The Pulls Broken Down Pt. 1

The lifts can be broken down essentially into 3 pulls:

  • First pull: Lifter starts from the floor and pulls the barbell to mid-thigh in the snatch or the contact point on the thigh during the clean (usually somewhere between the first third to second third of the lifters thighs depending on their limb distribution, grip width, and degree of arm bend).
  • Second pull: From about mid-thigh to full hip extension up to where the barbell peaks in height.
  • Third pull: Measured from barbell peak height until the point of fixation and stabilization of the barbell.

Each of the 3 pulls can be further broken down into key positions of relevance:

First pull

  • Initial lift off the floor
  • Bar is below the knee
  • Bar is above the knee

Second pull

  • Final extension
  • Barbell peak height

Third pull

  • Foot movement
  • Transition Under
  • Fixation height


  • Stabilization
  • Standing

These all represent key points during the overall trajectory that must be refined and trained in order to optimize one’s technique. The question remains what are the most important qualities in each phase of the lift and how should you train them? In this three-part series, I will be going over what I believe to be the most important features of each phase and what to focus on to improve each element. 

The First Pull

The main purpose of the first pull is to direct the bar-body system to maximize force application in the second pull where the most amount of force is imparted onto the bar upon extension. Using our previously described classification system, this first part is broken down into the initial separation from the floor, when the barbell reaches below the knee, and when the barbell is above the knees.

Separation from the floor

This portion is defined as the moment when the barbell separates from the floor. This can also be thought of as the initial connection of the lifter-to-barbell system. It’s important that the barbell shifts slightly towards the lifter upon separation from the floor as this helps to move the barbell closer to the athlete’s center of mass. Lifters that don’t have this shift during this phase will likely leave the barbell in front or over correct later on. It is also possible that lifters are starting with the shins too vertical which prevents the usage of the correct muscles to drive the lift. The shift shouldn’t be intentionally taught as this tends to throw lifters off and actively create too much horizontal motion.  The predominant quality during this phase is maximal strength as the muscles are working under isometric regime until they reach such force that is able to break the inertia of the barbell. Maximal strength of the leg extensors is what creates the impulse while the back extensors have to work statically to maintain the optimal posture into the later phases.

Here are a few suggestions to help lifters master this phase of the movement:

  • Back squat
  • Trap Bar Deadlifting
  • Stiff-legged Deadlifting
  • Halting deadlifts at the 1” mark from the floor
  • “Lift-offs”

It’s very important that lifters learn to have a consistently correct start position as a mistake in this phase can cause disruptions in technique further down the line.

Barbell Approaches Below and Above the Knee

In this phase, it’s important to note that the shins are becoming more vertical while maintaining coverage of the shoulders over the barbell. The leg extensors continue to be the main muscles in this phase however there should be a noticeably smooth acceleration and increase in bar speed from the previous position. The athlete’s rate of force development is extremely important as the barbell approaches the final extension. The position places a large demand on the spinal extensors as this is a mechanically disadvantageous position where the hips are the furthest away from the center of the barbell mass compared to any other point during a lift. The lower back must be trained extensively. The hamstrings need to be trained too as these muscles provide the hip stability during this portion of the lift used to prevent the hips rising too quickly and allowing the leg extensors to continue to extend the legs. While training the muscles is certainly important learning to navigate around the knee while maintaining an optimal bar trajectory is also extremely important, so partial deadlifts from these positions are extremely helpful in establishing good lifting habits. The coach must watch that the barbell stays in close proximity to the lifter without creating too much drag of the barbell against skin or clothing that can create friction, cause pain, and effectively slow down the pull.

If you find yourself or your athletes struggle during this part of the pull here are some things I like to use based on the common problems described earlier.

Positional weakness:

If an athlete is simply too weak to hold the proper position then these exercises will be the most appropriate as power can only be developed once the position is correct.

  • Romanian deadlifts in either snatch grip or clean grip
  • Barbell good mornings
  • Partial deadlifts below and above the knee
  • Deadlifts from the hang position
  • Glute ham raises

Rate of force development:

There should be a noticeable and smooth acceleration from the lift-off to the mid-thigh position. Athletes that are generally very strong but lack explosive strength will generally move at the same speed throughout this portion of the lift thus making it difficult to reach the requisite speed during the second pull for a successful lift. It will either be a failed attempt or cause mistakes to occur during the later phases of lifting due to overcompensation during this phase.

  • Pulls from blocks below the knee
  • Pulls from the hang position
  • Push pressing
  • Weighted quarter squat jumps

If you found this post helpful please read onto part 2 where I’ll be covering the second pull and what are the most important qualities in those phases of the lifts.

Jason Li, Exercise Science BS, USAW LVL2, Catalyst Athletics LVL1, NSCA-CPT