There’s no debate: deadlifts have a seat at the grown-up table. They are one of the best bang for your buck exercises. Compound full body movements that require total body tension and strength form the basis of any high-performance training program.
I have a love/hate relationship with deadlifts.
On one hand deadlifts require full body tension, strength, and sheer willpower to build strong bodies and stronger minds, as hoisting heavy steel is extremely functional and demanding of the body. Plus, it’s part of the big 3 in powerlifting, great for building muscle, and causes women to flock to you like teenage girls at a pop-concert.
Unfortunately, deadlifts aren’t always polite to the lower back. Huge amounts of torque from sheer and compressive forces can be problematic, specifically to the lumbar vertebrae L4, L5. Though no exercise is inherently bad, conventional deadlifts do carry a higher risk than other exercises, especially when performed incorrectly or with incorrect loading.
Due to consistent issues with conventional pulls and bitchy lumbar vertebrae, I was ready to hand in my belt and sulk my posterior chain away. During one session I was crouched over and gasping for air my body was finished. Legs thrashed, grip fried, and back yoked, but no crippling pain.
I've had some success adding variety into my pulling routine with sumo deadlifts, trap bar deadlifts, and single leg variations, but nothing matched the high performance muscle building snatch grip deadlift.
Enter the Snatch Grip Deadlift
Snatch grip deadlifts are the red-headed stepchild of deadlift variations for one reason: they are brutally difficult. If you try to lift your conventional deadlift max off the ground you might think someone played a cruel, ego crushing joke and glued plates to the ground. Unfortunately that’s not the case. Lower the weight and prepare for a battle--snatch grip deadlifts offer benefits for even the most adept iron warriors.
1. Increased range of motion (ROM)
Due to a wide grip you must pull from a deeper starting position. This increased range of motion increases total body tension at the beginning of the pull and requires additional leg drive.
2. Grip training
Always using a mixed grip on your deadlifts? Tisk, tisk. A strong, balanced grip is vital for strength transfer, muscular development, and long term health. Use a wide, double overhand grip in the snatch-grip deadlift; your forearms will beg for mercy after a few short reps. Avoid straps as long as possible; grow a pair and pull.
3. Posterior chain development
The increased range of motion and full body mechanical tension makes the snatch grip deadlifts a powerful muscle builder, specifically for the delts, traps, hamstrings, and glutes.
4. Assistance/deloading your deadlift
Because most lifters hate the de-load, snatch grip deadlifts are a great way to lighten the load every four to six weeks and preserve the nervous system. Due to grip restrictions and an increased ROM weight must be decreased compared to conventional, sumo, and trap bar deadlifts.
5. Improved sports performance
Look at the most dominant strength and power athletes and you’ll see a common trait: jacked glutes, traps, hamstrings and lower back erectors—all of which play critical roles in jumping, sprinting, and moving heavy objects (or bodies). A strong and stable backside is a must for optimal sports performance.
6. Improved hip mobility
A deeper starting position requires limber hips. Practicing this pull builds dynamic mobility and flexibility in the hips. Can’t get into the proper position? Pull from short boxes, work on your hip mobility, and continue to work towards pulling from the floor while maintaining a braced core and welded spine.
7. Potentially safer on the spine
Although the greater range of motion increases stress to the vertebrae the load lifted during a snatch grip deadlift is significantly less than more common pulling variations. The grip and increased range of motion are limiting factors—forcing you to use less weight.
*This is dependent on your ability to maintain a neutral spine and prevent tucking at the initial pull.
8. Quad & glute killer
A lower starting hip position forces the quads and glutes to handle more load, especially on the initial pull. Snatch grip deadlifts are an excellent lift for building massive quads and glutes.
The Set Up
Rotate the feet out slightly as this allows you to achieve a deeper starting position. Your feet should be about shoulder width apart with the bar lined up over mid-foot.
Pull your body to the bar, with your middle finger lined up on the ring of the barbell—play around with width based on height and limb length, but always have at least one finger touching the ring.
Drop the hips until the bar touches the shins, pulling the bar tight with your lats, locking the elbows, and lift the chest. You should have splitting tension across the upper back and a welded spine: Congrats, you’re ready to pull.
Doin’ The Snatch… Grip Deadlift
Stop giggling. Good? Okay, it’s time to execute these bad boys.
Concentric: Drive your heels into the ground, maintaining locked elbows and tightness across the posterior chain. Once the bar passes the knees drive the hips and finish with the glutes. The body should be in proper alignment, with joints stacked from ankle to earhole.
Eccentric: Maintain maximal tension across the back and begin descending by breaking at the hips. If able, do a controlled drop once the bar passes the knees.
If you’re at a certain gym with a “lunk alarm” drop the bar as hard as possible. Then, sprint out laughing, kiss some babies, and never return.
I’m kidding, kind of.
In seriousness, if you can’t drop at your gym maintain tightness and drop the hips with the bar once it passes the knees, maintaining a welded spine while returning the bar to the floor.
Programming the Snatch Grip Deadlift
Because you’re much stronger in a conventional deadlift than the snatch-grip deadlift you’ll handle more volume without a ton of neural fatigue.
Grip be damned, I prefer a higher rep approach with snatch grip deadlifts. Program them as an accessory movement after a heavy lower body movement such front squats. If you pull over 315lbs then 185lbs for five sets of six is a great starting point. Perform a linear ramp until you can’t hit six reps, then move to fours or threes. Reset each rep and treat them as singles.
If you suffer from a shoddy lower back or poor hip mobility pull from short boxes and work on your hip mobility. Continue to work towards pulling from the floor while maintaining a braced core and welded spine.
How about deficit snatch grip deficit deadlifts?
Although snatch grip deficit deadlifts are a killer exercise for muscular development, I’m not a fan. With any exercise, performance gains must be weighed against potential injury risk.
Most clients have the mobility of a monkey wrench, so excessively loading the lumbo-pelvic region in a compromised position has risks that outweigh the benefits. Jamming square pegs into round holes rarely achieves desired results, so unless you maintain neutral spine and proper form steer clear.
It’s a Wrap
Snatch grip deadlifts create a powerful stimulus and offer a multitude of benefits: Limber hips, explosive power, bone-crushing grip, and a massive posterior chain. Snatch grip deadlifts are a worthy addition to any program whether you’re taking on the platform, playing field, or local frat boys.
Just don’t complain when you have to invest in a new wardrobe.
Leyland, Tony. "Biomechanical Analysis of the Deadlift." Sfu.ca. Simon Frasier University. Web. 4 Dec 2013. <http://www.sfu.ca/~leyland/Kin201 Files/Deadlift Mechanics.pdf>.