A Case for the snatch grip high pull
How To Get All the Benefits of the Olympic Lifts With None of the Drawbacks
by Alec Enkiri | 8/29/19
The Olympic Lifts: They'll Cure Your Cancer Only To Give You A Heart Attack
In performance training circles the Olympic lifts are viewed as the ultimate controversial paradox. They are coveted and revered for their ability to enhance power, improve rate of force development, and crank up nervous system activation to incredible new heights - all of which are a huge boon for athleticism and performance enhancement. Yet simultaneously, they are often viewed as overly technical to the point of being damn near useless and also considered by many to be unnecessarily dangerous to perform for anyone but highly trained Olympic weightlifters.
The irony here is almost painful. But the fact of the matter is, context is an incredibly important aspect when considering any training method and the performance of the full Olympic lifts is no different. They are highly technical and take years upon years of consistent, frequent, and focused effort under the eyes of a watchful and knowledgeable weightlifting coach to truly master. They can be dangerous when performed with poor technique or using poor training protocols. And when they are performed at levels well below someone's ultimate potential, as would generally be the case with anyone who doesn't have at least several years of experience practicing them, they likely won't be able to create a sufficient training stimulus to drive any kind of meaningful performance adaptation in any sort of intermediate or advanced level athlete.
So Why Bother?
Because all this refers to the performance of the full Olympic lifts (i.e. barbell is pulled from the floor; the transition around the knees must be successfully traversed; the barbell/body complex must be situated into the optimal power position while the barbell is being accelerated; a maximal and violent extension of the hips, knees, and ankles is then executed - known as the "2nd pull" - and immediately upon culmination of this complete body extension the lifter must quickly reverse course and pull their body completely underneath the barbell which is then caught in a deep, full squat position; the lifter then stands up with the weight - all told, this is extremely complicated, takes a hell of a lot of work to master, and isn't worth most trainee's time as it will be several years before they are even capable of using weights that "matter" and all the time spent mastering these lifts is going to take away from time/energy that could have been spent on other, likely more productive things).
This is what a full snatch looks like
But who ever said you had to do the full lifts? In fact, unless you have aspirations of competing in Olympic weightlifting, there is no reason to bother doing the full versions of the lifts as all their positive benefits (which are myriad) can still be had even when the lifts are broken down into much simpler variations that instead emphasize the components that are most beneficial for us as non-Olympic weightlifters.
I have already discussed in detail in this video how the Olympic lifts can be modified to make them much more user friendly and much, much easier for athletes and regular gym goers to pick up, quickly master to a sufficient degree, and start making gains on that, unlike the full Olympic lifts, will have an almost immediate impact on their performance in other endeavors. No lifetime of intense technique training beginning at age 2 under a Chinese or Russian weightlifting coach required. In short, perform the lifts from the high hang rather than the floor (avoiding the transition over the knee) and perform the power versions only (catch the bar in as shallow of a squat as possible rather than a deep squat).
And remember, context. In this context athletes and average Joe's can reap all the positive benefits of the Olympic lifts (and more actually) while avoiding the majority of the negatives that make their incorporation questionable in the first place. These modifications not only make the lifts far simpler overall, but they also create several additional performance distinctions that make them an even better choice when the context becomes training for power development/athletic enhancement, rather than becoming a good Olympic weightlifter:
The high hang creates a brief eccentric. When performing the lifts from the high hang you must set your body into the power position from the top down. This means you must take your hips, knees, and ankles which were all fully extended after you picked up the barbell, and move them back into flexion immediately before executing the 2nd pull. This creates a stretch reflex in those muscles that is not present during the normal Olympic lifts. Every single athletic maneuver in existence (think running, jumping, throwing, punching, etc.) relies on a mastery of the stretch reflex for optimal performance. This creates a higher degree of specificity to athletics and ultimately results in a higher degree of transfer to those sorts of movements/activities.
Doing the power versions forces you to focus on the 2nd pull. When performing the full Olympic lifts trainees are often so worried about getting under the bar that they don't fully focus on pulling against the bar maximally during the 2nd pull. In fact, it's often touted that one of the defining characteristics of elite level Olympic weightlifters is not how high they can pull the barbell, but rather how fast they can get themselves underneath of it. That's fine and dandy for Olympic weightlifting, but when it comes to performance enhancement the whole point of doing these lifts is to generate as much power as possible during the 2nd pull and pull the thing as high as you possibly can. When performing the power versions and attempting to catch the barbell in as shallow of a squat as possible, the focus shifts instead onto pulling the barbell over top of you rather than pulling yourself underneath of the barbell - an important distinction.
