Previously we established that we’ll label technique simply as either “efficient” or “inefficient.” This is opposed to other adjectives that are singling out individuals with unique limb length proportions (long femurs, short torsos, a giant pinky toe perhaps) or a group of athletes with a certain ethnicity and body type (Chinese, European, etc.). Yes, we are all unique in many ways but in the end we are far more similar than we are different and there are many basics that apply to everyone that are commonly overlooked or the athlete is led away from for whatever reason.
Let’s think about the psychology of all of this for just a moment. We all want to be positively credited for our uniqueness, I get it! The use of the word “style,” or an athlete explaining to someone that they “have to use a special technique because…” can provide this credit and attention. But, these also offer illegitimate excuses that athletes can lean on for their lack of progress or delay in reaching their goals; attempts at justifying common faults, imbalances, or weaknesses (ie, high hips, rounded back, wide feet). I’ve heard the phrase, “you have a unique style” used many times as a way to avoid telling someone that something is off or they’re not doing as well as they think (if that phrase is ever used to describe your technique, perhaps you need to seriously consider going back to the basics!). By all means have “style” and be the individual you are with the clothes you wear, the tattoos that mark you, your set-up routine, in how animated or reserved you are on the platform, etc. But, do not accept your “special technique” or give into the fuzzy feelings that you “having a unique style” can give you if you are straying away from the observed basics that the elites are all using.
Let’s get back to our discussion on “efficient” versus “inefficient” technique. To distinguish between the two we’ll start at the very beginning of the lift, the start position. Keep in mind as well that within each key position and segment of the 1st Ascent we’re also working to establish the following two points:
- What the BASICS are that should be applied by everyone.
- What the BY-PRODUCTS of those basics are.
NOTE: With the basics, there can be some slight variation to consider within but with the main principle(s) still intact. With the by-products, there will be variation amongst individuals but they are typically unnecessarily prioritized, sought out, dwelled on, overcomplicated, and varied far more than they should be.
When I think about the start position, I see a bunch of angles (you are no longer a person, you are a geometric figure, a sculpture). Think about the shins, the femurs, and the back. What angles do you see? This is certainly what is most observable and where a lot of distinguishing between different techniques, styles, and body-types takes place as these angles can be a little different for different athletes. We certainly do want to optimize the angles for each individual athlete but these varying angles are simply by-products of a combination of 3 key points on what should be a “checklist” for your start position.
Take a few moments to consider the following questions for your current start position:
- Where is the pressure on your feet (toward the heels, more so on the toes, etc.)?
- Where is the bar in relation to your shins (1 inch away, 5 inches away, touching, etc.)?
- Where are your shoulders in relation to the bar (behind, in front, 2 inches in front, don’t know how to gauge that, etc.)?
If you’re not sure on 1 or all of these, that’s “OK”, but let’s now leave that uncertainty in the past. Let’s find out what exactly you’re currently doing, adjust as needed with the recommendations we’re going to be covering in mind, and move forward with greater purpose.
Understand that what you do in one of these areas affects the other 2 (they come as a package deal) and all 3 together largely dictate the coordination of muscles you’ll be using, to initiate the weight from the floor. They also set the stage for how you will be able to move the bar, or how you will HAVE to move the bar, through the rest of the lift (“bar path”). Ultimately we want these 3 to come together and work in harmony.
Think of your lift like a song. We need an “intro” into the rest of the “song” that makes sense. It must smoothly, appropriately, and in an audibly pleasing fashion lead into “verse 1”, and then the “bridge”, etc. The best lifters in the world are certainly “harmonious” on an effortless level when it comes to moving a barbell. What they are doing in these 3 areas as an “intro” into their “song” can be deciphered and copied (time for some karaoke!) Being that MOST of them are doing the same things in these 3 areas, we consider them basics that can be applied and honed by everyone. This is just like how the basic rhythm of a song can be understood and followed along with, and the initial lyrics heard and repeated. Of course you’ll have to learn the rest of the lyrics and the timing of the other parts of the song, but by knowing/remembering how to start it off, you’ll more easily sing all the way through as it flows out of you from that consistent starting point.
