The other day my daughter Ashleigh and I were cranking out some power cleans at the local World Gym when an athletic-looking guy came over and commented about how “you never see THAT being done in gyms anymore these days!”
And of course he’s completely correct, but I’ll tell you what: cleans are actually pretty common and truthfully, pedestrian, compared to an even lesser appreciated exercise:
Statistically, you’d have to visit about 10,000 gyms before you could claim ever having seen anyone doing ANY form of snatch (1). Indeed, most people have never even seen a snatch and even fewer have actually done one. Even rare television coverage of Olympic lifting events (such as the Olympic games) typically focus on the clean and jerk.
Why then, is the snatch such a poorly understood and under-appreciated exercise? Does the cost-to-benefit ratio of the snatch warrant further attention from athletes and physique enthusiasts seeking more muscle and enhanced performance? Young man, it’s time to take off that ridiculous brassiere or Weider Arm Blaster or whatever the hell it is and listen up – the snatch is perhaps the single most productive exercise you can do. I anticipate you’ll need further convincing, so let’s examine the benefits:
1) First and foremost the snatch is FUN! Seriously! (Unless, of course, you accidentally slam the bar into your face like I once did about 12 years ago, but more on technical issues later). Joe Senate, an Olympic lifter I once trained, puts it this way: “Olympic lifts are like jumping from one rooftop to the other – you either make it, or you don’t.” And he’s right. With the snatch, there’s an indescribable satisfaction that comes from completing a successful lift. It’s not like grinding out an ugly, ass-in-the-sky bench press to impress your friends at the local Curves studio. With the snatch, if you use bad form, you miss. So snatching is fun, and if you’re not having fun in the gym, you shouldn’t be there.
2) The snatch will smear gobs of muscle all over that bony frame of yours. From the calves all the way up to your traps, the snatch pretty much has it all covered. OK, it’s true that snatching won’t do anything for your pecs or your biceps, but isn’t it a safe bet that you’ve been on a “beach muscle specialization cycle” since, let’s see…THE THIRD GRADE?!?
C’mon Johnny, ya gotta work on your weaknesses…in order to grow, you need to put your strengths on the back burner while you bring up your weaknesses.
True story: I’m doing snatches at the YMCA in Salt Lake City. (A great place by the way.) This kid comes up to me and asks, “What muscle does that work?” Sensing my opportunity to make a profound, yet sublimely humorous impact on the little guy, I respond, “You know when you’re on the field, and your friend throws a football to you, and then you run downfield and catch it?” “Yeah,” the kid says with a quizzical look on his face. “It works that muscle.”
3) The snatch will completely freak out everyone at your local health club, and I KNOW this is an attractive idea for most of you. Another true story: I was doing a workout in Chicago at a local health club chain. The particular gym’s logo was a pictogram of someone doing – you guessed it – a snatch (see illustration below).
Almost everyone has seen gym logos like this I think. In any event, sure enough, I was doing snatches, and you guessed it, a metrosexualized ACE certified trainer comes up to me and says “I’m sorry, you can’t do that here…” To which I respond (pointing to their logo on the wall) “BUT THAT’S YOUR GYM’S LOGO!”
You can’t make stuff like this up folks….
But I digress…back to the benefits:
4) The snatch will make you strong, fast, flexible, and (stop me before I say it) functional. I still remember the day I met Antonio Krastev, who has the distinction of being perhaps the World’s greatest snatcher, having snatched more than 475 pounds in official competition. What’s that? Your best deadlift is 395 pounds? Anyway, Antonio did indeed grab a barbell loaded to 475 pounds and in a single continuous movement, threw it up to an overhead position, just like that gym’s logo.
Did I mention that Krastev is a really huge man? When he walked into the training hall, he had a raincoat on and it looked like one of those Halloween sight gags where two guys put on an oversized coat to look like one person. Antonio’s ankles were roughly twice as thick as my thigh.
Getting back to the point, throwing big weights overhead makes you really, really strong, and as T-Nation contributor Dan John likes to say, overhead lifts teach you that you’re “one piece.”
5. Snatches come in all shapes, sizes and colors. Bottom line: you’ll never get bored. You can do them from the floor or from the “hang.” You can grip the bar wide, medium or narrow. Heck, you can even use dumbbells, kettlebells, or anything else you can grab and throw up over your head! More on these later…
6. Finally, and excuse me while I wax nostalgic… When you snatch, you suddenly become connected to weightlifting’s earliest history, traditions and all those great personalities who first crafted the sport. It’s kind of like taking a jog in the ancient Olympic stadium in Athens. Sends chills up my spine just thinking about it.
7. Oh, forgot an important philosophical point: when you snatch you’re doing something profoundly important, which is breaking from the common herd. One of the most important lessons I can impart to you is that since most people are only mediocre at any given skill, the path to greatness is found in opposition. Put simply, if you seek greatness, look at what most people do, and then do the opposite. And I mean that quite literally by the way.
