The kettlebell snatch is a complex total body exercise, and one of the most important exercises in kettlebell training. Many would advocate the kettlebell swing as the key move within kettlebell training, but in many ways, the kettlebell snatch improves upon it. Indeed it is often referred to as the ‘Tsar of all kettlebell exercises’. The basic version of the exercise involves a flowing explosive movement where a single kettlebell travels from the ‘parked’ position in front of the body to the overhead extended arm holding position.
This movement is actually a series of movements chained together, but for someone who is practised it looks so natural and effortless it appears to be a single flowing move. The snatch is usually undertaken in a series of reps that provide an incredible workout. Sometimes these reps can go on as long as five or ten minutes (see long cycle workouts in Girevoy Sports for example). This flowing chained-movement develops the entire posterior chain of the body, as well as working the core and to some degree the upper body. It also enables the development of strength building, cardio training, power development, flexibility and motor skills all in one movement.
Like the kettlebell swing, the snatch is a highly beneficial cardiovascular exercise. It is great for developing aerobic capacity and a worthy replacement to traditional aerobic activities (such as running). Like the kettlebell swing, the metabolic response from the snatch is very impressive, if not improved. Since the snatch effectively utilises even more of the major muscles in the body (see below) compared to the swing this means your body has to work even harder to power that movement. As mentioned above, in Girevoy Sport (GS), long cycle kettlebell snatches (over ten minutes of continuous snatches can develop the cardio system. However, do not worry if that is not your thing! 🙂 Throwing kettlebell snatches into regular HIIT style workouts can provide that kettlebell cardio fix.
The kettlebell snatch works the gluteal and hamstrings muscles very effectively. These muscle groups are some of our most important for sports and indeed function in everyday life. The Glutes and Hamstrings extend the hips and are important in generating speed and power in sporting activities.
The kettlebell snatch also works the stabiliser muscles of the shoulder girdle, without the stresses involved in exercises such as the overhead press. Since the hips and core generate much of the movement for the exercise, they bypass the need to for shoulder muscles to actually ‘press’ the kettlebell. Much of the shoulder muscles work within the exercise involves controlling the kettlebells deceleration at the peak of the movement, as the ball goes up overhead. At this point of the exercise you effectively ‘catch’ the kettlebell using the stabiliser muscles and bring the motion of the kettlebell to a halt. Consequently, this is a friendly exercise for shoulder stability muscles, providing them with a workout without overstressing them in the same way a barbell press might. As such the exercise could be of use to people with shoulder issues, who may need exercises such as this to improve shoulder function and mobility but also protect the joint from re-injury. The legs and the hips providing a bit of extra support to power the move in a similar way to the ‘push press’ exercise. Finally, the exercise also supports mobility in the thoracic region of the spine (upper spine), this is another area responsible for our posture, gait, and standing upright, something again important in our everyday lives.
Other benefits of the exercise are with regards to improving power output, necessary in martial arts (such as MMA) as well as other sports requiring explosive movement (for example Rugby, American football). Chaining the various movements involved in the snatch as well as controlling the acceleration/deceleration of the bell can overtime improve core stability. In everyday life, this can translate to more efficient movement, improved posture and can also help in reducing the likelihood of everyday stresses and strains from poor movement.
- Erector spinae
- Quadratus lumborum
- Transverse abdominis
- Internal/external obliques
- Medial deltoid
- Posterior deltoid
How To Do A Kettlebell Snatch
- Start with the kettlebell on the floor in front of you. Have your feet planted roughly shoulder-distance apart. Grasp the kettlebell with your hand of choice at the ‘inside’ part of the handle (the corner towards the midline of your body).
- Keep what Pavel Tsatsouline has termed a ‘Proud’ chest (chest protruding forwards), draw your shoulders back.
- As with a regular one-arm kettlebell swing, allow the kettlebell to swing between your legs. Ensure you bend at the hip and keeping your spine straight with head looking forward, push your ass out. Keep the spine and arm as relaxed as possible. Allow the kettlebell to continue to travel back until it cannot go any further. Try to ensure your body weight is distributed mainly on your forefeet. Have the knees slightly bent and not locked out. Once the kettlebell starts travelling forward again, at the hips begin to raise the torso, and shift the weight from the forefeet to the heels to support your movement.