Now, “sounding” the same as the professional singer is a different story just like lifting the same amount of weight as the best lifters in the world; at least initially. Copying and honing the basics here at the start (and through the rest of the lift) OF the best in the world will lend to you being the best YOU can be. But, just like learning lyrics to a catchy song where it’s not always easy to make out exactly what they are saying, the basics of a great looking snatch or clean are not easy to see without some direction. Most of the time I have to read the lyrics (at least through portions of a song) to be able to hear the correct words within; otherwise I’m perceiving and singing something quite different.
Come on, we’ve all been there. Belting out songs we love over and over again with assumed lyrics for decades, then realizing how much more sense the song and story makes with the correct lyrics that someone else points out to you or you stumble upon in written form. How about you don’t set up and move through your snatches and cleans with assumption for decades! We’ve given some direction to your eyes with the mention of the 3 areas above so that you can spend some time observing and learning. Now we’ll point out exactly what you should be looking for within those areas AND copying in your own set up.
Below are 3 steps you can first READ THROUGH and then work on applying when setting up for your snatch or clean. With these steps you will at least have the base of what it takes to have good harmony at the “intro” to the “song” you are trying to sing (of course, we’ll be learning the rest later which will come more easily once the intro is established and heading towards solidity). We’ll call these the “3 Essential Steps to Your World Class Start Position”:
- FIND mid-foot pressure
- CONNECT bar and shins
- ALIGN bar with back of shoulders
Now, how accurate is this for ANYONE/EVERYONE to use? How many of the best in the world are “most”? Well, the first 2 are seen a conservative minimum of 99% of the time. This means that if you look at the first 100 videos on “Hookgrip” you will likely see ALL of them with their entire foot securely connected to the ground and the bar apparently touching the shins. For further reference, the very few I’ve seen where mid-foot pressure was harder to confirm were with a very slight amount of the heels off the ground. I would say for those few this would have been an unintended bad habit BUT my point in bringing this up is that in all my research with lifters on the elite level I’ve not seen ANY in the other direction. None of them have been “on their heels” within the start position even to just the minor point that you could see a pressure shift toward them, let alone with the toes curled up and front of the shoe off the ground. Hopefully that can up front help to overcome the misconception of needing to be more on the heels and eradicate what on a general basis is really a bad cue (generally bad, unnecessary, and even detrimental, BUT as with any cue/word, certainly potentially needed by someone).
As for aligning the bar with the back of the shoulders, I am estimating this to be used 60-70% of the time (to confirm, the “back of the shoulder” is the back edge of the deltoid, or contour of the shoulder as seen in the image above). Most of the rest you will see typically starting with the bar in line with the middle of the shoulder (right in the center of the deltoid). Kuo Hsing-Chun from Taiwan, and Lu Xiaojun from China are great examples of this and from here they move more dynamically coming out of the start position. Specifically, the hips rise faster than the shoulders as they initiate from the ground. This is how they are moving their knees back out of the way of the bar as it travels toward the body (with some horizontal displacement from where it started). As the back angle changes and the bar moves toward the body, the shoulders end up in front of the bar which maintains balance (a certain amount of the body has to be in front of the bar to accommodate this).
Now, this is not “wrong” and is likely something they are using as a form of exaggeration, receiving stimulation from, and dictating their desired “bar path” with. But, IF these 2 athletes started with the bar in line with the back of the shoulders (in combination with midfoot pressure and bar touching the shins just as they are already doing in these 2 other areas), their back angle would have to change less moving from the floor to the knee (likely not at all) and there would be less horizontal movement of the bar (we’ll touch on this in more detail later). It is this minimal to no change/adjusting required through the leg drive with the back, and less horizontal bar displacement, that we are considering more fundamental and basic. Just like anything else we’ve covered and will cover moving forward, the most fundamental and basic is what we will recommend.
