As a qualifier for the following statements in this section, I’ve been a part of the CrossFit community since 2008, have traveled the world running seminars at many different CrossFit gyms since 2010, and even owned a CrossFit “box” for 5 years. So, I’m confident in relaying to you here what I’ve observed and understand about the method. With this being said, I’ll provide some thoughts on how the athletes within might best approach the use of the snatch and clean in combination with the conventional deadlift as they are both used very regularly in CrossFit programming.
Additionally, take note that I have not indicated, beginner, novice, or experienced for the scenario of CrossFit. This is because I feel that most CrossFitters, no matter how long they’ve been doing it, could stand to “start over” and journey through the sequence of events that will be considered below (that’s not to say that many experienced Olympic lifters or Powerlifters could not benefit from “starting over” as well). Just keep in mind that a long-time CrossFitter may make their way through the recommendations more easily and quickly due to the background they have with the method. On the other hand, it could be very likely that it takes them LONGER due to their body being stubborn with the faulty movement patterns they have perhaps engrained due to the time and reps they’ve spent too far outside of purpose.
One last preface: what I have observed and understood MOST about the community and method is that I LOVE it for so many reasons! Namely, it’s leading so many people to live a healthier and stronger life, and it’s the reason that I and so many other Olympic lifters are coaches and have a career path with the barbell beyond being an athlete and outside the specific Olympic lifting community. Whether you agree with it or not, it’s changing and improving lives!
Onto the dirt! The major argument/criticism of CrossFit stems from the fact that the beginner does a lot of every fitness exercise you can think of at its full capacity pretty immediately and for a lot of reps (usually thrown into a class with minimal adjustments and no real long-term progressions in mind, directly after only 1 to 4 “on-ramp”/intro sessions; now, this isn’t always the exact case, but is the general protocol). This typically leads to a lot of compensated and less than optimal movement for each exercise, and movement that conflicts with other exercises (little to no “synergy” where there CAN be more, or at least a much greater attempt for there to be). Though the athlete can still be fit and healthy from the constant metabolic conditioning (reps whether they be “good” or “bad” or “perfect” are going to elicit some heavy breathing and a positive and beneficial training effect), their potential will be extremely limited in each individual exercise (in load and/or reps they can perform in a certain amount of time). In turn, though they are FAR better off than they would be otherwise (without CrossFit or “fitness” at all), their “fitness” and athletic ceiling will be quite lower than what it could be.
Let’s get this straight! This is not the fault of CrossFit as a company, creation, methodology, or endorsed coaching style. In fact, the base doctrine repeatedly calls for VIRTUOSITY! In CrossFit we understand “virtuosity” as “doing the common uncommonly well” (with a true definition of “great skill in music or another artistic pursuit”). CrossFit at its root warns against the rush to advancement beyond the basics. But, this seems to be all taken in one ear as “jargon” and disposed of out the other side! It is US as athletes and coaches in the community that are getting ahead of ourselves! This means that many of the coaches in the community are delivering the method and all of the exercises within in a way that is less than virtuous. The athletes are rushed to or allowed to go “RX”, to break a “PR”, etc. prematurely.
“RX” is stating that an athlete performed a given workout as prescribed, or as it was originally written, as opposed to adjusting it or “scaling” it as needed to better fit one’s level. For example, the popular CrossFit workout named “Diane” calls for 21 deadlift reps at 225 pounds for men and 155 pounds for women, then 21 handstand push ups, then 15 of each, then 9 of each. This is to be done as fast as possible to generate a certain amount of intensity. Choosing the correct weight and/or movement is important because the time domain stimulus is what is most important. The intended range for this workout is circa 6-10 minutes and the ability to perform the deadlifts and handstand push ups unbroken or in no more than 2 sets with each rep scheme. So, if you are a female whose max deadlift is 165 pounds and you’ve only ever done 1 handstand push up, then you are going to need to scale to say, 105 pounds for the deadlift and regular push ups instead of handstand push ups. This will give the athlete a better chance to hit the intended time domain. Whether the athlete scales or not, if this workout is taking them more than 20 minutes for example, that is a clear sign that they NEED to scale or scale more instead of being pushed to, or allowed to go “RX”.
The coaches that are more on board with virtuosity and strive for synergy have to deal with many athletes that either don’t care enough about moving well/correctly, don’t believe moving well matters, or just want to come into the gym for an escape and to breathe hard with a group where they uptake a healthy and addicting dose of comradery. I have to admit, as a CrossFit coach I’ve become “ok” with and accepting of this perspective as I would typically have a better chance of getting smarter by banging my head against the wall than changing it; PLUS, they are STILL receiving tremendous physical, mental, and emotional benefit from just showing up!
