How different are the start positions of the snatch and clean versus that of the conventional deadlift? We’ve already talked in general about the differences in head and eye position and why for these different tasks, but we need to dig in quite a lot deeper to further clear up some misinformation and confusion in the community. This will open up a greater opportunity for athletes to get the most out of themselves within isolated efforts of these 2 different tasks (as a sport specific Olympic lifter or Powerlifter through a greater understanding of “physiological geometry” and more “basics” on moving heavy weight). Additionally, if you are doing both regularly, how you can “synergize” as much as possible (perhaps through CrossFit you might be doing low rep-heavy weight AND high rep-light weight “conventional” deadlift efforts, AND low rep-heavy weight AND high rep-light weight Olympic lifting efforts). Finally, this may help you decide IF you should be or can be doing both regularly, or if you are better off just sticking with one or the other depending on what your goals are (are they conflicting and how much?)
To best accomplish this, I think the better, more specific question needs to be, how different SHOULD the start positions be for a given INDIVIDUAL. This is opposed to looking at the clean start position of a random World Record Holder vs a random World Record Holder in the conventional deadlift for example (2 different athletes). My stand at this point is that the most obvious, “knee-jerk” perceived differences come more from the different body-types, and less from the different movements/tasks. This would be similar to 2 random World Record snatches (from 2 different athletes) where you would as well likely see or perceive differences (but remember, BY-PRODUCT differences, not BASIC differences).
I would say that comparing these with ONE person, and then each individual comparing all of them for themselves to really optimize their athletic/lifting journey, has been a missing concept that has perhaps led to a lot of assumptions and mis-interpretations on both sides. This is likely because it has only been in recent years that more athletes are more regularly doing both (Powerlifting and Olympic lifting that is, through the catalyst that is the emergence of CrossFit of course). Hold that thought…
In researching and learning more about the conventional deadlift (and sumo), which was initially only intended to confirm what I had already written about, I realized that I was quite wrong in a lot of what I thought I knew about the movement(s). I was punched in the gut and then slapped in the face with a few pieces of basic information that made too much sense to ignore. With these findings, I had to admit that my “knowledge” had indeed been based on assumptions and mis-interpretations. I had come to conclusions from things that I’d heard others say and what I thought I was seeing (a lot of things I WAS seeing from a lot of mis-informed athletes and non-expert/non-elite Powerlifters). Because I had assumed and taught these things for so long, I WANTED it to all be true since I had come to believe strongly in the comparisons and points I had already made. I was ready to tell and show the world how DIFFERENT the conventional deadlift in particular was from the Olympic lifts. In fact, the original title for this blog was, “Non Conventional Angles”. I would even regularly indicate that the conventional deadlift is so different, that we can find more in common with the sumo deadlift (wow, that seems so silly and if it’s not already obvious to you now, you will see why later).
Though there ARE differences, of course, I would now say that the start position of the conventional deadlift is far more similar to that of the snatch and clean than most think (or rather, it should be; again, think of this as being for each individual), and far more similar than the sumo is. Now, this is mostly true on a basic level, especially in comparison to a snatch and clean start position with our 3 Essential Steps accomplished. The base of those comparisons stem from 3 basics for the conventional deadlift that I kept running into. YES, here is the number “3” sneaking its way into a key position again; coincidental, but a basic concept that completely rings true to me (simplify and optimize by teaching in 3’s when and where at all possible), and not something I forced for the sake of consistency with this number I believe in! I got chills when I saw this number presented for key actions that should be accomplished with conventional deadlifts, especially when it continually came with the concept of “don’t worry about your angles” (indicating as I have over and over again about the Olympic lifts, the angles will vary between lifters as by-products of the constant basics).
These following 3 basics for the conventional deadlift were collected from a number of expert, trusted, and respected sources in the Powerlifting community. The finalized content was confirmed by Coach Sebastian Oreb (AKA @australianstrengthcoach), whom I received some coaching from through this process. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Sebastian is the coach of Hafthor “Thor” Bjorsson who is famous for his deadlifing ability and HUGE lift of 501 kilograms (1,104 pounds)!
