The One Hand Snatch
by David Willoughby (1981)
The One Hand Snatch:
An Ideal Lift for Strength & Dexterity.
French: “Arrache d’une main.”
German: “Einarmig reissen.”
Although the pair of two-handed lifts currently performed in Olympic-lift competition have proven their popularity over the years, they are by no means the only set that could be used with equal – or possibly even greater – success. The same type of lifts – Snatch, and Clean & Jerk, respectively – when performed with one hand rather than with two – call upon general bodily strength to the same degree as when using two hands, and in addition require greater control, agility, grace and balance.
Too, one-arm overhead lifts of all kinds bring into play and develop the muscles of the side-waist (external or oblique muscles) to a far greater extent than do lifts made with two arms acting together, since the latter require no side-bending at the waist. Some of the greatest professional strongmen on record have been capable exponents of one-arm overhead lifting: Sandow, Cyr, “Apollon,” Hackenschmidt, Lurich, Rolandow, all three Saxons, Edward Aston, Charles Rigoulot, to name only a few. The present dissertation will be confined to the One Hand Snatch (OHS) which one British writer referred to as “The lift that calls for brain and brawn.”
In the days when the English heavyweight Ronald Walker was astonishing the followers of weightlifting with his remarkable performances at a bodyweight of only 195-200 lbs. (height 71.5 inches), the following encomium to the OHS was made in the
“In all the various phases of weightlifting there is no spectacle more thrilling than a perfectly executed One Hand Snatch. Swiftly and cleanly the bell leaves the ground. With lightning speed the body drops beneath it. For a trembling second the weight hangs motionless. Then speed and control, timing and power combine and verge. The arms lock; the body straightens; the legs snap into position. In two short seconds the lift is finished – two seconds of scientific strength technique at it thrilling, most spectacular best.”
In view of such praise, why is it that in both Olympic lifting and Powerlifting only two-arm lifts are used – is it because today’s lifters are unwilling to master the skill required in one-arm lifts? Or is it because today’s enthusiasts are apprehensive about tackling something unfamiliar? More on this delicate subject anon; meanwhile, let’s get on with the One Hand Snatch.
To start with, the OHS can be performed with a DUMBELL as well as a barbell. However, the latter is the conventional piece of apparatus. So, unless mention of a dumbell is made in the following discussion, it can be assumed that all the records quoted were made using a BARBELL. For the benefit of those not thoroughly familiar with the technique of the One Hand Snatch (and among present-day Olympic and Powerlifting men there may be an army of such individuals!), a concise description of its performance is as follows.
Standing over the barbell, space the feet equidistant from the center of the handle and about 12 inches apart from heel to heel. Stoop down by bending at the knees, hips and back. Grasp the bar in the exact center, which should be marked beforehand, either with chalk or by adhesive tape wrapped around the bar. Then – assuming that the lift is being made with the right hand – place the left hand just above the left knee, as in the accompanying drawing. Note that the fingers of the left hand (NOT the thumb) are on the inner side of the thigh. This position of the hand enables the left arm to be bent freely as the subsequent “dip” under the weight is made. Another point connected with the start of this lift is that the lifting arm should not SLANT too much from hand to shoulder, but for maximum efficiency should be STRAIGHT UP AND DOWN, or nearly so. This can be brought about by moving the feet slightly to one side of the center of the barbell handle. Thus, in a snatch with the right arm, as illustrated, the arm can be brought to a perpendicular position by moving the feet slightly to the LEFT, which will bring the right shoulder directly over the right hand. This may seem like a lot of explanation before the lift is even on its way, but it is details such as these that can add a few pounds to one’s lift.
Now, when perfectly “set,” as just described, straighten the body and legs simultaneously, press down strongly on the left knee with the left hand, and pull the bar upward and backward as high as you can. Put every ounce of your strength and speed into the effort. As the bell reaches shoulder-level and its momentum slows down, dip under it by bending the knees to the extent necessary to “fix” the weight on a straight arm. With the bell held securely in balance, straighten the body to a fully erect position and hold the weight overhead for several seconds. Be sure, in this lift – as in all other one-arm overhead lifts – to KEEP YOUR EYE STEADILY ON THE BELL so as to maintain it (as well as yourself!) in perfect balance. A sure sign of an inexperienced (or just careless) lifter is where the performer staggers all over trying to recover the balance in a lift that he has already started in an off-center direction.
