Should Athletes Use the Olympic Lifts?
Updated: Dec 28, 2018
Creating a lovely chocolate cake is an impressive feat of bakery — it requires skill, timing, patience and know-how. Get it wrong and your triple layered chocolate cake becomes a good for nothing flat chocolate mash.
Olympic lifting is a similarly impressive feat (of athleticism, not bakery) — it requires skill, strength, power, speed, mobility, balance and coordination. Get the lifts wrong and this potentially powerful training tool will also become a good for nothing mash.
Not For Everyone
I love chocolate cake and I love Olympic lifting, but there’s a time and a place… It’s easy to become blinded by love and serve up cake to every person in every session. But — believe it or not — chocolate cake isn’t for everyone and nor are the Olympic lifts…
Absorbing, Powerful and Looking Cool
From a power production perspective, the Olympic lifts are almost unrivalled; phenomenal amounts of power are generated during the clean and snatch. This power production transfers to improved running, jumping and sprinting, as well as training the ability to absorb force in the universal ‘athletic position.’
Plus, Olympic lifts also look pretty cool… So it’s no great shock that coaches, athletes and everyday exercisers want to use the Olympic lifts. However, Olympic lifting movements are the deep end of the pool. There are a few things to consider before jumping in…
Technique and Time
The Olympic lifts are highly technical movements that take time, effort and persistence to learn. For the Olympic lifts to be beneficial they need to be performed with good technique.
Gym time can be a precious commodity, especially among athletes who have a demanding playing and practice schedule. There will already be plenty to get through in strength and conditioning sessions without taking time out to learn the Olympic lifts. Plus, regular practice will be required to refine technique.
So, although many athletes will have the persistence and work ethic required to learn the lifts, not all will have the time to learn and refine their technique. Thus, Olympic lifts may not be the best option, or will need to be programmed just for technique practice, without necessarily getting any meaningful power training effect.
Learning a Skill and Natural Athleticism
You might be thinking: “surely most athletes will be naturals and pick Olympic lifting technique up quickly.” Olympic lifting is a skill and is different to anything most athletes will have experienced before (after all, Olympic Weightlifting is an entire sport in itself). Learning the technique takes time and effort and refining Olympic lifting technique is a never ending process.
Some athletes will pick up Olympic lifting technique quickly, but many won’t. Sure, a lot of coaches can ‘get athletes cleaning and snatching in 15 minutes’ but there’s a difference between ‘getting someone cleaning and snatching’ and getting someone to clean and snatch safely and effectively. The latter takes more than 15 minutes.
This might be frustrating but would you expect a baseball pitcher to curl soccer free-kicks in to the top corner after one short coaching session? They’d likely balloon several shots over the bar, trickle some towards the goalies hands, send some to the corner flag and fire the odd one in to the net…The difference between Olympic lifts and soccer free-kicks is that when Olympic lifts are ballooned over the bar they have the potential to wreck the athlete’s body.
Ignore the Bar: Watch the Hips, Knees and Ankles
If Olympic lifting is a part of your training, make sure you can lift safely and effectively. A quick way to determine whether you're lifting effectively is to focus on what's going on at the hips, knees and ankles during the lifts -- are they extending?
Ignore the bar when watching a video back and focus on what your joints are doing. Are they in good positions and doing what the exercise is intended for? The whole point of Olympic lifting for athletes is to train triple extension power, not to just get the bar to the shoulders.
Olympic Weightlifter vs. Safe and Effective
The technique doesn’t need to resemble that of a professional Olympic Weightlifter. But, to train the physical quality we’re aiming to train (triple extension power) the lifts have to be performed with good technique. If an athlete isn’t performing the movement properly, the exercise is pointless and will put them in harms way. The wrists, for example, can easily be put in dangerous positions, and have to receive heavy weights, through poor technique.
What constitutes good technique will, to some extent, depend on a coach’s standards. My movement standards are high, regardless of the movement, and I make no apologies for this. Athletes often need extra one-to-one coaching for the Olympic lifts. This is absolutely fine but is not always possible in group training scenarios…
Team and Group Training
In a group training environment not every athlete can be given one-to-one attention at all times. Poor understanding of technique combined with a naturally competitive spirit can lead to really really bad technique.
I’m all for competitive spirit, but, like chocolate cake, there’s a time and a place.
