Olympic Mettle

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No exercise in the gym is easier to describe than the Olympic weightlifting move known as the snatch: Take a barbell from the floor and bring it over your head as fast as possible. (Good luck describing a concentration curl that succinctly.) Actually performing a snatch, however, can take weeks of physical preparation and skills training. “The snatch is the most technically complicated exercise there is,” says weightlifting coach Max Aita, owner of Max’s Gym in Oakland, Calif. “It’s a good measure of speed and power and just as good a measure of technique and coordination.”

The snatch is one of two weightlifting events that are contested at the Olympic Games, the other being the clean and jerk. Together, these two lifts and their subcategories comprise the sport of weightlifting. (Not to be confused with powerlifting, which is made up of the squat, bench press and deadlift.) But with the skyrocketing popularity of CrossFit, in which Olympic lifts play a major role, there has been renewed interest in the snatch and clean and jerk over the last few years.

In a traditional snatch, the lifter drops into a full squat before extending the knees and hips into a completely upright position. A power snatch is when the lifter forgoes the deep stance and just explodes the weight overhead. Because the bar travels farther with a power snatch, it is often trained with a lighter weight but at a faster speed. A hanging snatch is when the lifter begins upright, with his arms extended, holding the bar at his hip crease. For any snatch variation, Aita says, you have to learn four steps. “First, make sure you can get in the proper positions,” he says. “Second, get the sequence in the right order: legs, hips, arms. Then you work on the timing. The last thing you work on is speed, how fast you are actually moving.” 

Wide Load
The snatch grip is unique in weightlifting. It is most likely the widest grip you’ll take on the bar for any exercise. Grab the bar wide enough so that when you stand erect and let your arms hang, the bar goes across your belt line. When you extend your arms overhead, the bar should be four to five inches above your scalp. 

Legs
With the loaded barbell on the floor (beginners should start with an unloaded bar, wooden dowel or PVC pipe), approach the bar so it is directly over the balls of your feet. Bend your knees and lower your hips so that your shins come down to the bar. Begin pulling the weight off the floor by extending your knees. As the bar reaches knee level, your shins should be perpendicular to the floor and your waist bent enough so that your shoulders are slightly in front of the bar.

Hips
As the bar moves up your body, rapidly extend your hips forward and pull with your arms to propel the bar higher. The bar will continue to rise, but you will use the inertia of that pull to reverse direction and duck back under the bar to catch it. “When people look at the Olympic lifts, the perception is: He just lifted that over his head. The reality is, he lifted it to about waist level and then squatted down really fast to get under the bar,” Aita says.

Arms
When you duck under the weight, you want to catch the bar with your arms extended over your head. Your shoulders will be slightly behind your head with your arms locked out, supporting the weight with the upper back.

“You see a lot of people who bench-press try to keep the bar in front of their head when they go overhead because they want to use their front delts and pecs to hold the weight up,” Aita says. “But if they get the bar behind their head more, they will end up with the weight distributed across their traps and upper back, which are a lot stronger.”