With the 3 Basics of the Conventional Deadlift Start Position and the 3 Essential Steps to the Olympic Lifting Start Positions in mind, we are getting closer to being able to make a complete, visual comparison. Let’s go back to the idea of that comparison being made by using an INDIVIDUAL as opposed to 2 different athletes. Before we do this though, we need to confirm some other points that will be “given” differences that we are going to see that I don’t want to distract you from the more base constants. These given differences are due to the obvious different tasks and intended end results of the deadlift and the snatch/clean. Let’s further establish what those are:
- The endpoint of a powerlifter’s deadlift is a standing position, holding the bar at rest wherever it is touching the legs at that point. How far the bar is moved, and where it is at rest, is dependent on the width of the grip, and the torso and limb length proportions of the individual. The less distance the bar is moved the better, so a Powerlifter will be set up to accommodate that as much as possible. Also, the speed at which the bar is moved is of no real concern as long as the bar keeps moving until the endpoint is reached. There is an “ascent” and a “leg drive” within, but no “jump” required at the end of it.
- For the Olympic lifts, the end points are in a standing position, with the bar overhead. For the “snatch,” that happens in one motion, and for the “clean and jerk” in two (first getting to the standing position with the bar in the front rack position, and then jerking overhead from there). This all requires speed and power through a standing position, i.e., past the endpoint of a conventional deadlift. We need to accelerate through that standing position (a change/building of speed through the 1st ascent) and transfer that energy by contacting or brushing the body with the bar as we move through this point. These contact points matter along with the speed for optimal power exertion and energy purposes and should be at mid-pubic bone for the snatch and high upper quad for the clean. So, the bar has to be moved much further through even just an initial stand (not to mention the bar is initially lower in relation to the body due to Olympic lifting shoes) and for sure to the ultimate destination.
With these different end points and what it optimally requires to get there, we have 4 task specific differences to cover; stance, grip width, shape of the back, and head positioning:
Stance and Grip Width
To best understand where the feet should be for the deadlift and why it differs, we first have to establish the grip width. For the deadlift, this is typically far more narrow than we’ve recommended for the clean (and certainly for the snatch). This more narrow grip is used for the deadlift as one of those accommodations to create less distance for the bar to travel – this is why athletes with abnormally long arms in relation to the rest of their body have a distinct advantage for this task. With these factors combined, I’ve seen World Records broken with the bar at rest anywhere from right at the knee, or more typically, around mid quad. In either case, far lower than where we’d want the bar to be after standing with a “snatch grip” or even a “clean grip” deadlift. To pinpoint, this is about shoulder-width apart and/or where the hands would be just outside of your legs in the completed standing position versus the 2-4 inches we want the index finger to be outside of the outer edge of the shoulder for a clean. So, the “chains” (arms) are vertical from the side, and vertical or very close to it from the front.
Onto the stance. With the hands being far more narrow, it leaves a smaller and different range for where the feet can go. This range is usually right at hip-width apart or slightly more narrow versus the “hip to shoulder-width” range we want for the snatch and clean. This means the knees are also far more narrow in a conventional deadlift with less room to open up than in the clean (and of course even more so in the snatch); again, adding to that different look. Additionally, with this more limited ability to flare, you are more likely to see less toe turnout in general. Remember, as a physiological basic for any movement, we do not want the knees to direct inside of the toes any amount. So, with the hands/arms this narrow it wouldn’t take much toe out for the knees to be unable to at least align with them (the knees would be stuck inside the toes; KEEP that in mind).
Shape of the Back
With the conventional deadlift, you’ll usually see at least a slight rounding in the back as a whole versus a more “flat” or slightly arched back with the Olympic lifts. You can see this clearly with World Record conventional deadlifts, and even those specific athletes lifting lighter weights (not necessarily “light”, but lighter than their heaviest). They will typically tell you that this rounding is purposeful and “ok” as long as the back and body as a whole is locked into that specific shape (namely the lats are engaged) and it does not waiver (round further) through the movement. I can certainly see how a locked and unwavering structure whether it be flat or rounded (the back) is different and more optimal/effective than one that is changing while the bar moves.
