I’ve written a number of times on fashionable weightlifting technique. These things become fashionable not because they’re new, but because someone of often dubious influence thinks they are and gets excited about what appears to be a novel approach that can bear the weight of many hashtags. More often than not, they’ve been around for a long time, have been experimented with and evaluated by many coaches and athletes, and dismissed as being unsuitable generally, and only suitable for specific athletes in specific circumstances.
Covering this particular topic was a specific request from another coach who’s seen the recent increase of intentional arm-bending in the pull of the snatch and clean and is frustrated with addressing the issue over and over. I have no delusions that this article will clear this problem up, but at least it will provide some answers about the issue. At the very least, I’ll have a handy link to share instead of having to repeat my thoughts and potentially sound like even more of a dick than I mean to.
It’s important to recognize the difference between the idiosyncratic habits of elite lifters and attempts by less advanced lifters to imitate them.
What We’re Talking About
First, let’s be clear what exactly we’re talking about here. We are not talking about the unintentional error often seen in beginning lifters of actually trying to lift the bar up with the arms, i.e. upright rowing the bar rather than relying on leg and hip extension for the upward acceleration and elevation of the bar. This is the intentional pulling of the bar up during the pull to bring it closer to or directly into the hips (more common for the clean, as except with very long-armed, short-torsoed lifters, the snatch will already contact the hips). Recently the name “hip clean” has been given to this technique, which created another problem, as that has been the name of an exercise for years that has nothing to do with this technique.
Before we go any further, let me be clear—it is possible to bend the arms slightly in the clean, and to a somewhat lesser extent in the snatch, and still lift well, or what you might call “correctly”. It’s not hard with the old internet to find examples of elite weightlifters with slightly bent arms prior to complete extension in the second pull. Of course, keep in mind as well, it’s not hard to find examples of all kinds of quirks conventionally considered technical errors among the best lifters in the world. This alone is not a good reason to mimic them—they likely have very good reasons for doing what they’re doing that you don’t share with them.
It’s important to recognize the difference between the idiosyncratic habits of elite lifters and attempts by less advanced lifters to imitate them. The former group have developed these habits over many years of training because they naturally gravitated toward them—over time, these things emerge in response to certain peculiarities of a given lifter to exploit their innate strengths and mitigate the negative effects of their weaknesses. You imitating this kind of practice is not accomplishing the same result, and in fact, is usually creating problems.
Why It’s a Problem
The longstanding objection to early bending of the arms is based on very simple reasons. Because the arms are the connection from the bar to the rest of the body, they are transmitters of the power generated by the extension of the knees and hips. Any slack that is taken up during extention is force being lost during this movement, like a rope stretching while towing something.
As I’ve discussed previously, this is less of an issue the more hip-oriented a lifter’s pull is. That is, if a lifter relies overwhelmingly on hip extension, the bar will be supported in part by the hips as they finish extension rather than more by the shoulders through the arms, and there will be less elevation to be minimized by extension of the partially bent elbows in reaction to the violent hip and knee extension of the second pull. While this slight bending of the arms may not be a problem in this style of lifting, it certainly doesn’t improve it in any way other than moving the bar into the crease of the hips—but this should have been already taken care of with a proper grip width, pulling positions and timing. In other words, if your setup and pull is correct to begin with, even if you want to use a more hip-oriented lifting style, there is no need or benefit to bending the arms.
Additionally, early bending of the arms can disrupt an optimal pull under the bar. Because the elbows will usually be pulled backward somewhat, it becomes impossible to pull them up and out as much as is desired for maximal downward speed and proximity of the bar and body. In the clean, nearly always this early arm bending causes significant crashing of the bar onto the shoulders rather than a smooth connection. Cleans are tough enough to recover from without having the bar thrown onto your shoulders while sitting in the bottom of a squat.
Why it Happens & What it Does
When not done intentionally, early arm bending (not trying to lift the bar with the arms) is the reaction to a preceding technical error or other problem. Any error in timing or position that causes the lifter to be out of balance forward or to begin opening the hips prematurely will often result in this rowing of the bar up and back toward the hips. This is more common in the clean, of course, because the narrower grip naturally places the bar lower on the thighs, meaning any forward movement of the knees will push the bar farther forward than it would in the snatch.
The rowing of the bar up brings it above the forward-moving thighs to avoid this, and also brings the bar back to concentrate the bar-body center of mass over the feet to reduce forward weight imbalance. This means that the problem is also more common in lifters with long arms and/or short torsos, or who use an inappropriately narrow grip.
