Why the Kettlebell Snatch is great for athletes

Posted: May 1, 2020 in From my vantage point

I work with athletes as a strength and conditioning coach. My job is to help them reach their peak performance mainly by helping them improve their performance related fitness components and by helping reduce the risk and severity of injuries (if they happen). Doing the first two helps them tolerate higher skills training intensity and quality.

The athletes I work with are not university athletes. They are members of their National team and are competing in Asian Games, World Championships, and the Olympics. I have worked with most of them when they were still developing and am happy to see them get to the level where they compete with the world’s best of the best.

Each sport, event, position, and individual athlete have their own particular demands. But most, if not all of it will go back into the fundamental qualities like a good strength foundation, good mobility, and so on.

So there are fundamental exercises that I use in the training program of athletes like squats and presses. Then there are exercises that are general but when used properly, can address specific needs.

One of this is the Kettlebell Snatch. More specifically the One Arm Kettlebell Snatch. The main qualities of the One Arm Kettlebell Snatch which I think make it useful for athletes are the following:

  1. Ballistic

The One Arm Kettlebell Snatch is a lift that moves a load with one arm from below the knees to the overhead position in one smooth and quick motion, and is usually repeated. Lots of times. The heavier the load, the more energy is required. If you lift slowly, it is very, very, very hard. So the lift has to be fast, just like any good athletic move. I measured the speed using a linear position transducer and the peak velocity is around 2-3m/s. That is quite fast, very fast. Train fast to be fast.

2. Unilateral

This is obvious. This makes it useful for those athletes who may want to emphasize development of either side. We can never make the both sides equal in strength, but we can emphasize development of each side where it is needed. A lot of sports actually are unilateral and superior development of either side contributes to success. This is where unilateral exercises help. It is also helpful during the rehabilitation phase if one side is injured.

3. Ground based

It basically means you do the exercises with your feet on solid ground. A lot of people like to use the word functional training. Probably because a lot of functions/ activities are done on solid ground. Which means this exercise can have a lot of carry – over to ground based activities as well. Racquet sports, martial arts, athletics, and fencing are some of the more common ones.

4. Useful for explosive moves

In order to snatch a weight to overhead level in one smooth motion, some degree of power is required. The nature of this lift is that it has to be done fast, otherwise you won’t be able to snatch the load overhead. So explosive power, to a certain degree, is trained. The load has to be heavy enough because if it is too light and you snatch it too fast, it usually results in the kettlebell slamming down hard. Another outcome could be a very wobbly overhead position. Light load also means low power output. So there has to be the right combination of speed and load. Both of which are “ingredients” of power. The application of the burst of power from the lifter is when the kettlebell is still low. Once the kettlebell reaches around chest level, it slows down.

5. Useful for endurance

Due to the distribution of work to different muscle groups working in a rhythmic and synchronized manner, fatigue can be delayed. The weight of the kettlebell plays a big factor but if athletes want to train for endurance, this exercise is really great, as long as appropriate load is used- which is not very heavy if you want to train for endurance. Power (explosive power) is on the opposite end of the spectrum as compared to endurance. So how can the kettlebell snatch improve both? Well, no. But it may improve noticeably one and to a lesser extent, the other. Not both to similar degrees. Well maybe not unless the trainee has very low level of fitness to start with.

6. Promotes synchronized movements of the body’s major joints and muscle groups

In contrast to “isolation exercises”, the one arm kettlebell snatch uses almost the entire body from the foot intrinsic muscles; gastrocnemius-soleus tandem; hamstring group; quadriceps group; a bit of the gluteal muscles; erector spinae; lower, middle, and upper trapezius; para-scapular muscles; deltoids; biceps; triceps; forearm pronators and supinators; and finger flexors. I’m sure that list is incomplete. But you do get the picture. These different parts have to move in synchronously with the right timing when to apply a burst of effort and when to stabilize and when to relax.

7. Promotes shoulder stability

When the one arm kettlebell snatch used properly in training, the shoulder girdle develops robustness. This is because it has to continuously work to move the kettlebell and finally support it overhead in a stable manner. If the shoulder can do this, it will be better in tolerating repetitive motions required by the sport.

The Kettlebell snatch takes time to practice and learn. I observed that the average number of sessions for an athlete to be good enough to do a kettlebell snatch safely is around 2-4 sessions. That does not mean that they are already very good, it just means that they are able to snatch safe enough but still needs some refinement. From there it takes a lot longer time to refine the lifting skills. And there are technique variations that may be good for some but not for another person’s purpose.

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