It may be added that in order to dip under the weight with the least loss of time, the feet should be placed at the start of the lift in a position that enables a full squat to be made WITHOUT MOVING THEM. To accomplish this, before grasping the barbell, find out by experiment the distance apart that you must place your feet for the easiest position to squat in while holding the weight on one hand overhead. The toes should be pointed outwards to whatever extent best permits dropping into the position shown in our illustration. In this connection, Mark Jones often would perform a snatch with his left arm in a foot position where the weight should be held in his RIGHT arm! However, since Jones was perhaps the best all-round weightlifter of his bodyweight in the
When smoothly and correctly performed, the several aforementioned stages of the Snatch all merge into one, and the bell is taken from the ground to overhead seemingly in a single, continuous movement. Preparatory to lowering the weight, it should be shifted overhead into both hands, then lowered to the shoulders and down as in a two-hand lift. If one is attempting a really heavy lift – specifically a One Hand Snatch, where it may get out of control – there should be a “catcher” stationed at each end of the bell, ready to grasp it the instant it is seen as falling. In this connection, I personally, many years ago, was seriously injured when one of my catchers was “asleep at the switch.” I was attempting a One Hand Snatch of 171½ lbs. with my left arm. One of my catchers was the famous Henry Steinborn, who caught his end of the backward-falling weight satisfactorily; but the other catcher, who is best left unnamed, shifted his gaze at the crucial moment to a girl whom he saw crossing the street outside. The result? – my left arm was dislocated (hyperextended) at the elbow, with the ligaments so damaged that to this day I am unable to fully straighten the arm.
In performing a Snatch, the bell must be raised overhead WITHOUT PRESSING OR PUSHING to get the arm straight at the finish. That is, the lift must be accomplished by the power of the initial pull, plus the extent to which the lifter is able to dip and get his arm straight after that pull is exhausted. With a light weight, the pull may be sufficient to carry the bell all the way to arm’s length overhead without need of a dip. With a heavy (to him) weight, however, the lifter may have to squat clear down on his heels in order to get under the bell with a straight arm.
Some of the old-time super-heavyweight strongmen were so huge and bulky that in making a lift to the shoulders or overhead they either could not or did not dip under the weight. For a long time, I had supposed that the reason lifters weighing over 300 lbs., such as Louis Cyr and Karl Swoboda, were unable to lift to the shoulders in a single “clean’ movement as much weight as they could easily jerk overhead, was because they couldn’t clear their huge bellies with the barbell handle. However, when the phenomenal Soviet super-heavyweight Olympic champion Vasily Alexeev, who allegedly had a waist girth of over 60 inches (!), became the first man to clean 500 lbs., subsequently increasing this to over 560 lbs., it became evident that a big belly was no bar to speed and agility in shouldering a weight, provided one trained long enough and hard enough. But as will be related further on, whether any of today’s top performers in Olympic two-hand lifting can remotely approach the proportionate poundages in one-hand lifting, especially the One Hand Snatch, remains to be seen.
The best performers in the OHS – all of whom must now be looked upon as “old-timers” – were principally French and German lifters. In their time – which extended from the 1890s up to 1930 or so – weightlifting standards, because of fewer performers and lesser competition, were necessarily lower than they are today. And in the One Hand Snatch – which during a period of over 40 years was one of the favorite competition lifts – it was considered a noteworthy performance for a lifter, whether amateur or professional, to snatch with one hand a bell as heavy as himself, that is, a bodyweight one hand snatch. Quite a number of lightweight and middleweight strongmen came to be able to snatch more than their bodyweight, but the number of heavyweights who could do likewise was, and remained, very small. The reason for this, of course, is the fact that muscular strength varies in relation to muscular CROSS-SECTION rather than body volume or weight. However, in cases where the cross-section is high in relation to the weight, on account of the HEIGHT being low or short, strength CAN vary directly as bodyweight. As a general rule, though, muscular strength and quickness of bodily movement both become relatively less as bodyweight increases, and this is the reason why big men rarely lift as much in proportion to their weight as do smaller men. Here too, however, there are exceptions to the general rule, as witness the One Hand Snatch by Charles Rigoulot, which is commented upon later in this discussion.
Perhaps one of the first athletes to attain a high standard of proficiency in the OHS was a German professional named Simon Bauer, who in or about the year 1890, and at a bodyweight of 141 pounds, did a Right Hand Snatch of 75 kg. (165.34 lbs.), or over 24 pounds more than his own weight. An even more remarkable lift by the same athlete was to snatch 70 kilos (154.32 lbs.) on a bar 55 mm. (2.16 inches) in diameter. This indicated tremendous gripping strength; but perhaps Bauer had disproportionately large hands for his height and weight.
