What’s the most impressive thing you can do with a barbell? A bodybuilder might remark that they can use it to build mountainous biceps or a beefy back. A career powerlifter would wax poetic about the (deserved) glory of picking up the heaviest weight ever lifted by a human being.
For the devoted followers of Olympic lifting, the answer is a no-brainer. The snatch is firmly considered, even by those who have never done it, to be one of the most artful and demanding movements in the world of resistance training. You’ve seen it in your local CrossFit box and at the Olympic Games.
If you’ve gotten the itch to try it out, you’re in luck — this guide will light the way and help you understand how the snatch makes you strong, fast, mobile, and powerful all at once.
- How to Do the Snatch
- Snatch Sets and Reps
- Common Snatch Mistakes
- Snatch Variations
- Snatch Alternatives
- Muscles Worked by the Snatch
- Benefits of the Snatch
- Who Should Do the Snatch
- Frequently Asked Questions
How to Do the Snatch
The best way to learn the snatch is to practice under the supervision of a qualified coach. Barring that, breaking the movement down into distinct phases can help you understand how it all comes together.
Step 1 — Get Set
A good starting position is essential for the snatch. Grab the barbell with a wide snatch grip. Your hips should be around the same height as your knees, and your knees should be pushed forward in front of the barbell. Establish a flat, rigid spine.
Ensure that your shoulders are on top of or slightly in front of the bar. Look directly forward, take a small breath in, and brace.
Coach’s Tip: Your quads should be engaged in the starting position of the snatch. If you don’t feel any pressure or burn in your legs, your hips are likely too high.
Step 2 — Push With Your Legs
The snatch is not a deadlift. From your starting position, break the barbell off the floor by pushing hard with your legs like you would in a leg press. Don’t think about pushing your hips back or forward. Your knees should extend out of the way of the bar as it leaves the floor.
The barbell should glide up your thigh but not drag against it. Your trunk should be slightly inclined over the barbell the whole way.
Coach’s Tip: Ensure that your weight is evenly distributed across your entire foot the whole time. Don’t lean forward onto your toes or sit back into your heels.
Step 3 — Explode Up
Continue pushing against the floor as the barbell approaches your hip. As you rise to a standing position, forcefully extend your lower body by pushing hard into the floor with your legs. Your heels should naturally rise off the ground as your knee and hip joints snap into extension. Keep your arms relaxed to allow the barbell to fly freely upward.
Coach’s Tip: To extend properly in the snatch, you can think about jumping without leaving the floor. The goal is to vault the barbell into the air, not for you to leave the ground intentionally.
Step 4 — Drop and Catch
Once you’ve extended your lower body, quickly transition into catching the bar by dropping down into an overhead squat. Your feet should leave the ground and plant in a wider stance. Snap your arms into a firm, locked position overhead.
Coach’s Tip: When snatching heavy weights, you’ll be able to use the bar to intentionally pull your body down into the squat. With a light barbell or PVC pipe, this won’t be possible, so just think about getting yourself into the catch position as quickly as you can.
Step 5 — Reach and Stand
Stay in the bottom of your overhead squat for as long as you need to stabilize the barbell overhead. Once you’ve secured yourself, rise up to a standing position.
Coach’s Tip: Think about actively reaching against the bar the whole way up in order to keep your arms tightly locked.
Snatch Sets and Reps
Whether you’re practicing your snatch technique in preparation for your first weightlifting competition or simply want to feel a bit more confident during your next CrossFit group class, how you approach the exercise from a programming perspective matters a great deal.
Technical, sport-specific movements like the snatch are hard to prescribe blanket recommendations for. The best way to get value out of your snatch workouts are to lean on your coach or follow a pre-written program. Barring that, there are some general guidelines that you can refer to as a starting point:
- To Learn the Technique: 8-10 sets of 2-4 reps with an unloaded bar.
- For Power Development: 3-6 sets of 2-3 reps with the heaviest weight you can move quickly.
- For Conditioning: 4-6 sets of 5 reps with a light weight and limited rest.
