The Clean (both the squat and power versions) has become the premier lift for those wishing to test or demonstrate power and explosiveness in the weight room. But having watched countless athletes both in person and online perform the lift with poor technique, I’ve come to believe that the Clean maybe isn’t the best lift for athletes. The qualities we want in our athletes—power, speed, strength, coordination, balance and confidence (while making safety a priority)—are better demonstrated with the Alternating Split Snatch.
There are those who argue that Olympic lifts and their variations aren’t worth the effort. They do require excellent technique and good coaching. Both are indeed lacking in many places and in those cases, they are likely not worth the risk. The qualities we want can be developed in other ways, such as Med Ball Throws, Hex Bar Jumps and my favorite, sled variations.
Although they do require less technique, I’m not a big fan of the single-arm versions of the Olympic lifts. They can be a nice entry-point to learning the movement, but I have had and seen issues with shoulder and neck injuries when going heavy with them.
However, for the coaches who have the time/expertise and for athletes who are up for the challenge, Olympic lifts are plenty worthwhile. Many athletes love the Olympic lifts specifically for the challenge and variety that they afford. They are the most powerful and fastest movements in all of sport and really, in my opinion, the most fun thing you can do in a public weight room.
What we don’t want is to have our athletes get hurt in the weight room. We have all heard stories or seen first-hand athletes getting hurt doing heavy Cleans. Instagram and Twitter are full of videos of really bad Cleans, usually from athletes with bad technique trying to lift weight well above what they can handle. As I have pointed out, even good athletes can fall into this trap. As proven by this picture posted by one of our Olympic medalists and world champions in a power sport in a set of Power Cleans. He is putting his back and knees at great risk with this lift even if he can make it look “easy.”
Although Olympic lifting done right is very safe, back, knee, shoulder and wrist injuries are the most common. I would guess that heavy Cleans are the cause of most of these. The Snatch is a lift that requires more power and better extension and utilizes lighter weights than the Clean and Jerk. I believe it is therefore safer in those respects, especially for backs and knees. It has also been shown in several studies to have better transfer to performance than Cleans. For those with healthy shoulders, these factors are reason enough to use the Snatch instead of the Clean. But I want to take this one step further with the Alternating Split Snatch. Here’s what a standard Snatch looks like:
In the Split Snatch, the pulling mechanics are all the same, so the same force and power production are needed. The difference is in the catch, which is essentially in an overhead lunge position:
It’s rarely used in competition today, but the Split Snatch used to be the snatch method up through the mid-20th century. Even into the 1960s, it was used by some of the great lifters of all time. Norb Schemansky, who was an American world champion and Olympic medalist, was able to split snatch 352 pounds. The Split Snatch requires tremendous foot speed to get into that “lunge” position as the weight goes overhead. From Starting Strength:
At the ’48 Olympics, a group of scientists tested all the athletes to find out who had the fastest foot movement. This included sprinters coming out of the blocks, shot putters going across the ring, wrestlers, swimmers, the whole lot. Stan Stanczyk was declared the winner for his foot movements in the split snatch. At the next Olympiad in ’52 he again won that title, and from then on was known as “Flash” Stanczyk.
So we have a lift that requires more speed, power, coordination and balance, all while likely being safer. Maybe you can’t lift quite as much weight with this variation, but again, that’s not the priority with athletes. Getting strong and stable in that split position also naturally translates to a huge number of athletic movements, as we really perform sport actions with both feet even underneath us.
So, how do we get started in learning this movement? Again, it’s best to work with a coach who knows their Olympic lifts, but I’ll outline the basics here. This video from Mark Rippetoe on learning the Split Snatch is also a great resource:
There is much argument over small details in the execution of Olympic lifts, but I’ll tell you how I like to progress into them. If you already know how to Snatch or Power Snatch, then you can move directly to the footwork. It’s wise to practice Olympic lifts with a dowel before progressing to an unloaded barbell and then, if executing correctly, slowly add weight.
The following video is a 12-year-old trying the Split Snatch for the first time. He knew how to Clean, so he did have a solid base:
It all starts with your grip width. Your grip should be wide enough that when you stand up with your arms straight, the barbell should sit in the crease of your hips. This can be adjusted as necessary for your body.
I like to start off by teaching people the Muscle Snatch. This sees the lifter pull the bar up the front of the body, keeping the elbows about the hands as long as they can, and then pushing the bar overhead. When the bar is overhead, you should be actively pushing into the bar and trying to pull it apart to keep tension.
From here, I like to progress to the Snatch Pull from Hang. Drive up with the legs, shrug and drive onto the toes and let the bar come up the front of the body, keeping it close and elbows up, not back. Next, the Scarecrow Snatch, which is demonstrated in the above video. Pull the bar up as high as you can with the elbows above the bar. Rise up on your toes and then drop under the bar and lock it out overhead. Don’t worry too much about footwork at this stage.
Combine the Snatch Pull with the Scarecrow Snatch and you have a Power Snatch.
Footwork for the Split Snatch
The split stance is more like a Lunge than the split jerk position. In the split jerk, the ideal angle of the lead leg is 90-110 degrees with the knee behind the front foot. In the split snatch, the lead leg angle will be at 90 degrees or less. It is more like the knee angle in a full Snatch or Clean Squat. That allows you to get deeper under the bar. Using this technique means that you only need to pull the bar as little as 2 inches higher than with a full snatch.
Here’s the movements I like to use to build the footwork for the Split Snatch:
- Overhead Walking Lunge
- From an Overhead Press, drop into the end position of a Split Snatch
- Split Snatch from Hang. Pull the bar up, drop under into the split stance and lock the bar out overhead.
- Split Snatch from Floor. Keep the back angle consistent until the bar is above the knee and don’t jerk or rush the bar to that position. The real power is in the second pull.
This last step is unnecessary for most athletes. You get almost all of the benefits from the lift from the hang position or from the blocks, as shown here:
The process of learning the Split Snatch can take some time. Learning to alternate your stance and perform the lifts with both legs in the lead position is superior for athletic development. Really, you are never done getting better at the Olympic lifting variations, and that is part of the fun and attraction. Working on the pull from the hang or blocks is a great place to start. At the same time, you can work on your footwork with a PVC pipe or an empty barbell.
The Split Snatch may take some work, but I believe it’s really fun to learn, safer than most other Olympic variations, and has a great carryover to athletic performance. Hopefully this article has gotten you to more deeply consider its application for athletes. For more on developing power, strength and speed, you can visit my website at SledRx.com/blog.
Photo Credit: BartekSzewczyk/iStock