes because it involves so many of the large muscles in a very dynamic fashion.

If you’re interested in learning how to perform a full squat snatch, you must be able to do power snatches and overhead squats. I covered those movements in the January ’02 installment of this series. If you have the flexibility to do them, you can snatch.

I realize that many weight trainees have no desire to do this complicated lift, especially older trainees. This discussion is really aimed at high school and collegiate athletes and those who coach youngsters. It’s much easier for young athletes to learn how to snatch than it is for older ones simply because of the flexibility factor. Younger athletes can derive many benefits from doing the snatch. It improves strength, and it also enhances timing, foot speed, coordination and balance.

The snatch has value to all athletes because it involves so many of the large muscles in a very dynamic fashion. In fact, every muscle of the body is activated during a full snatch, even the smaller ones such as the biceps and calves. It’s a high-skill movement that’s even more complicated than the full clean, which means that you must concentrate on every single rep, paying close attention to several critical factors. That intense focusing makes the nervous system function more than it does when you perform a static exercise. Learning to do a full snatch with a maximum poundage helps teach you to trigger the technical keys instantly, which has a great carryover effect for all other athletic endeavors.

A snatch, by definition, is a lift on which you pull the bar from the floor overhead to a locked-arms position in one continuous move. There’s no stopping the bar on the way up and no pressing out the weight at the finish. So the power snatch is a legal lift. In order to elevate more weight, however, it’s better to pull the bar high, then squat under it and at the same time lock it out. That means you can pull the bar to your chest and still complete the lift, rather than having to pull it up over your head. There are two ways to do a full snatch, with a squat and with a split. To keep the discussion simple, I’ll focus on the squat form.

What makes a full snatch so difficult to master is the quick transference of mental keys from pulling the bar upward in a precise, powerful line to jumping downward and placing your feet in a solid position while solidly locking out the bar. Your body mechanics have to be correct throughout the movement. The only other sport that’s comparable in terms of concentration, in my opinion, is the pole vault, where you have to shift instantly from running full speed horizontally to erupting vertically.

Snatches benefit performance in sports from tennis to basketball, but I’ve found them particularly useful for throwers in track and field. Learning how to do a full snatch helps them propel the shot, discus, hammer or javelin farther and with a more aggressive final snap. It also improves foot speed, coordination and balance.

Assuming that you’ve been doing overhead squats and power snatches long enough to feel comfortable with both movements, you’re ready to move to the next step in learning to do a full snatch.

In my discussion of the full clean [Only the Strong Shall Survive, November ’01] I recommended using the three-step exercise I call the drill. It’s simple but very effective, and it came from the inventive mind of Morris Weissbrot, who coached at the Lost Battalion Weightlifting Club in New York City.

The three-step exercise is the same for the snatch as it was for the full clean. It takes a bit of time to learn the drill’just as it takes time to learn any high-skill athletic movement’and you have to be patient. Even after you have the sequence down pat, you’re going to have good days and days when you resemble a cow on ice skates. That’s just a part of the deal, and no one has yet figured out a way to avoid it.

The first step of the drill teaches you to pull long and hard at the top, the second teaches you to move fast to the bottom, and the third teaches you how it feels to do a full snatch. Since the drill is an athletic exercise, be sure to warm up well and take time to stretch out your shoulders. I have my lifters do a lower-back and ab exercise, then spend a few moments with a stick or towel, loosening their shoulders while doing overhead squats. I recommend using the hook grip for the drill and eventually for the full snatches. Never use straps on the drill. You want to be able to release the bar quickly and easily in the event it gets away from you. That will happen many times, trust me. Learn how to hook. It’s only uncomfortable for a few weeks.

The first step is to combine the two exercises you’ve been practicing: a power snatch followed by an overhead squat. Since your foot positions for the pull and the squat are going to be different, you’ll need to learn to skip-step at the top of the power snatch. At the start of the pull your feet are at shoulder width with toes pointed straight ahead. At the finish they skip out and your toes turn outward as well. You need the slightly wider foot stance to enable you to do an overhead squat. How much you skip outward depends to a great extent on your flexibility and body type. It will take some trial and error to find the best placement for your feet.

From the very beginning learn how to slam your feet to the platform. That helps you establish a solid foundation, which will be essential when you’re ready to hoist the heavier weights. Also, learn to plant your feet forcefully in the exact same spot every time, which is perhaps the most difficult part of learning how to snatch.

When using lighter weights, sit in the bottom of the overhead-squat position for a few seconds and think about controlling the bar. Now recover. Don’t lower the bar to the platform, only to your waist. Now you’re ready for the second step, the hang snatch. Take a moment to reset your feet so they’re in a strong pulling position. Make sure your back is flat and your front deltoids are slightly ahead of the bar.

When performing a hang snatch, you must use the exact same line of pull you use for a power snatch. Many lean back and rest the bar on their thighs, bend their knees excessively and try to flip the bar upward with their arms. That technique isn’t useful because it’s not the way you pull for a snatch. You want to bend your knees, but not much, then rotate at the hips and lower the bar to just below your knees. Your body mechanics should be identical to what they are when you pull a weight from the floor.

Pull the bar and go right into the deep, bottom position, locking it out at the same time. You do the move in the blink of an eye. This second step is the most difficult; it’s also the most beneficial. Once you master the hang snatch, full snatches are a piece of cake.

