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It’s not uncommon, especially in beginning lifters or lifters transferring to weightlifting after competing in other sports, to have difficulty getting under the bar while completing full snatches and cleans. After spending a relatively short amount of time with these athletes, it can be fairly easy to decipher if the problem in derived from a lack of confidence or a technical inefficiency. Regardless of its origin, the following will list a few tips to help athletes with this problem.
1. Increase Squats (Front Squat and Overhead Squat)
I’ve had numerous athletes graduate after playing four years of collegiate sports in addition to CrossFit® athletes come to me and ask for advice on how to improve their Olympic lifting. Many come to me saying that they seem to be “stuck” at the same weights. My first question is always, “What is your best front squat?” and secondly, “What can you overhead squat? “ I don’t ask to be degrading, but instead, because often times the weight they are attempting to snatch or clean is within 5-10 pounds of their maximum in the correlating strength lift.
It can become somewhat dangerous because the athlete may not have the general strength required to complete the lift they are attempting. This can put them in a bad position to catch these weights, but also puts the joints in danger of taking on more force than it’s ready for. In addition, it can also give the athlete a lack of confidence while attempting heavier loads. I think these athletes may consciously or unconsciously know the squat will be a struggle, so they attempt to pull the bar higher or shift wider rather than meet and rack the bar at its highest point and decelerate it into the bottom position.
My recommendation for these athletes is simply to focus on improving their front squat and overhead squat. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they need to one rep max these movements, but just increase the frequency of these lifts. Often times, beginners come from another sport where they used different variations of the power snatch and power clean, but very little or none in the full lifts. Additionally, most of them rarely (if ever) used the front squat and overhead squat in their programs.
Some CrossFit athletes that I have worked with are in similar situations, because they are attempting to master so many different movements that they overlook the need to improve general strength, and this is often a simple fix for them. Adding the front squat and overhead squat into their program consistently not only gives them the confidence in those “finishing” positions, but also improves the body’s ability to recognize and accept those positions as they transition into using the full lifts. Also, the act of just completing these movements gives the athlete a natural stretch and improves the mobility needed for them.
You can add these exercises from the rack or be creative with them in a complex. If you have power snatches or cleans, add a squat to the end of each rep to continue enforcing those positions and adding volume to the squat movements.
2. Using the Arms Correctly
Once I have addressed or ruled out general strength issues, I will look at how the athlete attempts maximum or near maximum lifts. Often times you can do this by watching previous videoed attempts without the need for them to max out. In many cases, the athlete is attempting to use the arms to pull the bar higher, rather than to pull themselves under the bar. After a certain weight, it is impossible for the athlete to pull the bar any higher so they have two options; shift twice as wide as their squat stance, or pull themselves under and meet the bar at its highest point.
The second of those options obviously being what we are striving to create. Catalyst athletics has an awesome video sequence showing Greg move from warm up attempts to heavier attempts and how he meets each bar and racks it to his shoulders at its highest point and then decelerates from the catch into the bottom position.
As the weight increases, he can’t pull the bar as high so he racks from a lower position. The idea being to pull yourself to the bar to meet it smoothly without a crash.
I personally like tall snatches and tall cleans (also called snatch and clean pull under) as a warm-up drill to teach athletes how to feel this. The exercise can be performed by the lifter starting from flat feet with the bar at the hips or while the athlete mimics triple extension and then transitions into the full catch. It is performed with relatively light weights but it great to teach timing and the sequencing of pulling themselves under the bar.
My husband, Jason, uses the simple technique of making the athlete squat the weight regardless of where they catch it (with light weights only so don’t freak out). If they have the habit of over-shifting and are forced to squat from that position, it becomes quite uncomfortable and they learn quickly to shift correctly to their squat stance and then squat, eventually learning to make the transition smoothly.
3. Correct Second Pull
In addition to using the arms incorrectly, another technical issue that will cause a poor pull under the bar is an unfinished or mistimed second pull. If the athlete doesn’t reach full extension before transitioning under the bar and “bangs” the bar off the hips instead, it can cause a looping motion and the inability for the athlete to pull themselves straight down. This could also result in the crashing catch of the clean rather than a gracefully high rack and deceleration.
Watch for the source of the problem, not just the end result to determine where the problem originates. It is not uncommon for the final result to be easily noticeable and addressed, but the actual cause to be from something earlier in the lift. A poor second pull can be the result of many things including weak hamstrings and low back, or even mistiming while passing the knees. These can be addressed by doing full lifts from the hang position at the knee or lower.
4. Hand Placement and Mobility
This may just be my opinion, but I feel like finding your grip based on where the bar is in relation to the hip is less important than the comfort of the bar in the overhead position and rack position. The athlete never wants to bang the bar into the hip anyways so I would rather them start with the idea that the power is generated by the violent extension of the legs and hips while pulling the bar to meet the hip, not by taking the hips into the bar. This being said, my goal is comfort and confidence in the finishing positions so I like to start there.
If the athlete has discomfort or mobility issues while catching the snatch or clean, those should always be addressed first. I always try first to move the hand placement into a position that allows the athlete to rack the bar appropriately, but if this doesn’t benefit them in the long run, you will need to address the flexibility issues hindering the preferred placement. There are a variety of stretches to address wrist flexibility for the clean and this article gives you some ideas to address the overhead squat.
Regardless of the reason, having the confidence, strength, technique, and flexibility to pull under the bar correctly will greatly increase the maximum loads an athlete can handle in the Olympic lifts so addressing these issues is a must in our sport. Take the time to determine what the problem might be and also give yourself the appropriate time to make those adjustments. Spend your training handling only the weights you can move correctly and slowly build over time. It’s much easier to learn it correctly the first time than to correct bad habits.
This piece is an op-ed. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of USA Weightlifting