Ok, Ok. Enough stalling! The 3 basics of the conventional deadlift start position are:
- Position bar over midfoot
- Connect bar and shins
- Align bar with spine of scapula
Let’s compare these 3 basics to the 3 Essential Steps of the snatch and clean, and see how after it is all calculated out, there are striking similarities in the look of the positions as a whole (especially the ONE area of the body that the eyes are usually most drawn to when someone is in a start position, and what is typically the defining characteristic). At minimum, the differences will be less extreme AND some in the opposite direction from what is typically assumed.
Positioning the bar over midfoot in the deadlift has as its core purpose readying the bar to be moved in a straight path (or rather, as straight as possible). We already know that with the Olympic lifts, some horizontal displacement is not only ok, but optimal. We are lifting less weight in general (not at all light weight, but for sure in comparison to what one would be capable of deadlifting), moving faster and further, and have a need for creating a position to “jump” from, and then “jumping”. With this, moving the bar in a literal and perfect straight line might just be impossible. With deadlifts, moving the bar in a straight path is not only more possible, but more unavoidable. If you are trying to lift as much weight as you possibly can from the ground, being in a position that would require the bar to be displaced any amount horizontally as you are trying to move it vertically would be more unnecessary and likely detrimental. We are talking about quite a disadvantageous position here for the task that would waste time, energy, and strength. Remember, one is “simply” trying to lift the weight up to wherever it hits on the leg in the standing position, and then the rep is done.
Now, how is “Position bar over midfoot” different from “Find mid-foot pressure”? First, positioning the bar over mid-foot in the deadlift doesn’t mean you will have complete mid-foot pressure. Also, finding mid-foot pressure in the snatch and clean doesn’t mean the bar will be positioned directly over the middle of the foot (as we already know with the Olympic lifts, the bar should be at least at the back of the ball of the foot which is forward of true mid-foot in measurement). What this means is that the shins will be a little more vertical in the conventional deadlift. This more vertical shin is compounded by the use of elevated weightlifting shoes with the Olympic lifts versus a flat shoe or barefoot with the deadlift (keep this difference in mind as we go as that is contributing to changes from the ground going up and through the body and then the movement, starting with the bar/load being lower in relation to the body with weightlifting shoes on; think about that for a moment to let that sink in if you need to).
So, the non-elevated foot and more vertical shin in combination with the other 2 basics (bar touching shins and where the shoulders are in relation to the bar) lead the foot pressure to be shifted a little more toward the heels in comparison to the more complete mid-foot pressure of the Olympic lifts (this will make more sense once we cover shoulder positioning). This DOES NOT mean that in the deadlift the toes should be curling up or there is a need for heavy/complete heel pressure. The entire foot is and should still be very much solidly grounded. So this pressure towards the heels is slight, but a noticeable difference in feel for an individual testing both positions (ie, a clean start position with weightlifting shoes vs a conventional deadlift start position barefoot). More complete mid-foot pressure is desirable and optimal in the Olympic lifts since again, we are moving further and faster and there is a need for this specific balance as we are “offsetting” with different parts of the body to create certain positions.
Moving onto the next point of “connect bar and shins”, this is of course a 100% constant between the 2 tasks (deadlifting as much as you can, and snatching and cleaning as much as you can). Everything we touched on as to the WHY behind the recommendation for the Olympic lifts could be said for the conventional deadlift as well (this includes, “because it’s what most of the elites and World Record Holders are doing”).
Think about these few scenarios for the conventional deadlift: 1) If the set up was correct with the body but the bar was away from the shins, then you would lose that midfoot alignment and the load would have to have more horizontal displacement to complete the lift. 2) If the bar is midfoot but the shins are backed away from it, then the rest of the body up from that different shin angle (closer to vertical, completely vertical, or beyond vertical) would be in a different position with different overall engagement.
There would be a number of “wrong” variation examples I could give here so I will summarize/encompass them all by saying that these 3 basics of the conventional deadlift work together in harmony/synergistically to optimize (just like the 3 Essential Steps for the Olympic lifts do). Without this middle one (ANY 2 of them without the other for that matter), everything else will be off or compensated, and the athlete will be in a less effective position overall.
The final “basic” that completes this harmonious trio is aligning the bar with the spine of the scapula. Say what? I know, I know; this is a piece of anatomy I personally had to look up and study a number of different diagrams to better understand. In speaking with and getting some coaching from Sebastian, this is the specific marker he immediately indicated to align the bar with, and that it is essentially where one should place the bar for a low-bar back squat. He said that this is the term he uses and teaches with because the shoulder is vast and too general to use as a marker (ie, “shoulders above the bar”). Think of looking at the deltoid and the shoulder blade from the side, what part of that big piece of real estate that could all be considered the “shoulder” should go directly above the bar? So, aligning with the “spine of the scapula” for the conventional deadlift is more foolproof and will set the shoulder where it needs to be in relation to the bar for each individual.
