In CrossFit, movements transfer to real life: The air squat improves our ability to sit down and stand up, the deadlift improves our ability to pick objects off the floor in a safe manner, and the list goes on.
The snatch is not a movement regularly seen in daily life, but it can simultaneously develop all 10 components of fitness: speed, power, strength, flexibility, stamina, cardiorespiratory endurance, coordination, accuracy, agility and balance. This makes the snatch a very useful tool for anyone who is seeking to improve fitness. As such, it’s described in detail in the “CrossFit Level 1 Training Guide,” and we teach all attendees how to snatch at the Level 1 Certificate Course.
“The needs of Olympic athletes and our grandparents differ by degree, not kind,” CrossFit Inc. Founder Greg Glassman famously said.
This means that even though the snatch is a complex and technically challenging movement, it should not be reserved for advanced, high-level athletes. Even our grandparents should learn how to snatch. It is, in fact, the technical complexity of the movement that makes it such a powerful tool for increasing our fitness and quality of life at any age.
The snatch generates both organic and nervous-system changes ranging from improved body composition and increased muscle mass to enhanced coordination and balance. The list of benefits is long, but some can be highlighted when we are considering improving overall athleticism and fitness for all populations.
CrossFit contends that the most useful contractions of the trunk are isometric: A static contraction of the abdominals is far stronger than a concentric contraction experienced during an isolation movement such as a crunch. The overhead squat is considered by some to be the ultimate core exercise because it challenges the abdominals and all trunk muscles to maintain midline stabilization while the knees and hips flex and extend. The demands on the core are increased significantly when an athlete quickly pulls a load off the floor and has to receive and support it overhead in a split second. Proficiency in the snatch increases an athlete’s ability to resist forces and quickly stabilize the spine, which will reduce the risk of back injury outside the gym.
Both contact and non-contact sports present athletes with significant forces. If an athlete is trained to resist movement of the spine, he or she will perform better in these situations and reduce the likelihood of injury.
Our grandparents, on the other hand, aren’t concerned with scoring goals, making tackles or winning trophies. To them, playing with their grandchildren and weeding the garden are the “trophies.” If our grandparents develop the strength and awareness to stabilize the spine during the snatch, bending over and pulling weeds in the garden will be an injury-free walk in the park.
Older athletes might not demonstrate the power of trained weightlifters, but even small improvements in the ability to generate power can improve quality of life.
The more force we can produce, the better we can move large loads long distances quickly. The hips are the main force generator in athletic performance, and powerful hip extension is essential to athleticism. The snatch requires us to employ the legs to generate large amounts of power, and this skill transfers to many sports that require powerful, full-body movements, such as throwing, sprinting and jumping. It is not uncommon to see snatch training included in programs for sprinters, rugby players, basketball players and even golfers, but the benefits of the movement go beyond sport-specific application. Increased efficiency in the snatch allows an athlete to coordinate the entire body to produce more power, and this skill is useful for athletes of any age, whether they’re training for sport or for general fitness.
Falls are a major concern for older adults, and they occur when seniors encounter a situation that challenges balance, strength, speed, agiliity and coordination. As people age and decrepitude takes its toll, it’s harder to resist these challenges and stay upright. If seniors have trained to snatch, they will have improved coordination and kinesthetic awareness, as well as the ability to generate power. Power allows them to activate and move strong muscles quickly, which can help them prevent a fall or reduce the effects of a fall.
We are naturally wired for movement. Every muscle fiber in our body is part of a motor unit, and the central nervous system (CNS) controls these motor units to contract muscles and create movement. The number of motor units recruited and the sequence in which they are recruited depends on the task being performed. The wave of contraction needed to perform a snatch is unmatched. As one of the most complex movements the body can perform, the snatch trains the brain to recruit and fire motor units quickly. Improving this skill allows athletes to perform better for longer without fatiguing the CNS.
After learning something as complex as the snatch, less complex movements almost become second nature. When you learned math for the first time, addition and subtraction were tricky, but when you moved on to more complex math, simple operations became easy. The same principle applies to the snatch.
Each component of the snatch is simple, but pieced together the components create a full-body movement that challenges and develops neurological skills. Once you’ve mastered the snatch, its individual components seem much easier, and those simple movements transfer to everyday movements such as picking up a child, aiming for a free throw and helping a friend lift a couch. By learning something complex you get to enjoy the simpler things in life.
The snatch both requires and trains flexibility. The movement can be modified for those who cannot achieve this position yet.
More than almost any other movement, the snatch challenges the range of motion of many joints at once—particularly the ankles, knees, hips, shoulders and thoracic spine. Lack of flexibility will most definitely be exposed by the full snatch, highlighting areas for improvement. Practicing the snatch with simplified progressions and little to no load will enhance flexibility and overall athletic performance.
By conditioning the body to move properly and athletically through the snatch, most of its major joints will travel through their natural full ranges of motion. Flexibility and postural improvements can take place even without a focus on increasing the loading of the movement. This development is important for all athletes, but improvements made by older athletes can significantly improve their quality of life.
Patience and Perseverance
Every person who has ever hit that “perfect” snatch knows the achievement is due to the many hours of consistent practice. In addition to the physiological and neurological benefits outlined above, the snatch will teach you patience, commitment, dedication and focus. It will teach you that in order to succeed at something, you have to put in the work, and that attention to little things will produce great rewards.
These lessons learned inside the walls of an affiliate or garage gym will transfer to countless other situations you will encounter throughout your life.
About the Author: Chad Theron, CF-L3, has been a member of CrossFit’s Seminar Staff for eight years. He opened CrossFit Pretoria in Pretoria, South Africa, in 2011, and he instructs Level 1 and Level 2 seminars throughout the year.