Engineering A Better Lift by Joel Slate

Merriam-Webster defines engineering as “the science concerned with putting scientific knowledge to practical uses”. In other words, engineers use science and math to make a better world by designing things like bridges and dams.

If you ask an average person to design a bridge across a large river, the task will seem overwhelming. Where do you even start? An appropriately trained engineer will look at this large, seemingly impossible task and break it down in to a number of smaller, easily-managed tasks. Let’s use the bridge as an example. First, what types of vehicles will be crossing the bridge? Will there be heavy trucks or trains, or will it be pedestrians and bicycles? This helps determine the size and types of beams that will be needed. Next, how high does the bridge need to be? That can be determined by calculating how much runoff must flow under it and what type of river traffic exists. A bridge that must allow ships or barges underneath must be higher than a bridge that only must pass leisure boat traffic. Third, what type of material will be bridge be sitting on? Soft, unstable soils will require different construction techniques that solid rock. I could go on, but you get the idea. This large complex bridge is really a collection of smaller projects that fit together.

We can apply the same approach to improving our performance on the platform. I’m going to focus on weightlifting movements in this article, but the same technique can be applied to powerlifting, throwing the discus or shotput, etc. Let’s specifically focus on the snatch. I recently saw the following cartoon from a CrossFit gym that showed the snatch in three images:

While this may seem true to inexperienced lifters, the reality is that we can break the snatch down into several sequential “tasks” that we can analyze and improve, just like the bridge engineering example above.

Please Note: This is not a “how to snatch” article. If you are reading this and evaluating athletes (or yourself), it’s assumed that you have at least a working knowledge of how to perform the lifts.

Tasks

First, let’s break down the “tasks” of the snatch:

  1. Setup
  2. First pull – ground to power position
  3. Second pull – beginning above the knees at the power position, continuing through total application of upward force at full extension
  4. Third pull – the transition and pull under the bar, beginning immediately after full extension and application of upward force, including turnover of the bar
  5. Catch – receiving the bar in the overhead position, including any downward movement or settling into the bottom and any stabilization in the bottom position
  6. Recovery – standing up with the bar to the full standing position

Analyzing the Rate of Performance

We’ll analyze and rate the performance of each task in two ways, strength and technique.

Strength – Is the athlete strong enough to effectively execute the task in appropriate positions?

  • 5 – Excessively strong for the weight being lifted. Additional strength gains are not likely to improve performance at the current level
  • 4 – Sufficiently strong for the weight being lifted. Current strength levels allow the athlete to consistently execute the task at a high level of technical competency
  • 3 – Satisfactory strength for the current performance level. Additional strength gains may improve consistency or allow the athlete to improve performance
  • 2 – Marginal strength. The athlete can barely accomplish the given task and appears to be “maxed out” and may be inconsistent.
  • 1 – Insufficient strength. The athlete is not strong enough to execute a given task at a specific performance level. Attempt weights must be reduced or strength increased.

Technique – Is the athlete capable of performing the given task safely and efficiently with sufficient speed and maintaining proper positioning to allow the next sequential task to occur?

  • 5 – Technically superior
  • 4 – Solid technique. Athlete can perform minor tweaks to fine tune the task.
  • 3 – Satisfactory technique. The athlete can perform the task in a satisfactory manner to allow the next sequential task to initiate, but improvements will allow speed and/or weight lifted to improve.
  • 2 – Marginal technique. The athlete can perform the task, but his/her technique is inconsistent and/or inefficient enough to prevent satisfactory performance.
  • 1 – Insufficient technique. The athlete cannot perform the task or is grossly inefficient/slow.

Now, any athlete can fall anywhere on this spectrum depending on the weight being attempted. For example, if you put 60% of my 1RM on the bar, I can look like I’m a five on strength and a FIVE on technique. Meaningful analysis will require application on lifts of at least 80%, preferably around 90%. I don’t like to analyze 1RM attempts because the ability to make those lifts varies substantially day to day, but most athletes can consistently hit lifts in the 80-90% range without significant day to day technique variation.

