Small details matter in weightlifting, especially from a coaching stand point. When discussing small details of technique, some may say that it is just geeking out or over analysis. Small details are what explain success or lack of success in our sport. I firmly believe in coaching and teaching precise technique and this requires that I pay attention to tiny details and that the athlete work on making those details second nature (ie ; become technically efficient). For instance, many people have trouble being fast under the bar or have to pull really high and ride it down. More often than not, this is due to improper hip action at the end of the second pull which messes with the flow of the lift.
The pull in weightlifting is a great challenge to the structure of the human body. Like most things, our body is subjected to the law of physics and balance must be found in that context – thus, in other words, neural and biomechanical strategies are used (consciously and unconsciously) to maintain balance in the context of laws such as gravity. Lots of it is regulated through various reflexes actions. Thus, an efficient weightlifter is one that can exert power in a way that balance is maintained so that the force applied on the barbell can have the desired action (said applied force is the result of Newton’s 3rd law on action reaction). Simply put, the center of gravity of the lifter-barbell complex is not travelling out of the base of support.
The center of gravity of the standing human body is in the mid foot – probably a bit closer to the heel than the toes. In order to not fall forward or backward, motor strategies are used to balance body weight so that the center of gravity is not moving horizontally too much. Here is a quick example, that is, if your back is against the wall and you bend forward at the hip, you will fall forward as you reach parallel (the center of gravity moves forward of the base of support and you cannot compensate for it). However, if you do the same drill without being close to the wall, you will not fall forward. That is, the hips will move back to compensate for the weight of the head and upper trunk moving forward. Many of those strategies happen without us putting much thought behind it. Many organs and well studied reflexes regulate balance and its derivative characteristics such as proprioception.
Now, if you are snatching or cleaning, you are working with extra weight that wants to pull you forward thus you need to compensate with proper motor strategies such as correct posterior chain strength to hold correct positions, and pulling in at mechanical advantage by using the right muscle sequence (link 2). Hence, the knees move back as you begin to pull which prevents the hips and shoulders from moving horizontally forward – hence the cue ”stay over the bar”. Things like timing, morphology (even foot size), and positioning (especially of the head) are all tied to how you need to pull to compensate for the forward dragging effect of the barbell.
Another complication you encounter with the snatch pull is that the bar is staring in front of you and needs to be caught behind the head/ears. That is, the bar needs to travel vertically but also horizontally – hence a pull straight as an arrow does not work (it leaves the bar forward). Not many coaches will want to admit that we want the bar to loop back to the lifter once it leaves the hips, but it is required if we want a successful lift (hence the path of the pull looks like an inverted an elongated ”S” most of the time). However, the goal is to narrow the loop so that the bar never goes too forward – again a strategy to keep balance and save time. Thus, to me, the whole pull is about setting up to generate momentum to act on after the bar leaves the hip.
An interesting question to ask is : How should the hips move to increase chances of success ?
The hips are often blamed when you are loosing the bar forward. You will often hear coaches say ”too much hips” or ”stop banging the bar away”. Hip extension does not bang the bar away if it is done over the base of support. That is, if you pull in a way where the hips meet over the midfoot (give or take), the bar is going to fly up to the right spot if proper leg drive was applied.
However, if your pull defies biomechanical and physic logic – as in the bar and hips meet in front of the toes (or over), the bar will be looping forward. Again, such a pull is a result of incorrect muscle sequencing and incorrect pulling mechanics which results in the bar dragging the lifter forward of his base of support. Moreover, because of the principle of action-reaction, the lifter will be knocked backward and the bar will be knocked forward. The problem here as nothing to do with hip action and everything to do with how the lifter is pulling. Hip action here is the symptom but not the cause.
People tend to focus on one part of the movement only – that is extension. They want to see full extension of the knees and hips before they see the lifter moving under the bar. Now, generally speaking, this is about right. You need a powerful extension that generates vertical momentum over the base of support. However, we also need to see the bar move horizontally – a little tiny bit forward off the hips followed by a backward compensation (back action). The bar has to move a TINY bit forward due to anatomical limitations such as how the shoulders are made. It’s not so much that we want it, but it just happens due to structural realities.
The problem with a focus on extension only is that such an approach does not address the second part of the lift which is equally important. That is, extension needs to be matched with flexion. People that focus so much on pulling the bar high will wait for the bar to be high enough to get under it. This is not being efficient. As stated above, the goal of the pull is to generate momentum on which to act. That is once the bar leaves the body, it should be traveling up while the lifter is getting under. A lifter that stays at the top will have many problems in technique – such as rebending the knees long before the hips (or leaving the hips forward).
If you rebend the knees before the hips, you cannot be fast under the bar. A common strategy for squat is to stick the hips out (flex the hip) and then bend at the knees to sit down. Such strategy allow the squatter to stay balanced and have better flow. People that don’t do it feel like they get stuck at their knee (anatomical limitation). Thus, if you are snatching or cleaning, you have to be rebending at the hips by pushing it back first when going under the bar. Doing so will make it easier, faster, and more stable. The best and fastest lifters are lifters that rebend the hips the fastest (the hip does not stay extended for too long). They use the contact at the hip to sit back or sit down while the bar is moving up. I coach to flex at the hip right after the explosion phase and use drills such as 90 degrees powers to teach it.
here are a few shots of what I am talking about ;
And here a few shots of pulls where the lifter have turnover problems due to poor hip placement – which is the result of the pull not securing the bar over the base of support and the lifter being dragged forward. I picked those shots as a way to contrast good (The two lifts above) and less than optimal pulls. I do not mean to call out the lifters from the picture below as this is mainly for the demonstration of my point on hip action and placement.