Still, this conflicts with most conventional deadlift (and sumo) teachings encouraging a “flat” back. This was brought to my attention over and over again as I researched, and then drilled into my head while receiving the coaching from Sebastian. For me, it was in the other direction though. He felt I had too much arch in my back that of course I was carrying over from my Olympic lifting start positions. This caught me off guard a little since I had become blinded to my arch, and at least subconsciously assumed on a basic level my back was flat. After this was pointed out to me I of course went and studied the specific point on other Olympic lifters and I would say that most have around about the same amount of arch as I do (many bigger Olympic lifters look more flat and some even have the slight rounding you would see more characteristically in conventional deadlifts; ie, Lasha Talakhadze). But, “flat” indeed is what is as well taught for the Olympic lifts. So, are all these athletes from both sports wrong?
First, let’s keep in mind that any “rounding” may be due to mobility and/or the shape/development of the back muscles. Additionally, the feet and knees being more open within the snatch and clean DOES give an advantage to the Olympic lifter when it comes to freedom/ability with the back. That combined with the fact that Olympic lifters typically have more mobility, they are more likely to be able to arch in this leaned over position where there is a high demand for mobility. On the other side of that, the more narrow feet and knees of a conventional deadlift in combination with a likely less mobile athlete, the Powerlifter is less likely to even be able to create a completely and literally “flat” looking back (this is not a jab to Powerlifting, just the realistic difference between the sports and the athletes within). Now, back to whether all these athletes are “wrong” or not? I would say, NO! This is because the arched back of an Olympic lifter is typically sustainable AND effective with the loads that are possible within those movements, especially for the lifters who have developed and honed it through many years. The rounded back of a Powerlifter is perhaps unavoidable (where one would “break” to) with the loads that are possible with the conventional deadlift. Again, this rounding, or the amount of rounding for a given individual becomes more and more sustainable AND effective as it is developed and honed through many years.
All that being said, if we were to observe a Powerlifter in a snatch or clean start position, we would likely see the same amount of rounding as they use with their conventional set up (due to mobility, a molding effect, and muscle memory). For an Olympic lifter in a conventional set up, we will likely see the same amount of arch that they use with their snatch and clean start positions (due to a lacking understanding of where “flat” truly is and how to engage like a Powerlifter). These concepts and the shape of the back specifically between these athletes from these 2 different sports is one of the biggest reasons why I feel comparisons should be made with ONE individual.
Head (and eye) Position
We covered this in depth previously in the head and eye position blog as part of the start position checklist explanations (“Start Position: Head and Eyes”), and here is a quick review: Essentially we established that for the Olympic lifts, the range of head positioning in the start position is “forward to slightly up”, and for the conventional deadlift it is typically, “forward to down”; “down” to the point of the head and neck being aligned with the spine (you can see this as well demonstrated in the above AND below comparison image). For the Olympic lifts we want the “forward to slightly up” because when moving faster and further, the body likes to follow the head and eyes. If the head and eyes are positioned too low, the shoulders are likely to follow them with the hips rising faster than shoulders and/or drifting forward and/or rotating through extension as opposed to better/straighter extension (a head and eye position that is down when extending quickly will inevitably change and with loss of focus/eye position there will be loss of connection and control with the body of the movement).
To add to all of this for the conventional deadlift, Sebastian specifically directed me to lower my eyes slightly from straight ahead and to “reach the crown of the head to the ceiling”. Now, this can present as less extreme than the head and neck being in 100% alignment with the spine, but falls into the range mentioned above. Any position within this range or cue used to accomplish it is about better aligning the spine and elongating the torso which helps with “taking the slack out” of the body and bar. In any case, once again, a very observable difference between the 2 different tasks.
