Why Not Try the Split Style Lifts?

(This is due to appear in #8 issue of OLift Magazine)

In the earliest days of weightlifting competition the barbell was typically "manhandled" (sorry ladies) into its final position. Rounded back, bent arms, maybe a little press-out… whatever it took to get the weights overhead.

But it wasn't long before lifters came up with techniques that allowed for greater performances. Always on the lookout for an advantage, early lifters quickly adopted the hook grip, for example. In these early competitions it also became obvious that one could lift a heavier weight to a lesser height if one obtained a lower receiving position.

Enter the split, and to a certain extent, the squat styles of snatching and cleaning. Now, instead of simply hauling the barbell overhead we saw the same type of pulling action transition quickly into a split or squat receiving position.

Certainly the split was easier to master for most lifters. The differences in technique were somewhat unique to the country in question. Bob Hoffman, self-professed “father of American weightlifting” wrote in his seminal work, Weight Lifting (1960 edition) that it was the French, British, and Egyptian athletes that utilized the split. By comparison, the “continental” Europeans exhibited the squat technique. Note that in the early days weightlifting was not widely practiced in many parts of the world.

Hoffman goes on to report, "At the Olympic games (sic) in 1956 all of our (USA) lifters were squatters. At the world’s championships in 1958, all of the Russians were splitters."

Today one is hard pressed to find a weightlifter, especially at the highest levels of international competition, using a split style for either the snatch or the clean. But, learning the split should be the aim of many a developing lifter. Why? Read on.

Why Split?
There are several reasons to consider using a split technique for the lifts. First and foremost, it can be mastered much more quickly than the squat style. Most beginners quickly experience success by employing a split style for both lifts.

Any experienced lifter can benefit from the speed, coordination, balance, and flexibility required to successfully snatch or clean heavy weights in a split style. I’ve had instances internationally when, after a minor injury, we had to resort to a split style in the clean in order to post a total.

Fellow Olympic Coach Jim Schmitz teaches the split style as part of his instruction of USA Weightlifting coaching courses. In my courses I always find at least one participant who immediately benefits from utilizing the split, rather than squat, style of lifting.

This is particularly true with many, especially those in the masters’ ranks, with a CrossFit background. Not possessing the requisite flexibility immediately needed for squat snatches and/or cleans, these lifters quickly experience improvement using a split.

The Technique
There is no difference in the first pull, transition, or second pull stages of either the split snatch or split clean compared to the squat style. That’s the good news, namely, there’s nothing new, pull-wise, to learn. The differences are in the pull-under, receiving, and recovery stages.

At the end of the second pull a splitter lifts both feet off the ground and moves one foot forward and the other rearward. The feet should be kept low to the ground; this is not a matter of lifting the feet high in the air.

It is generally accepted that the feet are off the floor longer in splitting than when squatting, and as a result, the bar must be pulled a bit higher.

Squatters beware! We see so many of today’s lifters swing the barbell overhead, arc-like, with nearly straight arms. This doesn’t work well in the split; keep the bar as close to the torso as possible while pulling under.

As in the jerk it’s advised that the forward foot travel about 1.5 times the length of the shoe. Ultimately a lifter should end up with the feet farther apart than in the jerk, thus allowing for a deeper split and lower receiving position.

SchemanskyLook at the receiving position used by the greatest splitters Baszanowski and Schemansky (pictured in Stregnth & Health, Sept 1962) in the snatch or the clean and you note the following:
        Their front hip is below the level of the front knee
        The front ankle is sharply dorsiflexed, with the front knee forward of the toes
        The torso is perpendicular to the platform
        The rear foot is balanced on the toes, with the rear knee nearly straight

The reason for this last point should be clear: if the rear knee contacts the floor the judges are to refuse the lift. Since the split is seen so rarely today such a first attempt can catch the officials off-guard. On successive attempts they know to watch for that rear knee.

It’s more likely in the split snatch rather than the squat snatch that press-out may occur. Look at old competition pictures of the split snatch and you’ll see many a lift worthy of red lights by today’s standards. This was partially due to the relatively narrow grip used in days past.

And remember, when the split snatch and clean were in vogue there was no contact between the bar and the body, as in today’s more efficient pulling style. We saw much more “arm pulling” in days gone by, especially by splitters.

Recovery from a deep split can be a challenge, especially if the lift was not caught “in the groove.” But that’s one reason a lifter is permitted to move around the entire platform during recovery.

Recovery is identical to that recommended for the split jerk, namely, push up and back first with the front leg. Shuffle the front foot rearward up to half the split distance. Then either take another partial step backward or bring the rear foot forward. In this manner the bar remains in essentially the same vertical plane, thus avoiding any horizontal movement.

Before undertaking any serious split snatches or cleans become familiar with the final receiving position. Bodyweight lunges are a good way to guarantee appropriate flexibility, especially in the hip flexors, is present.

Lunges with light weights are a good way to develop a sense of balance, along with strengthening the lower body for split style performances.

Finally, work up to performing split snatches and cleans in three and five rep sets with light (40-50% 1RM) intensities. Master the balance and low positions necessary before taking the challenge of attempting heavier weights.

After numerous workouts directed at learning proper technique experienced lifters might move up to establish new personal records in both lifts using a split style. Have a relatively unimportant meet coming up soon? Why not surprise your friends and competitors by splitting for a change?

I explain more in my book Explosive Lifting for Sports, that athletes who find themselves in a lunge position (volleyball, tennis, ice hockey, fencing, etc.) benefit from knowing how to split. Many masters, due mostly to mobility, find it easier to split than squat.

True, splitting will initially challenge those who have never tried this style. But give it a shot and have some fun!