The Pulls Broken Down Pt. 2

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

Continuing our discussion in Part 1, we will now do a total breakdown of the 2nd pull of the lifts and the most important components that the athlete will need in order to be successful. If you haven’t read Part 1 about the first pull of the lifts, I invite you to read it before this one to give some context to our discussion.

To recap, the second pull is measured from the mid-thigh position to the final extension. In the clean, the contact point for some is at the mid-thigh. The second pull can be further broken down into these components:

  • Full extension
  • Peak Barbell height

Mid-thigh position to Full extension

The mid-thigh position to the full extension is the most critical part of the lift as it represents the portion of the lift when the most force is imparted onto the barbell. From the mid-thigh position, the athlete needs to extend the hips and the legs simultaneously to minimize the horizontal force vectors. The hips and extensors have to be trained to contract powerfully to maximize this portion of this lift. There are two really big mistakes that generally occur in this phase: pulling the shoulders back too early and overextending the hips. While the errors can be simply technique errors, I find that many beginners and intermediate lifters more often than not, have a deficiency that is preventing them from using the correct technique. As a reference I’ve drawn over a picture of what I would describe as a perfect extension during the clean. The red lines mark the center of balance, shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles. It’s clear from the picture that the ideal body movement and extension position comes from the simultaneous action of these joints. Notice how they form basically one line at full extension. The product of these joint actions in addition to the first pull sequentially produce the force necessary for a successful lift.

The lifts that lifters should focus on will depend largely depend on which mistakes the lifter commits.

1) Pulling the shoulders back too early is usually an indicator that the lifter favors their leg extensors, while having weak spine extensors and hamstrings that causes them to shift the work into their quads at the mid-thigh position. Rather than using the simultaneous extension of both anterior and posterior chains prematurely, letting the shoulders get behind the bar too early effectively removes the posterior chain from contributing to the final extension. This generally causes lifters to leave the barbell in front of the lifter’s center of gravity when entering the receiving position or results in an ultimately lower peak barbell height. For this problem, a couple lifts can be used:

  • Snatch grip Halting deadlifts at the mid-thigh position
  • Snatch grip deadlifts from above the knee without hip extension at the top
  • Snatch grip or clean grip Romanian Deadlifts
  • No-foot lift variations from the mid-thigh position
  • Good mornings

2) Overextending the hips indicates the complete opposite problem as pulling the shoulders back too early. Some layback is unavoidable especially once the bar weight exceeds the bodyweight of the lifter. However, excessive layback with an emphasis on striking the barbell with the hips causes a large horizontal force vector that can knock the barbell away from the athlete making it harder to secure overhead. Many lifters that have this problem jump backwards excessively during their lifts. When looking at the final extension these lifters will most likely have a slightly flexed knee, large arch in their back, and their hips will have moved well beyond their feet into the barbell. For these lifters, it’s important that their knee extensors are trained through these lifts:

  • Snatch pulls from above the knee
  • Clean pulls from below the knee
  • No-contact snatch and cleans
  • Front squat
  • Belt squats
  • No-contact muscle snatches and muscle cleans

Peak Barbell Height

Another key point of the second pull is the peak barbell height, which is the maximal height the barbell reaches. It’s important to note that the average peak barbell height for the snatch is around the lifter’s lower to mid-sternum while the clean bar path peaks around the stomach and lower ribs. The takeaway from the differing barbell heights is that the snatch has a longer trajectory compared to the clean making the snatch more of an exercise in patience and technique while the clean can be thought of as a shorter explosive movement. The training implications are that the snatch should be trained with the intention to extend the pull for as long as possible to realize the maximum bar height while the clean should be trained alternating between heavy lifts with explosive exercise variations since efforts to create a longer pull will only result in less time to secure the barbell in the front rack.

Following the final extension, the coach must track the trajectory of the barbell and monitor the proximity to the lifter as it’s very common for lifters to stop exerting effort into the barbell after the extension. The barbell can easily drift away from the center of balance and mass if the lifter is not working equally and simultaneously to control the horizontal forces. Many lifters that have weak upper bodies will have a very difficult time controlling the barbell after the final extension as the combined forces of the extension and bar weight can be too much for their current strength levels. The legs are done contributing to the lift at this point and so it’s up to the strength of the upper body to control the barbell through to the next phase of the lift. These are some of the exercises I use to help develop the strength needed to optimize the bar path after full extension:

  • Snatch/clean grip upright row keeping the barbell close to the body
  • Rear Deltoid raises
  • Heavy snatch pulls off blocks above the knee
  • Chin ups
  • Any Bent over rowing variations

In a Nutshell

The second pull starting from the mid-thigh to peak barbell height is arguably the most important part of the entire lift. The first pull is designed to optimize this phase and the third pull is dependent on how well this phase is done. Beginners and intermediate lifters should spend the majority of their training focusing on perfecting this portion. If you found this post helpful please stick around for the third part of this series where we breakdown the third pull and the completion of the lift.