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Should I be using the olympic lifts with my athletes?

This is a question that gets asked all the time; a question that is constantly debated; and, a question that seems to have a lot of people confused when it comes to exercise selection for their athletes.

It is a tough one to answer. I think first of all, if you don’t know how to teach the Olympic lifts, and don’t understand them, then don’t use them. It is really that simple! You will only do more harm than good if you are trying to have your athletes go through the motions in these lifts.

I do believe that the Olympic lifts have some good applications in sports training. Aside from the fact that they teach the athlete to develop power (the second pull being extremely powerful), they also teach the athlete force deceleration and body awareness during the catch. All three of these qualities can potentially enhance athletic skill. The reason I say potentially is because again, I am a firm believer that what we do in the weight room is nothing more than general training and preparation for what we do on the field, court or track. If all we do is train in the gym and we don’t go out and practice our actual sport, we will be nothing more than bigger, faster and stronger mediocre athletes. That said, I think that the Olympic lift variations can be very good total body movements and the positive effects they have on power development have been shown in research studies over and over again.

There are some times where I probably wouldn’t want to use the Olympic lifts. One would be if I only had a short time frame to work with an athlete (< 10 weeks). In this case, there are other things that we could spend our time on to prepare the athlete for their sports season than learning how to do Olympic lifts. The variety of pull variations however can be helpful in this instance as we are stopping the bar before having to get into a catch position, which requires some technical skill.

Some have said that Olympic lifting is a sport unto itself and making athletes learn this sport in the hopes that it will enhance another sport (say football or basketball) is a waste of time. They contend that time would be better spent doing plyometrics and medicine ball work and that you can develop the same amounts of power with these modalities as you can with the Olympic lifts. They typically go on to say that in order to reap the full benefits of the Olympic lifts, one must have reached technical mastery and that only the top Olympic lifters are the ones that display the highest amounts of power in these lifts.

I do agree there are many ways to skin a cat. Certainly coaches have gotten athletes faster, strong and more powerful using a variety of means that did not include the Olympic lifts. It is not my point to argue with what they do in their programs or to criticize their ideas or ways of training. I am simply stating what I believe to be true and the benefits that I feel can be gained from using the Olympic lifts.

However, I will disagree that one needs to become a “master” in order to gain full benefits from these lifts. While Olympic lifting is a sport in itself, one does not need to develop mastery enough to be able to get on the platform and compete in this sport. Rather, one needs to develop enough skill in order to see some benefit from the lift. They do not have to have a perfectly flawless power clean or the benefits are lost. It is like saying unless you have the technique or abilities of an Olympic marathon runner, you may as well not go out and jog because you wont get any benefit from it. Certainly this is a silly statement. Olympic marathoners are on a totally different level of sport skill and mastery; however, one does not need to be on that same level in order to gain cardiovascular benefits from jogging. But, one does need to develop enough skill to go out and run safely in order to prevent injury. The same can be said for the Olympic lifts. If you have enough skill to get the benefit from a power clean, then why not go for it? In fact, rarely do I have anyone perform their cleans from the floor (unless they are specifically looking to compete in the sport of Olympic lifting) since the second pull is where all the power is coming from (the first pull sets up the second pull) and athletes in sports other than Olympic lifting may not have the proper levers which make performing a clean or snatch from the floor possible or safe.

It is a tough question. These are just some of my views on the lifts. I don’t defend the lifts to the grave like some coaches might, but I do feel that they have some benefit when used in a sports training program.

Clean and Jerks are Fun!