Now, for those of you that DO care about optimizing your movement in each exercise and synergizing across the board as much as possible, I have the magic protocol for you here! OH, if only that were true! For these purposes it’s a tough scenario with no great answers. I could (and will) theorize a number of potential action steps that might include things like longer “on-ramp” phases, taking discipline specific classes before starting CrossFit or alongside of it but without performing those movements in WODs in the beginning, staying modified with smaller segments of the more technical exercises for probationary periods of time, etc. But, before I go off too much with any of that, let’s zone back in on the snatch, clean, and conventional deadlift; and specifically their start positions and how they can and should interact together within this setting.
First let’s acknowledge that in CrossFit with each “task” (snatch and clean vs conventional deadlift), there are 2 different “efforts” (low rep-heavy weight AND HIGH rep-light weight). Many will state that the technique/movement for those different EFFORTS will need to be different for each of the different TASKS (meaning that one’s heavy snatches will and should look different from beginning to end than their low weight-high rep efforts because they are moving faster with more fatigue and cannot possibly make them the same). Even if this is true to any extent, we should AIM for them to match AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE. That being said, surprisingly and apparently unbeknownst to them, MOST in the community already move very similarly between the 2 efforts within each task, AND also very similarly between each TASK (this means for example that the positions and actions within their conventional deadlift can be seen within their cleans; just taking the bar further on up to the front rack within the clean of course). Similar and consistent movement as much as possible is what we want, BUT the problem with the specific similar movement mentioned above is that it is all less than optimal. So, this idea of the movement of different efforts needing to be or going to be unavoidably different is just annoying chatter (to me) and an excuse they can lean on for their bad technique across the board!
If we first envision high rep-light weight efforts with the conventional deadlift, they are essentially performing a “rounded back-Romanian deadlift” as they quickly move through rep after rep. To build on this with cleans, it is a “rounded back-Romanian deadlift-muscle clean”, and the snatch is a “rounded back-Romanian deadlift-muscle snatch” (sorry for the repetitive words, I just like saying it and calling it out, so I’ll do my best to state it at least a few more times as we go!). This means that in all these reps there is minimal to no “leg drive”; blowing up and over-using the low back and hamstrings. Additionally within these actions, though the bar is moving very straight (because it kind of has to, with how many reps are being done; the body finds a way to make that happen) there is a lot of separation between the body and bar and further compensations to go along with that.
With low rep-heavy weight efforts, the athlete MIGHT present a little different and a little better BUT the high rep-low weight efforts are feeding the movement and muscle memory of both efforts. This is because the high rep-low weight efforts are seen more often in general in CrossFit programming AND each time it comes up the athlete is going to perform more reps than they would with any low rep-heavy weight workout. When the workouts with low rep-heavy weight efforts do come up, there is typically insufficient time to dedicate to good technique work in general, and FOR SURE not enough to overcome all of those other reps. This vicious cycle that is extremely commonplace in the community means that more and more the “rounded back-Romanian deadlift” base is becoming a stronger and stronger default (I told you I would be saying it again) within any conventional deadlifts, snatches, and cleans. Is any of this sounding familiar at all to anyone?
The stronger default that we WANT for ALL tasks and efforts that IS possible starts with understanding what is optimal for each task within low rep-heavy weight efforts. We’ve of course covered the start positions extensively, as well as touched on the subsequent movement of each of those previously. With that information we know that the back angle of the conventional deadlift, snatch, and clean can be/should be very similar if not spot on the same. Now, this is IF the individual is using the position and technique that is expressed with our 3 Essential Steps for the snatch and clean start positions. With this “if” in mind, I would strongly suggest that the 3 Essential Steps be the start position guidelines for any crossfitter because not only does it match the conventional deadlift better, but it leads to a “straighter” bar path (that is in comparison once again to a mid-delt start position that typically requires much more horizontal displacement of the bar). This is important and an additional greater match because the body is going to want and unavoidably develop into as straight of a bar path as possible within high rep-light weight efforts.
This is especially true with what are known as “touch-and-go” reps within CrossFit. This is where the bar is held onto for a certain number of reps with the athlete lowering the weight (instead of dropping it, then re-grabbing it before lifting again), gently tapping the ground with the plates (OR sometimes aggressively bouncing), and from there immediately changing direction and going into the next rep. If you think about this technique within snatches and cleans, it REALLY doesn’t make sense to “sweep” the bar into the body from a mid-delt alignment start (as in an extreme Type 2 bar path where the bar has a lot of horizontal displacement), and then drive it back forward as you lower to the floor on every rep. Envision the bar moving back as the hips are rising faster than the shoulders on the way up, and then the hips lowering faster than the shoulders and the bar going forward on the way down. For one rep where you only have to worry about the “up” this is certainly doable and usable, but for the amount of reps performed in CrossFit workouts and especially adding in the “down”, this would be a waste of time and energy and very inefficient.
