When talking to strength coaches, Olympic lifts can be one of the more polarizing topics. Many strength coaches swear by Olympic lifts as the greatest tool to enhance athletic performance, while others coaches are against the lifts entirely.
I am not going to say that you need to utilize Olympic lifts. There are plenty of ways to develop power—Olympic lifts are just one of them. I train 19 different sports teams, and I do not utilize Olympic lifts with all of them. In this article, I am going to attempt to give you the info needed to make an educated decision on whether or not to use Olympic lifts in your workouts.
For starters, it’s important to know there are only two actual Olympic lifts—the Snatch and the Clean & Jerk. However, many variations on these exercises are often bundled into the term “Olympic lifts.” We’ll get into that later, but let’s start by looking at some of the major pros and cons of using Olympic lifts in your routine.
Pro: Develops Power
This one is the most obvious, but it needs to be stated. The Olympic lifts are complex lifts designed to develop max power. The ability to produce a large amount of force rapidly is the end goal of any strength and conditioning program, and Olympic lifts can aid in achieving that.
Pro: Similar Movements to Jumping and Sprinting
The power developed from Olympic lifts transfers well to sprinting and jumping, because the lift (when performed correctly) gets its power from triple extension. Triple extension is a simultaneous extension of the hips, knees and ankles (plantar flexion). These are the same mechanics required in sprinting and jumping activities. All three activities require forcefully pressing the feet into the ground to propel either the body or the implement.
Pro: Transfer of Power From Lower Body to Upper Body
Nearly all sports require a transfer of force from the lower body to the upper body. For example, attempt to throw a pitch while sitting down. Obviously, that pitch is not going to go very fast. Arm strength is important, but without the leg drive off the rubber, the pitch is going to be slow. The lower body is what produces the most significant amounts of force, and transferring that force through the core and into the upper body is essential for nearly all team sports. This attribute is trained in the Olympic lifts. The implement may be held in your hands, but the upper body’s role in the Olympic lifts is to simply to maintain tension and hold on for the ride.
Pro: Requires Great Mobility at the Ankle, Hip and T-Spine
When I think about areas where I want my athletes to gain mobility, the ankle, hip and t-spine immediately come to mind. Every workout my athletes complete will include at least one mobility drill for these three joints, if not more. Once the mobility is gained, loading that movement can help to maintain it. The Olympic lifts load the end ranges of hips, ankles and t-spine. I never have my athletes perform the full catch versions of the lifts; I will explain why later. That being said, Olympic lifts are still an excellent way to maintain mobility.
Con: Incredibly Complex Movements
If you are going to do Olympic lifts with an expectation of results, you need to do them well. That is not a small undertaking. There is very little about the Olympic lifts that is intuitive. It takes a lot of practice at light loads to get to the point where these lifts can be safely performed. Just because 135 pounds is your warm-up for Squat or Bench does not mean that you should load up the bar with 135 pounds for your first crack at an Olympic lift. Take the time to learn the movements with just a barbell before you significantly load these exercises.
Con: Easy Movement to Cheat
Going off the first con, the fact that Olympic lifts are very complex also makes them more susceptible to having an athlete cheat the movement via poor form. If you are not focused or coached well, it is easy to cheat on Olympic lifts and lose the transfer to sport. Athletes do not intentionally cheat on these movements, but they’re highly motivated and competitive people. In the weight room, that often means a drive to get as much weight on the bar as possible, and cheating on Olympic lifts can allow you to add a whole lot more weight than performing them with strict form. The most common ways an athlete will cheat Olympic lifts include: bouncing the bar off their thighs to propel the bar up, splitting the legs out wide on the catch, raising the hips and performing an RDL into the clean or snatch, and catching the bar on the wrists before going into the front rack position. Any of these will reduce the transfer to team sports and/or increase the risk of injury.
Con: Requires Great Mobility at the Ankle, Hip and T-Spine
No need to scroll back up! Yes, this factor is both a positive and a negative for the Olympic lifts. If an athlete does not have the proper mobility in those three joints there will be an increase in stress to the low back and knees. Specifically, when catching in the squat, the athlete must have a prerequisite of mobility.
Con: Learning The Front Rack is Tough
The front rack position can be very challenging to get into and adds to the complexity of the Clean. It can be time consuming to train, but the T-spine extension required for the front rack position is something that most athletes would benefit from. That being said, it is relatively uncomfortable at first. The bar presses into the athlete’s throat and puts pressure on the clavicle if they cannot create a proper platform with their shoulders, which can deter many athletes starting out with the Clean.
That sums up some of the major pros and cons of learning Olympic lifts. The cons can often be overcome with great coaching and a persistent attitude. If Olympic lifts sound like something you’re interested in including in your routine, or the athletes’ who you train routines, here are a few tips for optimizing their usage.
