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The First Pull: Your First Chance to Get the Snatch & Clean Right
Greg Everett

Just like we all tend to focus on the snatch and clean more than the jerk when it comes to technical discussions in weightlifting, we tend to focus more on the second and third pulls of the snatch and clean than the first because that seems to be where all the thrill and glory lie. But the first pull is not only critical for successful lifts, it has quite a few of its own technical nuances and plenty of opportunity for error that will influence the rest of the lift.
 
Before I continue, let me just make sure we’re all on the same page with regard to terminology:
 
First Pull: The lift of the barbell from the floor to the point at which the second pull is initiated (ideally around mid-thigh).
 
Second Pull: The final upward extension of the body to accelerate and elevate the barbell with the legs and hips (from about mid-thigh to the full extended position). Note that some coaches and literature consider the transition (scoop/double knee bend) as its own phase between the first and second pulls; I include the transition in the second pull because it occurs directly as a result of the action of the second pull).
 
Third Pull: The active movement of the lifter under the barbell into the receiving position.
 
 
Purpose
 
The purpose of the first pull is simple: to create the optimal position, balance, speed and timing for the lifter to perform effective second and third pulls. It produces the initial baseline of speed, but acceleration is not really the point; that is, while the bar accelerates a great deal (really just because it’s starting at 0), the true power will be imparted to the bar in the second pull (except with an error with lighter weights I’ll discuss below). Lifters can be successful with a very wide range of speeds in the first pull, which will be determined by the lifter’s proportions, relative leg and hip strength (which can be influenced to a degree by training), and intent (and the resulting effects this has on ability, e.g. if a lifter always intentionally pulls slowly in the first pull, eventually that’s the only way they’ll be able to do it).
 
Balance and position in the transition between the first and second pull are the most critical aspects. If these are incorrect, it’s typically too late to make any significant changes with anything beyond relatively light weights. For example, if a lifter begins the second pull with a significant forward imbalance, he or she will not be able to rebalance the system during the second pull unless the weight is light (more relative to bodyweight than to max).

...the first pull is not only critical for successful lifts, it has quite a few of its own technical nuances and plenty of opportunity for error that will influence the rest of the lift.

 
Movement
 
The basic movement of the first pull brings the lifter from the starting position—weight balanced over the whole foot and shoulders directly above or very slightly in front of the bar—into the second pull position—weight balanced slightly more toward the heels, shoulders in front of the bar. The bar will move backward toward the body somewhat (how much depends on the height and proportions of the lifter and how that influences the starting position of the bar relative to the foot), and the shoulders will move forward over the bar as the hips move toward as the knees extend.
 
The optimal speed of the first pull is not a constant value, and will vary, both in absolute terms and relative to the second pull, among athletes based on a few factors such as proportions. Put as simply as possible, the bar should be moved no faster than what allows the lifter to create and maintain proper position and balance, and to apply maximal force in the second pull, and no slower than necessary to achieve these ends.
 
 
Errors & Corrections
 
Following are the most common first pull errors. Of course, the starting point for correction of any of these is to ensure you or your lifter understand the previous—the purpose and basics of the movement.
 
Tipping
 
Between the floor and the start of the first pull, the shoulders will move forward into a position in front of the bar. Often lifters and coaches mistakenly believe this movement is, or requires, a significant change of the back angle; that is, that the lifters hips must rise faster than the shoulders so that the trunk leans over more. The back angle can remain the same and the shoulders will still move forward relative to their starting point because the hips are moving forward from their starting point and the shoulders are attached to them (the bar is also moving backward slightly).
 
Another mistake is believing that in order to navigate the barbell past the knees, the knees must be pushed backward dramatically as the bar approaches them, creating the same tipping described above. While some minor change of back angle will be necessary for certain lifters based on proportions, if the starting position is correct, the knees will move out of the path of the bar adequately simply by virtue of their natural backward movement as the legs extend normally.
 
