In Defense of the Olympic Lifts

22 Oct In Defense of the Olympic Lifts

In Defense of the Olympic Lifts


6741931689_93c8e7fcf4The debate between proponents of using the Olympic lifts for athletes, with those who incessantly argue they’re not worth the time and effort needed to teach them properly and that the danger of injury is too high, reminds one of the argument of two kids proclaiming that their dad could beat up the other’s dad.

Chances are, if these kid’s fathers did have an altercation, neither would throw a punch, but rather resort to name calling and threats that they would have given the other a black eye if they were their children’s age.

My goal in writing this post is to not add fuel to either side but rather step back and talk objectively (as objective as a biased, young, pompous, strength coach  can be) about what the important qualities of the Olympic lifts actually are.

I have a great, great deal of respect for Olympic lifters (some of the greatest athletes in the world) and would be remised if I didn’t mention that cleans and snatches are part of the sport of weightlifting and the only reason they will be referred to as the “Olympic lifts” is to keep from confusing readers who are unfamiliar with correct terminology.

I’m also in no place to argue the lifts with anyone who competes in the sport of weightlifting. Gladly will I yield to their thoughts because of experience.

As the Chinese proverb says:

“Tell me and I forget. Show me and I remember. Involve me and I understand.”

Not too sure if that was the correct place to put that proverb, but I don’t care — it’s awesome and I wanted to include it.


Why in the first place?

Let’s get down to why bald old strength coaches started using Olympic lifts in the first place. Because of the very nature of the lifts themselves, the clean and the snatch are phenomenal for developing explosive force and speed of movement in an athlete.

If the athlete doesn’t apply enough force and velocity to the bar (i.e. move powerfully), he will not be able to complete the lift with any appreciable load.  You can’t fake it with the Olympic lifts. If you’re not explosive, it shows.

While there’s other methods to train power, it cannot be denied that the Olympic lifts are a great tool to judge the explosiveness of the athlete and help develop it.


The story they tell

If you haven’t read my post about what I believe should be the main focus of the weight room check it out here  , and then come back. I won’t wait for you but you may learn something.

Recall once again what power is —force x velocity. So, developing limit strength though big compound movements, is what increases our ability to produce force.

Many would argue that heavy cleans, as is typical in some college football weight rooms, are dangerous.

I would agree.

Many would argue that team sport athletes have not mastered the skill of Olympic lifting through years and countless hours of practice as the Olympic lifters have and so should not be using heavy weight in these lifts all the time.

I would agree.

But have we completely forgot about velocity, specifically rate of force development?  Why is it either go heavy in the lifts or not at all?

How about we worry about increasing limit strength, and so increase force, through other means of strength training (heavy squats, pulls, presses) and reserve the Olympic lifts for training rate of force development and — to a certain extent  — speed of movement.

This is done through keeping the weights in the strength speed zone (55-85% of a true 1RM).  Does that sound heavy to you?

If it does, then we have a fundamental disagreement and you should just stop reading and scroll down to the comments where you can leave your hateful message.

My goal for athletes is to keep Olympic lifts light and fast and remember that these lifts are a representation of all the other methods you employ in a smart strength training program.

On the rare occasion where you must go heavy, just to have a number to base your percentages off of, understand that the power seen in your Olympic lifts represents the limit strength and RFD developed through other lifts such as squats and deadlifts.


Developing proprioceptors

Zealots from either side will argue until their blue about hip extension and rack positions when it comes to the clean and snatch.

Intense conversations arise about limitations of mobility but I’m confused as to why the Olympic lifts ability to develop proprioceptors is never mentioned.

Fast movement involves very fast reactions and the clean alone is a very violent, fast movement.  Just focusing on the feet alone — the lifter applies force to the ground, extends his ankle , then absorbs the force as his feet hit the ground again and his ankle flexes under a bunch more load and force, oh and then he descends into a perfect squat (full, half or quarter depending on the style and needs).

I would say this would develop the proprioceptors for similar forces experienced in sport.


Absorbing Force

Great athletes no doubt need explosive hips to dominate in sport but also need to be able to absorb forces effectively, as briefly mentioned in my last point.  This is just as important as developing explosive hip movement if not more.

Coaches of all kinds love to teach proper landing and jumping mechanics mentioning how much force is applied to the ground and back through the kinetic chain, citing literature along the way.

Elite athletes can effortlessly jump, turn direction, stop on a dime, and accelerate back to top speed. They can do this partly because of their ability to absorb forces and transfer energy.

In my opinion, one of the main reasons to use Olympic lifts is to develop this ability to absorb force.

Think about the clean, again. The athlete must first generate enough force to get the bar from the ground to his shoulders and move the bar with enough velocity so that he can catch it as he descends into the squat.

As the bar flies upward, he must switch from a powerful concentric hip contraction to an eccentric action and now stabilize the weight directly over his base of support so he can stand back up with the weight.

Although this isn’t done in a sport specific position, you can’t tell me that learning to contract, relax and absorb force isn’t helpful for any sport.


The importance of learning a new skill

Let’s get down to it…what does it mean to train sport specific? I imagine it means to develop the skill of our sport and build strength that can be transferred to the activity.

Most every intelligent coach and trainer will agree that the best way to develop skill in sport is through practicing the actual sport and that sport specific drills done in the weight room are secondary.

In my mind, they come very secondary and caution needs to be taken as to not to confuse the motor pattern with using implements heavier than those in the sport. Think practicing a basketball shot with a heavy medicine ball.

My convoluted point is that we expect athletes to learn the skill of their sport without properly instructing them on how to learn a skill.

The Olympic lifts may not be specific to the movement found in the sport, but it teaches athletes how to apply forces quickly and also forces them to learn a complex skill, if taught by a competent coach.

So, it rubs me the wrong way when you tell me not to teach high school kids how to perform, at least, a proper power clean.  I can understand that some athletes should not be throwing weight over their head like is the case in the snatch and that it’s so easy to fake the hang clean so that more weight can be used without focusing on mechanics but the power clean and even the traditional clean (usually redundantly called the squat clean) is something that can be utilized, and utilized well.

If you suck at teaching the Olympic lifts effectively then, yeah, don’t use them. But, don’t say it’s because it takes too long to teach, say it’s because you suck.

The truth is, learning a complex skill may help you become a better coach and help you learn how to teach skill learning whether you decide to use Olympic lifts in your strength and conditioning program or not.

Teaching this skill and allowing your athletes to go through this process of learning this can help them become better at learning and perfecting the skill of their sport.


Cut the crap

Do athletes absolutely need to do the Olympic lifts to build power in the weight room? Of course not, there’s a ton of other methods that are sometimes better suited.

Different methods are needed for different circumstances but don’t demonize one just because you don’t use it. Look at your program as a whole and decide whether they’re appropriate to include but don’t push an agenda on someone who is perfectly capable of using the Olympic lifts for the development of athletes.




Got some fuel to throw on the fire? Let me know in the comments.



Please do not put your URL in the comment text and please use your PERSONAL name or initials and not your business name, as the latter comes off like spam.(Thanks toTim Ferriss and  Brian Oberkirch for the inspiration)


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