Often when teaching lifters how the pull really works I often use the phrase “Use your legs.” So this article will be interesting in that it’s going to be all about how to use your back, properly. Whenever we discuss technique it’s important to understand that we are trying to get the lifter to impart as much vertical force on the bar as we can. This can only be done if the center of gravity of the lifter/barbell complex stays over the base of support, simply put the center of gravity must stay over your feet.
So in order to accomplish this we need to break down the pull into a few segments. I will use three for simplicity. The first position will be at the start while the weight is still connected to the floor, the second is when the bar is at the knee, and the third is when the bar is at the power position. I will define the power position as when the bar is in the hip crease in the snatch, and the upper thigh to the hip crease in the clean, which will vary depending on where the lifter places their hands on the bar.
So to begin the lifter starts at the floor. I wrote a detailed article here about the start position so I won’t go into much detail here. The important thing to remember in regards to this article is that the torso will be angled and the shoulders should be on top of the bar or in front. Never behind. Let me repeat this, never, ever, ever behind. The reason for this relates to center of gravity. If you start too far back, behind the bar, the center of gravity is at the heel, and the lifter will be forced to raise their butt up in the air. This is a no no, because it forces you to use the back as a prime mover instead of a support structure, and the legs are taken completely out of the equation. Get this wrong and a chain of events will unfold that will most likely lead to a barbell looping out away from you and a missed snatch at worst, and a clean crashing down on you hard at best.
The torso angle should remain the same as the lifter drives the knees back and uses the legs to stand up. A cue I often use here is to think of pressing the platform down with your feet. The back stays locked tight, an arched lower back or lordosis for you anatomy freaks, and a tight neutral upper back with relaxed traps and arms, but tensed latis. The tension in the lats will automatically keep the bar close allowing you to get to the next position at the knee.
Once at the knee the shoulders should be very much in front of the bar. Remember it’s about that center of gravity. This position is very important and the foot pressure should be in the middle of the foot. If the torso has raised then the weight will be too far back on the foot and the back will be doing the work. You won’t be able to finish with the legs vertically and the hips will bang the bar away from you. If you were to pause in this position you should be able to wiggle your toes but not pick your foot up off of the floor. If your weight is too far back you will easily be able to pick your front foot off the floor. The knees will be straighter, but not completely straight and you should feel tension on the hamstrings and glutes. The back will be working to stay tight, but that is all, and the arms and traps should still be relaxed and the back tense.
To get from the knee to the power position now it’s time to raise that torso. In order the keep that bar over the base of support the torso will raise allowing the knees to bend again and move back under the bar. This will continue until the shoulders are directly over the bar. You’ll end up with a vertical torso in the snatch, and a slightly inclined to vertical torso in the clean. This is important as it is at this point and only this point that the lifter can drive hard with the legs vertically and extend the knees and hips to propel the bar upward. The shoulders should stay over the bar as long as possible. This torso shift is simple to practice and easy to drill. I’ll often perform it as part of my warm up, and often prescribe it to lifters to simplify learning this portion. The following video demonstrates it, light weights or even the bar is sufficient as it’s simply a drill, not an assistance lift.
The take home message here is that for the most part the back works as a support structure in the lifts and its position will determine how well you use your legs. A strong back is very important in that this will allow the lifter to maintain torso angle easier and the weight seem lighter because there’s less strain in maintaining good position.
So what are some good ways to strengthen the back? For starters when correcting problems or teaching new lifters I’ll prescribe pauses at these three positions with pulls to allow the lifter to develop strength and feel for them. A two to three count pause just off the floor, at the knee, and at the hip before extending the pull is a great way to segment the lift and begin to put the pieces together. Other helpful exercises include back raises and good mornings. These are isolation exercises but a strong back will help you maintain these positions much easier. Three to five sets of eight to twelve reps of one or the other at the end of a few training sessions should be enough to build up the back. Stay light and work on building up volume with these before increasing weight.
So hopefully this clears up some back angle issues. Remember to keep the back locked down tight, hips and shoulders rise together until above the knee. The torso will incline until the shoulders are on top of the bar and then extend vertically. If done right you’ll have plenty of leg room to extend up. Do you see what I did there? Hopefully you do. Happy lifting.