If you want to start a war on the internet, just take a strong stand for or against the Olympic lifts (snatches, clean and jerks and their variations).
Some people adhere to these exercises like a cult member, while others completely despise them. This makes for a fiery debate, to say the least.
In my career, I have found myself on both sides of the fence on this issue. Because of that, I can give you an honest assessment, based on experience, of these movements.
When I started out as a strength coach some 20 years ago, I didn’t see much value in recommending these lifts. Here were my reasons:
1) They are difficult to learn. The Olympic lifts are truly complex movements. The learning curve is different for everyone but it can take months to get your form to a decent level.
Since a lot of athletes used to train with me for just a 12-week off-season, it was pretty easy to justify prescribing a movement that provided a similar training effect and had a much faster learning curve.
2) It is unrealistic to do them in a public gym. First of all, you need the right equipment. Without bumper plates and a high quality Olympic bar, you shouldn’t even attempt these lifts. Nine of ten gyms don’t have either one of these crucial pieces of equipment – and that’s a generous statistic.
Plus, since these are big, explosive, out-of-the-box movements, doing just one rep you would get you quickly thrown out of your gym for frightening the “spandex crew” in the 5 pm Zumba class!
All joking aside, these lifts actually are not permitted in most facilities.
3) They can be injurious. If your form is crappy, it’s just a matter of time before you get hurt.
And even if your form is solid, Olympic lifts still carry a higher risk than many other exercises. Injuring someone is the last thing a trainer wants to do, so I used to steer clear of these exercises altogether.
4) I was getting great results with my clients without using Olympic lifts. I was successfully using a blend of powerlifting, bodybuilding and athletic training and didn’t want to mess with a winning formula. The way I saw it, it wasn’t broke…so why fix it?
So for the above four reasons, I rarely used recommend the Olympic lifts.
Then one day, my quest to acquire knowledge and improve my client’s results brought me to a workshop in Canada.
I was there with a bunch of Olympic lifters. It was a hands-on workshop, so we basically trained together all weekend. These guys’ muscularity, strength, flexibility and jumping ability was superb. I was quite impressed.
To say my curiosity was piqued is an understatement. I left that workshop strongly convinced that there was some real value in the Olympic lifts.
When I got home, I started Olympic lifting immediately. I attended seminars to better my ability to perform and teach them. I even achieved a USA Weightlifting certification.
After a few months of hard work and dedication, I had packed on some well-placed muscle, improved my flexibility and my vertical jump had increased significantly.
My personal success got me extremely excited to start integrating these lifts into my clients’ routines. Before long, with just a few exceptions, I had all of my clients doing them.
Like a mad scientist, I kept a detailed training journal for each client, and looking back, I’m glad I did. The lessons that I learned during this time were invaluable. Here they are:
Everyone Should Be Able To Do These Lifts
Regardless of whether you choose to do them or not, you should be physically able to get into the proper positions that these exercises require.
If you can’t, you have an imbalance in your body. Although this imbalance can be strength related, it is usually mobility related. The most common areas of limitation tend to be the shoulder and hips.
Do Not Attempt The Olympic Lifts If You Are Injured
If one of your joints is banged up, there are plenty of exercises you can use to work around the injury. The Olympic lifts should not be on that list.
The Olympic lifts work the entire body, and thus, they transfer stress through every joint. Although this full body effect is one of the benefits of doing them, it makes training them extra risky if one is already injured.
It Takes The Right Mindset To Learn The Olympic Lifts
Due to the complexity of these movements, you need to maintain an open and teachable mind.
It usually takes hundreds of somewhat ugly reps before you even start to find your groove.
If you’re the type who beats yourself up every time you don’t get a “perfect”, rep, then forget about the O lifts.
Assess Your Goals
If an uncoordinated grandma has only 6 weeks to lose twenty pounds for her 50th high school reunion, it’s probably not in her best interest to spend most of her gym time learning the proper way to “catch the bar”.
On the other hand, if you’re a football player who will be getting tested on the power clean, you better get your reps in.
Most People Should Pull From The Hang Position
Unless you are getting tested from the floor, I typically recommend pulling from the hang position. Pulling from the hang makes it easier for the athlete to find the correct pulling position.
That being said, lifting from the floor is important as well. I use deadlifts for this purpose.
I Prefer Snatches Over Cleans
This recommendation usually gets coaches’ panties in a bunch…but I stand by it. I have three reasons:
a) The “catch” position of a clean puts a lot of stress on the wrists and elbows, while the “catch” in the snatch does not.
b) Snatches require greater mobility. This forces athletes to really improve their mobility levels, which is important for many reasons.
c) Snatches involve less weight then cleans do. This makes the snatch easier to recover from systemically.
Heavy Olympic Lifts Should Be Dropped After The Completion Of Each Rep
Although I rarely recommend doing heavy singles with O lifts, sometimes they are necessary if someone is getting tested.
If you decide to go heavy on these exercises, drop the bar to the floor after each rep.
Dropping the bar is far safer than lowering it down to the floor. Just think about it for a second— it took your entire body to lift the weight, and now you’re just going to lower it with your arms and shoulders? No way. Not worth the risk.
Hire A Qualified Coach
As mentioned above, these lifts are complex. Having someone teach you proper technique (at least initially) will make this learning process a much better experience.
In addition to technical cues, you will learn proper progressions to get you where you need to be safer and faster.
So there you have it. I hope we have put this debate to bed. The truth is that the Olympic lifts are great…but they are not for everybody.
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