The Kettlebell Snatch

The Kettlebell Snatch Lift.

The KB snatch should not be practiced until you have accumulated ample time practicing the one-arm swing. If you have run through the program in the book entitled, “Simple & Sinister” (S&S), then you have built your one-arm swing by introducing the hip hinge, and then progressing to the short-stop drill, bracing, the deadlift, and the two-arm swing. It is a good idea now to review this book before you continue on to the kettlebell snatch lift. The snatch begins in the same hinge position as the swing but then veers off on its own trajectory. The load will not float out in front of you, but will be fixated overhead atop a locked arm. Where the swing is projection of horizontal hip force, the snatch is a projection of vertical hip force—it is more like a jump to standing plank, rather than the swing’s punch to standing plank.

Old poster for learning the kettlebell snatch

The snatch has been called the Tsar of the kettlebell lifts and for good reason: It seems to have few gaps in promoting training adaptations. You can use it for cardiovascular development, overhead strength development, shoulder health and mobility, postural improvement, and of course, leg & glute strength and power development. It has proven to maintain if not increase one’s overhead press (the one-arm kettlebell press). It has proven to “open up” the shoulders and improve scapulae positioning in users. It has proven to build legs that won’t quit on even the steepest of hills. It seems to be the one-stop shop for physical enhancement—but you have to use this tool properly.

In the Hardstyle kettlebell tradition, the snatch was and is a lift that is taught and tested for technique, but it is also used as a test of a student’s mettle: The 5-minute snatch test. This event asks that you complete 100 snatches in less than 5 minutes, with your “snatch-sized” kettlebell. For the average male, this load is 24kg or 53lbs. For the average female, this equates to 16kg or 35lbs. These are loads that are not very heavy, but the speed of action and overall volume add up. The kettlebell snatch, to date, has been mostly used as a light to moderately-light loaded conditioning tool. Kettlebell forums are filled with users that simply do not snatch heavy weights. In the A+A protocol, we will be using a moderately-heavy to heavy load—some of our male participants routinely use the 40kg kettlebell as their go-to workload. This is wholly different use for this tool than tradition has molded.

Before we attend to the snatch lift, and because the learning curve of the snatch begins where the one-arm swing’s learning curve ends, so let me review:

The One-Arm Swing.

The one-arm swing is a ballistic and unilateral hip-extension movement. It is one of the most athletic but safe exercises you can practice, providing a lot of return for the time and energy invested. The swing is a fantastic tool for developing high levels of strength and endurance. A properly performed kettlebell swing is a violent but graceful display of the incredible power of the hips. However, the swing requires considerable time and practice to master.

Old school kettlebellsThere are two positions to the swing: the hinge (an athletic position), and the standing plank. The rest of the lift is to move explosively between the two. Understand that many people are at first unable to properly move into the hip hinge. Moreover, because of our lazy and sedentary society, most people do not and/or cannot, stand correctly (re: standing plank). The hinge is the bottom position of the swing. This position of acute hip flexion combined with “minimal-ish” knee flexion, while maintaining a neutral spine is not often seen anywhere else in sport or exercise, and even less so in the typical daily routine of life. The body adapts to that which it is exposed to, and no more, so true beginners rarely find themselves capable of a competent hip hinge. Compounding this issue of poor positioning, the loading on the back swing occurs with increased velocities, i.e., the bell is speeding downward, forcing you into the hinge. A heavy dynamic eccentric loading is not a good idea if you cannot move into this position naturally.

The hinge requires a bit more than the common cue to, “sit back”. It is to do so with a stiffened and properly curved spine and slight knee bend. In a body that has restrictions, these two postural requirements of the hip hinge compete for control of your pelvis. Minimal knee flexion causes the hamstrings to lengthen as the hips move further into the hinge. Shortened or weak hamstrings and a lumbar spine with a neutral arch pull on the pelvis from opposite directions. Something must give way—either the knees or the spine will be forced into flexion, or the pelvis will be forced into what is called posterior tilt. Google it. These errors in posture are to be avoided, but if your chassis is in a state of degradation, no amount of wishing will correct them. Take the time to drill a hip hinge with light or body weight loading. The standing plank too is an active and for some, a difficult posture. The pelvis must be neutral, meaning that it is not tilted in any direction. The scapulae must be positioned slightly to the rear, and depressed down, also known as “packing the shoulders”.