A major pet peeve of mine is seeing videos of athletes being met with whooping, hollering, high-fives and rapturous applause from their team-mates, or, worse, from their strength and conditioning coach after twisting, rounding and grinding their way to a new personal ‘best’. I shiver when I see videos of groups of athletes wrecking themselves with various Olympic lifting movements and a coach beaming proudly because of the numbers they’re hitting. I’d much rather see a lighter weight, a strong and powerful lift and the whooping and hollering saved for the winning goal, touchdown or point.
Ok, so, we understand that the Olympic lifts:
Are an awesome form of power training
Are highly technical
Take time to learn
Are physically taxing
Pose injury risks if performed incorrectly
So, should athletes use Olympic lifts or not?
Athletes should use the movements that are best for them as an athlete, that they can perform safely and that make best use of potentially limited time. The aim of strength and conditioning work is to produce and develop functionally strong, powerful, robust and healthy athletes. There are so many ways to develop these qualities and, yes, the Olympic lifts are a brilliant way to develop said qualities in many athletes.
However, thought should be given when deciding what movements are going to lead to the most benefit for a given athlete. For example, it'd be difficult to justify doing cleans or snatches with a tennis or badminton athlete where one missed lift or poor 'catch' could damage a wrist and lead to a whole season on the sidelines.
As a Strength and Conditioning Coach…
I’m not interested in having athletes meet certain national or league lifting standards, particularly ones that are based on loose interpretations of what constitutes a movement and myths about what a 15 year old high-school athlete 'should' be able to lift.
I’m interested in developing athletes that are going to meet the highest of the highest standards on their pitch. That is what’s important. My goal is not to have athletes lift numbers that sound great to other strength coaches. My goal is to use strength and conditioning to develop athletes that are healthy and fit for their purpose. If that means avoiding certain exercises, going a little lighter or not living up to perceptions of what weight or exercise a certain athlete ‘should’ be doing, then so be it.
The Best Coaches and Athletes do Olympic Lifts?
Insisting on using Olympic lifts because you want to meet certain lifting standards, because you feel you should or because "that’s what good coaches/athletes do" is not a very smart approach. It doesn’t make someone a bad coach if their athletes aren’t using cleans and snatches. Nor does it make you a bad athlete if you’re not Olympic lifting.
A good coach will know their own capabilities, the capabilities of their athletes and the outcome they desire. If they’re not capable of coaching the Olympic lifts, or they don’t have the time to spend on coaching their athletes to a point where the lifts will be beneficial, then they won’t use them in their programs. That’s a smart coach.
Treat Non-Strength Sport Athletes Differently
A must-hit-certain-numbers approach is useless in developing better non-strength-sport athletes. This approach may be necessary in strength-based sports such as powerlifting and the sport of Olympic Weightlifting, where, yes, the numbers do matter and where the sole aim is to make the athlete better at those specific lifts. But that’s not the type of athlete I’m talking about in this article, nor is it the type of athlete I primarily work with.
The athletes I work with need to be strong, fresh, healthy and ‘springy’ when they step on the pitch. The specific method used to create these physical qualities and psychological feelings is irrelevant so long as the training effect is produced. If an exercise creates the same training effect (strength, power etc.) more quickly, with greater ease and/or with less load, then this option should probably be taken.
Alternatives to Olympic Lifts
Examples of exercises that could be considered instead of Olympic lifts include:
Med ball throws
Various plyometric exercises
I’m not sure of the EMG stats or of the force generation comparisons, and I’m sure some people reading this will say ‘but those exercises don’t lead to anywhere near the amount of power as the second pull of the Olympic lifts… but these people will have missed the point… (and remember I love Olympic lifting!)
Can the hockey/soccer/baseball/basketball athlete safely perform the lift?
Do the alternative exercises also produce a lot of power?
Is that amount of power enough for this athlete?
Non-strength sport athletes need functional strength and power that they can use on the field. There are many ways to attain this.
Assess the risk:reward ratio - if an athlete can perform Olympic lifts safely and effectively then they should be considered for their program as they are an excellent exercise for training power production and absorption.
If an athlete can’t do the Olympic lifts, or the risk:reward ratio is too heavily stacked on the risk side, then there are many equally effective alternatives.
If an athlete shows a desire to learn and there is time to teach, then teach and reap the rewards.
And finally, all the best coaches, athletes and bakers like chocolate cake.