The hang power versions require you to generate higher peak power outputs. Since there is less total distance over which to impart force into the barbell (as compared to initiating the lift from the floor) the force that you generate to pull the barbell onto your shoulders or over your head must be generated more quickly. This results in higher peak power outputs, and generating as much power as possible as often as possible is one of the best ways to ensure that your ability to produce power consistently increases - another boon for athleticism/performance enhancement.
This is what a hang power snatch looks like
And a hang power clean
Enter The Snatch Grip High Pull!
So with all that out of the way, I want to take things a step further and talk about the snatch grip high pull. If after watching my video on the modified versions of the lifts anyone still has reservations about performing the Olympic lifts in general or they simply don't want to have to bother with actually catching a barbell overhead or on their shoulders, then the snatch grip high pull done from the high hang is the answer. The high pull is the modified version of the modified version of the Olympic lifts. It's as simple as it gets; all you really have to do is heave against the barbell with all of your might. And this exercise not only provides all of the benefits of the modified Olympic lifts that I've already touched on, but it also brings a few extra positives of its own to the table that you can't really get from anywhere else.
A relatively "light" set of high pulls
For one thing, since there is no catching the barbell the joint stress on the wrists, elbows, and shoulders is kept to a minimum. The overhead snatch position with the wide grip on the barbell is notoriously stressful on the wrists, a cumulative issue that can become a real problem over time. Lifters have also been known to blow out an elbow while attempting to secure a heavy weight overhead and poor mobility/positioning can also lead to shoulder pain in time as well. Catching an errant clean can be dangerous for the elbows and the wrists and the barbell can also end up bashing into the clavicles.
With the high pull, however, there is no catch so all of these issues are avoided before they're ever even confronted. If the barbell gets too out of control then you can simply drop it with no worries about dropping it on your head or getting pinned underneath of it. A win for both simplicity and longevity. And since you don't have to worry about catching the barbell in a very precise spot, the margin for error during the pull becomes greater. Rather than being forced to focus on having an absolute perfect line of pull, you can instead shift your focus onto developing maximal power and achieving solid and complete extension of the targeted joints (hips, knees, ankles). Thus, the training effect is achieved, the learning curve is drastically reduced, and safety is not compromised.
Unique Benefit #1
But the snatch grip high pull doesn't just shine by its ability to greatly simplify the technical requirements of the lifts and allow greater focus to be placed onto the actions we're already trying to achieve by performing the Olympic lifts in the first place. It also stands alone on its own merit by bringing a few unique elements to the table that simply cannot be achieved with those other lifts alone - either the full lifts or the modified versions I discussed earlier. For instance, there will always be a weight that you can pull sufficiently high and achieve great extension with, but simply cannot get underneath of and catch. That's just the nature of the lifts and because of this even certain world class weightlifters include high pull variations in their training as a means of overloading a similar movement pattern and improving pulling power, and these guys and girls are far more skilled at catching heavy weights than you or I.
But if proper position can be maintained, and proper joint extension can be achieved, and the barbell can be pulled to at least nipple height, then it would stand to reason that the same training stimulus as a power snatch (or at least one that is very similar) is still being achieved only now it's being achieved with potentially far more weight. Using myself as an example, my current best power snatch from the high hang is 220 pounds for 1 rep. Contrast that with my snatch grip high pull from the exact same high hang position and I have done clean sets of 270 pounds for 5 reps, 300 pounds for 3 reps, and can consistently do solid 5x5's with 240+ pounds.
A little bit heavier here
I'm not an efficient or proficient weightlifter by any stretch of the imagination, but it would stand to reason that repeatedly achieving strong and powerful extension against 300 pounds is going to have a more profound effect on my absolute strength and power development than achieving that same extension against 220 pounds. So that "overload effect" is unique benefit number one.
Unique Benefit #2
This leads to my next point, which is volume. You can only do so many heavy reps of power snatches or power cleans before you just lose it. Even if your pulling power is mostly still there while fatigue begins to set in the movements themselves are just so complex and require so much total body coordination that even small amounts of fatigue are able to degrade the motor pattern sufficiently enough that your bar path deviates ever so slightly and you start missing lifts. Practicing these complex lifts in this fatigued state is also a surefire way to ingrain poor and inefficient motor patterns into your nervous system. This means you can only do so many reps per set and so much total work per session before you have to stop, which is in part why it's often recommended to train these lifts with high frequencies as that allows you to get in the necessary total training volume to continually make progress while the frequent practice performed in a fresh state allows you to hit enough crisp, high quality reps to achieve technical mastery (or at least something resembling it).
