Four Phases of the Kettlebell Snatch

November 19, 2019

The snatch is the most explosive, athleticism-building lift within the Hardstyle system and in my opinion, in the entire world of kettlebell training. A lifter who regularly snatches experiences clear and unmistakable positive effects in their daily lives and other training modalities. It lives predominantly in the hip hinge movement family, with elements of pull and anti-rotation. 

 

The definition of a snatch is a swing that ends in the overhead position because all of the same mechanics of a swing exist in a snatch. For the most part, bad snatch technique exists in the presence of poor swing technique. This is why it is not optimal to attempt learning the snatch without at least a few months of good swings in the bank.

 

Despite the profound benefits of including the snatch in a training program, it’s not for all lifters. A few pre-requisite elements should be in place first, for the sake of avoiding injury and paving a smooth path to snatch enlightenment. A lifter should earn the right to train the snatch by:

 

A) demonstrating good single-arm swing technique. Completing the Hardstyle swing test with 33% bodyweight indicates that swing technique is sufficient (200 single arm swings in 10 minutes, specifically in the format of 10 every 30 seconds and putting it down between every set of 10).

 

B) demonstrating ownership of the overhead position. A lifter should have enough thoracic spine and shoulder mobility and enough shoulder girdle stability to safely hold a kettlebell here without overextending the lower back. As a litmus test, I suggest the lifter be able to walk with one kettlebell weighing 25% of their bodyweight, locked out overhead, for 45 seconds per arm.

 

 

The Snatch Cycle

 

Like a sprinters’ gait cycle, the snatch cycle involves a continuous repetition of load—explode—relax—load—explode—relax. The better the lifter’s ability to relax toward the top of each rep and the better they are able to eccentrically load each rep, the more explosive power they’ll be able to create and the better the training effect.

 

The Hardstyle snatch is powered almost purely by the hip hinge movement. After the point of hip extension, the lifter should not have to apply any more force to the kettlebell. That’s with the exception of the minimal force it takes to rotate the handle for hand insertion, as the kettlebell floats through mid-air. If the lifter were to suddenly vanish at the point of hip extension, the kettlebell should float vertically all the way up to the height of the lifter’s locked out arm.

 

The complete snatch cycle starts and ends at the top of every rep and it can be broken down into these four phases:

 

 

In the overhead position, the lifter holds the kettlebell with a closed-hand fully-inserted grip (this is Hardstyle, not GS). The closed-hand fully-inserted grip offers more shoulder stability (and more force) than leaving the hand open. Gripping something with a neutral (not extended) wrist position neurologically innervates the rotator cuffs in your shoulders. Sure, when you’re advanced, do whatever you like. The locked-out overhead position also involves wrist supination, so the palm faces inwards. This further adds to shoulder stability. The top of a snatch should look no different to the top of a military press or the top of a get-up.

 

Drop Phase

 

From the overhead position, the lifter has three options about how to drop the kettlebell to approximately belt height, depending on personal preference. The kettlebell:

 

A) flips over the top of the handle

B) remains upright and rotates around the outside of the wrist (known as the waterfall)

C) takes a route somewhere between the two, as shown in the images below

 

The lifter pulls the elbow down faster than gravity would take it, so the ball just falls as though it was dropped. In the overhead position, the closed hand is fully inserted, and the lifter loosens the grip as they pull the elbow down. The lightly gripping fingers unintentionally rotate the handle under or around the falling ball. The handle loosely jumps over the middle of the hand into a hook, made with the fingers. 

 

Beginners rip their hands up doing snatches because they don’t relax their grip enough during the drop phase. Therefore, the handle doesn’t loosely jump over the middle of the hand. Instead it grinds over the skin, forming and ripping off calluses.

 

By the time the ball reaches belt height, the handle is aligned with the straight arm and the shoulder. The point at which the handle lands in the hook grip and the hand takes the weight of the falling kettlebell is known as the catch. A well-executed drop will result in the catch occurring precisely at the moment when the arm straightens. This means that the lifter can continue relative relaxation, before the catch and load phase, coming next.

 

The second reason that beginners rip their hands during the snatch is because their hook grip moves. A good snatch requires an immovable, steel-like hook grip. If the fingers extend even by a fraction at the point of the catch or after, metal will rub against skin. Skin always loses that battle.

 

 

Catch-and-Load Phase

 

The catch-and-load phase begins with the lifter’s hook grip taking the weight of the falling kettlebell. At this precise moment the kettlebell has finished rotating, the handle is uppermost, sitting on the lifter’s fingers. The most skin damage is caused if the skin of the palm (where the calluses usually develop) is caught between the handle and the fingers.

 

Immediately after the catch, the lat engages and the butt drives backwards into the backswing position. This should look the same as a swing, if not marginally deeper. However, due to the fact that gravity has had more of an effect, the kettlebell is traveling faster than a swing. There’s more of a requirement to prevent the thoracic spine rotating. If rotation is allowed to occur at the bottom, rotation will be the main driver on the way back up. The hips will be cheated out of a job and the essence of Hardstyle will be missed.

