The olympic lifts are great at developing speed and power. Although they take practice to perfect, once you can clean and snatch, you need to decide how to incorporate them into your strength program. Making this decision should depend on the theme of the day and purpose of the program. So we need to understand the differences between the two lifts.
Let's start with a few assumptions. First you have the necessary flexibility and mobility to perform both lifts. If you have shoulder problems, it might not be a good idea to snatch. If you have wrist issues, stay away from the clean. Second you have the technical proficiency to perform each lift.
Beyond the obvious difference in grip and that the snatch is caught overhead while the clean is caught at shoulder height, let's examine the not so obvious differences.
The Effect of the Grip
The wider hand grip of the snatch causes a unique start position. The wider grip forces lifters to get closer to bar at the start of the lift with a greater knee and hip bend. This start position requires greater flexibility and moves the ankles, knees, and hips through a greater range of motion. Some speculate that this recruits more of the hamstrings and glutes than the clean.
The Effect of the Catch
The shoulders also work differently when catching the bar overhead. In particular, catching the bar overhead causes external shoulder rotation. Many athletes and have trouble externally rotating their shoulders under load because of a predominance of pushing exercises in their program and sport. Starting with isolation exercises to increase comfort with external rotation, the snatch can help balance shoulder mobility. The clean catch and finish is basically a front squat. In this post I examine the effects of the hip, knee, and ankle angles of the front squat.
The Learning Curve
Many find the clean easier to learn. Lifting weight from the floor to shoulder height is a more practical and natural movement. Some might even say that the clean is a more functional movement.
Clean or Snatch?
For the speed power athlete that posses all the flexibility and skill to perform both clean and snatch, both are excellent exercises and each should be included in a comprehensive strength program. For those just learning the olympic lifts, start with the clean and you move down the learning curve challenge yourself with learning to snatch. You won't regret it.