With the high pull though it's much easier to continue to put in quality reps even as intra-set fatigue begins to set in. You don't have to worry about catching the bar and you don't have to worry about putting it into the perfect spot. You only have to worry about imparting maximal power into it and the movement pattern is simple enough that the accumulation of small amounts of fatigue isn't a huge deal in terms of overall performance, at least not nearly to the same extent as it is with a power snatch or clean. Further, the action itself is similar enough to carry over into those endeavors but dissimilar enough to not really interfere with them (context: this last assertion probably doesn't hold true for elite Olympic weightlifters, but that's not who this article is written for). Thus, instead of being relegated mostly to sets of 1-3 reps you can start to incorporate sets of 5 reps or possibly even more with little to no loss in rep quality. It just makes it a lot easier to accrue large amounts of high quality, explosive pulling volume while at the same time using far heavier weights than you otherwise would be able to; a double whammy effect which in the long run is going to create a far more potent stimulus for the body to adapt to. Over the training career of the athlete this is going to lead to much higher absolute levels of pulling strength, much greater total body explosiveness/power development, and a much more yoked upper back and traps. Unique benefit number two.
Unique Benefit #3
Lastly, with the snatch grip high pull the entire focus of the lift is on the 2nd pull. As I noted earlier, with the full Olympic lifts half the battle (or more) is just getting yourself underneath the barbell, which can take away from the optimal execution of the 2nd pull in unskilled lifters (like myself). With the modified power versions we're able to remedy this issue somewhat by focusing on pulling the barbell higher, thus shifting more of the focus onto an aggressive and maximal 2nd pull and less of the focus on pulling yourself underneath the barbell. But ultimately, anytime the focus is on actually catching the barbell you still have to get yourself underneath of it and that always has the potential to lead to a chopped, rushed, or simply sub-optimal 2nd pull, especially the more inexperienced you are with the lifts.
And here is about as heavy as I can reasonably go. Notice the reduction in pull height as well as the change in elbow position at the peak of the pull as the bar weight increases.
With the snatch grip high pull, however, we remove this issue from the equation altogether. The sole focus is on executing the 2nd pull as aggressively and powerfully as possible and on pulling the barbell as high as possible with every repetition. There are no other factors to worry yourself with. You should take advantage of this freedom by being sure to fully extend your hips and knees to ensure maximal lower body power production and then let your upper body join the party and just pull the damn thing as high as you possibly can and keep pulling it up until gravity won't let you anymore. This freedom to focus on nothing but the execution of a monster 2nd pull, which is inarguably the most important and beneficial component of the Olympic lifts for non-Olympic weightlifters, is unique benefit number three of the exercise.
The only other real consideration becomes the height of the pulls themselves. You want to shoot for the nipple line: not much lower or it means you aren't generating enough force against the bar (too heavy, like trying to throw a cinder block the way you'd throw a football) and not much higher or it will just float up aimlessly (too light, like trying to throw a wiffle ball as hard as possible). In either case power development will be stifled. But if you find the sweet spot in terms of pull height and hold yourself accountable to it while being sure to always focus on maximal power and maximal aggression with every rep you do, I think you will be very pleased with the results you get from this exercise, both in terms of its transfer into movement based activities as well as its ability to pack solid, functional muscle onto the legs, hips, and upper back.
Obviously, there are benefits to performing both variations concurrently. That is, when it comes to overall performance enhancement there is still something to be said for practicing actually catching the weight (namely, learning how to efficiently and seamlessly absorb large opposing forces). In terms of training for performance & athleticism I think the absolute best long term results are achieved when you pick a modified Olympic lift variation that you enjoy (in my case it's the power snatch from the high hang), pair it with the snatch grip high pull, and put hours of brutal work and effort into improving both variations as much as possible. However, if you could only pick one - if you're short on time or energy or you simply don't give a damn about putting in the extra effort that goes into figuring out how to actually catch the barbell, then your best bet is to just get comfortable with the snatch grip high pull and go to town. If you are consistent and diligent with the exercise you will reap all of the performance enhancing, athletic enhancing, and muscle building benefits the Olympic lifts have to offer, along with all of the unique benefits I mentioned above, with minimal time commitment required to learn the lift or properly maintain the technique. Thus, instead of being overly bogged down with technical details you can focus on the one thing that truly matters when it comes to weight training: getting results.
There are just a few key points that need to be focused in order to ensure optimal and efficient execution of the exercise and I'll touch on those in a future article. But if you can't wait for that then please check out my comprehensive tutorial on YouTube that details all of the most important aspects of execution and will have you ripping huge weights in no time. Happy high pulling!
If you're interested in a re-usable training template that includes optimal programming and progression for these lifts as part of a comprehensive training plan please check out my templates for trainees of all skill levels.