Friday, September 9, 2016

Git yerself some snatch, Bro! (or sis, ‘cuz stick figures are back!)

I get it, your poor snatch technique keeps you awake at night. I can sympathize, as I also had a truly abysmal form when snatching when I started back lifting, and still today I have difficulties to snatch above 90% of my bodyweight (as anybody knows, snatching what you weight is the bare minimum to be considered a semi decent human being in that area). So it can be argued that I’m one of the less qualified persons on earth to give anybody any kind of instruction on how to properly do the damn thing. Regardless of what I’m going to devote this post to expunge, in as fastidious a detail as I can, how to snatch. Why? Because if my patient readers are heartily encouraged to go find more reputable sources to learn, I myself want to put down how much I do understand, and to what extent I know what I am doing and how to progress to get better at it. And I do that by writing and drawing and reflecting (and then I publish it and find out what other people have to say).

Let’s start with the most basic question: do I really have to snatch? It is a darn complex movement, requiring an outstanding amount of speed, power, flexibility and coordination just to be completed with the friggin’ empty bar for a single rep. Which, of course, does zilch, zero, nada, for your strength, endurance or muscular hypertrophy. It won’t help you burn many calories (there are a gazillion ways to do that more effectively), thus if your goal is to get “jacked”, “ripped”, or to “look good naked” there are so many more effective ways of accomplishing it that it would take a whole super-wordy post just to enumerate them. But even then, the answer to the original question is still “yes”. There is no way around it, doesn’t matter what your damned goals are: regardless of your age, condition, gender, sexual orientation, religious outlook or philosophical stance, nobody can consider himself (or herself) a half complete exemplar of the human species without knowing how to grab a bar from the floor and putting it over his head in a single, graciously flowing, uninterrupted move. Asking if you really need to learn how to snatch is like asking if you really need to learn how to read, how to write sonnets, how to add fractional numbers, or how to formulate the fundamental theorem of calculus. No life can be called well lived that has not included mastering, even to the most humble degree (the aforementioned empty bar) such a distinctively human capability.

Once that has been settled, let’s review more mundane argumentations for snatching: it is the move in which you will need to manifest your strength in a shorter period of time, during a shorter range of movement (actually, it is the second one, as in the drive phase of the jerk you have to manifest more strength in less time and within a shorter range of motion), to be followed by a most dramatic crouching that requires substantial rearrangements, stretches and shortenings of most of your major muscle groups. That means that is forces you to be really explosive, really fast. It improves your overall ability to manifest strength fast, to coordinate substantial changes of direction, to relax muscles even faster than you contract their agonists, and to maintain an exquisite balance while doing so. All skills that come in handy for throwing heavy implements or for improving one’s ability to sprint and change direction on a crowded field. Furthermore, as improving in any field that requires constant practice, it develops a complete range of desirable character traits: humility (as you recognize you are never as good as a) you would like to be and b) those many, many masters of the sport that came before you -or after), a healthy stubbornness (to keep on trying during the many, many “dry spells” on which you will see no noticeable improvement for months), persistence, grit, resistance to pain and fatigue, concentration, enhanced attention to detail (as the most minute changes in position, typically due to distraction, can ruin the best thought record attempt) and, surprisingly enough, self-confidence (that comes from being able to improve in a most challenging endeavor). So if you want to improve at shot putting, you most definitely have to snatch, no question about it. But if you just want to be a better person, a more focused, more disciplined whatever, snatching also becomes highly recommendable.

