By Carl Valle
The first article I ever wrote was 16 years ago for EliteFts.com. It was a defense of the reason I don’t use every exercise imaginable, and this included the clean, jerk, and snatch. A few coaches attacked me for not using the clean with some of my athletes, and the polarizing position of using or not using Olympic-style weightlifting can be still felt by coaches in 2017.
On the record, I have had about equal success with and without the set of exercises, but still encourage their use with a lot of the athletes I work with. Hearing that Coach DeLancey has University of Florida swimmers snatch inspired me to write something to support this great option in training. The article is not going to rehash the arguments of the last 30 years that we typically see on power and other benefits. Instead, it will look at the intangible reasons that getting back to the lifts might be a wise move for performance coaches.
Why Another Olympic Weightlifting Article?
Most of my articles and blogs are either on the nuggets of wisdom coaches have taught me, or my own experience with what has worked and not worked with performance. I wrote this because every time I wrote an article about Olympic lifts, I tried to defend the exercise from fearmongering or explain why it’s not the only option to getting better. This article is a reflection on the discipline of teaching, and training with the Olympic lifts is more valuable now than it was in the past.
Back in the 1980s, taking karate was almost as common as learning to play baseball. People considered it a way to address two things that nearly every parent wants: discipline and structure. Martial arts was big business then, and now the joke is that every corner in Massachusetts is either a Dunkin’ Donuts or an overly commercial martial arts studio. These days, CrossFit is the new karate, and training is one of the timeless life skills that everyone wants, not just parents. Due to the rise of interest in Olympic-style lifts, the strength culture is back to basics, as boxes are more like a classic gym than the current marketing trend of posh spas.
My observation is that the weight lifts are more than just training to improve athletic power; they are part of the equation for improving discipline without resorting to wannabe Navy SEAL boot camps or toughness training. Culture, while hyped and uncharted, is part of the daily grind and not a quick fix. Olympic lifts are brutally honest and provide excellent feedback every rep, and while there are arguments that the exercise is a sport itself, that’s a benefit rather than a distraction.Weight lifts do more than just improve athletic power; they also help improve discipline. Click To Tweet
It’s easy to scoff and move on to something else to read, but I promise this article will go against the grain to more than just passing fads. It will transcend beyond the science as well. Read on for eight hidden benefits of Olympic-style weightlifting.
When Taught Properly, Athletes Enjoy the Olympic Lifts
Go on YouTube any day of the week and see the montages and testing days for one rep max testing of the clean that resemble prison breaks or riots. We typically see either sloppy technique or exertion that is sometimes beyond what is necessary. Yes, there’s a lot of macho attitude, but there’s also fun and excitement. Where does this fit with athlete enjoyment? Simple: A great program will balance the raw energy with real discipline along the way.
Video 1. One school I enjoy watching is North Dakota, which has a program that produces quality lifters year after year after year. North Dakota is a blue-collar program based on fundamental lifting and making sure each athlete on that program lifts with great technique and loads that actually do something.
Oregon State basketball had amazing lifting when Brendan Ziegler was there, and I would say the same about Wisconsin hockey today. All the programs are creating great lifters, but how they get there fascinates me as well. The best programs make the process rewarding, enriching, and enjoyable.
Olympic lifting is a competitive sport and arguments occur because the doubters don’t understand that the needs of an athlete can come from other disciplines. Let’s add any exercise that helps and know when to cut out unnecessary parts. Plug in changes as needed, as powerlifting is a sport and rarely do we drop squatting. Imagine doing no sprinting or jumping because track and field is a sport? The argument doesn’t hold water.
The Combination of Patience and Instant Gratification
Coaches use the speed of learning other exercises against the clean and snatch, but in reality, an athlete can become competent in just a few sessions and the lifts will motivate them for seasons. Olympic lifting does require more than just brute strength, and it is not for everyone because it is indeed an acquired skill. The longer amount of time it takes to learn the full or more complete versions of the lift is not a valid argument, as derivatives of the lift are easy to learn sooner. Patience is a virtue, but you also must train and develop it like any athletic quality.
The other side of the spectrum is instant gratification, and some small wins or daily battles keep athletes motivated to train again. It is true that you can polish the technique of all exercises, but nothing in strength training provides more room for growth and refinement than the Olympic lifts. The training and lift instruction motivates each session while keeping the athlete on a long journey of mastery.
Athletes may not get stronger every day, but they can get better in other ways with the lift, such as improving technique or learning different drills and warm-up exercises. Perhaps I am the biggest proponent of adaptation, but it’s shortsighted to only look at the results and not the process, as the right process gets better results in the long run.
Total Back Development with Athletes
The back is a nebulous region, as coaches may consider some muscles like the trap as part of the neck, and only include the lumbar muscles and muscles that surround the spine as the back. Muscles like the lats and traps are also parts of the back, and Olympic-style lifts provide strain on these groups and help develop them in a way that is beneficial to athletes. While hypertrophy and general physical development exist, I do see posture changes that encourage performance from a sum of the parts (doing separate exercise) like weight lifts.