Bar Hitting or Swinging Around Knees
 
Even though I just said the knees will get out of the way, you can find ways to mess this up. The first way is a starting position in which the shoulders are behind the bar and/or the bar is too far back over the foot. The bar should start above the balls of the foot in the average lifter, slightly farther forward for longer-legged lifters, and possibly slightly farther back for shorter-legged lifters. The shoulder joint should be directly above the bar or very slightly forward of it in the starting position, making the arms vertical or slightly in front of vertical when viewed from the lifter’s side.
 
The second mistake is beginning to open the hips prematurely. If the angle of the back remains the same from the starting position to mid-thigh, the shoulders will only move forward. However, if the lifter tries to get the trunk more upright earlier than he/she should, the shoulders can move behind the bar early enough that the bar is then pulled back with them and hits the knees.
 
In either of these first two cases, this can also end up as the bar swinging out around the knees with light enough weights as the lifter makes these errors and then (usually unconsciously) swings the bar out to avoid hitting the knees.
 
Finally, the lifter may be pushing the bar back toward the body too aggressively too soon, dragging it against the legs. If the position during the first pull is correct, the arms are hanging vertically or close to it, and as a consequence, very little effort is required to keep the bar close to the legs—it will naturally hang there. Only after it passes the knees and the shoulders begin to move in front of it is any real effort necessary to prevent it from swinging away as it continues to try to hang directly below the shoulders.
 
Too Slow
 
The first pull will always be slower than the second due to the poorer mechanics of the joints in the smaller angles. How much slower depends largely on the lifter’s build—shorter legs suffer less of a blow mechanically at smaller joint angles than longer legs, so shorter-legged lifters are physically capable of moving through the first pull with more speed than their longer-legged counterparts (in the same way the former can stand from a squat faster than the latter). However, any lifter can intentionally slow the first pull down more than necessary.
 
When learning the lifts, intentionally keeping the first pull slow is a good idea to help practice and ingrain proper position, balance and movement. Once the movement is learned adequately, however, excessive slowly is no longer beneficial. The only time a more advanced lifter should intentionally perform the first pull more slowly than he/she is actually capable of is while warming up with light weights that could be blasted so fast off the floor that it would be impossible to hit the proper positions and accelerate properly in the second pull. In other words, if you try to snatch 50kg with the same effort in the first pull that you apply to 150kg, you’re going to run into trouble. Once you’ve reached heavier weights, you should be apply essentially maximal effort into the first pull; the bar just won’t move as fast as it does in the second because that’s the nature of your body’s mechanics.
 
The first and second pull shouldn’t be slow and fast, but fast and faster.
 
Too Fast
 
Not too slow, and not too fast—just right. As I suggested above, with submaximal and maximal snatches and cleans, the lifter will essentially need to apply maximal effort to the first pull even though this will still result in less bar speed than during the second pull. But as I alluded to there as well, it is entirely possible for the first pull to be too fast in certain cases—these cases are experienced lifters during light warm-up lifts, and learning lifters whose maximal snatches and cleans, due to technical or even mobility shortcomings, are dramatically lower than their basic strength capacities. This latter case means that even with a “maximal” snatch or clean attempt, the bar can be moved too quickly in the first pull with full effort because it’s such a small fraction of that athlete’s pulling strength.
 
In these cases, the goal is to try to mimic the speed of the first pull in a heavy lift—that is, adjust the force applied with these lighter weights so that the first pull is about the same speed as it would be with submaximal and maximal attempts. Not only does this allow the lifter to create and maintain the correct balance and position, but it allows the lifter to better train the timing of heavy lifts.
 
Ripping off the Floor
 
The overall speed of the first pull, as discussed above, is independent of the speed of the initial separation of the bar from the floor. This break from the floor needs to be controlled enough to maintain proper position and balance and feed into the proper motion. Yanking the bar up can shift the lifter’s position uncontrollably, but also actually force the lifter to slow down shortly thereafter. Remember that control and continuous tension doesn’t necessarily mean slow—it means control and continuous tension. My all-time favorite lifter (Zlaten Vanev) was able to get away with an incredibly violent separation of the bar from the floor, but it worked because he was so powerful that he was able to continue accelerating the bar and control its movement properly. The speed of your break of the bar from the floor should never exceed what you can control in terms of position and balance, and should never result in the bar slowing down at any subsequent point.
 