Tip 1: Athletes Should Always Perform Hang Variations
The hang variations of the Olympic lifts are significantly more specific to sprinting and jumping, because they engage the stretch-shortening cycle. The counter movement of bringing the bar from standing down to your knees lengthens the muscle, which also occurs when you sprint or load for a jump. When a concentric muscle contraction occurs immediately following this stretch, there is a significant increase in force production. This is the reason a soccer player swings their leg back before striking the ball or why a softball player loads before swinging. To optimize athletic performance, the stretch reflex must be trained. Secondly, and this is a more trivial reason, there is more room for error when lifting from the floor. The hang variations are short compact movements, making them easier to teach and learn than lifts from the floor.
Tip 2: Do Not Catch in the Squat
The reason Olympic weightlifters squat under the bar is because it allows them to lift more weight, therefore increasing their odds of winning the competition. It does not mean that more power is being produced by the athlete. I want my athletes to be explosive enough to move the weight up to the shoulders on the Clean or overhead on the Snatch. Otherwise, it is too much weight. I am not attempting to train Olympic lifters. I am training football, basketball and baseball players. There is very little, if any, increase in transfer to team sports when an athlete drops into the Squat to catch the bar. Time in the weight room is precious. I want my athletes to get the most bang for their buck on every lift without adding unnecessary stress on their body.
Tip 3: Avoid the Snatch Grip for Snatching
Just like in Tip 2 this technique is utilized by Olympic lifters to allow them to lift more weight. The wider grip makes it so that the bar does not have to come nearly as high before they catch it. The stress on the shoulders is the biggest reason I avoid this with my athletes. Shoulders get beat up in nearly every team sport, so a strength program needs to focus on safely and effectively strengthening this area. Below I will give you two snatch options that can be effective for athletes to use.
To finish things off, here are a few of my favorite Olympic Lift variations for team sport athletes.
Notice dumbbell, not kettlebell. The first time I did this exercise with a kettlebell, I had bruises on my forearms for a week. So again, it is about balancing risk and reward for the athlete. in my opinion, you do not gain enough by using the kettlebell. The DB Snatch is very easy to learn. It is typically the first Olympic lift I use with my athletes. You quickly bend at the hips, knees and ankles and explode up, driving the dumbbell overhead. The best cues for this exercise are to keep the dumbbell tight to your body like you were lifting up your shirt and to think of throwing the dumbbell through the ceiling without actually letting go. The only negative to this lift is having to perform it with the second arm after the legs are already fatigued. This can be easily dealt with, however, by having a superset or tri-set where the athlete performs it on the right side, does another exercise or drill and then performs in on the left.
Clean Grip Snatch
The Clean Grip Snatch removes the stress of the wide snatch hand position. This reduces the load that can be used and increases the force that must be produced, because the bar has to travel farther to get overhead. Once an athlete has mastered the Dumbbell Snatch, I will have them move to this lift. The same cues for the Dumbbell Snatch are effective with the Clean Grip Snatch. One note that I make with this is I never have my throwing athletes perform the Snatch. We exclusively use the clean variations.
The Hang Clean, when performed correctly, is very effective at producing power that transfers to the playing field. The biggest key is to not cheat this lift, because as I stated earlier, it is an easy thing to do. Athletes should perform a rapid eccentric contraction as they bring the bar down to right above the knee and then explosively drive up into the front rack position.
I love utilizing Clean Pulls with my in-season athletes. You get all of the explosive triple extension of the Clean and the Snatch, but you do not add in the extra fatigue of having to catch the bar. In the Clean Pull, the athlete does the exact same motion as the Hang Clean, rapidly bring the bar down to the knees and immediately explode vertically, but you keep your arms locked out the entire time. The biggest mistake I see with Clean Pulls is athletes trying to turn it into a High Pull. In theory, the High Pull is just allowing the momentum of the bar to continue taking it vertically, but what I’ve found is athletes often use their arms to pull the bar up. This reduces power and transfer to sport. So, for your Clean Pull, keep the arms locked out the entire time and explode vertically.
Kettlebell Push Jerk
I use the kettlebells for the Push Jerk, because it does not have the same pounding on the forearm that the Snatch does, and athletes are able to get into a much better overhead position with the kettlebell. I very rarely have my athletes jerk. I use it as an occasional change of pace movement for non-throwing athletes. It looks like an upper-body lift, but it is the same transfer of power from the lower body that drives the dumbbell up and brings the weight overhead. The biggest advantage over the barbell version is the freedom of motion in the shoulder joint, allowing the athlete to start with the kettlebell neutral and then rotate as they drive overhead. When performing the Kettlebell Push Jerk, finish with the knees and hips bent before standing all the way up.
This is not an all-inclusive list, but these are the Olympic lift variations that have the greatest transfer to team sports. I hope this not only gave you some insight into the benefits of the Olympic lifts, but also the drawbacks. They are amazing exercises, but unless you are an Olympic weightlifter, you are not required to Clean or Snatch. The most important thing is to train to be explosive. Whether that is using Chain Squats, medicine balls, contrast training or Hang Cleans, if you are an athlete, get in the weight room and move that weight fast.
Photo Credit: photominus/iStock