It’s now time to talk about an area of your body that has a tremendous, perhaps the MOST, influence on directing your body as a whole as you move through ANY movement; the head and eyes. Positioned inappropriately or gazed unnecessarily in the start position can and usually will lead you astray. Let’s next understand how, and establish the best standard for this part of the checklist.
Set Head and Eyes Forward:
I’ve only seen one elite lifter ever snatch and clean with their head and eyes down as if they were trying to align the head and neck with the spine (meaning that the head is in-line with a flat back and the neck is not extended any amount). This is sometimes taught in powerlifting and what we’ve seen bleed into the Olympic lifts more and more through the crossover effect of CrossFit. But, a very high percentage of the best in the world (every elite lifter I’ve ever seen minus the one) are putting their eyes somewhere OTHER than down looking at the ground right in front of them. So, if this is something you’ve been taught or are using within your Olympic lifts, I hope you’ll reconsider!
Let’s touch on the differences in a deadlift and the Olympic lifts in this regard (a snatch and clean): 1) the Olympic lifts are done with greater speed (they have to be), and 2) the Olympic lifts are much longer in distance and movement with quite a lot more work to be done BEYOND that standing to the hip (point A to B for a deadlift is weight on the ground to bar at hip in the standing position; point A to B for a snatch or clean is ground to hip to drop under to catch overhead or in front rack to now stand again). With these differences in mind, let’s think about how the body likes to follow the head and eyes. In the sport of judo for example, the athletes are taught to LOOK where they want to throw their opponent. If they want their opponent to land on the ground to their right, that is where they should look (the head obviously goes with the eyes and the body twists along with that for a much greater chance that the opponent will follow). They would not look left, to throw their opponent right. Another example would be if you were sitting in a chair and needed to look behind you. What follows your eyes? Your head and then your body.
What this means for the Olympic lifts with the head and eyes positioned down (especially with the greater speed) is that it is common to see the body and bar follow the head and eyes forward, or for the shoulders to follow the head and eyes down (meaning the hips rise faster than the shoulders). The efficiency of the lift (in terms of position, tension, and movement coordination) can easily be lost due to a poor head and eye position. In regards to needing to go beyond the standing position of a deadlift and to do so very quickly (aggressive extension and then get under the weight like your life depended on it), the eyes are forever changing (you will not physically be able to keep your eyes in that one spot on the ground.) This usually leads to rotation rather than extension (think of doing a backflip vs. a vertical jump). This means in most cases, that the hips will offset the rotation and push the bar forward (for a swing and a jump forward to accommodate), or the body follows the head and eyes back (excessive jump back).
Now we certainly do not want to go too far in the other direction in the start position either. The extreme example here would be the neck fully extended with eyes looking excessively upwards at the sky. This puts a “kink” in the posterior chain so to speak which typically creates a weakness and/or leads to compensations (this extreme kink or any negative effects of it are what the neutral spine teachings are trying to stay away from). Those who would advocate for this extreme “head up” position at the start do so because they believe the body will follow the head and eyes to the extent that it will help them maintain an upright chest. Unfortunately, it rarely works like that. In fact, looking upwards normally causes the opposite effect with the hips rising faster than the shoulders and the back rounding due to the weakness and/or loss of mobility stemming from the “kink”. You can see this same combination and correlation in squats: coming up from the bottom of the squat, the more one’s eyes and chin are up beyond straight ahead the further back and up those hips go in relation to the shoulders. Once again, go test this statement with observation. MOST of the athletes you see with the head and eyes up to an extreme extent, elite and novice alike, will lose back tension and/or position coming out of the start position to different extents.
So, the head and eyes should be straight forward. You’re going to find a spot or something you can look at straight in front of you that you can be aware of in the start position. As you move from the start position through the rest of the lift, ideally your eyes stay glued to this one point. With your eyes being fixed and constant, you have a better chance to build consistency through the rest of the body in the start and through the remainder of the movement. It’s similar to the constant of a tripod foot within the start and through the rest of the lift. This helps hold your body where it needs to be through the 1st Ascent and in alignment at extension. It also gives a better chance to maintain desired tension/engagement, power exertion, and transfer of that power and energy into the barbell. When there is too much variability in that pressure in the start and through the lift, there is variability in the body and movement where there shouldn’t be. We can consider the feet a bookend, and the eyes the other bookend that holds everything in between together tightly and neatly, and with insurance and solidity.
As for the head, this is a part of the body that the eyes help to control and hold in position as well. In the start position, the head should be “neutral” (this is not the same as a neutral spine), but rather level in relation to the ground. It should then remain in that orientation throughout the rest of the lift as much as possible. What this means is that as the torso stands towards upright and the hip angle opens (the back angle changes when the bar moves from the knee to the hip), the angle made with the head and back at the neck also opens. This is similar to a smartphone stabilizer for videos: the phone is clamped into the device and due to a 3-axis system, no matter how much you move the handle below, the phone stays level. In this example, we could say that your eyes are the lens that is focused on a spot in front of you that you chose and your brain will clearly capture/see that spot as you move up and down (just like the camera on the iPhone will clearly film the focal point that it is pointed at).
If that doesn’t hit home with you, perhaps imagine sitting in the seat of a ferris wheel. As you go around and around, the seat stays level. The same should be your head. As your body moves up to stand and extend, and then down to get under, and then to stand back up with the weight after receiving it, the head should remain level. In any case, the more your head stays with your eyes here (meaning that your eyes stay straight or level in your head; NOT rolling your eyes up like an annoyed teenager or down like a guilty one), the more it helps the eyes hold the rest of the body where it needs to be through the 1st Ascent and in alignment at extension. Additionally, you have an even better chance to maintain desired tension and engagement, power exertion, and transfer of that power and energy into the barbell (the more your head remains level and still as you approach and go into extension, the more energy is going into the body at extension instead of into a moving head that would be leaking energy from the body).
With all this in mind, we can certainly use the eyes to manipulate body movement towards whatever is needed. For example, if an athlete is not sufficiently extending their body before trying to get under the weight, then we can raise their line of sight (NOT the head as we want to keep that level for all reasons mentioned above, just the eyes) to help lead their body to a better, fuller extension. If an athlete is rotating through extension (meaning too much forward hip thrust and lean back of the torso), then we can lower their line of sight (once again, NOT the head, just the eyes) to help hold their hips back a little and direct them to extend straighter. These are “weightlifting magic tricks” we’ll talk about more later in the common faults and fixes blog. Until then keep in mind that using the eyes in this way would be attempted only after exhausting other go-to cues or drills first (so somewhat as a last resort). Additionally, just like most other “tricks” we’ll cover it should only be used temporarily, otherwise it becomes a bandaid that can lead one astray in other ways over time. This is simply a drill/adjustment to use for however long it is needed to help the body learn something different, with a goal and plan to progress back into the ideal basic(s).
Next, let’s wrap up the start position checklist and be that much closer to solidifying this “bookend” of the snatch and clean as a whole.
Until next time,
2-Time Olympian, USAW
Dr. Aaron Horschig, PT,
DPT, CSCS, USAW