Additionally, the coach or evaluator must analyze each lifter as a unique individual, taking into account his or her age, experience level, technical competence, etc.

Breaking Down Each Task

Task #1 – Setup

Setup Strength requirements – N/A

Setup Technical requirements – Moderate

  • The athlete must have sufficient mobility to address the bar in an efficient position to begin the first pull
  • The athlete must be able to hookgrip the bar with a proper grip width and hand position
  • The athlete can generate and maintain tension in the lats

Setup Discussion

  • Several subtasks in the setup need to be taught by the coach, such as grip width and hookgrip, and require practice to generate consistency
  • Mobility needs can be addressed with standard mobility improvement techniques, particularly in the hips and ankles
    • Certain athletes, particularly superheavyweights and overly tall lifters may have unique anatomical variances in the setup requiring individual adaptations for comfort and consistency
  • Lat tension must be explained by the coach and consistently practiced whenever the bar is approached
  • Consistency in setup, without excess thought, is the foundation of solid technique

Setup Evaluation Points

  • Strength – N/A
  • Technical
    • Consistent approach to bar and getting into position
    • Hookgrip
    • Shoulders covering bar
    • Hips at angle appropriate for athlete – consistent angle each lift
    • Athlete is tight, lats tensioned

Task #2 – First Pull

First Pull Strength requirements – High.

  • Ideally, the athlete will have significant strength reserves that lifting the weight from the floor isn’t near their physical limit

First Pull Technical Requirements – Moderate

  • Can the athlete lift the bar off the floor, keeping position with shoulders over the bar for as long as possible, and move the knees around the bar instead of the bar around the knees?

First Pull Discussion

  • For strong lifters, the first pull is rarely a problem
  • For weaker or more efficient lifters (who lift weights closer to their theoretical maximum) it can be more challenging to maintain appropriate positions through the first pull that set him or her up for maximizing performance in the second pull
  • In either case, improving strength can improve first pull performance
  • Many lifters can successfully utilize snatch-grip deadlifts and snatch pulls as long as they maintain proper form and position throughout the movement
  • More advanced and more efficient lifters should include pauses just off the floor, just below the knee, or in the Power Position in the snatch, snatch pull or snatch-grip deadlift. All lifters will benefit from improvement in maintaining lat tension. Pauses are particularly useful for this.
  • Pauses in the first pull also require the athlete to properly load the posterior chain and maintain tension throughout the movement
  • The first pull is a task that will always benefit from improved strength
    • Improved leg strength allows heavier weights to be picked up, while improved spinal erector and abdominal strength helps maintain better and more consistent positions
    • Increased upper back strength improves consistency and quality of lat tension

First Pull Evaluation Points

  • Strength
    • Can the athlete lift the weight from the floor to the power position with proper form and positioning?
  • Technical
    • Does the athlete keep appropriate hip and back angles (for the given starting position)?
    • Does the athlete maintain posterior chain and lat tension throughout the movement?
    • Does the athlete move the knees around the bar or the bar around the knees?
    • Does the athlete keep the bar covered by the shoulders for as long as possible?
    • Does the athlete keep weight balanced properly (not too far back on heels or forward on toes)?

Recommended movements to improve the First Pull:

  • Snatch-grip deadlift
  • Snatch pull
  • Paused snatch pulls (paused just off floor, just below knees, or in the Power Position)
  • Barbell rows
  • RDL’s, including unilateral RDL’s

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Task #3 – Second Pull

Second Pull Strength Requirements – High.

  • The athlete must apply maximum upward force to the bar through explosive extension of the legs and hips with minor upward impulse added by the upper body

Second Pull Technical Requirements – HIgh.