So let’s assume my moderate rhetorical skills (or just the plain ol’ wisdom of so many meatheads of yore that made snatches a staple of their training) have convinced you that snatching is desirable, and you want to include it as a part of your training. How should you go about it? If you dig a bit in the forums and the most popular lifting pages, you may easily be discouraged. Most describe snatching as an almost preternatural ability, akin to breaking a 10’’ thick block of concrete with your bare hands. An esoteric mystery that requires entering a dojo when 6 years old and then spending a couple decades under the vigilant eye of an initiate in the weightlifting arts before even attempting it alone. I readily admit that it is mildly difficult, even challenging, but I’ll let you in a dirty little secret: my father taught me the rudiments (and it took me many years to discover how truly rudimentary those rudiments were) of the snatch and the clean & jerk when I was about 13 years old (may be even sooner), with a homemade bar that was probably not longer than 4 feet, in something like 5 minutes (something along the lines of “grab the bar solidly, with a wider grip than the one you just used for the C&J and then… hop! Put it over your head in a single movement”). I then snatched all on my own for a decade with no friggin’ problem or injury (not spectacular weights, mind you, as I did it in a garage with no platform and no bumper plates, so couldn’t drop the bar freely). Did I develop a technique I’m proud of? Hell, no! that was before the Internet, so all I knew of weightlifting technique was what I could grasp from seeing it every four years in the Olympiad (if I was lucky and could find some TV where they were showing it live, again, no YouTube or TiVo back then). I just tinkered with this and that to see what allowed me to lift a whiff more, without much aches or pains. I recall reading something similar in Jim Wendler’s blog regarding the power clean (Power Cleans in 5/3/1), just don’t let anybody else’s opinion scare you, just start light and add weight judiciously and you’ll be OK. We’ll talk a bit more towards the end of this post (or in a following one if this one gets too long) about how to program then within a well-rounded program, and how to progress them.

But before we run we must learn to walk, and before we integrate multiple sets and reps of snatches in our routine we have to perform them half competently. And there are a couple of strategies for that. The first one is what you may call the “top-down” approach: you start learning the standing-up catch position (how it should look like once you have received the snatch and recovered), then you learn the “power position” with a wide grip (how you would initiate the second pull, more about that in a moment), then you learn to transition from the later to the former (doing a hang power snatch), then you do that from the floor (doing a wide grip deadlift before initiating the second pull) and then you learn to catch in a deep squat position (doing what sometimes is called a “third pull” under the bar after you have completed the second one), and finally you try to put together such unholy mess until it clicks and flows.

The second one is, unsurprisingly, the “bottom-up” approach: you start learning to stabilize more or less heavy weights overhead in the bottom of a squat, you go to that position faster and faster (instead of going down slowly you “throw yourself under the bar” in a drop snatch or a balance snatch) and then you learn to do it when the bar is somewhat lower, after you have left it there “floating” with a powerful longish pull.

Both may work, and both have drawbacks. I have followed more or less the “top-down” with the predictable result that I power snatch more than what I snatch, because I just can’t find the confidence to change direction and resolutely pull me under the bar with moderately heavy weights (something that has a very clear recipe for being corrected: more frequent and heavier snatch balances and drop snatches, which I will incorporate when my training turns again more towards Oly lifting and shot putting). Had I followed the alternative route I would probably snatch a whiff more while being a whiff overall weaker, so no biggie, I’ll deal with it in a few months. What my limited experience allows me to generalize is that if you want to move a bit heavier weights sooner, and are not specifically focused in competing in Olympic Weightlifting, the first route seems easier, safer and, even if it lets you stuck with power snatches (where you catch the bar higher) that alone already is enough to qualify you as a complete human being, and can be more than enough for most purposes. If, on the other hand, you are bent of doing complete, honest to God full snatches, and have the time and the inclination to sacrifice that faster progress, then the second route seems more advisable. I will describe the complete movement regardless of what progression you use to become able to do it, and you may choose the one best suited to your particular inclinations. To that end, I will use again my much beloved stick figures.

Starting position:

A lot of ink has been spilled discussing the different options, which really should be dictated by the lifter limb’s proportions. There is some leeway regarding feet position (some lifters prefer to have them closer together – “frog stance”- and some prefer a more open stance, with feet roughly under hips) and how wide the grip should be, but the key aspects to consider are:
Some people will start with a lower hip and some people will have it higher, depending both on how flexible they are and how long their femurs and tibias are compared with their torso (I myself start with the hip consdierably higher). Don’t get too picky and just try what feels more natural, as long as you keep the bar roughly over the middle of your feet and, most important, keep your lower back in a neutral curvature, neither hyperextended nor hypoextended (“buttwinked”).

A couple of important cues, in addition to keeping the lower back “flat”, are to keep the arms straight (they should be in a position to transmit force, a force which is generated by the leg and the hips, not by themselves in any way folding or rowing the bar) and the chest puffed out, so the scapulas are retracted (pushed together and slightly down).

