Up to this point we’ve considered 3 essential steps you can take when getting into your start position that will set the tone for your body to move the bar through an efficient “path”. You may be asking yourself, “Are these 3 steps ALL I need to know and do I just go on autopilot from there?” Of course not. There are certainly other basics to confirm and adjust as needed within one’s start position, and a lot of mental and physical aspects to overcome and perfect with the movement of the body beyond that point. But, without these 3 steps accomplished first, not only will the other basics within the start position be harder to establish and/or less meaningful, but the remainder of the lift will be harder to execute and less effective. So, before we get to the other basics (that will moreso be fine-tuning) and then the execution of the actual movement of the lifts, let’s complete the conversation of why THESE specific basics are the critical precursors of it all.
1) FIND Mid-foot Pressure:
Now, this DOES NOT mean that the BAR is or should be directly in-line with the middle of the foot. For this to happen the shins would have to be closer to vertical. With the shins further back and closer to vertical, the shoulders will have to be further FORWARD to offset and find the same foot pressure that we establish with the 3 essential steps. Placing the back of the shoulders in-line with a bar that is truly at mid-foot would shift the body back and hips down leading to pressure on the foot that is more heel heavy (especially with weightlifting shoes on). You see, this one aspect (bar at midfoot) would change the angles in the body, engage the body differently, and create options none of which are desirable for snatching and cleaning optimally.
As previously mentioned, for most elites the bar is going to be circa in-line with the ball of the foot. “Circa” indicates that I am not comfortable giving a specific location for everyone but it for sure should not be in-line with the middle of the foot. Where that sweet spot is that is forward of midfoot for a given athlete will be determined by, guess what, the 3 essential steps. Let the bar and foot alignment be another by-product! That being said, you can and should use bar and FOOT alignment as a guide and checkpoint. If the bar is setting further back than the back of the ball of the foot, or further forward than the front of the ball of the foot, you are very likely out of position somewhere else. In any case, keep in mind that EVEN THOUGH the bar will be in front of the very middle of your foot, the 3 essential steps will create optimal balance between the 2 objects that are the bar and your body.
So, “mid-foot pressure” means your BODYWEIGHT is evenly distributed across the full tripod foot (heel, base of the 1st toe, and base of the fifth toe). Without this balance, you are starting off already at a disadvantage. This usually leads one to an excessive reaction in the opposite direction. If the pressure is more on the heels than the toes, it is common to see the lifter drift forward as they initiate the bar from the floor and it travels up. This momentum can carry them too far forward through the rest of the lift, ultimately leading to a characteristic jump forward to receive the weight. If the athlete is able to halt this momentum and stay in line through the 1st Ascent and reception, then they’ve had to “muscle through” and use unnecessary energy to make it “look good.”
If the pressure is too far forward (towards the toes), then the athlete will have to use energy to shift the body AND the bar back to midfoot (rather than just the bar) OR be stuck forward through the rest of the lift. In moving the body and bar back together from a forward position, there is more likelihood of shifting back too far and too long leading to another unbalanced reception. It would make sense that this would be with an excessive jump back and it can be just that. But, more commonly it is once again with a jump forward due to a “rocking” action. We can think of this as a pendulum effect; the body and weight of the bar go back excessively (a characteristic sign is with the toes lifting off the ground as the bar passes around the level of the knees or higher), and then the forward reaction from there.
Understand as well that without the whole tripod intact and even (whether that be front to back or side to side), the body up from the feet will not be optimally engaged or coordinated. Think of it this way: What would happen if you only put two players on the court in a 3-on-3 basketball tournament? Your opponent will most certainly defeat you. No matter how good and strong your two players are, in an attempt to compensate for the missing player they will take on more than they can handle, wear out more quickly, etc. – in short, they simply can’t compete. “FIND mid-foot pressure” (the tripod) for the win!
2) CONNECT Bar and Shins:
How many times have you heard, “keep the bar close!”? When trying to lift heavy weights, I believe this falls in the common sense category whether you know anything about the Olympic lifts or not. The concept of keeping the bar close is of paramount importance and this STARTS at the beginning of the lift. Why shouldn’t it? If the bar is touching your shins, it is as close to your body as it can possibly be; your task from there will be keeping it close from the ground up as opposed to trying to bring the bar in closer at some point as it rises to the knees and then ultimately to the hips.
