Tighten Back:
The last step before initiating the weight from the floor is to create as much pressure through your entire body as you can. The most apparent “look” of this is a solid, flat back, and then the maintenance of that as the weight leaves the floor. This is most effectively and more easily accomplished if everything else we’ve covered up to this point is in the right position and the appropriate action is being applied. Additionally, these recommended positions and actions are where the rest of that pressure throughout the entire body comes from. Think about all these pressure points: pushing back on the bar to place it and keep it against the shins, flaring the knees against arms, flexing the triceps and resisting those flared knees with the inwardly twisted arms, and “taking the slack out” by pushing the shoulders down and lifting up on the bar (without it yet leaving the floor). This final tightening of the back will taut any remaining slack and complete the engagement as a whole.

But, how do you “tighten your back” in this position and what does that mean?

In my experience as an athlete and coach this is a little different than “bracing” for a squat. The bar/load bearing down on you combined with your hopeful good posture in a standing position in the set up for a squat is not assistance you get the advantage of using here; you are leaned over in a relatively half squat position and you are lifting the weight from the floor. Furthermore, in a squat, after you begin the rep, you resist gravity as the weight is heading towards the ground and then you get a “stretch reflex” or “bounce” out of the bottom to help with the ascent (or at least if you are completing that basic standard that is optimal for the Olympic lifts). With starting a snatch, clean, or deadlift from the floor YOU have to immediately overcome gravity and do so from that leaned over position.

For me as an athlete, it has always been specifically about creating as much tension in the erector spinae as possible. The erectors are the cable-like looking structures that run down your back on each side of the spine. Some even refer to these (the lower half specifically) as a weightlifter’s “second butt,” located of course just above the real butt (always quite a defining characteristic, admirable quality, and attraction of a weightlifter: the “bubble-butt”). When I say “cable-like,” and for them to truly look like a butt, they have to be developed the way they should be in a prepared weightlifter. The famous coach, Lou DeMarco, used to always pat me on the back in this area (the lower half) when I would see him at competitions. He eventually explained to me it was just something he got into the habit of checking to see how much an athlete had been training and how ready they were for the competition; he could tell by the shape and feel for the specific individual he had come to know well.

I can see now how this sensitive and critical area could be so telling in how currently developed they are, but also how tight they are. If they have less size and hilliness than usual, then the weightlifter might have been slacking in training: not lifting heavy weights from the ground as much and getting sufficient repetitions to be optimally prepared. If they are extremely tight and unable to relax in the standing position that Lou was testing them in, then the lifter was probably a little over-trained: doing TOO much training and lifting from the floor with heavy weights (or just under-recovered for whatever reason). The fact that Lou picked up on this and was able to decipher for individual athletes FROM this specific area was to me genius and a great expression of experience and mastery as a coach!

You see, the erectors are a part of what is considered the body’s “core” which is everything just above the waste. For the start position, I prefer to look at the lower half of the erectors specifically as the body’s “center of gravity”. Through a google search, “center of gravity” is defined as “a point from which the weight of a body or system may be considered to act”. Another reference defines it as “the point around which all parts balance”. They also indicate that “with each new position comes a new location for the center of gravity.” So, to pinpoint exactly WHERE the center of gravity is for this position, think about where you would place a weightlifting belt if you are one that chooses to wear one. An article about how to wear a weightlifting belt on BarBend.com explains that “a lifter should place a belt so that it covers the majority of the abdominals and erectors, typically an inch or two above the pelvis”. Now, I am not a fan of belts and highly recommend against them (more on that later) but perhaps we are starting to shed some light on why they are so common. The belt is meant to assist your center of gravity. For the specific task of snatching or cleaning from the floor, your center of gravity (the lower erectors most specifically in this position and for this task) is the breaking point of your torso that is acting as a lever.

It’s not that this is an inherently weak part of your body or weak area within this leaned over position but it is likely the first that will give (the part that should give first). Some athletes may break in the upper back or some other area of the body first, but with an athlete who has sufficient overall mobility, is appropriately balanced in strength between upper and lower body, has appropriate muscle coordination, and is symmetrical, the lower erectors will be that first breaking point. Now, think about if you have a specific weakness in your erectors (or through your center of gravity/your core as a whole) OR if you are just simply not giving any focus or effort to that area; you will break here easily especially with your heaviest weights. So, since this is such a sensitive and critical area, like me, THIS is where your awareness and focus will need to be (in some potentially more individualized way or cue) to sufficiently tighten your back in the set up and initiate the bar from the ground. Whether your erectors look like cables or not, you’ll need to act as if they ARE large and strong cables, or aim/pretend to make them look like that as you engage them.

There are always different cues, concepts, or exaggerations that help different athletes execute certain actions most effectively and of course this engagement and maintenance thereof is no different. I mentioned earlier that for me it was simply about “flexing” the erectors. In fact, that specific action became my entire start position; anything else I had to think about before that was about getting to this position (the creation of it) and getting to the erectors specifically. At that point I focused solely on flexing them as aggressively as I possibly could (by zoning in on the middle to lower erectors). This means like my life depended on it; like nothing else in the world mattered (at least in that moment).