 

 

Also, during the catch-and-load phase, the lifter takes a mechanical inhale. At the bottom end of the backswing the lifter is a loaded cannon, with a pressure cooker in their abdomen ready to launch the kettlebell into orbit. New lifters tend to be so focused on what’s happening in front of them that they forget about producing a good deep backswing. An elastic band won’t fly far if you only pull it back a little bit.

 

 

Explosion Phase

 

This starts in the same way as a swing. The lifter drives their feet through the ground. A key focus point for good lifters here is maximizing the tension in their abdominals. This creates an exhale, which occurs just at the point of hip extension.

 

The most powerful part of the movement is when the hips and knees snap into full extension at the same moment. The lifter uses this power to change the trajectory of the kettlebell from floating forward, as it would with a swing, to flying upward to the overhead position. As the kettlebell reaches approximately belt height (slightly higher than that of clean) and as the hips fully extend, the elbow jerks backward and changes the trajectory. The power of this elbow jerk added to the power of the completed hip hinge is enough to make even heavy kettlebells float all the way up.

 

Timing is everything. If the elbow jerk occurs a moment before the hips and knees extend, the arm and upper traps will be forced to work too hard and progress will be limited. The lifter may even need to finish the movement by pressing the kettlebell up. If the elbow jerk occurs a moment after the hips and knees fully extend, the kettlebell will have traveled too far away from the body and will probably end up pulling the lifter backward or bashing their arm.

 

The elbow jerk in a snatch occurs a little higher than that of a clean because the kettlebell is traveling so much faster. This will involve a little scapulae elevation, but only for a brief moment. By no means should the upper traps be a prime mover in this lift. The lifter should aim to maintain a packed shoulder throughout.

 

Telltale! If the lifter’s two knees or hips snap into extension one moment after the other, they’re failing at their task to resist rotation and cheating their hip hinge out of a job.

 

 

Insertion Phase

 

At this point the lifter’s hips and knees are fully extended and they are standing tall. The kettlebell’s trajectory has been changed from going forward to upward and the lifter has exhaled. Now the lifter can relax because all the work has been done. The kettlebell has been launched and it’s happily making its way to the overhead position.

 

Telltale! If the lifter exhales at the top of the snatch movement, as the kettlebell reaches the overhead position and not at the point of hip extension, they’re cheating themselves out of considerable extra power. The exhale is an end result of maximal abdominal engagement which should be created at the same point of hip extension, for maximal power production. Unless in the case of high-volume snatching, the exhale should match hip extension.

 

The only thing the lifter has to do within the insertion phase is adjust their hand position from the hook-grip to the closed-hand fully-inserted grip. The lifter has the entire time from the end of the elbow jerk to the overhead position to do so. They let go of the handle and adjust with a loose and relaxed hand. The rep ends, not by pulling the kettlebell backward, but by shooting the forearm upward. 

 

The lifter continues to relax throughout the following drop phase, before they begin to reload their cannon at the next catch. Beginners tend to hold a great deal of tension during the insertion and drop phases. This negatively affects their ability to repeatedly produce enough explosive power at the bottom end, required for good form.

 

 

Changing Arms

 

A skilled practitioner has three options available. In order of technical ease:

 

A) Change arms with a swing, exactly as one would during a swing set. This is the way we recommend all new students learn

B) Change arms during the insertion phase. One arm lets go after the hips have fully extended. While the kettlebell is floating up through the air toward the overhead position then other hand inserts and completes the rep

C) Change arms during the drop phase. We don’t recommend this option for Hardstyle kettlebell lifting because the risk outweighs the value. This falls into the juggling syllabus

 

 

When kettlebell guru, Jane Doe inserts her hand, the handle does a full revolution and spins under the ball before ending at the overhead position. Which way is right?

 

They’re both right. We teach it differently because we find it helps beginners learn to avoid bashing their arms faster. As long as all the elements are in place that make Hardstyle true-to-form (powered by the hips, no rotation, mechanical breathing, explosive reps, solid lockout), it doesn’t matter how exactly the hand and kettlebell move during the drop and insertion phases.

 

 

Simple Snatch Workout

 

Thoroughly lube up your joints with a 15-20 minute mobility flow. For this workout, set your timer to bleep every 60 seconds, 28 times.

 

Bleeps 1-5: Heavy snatches. Perform 2-4 heavy snatches per arm on every bleep.

 

Bleeps 6-8: Ring push-ups - as many as possible within this 3-minute period. Record reps

 

Bleeps 9-10: Rest

 

Bleeps 11-15: Medium snatches. Perform 4-6 snatches per arm with a moderate load on every bleep.

 

Bleeps 16-18: Ring push-ups - as many as possible within this 3-minute period. Record reps

 

Bleeps 19-20: Rest

 

Bleeps 21-25: Light snatches. Perform 7-9 snatches per arm with a light load on every bleep.

 

Bleeps 26-28: Ring push-ups - as many as possible within this 3-minute period. Record reps

 

 

Repeat this workout every week for 4-6 weeks. Increase your number of snatches and number of ring push-ups from one week to the next. If you can do more / less reps than the recommended ranges, add / reduce load.

 

 

Strength and honor!

 

Phil McDougall

 

 

Instagram: @phil.mcdougall

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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