Today’s article talks about the start position in the snatch and clean and jerk lifts in the sport of Weightlifting. Whether it’s Crossfit or Weightlifting, these lifts are crucial to your success. Contributing writer Steve Tria of Team 13 Fitness goes over how to set you or athletes you work with in a good position based off of their limb lengths. This is not something that comes in a one size fits all. So listen up and then let’s get back to putting some weight over our heads.
It doesn’t matter what sport we talk about, every coach says the same thing at some point. “A good start equals a good finish”. Weightlifting is no different. The snatch and the clean are both lifts where we look to hit specific positions when pulling the bar from the floor. These are at the knee, where the lifter should have their weight on the center of the foot, the shins are vertical, and the shoulders are in front of the bar, and the power position where the shoulders should be on top of the bar and weight towards the heel and the bar either at the hip crease in the snatch, or upper thigh to hip crease in the clean.
The start position is set for a lifter to maximize leverage to make moving the bar from the floor to the knee strong and efficiently. Take note that I didn’t say fast or explosive, it just has to get to the proper position at the knee, but that’s a post for another time. So what determines the start position?
When determining a proper start position we have certain things to consider. In weightlifting the bar and the lifter become a complex mass and our goal is to keep the center of gravity of those combined masses between our feet so our efforts are directed in an upward motion. Torso length, femur length, shin length, and the length of the arms directly effect the start position as well. So the following description of a proper start position is based on how the USAW teaches it, along with the way it is described in Artie Dreschler’s book “The Weightlifting Encyclopedia, A Guide to World Class Performance”.
To begin the bar should be centered over the joint at the base of the big toe, where the bones of the toes meet the bones of the foot. The torso should be at a forward angle so the shoulders are on top of the bar or slightly in front of it. The shins should also be angled forward, so that we can push the knees back and get a nice vertical shin when the bar is at the knee. The shins can touch, but if not they should be as close as possible. Your torso angle will vary in the snatch and the clean due to here the arms are placed on the bar. The wider snatch grip will cause the torso to be lower, with a much more vertical torso in the clean. This is more pronounced in lifters with longer arms. The hips should be slightly above parallel, or the hip crease slightly above the knees, but this is based highly upon torso and femur length. The back should be flat or arched, never rounded, and the upper back should be locked down with no tension in the traps or arms.
So now let’s look at these pieces individually.
The bar is set up over the base of the big toe. This is the best place for you to start. The only catch here is if you have a shin that is longer than your femur. Sounds weird and it’s not all that common but it does happen. Case in point, Yuri Vardanyan. In the book “1985 Russian Weightlifting Yearbook” from www.sportivnypress.com his setup was discussed as being different with the bar being placed out over his toes near the end of his feet due to his shins being longer than his femur. This allowed him the room to get his knees out of the way. In general with shins the same length or shorter than your femur you will start with the bar at the base of the big toe. Either way the shins should be inclined towards the bar, they can touch the bar and if not they should be as close as possible.
The angle of the torso is also related to certain length ratios. The ratio of femur to torso length is important here, but the arms play a role too as previously mentioned. The longer the torso in relation to the femur the more vertical the torso will be at least in the clean. Lu Xiaojun is a great example of this. His torso is much longer than his femur, and his torso is almost vertical in the clean. If we look at the opposite, say Donovan Ford, a lifter who has very long femurs and a shorter torso he starts with a much smaller torso angle. Both of these lifters however ensure there shoulder is on top or slightly in front of the bar at the start. In the snatch most will have a torso that is inclined very forward. The shorter the torso the more inclined it is to ensure that the shoulder stays on top of the bar. One easy way to tell if you’re in a good position with your torso is the relationship of the knee to the elbow. In your start position the knees should be flush with or slightly in front of the elbows. If your knees are behind your elbows at the start you are too far over the bar and need to elevate the torso more.
This torso to femur ratio will also effect where the hips are. Remember ideally we would like the hips to be higher than the knee, even if slightly. This will give us the proper leverage to use our legs. If our hips are lower than our knees then we will have to raise our butt immediately to start the bar moving, and while this is not unheard of, it should be avoided if possible because it will cause the lifter to use their back to lift the weights instead of the legs which are a much stronger option.
Ultimately this start position needs to be strong and comfortable. A lifter should be able to access this position effortlessly and it should feel fairly natural. We can get very specific, and national coach Zygmunt Smalcerz did just that in his presentation at the 2012 National Meet. He did a power point presentation on the clean which can be found here. One of the best things about this presentation is the fifth slide in the presentation giving optimal angles of the hip (50-56 degress), knee (80-86 degrees) and ankles (61-63 degress). It’s also important to note that he says the spinal erectors should be maximally contracted but everything else is basically relaxed until the bar moves off the floor. The bar is in the hands but the arms are like ropes just hanging, no tension but scapula are being pushed down towards the back pockets to keep the lats contracted and bar close.
The last thing we haven’t spoken about is grip width. This will be a big determining factor of your start position. No matter what your start position must allow you to put your hands where they need to be as this directly effects the position of the bar as it relates to the body. It will determine where the bar makes contact, and in the snatch should be wide enough so it sits in the hip crease in the power position and the upper thigh to hip in the clean while still allowing you to rack the bar on the shoulders. In fact Glenn Pendlay produced a couple of videos that show a quick way to determine the proper start position. The snatch video and clean video demonstrate a simple method for determining start position working from the top down. Starting at the power position, or Pendlay Position 1, you retreat the hips back and lower the bar to the knee, then bend the knees and bring the bar down to the floor. This gets you right where you need to be and for most is a good way to find a start position that should work fairly well with little adjustment. This way you don’t necessarily need video analysis or a protractor the find the optimum angles. Another way I was told by Mark Cannella of Columbus Weightlifting is to simply place the bar over the base of the big toe and squat to the bar with a big chest and you should be close. Drew Dillon his assistant coach demonstrates squatting to the bar as he demos position in this video.
Ideally a start position can be defined as a position that allows you to maximally impart force to the bar with little wasted effort that gets you to the optimal position when the bar is at the knee. I know it’s easy to get confused with all of this internet chatter about Russian high hips and Chinese lower hips and there are 50 ways to slice this one. If you remember to keep the bar over the base of the big toe, chest up, shins inclined forward, and knees in front of the elbows it will be hard to mess up. Keep the lower back maximally contracted and everything else relaxed until you push the bar from the floor. Arms are long and loose with no tension just holding the bar and get it to the knee smoothly. If all else fails seek out a qualified coach, it shouldn’t take long for them to get you in a good start position, and this is one of those things that if you get wrong will make the rest of the lift way more difficult than it needs to be or even impossible.