Now that we have those task specific differences covered, let’s combine them with all of the other information we have, create a start position checklist for the conventional deadlift, and take a look at that side by side with that of the snatch and clean:
Let’s now see how the points on these checklists within the conventional deadlift, snatch, and clean look on the SAME individual:
First of all, the very apparent similarities from the side here that have been most surprising to me: the back angle, and shoulder positioning in relation to the bar. The back angle is spot-on the same or extremely close to it, and in spite of the differences on the checklist, and some other differences we’ll cover. Remember, back angle for both tasks is a by-product. So, through a slightly different checklist combination, a constant back angle was produced for my body amongst the 3 different lifts (though I can see this varying a little more for different athletes, I think they should at least be very close). One of those slightly different checklist points is shoulder alignment, and you can see here that for me it is VERY close to the same. Though very close, it is apparent that the shoulders are slightly further back in relation to the bar for the conventional deadlift versus the snatch and clean, and that is through using the set up marker of “spine of scapula” and aiming for a completely vertical arm position from the side. I cannot go without stating here once again that some of the general assumptions for the conventional deadlift in the community are that the shoulders have to be further in front of the bar than this, and the back angle less vertical. These assumptions need to be smashed and these characteristics adjusted if more athletes want to deadlift more optimally!
The premier DIFFERENCE here from the side that isn’t new or surprising but has so much more validity now that I have a greater understanding of the conventional deadlift: hip height. The hips are higher in the deadlift vs the clean and snatch BUT not in relation to the shoulders or because the shoulders have to be further forward or back angle less vertical. The hips are higher in relation to the GROUND for 2 simple reasons: 1) The bar is slightly higher in relation to the whole body due to being barefoot versus wearing high-heeled weightlifting shoes (the lifter is “shorter” while barefoot), and 2) the hands are more narrow than in the clean and for sure in the snatch making the arms longer and raising the rest of the body higher (this is the big difference in hip/body height between the clean and snatch as well).
When the bar is higher in relation to the body with the conventional deadlift, it does not necessarily mean it is higher on the shins. This is due to the different angles and lengths created from flaring the knees more with clean and snatch grips.
Being barefoot and therefore “shorter” means that there is less distance to travel to stand up completely. Additionally, having the hands more narrow and the arms longer as well means that there is less distance to travel to stand up completely (think of where the bar starts and ends). So, it is not just the hips being higher, but the whole body from the knee up through the rest of the body (as you can see by looking at the level of the head in each photo). Remember that there is a “leg drive” within the conventional deadlift as well as the clean and snatch, it’s just that with the conventional deadlift there is less of it left to do because we are closer to a standing position. With all this in mind, we see more of an upward angle in the femur in the conventional deadlift. Additionally, from the angled front view below we’ll be able to see as well that there is less bend in the knee and therefore the shin more vertical and leg as a whole straighter.
From this angled front view you can also see that within the clean and snatch the pressure on the feet is further forward (mid-foot pressure versus towards the heels slightly). This can be noted and reasoned since the bar is further forward on the foot than midfoot (where it is in the conventional deadlift), and more of the body is tilted on top of and forward of the bar (again, that is further forward). We can also get another good look at those matching back angles, and the different head and eye positions that are intact and more optimal for each task.
Now for the direct front view:
Directly from the front we can see first the slightly different width and turnout of the feet. Now, for me this is very similar BUT remember, with the conventional deadlift this specific spot is more unavoidable, or at least there is far less range, whereas with the clean and snatch there is more “freedom” or wiggle room so a different athlete might show more variation here between the 2 tasks. We also get a GREAT look at the difference in hand spacing and what that leads the direction of the knees to do, or to be able to do (this is why there is less range/options of where the feet can go in the conventional deadlift). Additionally, we can further confirm the difference in hip and body height by looking at the bottom of the hamstrings, the shoulders, and/or the head in relation to, say, the bottom of the door behind.
Wow, I’m exhausted by all the thoughts, reflections, and dreams that all this has provoked in me, but EXTREMELY excited to move forward as an athlete and coach! One of the questions that is constantly swirling around in my mind is HOW do I/we move forward from here as Olympic lifting athletes and coaches with this information? How can Powerlifters and CrossFitters use it as well? Next, I’ll throw some considerations and suggestions your way as I attempt to answer this premier question for athletes in all 3 scenarios.
Until next time,
2-Time Olympian, USAW
Dr. Aaron Horschig, PT,
DPT, CSCS, USAW