So, beyond teaching with the 3 Essential Steps and the 3 Basics of the conventional deadlift, the back angle can be our guide as we work to match all tasks and efforts as much as possible for the crossfitter. The back angle is the most constant piece amongst the 3 start positions (the snatch, the clean, and the conventional deadlift) AND the most visual, so let’s USE it. This will mean that the athlete is constantly using and practicing a “leg drive”, as well as maintaining their back angle up to the knees. Additionally, they will be getting more of the body involved on each rep, as opposed to isolating the low back and hamstrings that are working from a compromised position. The low back and hamstrings would love some help, and with this help that is with more of the body involved there will be greater efficiency, potential strength, synergy, AND VIRTUOSITY!
NOW, let’s not get ahead of ourselves though as this matching of the movement of each effort and task (using the back angle of each as a guide) is the ultimate goal and will take/should take some time to get to this point. As always, we’re going to tell you that we want you to learn and develop in a prioritized and progressive manner! This is my recommended course of action which we can look at as probationary phases (meaning the length of the phase will be dependent on the athlete):
Learn the conventional deadlift FIRST
Learn and perfect the conventional deadlift FIRST, but WHILE learning and perfecting your full depth squat and putting in whatever work you need to make that happen (ie, mobility, and position drills and tricks we’ve previously covered). Stay away from the high rep-light weight efforts until the athlete shows competency, consistency, and an increasing strength within the movement. This doesn’t mean that they cannot and should not do CrossFit workouts (“WODs”), or they have to skip the workouts with deadlifts in them. Just replace them really with anything else that makes them breathe hard so they get the BASE need and benefit of metabolic conditioning (of course we want it to be as similar as possible with the alternative exercise we choose so that they can feel more a part of the group and less isolated, and earn a sense of greater accomplishment; THIS is where good and creative communication and coaching should come in of which the BASE is knowledge!).
Don’t get me wrong, in CrossFit we NEED to begin to learn the Olympic lifts immediately as well, so this should happen alongside working on the conventional deadlift and full depth squat. To do this we first need some time and development with the overhead and front rack positions, and using them through those squat variations which will be a part of your full depth squat work. Also, the most elementary concept of Olympic lifting, that is jumping with weight and catching it in the overhead and front rack positions, should be introduced and practiced (we’ll cover this specific teaching method and the progressions within later). Essentially this will be done with reps from positions that are NOT from the ground. Again, we’ll initially stay away from any high rep-light weight efforts with these partial movements.
Think about how different this already is from the typical scenario of a new crossfitter coming into class sometime within their first week and doing “Grace” or something similar at its full movement capacity. “Grace” is 30 clean and jerks for time (meaning as fast as possible) at 135 pounds for men and 95 pounds for women. These clean and jerks are normally performed as “power” (meaning not squatting and not split jerking) but the cleans ARE lifted from the ground on each rep. So, even if the athlete uses a lighter load, they are getting into varying and less than optimal start positions since they have not been sufficiently taught (if they’ve even done ANY introductory sessions with clean and jerks at all) and certainly have not sufficiently honed any one position. From there the movement will be a little different on each rep but it will most certainly be a version of that “rounded back Romanian deadlift muscle clean”, and TO a front rack position and then an overhead position, both of which are unknowledgeable and not prepared. So, that vicious cycle begins! A good example for an adjusted “Grace” workout for someone in their first week would be, say, 30 Russian kettlebell swings and 30 strict presses (that is, if these movements have been covered in a much slower paced introductory or skill session).
PRACTICE the SKILL of high rep-low weight BEFORE performing it in a WOD
At some point we’ll need to begin to use these movements within WOD’s as there is GREAT benefit to be had in doing so (especially IF they are being done correctly and in a synergistic fashion). Before this happens with the conventional deadlift, it should be practiced in a more controlled, but artificially “rushed” environment. You can do this by actually incorporating SKILL sessions for high rep-light weight efforts! Perform quick sets of 3, and then 5, and then 10 with rest in between those sets for example. Initially this would be done with dropping the bar from the standing position so the athlete can completely reset each rep, and then “touch-and-go” can be taught and practiced once the athlete shows competency and consistency.