Also just like everything else we’ve covered and will cover moving forward, there are exceptions. Some superheavyweights I’ve been studying (ie, Lasha Talakhadze) start with the bar aligned closer to the middle of the deltoid as mentioned above (or somewhere in between there and the sweet spot we’re recommending) but with little to no back angle change and minimal bar displacement coming out of the start (or even slight displacement away from the body instead of toward; more on this later). I believe this different action is due to superheavyweights being typically taller and for sure more massive. With being tall (namely having longer tibias) there is a longer distance to travel so moving the bar back immediately could be premature backward movement and ultimately cause excess (this will make more sense later as we cover “bar path” in more depth). Additionally, more mass means that they offset and balance the bar/load more easily. So, to set the back of their shoulders in line with the bar might take them out of their most straight forward position.
On the other side of this, I have yet to see an elite lifter set up with the shoulders further forward than the barbell in line with the back of the shoulders. I strongly assume there are a few here and there and I will continue to look for and study them if I find them (especially since I feel the further forward of this point the shoulders are, the more disadvantaged the position would be). But, this difficult hunt makes a strong case for us to establish an absolute range of shoulder positioning on the elite level, and a range we can consider acceptable: anywhere from the bar being in-line with the back of the shoulder, to the middle of the shoulder. Still, the more specific direction of “align bar with back of shoulders” will stand as our endorsed recommendation. This is because it is most common, most fundamental, and leads to the most constant (less dynamic) and consistent movement through the rest of the lift. For any potential exceptions, the back of the shoulder will at least get them very close to where they need to be on that most fundamental and basic level.
Let’s now go back and consider the angles that are made when you get into your start position. By applying these 3 essential steps, YOUR angles will be what they need to be. This powerful combination of characteristics that includes mid-foot pressure, bar touching the shins, and bar in-line with the back of the shoulders are the BASICS that dictate by-products that ARE the angles. We can of course adjust the angles themselves, but with the purpose of accomplishing these 3 basic characteristics. These basics (especially if we allow for the very small shoulder alignment range that is on the exceptional side) do not care about what “morph” you are (ectomorph, mesomorph, endomorph), your ethnicity, your race, what country you’re from, or what allergies you might have (hey, I never know what I’m gonna hear, just trying to stay ahead).
You DO NOT have to set the bar 14.5 inches away from your shins because you’re tall. On a more serious note, your hips DO NOT have to be higher than your knees in the start position of a snatch or clean. This is certainly leading many athletes and coaches astray. If we examine the elites once again, we’ll see that with the snatch in particular most of them are closer to having the hips right in line with the knees. Some lifters will even have their hips BELOW their knees. In fact for certain athletes to place their hips above their knees (with a wide snatch grip especially), their back would be close to parallel to the ground, even potentially with hips higher than their shoulders (meaning they would be somewhat upside down)! Surely we can agree that this would not be optimal? The hips in relation to the knees in the start position DOES NOT MATTER and does not indicate whether you have more or less potential as a lifter since World Records are broken with hips above, in-line, and below knees in the set up. What DOES MATTER is the combination of mid-foot pressure, bar touching the shins, and the bar being purposefully aligned with the shoulders (for this point will indicate the allowable range of the back of the deltoid to the middle of the deltoid).
I’ve found that for many athletes, just cuing them to apply these 3 Steps is enough for them to show me the complete start position I’m looking for (yes, in both the snatch AND clean). There are of course more characteristics within the start position to confirm and solidify as needed but it can be initially, and should be ultimately, THIS simple. To get to this ultimate simplicity we’ll need to dissect – and then reconnect – these 3 Steps so that you can implement and hone them with greater purpose. The first part of this examination will need to be understanding why it is with these base 3 that a lifter will more automatically and effectively direct the bar through an efficient path. “Bar path” is yet another debatable and hot topic within the community so once again we’ll be taking a look at what the best in the world are really doing here which will help us establish just what an “efficient path” might be. Until then, go ahead and play with these specific points of performance with snatch and clean grip (without concern for any other characteristics that it leads you to create being “wrong”) and see how it feels.
Until next time,
2-Time Olympian, USAW
Dr. Aaron Horschig, PT,
DPT, CSCS, USAW