I find that the highest percentage of the athletes I come across need to “arch” their back with this amount of aggression to sufficiently engage the erectors and back as a whole. This can be due to lacking thoracic spine mobility (so the “arch” helps to offset this and make the back as straight as it can be) or a lack of general body awareness specifically in this area. This is why it is important for young athletes or beginners (even some novices) of any age (as well as those with this mobility limitation) to do a lot of “cat-cows” for example (a movement borrowed from yoga where the athlete is on all fours, then rounds the back UP as much as possible to create a “cat”  or “hollow” position, and then rounds the back DOWN as much as possible to create a “cow” or “arch” position). This will help them learn what it means and feels like to orient the back in different ways (and/or potentially mobilize it as needed); then we can more easily and effectively cue them in that regard: “we don’t want a cat back in the start position, show me a cow, and then you can lift.” From that cue/concept we just need to watch out for a literal arch in the set up as this would be undesired (it is more likely to give as one moves through the rest of the 1st Ascent, and this would lesson the potential use of the muscles in the front part of your “center of gravity” and take away from overall “core” engagement). Once the athlete develops sufficient mobility or awareness and we begin to see a “cow” in the start position, it is time to change the cue.

As mentioned previously, this is all different than in a squat. We shouldn’t be telling athletes in general to “arch” their backs in the set up of a squat (we talked about the why behind this in this blog: Squatting Like An Olympic Lifter – “Get Set”). Additionally, I don’t personally, specifically engage the erectors in a squat. The body being “stacked” or aligned in combination with breathing into the bottom of the stomach to help create as much abdominal pressure as possible is how we ideally want to brace our center of gravity for a squat. Sometimes, like having an athlete “arch” in the snatch or clean start position, we need to offset mobility and/or awareness and cue the athlete to “hollow” (or “cat”) by crunching the abs aggressively to “stack” and engage the body for a squat. In any case, this action is you “putting a belt on”; your body’s belt. That pressure in the front when setting up for a squat wraps around so to speak to the erectors and tightens this belt. The same is true for the set up of a snatch or clean but in the opposite direction; extreme pressure on the erectors in this now LEANED OVER position wraps around to the front. VIOLA!

Well, we made it through another section (in no record time or control on word count of course). I hope we were able to give you a deeper understanding of this critical position via the 3 Essential Steps and the Start Position Checklist:

  1. Assume Stable Stance = Feet hip to shoulder width apart with 0-15 degree turnout
  2. Grab the Bar = Hands set to previously established snatch or clean grip
  3. Find Mid-foot Pressure = Even distribution between the “Tripod” points of contact
  4. Connect Bar and Shins = The bar literally touching the legs
  5. Flare Knees to Arms = Knees and arms literally touching in both snatch and clean
  6. Lock Elbows and Twist Arms Inward = Triceps flexed with elbows pointing out
  7. Align Bar with Back of Shoulders = Entire deltoid in front
  8. Take the Slack Out = Shoulder blades DOWN with upward pulling pressure on bar
  9. Set Head and Eyes Forward = Glue your eyes to something straight in front of you
  10. Tighten Back = Exaggerated back/core tension

In an attempt to simplify and make all this more usable for you:

  1. Begin any necessary changes to your start position by confirming and solidifying the 3 Essential Steps (find mid-foot pressure, connect bar and shins, and align bar with back of shoulders).
  2. Assess for any other adjustments that might be needed from the remainder of the start position checklist and work to get comfortable and consistent with those actions at whatever cost (i.e., doing reps of ONLY finding and holding your start position without performing any snatches, cleans, snatch deadlifts, or clean deadlifts; JUST start position holds).
  3. As application of the Start Position Checklist as a whole becomes more automatic, continue confirming consistency with stance, grip, and that you are placing the bar against the shins. Remember, once you accomplish each of these, you can forget them, they’re done and no longer require your time and attention. But, thinking about them and confirming them as a ritual will help to keep the rest of the position consistent and the bar touching will be your cue to know that it is now ok to engage and then lift when you are ready (holding off rushing and assisting with consistency through the rest of the lift).
  4. ENGAGE through the erectors (with whatever cue you need to make that happen most effectively with). This SHOULD be – and remain to be – very thought provoking and energy consuming, not only as final engagement but in maintaining as you initiate the bar from the floor. This means final engagement should never for one second be an automatic part of your set up (or initiation from the ground with your heaviest weights). One will not be able to lock the back in and engage as a whole as aggressively as is needed without this specific action being very intentional – like your life depends on it!

“Simplified” or not, there is a lot to take in here for this SCULPTURE! Like our bottom position sculpture, it may take time to mold with the appropriate tools. In fact, this is the SECOND most demanding position within the Olympic lifts in regards to mobility. Keep in mind that when adjusting to these recommendations from something else you’ve used for months or years, it is common to feel wrong, weak, etc. You must stick with it for however long it is needed to find comfort and consistency so that you can then focus on getting it as strong and usable as possible. Like the bottom position, assessing and addressing mobility as needed is the first step. By assessing and addressing as needed for your squat, you’ve certainly already done a lot of work towards a better, more usable start position (those areas and that work will absolutely bleed into your ability in the start position). But, we’ll need to look at a few more areas that are more specific to the start position to complete that specific assessment. Since these will also be more specific to the key positions and movement of the 1st ascent, as well as the pull under (that is a portion of the reception), we’ll cover the details of those areas before jumping into this next assessment so you have a more complete understanding of what we’re testing for.

Before we do THAT though, there are still some loose ends to tie up with start position (REALLY?!) There are a few aspects outside of the checklist that you need to use to optimize and develop your start position and movement beyond (hookgrip and static start position). Additionally, there are a few critical comparisons we need to make and solidify the understanding of since they are the source of a lot of conflicting information and confusion in the community (snatch versus clean start position, and conventional deadlift start position vs snatch and clean). Time for more TRUTH!

Until next time,

Chad Vaughn,
2-Time Olympian, USAW


Dr. Aaron Horschig, PT,

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