Do not underestimate your current inability to hinge correctly as having the potential to cause you pain or injury if you fail to heed this warning and jump directly into swings. Any “illusion of strength” developed through the typical weight room program of controlled, stabilized, and segmented exercises will quickly dissipate against the swing. We are here at this juncture to rebuild your “chassis”. Once your body adapts, and your hamstrings toughen up in response to the forces produced by the swing; and you will know what strong and resilient is. For now, just practice your hinging… ego aside.

I will advise here, again: Please review the material in S&S, and do not get started practicing snatches until you are ready.

One-arm Swing Performance.

The height of the bell is meaningless; concentrate on an explosive hip snap, and projecting power forward. This is the quality that we are concerned with: You are purposefully wasting energy, power, and effort—this is Hardstyle. Keep your body’s weight back on your heels and maintain a very tight plank position. Find the balance between your body weight and the swinging bell through your practice. End added text.

  • Take a stance about shoulder width, toes cantered out, about a foot behind the kettlebell
  • Sit back into the hinge, unlocking your knees, grab the bell, and lean it towards you
  • Tense up hard—pack the shoulders, brace the abs, squeeze the glutes, grab the ground with the feet and get ready. You will be looking at a spot on the floor about 20 feet ahead of you.
  • Shift your body weight back onto your heels as you forcefully “hike” the kettlebell up and back between your legs, grabbing a snort of air through your nose—compress the spring of the hinge position
  • Then, as you exhale a bit of air, quickly and forcefully snap your hips into extension, literally throwing the kettlebell forward across the room!
  • The bell will arc upward to about chest height, as your arm pivots about your shoulder
  • Let the kettlebell “float”, weightless for a moment, at the apex of the arc that the swing creates in front of you
  • As the bell falls under gravity’s influence, hold the plank as long as possible, then guide the bell back into the hinge position, keeping its return path high up near your crotch—once again, compress the spring
  • Return the kettlebell to the ground after a final back swing by gently parking it as you originally found it.

“Floating the bell” in the plank does not mean that you are completely relaxed. Create a tight standing plank and stay connected to the bell. Use abdominal pressure and that sharp but short exhalation during your hip snap to tighten your plank:

  • Your feet should be rooted into the ground
  • Your knees should be locked and “pulled up” (squeeze your thigh muscles)
  • Your pelvis should be parallel with the ground and out under your head
  • Your gluteal & abdominal muscles should be tight, and trunk hollowed out
  • Your working latissimus dorsi (lat) should be engaged—connecting your arm to your pelvis
  • Your hand and arm function as a hooks only
  • Your neck is relaxed, holding your head neutral; and your eyes are fixed on the horizon

If you think, “squeeze grip, abs, lats, and glutes”, everything else will fall into place. That all said:

The most articulate author cannot describe this movement in a manner that will allow for even a decent performance—so, safety first: Please find a qualified instructor.

Kettlebell snatch strongman with kettlebellsMany people have a lot of trouble when they first start practicing the swing. Let’s just have you get the movement pattern down and be patient. Always use an appropriate load. You are now just several years from mastering this very basic and foundational exercise. The swing should not be something that you quickly learn then, simply “do the reps”. Every rep of every session is an opportunity to further improve your swing: Your position, your tension, your balance, your control, etc. Stay mindful. A highly crafted and expertly performed swing is infinitely more safe and effective in stimulating the desired training response than the immature swing of a beginner. Become a “martial artist” of the swing, and, go practice.

The Overhead Lockout.

Once you have the one-arm swing dialed in, introducing the overhead lockout is probably the best way to teach and transition into the snatch. The mechanics of the swing are similar to those of the snatch, but especially the lockout position is new and different. The overhead lockout will teach this position as well as check to see if you have the shoulder mobility to be practicing snatches in the first place. Moreover, in my experience, a student that has practiced swings and overhead lockouts naturally brides the gap between them—a snatch—with very little instruction.

The overhead lockout is as simple as it sounds: Put a kettlebell at an arm’s length over your head, and hold it there—better still, walk around with it up there. Start with a lighter kettlebell than you think. To get it overhead in the safest way:

  • With two hands on the handle use your hip extension (as in the swing) to bring the kettlebell from the ground up to your chest—I’m not here to teach the clean, but this will work too
  • Transition your non-working hand to the body of the kettlebell
  • From the front of your chest, either press with two hands or “jump” the kettlebell to the lockout position overhead
  • Remove the non-working hand from the bell and use this arm for balance, if necessary

It is important how you organize yourself underneath the kettlebell. First, have someone check you from the side (do not use a mirror) and ensure that your shoulder is fully open, your head is not jutting forward, and that you are not compensating for your lacking shoulder by leaning backward. Find a qualified instructor if necessary, as this very important detail is beyond the scope of this article.

