You got something like Grace with 30 clean and jerks for time.
Then you got something like Randy with 75 snatches for time.
What do these two workouts have in common?
Yeah, they’re both “for time”, but they both include one of the core Olympic weightlifting movements.
Olympic weightlifting movements = the clean and snatch.
If you’ve been doing CrossFit for any amount of time, you’re probably very familiar with the clean and snatch. They show up in a lot of CrossFit WODs and strength/technique pieces.
Today, we’re going to go into more detail about the clean and snatch to give you a better idea of why they are as popular (and beneficial!) as they are!
Table of Contents
What is a Clean?
The clean is an extension of one of the most fundamental barbell movements.
However, where the deadlift movement ends (legs locked out, the bar hanging by the hands in front of the lifter’s waist), the clean is only getting started!
The clean’s finish position is at the lifter’s shoulder. The hands and front of the anterior deltoids and clavicles securely support the barbell and hold it in place.
The clean is performed with the lifter taking a shoulder-width stance over the bar and, with a pronated grip, grasping the barbell in between the knurlings. The width of the grip will vary based on the lifter’s personal preference, but the hook grip should always be employed to ensure greater control of the barbell throughout the lift.
With the chest high and eyes facing forward, the lifter squats down over the bar to the point just before the arms would naturally bend (anything lower than this will lead to technical inefficiencies).
The lifter begins the lift by driving the feet into the ground and standing up, letting the bar rise as it trails along the shins, past the knees, and up to the thighs.
Up to this point, the lifter has not really “pulled” the barbell. It has simply risen in line with the athlete’s rising and the opening of the lifter’s hips. Once the bar reaches the thighs, the lifter explosively pulls the bar up and towards himself as he explosively opens his hips. This combination rockets the bar up and past the waist and chest.
As the bar is making its final ascent, the lifter shoots his elbow forward, creating a front rack position. The bar will reach the shoulders at the same time the front rack is created, becoming the bar’s final resting place as the list is completed.
Of the clean and snatch, the clean is the less technical of the Olympic lifting movements. It is usually easier for beginners to perform and some find it to be a natural progression from the deadlift.
The clean grip is also in the “standard” range that one might use for other pulling movements and even for pushing movements such as the bench press.
Due to the lower overall distance that the barbell must travel, there is a much greater potential for loading weight onto the barbell with cleans than there is with the snatch. The clean and snatch both help to develop explosive strength, but lifters will almost always be able to clean more weight than they can snatch.
What is the Snatch?
The snatch is the clean’s partner-in-crime and, when the clean is accompanied by the jerk movement, makes up the second of the Olympic weightlifting competition lifts.
Unlike the clean, a movement that ends with the barbell supported against the body, the snatch finishes with arms locked out overhead.
Unlike the jerk, a movement that begins with the barbell supported in the front rack position and ends with arms locked out overhead, the snatch begins from the floor.
Woah…that was a lot of weight moving really fast!
Like the clean, the “full snatch”/”squat snatch”/”snatch” and the “power snatch” are the most common iterations of the movement. In rare instances, you might observe someone performing a “split snatch”
Unlike the clean, deadlift, or a host of other barbell movements, the snatch is best executed when the lifter employs the appropriately named “snatch grip”.
The arms are much wider spaced out than they are on most lifts. This creates a more technically-advantageous position while artificially “shortening” the arms. A lower total range of motion is necessary to complete the lift, reducing the overall power required to finish.
Like the clean, the lifter sets up over the bar, taking a snatch grip (again with the hook grip to securely grasp the bar). He then lowers himself over the bar, although, unlike with the clean’s starting position, his shoulders are extended further forward over the bar.
From here, the lifter rises with the barbell, keeping the shoulders over the bar with the weight firmly in the back of the feet. As the power builds, the barbell makes contact with the lifter at around hip level while the lifter conducts a forceful second pull.
The force generated will raise the bar as the lifter makes a strong vertical pull while simultaneously dropping under the barbell. The athlete then stands up with the bar overhead to complete the lift.
Mastering the snatch is one of the crowning glories of barbell work. The highly technical requirements of the lift ensure that it can only be mastered with a multitude of hard work, close attention to detail, and dedicated practice.
You walk into a gym and see some guy benching heavy…cool, but no big deal.
You walk into a gym and see some guy snatching heavy…woah!
