The first pull in the Snatch and the Clean is when the bar moves from the floor to approximately mid-thigh. One part of your technique to consider is the angle of your back as this movement occurs.
Your back angle should be the same from floor to mid-thigh. Another way to describe this, is to say that your hips and your shoulders should rise at the same rate.
You can check how good your back angle is, by taking a slow motion video and freezing the frames of the first pull.
If you look at your start position, draw a line over it from your shoulders to your hips. Use any image-editing software (or even Microsoft Word, if you copy and paste the images into it). Assuming your start position is good, this is the angle of your back that ought to be maintained until the bar reaches approximately mid-thigh.
Copy that line and paste it on some of the other still images of your first pull. If the line still fits nicely along your back, you are doing a good job! It means your back angle hasn’t changed.
If you notice that either your hips or your shoulders start to deviate from the line in any of the images, you’ll know that either your hips or your shoulders are moving too fast relative to the other. In most cases, for most people, their hips go up faster than their shoulders do.
Here is an example of this:
One of the problems I have when I Snatch, is that my hips tend to come up too fast. You can see this illustrated in frame two, where my shoulders are too low relative to my hips (shoulders should be touching the red line). In frame three, my position is still not quite right, as my torso is still not exactly on the red line. It looks like in frame 3 possibly my shoulders need to come back down and a little more forward of the bar.
The assumption here is that every other aspect of my body is set up correctly! I’m only talking about the back angle here but, as you know in Olympic lifting there are lots of other things to consider, including knee position, how close the bar is to the body… etc.
Here is another set of freeze frames from a few sessions later, when I’d been deliberately working on my back angle:
My back angle here has improved. As you can see, in each of the freeze frames, both my hips and shoulders are touching the red line a lot more closely.
Doing this little analytical exercise is helpful. It may tell you what you need to be working on in your first pulls. You can also monitor the consistency of your start position each workout by comparing the angle of the lines you draw. If I compare mine here by copying the blue line in image 1 and pasting it on to image 2, I can see that my start position in the second workout was a tiny bit different (my shoulders were very slightly lower) than in the first workout. But they were pretty similar in truth, which is excellent!
In Olympic weightlifting, consistency is key. For example, you want to be setting up in exactly the same way every single time, you want to be catching the bar in the same foot position every single time, etc. Determine what the correct positions are and keep practising them so they are the same every time.
Learning to maintain a constant back angle
Some good exercises to do would be: pulls from the floor, segment lifts (lift bar from floor to knees or mid-thigh, pause, then proceed the lift), and Clean/Snatch Deadlifts.
Every time you Clean and Snatch, try to have a focus – mental and physical! – on the hips and shoulders rising at the same rate. This will be a very conscious thought until the correct movement has been drilled in. A few helpful cues may be “big chest”, “head/chest/shoulders up” or “hips back.”
Note: there are many aspects to the first pull, back angle is just one thing. You also need to look at what actually creates the back angle, i.e. the initial positions of the hips and the shoulders, and ensure these are correct, before monitoring the back angle will be particularly helpful for you.
The images here are for illustrative purposes only. I am not demonstrating the ‘perfect’ lift, but I hope they give you an idea of what it means when back angle is discussed. The best thing to do is to talk to your weightlifting coach and have them assess your first pull positioning.
Why should the hips and shoulders rise at the same time?
The answer is… well, it ensures the body is in the optimal position to execute the rest of the lift!!! In this case, it ensures the body is in the optimal position to execute the powerful triple extension.
What happens when the hips come up first?
For most people who have difficulty maintaining a constant back angle in the first pull, their hips will rise before their shoulders do. This means the legs will straighten before the triple extension has occurred, meaning all that potential hip power will be limited. It can also create a swing of the bar, rather than keeping it vertical.