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The Snatch-Grip Deadlift

by Robert Santana, MS, RD, SSC and Mark Rippetoe | September 01, 2020

snatch grip deadlift

One of the common errors we see in a squat is the flexion of the thoracic spine out of the hole. In fact. In Active Hip 2.0, Rip stated “It has recently come to my attention that a relatively high percentage of people, many more than I had previously thought, have no idea what the hell their low back is doing at any given time.” As a rookie barbell coach, I chuckled the first time that I read this. However, as I developed as a coach it came to my attention that most people have no idea what the hell their entire back, from neck to ass, is doing at any point in time. It also came to my attention that effective control of the trapezius contributes to spinal extension across the nearly the entire spine since the trapezius span across the majority of the back and they do so in all of the main lifts.

Spinal extension is critical to the proper performance of each and every barbell lift and most activities of daily life. Teaching spinal extension with the “chest up” cue is sufficient for most novice lifters to get their back extended in a reasonable position. Chin-ups strengthen the lats and “lower trapezius” and compliment the 5 barbell lifts throughout the Novice Linear Progression. Then comes that transition, when the novice starts lifting Actually Heavy Loads, and the traditional cues and basic exercises may no longer be sufficient to correct power leaks in the back. The bar starts rolling up the lifters neck on the squat, or shoots away forward in a press, or the elbows flare up into the “danger zone” on the bench press.

It’s common to hear powerlifters talk about contracting their lats, and to cue other lifters to do the same. The lats originate at T7 and extend down to S1, thus playing a role in lumbar extension. However, exclusive emphasis on the lats ignores the region of the back between T1-T12, where power leaks are often observed. The trapezius extends from the base of the skull, down the cervical erectors, and down to T12. The “upper traps” elevate the scapula (i.e. the shrug), the “middle traps” retract the scapula (e.g. rows, reverse flyes), and the “lower traps” depress the scapula. Thus, it is the isometric action of the middle/lower traps and thoracic erectors that contribute to the maintenance of thoracic extension.

The Deadlift trains the trapezius isometrically, with the middle and lower traps extending the thoracic spine. Widening the grip to perform the Snatch-Grip Deadlift lengthens the moment arm between the bar and the hip by creating a more horizontal back angle. The much wider grip creates the effect of much shorter arms, thus lengthening the range of motion at the top of the pull – a deficit deadlift, performed while standing on a block, extends the bottom-end range of motion. Since the back angle is much more horizontal, more femoral external rotation/knee abduction is required, further engaging the adductors. The extended range of motion forces the back to work harder to maintain the isometric extension required for a longer pull. The wide snatch grip causes the posterior deltoids, external rotators, and scapula retractors to work harder to stabilize the position of the shoulder.

As with deadlifts, effective lockout of the snatch-grip deadlift requires an extended spine. The spinal erectors cannot effectively extend a flexed spine when the load is sufficiently heavy. Lockout problems arise at lighter weights on snatch-grip deadlifts than they do on deadlifts, because the snatch grip makes the lift significantly harder and more likely to show thoracic flexion. The bar has to travel further up the legs and into the hips, thus requiring a longer range of motion for the spinal erectors to stabilize. This forces the lifter to set his back in extension before it gets Actually Heavy.

Most importantly, the angle of attack between the bar and the hands, and the more horizontal arms from the wide grip, reduces the efficiency of the grip and the pull. The angle between bar and fingers effectively removes the last two fingers from the grip, and increases the pressure on the thumb, index, and middle fingers – especially if a hook grip is used. Because of the width of the grip and the resulting more horizontal back angle impinging your belly and your thighs, a snatch grip is uncomfortable to take and is prone to be rushed through.

Even with straps (which take time to set at this width), pulling the bar off the floor with a wide grip is harder due to the existence of a long moment arm between shoulder and hand created by the arm angle. To visualize this, imagine making your arms parallel to the bar and trying to pull it from the ground. Moment force, not tension, is the dominant factor – the load is trying to pull your arms down into tension, like it is in a close deadlift grip with vertical arms, and the tension which actually pulls the bar off the floor is not in a position to be applied efficiently.

And it is this long moment arm that makes the traps work harder in a snatch-grip deadlift. They, along with the rhomboids, are fighting very hard against scapular protraction/abduction/pulling-out/whatever you want to call it at this more horizontal angle. In other words, at the start of the pull the tension is directed more parallel to the bar and less parallel to the gravity vector, and the traps are loaded in a different way than the deadlift loads them.

All these factors make the snatch-grip deadlift harder with lighter weights – the definition of a good assistance exercise. The lifter’s back gets stronger, kinesthetic awareness of thoracic flexion increases, bar roll on the squat virtually disappears, bar path on the press cleans up, elbow flare cleans up on the bench press, and, the most obvious, deadlift mechanics improve.

The teaching progression for the snatch-grip deadlift can be found in Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training, 3rd edition, so I’ll limit this to general programming considerations. As stated, these should be used for an intermediate lifter or at the very earliest an advanced novice who is pulling heavy once per week at the end of his novice linear progression. The lift can and should be performed with Heavy Weights once the lifter has learned the movement and has progressed it appropriately. In other words, don’t do a “4-week accumulation block” ending with just above warm-up weight. Experiencing a “no-bullshit” challenging pull is critical for reaping the benefits of this lift. In terms of training prescription, I recommend starting with 2-3 sets of 5 as a “medium” day pull. So a sample Heavy/Light/Medium program may look like the following:

  • Workout A: Deadlift @ 1 x 5
  • Workout B: Power Cleans @ 5 x 3
  • Workout C: Snatch-Grip Deadlift @ 2 x 5

It is not uncommon for a lifter to perform snatch-grip deadlifts for 5 repetitions with ~70-80% of what he can deadlift for 5 repetitions, depending on absolute strength. The guy pulling 700 lb is going to have a different limit than the guy pulling 400 lb. My advice is to start light as you would when introducing any new lift, but don't be timid and progress these up to a sufficiently challenging weight as soon as possible. One of the most common errors made with assistance exercise, in general, is the lack of progression to Heavy weights. These lifts are there to assist the other lifts, not to serve as a warm-up. Be responsible, but Make Them Heavy.

The snatch-grip deadlift can be performed with a power bar or an Olympic weightlifting bar, depending on personal preference. Since I am a purist, I tend to have my lifters use an Olympic weightlifting bar since it was traditionally prescribed as an Olympic Weightlifting assistance exercise. The slightly smaller bar diameter is less stressful on the wrists and the smooth center (or soft center knurling) reduces friction between the bar and the shorts. Remember, because of the grip width, the top of the range of motion results in the bar locked out above the pubis and below the anterior superior iliac spine (ASIS), right in your lap. Straps are essential for these if you are to lift Actually Heavy weights, so make sure you have them with you. The grip is not the focus, so you aren’t “cheating” by using straps, rather you are keeping the emphasis of the lift where it is meant to be: on the back.

A strong back is essential to life under the bar. If you find yourself stuck, the snatch-grip deadlift may be the cure you're looking for. Like most things, you will just have to try it out and see if it applies to your situation.  


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