This “touch-and-go” teaching and development process should include PAUSING in key positions and tempos from one key position to the next. For example, perform a regular deadlift from the ground, pause for 3 seconds in the standing position, lower from the standing position to the above knee position at a tempo of 3 seconds, hold at the above knee position for 3 seconds, then lower from the above knee position to the start position at a tempo of 3 seconds. Within that last section and during the 3 second tempo they are going to practice “squatting” (meaning “using their legs” or leg driving in reverse) and returning to the same position they started in (this would be opposed to continuing to hinge and leaving the hips too high, therefore creating a different start position). Once the weights touch the ground they’ll change direction with control and go into another rep. Of course over time the tempos and pauses should be taken out for SOME of the reps within the skill sessions, but these sessions should be continually revisited as ongoing skill work and maintenance.
When it’s time to begin adding the snatch or clean in, let’s continue to stay away from lifting from the ground. Any Olympic lift that is going to be performed quickly for reps and under fatigue should be lifted from a location and at a load where the athlete can show and maintain the technique/movement you are teaching them (from the hip or the knee), and quality throughout (meaning no bad habits sneaking in that could take over muscle memory such as no hip contact with a big arm bend or constant pressing out overhead). For the snatch this should initially be from the hip and then down the leg as able within future WODs. The clean should initially be done from the knee as it is a harder movement to execute well/correctly from the hip, especially for fast, sequential reps (they will be far more likely to use an arm bend and “muscle”).
Additionally, if a “squat snatch” or “squat clean” is called for in the WOD it is likely at this phase that you will need to adjust them to “power”, unless their mobility and full depth squat is sufficient and you’ve been practicing the squat versions outside of WODs. All that being said, we are not completely safe from lacking quality and bad habits with the power versions. We’ll need to watch out for the feet jumping out too wide (I would say that would be with the inside of the feet jumping out wider than the outside of the shoulders), in addition to compensations with the upper body through the reception (such as pressing out). If either of these are happening, then they need to use a lesser load.
As an example WOD to adjust for someone in this phase, let’s think about “Isabel”. “Isabel” is 30 snatches for time at 135 pounds for men and 95 pounds for women. These snatches are normally performed as “power” but the snatches are lifted from the ground on each rep. So instead, we would have the athlete do all 30 reps from the hip and likely at a lighter load. If the athlete is pressing out and/or jumping out too wide, then we’ll “follow the rules” and lessen the load even more.
Conventional Deadlifting within WODs and introducing the Olympic lifting start positions
Once a sufficient number of skill sessions for high rep-light weight conventional deadlifts have been completed, they can be added into or left in the athlete’s WODs. If within these WODs there is consistency with the start position and movement, NOW the athlete can begin to learn the start positions of the snatch and clean. Of course this learning will take place outside of WODs and the athlete will continue doing only snatches and cleans from the hip or knee within WODs. Keep in mind as well that since the athlete has put in their time with the conventional deadlift, progressed appropriately, and shown consistency while gaining strength within the conventional deadlift start position, we can use THAT to adjust from to initially set the athlete up in their clean and snatch start positions (ie, widen the hands, feel for more midfoot pressure and adjust stance slightly if needed, open the knees out to the wider arms while sinking the hips to create the same back angle as the deadlift, and raise the line of sight to straight forward; this works whether it is the clean or the snatch you are adjusting to….. BOOM!).
Snatching and Cleaning within WODs
Finally, let’s start using the start positions of the snatch and clean within WODs but only after, and then along with skill sessions now for high rep-light weight efforts for these movements. Once again this will initially be done with quick sets of 3-10 reps and dropping from the completed position on each rep so the athlete can completely reset. Then, to learn and practice “touch-and-go”, we’ll again do LOTS of pausing and tempos in reverse. Let’s stop and hold first at the completed position, then down to the hip/standing position, then to the knee, then to the floor where the plates will gently touch the ground before the athlete changes direction and goes into another rep. Just as we worked on “using the legs” or “leg driving in reverse” with the conventional deadlift to return to the same start position, we’ll do the same for snatches and cleans. Remember to take out some of the pauses and tempos within these skill sessions over time and keep these skill sessions going throughout your journey for maintenance of most efficient movement. ALSO, these “skill” sessions are actually GREAT for conditioning so don’t overlook that aspect of it (TWO HUGE benefits for the price of ONE!).
An example of all this for all purposes using snatches (“power” snatches) would be: 3 sets of 5 reps with pauses in reverse (completed position + hip + knee), then 2-3 sets of 5+5 reps (5 with the pauses and then 5 without; this is in the SAME set), then 1-2 sets of 10 without pauses (regular and now adding speed as able). This is all with very light and manageable loads.