Though there can be some variation of the exact “shoulder” marker for each individual, the range is slight, and we can give a general shoulder location that this will create for most athletes. Pinpointing this general location on the shoulder will help better understand where to best place the body/shoulders for the conventional deadlift, and for better comparison to the Olympic lifts. As Sebastian indicated, the shoulder is vast, so we’ll start by narrowing down to the deltoid muscle. The deltoid makes up the rounded contour of the human shoulder. This contour is made up of 3 parts: the anterior or clavicular fibers (commonly called “front delts” which is the front ⅓), the intermediate or acromial fibers (“middle delts” which is the middle ⅓), and the posterior or spinal fibers (“rear delts” which is the back ⅓). It is the rear delts of the shoulder that are usually also aligned with the bar when one aligns with the spine of the scapula. This means, looking from the side, if we draw a straight line from the middle of the bar going up, it should run through the rear delts. WAIT! Does this mean that the shoulders should be further back in relation to the bar than in the snatch and clean?!
Well, it’s looking like, YES! Now, this is very close to the “back of the shoulder” spot of the 3 essential steps for the snatch and clean, but in general CLOSER to AND in the opposite direction of what is typically taught/thought/assumed (I would say by most in the community, myself included before doing this research and getting this coaching). I was initially amazed, confused, and angered at this specific piece of information, but excited by the realization of the similarity. Like many, I was under the impression that the shoulders had to be further forward of the bar than this for a conventional deadlift. There is NO WAY I would have ever thought or reasoned on my own, without it being pointed out and explained in a number of different ways, that the shoulders would need to be further back in relation to the bar than I’m teaching for the Olympic lifts! What a HUGE, unfortunate, and disadvantageous misunderstanding!
WHY is this so unfortunate and disadvantageous? Let’s go back to the vertical arm concept we previously covered for the Olympic lifts. Remember, the greater the backward angle is in the arm (from the shoulders down to the bar) within the start position and through the lift (a snatch, clean, OR deadlift), the harder it will be to keep the bar close to the body, and the bar and body centered as a whole. As previously established, when we align the bar with the back of the shoulders (deltoids) for the Olympic lifts, it puts the arms in a “relatively vertical” position. This 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). So, when aligning the bar with the spine of the scapula for the deadlift, this puts the arm even closer to vertical if not dead-on it (depending on the individual). This is extremely advantageous AND necessary for one to lift as much weight as possible from the ground to the standing position.
The first of a few other points to keep in mind here for how this is possible and why it is needed, is where the shoulders need to GO in relation to the bar beyond the start position. As opposed to the Olympic lifts, with the deadlift one does not have to create a further forward shoulder as the weight is lifted to the knee and then stay there for any amount of time so that they can “jump”. Again, the goal is to just stand up with the weight and stop. So, the shoulders should ideally stay where they started in relation to the bar as the individual is “standing up” until the shoulders begin to go behind to finish out the lift. Consider these 3 options for what could happen with shoulder and bar alignment beyond a good start position:
- Bad = The shoulders go forward and/or the lower body and bar go back too far but the bar stays close to the body, therefore the alignment is lost with shoulders forward of the bar (a backward arm angle has been created). Your maximum potential weight will not be lifted here.
- Worse = The shoulders and bar go forward as the shins move towards vertical, therefore the bar and shoulder alignment is maintained but the bar is separated from the body. Your maximum potential weight will not be lifted here.
- Ideal = Bar and shoulder alignment is maintained while the bar remains in very close proximity to the shins/body. You are within alignment and proximity of greatest potential.
