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Acheivement Unlocked: I Dropped the Bar Behind Me

My big accomplishment at the gym on friday was that I missed a snatch at 58 kg. I went into the gym on Friday excited about training after my Crossfit Total, but still a little bit sore, so I wasn't expecting to set any new records. But I also wasn't expecting the thing that made me happiest about my lifting to be a failed lift.

Yes. I've been practicing the snatch for six months, and the most exciting thing to happen in a day of training is for me to drop the bar.

Now 58 kg is a fair amount of weight for me. It's not a PR by any means, but it's still heavy and it's not at all unusual for me to miss the lift. But I also make 58 kg snatches pretty often. What was special about this particular miss was that I dropped the bar behind me. Normally I pull the weight up, drive it into the air, drop underneath, and don't quite get it overhead, so it falls down in front of me. This time, it went over my head, and far enough back that I couldn't keep it supported over me, and so I let it drop behind my head, and stepped out of the way of it as it fell. To me, this is possibly more exciting than hitting a new PR.

I'll explain.

The snatch is one of the most intricate, challenging, complex movements I've ever performed. First you pull the weight off the ground, slowly, making sure that your back doesn't round, then, as the bar passes your knees, you explode upward as powerfully as possible, driving the bar with your hips into an unsupported free-fall. Before it actually starts coming back down, you have to change directions, and pull yourself underneath the bar, and lock your arms out overhead, catching the bar in a squat. And here, the bar has to be precisely over your feet. If it's a couple inches too far forward or back, you won't be in position to hold the bar up. Remember, you have less than half a second to get into this position. Now you have to stand up with it, without disturbing it's equilibrium over your head.

Mastering that technique requires quite a bit of speed and flexibility. Keeping the bar in the correct position overhead requires shoulder flexibility. Getting into a deep, stable squat requires hip and ankle flexibility, and getting into a mechanically advantageous position to perform the hip explosion well requires flexible hamstrings and glutes. If any of your joints are tight, you won't be able to perform the movement fluidly.

But it not only has to be performed precisely, it has to be performed as powerfully as possible. The idea is to move as much weight as you can, and if you're holding back at all, expecially on the hip explosion, you won't get enough height on the bar to get underneath it.

Then, once you've mastered all that, you have to do it with a range of different weights on the bar, which is possibly more challenging than it sounds; when you change the weight, you change how much influence the momentum from the weight of your body has on the path of the bar, so you have to move yourself differently to get the same effect.

From the time the bar leaves the floor to the time you have it overhead in a squat is on the order of a second, and every part of it has to be performed precisely, or you risk not being able to complete the lift. Putting all these things together in such a short span of time requires dedication, focus, and years of consistent practice.

When it's done well, it is a thing of beauty. Here's a video of 48 kg (105 lb) lifter, Wang Mingjuan, snatching 99 kg (218 lbs). Watch through 1:18.

(The video says it is Li Ping, but it's definitely not Li Ping. It's Wang Mingjuan.)

Yes. She's significantly stronger than me. She's probably stronger than you, too. Notice how quickly Wang changes direction when she drops under the bar, and how precisely and solidly she locks out her arms just as the bar gets into place. But also pay attention to how she has to jump back to stay underneath the bar, and how her squat is slightly shaky as a result. It's a great lift, but it's not a perfect lift. Even setting world records, people still aren't lifting flawlessly, because the movements themselves are so intricate and so demanding that there is always room for improvement.

The first couple lifts in the following video also show how precise a snatch has to be. Watch the first few lifts in the following video (up until they show the male coach of Kazakhstan at 0m45).

The second lift (at 0m16s) is almost perfect, but notice how at the last moment as the lifter is settling into the squat, her weight shifts forward about an inch. In order to correct for that, she has to chase the bar all the way to the front of the platform to keep it overhead. And even when she gets there, the weight is enough to pull her backward.

The next time the same lifter comes up (at 0m40s), her form is flawless. Her pull is solid. The bar path is vertical all the way up until she turns her hands over to catch it. She drops quickly underneath, without moving forward or back. Her squat is stable, and she stands it up stable, and doesn't have to chase the bar. To my eyes, it's about as perfect a lift as could be done.

So why, other than the difficulty of the whole thing, was I so excited about dropping the weight behind me, rather than in front? Clearly I'm doing something wrong either way. At my stage of training, I think dropping the bar in front of me is indicative of larger issues than dropping it behind. When I drop it in front of me, it means that:

  1. Probably the biggest one: I'm afraid to put my body completely underneath the weight, where it would be best supported. This is not unusual, as the human brain doesn't like putting heavy things in a position to fall on its squishiness. (Note that this is unlikely to happen, even if I do put it there, as the human brain is also good at protecting itself when it sees an attack coming).
  2. I'm not finishing my hip explosion before I drop underneath, so the bar doesn't get high enough to reach a fully vertical, locked out position.
  3. I'm not managing to keep my weight back on my heels enough as the bar travels up to my knee, before the explosion. As a result, I'm actually propelling the bar slightly forward instead of straight up.

On the other hand, dropping the bar behind me indicates a few good things:

  1. I had no problem convincing myself to get under the bar.
  2. I got the bar high enough to go over top.
  3. I got myself in position to keep myself out of the way of the bar's vertical path.
  4. I kept my weight on my heels.

On the downside it indicates that I'm either pulling too far backward, or pulling myself too far forward in the squat, so I need to maintain all of the above, but fix my trajectory a little bit. There may be some other flaws involved as well that I'm not aware of, but this miss indicates that I may be on the way to fixing some big issues that have been limiting my lifts.

Yay, failure! My new goal: Don't drop the bar behind me.

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