Since the pull for the hang snatch is much shorter than a pull from the floor, you have to refine all the form points. Set your arms straight at the start and stay that way until the bar passes your navel, keeping the bar tight to your body, with your elbows up, not back. At the finish of the pull you should be high on your toes, with your body perfectly erect and the bar tucked tightly next to your chest. From that powerful, extended position explode down into a full squat, locking the bar out simultaneously.

Does it sound difficult? Well, it should’because it is. But that’s the very reason I loved doing snatches and hang snatches. They’re a great challenge. Hell, anyone can bench or deadlift, but the work required to master this lift is so great, it separates the athletes from those who just want to build showy muscles. Again, let me stress the importance of patience when you decide to try the two Olympic lifts.

There are two mistakes nearly all beginners make on the hang-snatch phase of the drill. They fail to complete the pull, usually because they’re thinking ahead of jumping into the full squat. When the bar isn’t pulled high enough, there just isn’t time to get into the full squat. The other error is that they don’t go to the bottom, instead catching the bar high, in a half-squat position. That’s often a result of not pulling high enough as well. When it happens, don’t stand right up with the bar but instead go down into the full squat and stay there for a few seconds. Eventually, you’ll be able to make the mental transfer from the short pull to driving into the hole.

Stand up with the bar, then place it back on the platform. Take time to reset your feet, flatten your back and be sure your front delts are in front of the bar. You’re ready for the third step, the full snatch. In most cases it’s the easiest of all because you have the advantage of pulling off the floor, so you can gain some momentum for the finish. Until you’ve mastered the technique of the full snatch, you should start the bar off the platform in a deliberate fashion, rather than fast. That helps you feel the various stages of the movement better. Then the bar picks up speed, like a whip. At the finish you should be high on your toes, then explode to the bottom, slamming your feet into the platform as you lock the bar out overhead. Sit solidly in the deep squat, recover and put the bar back on the platform.

Trainees make the same two form mistakes on this third rep as they do on the second; not completing the pull and not going into the deep bottom. To help finish the pull, think in terms of throwing the bar high in the air.

A strong, snappy finish is critical to performing a snatch with any amount of weight. The finish must be dynamic to give you time to move to the bottom, and your body must be erect so all you have to do is drop straight down. If you don’t finish the pull and are leaning when you go into the hole, you’ll be leaning when you land and won’t be able to hold the weight overhead. It will simply fall forward. Extension is very important, so try to perform the finish correctly from the beginning.

I mentioned the importance of moving your feet quickly and placing them in the exact same place on the platform every time. For some trainees, however, that becomes such a negative factor that they can’t pay attention to any of the other form points. When that happens, I have them start their pulls with a wider-than-normal foot stance’wide enough that they don’t have to move their feet at the conclusion of the pull. They still extend high on their toes and explode downward, but it’s no longer necessary for them to move their feet, which enables them to do the drill much easier. You need to give the drill priority. You should do it early in the week, on Monday or Tuesday, when you have more energy. Do it first in your routine. How many sets should you do? That depends on your condition on a given day. As a rule, a series of six sets works well. In most instances, however, I don’t predetermine the number; I observe the lifters and when they show signs of fatigue, I have them stop. The drill isn’t a pure strength-building exercise; it’s a three-part movement for developing better technique. If trainees are tired and their form is sloppy, all they’ll do is pick up bad habits, so it’s better for them to switch to a more static strength movement.

After stretching and warming up, start the drill with a light weight and make small increases’no big jumps. It’s better to succeed with all three reps with a moderate poundage than it is to miss with a heavier one. Quite often, a slightly heavier weight makes the drill easier to do. You’ll soon find a weight that makes you work hard but is not too heavy for you to get all three reps.

If you’re using the drill strictly as a conditioning exercise’and it’s an excellent one’you can take short breaks between sets. If, however, you’re using it to help you perfect your snatch technique, take ample rest breaks. The drill requires a high degree of timing, coordination, balance and foot speed, so you want to be rested for each set.

Follow the drill with some snatch high pulls, three or four sets of triples. Since you no longer have to think about moving under the bar or exploding down to the platform, you can really concentrate on pulling the bar high and in the precise line. You should do your final set of high pulls with 75 more pounds than you used for the drill, and eventually you should move up to 100 pounds more. When doing these, really think about keeping the bar extremely close to your body and extending it upward with your traps. Snatch high pulls are ideal for overloading the muscles used in the snatch, and the benefits will carry over to the drill instantly.

Overhead squats fit nicely behind the high pulls. Since you’ve already done a few during the drill, all the muscles and attachments are warmed up. Do your first set with the same weight you ended the drill with and proceed from there to do five or six sets of three.

When the final rep in the drill starts falling into place perfectly and you feel confident with your form, replace the drill with a session of full snatches. Do them in threes for six sets. Again, however, if your form starts getting sloppy, stop and move on to another exercise. Some of my athletes like to do full snatches once a week and the drill on another day. Others use the drill for three or four sets as a warmup, then proceed to a session of full snatches. The drill is also useful as a warmup at weightlifting meets.

That brings me to my final point. If you discover that you can do a full snatch, even if it’s with only adequate form, enter an Olympic weightlifting meet. Don’t wait until you feel as if you’re ready’no one ever believes he or she is ready in the beginning. Find a contest, go to it and compete. It doesn’t matter how well you do. Getting started is the important point. Once you catch the bug’and you will if you compete’you can go as far up the ladder as you want. It’s simply a matter of discipline and dedication.

Next month I’ll discuss how to fit the quick lifts into a functional strength routine. IM

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