TABLE ONE: The Unique Value Of Olympic Lifts For Athletes
The truly remarkable abilities of Olympic style weightlifters are certainly due in part to genetic qualities of these athletes and to their outstanding physical condition. However, they’re also due in no small measure to the kind of training that weightlifters do: performing the snatch and the clean and jerk (C&J).
Almost any form of resistance training can improve an athlete’s strength, but the snatch and C&J are unique in their ability to develop strength and explosive power at the same time. And the benefits of practicing the Olympic lifts are hardly limited to developing strength and power. Here’s a partial list of other added benefits:
1. The mere practice of the Olympic lifts teaches an athlete how to explode (to activate a maximum number of muscle units rapidly and simultaneously). Part of the extraordinary abilities of the Olympic lifters arises out of their having learned how to effectively activate more of their muscle fibers more rapidly than others who are not so trained (in addition to having developed stronger muscles).
2. The practice of proper technique in the Olympic lifts teaches an athlete to apply force with his or her muscle groups in the proper sequences (i.e., from the center of the body to its extremities). This is a valuable technical lesson that can be of benefit to any athlete who needs to impart force to another person or object (a necessity in virtually every sport).
3. In mastering the Olympic lifts, the athlete learns how to accelerate objects under varying degrees of resistance. This is because the body experiences differing degrees of perceived resistance as it attempts to move a bar with maximum speed through a full range of motion. These kinds of changes in resistance are much more likely to resemble those encountered in athletic events than similar exercises performed on an isokinetic machine (which has a fixed level of resistance or speed of resistance throughout the range of motion).
4. The athlete learns to receive force from another moving body effectively and becomes conditioned to accept such forces.
5. The athlete learns to move effectively from an eccentric contraction to a concentric one (through the stretch-shortening cycle, which is the cycle that is activated and trained through exercises that are often referred to as plyometrics).
6. The actual movements performed while executing the Olympic lifts are among the most common and fundamental in sports. Therefore, training the specific muscle groups in motor patterns that resemble those used in an athlete’s events is often a byproduct of practicing the snatch and C&J.
7. Practicing the Olympic lifts trains an athlete’s explosive capabilities, and the lifts themselves measure the effectiveness of the athlete in generating explosive power to a greater degree than most other exercises they can practice.
8. Finally, the Olympic lifts are simply fun to do. I have yet to meet an athlete who has mastered them who does not enjoy doing the Olympic lifts. While making workouts enjoyable may not be the primary objective of a strength coach, it is not an unimportant consideration in workout planning. Athletes who enjoy what they are doing are likely to practice more consistently and to be more highly motivated than athletes who do not enjoy their workouts as much.
(Excerpted from The Weightlifting Encyclopedia by Arthur Drechsler. For more info see: http://www.wlinfo.com)
“But Coach Staley, aren’t snatches, well, complicated?”
I don’t know, can you grab a bar and just sort of throw it up over your head?
With the endless array of benefits the snatch provides, I’m not sure why so many coaches have this idea that somehow the snatch is more technical than doing inverted kettebell Turkish windmills on a wobble board while simultaneously drawing in your navel to activate your TVA muscle.
Look, I know Paul Chek says that if you’re not careful, you can potentially disrupt your scapulo-thoracic rate coding mechanism if you don’t carefully align your mandibular bone directly over your sterno-clavicular joint while performing axial loading in closed-chain conditions but look, who really cares? Let’s get some lifting in, OK?
“But Wait, Aren’t Olympic Lifts Dangerous?”
Huh? No, not really. I mean, sure it’s possible to hurt yourself, but a lot more people get hurt doing bench presses, and you don’t seem to have any problem doing those right? As a matter of fact, if anything, snatches can act as sort of a therapeutic counter-balance, helping to stretch out those pecs and maintain a decent degree of external rotation in your upper arms. Just follow the technique guidelines below and you’ll be fine. So can we lift now? Sheesh!
Choose Your Weapon: A Compendium Of Snatch Variations
It’s time to grab a bar, make eye contact with anyone nearby (so they’ll know you’re about to do something different, and hopefully stand back a little bit so no one gets hurt) and get to work.
Snatch Jump Drill
This is the best starting point for snatch virgins. After all, there’s no point in developing performance anxiety your very first time, right?
Don’t get overly detail-conscious yet. Just grab the bar, widen out your grip (tall guys – move your hands right out to the sleeves) and stand erect. This is a two-part move, kinda’ like a vertical jump. First you’ll dip down just a little, and then you’ll jump straight up and shrug at the same time. Keep those arms long and straight at all times and shoot for maximum jump height. Notice how that bar is just dying to fly up over your head.
In the final installment of this article, we’ll explore the numerous types of snatches that can be performed, as well as a sample strength and power program incorporating these lifts.
Until then, practice the snatch jump drill (it makes an ideal warm up for lower body sessions) until you develop a smooth, coordinated movement pattern.
(1) Dover, Benjamin, (2002) A Multi-Disciplinary Examination Of Exercise Preference Among Pre-Pubescent, Adolescent, And Adult Males In Commercial Health Club Settings. 187-189, Journal Of Obscure Yet Highly-Productive Training Drills.