Commonly you’ll see the bar just stay out and not even come into the body to contact at the hip (this is commonly paired with an excess heel and forward shoulder set up). Or, if the bar is forced back to contact at the hip late in the 1st Ascent from too much separation, the contact will not be nearly as meaningful as it could be. This creates a “bang” instead of a smoother brush with better transfer of energy and direction of the bar (a good visual for this difference is to picture a head on collision as opposed to the skipping of a rock). One can learn to get the bar close again before contact at extension from a forward bar set up, but why use more energy to move the bar BACK to where it needs to be? You can use that energy instead to maintain its placement in proximity to the body. Remember, there is going to be horizontal displacement, so let’s move the body and bar back at the same rate instead of having to make up ground with the bar. This variation in rate of backward movement between the 2 objects leaves more room for error. Commonly, the bar will be displaced back for too long and too far, creating another push forward of the bar with the hips if contact is made. Here is what happens: excessively forward bar at the floor, to excessively back bar (AND body) at the knee and/or up to the hip, to again an excessively forward bar (AND body) as it travels overhead and/or at it’s ultimate destination (once again, a pendulum effect).
When I ask athletes if they have a purpose for specifically how far away the bar is from their shins, the most common answer I get is, “I don’t know.” This is usually either from someone else telling them to do so (but not the reason why), or they are just not at all aware the bar was even away. Enough said there. Another very common answer is “I feel crowded.” Well, I’m personally alright with “crowded” if it gives me an advantage and allows me to lift more weight. There are certain things in lifting and in life that are uncomfortable but ideal; the more we do them the more comfortable we become to the point where that “crowded” or uncomfortable feeling disappears. Just trying to nicely say, “get over it”!
How about the “because I’m tall” go-to explanation? I fear they have not thought about it fully and are allowing this assumption and/or trust in what they were taught/told to be enough. As I went back just like I always do to reconfirm what I teach, I sought out some of the biggest, tallest lifters I could find on the international stage. ALL that I observed through this particular mission had the bar undeniably touching (or so close it looked like the bar was touching). One of them in particular had tape running the length of his shins on top of the long socks he was wearing – he was using the tape and socks to shield from the constant drag up the shin from a touching bar in the start position! Now, I’m not saying you have to drag the bar up the leg through the whole lift, BUT you may have to endure some scraping to learn how to move optimally. NOTE: Ultimately the bar should be so close to the body through the 1st Ascent that it looks like it is touching, but actually not touching, beyond the start position until it reconnects (at the hip in the snatch or upper quad in the clean) through that final brush of power exertion.
Another “too tall” example that is too powerful not to give is two-time Olympic gold medalist* Super Heavyweight Olympic Champion, Lasha Talakhadze. At 6’6” he is certainly one of the taller lifters I’ve ever seen and on his way to being the best Super Heavyweight of all time. Watch him lift and you’ll see him very obviously roll the bar completely back into his shins after he settles his body and when the bar touches the shins he then takes off. If a 6’6” athlete who is lifting some of the heaviest weights ever is starting with the bar touching the shins you should question your decision to set the bar 6-inches away from your shins simply because you’re “tall” at 5’11!
Lastly, I’ve found this to be great tactile feedback for one to be able to use especially when they are learning or making adjustments to their lifts. There is no question where the bar is and the rest of the body can be adjusted as needed from there. When someone is taught initially to place the bar a certain distance from their shins, it’s hard to measure and is typically very inconsistent in the exact distance, leading to inconsistency through the rest of the movement and therefore hindering overall development. “CONNECT bar and shins”!
3) ALIGN Bar with Back of Shoulders:
I’ve researched and reconfirmed this particular aspect of the 3 essential steps combination even more than the others. The prior two are undeniable in observation and easier to execute for the athlete. But for shoulder positioning, how do you know exactly where they are in relation to the bar, and what does that feel like as an athlete? As an observer and a coach, you need to be close and at the right angle to best direct athletes through aligning these 2 reference points. We cannot best confirm or assist with any needed adjustments in this area if we are looking from any angle other than directly from the side. In a video, if the camera is angled even slightly forward, it makes it look like the shoulders are further forward of the bar than they really are. If the camera is angled even slightly behind the lifter, it makes it look like the shoulders are further back in relation to the bar than they really are. Just a few things for you to keep in mind as you and we move forward on the topic.
To further assist the coach in developing their eye for this and the ability to adjust their athletes to it, let’s discuss some other markers and exactly what other parts of the body should be in front and behind the bar. As previously mentioned, the “back of the shoulder” is the back edge of the deltoid, or contour of the shoulder and that should be in line with the front edge of the bar. Some alternative wording I came across recently is “crease of the armpit above the bar”. This is the fold that is made (when leaned over as in a start position) just above the back of the tricep where the arm and lat come together. Same position, different wording and marker; pick your poison.
