The Set Up - Arguably the most important part of the lift

I ran a session yesterday with a fairly large group of beginners. A lot of whom I’d never met before. They all had some experience at attempting the Clean, and as such, where eager to get stuck in and perform the full lift immediately after the warm up.

It was nice to see such enthusiasm!

The issue I faced is that I noticed how everyone looked and moved completely differently to one another. I had just one hour to try and deliver technical advice to a large group of individuals, each requiring different cues and recommendations to fix a variety of errors and bad habits...

“Shit”, I thought to myself. “This session is going to be messy”.

Some where pulling the bar too high with their arms. Others setting up as if performing a deadlift. I saw guys thrusting the bar way out in front of themselves and a few ripping the bar with terrible posture. Consistency amongst the group did not exist.

With less than 45 minutes remaining until the end of the session, I made the decision to ask everyone to stop. The only way to help this group, without the need for 1:1 tuition, was to strip the bars clean and go back to the very basics.

“Guys, whilst you’re here to lift weights, it’s essential that you do in the most efficient way possible. You need to break the movement down into its component parts and learn the skill”, I explained. “Perfect practise makes perfect, otherwise, you’re just going to become very good at being shit”.

Thankfully the group understood my humour and the message I was trying to get across to them.

“Let’s strip the bars back to 30-40kg and run through the key positions of the Clean set-up”.

Each of them, regardless of body-type or limb-length, had their own version of the set-up or ‘get-set’ position. A few looked like they were going to deadlift; shins vertical, hips high. Others appeared to adopt more of a squat position; hips below the height of their knees, shoulders behind the bar. Of course, a small number had hip and ankle issues that meant grabbing a bar on the floor was only possible with excessive flexion of the spine.

My cues where simple...

  1. Shoulders over or slightly in front of the bar

  2. Hips must be a little higher than the height of your knees

  3. Knees as far in front of the bar as possible

  4. Weight distributed slightly in front of the mid-foot

With a little trial, error and the odd gentle shove, everyone found their own versions of the Clean set-up whilst remaining within the constraints of those four simple cues. Everyone instantly looked better.

Fast forward to the final 10 minutes of the session and to when they were instructed to practise the pull... they all looked completely different. They all made noticeable progress!

Four simple cues. One position of the lift. That was all it took to turn what started as a very messy group of individuals on the journey to inevitable injury, to a group that looked fairly competent at performing the Clean Pull.

The more people I work with, the more I am realising that it is the earlier phases of both the Snatch, Clean & Jerk that require the subtlest of tweaks but provide the biggest improvements.

The turn over in the snatch and clean, and the split in the Jerk may appear to be the sexy bit, the challenging bit, but the reality is becoming clearer: get the initial set up and pull wrong, and your chances of even attempting to get under the bar is slim.

Acknowledge this:

Both the Snatch and the Clean Pulls are carried out by the legs. More specifically, both are quad dominant (about the knee joint).

You should not attempt to set up in a similar fashion as you would for a deadlift. The deadlift and Snatch/Clean Pulls are biomechanically opposite.


  • Weight through the heels

  • Shins as vertical as possible (knees behind bar)

  • Hips high to load the hamstrings

  • Shoulders above or slightly behind the bar

Snatch / Clean (pictured)

  • Weight slightly in front of the mid-foot

  • Knees as far in front of the bar as possible

  • Hips only slightly above the height of your knees (depends on femur length)

  • Load and tension in the quads

  • Shoulders above or slightly in front of the bar

Spend your time focusing and developing these fundamentals, and I assure you that you will see big improvements in the latter phases of the lift, just as the group i coached last night did.

Strength in the Olympic lifts comes naturally as you develop efficiency, balance and postural awareness. Technical mastery.

Refrain from putting too much weight on the bar too soon and develop a high level patience in forming good habits. If you want a workout, load up on squats and back work instead.

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