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To Bend or Not to Bend?

Updated: May 15, 2020

One of the best and most utilized accessory lifts for Olympic Weightlifting is the pull. More specifically, the clean pull and/or the snatch pull. The versatility of this exercise provides benefit to novice, intermediate, and advanced lifters alike. For new lifters, it provides a guideline/introduction to better understand the concept of driving the bar with your legs.

Additionally, as well as finding the positions throughout the snatch and clean and jerk (ie. above the knee, below the knee, etc.) For intermediate and advanced lifters, it is an opportunity to further develop and improve power and force production while using the variations of the lift to strengthen weaknesses in certain positions by overloading the intensity of the main lifts.

One would assume that such a popularly programmed exercise in the weightlifting community would have a clear-cut execution, but much like everything else in this field there are continuous debates on whether or not the arms should bend at the top of the pull. I am a firm believer that the arms should NOT bend at the top of the pull. Now, before you scoff and exit the article, hear me out and allow to explain my position. Let’s start with what the clean and snatch pull is…

USA Weightlifting organizes the snatch and the clean into three distinct phases: the first pull, second pull, and third pull. I referenced each of these phases in one of my first articles, “Welcome to Weightlifting” and quickly explained how we cue them at East Coast Gold Weightlifting.

First Pull

The first pull is indicative of the bar leaving the floor. At ECG we refer to this as the “push” because the goal is not to rip or “pull” the bar off the floor. The goal is to lift the bar off the floor with your legs. In order to do that, the athlete is applying pressure through their feet in order to activate their legs to push the bar off the floor.

Second Pull

The second pull refers to the triple extension position that an athlete must achieve after making contact in order for the bar to continue accelerating upward as they begin to move under the bar aka the third pull. Snatch and clean pulls (when done from the floor) isolate the first two pulls of the main lifts. When you perform the actual snatch or the clean the elbows are straight when the athlete reaches triple extension, the same triple extension is the final position of a snatch pull and clean pull. So why would you train or coach an athlete to bend their elbows during a pull?

I understand that when people hear the word pull, they immediately think that they need to use their arms, because how else can you pull something? However, when specifically focusing on the technique of the Olympic lifts, I believe it is counterintuitive. Yes, your elbows need to bend in order to pull under the bar, but that does not happen until after triple extension, when the athlete begins to change direction and drop under the bar. That active pull down is the third pull of the lift, but the clean and snatch pull don’t cover this part of the main lift. If you bend your arms at the end of a snatch pull or clean pull then you are bending the elbows while the body is still moving upward. It does no good to then reinforce a movement that is designed to help mirror the main lifts with poor timing. You’re simply asking for your athletes to have an early arm bend when they snatch or clean.

If you’re looking for a way to emphasize the elbow bend as a drill for your athletes here are two great options. One is the shrug, shrug, pull under that Brenden McDaniel, Assistant Coach at ECG, first introduced to me. It emphasizes the arm movements to better understand how to actively pull under the bar. He even came up with a great analogy of imagining you’re on a water slide. Right before you go, you place your hands on the metal handles and bend your elbows to pull yourself down the slide with some speed. The same concept is used in this exercise to reinforce actively pulling the hips down under the bar.

The second exercise I like to use is the snatch or clean hi-pull, which emphasizes that specific elbow movement while the body is moving down, not up! The athlete is still using the legs to drive the bar, but again they are actively pulling down.

The Olympic lifts are the perfect combination of strength, power, and speed. Timing is everything! It is imperative to reinforce proper timing and mechanics to be successful in these movements. Rather than settling for bent elbows simply because the exercise is a pull, take a moment to think about what exactly is trying to be achieved through the movement. This is the biggest reason as to why we cue a “push” and “drive”. It provides a better visualization for the athlete to understand the goal of the movement. Remember, the concept behind the exercise is to generate power and force in the legs not the arms. We want are legs to work as long as possible until it is time to pull under the bar. So, don’t bend your elbows before you’re supposed to!

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