Common Snatch Mistakes
With so many moving pieces on the proverbial board, there are more ways for a snatch to go wrong than for it to go right. When you do it well, it feels effortless. Make a mistake, and the bar will humble you in the blink of an eye. These are some of the biggest errors you should look out for when you’re snatching.
Looping the Bar
In order for a snatch to be successful, the barbell must travel in a straight, vertical line (as much as possible). However, if you’re careless, it’s all too easy to turn your bar path into a crescent or loop. There are plenty of reasons your bar can fly away rather than up, but for most beginners, it often comes down to relying too much on hip extension or excessively shifting your balance backward or forward while you pull.
Cutting the Pull Short
Many snatch neophytes understand the importance of catching the barbell in a deep overhead squat. However, if you’re racing to the bottom, you might be leaving some power on the table by cutting your pull short.
To impart the most vertical force on the barbell as you can, you have to fully extend your ankles, knees, and hips. Dropping down under the bar before you become fully erect can be a tough habit to break once you start doing it.
Lifting With the Arms
While you do physically hold the bar with your hands (which are attached to your arms, hopefully), your legs and back are the motor that power the movement. Many learners will find themselves trying to “muscle” the barbell up over their heads with their arms — especially if they have an athletic background in powerlifting or bodybuilding.
Remember to keep your arms relaxed, but not limp, while performing the snatch. Tightened arms can affect both your overall speed as well as the bar’s vertical pathway. Your arms should be loose and then snap tightly into place once you drop underneath the bar.
The snatch may have one sibling, but it comes with a large extended family of auxiliary lifts. These are some close cousins you can experiment with as part of your overall weightlifting training.
The muscle snatch increases your strength during the turnover phase of the normal snatch. It’s also a great way to teach new lifters how to maintain a proper bar path. The hallmark difference is that you don’t drop into a squat at any point — once you push yourself to a standing position, you deliberately press the bar out with your arms.
Lifting from blocks adjusts your starting position in the snatch. This allows you to work on a specific area of your technique that may be lacking, while also sparing you from the full range of motion if you’re fatigued or working through an injury.
The hang snatch is identical in function to the block snatch but with one key difference — you must manually descend to the starting position from a standing posture first. Hang lifts let you add a bit of eccentric tension into the mix and also help you avoid lifting from the floor if you’re not able to.
The deficit snatch is, essentially, the same as a regular snatch. However, you must start by standing on a pair of bumper plates. As a result, you’ll be performing a snatch in an extended range of motion, which improves your strength off of the floor and demands more of your quadriceps.
The tall snatch is a movement that develops the upper body muscles used in the turnover phase of the snatch. Additionally, it can help you builder confidence, speed, and aggression in your pull.
The snatch just might not be your cup of tea. That’s totally okay. However, you can replicate many of the same benefits of the exercise by turning to some more-accessible alternatives.
The dumbbell snatch requires less technique, mobility, and arguably less skill than the barbell snatch, making it a good option for beginners. More advanced trainees can use this variation to warm up before barbell snatches or do it for high reps to improve conditioning.
The kettlebell swing reinforces proper hip extension and teaches you to generate plenty of power as well. The movement is ballistic in nature, requires core stability, proprioception, and balance — without the steep learning curve of the barbell snatch.
The jump squat, like the snatch, can increase the rate of force development and ultimately teach you to have a greater power output. This exercise is a great way to integrate explosive-based training into your workout routine if you don’t have the time in your schedule to master the snatch itself.
Muscles Worked by the Snatch
It’d be easier to list the muscles the snatch doesn’t work, but that’s not helpful. So, here are the main muscles you can expect to be engaged during your snatch sessions.
Quads, Hamstrings, and Glutes
The lower body as a whole is trained in the snatch. The legs are used to absorb the load as you move under the bar and then extend your knees and hips during the standing phase.
Shoulders and Triceps
Your shoulder muscles work to pull the bar up, and then the triceps are engaged heavily as your arms extend overhead to lock the barbell out.