Bringing the tricep into this we should see the line up from the middle of the bar ride the back edge of it starting at the back of the elbow and with the rest of the upper arm in front of the line. Down from the elbow we should see some of the forearm poking out behind the line though you have to use your imagination for some of that since the plates will be in the way. One major aspect that you cannot see is that while the hand is wrapped around the bar the wrist should be positioned to where there is no angle in the joint between the back of the hand and the forearm (more on this later). This puts the front edge of the bar in line with the palm side of the wrist.
This is all indicating that the arm as a whole should be relatively vertical, and this is a great marker to pay attention to and use to assist in your assessment and set up of the position. “Relatively vertical” in this case means seemingly vertical in observation, but in reality there will be a slight backward angle down from the shoulder (a drawn line down from mid-delt to the middle of the bar would show this angle). For further reference and comparison, a bar and mid-delt alignment set up will have an arm that is literally vertical (a drawn line down from mid-delt to the bar would express the vertical).
Now, if the arms were able to stay completely vertical coming out of the start position and through the remainder of the 1st Ascent, this would make their (and the lat’s) job a lot easier through these portions of the lift. This is essentially what is happening with some of the heavier lifters I’ve studied that exhibit a Type 3 bar path; the arms start and stay vertical (or very close to it on both) until the shoulders/torso begin to go behind the bar somewhere within the “jump” where an angle in the other direction is seen (ie, Lasha Talakhadze; take a look at one of his lifts directly from the side here). I’ve also ran into a few smaller lifters exhibiting very minimally displaced Type 1 bar paths that are at least VERY close to this (take a look at the second lift shown from Zhihui Hou that is more directly from the side here).
Still, most lifters will require at least a slight backward angle in the arm at some point through the “leg drive” and at the “transition point” whether they start with a vertical arm or not. Remember, there has to be give and take of the 2 objects that are trying to work together (the body and the bar). For these athletes in this specific area they are pushing past vertical with the arms here so that they can keep the bar close, maintain overall balance, set the body up to exert the most power, and move the bar through their desired AND efficient path.
“Desired” DOES indicate that there is some choice here as we have indicated before (bar and mid-delt alignment with vertical arm, bar and back of shoulder alignment with slight backward arm angle, or anywhere in between). This, along with the TYPE of bar path you are choosing to aim for (the cues you are using to control your body and therefore the bar), dictates your unique “bar print”. We have those that start with a vertical arm and maintain it (as mentioned above these are typically the Type 3’s or the very minimally displaced Type 1’s). Also, we have those that start with a vertical arm but then create a backward angle through the leg drive (these are typically Type 2’s or more curvy Type 1’s). Finally, we have those that start with a slight backward arm angle and maintain that or very close to it (these are typically more minimally displaced Type 2’s or 1’s, or even debatable Type 3’s).
I see the final example above as the middle ground of the other 2 and where most will optimally fall. With our recommended shoulder alignment (“align bar with back of shoulders”), we are essentially setting the arm closer to the ultimate angle it will need to get to through the “leg drive” for most lifters, and therefore there will be less change required. Let’s talk a little more specifically about choice for those athletes who will need a slight backward angle in the arm for a second.
Choice 1: A vertical arm (meaning bar and mid-delt alignment) in comparison to one with the slight backward angle will have the hips lower with shins further forward and therefore the bar pushed further forward in the set up. This means to get the bar to midfoot by the time it reaches the hip, it will have to be displaced back further to an extent that is more noticeable in real time observation. This extra bar displacement (or “take”) requires more “give” of the body from these athletes in the amount the shins have to move back, the amount the back angle has to change, and the amount the arm angle has to change from vertical (all from the floor to the knee).
Choice 2: A “relatively vertical” arm (meaning seemingly vertical but literally slightly backward and with bar in-line with back of shoulder) in comparison to “choice 1” has the hips higher, shins further back, and bar closer to midfoot. This means there will be less ‘toward’ movement required to get the bar to midfoot by the time it reaches the hip, to the extent it will likely seem that it is moving literally vertically in real time observation. The shins will have less distance to travel, the back angle will change minimally to none, and the arm angle will change minimally to none (all from the floor to the knee).