This necessary technical proficiency can also be considered a “con” of the snatch. It is usually the more difficult lift for beginners to pick up and perform with confidence, let alone any kind of proficiency. Because of this, many lifters become frustrated with snatching and never reach their potential with the lift.
Due to the lower amounts of weight that can be used during the snatch, it is also a less effective strength-development lift than the clean is.
Clean vs. Snatch
Although the clean and snatch are not technically in “competition” with one another, there is somewhat of a “friendly rivalry” between the lifts.
Some people prefer the heavier weights they’re able to get under when cleaning. Others love the high-velocity feeling of the final pull of the snatch.
I’m personally on “Team Snatch” (for now!); let’s check out some of the contrasts between the movements.
As we’ve previously mentioned, between the clean and snatch, the snatch is more complex. The additional distance the bar must travel, in addition to the inclusion of an overhead portion, ensures that perfecting the snatch will keep you busy for quite some time.
This additional complexity and necessary power output (assuming similar weights but a greater distance traveled in the snatch) usually translates to lower snatch weights in comparison to clean weights. However, this does not diminish the intensity of the lift itself. The power snatch version of the lift takes the cake in regards to the “highest velocity Olympic lift”
The snatched barbell simply moves faster. It has to in order to travel as far as it does!
The clean grip will always be significantly narrower on the barbell than the snatch grip. The requirement for the snatch to end overhead necessitates the artificial shortening of the arms to create a smaller overall range of motion.
In contrast, the clean grip can be narrower because the barbell does not end overhead, thus the arms do not have to be “shortened”. Additionally, a closer-than-snatch grip is more advantageous for the (oftentimes) separate, following jerk movement.
The total distance traveled comes into play once again when discussing the primary contact point where the barbell makes contact with the body.
The barbell makes contact with the body at or around hip height (more specifically, it should occur “below the iliac crests and above where the pubis bones meet”). This contact point ensures that little-to-no power from the initial pull is left “on the table” and that the explosive second pull does not occur too late. Making contact too low will underutilize some of the potential power generated during the first pull of the bar from the ground.
The clean’s contact point is much lower, ideally occurring in the mid-to-upper thigh region. The lift is shorter than the snatch. The second pull/vertical pull of the clean does not need to be as long or as high as the snatch’s.
The Olympic lifts are famous (infamous?) for their technical complexity. The advanced technique required to perform these lifts at a high level is truly impressive to behold.
(How are all of the other people in this video so chill with what this guy is doing? Dude is literally snatching a few kgs less than my max deadlift!)
In many cases, athletes will focus exclusively on this technique, parroting the phrase “technique trumps strength”. To a degree this may be true, particularly when comparing a highly skilled Olympic weightlifter with someone with little-to-no training in the lifts.
However, legendary strength specialist Mark Rippetoe makes the argument that many weightlifters place too much focus on developing their snatch and clean form. This is to the detriment of developing overall strength.
One of his more famous quotes on the topic: “An athlete with a 500-pound deadlift can clean more weight than an athlete with a 200-pound deadlift”
However, if there is not sufficient strength to display…well…power-dependent lifts suffer.
Shots fired, Coach!
Do you think Coach Rippetoe has a point? I mean, would we expect a powerlifter with a 500-pound squat and a 600-pound deadlift to clean and snatch more than a 135-pound Olympic weightlifting prodigy?
We use phenomenal strongman Eddie Hall’s videos a lot on this site. He exemplifies Rippetoe’s point here in his world record-breaking Isabel performance
Under 51 seconds…with that technique!
Technique work is paramount in improving the Olympic lifts, but if you want a sure-fire way to get better at the clean and snatch, work on getting stronger!
With the heavy (ha!) emphasis on the Olympic lifts in CrossFit, the clean and snatch have experienced a surge in popularity they have never experienced before. Although the movements are quite different from one another, you’re much more likely to see or hear “clean and snatch” as opposed to “clean vs. snatch”.
Whether you want to grow more efficient as a CrossFit athlete or want to pursue Olympic weightlifting as your sport of choice, you’re going to grow very familiar with the nuances of these lifts. Although the technical and mechanical elements are different, their power-heavy components are best displayed with a solid strength base to support them.
Interested in the clean and snatch but still unsure which sport is for you? Check out our article on the showdown of the century…CrossFit vs. weightlifting!