  • The athlete must aggressively and violently extend upward through complete extension of the legs, through the hips, knees, and ankles, along with vertical pull generated by the shoulder girdle to drive the barbell upward to provide time to move underneath

Second Pull Discussion

  • The second pull, while a strength driven movement, is not purely dependent on strength
  • Strength must be applied forcefully and efficiently to harness the athlete’s potential.
  • The athlete must be focused on driving the bar upward violently, as close to the torso as possible, avoiding “looping” the bar out in front

Second Pull Evaluation Points

  • Strength
    • How high does the bar rise from the explosion in the second pull?
    • How fast/explosive is the movement?
  • Technical
    • Does the athlete pull the bar upwards close to the torso?
    • Does the athlete reach full extension?
    • Do the athlete’s elbows move high and back at the top of the second pull?

Recommended movements for Second Pull improvement:

  • Snatch from blocks
  • Power Snatch
  • Snatch pull
  • Snatch panda pull
  • Snatch high pull
  • Trap bar jumps
  • Squat jumps
  • Plyometrics, particularly vertical jumping

Task #4 – Third Pull

Strength Requirement – Low

  • The bar’s upward movement was generated during the second pull. The athlete should be actively pulling under towards the catch position at this time while the bar is still rising

Technical Requirements – Highest.

  • The athlete must rapidly switch direction and transition from pulling up to pulling under, turning the bar over and maintaining enough tension to prepare for the catch
  • Bottom Line – Can the athlete pull under the bar?

Discussion

  • The ability to pull under fast will dictate how high the bar must be pulled. Athletes with a slower third pull will typically require a higher second pull to provide sufficient time to get under the bar, thus increasing strength requirements.
  • Some athletes lack sufficient mobility, coordination, or speed to catch in a deep position. These athletes may still be successful weightlifters by using the power or split variant of the lift.

Recommended movements:

  • Drop squats (for a warmup movement)
  • Hip snatch
  • High Hang snatch
  • Snatch from high blocks
  • Long pull snatch

Task #5 – Catch

Strength Requirement – High

  • The athlete should be catching the bar with arms extended, but must be strong enough to keep the bar locked out and stabilized in preparation for recovery

Technical Requirement – High

  • The athlete must be able to time catching the bar overhead, without pressing out, and drop to a bottom position while keeping sufficient tension on the bar to keep it stable

Discussion

  • Many attempts are lost in the catch phase
  • Athletes can’t stabilize the bar and lose it forward or backward
  • Lifters may begin the recovery before the weight is completely stabilized overhead, resulting in a missed lift forward or backwards
  • If the athlete does not maintain sufficient tension, the bar can crash down during the catch and be lost or cause elbows to flex
  • Pauses in the bottom are extremely valuable for strengthening the catch and improving confidence in this position

Recommended movements to improve the catch

  • Drop snatch
  • Snatch balance, including paused reps
  • Snatches paused in the bottom each rep
  • Sotts press
  • Overhead squats

Task #6 – Recovery

Strength Requirement – High

  • The athlete must stand up with the barbell fully locked out overhead. This requires strong legs, a strong core, and strong upper body

Technical Requirement – High

  • The athlete must be able to maintain a position and move vertically in a manner allowing the weight to be kept locked out overhead

Discussion

  • The athlete must be able to maintain the barbell in an overhead position, fully locked out, and stand up vertically
  • Many athletes, particularly those with a background in powerlifting or football (i.e. lots of bench pressing), find difficulty achieving overhead positions
  • Mobility work, focusing on shoulders, upper back, chest, and ankles can help athletes keep better positions, allowing easier recovery, with less emphasis by the athlete on achieving or maintaining a position and more emphasis on standing the bar up

Recommended Movements

  • Overhead squats, especially paused reps
  • Complexes such as:
    • Snatch Balance + Overhead Squat
    • Snatch Grip Push Press + Overhead Squat
    • Sots Press + Overhead Squat

Analyzing the Lifter’s Movement

Use the Evaluation Form to record the analysis of your athlete’s lifts. It is most effective if you can video the lift from multiple angles for review.

Review each task multiple times, looking for areas of improvement, noting them on the evaluation form. Also emphasize things done correctly to reinforce positive aspects of their lift.

After you’ve analyzed the lift, you can determine what corrective movements will address the athlete’s weaknesses, and programming can be adjusted as needed.

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