NOTE: Keep in mind that in the above examples where there is mention of a body part being further forward or further back, it is something that is less than extreme. For example, the hips being “higher” doesn’t mean that the back is parallel to the floor or anywhere close to it as the torso will need an obvious angle in it with this choice, ANY choice to snatch and clean optimally. The shins being “further back” doesn’t mean they are vertical as there should be a good amount of forward angle in the shins with this choice, ANY choice to snatch or clean optimally.
Take a look here and/or at the image below to see these 2 choices in action. Kuo Hsing-Chun is on the left executing “Choice 1”, and Choe Hyo Sim on the right executing “Choice 2”. Notice where the bar is in relation to the shoulder and how vertical the arm is at each position, where the bar is in relation to the foot in each position (how much horizontal movement there was from ground to circa the knees), and the back angle in each position.
Now, any athlete who is executing “Choice 1” is also capable of “Choice 2”, and vice versa. “Choice 2” is our preference and recommendation because it is simpler and more basic due to the more limited movement of the bar and body (each has to “give” and “take” less through the movement). Still, once again, these are both legitimate options, preferences, choices that an athlete can hone, strengthen, and lift very efficiently and effectively with. With all this in mind, just as we have established an acceptable range of bar and shoulder alignment, there will be a similar range for arm placement (being vertical or close to it). Exploring beyond this range in either direction, ANY amount of FORWARD angle down from the shoulder (meaning shoulders behind the bar) would be excessive and require TOO much change in the arm (and the rest of the body for that matter). A greater backward angle than slight would create increasing difficulty in keeping the bar close as one attempts to initiate weight from the floor (think about the unrealistic task of having to maintain a 45 degree angle in the arms with a body that would have to be out of balance and poorly coordinated).
From here there are a few other reference points and concepts to be aware of. With our SPECIFIC recommendation for arm placement (that is created with our recommended shoulder alignment) we know that most of the arm will be in front of the bar. Along with that, the knees, chest, traps, and the entire head should be in front of the bar. Now, as we are still looking directly from the side you may or may not actually be able to see the knees poking out in front of the arms. This is dependent on the height level that you are or the camera is, the length of the athlete’s tibia (if it is small it might be covered by the plates), or whether they are cleaning or snatching (for most the knees will show on cleans but since they are typically flared wider in the snatch they may tuck in just behind the arms). If we compare this to bar and middle delt alignment once again, the knees should be forward of the arms for any athlete whether snatching or cleaning. In further comparison to mid-delt alignment, we would see the drawn line run through the middle of the arm, the middle of the trap, and the back of the head (the crown of the head would be behind the bar).
Another measurement and comparison worth considering within all of this is where the shoulders are in relation to the knees and toes. This can vary a little but the 3 should be relatively stacked, and that goes for the entire shoulder and bar alignment range that we’ve established is used on the elite level. With bar and mid-delt alignment, the front edge of the shoulders will likely be just behind the front edge of the knees but directly in-line with the front edge of the toes or very close to it (take a moment to see if you can reason how this all indicates the greater shin angle and further forward bar in relation to the foot for this type of set up). With bar and back of shoulder alignment, the front edge of the shoulders will likely be just in front of the front edge of the knees that are likely just in front of the front edge of the toes (but to a lesser extent than bar and mid-delt alignment). This means that the shoulders would be slightly forward of the toes with this set up (take a moment to see if you can reason how this all indicates a very slightly more “tilted” position and slightly less of an “upright squat” position).
What does all this mean and what are the lessons? If the athlete (or you) is not “relatively stacked” with these 3 markers (meaning only very slightly forward or back when comparing any 2 or all 3 of them), something is surely off and needs to be adjusted. If we think of these 3 markers in terms of the 3 Essential Steps, we can establish a number of undesired scenarios:
- If the knees are too far forward of the toes, the shoulders will have to go back further to continue to allow for mid-foot pressure. This will push the bar too far forward and place the shoulder too far back in relation to the bar.
- If the knees are behind the toes any amount, the shoulders will have to go forward further to continue to allow for mid-foot pressure. You would have to roll the bar back to keep it touching the shins and this would place the shoulders too far in front of the bar.
- If the shoulders are in-line with or in front of knees that are too far forward of the toes, mid-foot pressure will be lost forward (pressure will be on toes and it won’t take much here to fall on your face).
- If the shoulders are in-line with or behind knees that are behind the toes any amount, mid-foot pressure will be lost back (pressure will be on the heels and it won’t take much here for your butt to hit the floor).