From there we will transition slowly towards the “power position”, with the bar slightly brushing the hips. Indeed, that is what should give as the cue of how wide should our grip be: as wide as necessary to have the bar sitting just below the IlioSacral (IS) protrusion in the hip (the noticeable -if you are not morbidly obese, that is- bone spurt in your hip) when we stand tall. The shoulders should be slightly in front of the bar and the knees should be slightly bent, as in a quarter squat (think in the position you would instinctively adopt to jump as high as possible: that is your power position in a nutshell; now just adopt it with the bar hanging in your hands, with relaxed arms).

I did say “slowly” on purpose. Nothing in weightlifting is really “slow”, as the whole movement should flow naturally, and as a whole be as explosive as possible, but if you want to be deliberate and thoughtful, this is the time to be it. A good rule is “the highest the bar is, the fastest it should go”, so do not move it so fast that it doesn’t let you accelerate it even faster in the next stage (the famed second pull). Greg Everett gives a very good analogy comparing the bar to those manual merry-go-rounds you probably can’t find any more in any children’s park in developed countries because theya re deemed too dangerous for the kids: when it is spinning really fast it is difficult to accelerate it even further because you can hardly grab it and it is already gone before you impart much more additional momentum to it, while when it is spinning slowly you cangrab it and accompany it for a longer time all the while imparting more force to it.

Power position (after first pull)

After a successful transition, you would be in a position to violently extend your whole body and propel the bar upwards, something like this:
Note that the arms are still fully extended, and ideally the bar has moved in a vertical a trajectory as possible, staying all the time over the arch of your feet. The shoulders should be slightly in front of the bar (but not too much, I myself am still fighting with my tendency to lean too far forward and then put the bar in place while the torso loses all momentum with the lats, which just shows a lack of proper timing and coordination… don’t be like me!) and the knees should stay slightly bent in preparation for the most explosive part of the lift. So explosive indeed, that any attempt to perform it consciously and in a controlled way is doomed to fail miserably.

Triple Extension (second pull)

This part of the lift has received much attention lately by being the supposed contention point of an especially vicious internet flame war that for months has pitched “triple extenders” against “catapulters” (just google it if you have a few hours to spare and enjoy that kind of mental masturbation). I won’t get in the scholastic nuances required to take a stance, and just try to define it as aseptically as possible. Just know that this is THE key part of the lift. All the speed that will determine if you manage to get under the bar on time (before it speeds too much downwards making it impossible to stabilize) is imparted in this portion, so this is really where you have to put all your heart if you want to complete the lift. All that has come before can be considered successful to the extent that it leaves you in the best position possible to do a hell of a triple extension. Everything that comes afterwards will come to fruition or fail depending on how powerfully you managed to triple extend (and thus to accelerate the bar). A strong triple extension can correct a lousy starting position and a wavering first pull. An authoritative, energetic triple extension makes it less necessary to nail it when trying to get under the bar (because it flies so high that even an arthritic 90 year-old granny with a bad hip and creaking knees could get under it comfortably). But neither a pitch-perfect first pull nor a vicious pull-under will likely compensate for a shabby, weak second pull.

So let us turn our attention to such essential move. If you are doing things right you won’t even think of it as a separate part, but just find yourself with a bar gently moving upwards (at the end of the first pull, until you are in the power position) while the rest of your body is coiled like a spring, ready to unleash a ton of accumulated energy. So just unwind and aggressively extend the hip, the knees and the ankles (those three joints are what give the triple extension its name) to propel the bar upwards. Mark Rippetoe describes it as a jump with the bar in the hands (which will in turn cause the shoulders to instinctively shrug, something that is not necessary to actively intend, as it will happen anyway), and such description causes much cringes in the purists (that prefer to emphasize the flow of the whole movement, with no discontinuities and no sudden changes of speed), but I think it is essentially on the mark. It is very much like jumping, just liberating as much energy as possible to transmit it to the bar, which should continue its upward acceleration at an even faster clip. That extension would normally require the torso to lean backwards, in order to keep the Center of Mass (CoM) of the whole system formed by the bar and your body well balanced over the center of your feet:

Catch (third pull)

