The snatch is the most difficult barbell movement and requires the most joint mobility and strength in extreme ranges of motion. There is a very small margin for error in the snatch. Many lifters fail their Personal Record attempts not for lack of strength, but for the lack of a reliable overhead position.
Coaches and athletes need to exercise their patience when working on mobility since these things cannot be rushed. Overall tissue compliance of the muscles, connective tissues, motor learning rates, and time to build strength at specific joint angles all play a part in perfecting the overhead squat. These things can take weeks and up to months of consistent effort to see improvement. Trying to push things too quickly does not always yield better results and may actually be harmful. There is no substitute for quality work over time.
Here are my 5 go-to exercises for improving the overhead position in the snatch.
1) Half kneeling PVC stick Pass- The PVC stick pass is a very basic drill that most weightlifters will do at the beginning of a snatch workout. It provides a specific stretch to all the muscles that are needed in the snatch. By putting the lifter in a half-kneeling position, it helps to prevent any lower body compensation the lifter might use to get around shoulder limitations. Try to keep the trunk stable and back from arching as the stick passes. These cues again limit the amount of compensation that is allowed to truly improve shoulder mobility. I recommend 6-8 passes total for 1-2 times at the beginning of a snatch workout.
2) Quadruped Rockback on Elbows- This is a great low-tension introduction to the squat with some involvement of the shoulders whilst keeping a tight trunk. Placing the elbows on the ground forces the hips and knees into deeper flexion while encouraging upward rotation of the shoulder blades when rocking back, which is similar to how the body will be organized in an overhead squat. The lifter should aim to keep the spine neutral as the lifter rocks back to really work on hip mobility and engaging the shoulders properly. Once again, I recommend 6-8 rocks.
3) Sumo Squat with Diagonal Reach- This is probably the most useful exercise I have ever used to teach an athlete the right type of shoulder activation in the overhead squat. While in the squat the lifter actively reaches up with one arm while the other arm pulls on the floor or a kettlebell. Coaches should make sure that the arm remains straight as the arm raises further overhead and that the shoulder blade elevates properly. The shoulder blade should look like it’s coming forward, up slightly, and around the rib cage as the arm goes overhead. DO NOT cue your athletes to retract their shoulder blades aggressively. Retracting prevents the shoulder blade from moving into position to support the humeral bone (arm bone) and is less stable overhead. Do 6-8 raises per side emphasizing quality.
4) Behind the Neck Snatch Grip Press into Overhead Squat- When doing these movements, I like to incorporate pauses into both the press and the squat. After pressing the barbell overhead hold for 2 seconds before going into the overhead squat. At the bottom of the squat, have the athlete hold for 2 seconds before standing back up. This extends the time under tension and really trains the athlete to engage properly throughout the movement. An active shoulder is the key to a good overhead position. See that the athlete doesn’t have much shaking in the arms or shoulder girdle throughout. It’s also important that the athlete doesn’t have significant changes in their head and back posture as they squat. Extraneous movements like those are likely due to mobility or stability issues along the chain and coaches should move to address it right away before adding more weight. Start light around 50% of an athlete’s 1RM snatch and build up to 5 presses into 5 squats for 3 sets comfortably.
5) Snatch Balance- The snatch balance is one of my favorite exercises to use once the athlete has demonstrated a high level of strength and proficiency in the overhead squat. The faster movement and rates of loading have a more dynamic element that requires the athlete to react and stabilize quickly. The speed and dynamic loading mimic closely the normal snatch and is very good for preparing the body. All the same rules apply as before. Look to see that the athlete is able to enter into their squat comfortably with a lot of stability. Beginners that are doing this exercise for the first time are encouraged to utilize a small pause after catching the barbell for added stability training. I would do no more than 3 reps per set for this exercise as there is an explosive element to it that can be particularly taxing on the body.
Jason Li, Exercise Science BS, USAW LVL2, Catalyst Athletics LVL1, NSCA-CPT