So, a good place to start of course in adjusting any mis-alignment with these 3 markers would be re-examination of the 3 Essential Steps! This takes us back to how best to see and adjust the 3rd of the 3 as coaches, and how best to feel for and find it as that athlete IN the position. First of all, more closely aligning the 3 markers of toes, knees, and shoulders in combination with ensuring the bar is touching the shins will put you at least close to establishing the 3 Essentials Steps and therefore the best shoulder positioning (it works in both directions). We also have the arm to use as a marker in that in combination with the first 2 steps, the arm should be “seemingly vertical”.
I also have a few cues/phrases I’d like to urge against, or at least urge you to deliver with a more specific explanation. “Shoulders over the bar” and “Shoulders in front of the bar” are commonly used to teach and direct athletes in this 3rd Essential Step, but in my experience I’ve found them to lead the shoulders too far forward. I believe these 2 general statements are easily misinterpreted, potentially due to the wide range that they represent. It seems that “over” indicates to be in front of the bar to some athletes for some reason, and the need to be somewhere in front of the bar with both phrases leaves a lot left to interpretation (ok, so how far in front of the bar should my shoulders be?).
As I experimented with wording and started saying “shoulders on top of the bar” it helped the athletes I was communicating with immediately find a better position. I believe this is because it is more direct and appropriately comprehended, AND is an exaggeration against where most of these athletes are (if you are used to being too far forward with the shoulders, then to aim for them to be directly on top of the bar leaves a good chance of meeting in the middle and hitting the bar and back of shoulders alignment). Of course though the shoulder is a vast marker with a range of what part could be “on top”. Additionally, what we literally want of course is for ALL of that marker to be in front (but still hugging the line). This is why it is so important to pinpoint and for you as the couch to understand how general cues in many cases, especially to someone just learning, can leave you without the results you are looking for (ie, “tight” and “fast” are great, effective, and I would say eventual optimal cues but typically only for the experienced athlete who knows what part of the body or where in the lift to apply it; for the beginner, “tight lats” or “tight back”, and “fast extension” are likely more appropriate).
Now, when you are finally able to direct the athlete to where they need to be, WHAT are they going to feel? What SHOULD they feel? I’ve heard many say that one HAS to feel tension in their hamstrings in the start position of a snatch, clean, or even conventional deadlift for them to be in the best and most effective position. I can see where this has all come from, BUT when an athlete is even half as flexible in the hamstrings as I want them to be, their hips would have to be higher than their shoulders in the set up to feel any amount of tension in that area (surely we can once again agree that this would not be optimal). In fact, one would have to have excessively tight hamstrings to feel them in a set up with the 3 Essential Steps applied. The QUADS on the other hand are far more likely to be felt and that part of the leg is a much better area of the body to draw attention to. Again, this is a very partial squat position where there is a lot of knee bend with a relatively STACKED body on top of it so you are going to have to use your quads to “sit” and hold this particular shape.
For an athlete who is used to having the shoulders too far forward and/or hips too high, when they adjust to the correct position their quads will likely start screaming quickly, it will likely feel wrong to them, they will likely shy away from the position, and they will likely slowly drift away from it. Quads screaming or not, they need to be assured that whatever they are feeling with the 3 Essential Steps intact is OK and optimal. This means a few things: 1) The exact feeling in this position may be a little different for different athletes and therefore more of a by-product (but certainly very likely there will be some feeling of the quads involved and NOT the hamstrings). 2) WHATEVER that feeling is for them, at least through the first few weeks, if they DO NOT feel it they are not in the correct position (once again, they have shied or drifted away from it).
That being said, at some point the athlete will get used to the position and once it gets more comfortable the feeling is going to change, so don’t let THAT lead you/them astray either (ie, you were feeling tremendous pressure in your quads and burning discomfort while finding and holding the position, so in trying to maintain that feeling that WAS correct the shoulders have drifted BACK too far in relation to the bar now taking you out of position). Therefore, the answer in initially FINDING the specific feel for a given athlete and then to maintain the position as the feelings change is to keep an eye on bar and shoulder alignment within a relentless pursuit of consistency with the 3 Essential Steps on each rep. “ALIGN bar with back of shoulders”!
Beyond these 3 Essential Steps there are a number of other basics to consider and together they make up our “start position checklist” that we’ll begin to attack. We’ll need to confirm each point to ensure you are using your strongest, most effective start position so we can be on our way through the rest of the lift from there.
Until next time,
2-Time Olympian, USAW
Dr. Aaron Horschig, PT,
DPT, CSCS, USAW