Next, rotate your thumb toward the rear so that the palm is your hand is facing (or almost facing) the side of your head. Then, pack your shoulder, or pull the kettlebell down toward your trunk without bending your arm. You should feel a strong latissimus dorsi contraction—this is the platform upon which the load will sit. Squeeze your scapulae together, behind you.

Do lockouts often during and/or after your swing practice. Practice the static posture until you’re confident, then, go for a walk with the bell overhead. Start with very light weights and increase them gradually over time.

The Snatch.

The snatch is a hinge movement that throws the kettlebell from the hinge position of the swing to the locked-out position of the get up. I like to introduce this ballistic movement only after the individual has a crisp, snappy one-hand swing, and a solid finish position in the get up. Note: I teach novices to the swing a hinge position that has very minimal knee flexion. As the student becomes hardened and the muscles are able to better relax, I move their hinge position to one with a bit more knee flexion—not unlike an athletic position. This is the start point for the snatch’s hinge.

Begin the snatch about a foot behind a parked bell, hinge back, grab the handle with one hand and lean it toward you—nothing new here. Explosively hike it between the legs, but unlike with the swing, you will slightly raise your trunk and bend your knees a bit. This grants you a hinge position that is better suited for vertical projection. It does require a bit of practice, especially since you have likely patterned a slightly different hinge. Practice will reward you.

Now, instead of projecting the bell forward, you are going to project it up. After an explosive hip and leg extension, guide the bell up by sharply pulling the elbow to the rear. Your hip and leg action will cause the bell to initially move forward, but this arm/elbow action will project it up. When the bell gets near head height and feels weightless, punch underneath the bell, flipping over, and lock it out overhead. I cannot stress enough that your shoulder, elbow, wrist, and hand need to be in a properly packed & vertical position before the weight of the bell drops into the lockout. You need to throw the bell hard out of the hinge, and get in position and tight before you catch the bell in the lockout. If you focus on tight glutes and abs, and squeezing your shoulder blades together, you’ll be ready for the catch.

It is the jump action of the hip and legs that launch the bell with enough force that it climbs into the lockout—the arm and shoulder should not be used to pry the bell into the lockout. You will know when you get this right, and you will also know when you get this wrong—do not ignore this small but very critical detail of the snatch.

The drop from the lockout of the snatch is also quite different from the drop of a swing. For one, the weight of the same bell will feel heavier when dropped from a higher vertical height into the hinge. You will also want to keep the trajectory of the bell close your body. To being the drop, lean back slightly while you yank the handle of the bell forward and down. This will flip the bell and start a relatively vertical drop. When the bell is at about head height, let your hand come slightly away from the handle and regrab it in the hand position you’d like when it hits the bottom. This takes a lot of practice to master but it will save the skin on your hands. You only need a firm grip on the handle in the hinge when snatching. After the throw and until mid-way into the drop, you don’t need to be vise-gripping the bell.

Still on its way down, when it passes your chest, you can now come back forward and set up your hinge. You need to drive the bell into the hinge—don’t let it pull you there! Now is the time for a vise-grip while you set your hips back, bend your knees, and guide the bell between your legs until it gets behind you. You’ll notice an increased compression of your spring in the hinge position with a bell being dropped from overhead. Use this to your advantage and jump the bell into the next snatch.

The skin on the palms will be challenged with the snatch. Swinging will harden the palms but once you begin to snatch, you will understand the meaning of callous. The additional distance and velocity that the bell descends in the snatch causes lots of friction during the “catch” in the hinge. The best way to navigate this is to attack the hinge—really drive the bell back deep so the forearm ends up high near the crotch. Also, take care of your hands … use a pumice stone to keep the calloused skin flat and even with the rest of the palm. That said, you’re just going to have to build volume and load slowly and let your hands adapt. During any session, don’t let your hands tear during snatches. Once you feel the skin burn and stretch, end the session and live to fight another day. The palms heal very quickly.

I should not have to say this at this point, but:

The most articulate author cannot describe this movement in a manner that will allow for even a decent performance—so, safety first: Please find a qualified instructor.

Supporting Literature:

  1. Tsatsouline, P. (2013). Kettlebell: Simple & Sinister. ISBN: 978-0-9898924-0-7

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