- As the torso continues to move upwards, wait until the kettlebell is past the knees and approximately halfway to waist height. At that point, you will initiate the next part of the movement, the high pull section. Shift your bodyweight even more so onto your heels, straighten the body completely upright, knees straight. Keeping the arm and elbow fully relaxed (as in not locked out), activate your upper body muscles to pull the shoulder backwards and upwards (as in the high pull movement). This is to keep the kettlebell closer to the body rather than in a high arcing movement where the kettlebell is far away from the body.
- Towards the end of the high pull part of the snatch, tilt your forearm up (flip the angle of the forearm from horizontal to a more vertical position) to begin the final drive towards the overhead position. It is with this subtle tilt that will help propel the kettlebell to flip over onto the back of the forearm lightly without causing injury to the forearm.
- Up until this point, you will have been using a ’hook’ grip on the handle with your fingers. However, as the bell is flipped with the tilt, ‘insert’ your hand into the kettlebells handle. This will reduce the impact when the bell lands on your forearm. At this point, the bell and your arm are travelling toward the overhead position. Insert your hand as the kettlebell passes the head with the movement.
- As the momentum carries the kettlebell overhead, ‘punch’ the kettlebell into the overhead position to complete the upwards part of the exercise. At this point the arm should be completely straight with the elbow locked out. Again, ensure you get the final overhead ‘punch’ in, this is not a strict overhead press, the move must be fluid. Relax the grip on the kettlebell and have the fingers pointing towards the ceiling. The kettlebell should be resting in the palm of the hand, palms facing forward. Keep the core tight, but the lower body relaxed.
- Begin turning your hand inwards (so your palms are facing towards you) to initiate the ‘return’ stage of the move. This movement will initiate the kettlebell’s descent. At the same time, lean your head back slightly to clear it out of harm’s way. At this point, the bell will naturally flip over, let the kettlebell’s weight and momentum drop your arm downwards in a controlled fashion. At this point, the elbow should once again be ‘soft’ unlocked and close to the body. Don’t drop the kettlebell in a wild ‘arcing’ manner far away from the body!
- Allow yourself to ‘catch’ the bell as it reaches the hip level (change your grip from hand inserted to hook grip with the fingers). Allow your arm to be relaxed and straight. Your fingers should now grasp the kettlebell handle using the hook grip rather than it being positioned in the palm of your hand. With a slight bend of the knees complete the kettlebell snatch by moving back into the backwards propulsion of the kettlebell swing, allowing the legs to absorb the shock of the movement.
- Repeat moves until sets are complete.
Summary of Each Stage of the Snatch Movement:
- Grasp the kettlebell at the ‘inside’ part of the handle (the opposite corner to whichever arm you choose to use) using the fingers in a hook grip.
- Start as per a kettlebell swing to begin the first part of the movement.
- Using force generated from the hips accelerate the swings speed, keeping the spine and the torso straight.
- Before waist height, pull the kettlebell towards you (as in a high pull).
- Tilt the forearm from horizontal to vertical slightly to help flip the kettlebell over safely. From the hook grip, insert your hand into the kettlebell handle
- As the kettlebell reaches its peak in the movement, lock out the elbow, let your shoulders absorb the movement. Kettlebell in the palm, fingers pointing towards the ceiling.
- Begin the descent, bringing you torso towards the ground, flex at the hips back into the swing to absorb the weight of the kettlebell. Change your grip midway on the descent, to a full-fingered hook grip.
- Repeat moves until sets are complete
- The only points where the arm is fully extended are during the overhead press and bottom of the swing portions of the exercise. At all other times keep the arm relaxed and close to the body.
- Use the Hips and the core to help generate the power for the move.
Health and Safety
Naturally, if you have any health conditions of any kind that might make kettlebell training an issue for you then consult your doctor before you start training. This includes conditions such as high blood pressure, heart conditions, obesity etc.
Previous Shoulder Injuries
Additionally, if you suffer from any shoulder pain or have previous injuries to your upper body (shoulders, elbow, wrists, neck etc) again consult your doctor or a physio before training. This exercise requires a lot of upper-body mobility.
Beginners go light
As with any exercise, start off light and work on the individual steps and the mechanics of this exercise before proceeding to heavier weights. Build from the ground up, start with no weight at all and work through the mechanics until the technique is automatic. Use mirrors, the critique of friends and people you train with to get the technique perfected before moving on to actual kettlebells. After you are happy, begin again with light kettlebells, to get used to the movement with actual weight, in particular the changes in grip with the kettlebell at the various stages.
