You attempt a heavy clean, you catch that sucker in the bottom; you drive up hard only to feel like the barbell is crushing you on the way up, it feels absolute max effort to stand up out of the hole, when you finally make it to the top gasping for air, wondering what the hell just happened and where the hell you are you realize “Hang on, my front squat is 10kilos heavier than this, why on earth was that so bloody hard to stand up with?” Then my poor friend… you have to attempt a jerk after all that!
If this sounds somewhat familiar, I may have the answer! I’ve seen this many times with newer lifters, especially ones with a CrossFit background, so have a good read guys and girls and see if it relates back to your Snatch and Clean!
You’ve obviously seen the title and are starting to wonder how the hell does my pull technique have anything to do with how hard it is to stand up? The short answer is something along the line of: Bad pull and finish mechanics will change your squat position and the distribution of your combined center of mass (CCOM) in your base of support (feet).Putting you in a mechanically disadvantageous position when you are required to stand up with the weight.
Let’s explain that a little more. I’m going to write a few paragraphs on what would right now seem like useless information. Trust me read on and it will all tie in at the end. I’ll Cover the basics on the Stretch Reflex, Squatting Mechanics, Ideal Pulling Technique and tie it all together at the end. Keep in mind all this is only relative if you have an amazing first pull and enough flexibility/ mobility to hit a rock solid bulletproof bottom position in a normal weightlifting style front and overhead squat.
By all means read away if you aren’t capable of that position yet but keep an eye out for an upcoming article that will be more suited to your needs in helping your squat performance from a mobility perspective.
The Muscle Stretch Reflex: A reflex is a response to a stimulus that doesn’t require the involvement of consciousness. A normal reflex has two components the Afferent Phase (Stimulus) and the Efferent phase (Response). If a skeletal muscle is rapidly stretched, the muscle stretch reflex will cause it to contract quickly and almost immediately after the stretch as an unconscious method to supposedly avoid injury. The initial muscle stretch is the stimulus and the muscle stretch response or rapid muscle contraction is the response to the stimulus. In the case of weightlifting and the squat in-particular this is often known as the bounce out of the bottom. In the bottom position of the squat all the flexors and extensors of the leg (hamstrings and quadriceps) are stretched. If you fall into the bottom of the squat hard and fast activating the muscle stretch reflex your flexors and extensors respond quickly to this stretch and begin to contract hard subconsciously to help you come out of the bottom very quickly. This can be extremely helpful in the case of the clean to help bounce out of the bottom, the stretch reflex however doesn’t always help you out, as you’ll see if you keep reading.
Squatting Mechanics: As most people understand an upright torso is one of the most important mechanical aspects of a weightlifters squat. In the case of the front squat the barbell essential starts right on the outer limit of your center of gravity. In most cases if you stood side on anatomically you could draw a line from mid foot to ear lobe which would give you a very close representation of your center of gravity or center of mass. Adding the barbell into the equation will create a new center of mass: a CCOM (You plus Barbell).
In a physics perspective this CCOM ideally has to be centered over the middle of the athlete’s base of support (feet) in order for the athlete to apply the most force and torque through their legs into the ground therefore standing up with the weight. If however the athletes CCOM was shifted forwards by means of leaning the torso forward and the hips back (muted squat), the athletes CCOM would be then shifted into the forefoot and in severe cases onto the toes. If this happens not only does your base of support get smaller because your heels are floating it’s also really difficult to apply force. Not only is it harder to apply force it also changes your bodies levers into a disadvantageous position which will again make it even harder to stand from the bottom than it should be.
Your probably saying “Okay Okay I get it, if your chest drops and your hips go back its harder to stand up from the bottom, but how does this have anything to do with my pulling technique?” keep reading!
Muted Squat: hips back, Chest forward. As a weightlifter this position will barely allow you to stand up with the barbell from the clean, if however you are able to stand like this: your weightlifting career is about to get a whole lot easier!
Mechanically Ideal: CCOM over mid foot, upright torso, you know the rest!
Ideal Pulling Technique: Now I can talk all day about what should happen in the first pull but I’ll save that for another article. My main concern that relates to all of this is in the second pull, the finish, the jump, triple extension, whatever you like to call it. The ideal second pull is a complete, explosive, very straight and linear extension of legs and hips simultaneously, sometimes angling slightly backwards but none the less still remains completely straight and linear. This is something that everyone who weightlifts should aim for… always.
A common problem that I see with new lifters is that they struggle to use the legs. The glutes are a powerful muscle and a lot of people feel much more powerful using primarily the glutes to finish the second pull. The problem with that is, using the glutes on their own will result in horizontal explosiveness, not vertical explosiveness. Where do we want that barbell to go? Up right?! So we need to work on extending upwards using the legs and hips together to elevate the bar!
Now this is where the CrossFit athletes come in. They have a lot of conflicting movement patterns that make it difficult to get the legs and glutes working together. Kettle bell Swing: primarily finished with the glutes, Deadlift: primarily finished with the glutes, Kipping: main source of power from the glutes, I could rattle of a heap more! Practicing such a vast array of exercises that use a very much hip orientated finish as opposed to a leg and hip oriented finish makes it difficult for these athletes to get a hold of this technique. Simply because of muscle memory: they spend so much time practicing a hip only finish with so many other exercises it becomes difficult to reverse that habit in the Snatch and Clean.
Leg and Hips working together (extending simultaneously) elevating the bar upwards with an vertical expression of power:
Hips provide the dominate finish (legs not extending simultaneously or not at all) elevating the bar almost horizontally with a almost horizontal expression of power:
Putting it all Together:
Maybe I can write this as weightlifting math?
Vertical Finish + Stretch Reflex = Easier to obtain a mechanically ideal squat
Legs and hips work together extending upwards, stretch reflex is activated because the muscles are explosively stretched. Because you extended and stretched vertically the rapid contraction from the reflex will help pull you directly down into a more upright mechanically advantageous position. You hit the bottom position with the barbell racked very much upright once again helped by the stretch reflex in a vertical fashion making it much easier to stand up!
Horizontal Finish + Stretch Reflex = Easier to obtain a muted squat
Hips and glutes finish explosively without or with limited use from the legs extending almost horizontally; stretch reflex is activated in an almost horizontal fashion sending the hips backwards and the chest forward. You hit the bottom position in a muted squat with the weight very much into the forefoot. Once again the stretch reflex will do its thing in an already disadvantageous position and you can guess what happens now. That weight feels a great deal heavier than it should!
I’m going to conclude this bit of info by saying the stretch reflex isn’t the be all and end all in the second pull of Weightlifting. Outright strength can counter-act a lot of bad techniques, but having that said a lot of beginner and novice lifters aren’t fortunate enough to have the outright strength seen at the elite level so the technical and mechanical aspects of their lifts have to be as close to flawless as possible to give them a fighting chance.
Spend some time working on your 2nd pull, using the legs and hips together in exercises like the snatch shrug from blocks or pins and the clean shrug from blocks or pins: Snatch Shrug Demo
I guarantee with enough practice you will find an improvement in your speed under the bar, your bottom position in the snatch and clean and finally more ease in standing up! Go on, Give it a go!
David Barrett – Head Coach and Co-Owner of Human Movement and Human Movement Weightlifting Club
CF L1 Trainer, CF Weightlifting Trainer, CF Powerlifting Trainer, CF Gymnastics Trainer, Lvl 1 and 2 Sports Power Coach, Level 1 and 2 AWF State Weightlifting Coach, Cert 4 in Fitness and the Strength and Conditioning Lecturer at Great Southern Institute of Technology.