Article written by Fletcher Pierce
Lifting big is a difficult thing, which is why we all love our respective strength sports, but it is especially hard when we make things more difficult for ourselves. A prime example of adding additional work and hurting ourselves in the process can be seen in the pull portion of the clean and snatch. When we start doing weights closer to our max, probably 90% or higher for most athletes, we naturally start thinking we need to put more force into the top of the pull or we simply won’t make the lift. The way many of us do this is by pulling with our arms at the top of the pull. There are multiple problems with this natural habit, and you need to be aware of them in order to help yourself improve as a lifter.
The main reason this is an issue is that your turnover (the ability to transition under the bar and get your elbows through in a stable position) is greatly diminished in both speed and efficiency. If your biceps, triceps, and entire shoulder are actively engaged at the top of the pull, that is a lot of tension that the lifter must overcome in order to transition to their bottom position. If the transition isn’t consistent and the lifter is unable to adjust to the extra tension in the millisecond available, they will most likely dump the bar in front, wasting precious time and energy in the process.
Another reason pulling with the arms is an issue is that the pull will actually be cut short. If a lifter is doing a max weight, and is compensating by pulling with their arms, chances are they will also not finish the second pull to full extension. When the arms are generally elongated at the top of our pull we naturally develop a sense of where the bar should be located on the quad when we begin the transition into the bottom position. If we pull with your arms and elevate the position of the bar even an inch, it could change the rhythm of your entire pull, causing you to cut it short.
Most lifters know that turning your elbows out (away from your body) will help create a smoother and more efficient bar path by keeping the bar closer to their center of gravity. Another benefit of keeping your elbows out like this is that it limits your arms ability to attempt to “reverse curl” the bar. If you attempt to reverse curl the bar there are a few scenarios that many of us have been through:
1. The athlete could crash the bar into your throat (instead of catching it).
2. The athlete may simply be unable to turn the bar over (dropping it in front).
3. Or there is my favorite option, when the bar swings out away from the athlete and they pull it back in with their arms, which in-turn drives the bar into them, which throws the athlete on their back (hopefully not breaking any wrists in the process).
All of these can be avoided by simply keeping your elbows out, staying over the bar, and use your arms like ropes in the pull. They aren’t going to be of any benefit to the real pulling muscles, your quads and glutes won’t throw a party for your biceps for saving that PR clean or snatch.
That being said, there are lifters that pull with their arms in a fixed bent position. They do this to elevate the bar into their hip pocket more efficiently, but it is difficult to do and hasn’t been proven to be more or less effective. In order to do it this way, you must make sure the arms aren’t actually used to lift the bar as much as stabilize it in the desired position.