Break down the move into its various components when learning the technique
As mentioned earlier the kettlebell snatch can be broken down into three components (the swing, the high pull and the press). All these movements should be mastered before attempting the snatch.
Remembering to Hinge at the Hips
With the initial part of the move, it is important to hinge at the hips properly as you do with a kettlebell swing, much of the force generated for the exercise stems from the hips. Hingeing from the hips will also protect your back from injury. Master the swing first before branching out into this exercise.
Soft elbow/locked elbow
It is important to properly utilise the High pull section of this exercise. As the kettlebell moves past your leg and you move into the high pull component the arm is kept soft with the elbow unlocked. The only times the arm should be 100% straight is at the lowest part of the swing and when the kettlebell is in the overhead position. At all other times, the elbow should be slightly bent, the kettlebell should be closer to the body. This way when you tilt the forearm the kettlebell and insert your hand, it will not smack into your forearm with full impact. Less pain, fewer bruises.
The muscles of your body need oxygen for them to work effectively, so don’t forget to breathe! Like any type of resistance training effective breathing can make or break your progression with the exercise. The kettlebell snatch is a series of movements chained into one flowing motion. The various moves and the muscles responsible are going to require oxygen throughout, particularly if you are undertaking many reps and sets. For this type of exercise, steady, rhythmic breathing is useful. Many advocate specific breathing patterns for this move (especially in Girevoy Sport where long cycles can go on for ten minutes or so). In Hardstyle Kettlebells, an inhale is recommended on the downwards part of the swing; an exhale for the hip drive; in the overhead position it is left to discretion of the lifter, do they require an extra breath? If so take one. If you can avoid it, hold the breath and keep the abdominal tension until returning to the downwards portion of the swing.
It is very normal to develop calluses from exercises with kettlebells. Try to avoid gripping the bell too hard during these movements to avoid friction and callus formation on your hands. Starting out you may want to use chalk or even use gloves with kettlebell training initially. However, correct grip and movement with kettlebells should not produce too many calluses. If you start using gloves you may avoid these ‘giveaway’, telltale lessons that your technique is off and thus develop bad technique over time.
Alternative, Modification or Progression
NB: Mastering the three moves below, is essential in the way to mastering the kettlebell snatch. Make sure you have them mastered before you start your practice.
Pre-requisites - Kettlebell Swing
The power in the snatch comes from the hips, the hip hinge, therefore, is the foundation of the snatch. Therefore possessing a good kettlebell swing is crucial to mastering the snatch, indeed the snatch is simply a progression of the single-arm kettlebell swing. Try to be aware of your primary movers with kettlebell exercises. In the case of kettlebell snatches although shoulder muscles play an important part in the exercise, they are not the primary movers here, the hips are. Get the swinging practice in!!
Pre-requisites - Kettlebell High Pull
Breaking down the kettlebell snatch even further. The high pull would be your next ‘go to’ exercise. This exercise will get you used to the motion of pulling in the kettlebell towards your body, with the elbow bent. This is opposed to incorrect movement from swinging the kettlebell in a large arc away from the body with the elbow locked. Drills combining the swing and the high pull are great for regressing the exercise to break down the first two phrases of the snatch. This will help you get used to the movement patterns and assist in developing the snatch movement.
Pre-requisites - Kettlebell Overhead Press
The final part of the breakdown involves the overhead press. This is a great exercise for the development of shoulder stability if done properly. With kettlebell training, it is vital that when the bell is overhead, the humeral head of your upper arm bone is firmly planted in the shoulder socket. Pavel Tsatsouline refers to this as ‘shoulder packing’. This is important to avoid injury with heavier weight as if the kettlebell is unsteady and wobbling all over the place, it can result in shoulder injury). With this exercise you arm should be completely vertical with a locked out, extended elbow and neutral wrist. With regard to your body alignment your arm, torso and hips should be in perfect alignment. Don’t attempt the snatch if you cannot do this, see a professional and work on your shoulder mobility.
Progression - Weight, Reps, Time, Speed
Heavier weight, more reps/time or undertaking the exercise with greater speed. You should vary one or the other rather than both. Greater speed with a lighter weight is used for cardio conditioning. A heavier weight with controlled speed is used to develop strength.
Progression - Alternating Snatch
This progression of the snatch involves holding two kettlebells whilst performing the snatch movement alternating arms.
Progression - Double Arm Snatch
Another progression to the snatch involves performing a two kettlebell snatch simultaneously.