The Neurological Benefits of Clean and Snatch Complexes
Contributor - Biology, Gymnastics, CrossFit
Las Vegas, Nevada, United States
Gymnastics, CrossFit, Health, Biology
What is a clean and snatch complex? Essentially, it’s the breakdown of these Olympic lifting movements into individual lifts. It is broken down in order to properly build each section of the complete lift. Each person’s complex may look a little different. My personal complex is very broken down. Others may be more efficient or further along in their learning and therefore may have fewer pieces broken down.
If you are curious about my complex, here it is as an example:
- Thigh high hang pull
- Hang power clean
- Time-under-tension front squat
- Snatch grip deadlift
- Thigh high hang pull
- Hang power snatch
- Time-under-tension overhead squat
Okay, now that you know what a complex looks like and you may have even realized you’ve done them before, let’s go over some of the neurological benefits of these Olympic lifts and why we do them in complexes. We’re going to look at motor unit recruitment, proprioception, and the central nervous system and how using complexes trains each of these to make us better lifters.
Motor Unit Recruitment Patterns During Lifting
Yes, motor units (or neurons) are part of the neurological system. The ability to vary or graduate force is essential for performance of smooth, coordinated patterns of movement. For this to happen, muscular force can be graded in two ways:
1. Through variation in the frequency at which motor units are activated.
2. Through varying the number of motor units activated, or recruited.
This is where complexes come into play. Breaking down movements can help the athlete adapt to bringing in more motor neurons and building recruitment patterns in muscle tissues.
Developing Our Proprioception
Proprioception is important in regards to new athletes and also relates to our beloved complexes. Proprioception involves specialized sensory receptors located within joints, muscles, and tendons. Because these receptors are sensitive to pressure and tension, they relay information concerning muscle dynamics to the conscious and subconscious parts of the central nervous system (CNS). The brain is thus provided with information concerning kinesthetic sense, or the position of the body in relation to gravity. Most proprioceptive information is processed at subconscious levels. Another aspect of proprioception is that it provides the CNS with info needed to maintain muscle tone and perform complex and coordinated movements.
Okay, so let me explain all of that. Let’s take the first part - kinesthetic sense, the position of the body. I will mention the snatch (because it’s my weakest lift). We need to know where we are in relation to the bar when we do a snatch, right? We can’t even see it the whole time! And I need to know when I have to receive the bar for the snatch to be successful. This sense of knowing where your body is in relation to the bar is something that is developed over time. It doesn’t just happen, but complexes can aid in this development.
The second benefit of bolstering our proprioception, coordination, is also something that is learned through practice. Throw someone into an Olympic lift right off the bat and we all know the coordination is not there yet. Doing complexes helps people coordinate the lift. By breaking down the overall movement, a person begins to understand when to perform the specific parts. The three common faults I tend to see in cleans are early pulls, slow elbows, and when to receive. Complexes can aid in all three of these faults, and aid in the proprioceptive aspects of learning the lifts.
The Role of the Central Nervous System
But when first learning Olympic lifts, we tend to think too much. It’s not like everyday walking. Eventually you do want to get to the point where you lift without thinking, but this takes practice and time. Even then, advanced athletes are constantly tweaking their form and perfecting their lifts. Complexes can help build the lift into your memory so at least the fundamental movement is done without much thought.
Well, without conscious thought, that is. As far as what your brain is up to unbeknownst to you, that’s a different story, so let’s take a quick look at that, too.
Control of Skeletal Muscles in the Brain
Voluntary movements depend on the lower and upper motor neurons. Lower motor neurons have axons that leave the CNS and extend through peripheral nerves to supply skeletal muscles. Cell location is the anterior horns of the spinal cord grey matter and cranial nerve nuclei of the brain stem. Upper neurons form tracts that directly or indirectly control activities of the lower motor neurons. These cells are located in the cerebrum, brainstem, and cerebellum.
The precentral gyrus, located immediately anterior to the central sulcus, is called the primary motor cortex. The action potentials initiated in this region control many voluntary movements (think all your Olympic lifts). The premotor area is located anterior to the primary motor cortex and is a staging area in which motor functions are organized before they are initiated in the motor cortex. The determination is made in the premotor area as to which muscles contract, in what order, and to what degree.
Whew! Your body is up to a whole lot more every time you try to clean or snatch that bar than you probably even knew. And that’s why I wrote this article – so you can see there is more going on when you lift than what you think (literally). There are neurological benefits to Olympic lifting, but they have to be learned over time. Complexes can help new athletes build kinesthetic sense, and as they get stronger, they can bring in more motor neurons and advance their coordination. In saying this, we all have to start somewhere, which is where specificity loading comes into play. So start with complexes, and then move on to your full Olympic lifting movements.
1. Baechle, Thomas R and Earle, Roger W. Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. (Illinois: Human Kinetics, 2008), 95-100
2. Tate, Philip. Seeley’s Principles of Anatomy and Physiology. (New York: McGraw Hill Companies, 2012), 300-342
3. Hatfield, Rudolph C PhD. Guide to the Human Brian. (MA: F+W Media, inc), 94-96
4. Parker, Steve. The Human Body Book. (New York: DK Publishing), 69-98
Photos 1,2,3&5 courtesy of Shutterstock.