Slowing Down after Initial Acceleration
 
Never during the pull should the bar slow down—it should either be moving at a constant speed or accelerating. Often newer lifters will unintentionally slow the bar down near the end of the first pull to prepare for the effort of the second. This may be because the initial speed was excessive as described above and it’s necessary for a proper second pull, or it may be strictly mental as the lifter attempts to “load up” for the final upward explosion. The lifter needs to push continuously with the legs against the ground throughout the pull, and as the second pull is initiated, simply push harder and add the explosive extension of the hips.
 
Not Rebalancing or Shifting Bar Back
 
If the barbell starts over the balls of the foot (or even slightly farther forward in some cases) and the athlete lifts it vertically, the moment the bar leaves the floor, the bar-body system is out of balance forward. Part of the first pull is adjusting the relative positions of the bar and body to ensure proper balance for the remainder of the pull, and part of this is bringing the barbell backward slightly. If the first pull is rushed, or the lifter isn’t actively seeking this rebalancing, the lift will remain out of balance forward and the lifter will be chasing the bar for its remainder.
 
 
Corrections
 
Instead of listing corrections with each error, I’ve collected them here to avoid repetition. Really, the same set of exercises will help all of these errors, although one may be more appropriate than another in certain situations. The purpose of these exercises is to provide the lifter an opportunity to feel the proper positions and balance, and therefore adjust as needed to practice them properly, both training the skill and strengthening the body’s ability to perform that skill under load.
 
Deadlift and pull variations that use controlled speeds and/or pauses between the floor and mid-thigh (single or multiple), and can also use slow eccentrics for even more practice and strengthening of posture, such as (using snatch variations for simplicity; same exercises exist for the clean): Snatch and clean variations that allow a controlled first pull or contain pauses to force proper positions: Complexes that use one or more exercises to first reinforce the proper positions and movement, and then allow the application of that to the competition lift itself:
  • Snatch deadlift + snatch
  • Snatch pull + snatch
  • Snatch lift-off + snatch
  • Halting or segment snatch deadlift + snatch
  • Slow pull snatch + snatch
  • Segment snatch + snatch
Finally, some exercises that will strengthen the legs specifically to help allow a better position in the pull from the floor (to avoid tipping as a result of unloading the weaker legs):

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Greg Everett is the owner of Catalyst Athletics, head coach of the USA Weightlifting National Champion team Catalyst Athletics, author of the books Olympic Weightlifting: A Complete Guide for Athletes & Coaches and Olympic Weightlifting for Sports, director/writer/producer/editor/everything of the documentary American Weightlifting, co-host of the Weightlifting Life Podcast, publisher of The Performance Menu journal, fifth-place finisher at the USAW National Championships, masters national champion, masters American Open champion, masters American record holder in the clean & jerk, and Olympic Trials coach. Follow him on Facebook here and and sign up for his free newsletter here.

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6 Comments
 

GPizzle 2016-09-14
What an amazing article. I almost can't believe that its free lol jk, but this really is helpful. Thanks for your hard work!
Vladimir 2016-09-14
In the first paragraph under "Movement," you write "The basic movement of the first pull brings the lifter from the starting position...into the second pull position—weight balanced slightly more toward the heels, shoulders in front of the bar."

However, I feel like most coaches teach the shoulders to be directly over (I have even heard slightly behind) the bar before initiating the second pull. Many of them say that having the shoulders in front of the bar at this point encourages swinging forward and subsequent jumping forward during the second and third pulls, respectively. I was just wondering if you had any thoughts on this point?

And thank you for this website. Your and Matt Foreman's articles are always fun to read.
This may be a confusion of terminology - I know of no coaches who ever want the shoulders already behind the bar at the start of the second pull, and none who even want them directly above at that point. The shoulders shouldn't be behind the bar until partway through the second pull.

Greg Everett
Vladimir 2016-09-14
Thank you for the response. Sorry, just one more question: does this apply to both the clean and the snatch?
Yes

Greg Everett
Vladimir 2016-09-15
Thank you!
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