Within these reps, put a premier focus on the way UP with all reps, AND then on the way DOWN with the reps without pauses of feeling contact at the “hip”. This means that on the way down in the snatch and clean they should brush the same contact point as they did on the way up. THIS “simple” focus and action will provide SO MANY beautiful benefits such as help create and maintain better positions and movement as they lower the weight and ready for the next rep, less “muscling” going up AND down, better carry over to low rep-heavy weight efforts, synergy with every other movement, etc. NOT contacting on the way up for all of those reps will engrain this lacking action and create difficulty and hesitancy to contact in your low rep-heavy weight efforts. NOT contacting on the way down will reinforce the lacking action of the UP, making the carry over of no contact to the low rep-heavy weight efforts even stronger.
Now, with all of this (the skill sessions for conventional deadlifts and the Olympic lifts, AND having them in WODs) they’re learning to differentiate where needed between the tasks. For example, with conventional deadlifts I look down slightly more, feel and maintain pressure slightly more towards heels, but sink hips on the way down just the same as the Olympic lifts. With the Olympic lifts, I look straight forward, feel and maintain more midfoot pressure, add a focus of contact, and sink the hips on the way down just the same as the conventional deadlifts.
We ALSO need to learn to differentiate where needed between the EFFORTS within the snatch and clean. The premier consideration that needs this attention is whether or not to move your feet within the reception. For WOD purposes, a “no jump” technique will need to be learned and practiced. “No jump” means that though they will still ideally extend up onto the toes, the foot as a whole should not leave the ground. This is more efficient with high rep-light weight efforts since it takes time and energy to lift the feet off the ground and put them back down. This is fine and optimal for most with 1 heavy rep for example, but think about doing that over and over again for 30 reps. Also, after the athlete has been introduced to the technique, the ability to maintain “no jump” can be used to help ensure the athlete is using the load that will allow the intended stimulus of the WOD, and optimal benefit. This is because if you are having to jump off the ground to get the weight overhead or to the front rack, you’re probably not going to be able to complete the reps within the intended timeframe.
Additionally, what I LOVE about the “no jump” technique and the use of it by crossfitters within WODs (as long as they’re doing everything else they’re supposed to be doing along with it) is they are accumulating “drill” reps towards teaching their feet to “behave” better in the reception of their low rep-heavy weight snatches and cleans. This means they are not jumping out excessively to random and compensated positions. Now, this all needs to be supported with full depth squats using a correct and solid foot position, mobility work as needed, and perhaps some “no jump” squat snatches and squat cleans. Still, the number of reps they would be doing within CrossFit workouts as “no jump”, even if they are “power”, would be extremely “powerful” (pun intended) towards teaching the feet better control. All of the extra “drilling” actually puts the crossfitter in a better position to be able to make the change and solidify the movement OVER any sport specific Olympic lifter that is compensating with their feet in the same way (THINK about that).
With all of this CrossFit talk we once again went well beyond the specific topic of start position, but with purpose. This purpose is to state that within this scenario as well one needs to be choosy about when they learn the start positions of each task. Additionally, they should have a plan for when to start using them for each EFFORT, and understand what is or can be going on alongside those teachings within each phase.
Reaching the end of the discussion on the use of the conventional deadlift and Olympic lifting start positions within CrossFit, also brings us to the end of their comparison in its entirety. The premier subject here is of course Olympic lifting, BUT this comparison and the comments included about Powerlifting and CrossFit were additionally made with great purpose! The sharing of information from different disciplines through the emergence of CrossFit has made it more acceptable and likely for an Olympic lifter to use some aspects of Powerlifting to their benefit, and vice versa. Keep in mind though that this sharing of information that in many cases is at best second hand has caused confusion and hindrance to those interested in any potential crossover benefits. We have to be smart and attentive as teachers, coaches, and athletes to make sure that what we are learning, teaching, and/or our implementation is based on the basics that stem from the realistic demands of each discipline; NOT assumptions, misinterpretations, and ego! I hope that the basics covered throughout this comparison will help you be more confident and competent with your choices of what to utilize in your training or with your athletes, and when and how.
“And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming” of the start positions for JUST the snatch and clean. We’ll finish out the topic with a few final aspects you’ll need to be aware of and use to optimize and develop your start position and movement beyond; the hook grip, and being static vs dynamic in your setup routine.
Until next time,
2-Time Olympian, USAW
Dr. Aaron Horschig, PT,
DPT, CSCS, USAW