The Skill of Barbell Cycling by mike mcgoldrick

In the Sport of CrossFit™, seconds matter. Improving work capacity is a phrase we hear often, but is not limited to a specific meaning. I see it as improving your ability to perform more work in less time, through any means necessary. Understanding the complexity of this process is important and should not be reduced down to something as simple as “improving your engine” or “going faster.” Changes could be made physiologically, through contraction speed, and movement efficiency. All three are very different. As they say, “there are several ways to skin a cat”, there are also several ways to “increase your work capacity.”

CrossFit™ is a new sport. But unlike Weightlifting & Powerlifting, maximal force production is not the ONLY training goal with a barbell. And with new sports, comes the need for new ways to efficiently use the implement. As coaches and athletes continue to evolve we find a lot of options to be able to work around fatigue and minimize the cost per rep of the movements. Each person has a subset of tools in their tool box that will work for them and feel comfortable so we advise you to play with them, figure out what works for you and continue to practice. But remember that you need to develop the requisite level of skill in basic movements first before adding complexity and variance.

Last week Kyle Ruth wrote about different ways to “build an engine,” through movement economy & energy system training. In this article I’m going to discuss several ways to help you “build your engine” by improving your cycle speed with touch & go barbell movements in a mechanical sense. In 2016 a barbell was included in 5 of 15 events at the Crossfit Games, 5 of 7 events at Regionals, and in all 5 workouts in the Open. I think it’s safe to say that getting to know a barbell and being comfortable with multiple variations of lifts and cycling efficiency is super important for success in the sport.

If you can shave off a half a second for 10 reps in a 7-10 minute workout just by tinkering with your setup, grip width, and range of motion, that is something you have to capitalize. As we’ve seen in the Open, 5 seconds slower in a workout could be 5-10 placements in your region. Take the Regional/Hero Event “Randy” for example. 75 Power Snatches as fast as possible. The difference between 5th place & 20th place in some regions was less than 20 seconds. Grip endurance, the athletes height, and the sprint at the end all play a part in a workout that short, but I think the contraction speed of the barbell was king.

Listed below are multiple touch & go snatch and clean variations with examples of when and how each can be used to your advantage in various styled events.

Snatch Variations

#1 - Touch & Go Muscle Snatch:

Pro’s - Faster cycle rate since there is no re-bend of this hips & knees. Typically easier to control breathing. You might use a technique like this in something like Open Workout “11.1”/ “14.1” where cycle speed of a relatively light barbell is crucial.

Sam Briggs Vs. Dan Bailey 14.1:

Con’s - This technique has a high demand on the external rotators of the shoulder and biceps. Since there is no re-bend of the knees & hips, the demand on the upper body is quite a bit higher. Also, to improve cycle speed, the hips are set up slightly higher than a normal snatch position start, so if you have poor hip flexion mechanics, this could be extra taxing on the lower lumbar/spinal erectors.

#2 - Touch & Go Narrow Grip Power Snatch With Short Pull:

Pro’s - The narrow grip helps if you’re someone who is tight and might have trouble breathing in the setup position of the snatch. Also, since there is a re-bend of the hips and knees, there is less demand on the shoulders & biceps as a muscle snatch.

McG 14.1:

Con’s - Since the hands are a bit closer in setup, this increases the range of motion slightly which could decrease cycle time.

*Being able to transition between the two variations above could be helpful in something like the Regional Event/Hero Workout “Randy” as mentioned above. Starting with a “Muscle Power Snatch” then as the shoulders start to fatigue transitioning into a “Power Snatch with Short Pull” will keep the cycle rate high and help you shave off a few seconds in the event. In a workout this short, 5 seconds could be 5 places in the event.

#3 - Touch & Go Snatch With Short Pull:

Pro’s - In this variation, you skip reaching full hip extension in order to shorten the range of motion. With lighter loads this is extremely useful in shaving off seconds in a workout like 17.3.

Ben Smith 17.3:

Con’s - Since you initiate the pull with an early arm bend, it puts extra strain on the biceps & shoulders. This could also be difficult if you lack a strong position in the bottom of an overhead squat. Since you are skipping full extension of the hips, it makes catching in an upright position a little more difficult and could end up wasting more energy than it’s worth.