Some of the old-time strongmen in the light bodyweight classes who excelled at the One Hand Snatch were Otto Arco (Poland), who at a bodyweight of 138 pounds snatched 71 kilos (156.52 lbs.). Aaron Beattie (
Monte Saldo, another English professional, at 144 pounds snatched 149 with his right hand, while Albert Soguel, a Swiss professional, in a contest with the English featherweight W. L. Carquest, did a left hand snatch of 144½ pounds at a bodyweight of 132. This was in 1911. Carquest, who was very capable at certain other lifts, notably the Bent Press, in which he had a record of 222 pounds at a bodyweight of 126½, was relatively poor in the OHS, in which he did only 123 pounds. The lifts made by a number of other feather-weight, lightweight, and middleweight strongmen in the One Hand Snatch are listed in the accompanying table. As will be seen there, the most extraordinary lightweight was Ibrahim Shams, of
To resume with the One Hand Snatch, probably one of the first “heavyweight” (although only 190-pound) strongmen to snatch more than his bodyweight was the famous George Hackenschmidt, who on April 27, 1898 (shortly after his 20th birthday), in an official World Competition held in Vienna, snatched with his right hand 89.5 kilos (197.31 lbs.). Although Pierre Bonnes, the French lifter, who had also competed at Vienna, snatched a half-kilo more, or 198.41 pounds, unofficially a short time afterwards, Hackenschmidt’s lift remained the amateur world record until August 1904, when Heinrich Schneidereidt, a topnotch German lifter, increased it to 200.17 pounds. Then, in May 1910, the celebrated lifter Louis Vasseur raised it to 95 kilos, or 209.43 pounds. The record returned to
Limited space forbids more than a brief mention of some of the many athletes who have made notable records in the One Hand Snatch. I have a list of over 30 different strongmen who have each snatched 200 pounds or more with one hand. By far the best heavyweight record is that which was made in
A few “odd” or unstandardized, performances in the One Hand Snatch are here added for the benefit of those who may be interested. First, however, it should be noted that the poundage to be expected with the left (or less capable) arm is, on the average, about 94% of that with the right (or more capable) arm. That is, if a lifter can snatch 200 pounds with his right arm (assuming he is right-handed), he should, if properly trained, be capable of about 188 pounds with his left arm. Rigoulot’s best left hand snatch, though, was only 100.5 kg. (221.56 lbs.), which was less than 88% of his right hand record. Rigoulot made both lifts in the spring of 1930, in
Now for some unofficial, yet highly meritorious One Hand Snatches.
Away back in 1896, in a public exhibition in Chicago, Louis Cyr, the “Canadian Samson,” snatched with both his right and left hands a solid barbell of 188½ pounds, the handle of which was 1⅝ inches in diameter. But since Cyr’s right arm was six or seven percent stronger than his left, it could well be that, as a limit lift with his right hand, he could have snatched on this same bar 200 pounds. And since it is doubtful whether Cyr, with his relatively short, thick hands could have secured a strong “hook grip” (thumb- lock) on a bar 1⅝ inches thick (even if he had deigned to employ such an aid!), his one-arm snatches – which he is said to have performed virtually without bending his arm – are examples additionally of extra-ordinary grip strength.
John (Grunn) Marx, the old-time
George Lurich – who next to George Hackenschmidt was the most famous old-time strongman to have come from
As to REPETITION one-arm snatches, Alexander Aberg, a Russian heavyweight wrestler and weightlifter who was a foster-brother of Lurich, snatched a barbell of 41 kg (90.38 lbs.) 53 times in succession and 49.5 kg. (109.12 lbs.) 30 times. For comparison with these lifts there is Hermann Goerner’s One Hand SWING of a dumbell weighing 50 kg. (110.23 lbs.), 48 times in succession. And the poundage possible in a Swing is slightly LESS than that in a Snatch.
Since neither the One Hand Snatch nor the One Hand Clean & Jerk (which in competition is to be performed with the OPPOSITE hand to that used in the Snatch) have been used in international or Olympic competition for many years, records have soared in the presently-used Two Hands Snatch and Two Hands Clean & Jerk, while remaining mostly what they were 50 years ago in the One Hand Lifts. In this connection, a possible new world’s heavyweight record was made when the Russian super-heavyweight former champion, Vasily Alexeev, snatched 105 kg. or 231.48 lbs. in an exhibition in
The writer of the account of Alexeev’s “possible” one-hand Snatch record ended up with the remark, “who cares?”. Well, I for one, care; and so do the many other old-time lifters who remember the days when the OHS was the most thrilling of all exhibition or competition lifts. And the significance of Alexeev’s showing as a one-handed lifter, even though it is doubtless better than that of many present-day performer, is that the two standard (two-arm) Olympic lifts of today have been practiced to an obsessive degree while other, equally appropriate, competitive lifts have been abandoned – as though their practice belonged exclusively to a bygone era! It would be a refreshing change if officials in charge of international weightlifting would reflect on the extent to which the Two Hands Snatch and Clean & Jerk have become SPECIALIZED out of all proportion to the ideal goal; namely, a lifter who is capable of using not only his two arms together but each arm SEPARATELY. And the same criticism – over-prolonged specialization – applies also to the present speed-lacking trio of Powerlifts. AMEN!