The next point is that this more structured and maintained alignment makes it possible to use a “mixed grip” as many do for the conventional deadlift. A mixed grip is where you have one hand wrapped around the bar with an overgrip (meaning palm facing back, as you would with both hands for the Olympic lifts), and the other with an undergrip (meaning palm facing forward, as if you were going to do bicep curls). This helps lock the hands in and balance the load/bar. Now, if your arms were not vertical or very close to it, the bar would likely drift away from the body to a greater extent on the undergrip side as the individual stands and this would lend to the bar and body twisting. So, if you find yourself twisting in this way while using a mixed grip, you might be starting with your shoulders too far forward. As somewhat of a side-note here, but further confirmation of the “vertical arm”, this undergrip example expresses a true ability, and a wide open opportunity for a coach to use the cue of, “let the arms hang like chains” (recall that this was a misunderstood and misinterpreted cue for the Olympic lifts since there will need to be more push back on the bar/backward arm angle through the middle of the 1st Ascent).
Another beneficial comparison to make while we’re at it would be between the conventional deadlift and the Romanian deadlift (as used as an accessory exercise for the Olympic lifts). This should lend to even greater understanding and proof of the optimization that the more vertical arm is for the conventional deadlift. With the Romanian deadlift in Olympic lifting training we want to remain at mid-foot pressure but set the shins as close to vertical as possible with minimal bend in the knee (minimal bend but NOT a locked knee) AND with the bar touching the shins. This means the shoulders will be quite forward of the bar to offset and find our mid-foot pressure creating greater difficulty in keeping the bar close as we lift (in other words, there is a big backward arm angle). Now, we WANT this greater difficulty. If we can get stronger, creating ability to keep the bar close with more and more weight in this exaggerated position and through this exaggerated action, it will be that much easier for us to keep the bar close with our regular snatch and and clean start position (not to mention the exaggerated and beneficial work we get for the the low back and hamstrings lifting from this “disadvantageous” position). The fact that we are using this further forward shoulder position to purposefully make the lift harder, further solidifies the extreme advantage of bar and shoulder (or rather, bar and “spine of scapula”) alignment (or rather, a vertical arm).
As a bit of a WARNING:
General and regular use of the Romanian deadlift or even the Good Morning is recommended UNLESS one is already posterior chain dominant (meaning out of balance stronger than the anterior/quads, and coming out of a good start position their hips are always rising faster than the shoulders). If so, they should probably not do any at all until they balance out. On the other hand, if one is using the Romanian deadlift to offset a posterior weakness (an overall imbalance) this might be their premier deadlift version for a phase. With the athlete all square and balanced, in a complete and balanced weightlifting program, one should ensure they’re doing far more “snatch” and “clean” deadlifts than these area isolating movements.
Now, what do these 3 basics do to the look and reality of the movement when appropriately executed (for each individual but also in general)? Let’s go back to considering the angles that are created with the body when someone is in their start position and first remember that they are by-products of the 3 basics. The by-product of back angle and therefore hip height with this combination of bar over midfoot, bar touching shins, AND ESPECIALLY bar in line with spine of scapula will be with the hips lower and the torso more vertical than so many in the community think, believe, and/or teach (see the demos below).
This means that the conventional deadlift DOES in fact have a “leg drive”! It’s not just all “back and hamstrings”, as there is/should be more quad, and a better/stronger combination of the whole body used than that. Also, any general indication that the back angle has to be at any certain angle or the hips at any certain height in relation to the knees (for example) for deadlifts is unfounded; again, these are by-products!
I had an athlete travel to my physical therapy clinic to work on his low back. Every time he deadlifted he would get a very intense low back muscular “pump” sensation and even painful muscular spasms the following day at times. He told me he NEVER felt his legs working hard after a heavy deadlift session, only his back.
During our evaluation I assessed his deadlift technique and noticed one major flaw…his shoulders positioned way too far over the barbell in his start position. The further the shoulders are positioned over the barbell, the more torque on the low back rises, making the lift much harder to complete without the spine buckling. The problem wasn’t that he had a “bad back” but rather that he was using his back TOO MUCH and not setting his body in a position to optimize his leg drive.
During our session, I simply changed his start position to fit the 3 Pillars we just discussed. By realigning his shoulders into a better position it allowed him to perform the lift with a more balanced approach (less torque on the low back and more leg drive). He instantly reported feeling his glutes and quads working hard for the first time and not having any symptoms in his low back!
I hope the unmasking of these conventional deadlift basics has been as eye opening and exciting to you as they have been for me, and you are ready to dig in even a little deeper. Next, we’ll head towards and examine the visuals that will help us complete the comparison between the start positions of the Olympic lifts, and that of the conventional deadlift.
Until next time,
2-Time Olympian, USAW
Dr. Aaron Horschig, PT,
DPT, CSCS, USAW