The back muscles work during the pulling phase of the snatch and aid in stabilizing the bar overhead. Furthermore, your lower back acts as a framework through which your legs generate power.
Benefits of the Snatch
As one of the most elegant and impressive movements you can do with a barbell, the snatch makes its own case just fine. However, there are other compelling reasons to start working on your technique. Below are three benefits of integrating the snatch into your current training program.
More Force Production
To snatch successfully, you have to be strong and powerful. The distinction is clear — strong athletes can grind through heavy reps slowly, but powerful athletes can move heavy weights quickly. The snatch necessitates the latter. It forces you to contract your muscles and move lighting fast in order to make the lift happen.
The carryover here is obvious if you play a sport that demands explosiveness, but even as a hobbyist, you could probably do with a bit more pep in your step.
A Better Kinetic Chain
The kinetic chain refers to a “combination of several successively arranged joints constituting a complex motor unit.” Plenty of sports encourage a kinetic chain that fires and functions well, but the wave of contraction that you need to perform a snatch makes the exercise unparalleled in how much it accomplishes.
It has a lot to do with neural recruitment and the central nervous system. As perhaps the most complex move the body can perform, becoming proficient at the snatch means you can move through more ranges of motion with less effort and less fatigue of your central nervous system.
You’ll Be a Better Weightlifter
This one is pretty self-explanatory. The snatch is one of the two movements judged in competitive weightlifting, so mastering the snatch is a pretty good idea if you plan to compete at any point.
Who Should Do the Snatch
Snatching is cool, but it’s not for everyone. Before you dedicate too many hours toward learning the technique, you need to know if doing so is a good use of your time in the gym.
If you aspire to being a recreational (or competitive) weightlifter, the snatch is mandatory as it is one of the two competitive movements judged in the sport. A large portion of your time in the gym should be spent developing your technique alongside your practice in the clean & jerk.
CrossFit aficionados need, at minimum, a cursory understanding of the snatch. If you’ve ever trained or taken a class at a CrossFit facility, you know how often snatches and their variations are included in the workouts. You probably don’t need hours upon hours of practice, but you should be comfortable with the form (and have the requisite mobility) before getting your hands dirty.
Many of the technical elements of a good snatch — rapid force development, strong isometric control, and agility — are all relevant for athletes that play traditional sports. That’s a large part of why you’ll often see snatches, in one form or another, included in collegiate athletics programs.
If you want to perform well on the court or field, the Olympic lifts should have a place in your program. However, learning the competition snatch itself may take up too much time that you could spend practicing your sport. In such cases, you’ll likely find better success by using a simpler variation like a hang or power snatch.
For the average gymgoer, the snatch shouldn’t be a training priority. It isn’t straightforward to learn and requires a lot of skill. If you want to get strong or build more muscle, you’re better off targeting specific muscles with particular movements.
Snatch the World
The snatch is a pure expression of power. You drive a loaded barbell from the floor and use your hips to bring the bar overhead as you squat underneath it. To do the snatch well takes strength, timing, skill, and speed. For all of those reasons, it is also one of the hardest exercises to learn. After all, consider that weightlifters spend their entire career mastering just two movements.
Of course, nothing worth learning comes easy. Learn the snatch, and you’ll be stronger, more explosive, and very, very fast.
How much weight should I use for the snatch?
To start, none. Practice your snatch technique with just a PVC pipe. Then, progress to an empty barbell, and then slowly add weight. When it comes to mastering the snatch, slow and steady wins the race.
How should I learn the snatch if I'm a beginner?
You should seek out an accredited coach. If you want to teach yourself to snatch, break the movement down into small parts first.
Start by learning how to extend your body by performing snatches or power snatches from a high hang position, and gradually work down toward lifting from the floor.
Is the snatch good for muscle growth?
Not particularly. The movement is fluid, dynamic, and requires a great deal of strength. That said, there isn’t a lot of tension on your muscles for long periods of time, which makes the snatch suboptimal for hypertrophy.
Featured Image: Satyrenko / Shutterstock