In discussing the key technical elements to making a successful snatch or clean, the first pull is rarely considered. That is understandable, as lifts are not made at the beginning of the pull. However, they can certainly be lost because of mistakes within the first four inches of bar movement.
For the purpose of this discussion, the first pull will be defined as the act of taking the barbell from the platform to the knees. The sole purpose of the first pull, obviously, is to put the lifter in the best position possible to enter the next phase of the lift. At this point, poor bar position, poor body leverages or positioning, or lack of bar speed can all doom the lift to failure.
To begin, an appropriate yet comfortable foot stance is necessary. Individual variations apply, but it is generally thought that a shoulder width foot spacing, with the toes pointed slightly outward, is ideal. The extremes would be the “frog” style, in which the heels are touching and the feet are at ninety degrees to one another, and wide spacing approaching a powerlifting squat stance with the feet directed straight ahead. Lifters that emphasize their legs in the first pull tend to use a narrower stance as that would allow the hips to get lower. Likewise, a wider stance puts more emphasis on the lower back and hips, as the hips will be higher at the start of the pull—especially in the snatch.
The bar should be roughly over the distal third of the metatarsals (the long bones in the foot) and this depends on ankle flexibility and the starting position of the hips. Ideally, the bar should be kept close to the body throughout the pull. A bar placed too far in front of the feet puts the lifter at a mechanical disadvantage in terms of being able to get the bar to the proper position for the next phase of the lift. Likewise, bar placement too close to the legs will result in hitting the shins. A look at video or pictures of competitive weightlifters will reveal bloody shins, scrapes from one to three inches, or tape placed over the abrasions to prevent blood from getting on the bar. Grazing the shins could send the bar forward and out of position or slow down the elevation of the barbell.
The next factor in the start of the pull is the position of the hips. If the hips are too high, the shoulders are too far in front of the bar and excessive stress is placed on the lower back as increased extension will be required, from a biomechanical disadvantage, to get into position for the final pull. Starting with the hips too low inhibits the ability of the hips and lower back to contribute to the pull as the shoulders are directly over, or even behind, the bar.
Consider lifters with proportionately weak lower backs compared to their leg strength. These lifters will adopt a starting position which utilizes their strength: their legs. Their hips will be low from the start, which places more emphasis on the legs to elevate the bar. Likewise, lifters with comparatively stronger backs will start with their hips higher and use a lot of back, compared to their legs, in the pull. It’s not an absolute, but if you note lifters who are routinely pinned in the clean, you’ll find that most start their pulls with their hips relatively high.
So, unless you have some inherent biomechanical advantage or disadvantage (limb lengths/ratios and flexibility factor), you want your hips positioned so your thighs are approximately at a 30-45 degree angle with your shoulders about two to three inches over or in front of the bar. Of course, it will be apparent that the snatch, because of the wider grip, will necessitate a lower starting position than the clean. The lighter weight will make it easier to rely on the legs to get the bar started off the platform.
Once your starting position is set and solid, you’re ready to begin. Your bodyweight should be over the ball of your foot at the start and shift towards your heels by the time the bar gets to knee height. Just think about keeping your weight over the ball of the foot and this will naturally occur. Avoid starting on your heels, as this could direct the bar backwards. Throughout the first pull, as the bar moves from the platform to your knees, the angle of your torso remains constant. As your hips move upward, so should your shoulders, together. Think about it. As you extend (or straighten) the legs, the bar should move proportionately. Observe a lifter with weaker legs. The hips will “shoot” or come up while the legs straighten, but the shoulders will elevate only slightly. This now puts the shoulders too far over the bar, placing the lifter at a disadvantage for the next pull. Also, the leg extension is wasted, as bar elevation is not maximized. Yes, it is easier to straighten the legs without moving the bar, but we do not want to turn the first pull into a stiff-leg dead lift. Raising the hips is a common error seen in novice lifters.
The snatch and clean & jerk are known as the “quick” lifts. In order to successfully complete the lifts, significant bar speed must be achieved to allow the body to hit receiving positions under the bar. While there is no debate that the more speed on the bar at the finish of the pull, the better, there is some difference in opinion regarding the speed of the first pull. One school of thought is to “squeeze” the bar off the platform, to “build” speed throughout the entire pull. Another is that you want as much speed on the bar as possible. Watching elite weightlifters will demonstrate that both methods are utilized. The Bulgarians of the glory years were known for their speed and explosiveness. They almost uniformly “yanked” the bar off the platform.
It is fair to argue that it is easier to get an already moving object to move faster, up to a desired speed, than one that is static. For example, let’s say we are striving for a bar speed of 2m/second at the top of the pull, which is world class by the way. Which do you think would be easier, get the bar from a dead stop zero to two meters per second, or from one to two?
The bottom line is maintaining positions. It is of little benefit to explode the bar off the floor at the expense of raised hips, a rounded back, and bent arms. You want as much speed on the bar throughout the entire lift as possible, provided you maintain proper positions. Proper positioning of the body is critical.
It is always a good idea to video yourself and have a knowledgeable coach critique your form, short of actually having a coach with you during training. Studying yourself and correcting technique errors, even those that are minor, can add kilos to your lifts.