If you’ve done it right (and it only takes a few attempts with the empty bar to get the hang of it) now you have a bar flying upwards, while you yourself are on the point of your feet, or even a bit higher (with your feet actually floating a few mm above the ground). If your arms were (as they absolutely should have been) relaxed and straight, so they have transmitted successfully 100% of the energy that your hips and legs have liberated to the bar, they now should be bending, as the bar goes up faster than the rest of your body. It should be noted that, after such extension and having lost contact with the ground, there is absolutely nothing else you could do to make the bar end a fraction of an inch higher, no more force to impart. Time to take advantage of that additional speed to aggressively (you’ll notice after the 1st pull, which is done at a comparatively more leisurely pace, everything is done “aggressively”, “viciously”, “violently”, “explosively” or at the very least “forcefully”… this is a very dynamic activity indeed) pull yourself under the bar, as low as possible while it is still moving upwards. Think of it as, after the extension, the moment you feel the bar is about navel height, you change direction (you had been using your strength to pull the bar, and yourself, up) and go down, as fast as you can, to the catch position, while the bar is still moving upwards:
Right after that change of direction there is a defining moment in which you should feel how the bar “floats” freely, as you are not pulling it any more, but rather using it as a reference of where your hands should stay and under which you should end. If you have timed things right, you should be able to start decelerating the bar (that while you crouched below it has already reached its zenith, and started to slowly fall back to Earth) before you reach the bottom of the deep squat in which you finally will settle, allowing you to completely “lock out” (extend the arms to create the stable structure that can successfully support the full weight of the loaded bar) down there. Such stabilization at the bottom will most likely require a considerable degree of flexibility in the shoulders, as there will be a noticeable angle between the back and the arms:
If you’ve gotten this far, and have been able to “settle” under the bar, rigidly supported over your head, all that remains to do is to stand up carefully (maintaining the bar in as vertical a path as possible, so you neither drop it in front nor in the back). As any weightlifter worth his salt is able to squat significantly more than what he can snatch, such recovery from the fully crouched to fully erect position is never challenging from a strength perspective (that is, it is never a lack of strength which may cause that final part of the lift to fail), but it is made so by the combination of balance and coordination it requires (if the bar shifts very slightly towards the front or the back it can be enough to trip the lifter, making the final part of the lift unrecoverable). Most failures at this stage are due to lack of technique (not being able to get in the precise position where the bar is caught exactly in a vertical line above the CoM of the body, which requires to position the torso and legs and arms in very demanding positions very fast), and very few due to a lack of power.

Again, the key to performing the move successfully is NOT to try to break it down in its component parts and then try to somehow link one with another in the best possible way. Once in the platform there are only two, may be three things you may try to focus on and adjust during the execution of the lift (that happens in less than a second), and if you attempt to really monitor how you are moving, in the vail hope of tweaking some movement pattern while it is unfolding you will “overthink”, “outguess” yourself and end up in a big mess (and most likely failing). Just let it flow, do what feels natural, don’t let your ego get the better part of you and start very light, with the empty bar, repeating many times until it feels automatic, until you don’t have to think about it, and then start adding plates VERY slowly. If you know somebody that could give you an educated opinion on how you are doing it, this early stage is the best moment to receive advice and correct failures that, if ingrained, may prove very difficult to eliminate later on (first between them, the bad habit of bending the arms prematurely, before starting the second pull). If you don’t, at least try to videotape yourself now and then to be able to assess your form “from outside”, as proprioception may be a terrible guide in such fast, explosive moves.

As so many difficult things in life, snatching benefits immensely from a steady, persistent dedication. You may improve by leaps and bounds when you are a total noob, and from never having done it you can find yourself moving 100 to 120 pounds relatively fast. That is when the struggle begins and a fascinating journey full of detours, stalling, plateauing and regressing as you deconstruct your abysmal form to build it from scratch (with much less weight on the bar, as taking significant weight off is the only way to really correct deeply ingrained problems) only to discover that you have indeed corrected some major flaw only to be hamstrung by another similarly significant one, which the previous one was masking. Great fun indeed, and such complexity is what makes it a worthy endeavor until you can achieve a level of competence similar to this:
Which requires, again, lots of consistency and an ability to identify one’s own failures (and apply all of one’s ingenuity to correct them) that can be profitably applied to many, many different aspects of your life. But that would be the content of another post.  

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