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Clean & Snatch Start Position

By Sean | In Olympic Weightlifting | on November 27, 2010

Since the USAW Level 1 Cert, we have made it a point to emphasize the correct bar placement in the start positions of the Clean and Snatch.  Unlike the deadlift where we want the bar to be over the middle of the foot to optimize body position during the initial lift off from the floor, in the set-up for the snatch and clean the bar should be over the base of the toes (balls of feet) in order to optimize the body position during the second pull of the lifts.  Also of note, the shoulders should be above or slightly in front of the bar.  Greg Everett from Catalyst Athletics and publisher of the Performance Menu, published an article that goes into much more detail.  Here’s a short excerpt:

Most importantly, we need to understand this: The sole purpose of the starting position (and first pull) is to allow an optimal second pull…

The starting position I teach—again, that I teach, not that I invented—is defined by two basic points. The barbell begins approximately over the base of the toes, and the arms are vertical when viewed from the side. Simple enough.

It may be helpful to rename the base of the toes the balls of the feet since the inclusion of the word “toes” seems to confuse some people and result in the bar being placed over the toes, rather than over their attachment to the foot as desired.

Is there something magical about this bar position? In a way—It’s the farthest forward we can start the bar and still be capable of lifting it from the floor. Why do we need it so far forward? Because we need to create space for us to get into position with vertical arms—as the hips drop, the knees bend, and the shins move forward. Unless the bar moves forward, the shins can’t, and consequently we can’t bend the knees and drop the hips.

Occasionally you’ll run across someone who happens to be proportioned just right and can assume the start position with the bar farther back over the foot. In these cases, this is the preferred approach. But attempting this without the proper proportions just results in either the bar having to be swung forward around the knees, or having to lift the hips ahead of the shoulders in order to get the knees out of the way. Neither is something we want, although a slight swing around the knees is far preferable because it allows the upright back angle we’re after—both Stefan Botev and Ivan Chakarov managed to lift remarkably heavy weights in this fashion.

In regard to the shoulders, yes, they will be slightly (SLIGHTLY) in front of the bar in this position. Look at an arm-shoulder unit. You’ll notice, excepting gross physical deformation, that the muscles of the shoulder protrude farther forward than those of the upper arm when in this position. That means that with a vertical arm orientation, that shoulder mass will protrude farther forward than the arm. Since the arm is attached to the barbell approximately at its centerline by the hand, this means the shoulder is and must be slightly ahead of the bar. Moving on.

So where are the hips? I don’t know; I haven’t measured you. If you’re on the short end of the scale, the hips will most likely be above the knees; if you’re a bit longer-legged, the hips may be even with or even slightly below the knees. Understand that hip height is a product of our two basic position criteria (bar over the base of the toes and arms vertical from side), not a criterion itself.

We need to also flare the knees out to the sides, likely until they’re in light contact with the insides of the arms. This positioning effectively shortens the length of the legs and allows us to bring the hips closer to the knees and bar, thereby allowing an even more upright posture and reducing the distance the knees protrude over the bar, making its path clearer.

Ideally we will maintain this same initial back angle throughout the first pull—that is, all the way until the bar reaches about mid-thigh and we fire off that second pull hip and knee extension. However, with taller lifters, we will often need to allow that back angle to shift very slightly in the first couple inches of the first pull. In other words, after the bar is separated from the platform, the hips will rise ahead of the shoulders for just a brief moment to set a new back angle that is then maintained for the remainder of the first pull. This will also begin happening with all lifters as loading becomes extremely heavy because of the mechanical disadvantage of the knee joint in this position.

Thankfully this shift will happen quite naturally. That said, this needs to be controlled to prevent it from being exaggerated and putting us right back into that high-hipped position we’re trying to avoid. Again, the shift will be very subtle and occur by the time the bar has moved the first few inches off the floor. All the athlete needs to do is continue attempting to lift with the back angle unchanged.

So if we’re going to allow this shift, what’s the point of starting with the hips lower? Two reasons. First, it takes effort to separate the bar from the floor. If we can undertake this effort, even if it’s only part of the total effort, from a better position, we’re still at an advantage. Remember our point earlier about minimizing lower back fatigue. Second, it acts as a hedge against excessive hip-leading—that is, if we can begin at a lower point, we’re still in a good position with a little hip-leading; if we attempt to start in that adjusted position, it’s likely we’ll still experience a slight shift. So by remaining in that ideal start position, we’re minimizing departure from it.

Unfortunately many of us have unlearn the deadlift style set-up and pull.  There’s no easy way to do this without some practice time and a lot of reps.  Those lifting in the CrossFit Marina Developmental Meet next Saturday might want to start working on fine tuning your start positions this week and get comfortable with the new set-up if you haven’t already.  Happy Small Business Saturday, so be sure to support some of your favorite small businesses this holiday season (like CFI).

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