Should you Olympic lift? 5 things to consider before adding them to your program.
By: Wil Fleming
The Olympic lifts have been around since the beginning of the weight training era.
Once the province of only the most meaty of meatheads they have gained popularity steadily since they were first included in athletes programs in the 1950’s.
Recently, with the explosion of Crossfit they have gained even more popularity and every Joe Schmo with a weight belt and a barbell has started to add them into their programs. It should be noted that Joe Schmo typically sucks at the Olympic lifts, at least that is the impression I get from the 1000’s of Youtube clips I have watched.
So what about you? Should you start Olympic lifting? Are they even right for you?
And are you ready to do them well?
Don’t worry I got your back like Joe Schmo’s weight belt has his.
1. The Olympic lifts are not for everyone.
Getting to work each day might happen a little faster if you drove an F1 car.
Unfortunately, driving an F1 race car is not for everyone. It takes skills, it takes practice and it takes time to get good.
For all of your experience driving cars since you were 16, and despite the fact that you have watched all of the Fast and Furious movies several times, you might not be ready to drive an F1 car to work each day.
If you want to go fast in the gym, make huge gains in your athleticism, and muscle up in a hurry Olympic lifts could be the answer. Like an F1 car they are not for everyone
For everything you can gain from the Olympic lifts, they might not be right for you.
So how do you know if the Olympic lifts are not for you?
-You have had a history with back issues: While not inherently more dangerous than any other type of training with free weights (1) if you have had a history with back injuries you may be playing with fire particularly if you don’t have high quality coaching each day.
-You have never heard of the Olympic lifts, never seen the Olympic lifts and have spent the last year training bi’s, tri’s, and back and shoulders.
Sometimes, its just too late to teach an old dog new tricks.
2. Get some skills first
When you talk to most Olympic lifting “gurus” they suggest getting some expert coaching in the lifts before you even attempt to do a single hang clean
While coaching is a big part of being good at the lifts, a keen eye and a feel for the fundamentals will get you most of the way there.
You need to know how to do three things really well before you even start playing with the Olympic lifts.
All of my athletes from pro’s to middle schoolers must know how to hip hinge correctly before learning to Olympic lift.
We have to crawl before we walk, and hinging is among the steps that you need to take to “crawl” in the Olympic lifts.
The hip hinge is the basis for the start position in both the hang clean and the hang snatch. By achieving it you are tapping into the vast power of the posterior chain.
The hinge is the fundamental pattern that makes up movements like the RDL or kettlebell swing, and including plenty of hinge work before you get on the platform will help to ensure you success.
Like delivering one-liners in awesome action movies is to Arnold, squatting is second nature to the people reading this site.
So why is it important to re-learn how to squat to be good at the Olympic lifts?
The squat in an Olympic lift is different, rather than being at rest on your shoulders when you begin, the squat portion of the Olympic lift will require you to receive the bar as it begins to move downward.
What that means to you is you have to be seriously strong in the core before you can even begin to think about receiving big weights at the chest or overhead.
To use the squat to your advantage in the Olympic lifts, don’t just stick with the back squat. Add in the kettlebell goblet squat, a front racked goblet squat, and finally the front squat to get prepared to Olympic lift.
I won’t ask you to go into the full squat position to receive the bar, but the strength it takes to finish off a tough front squat rep carries over directly to being able to stand up at the top of a heavy power clean.
Jump and Land
When we were kids we spent a lot of time at the local park shooting hoops, and if we were lucky there was an adjustable goal nearby. When the goal got taken down to 8 feet the first thing we did was channel our inner Human Highlight Reel and threw down some monstrous dunks.
Fast forward 10, 15, or 20 years and you probably haven’t spent much time doing any maximal jumps in a while. Like an old flame, it is time to get re-acquainted with jumping and landing if you are thinking about adding Olympic lifts to your program.
The Olympic lifts are all about producing force during one phase, but they are equally about absorbing force during the second phase of the lifts.
Jumping and landing is a close mirror to what the Olympic lifts can do. Before getting to a bar add some vertical jumps to your program between sets of squats or hinges.
Your legs will be taxed but it will replicate moving and receiving a heavy bar and get you prepared for the lifts to come.
3. Nothing else will bring the same benefits
There is a reason that the top Olympic lifters in the world can squat more than anyone you have ever met, can out sprint most people over short distances, and have legendary vertical jumps.
They are capable of producing more power than other athletes. Power, in the physical sense means the amount of force multiplied by the speed of the movement. Completing the Olympic lifts means you are training yourself to move greater loads at faster speeds.
Anyway you slice it this is a good thing
4. Keep your program simple.
I like simple things: a beautiful sunset, meat and potatoes, and the humor of Adam Sandler movies. My program for using the Olympic lifts is no different.
To incorporate the lifts into your program all you need to do is pick 2-3 days per week and do your chosen lift prior to all other exercises in the program.
Just by adding 3-5 reps and 3-5 sets (depending on your goals) can mean you are working muscles you didn’t know you had and adding explosive strength.
The Olympic lifts are the biggest “bang for your buck” exercises that we have in our arsenal. They work the most motor units, and require the most coordination to complete.
Being fresh when you complete them isn’t just an idea it’s a necessity. You don’t get up in the morning and watch 2 hours of TV before going to work.
No, you wake up and attack the day by getting your workout in, or heading off to your job. High priority tasks are routinely placed at the beginning of the day.
The Olympic lifts are no different. They need the most attention and should go first in your training session.
Select the snatch, the clean, or the jerk and put them on a rotation, doing 2 per week. If you really want to ramp up your improvement in the lifts add a complex to warm-up, or some partial lifts (clean pulls or snatch pulls) to take your technique or power to the next level.
5. Remember you’re probably not going to THE Olympics
Even though you are doing movements called Olympic lifts it doesn’t mean you are going to that Olympics. It just means you are taking your training seriously and want to see benefits that your typical gym goer never even dreams about.
Don’t get too wrapped up in catching the lifts in a deep squat, or being absolutely, and completely technically perfect on every lift. Get comfortable with the technique, ask some people that are more accomplished than you are too look at your lifts, and know your limits.
Believe me, just because you add some cleans and snatches to your program, the Bulgarian national team is not looking over their collective shoulders.
Keep up the good work and reap the benefits.
If you are comfortable staying the same and doing the same program over and over, then forget everything I said. If you want to see traps sprouting from areas you didn’t know they could, and become more athletic then adding the Olympic lifts to your program is a safe and effective way to go.
1) Calhoon G, Fry AC. Weight-Training injuries: common injuries and preventative methods. J of Ath Training. 1999;34(3):232-238
About the Author:
Wil Fleming (CSCS, USAW) is the owner of Force Fitness and Performance in Bloomington, IN. He trains athletes from middle school to the pros in his successful facility. Prior to being a gym owner Wil was an All-American track athlete and a national champion Olympic weightlifter. Learn more about him at www.completeolympiclifting.com