Practicing Touch & Go Snatches & Power Snatches

Here are two videos that show “progressions” if you’re trying to improve your efficiency while cycling TnG snatches. First I would start with a pause at the hang during the eccentric, then a slight pause overhead. This allows you to simplify the movement & break it down piece by piece. Practicing with slight pauses will help you learn better timing for your breathing during cycling. Some people are able to take in more air while the barbell is overhead rather than trying to breathe in while bent over at the ground.

Power Snatch TnG Progressions:

“Full” Snatch TnG Progressions:

**One major error I see when someone is trying to cycle snatches is that the barbell gets away from the body during the eccentric. You can avoid this by thinking about “leading with the elbows” instead of the hands when bringing the bar down from overhead. This helps keep the bar tight and close to your body which will help you set up for the next rep. I will cover more errors and limitations that are common in a follow-up article, but I think this is a good cue that can be applied rather quickly.

Clean Variations

#1 - Touch & Go Muscle Clean:

Pro’s - Speed. This variation is likely the fastest to cycle power cleans with relatively light loads. An example of where this might be useful is in a workout like 15-12-9 of Power Cleans (Men - 115 pounds, Women - 75 pounds) & Burpees or “Power Elizabeth.”

Rich Froning 2012 CF Games:

Con’s - Since there is no re-bend of the hips & knees, it’s really taxing on the biceps as the demand on the upper body is much higher. For those with a tight front rack, this can also create an issue with the appearance of “getting the elbows around the bar.” Most people will keep their false grip during these so it almost turns it into a deadlift + reverse curl.

#2 - Touch & Go Power Clean With Short Pull:

Pro’s - Since full hip extension is somewhat skipped it increases the cycle time. This variation could also be used in a workout like “Power Elizabeth” to help shorten the range of motion a little bit since it’s a relatively lighter load. Since there is a re-bend in the hips & knees this helps reduce the demand of the biceps during the pull. This might be a smarter variation for this with a tight front rack as the re-bend and catch will allow more space to land in a solid front rack versus the muscle clean.

Con’s - Although not as demanding on the upper body as the muscle clean, the arms are still more taxed than a conventional power clean.

#3 - Touch & Go Clean With Short Pull:

Pro’s - In this variation, you skip reaching full hip extension in order to shorten the range of motion. This could be really helpful in a workout like “17.5” when beginning the thrusters each round. This is also extremely useful in a team setting where cycle speed has to be high in a workout like a long chipper that has high rep cleans at light to moderate load.

Con’s - This is only helpful with light to moderate loads. If you don’t have the best position in the bottom of a front squat, the short pull could cause you to catch forward repeatedly and fatigue the lower back & quads.

Practicing Touch & Go Cleans & Power Cleans

Here are two videos that show “progressions” if you’re trying to improve your efficiency while cycling TnG Cleans. First I would start with a pause at the hang during the eccentric, then with a slight pause in the front rack working on brushing the hips on the way down leading directly into the next rep. Just like the touch and go snatches, this is a simple way to break down the movements complexity and practice your breathing.

Power Clean TnG Progressions:

“Full” Clean TnG Progressions:

**One major error I see when someone is trying to cycle cleans or power cleans is that keeping the hook grip is difficult during the eccentric. If you can practice keeping the hook grip while receiving the bar in the front rack, this eliminates having to “bump” the bar off your chest to “re-grip” on the way down which can cause the bar to run out and away from your body pulling you out of position for your next rep.

Conclusion:

With a barbell being included in a large body of the testing movements, I think it’s really important to train multiple variations of the lifts and remain adaptive to styles that work for each workout or event. If you want to crush barbell workouts like Rich Froning or Mat Fraser, you need GREAT movement quality & a MASSIVE skill base like theirs to support it. Building proficiency in the Olympic Lifts is definitely the first step on the ladder. Adequate technique and comfort with the lifts are important to have before adding too much complexity. Following that, I would spend time exploring some of the movements and progressions above to help you develop your barbell cycling abilities. Barbell cycling needs to be practiced as a skill just like any other movement you would see in CrossFit style events or workouts. Take the time to learn the lifts and build movement quality, then practice, practice, practice. Start light and without fatigue, then add the complexity.

If you need a resource to reference the movements above, here is a playlist I created in my YouTube channel.

Thanks for reading!

~ Mike McG

Created By
Mike McGoldrick
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