The problem can be avoided most of the time by using a proper grip-width for the lifter’s build, ensuring proper balance in the pull, and staying over the bar until it’s at mid- to upper-thigh rather than initiating the second pull too early. The only time it’s impossible to correct completely in this way is if a lifter’s proportions are seriously outside the norm, in which case they will never have ideal lifting technique anyway (sorry guys—you’re still good people).
When it’s Acceptable
I consider this bending of the arms an acceptable technical practice when all possible technical errors have been addressed and it’s determined that the athlete is doing it naturally and that there is no other practical way to achieve the same result (such as widening the grip). In other words, I don’t see it as a problem if everything else in the lift is done well and it doesn’t create related problems such as bar crashing or a weak, delayed third pull. The key, though, is that for it to be acceptable, it has to occur naturally—the moment the lifter begins doing it intentionally, it becomes a problem. Lifters who have slight arm bend should be actively focused like everyone else on keeping the arms long and relaxed, and having the bar contact higher on the body through correct positioning, balance and timing. After that, if the arms bend a little to help, I won’t lose sleep over it. In fact, I bend my arms a little in my cleans—but never once in my life have I intended to.
A small degree of elbow flexion during the second pull of the snatch and clean may occur naturally for many lifters as a way for the body to naturally maintain as much of the existing bar speed during the transition of the knees under the bar, during which bar speed unavoidably decreases somewhat. Again, this must be allowed to occur naturally.
How to Fix It
If you’re intentionally pulling the bar up with your arms because you originally thought it was a good idea and have since changed your mind, just quit doing it. If it’s now become a habit you can’t stop that easily, you’ll need to get some practice time in to unlearn it. Focus on arching your back forcefully and keeping your arms internally rotated but elbows loose.
If it’s happening unintentionally, you’ll need to diagnose the cause so you know what to correct. It’s a pretty simple checklist:
- Grip too narrow?
- Forward imbalance in the pull?
- Premature second pull?
If a narrow grip is the problem, experiment with wider grips. In the snatch, the ideal grip places the bar in the crease of the hips when hanging at arms’ length (just above the pubic bone so you don’t have to wear a Maxipad in your waistband to prevent the snatch from hurting). In the clean, try a grip that, with the bar held at your shoulders, the forearms are vertical when viewed from the front. This should put your hands about half a fist to a fist-width outside the shoulders. You should be able to get pretty wide with the clean grip as long as you’re mobile enough to establish a secure rack position with it.
Timing the initiation of the second pull properly is an issue of practice, but also being strong enough to maintain your position over the bar until it’s high on the thigh. Both can be helped with exercises like halting snatch or clean deadlifts, segment pulls or deadlifts, and segment snatches and cleans. You can get more information on that in the abovementioned article as well.
Finally, for you monkey-armed lifters who can’t use a wider grip for reasons such as not being able to maintain your grip in the pull, wrist pain overhead, or running out of barbell real estate, there’s a way to get the bar higher up into your hip without bending your arms—use your back. Stand in a high-thigh hang position and shrug your shoulders back and a little up and see how much the bar is elevated—it’s a significant amount (at least a few inches). This will allow you to bring the bar into a better position on the leg or hip without resorting to bending your arms. This still presents a similar problem to early arm bend with regard to potential slack in the system during the final acceleration—however, your upper back musculature is stronger than your elbow flexors, so you’ll be better able to maintain the position.
In the End…
As I find myself saying more and more lately, lift however you want to lift. I promise it doesn’t offend me if you want to bend your arms, hump the bar with limp legs, drop the bar onto your shoulders as roughly as possible, swing the bar overhead, or anything else. If you believe something unconventional you’re doing is making your lifting more successful, then by all means, continue doing it. Your lifting results will tell the rest of us if it works or not.
Having said that, if you’re looking to improve your lifting as much as possible, my suggestion is to learn and practice according to textbook technique and diverge only as it begins to happen naturally after you’ve reached a reasonable level of technical proficiency, such as lifting at the national championship level. Prior to this, in my often apparently offensive opinion, you’re just limiting your potential development. Conventional technique became such because it works. Be sure you have good reasons for rejecting longstanding conventional wisdom—novelty and fashion don’t fit that requirement. I’m willing to bet that if you’re struggling with poor snatch and clean technique, bending your arms prematurely isn’t going to solve the problem.