Researchers have investigated Injury rates, and posture alone doesn’t seem to be enough to reduce shoulder problems, but none of the research points out that balanced positioning doesn’t do anything constructive. General posture and local function are needed together, and while posture may not be a silver bullet, it’s part of the process at elite levels. Pain science is not performance science, and muscle balance is a great way to distribute stress on an athlete’s frame.
Great posture is about balance, and balance is important for the body’s ability to do demanding activities. While posture isn’t a solution to rehabilitation, posture may be restored when training deforms positions that can indeed make performance changes. Dr. Janda and other proponents of posture as a solution to function may have been overzealous, but in elite sport, changes in joint positions may be viable for improved function. A few studies have shown little correlation between upper body and pelvic positioning and injury, but one variable in isolation is never enough to bring a conclusion to injury pathomechanics.
Olympic lifting reinforces spinal postures that are advantageous for training, such as racking the front squat easier and pressing above the head. The jerk may not be in everyone’s arsenal for training, but nobody should view the ability to press a set of dumbbells as an accident waiting to happen. Coaches can’t use overhead squat screening exercises, wall slides for “corrective” changes, and weighted pull-ups in their training but then let pressing moderate loads spook them. Research currently establishes that posture doesn’t influence injury patterns, but to say no connection is possible is simply untrue.
Systemic Neurological Adaptations
Frans Bosch, while evocative and provocative, has over-thought the idea of reflexes and training. A reflex happens because it’s innate, not because we need to train it. In fact, many coaches spend countless hours deprogramming athletes by fixing and training what doesn’t need fixing and training. Athletes are like Greek sculptures: We don’t need to add our own knowledge to the process; it’s really just a process of removing what they don’t need, like chipping away at a block of marble. I like Frans seeing the value of Olympic lifts, but since the specific demands of sprinting are unilateral, single-leg Olympic lifts are redundant and not new.
What are the general qualities that can help build a better brain and keep the body healthy and prepared? Olympic lifts have many benefits that are not unique, so instead of rehashing those, it’s important to talk about specific benefits that maximal strength options and plyometrics can’t provide. Sprinting and movement training are requirements due to their specificity, but Olympic-style weightlifting has some very interesting possibilities for the nervous system. The goal of weightlifting is not just to get more strength and power, but to build a bigger brain battery without being redundant or overlapping too much.
There is very limited, if any, scientific evidence on how the neuroendocrine system adapts, specifically to exercise modes. While the research has been primitive, usually showing a change in androgens or neurotransmitters during training, nobody can come up with an airtight explanation for how this can be enough to excite coaches in regard to adaptations. Instead of thinking about raising the serum levels of excitation biochemicals, it might make sense to know how to use them naturally by ensuring that we challenge athletes to build a defense, versus burning the house down.Olympic lifts are brutally honest and provide excellent feedback every rep. Click To Tweet
Many coaches preach the value of sleep, then either overtrain athletes with too much volume or fail to prepare by not exposing athletes to intense and repeated bursts of power. Incremental loading of the Olympic lifts can distribute stress on the body without the impact of sprinting, and still improve the capacity of the nervous system without the baggage of structural lifts like squats and deadlifts.
Specific Work-Capacity Benefits
High set volumes are not for everyone, but when athletes need to build work capacity and learn, the use of lower loads with multiple reps per set does do something beyond helping them get better at the exercise. Spending an hour on the platform training isn’t going to help an athlete finish a 10K better, but it will challenge an athlete’s enzymes and mitochondria with positive results.
In 2006, while at the USATF Level 3 school, Dan Pfaff shared his observations of work capacity from putting time on the platform and I was skeptical. Eleven years and four investigations later, I realize he was right. While we didn’t see cardiovascular changes (heart wall or capillary changes), the biopsies we did surprised us. Those athletes that started lifting earlier or didn’t have the ability to sprint from contact injuries had massive changes in enzymatic activity and mitochondria.
Anecdotally, the athletes who spent the time on the platform got leaner, more durable, and more alert and focused for practices. Coaches don’t need to do mega volumes, but challenging the body to do more (wider) in order to go harder (higher) is the reason we need volume. For most of the year I am a fan of doing as much as necessary, but this mantra often stagnates because an athlete needs variables to work with when they are training intensely and can’t always bring a true maximal session out.
Earlier, I wrote a training density article to help guide coaches in a less-explored territory of sport science. I believe, as do other coaches, that work capacity with Olympic lifting is less draining than high set powerlifting, even if the loading is similar. There is less wear and tear afterwards, and athletes don’t feel flat compared to squatting.
Work capacity and training density are dying concepts, as coaches are simply afraid to train hard because they believe the monitoring numbers will look poor or they don’t have any “scientific research” to defend themselves with. From a sport psychology standpoint, while controversial and debatable, training hard may not create toughness, but being prepared certainly can give an athlete confidence.
Rapid Bracing Skills
The eccentric benefits of Olympic lifting are not as valuable as coaches believe, but eccentric loading is not a pass or fail quality. The real mechanism of value is not the peak value of eccentric strength, it’s the switch from propulsion to reception of the bar, and that transition back to propulsion again is a cycle that can really help athletes understand bracing skills.
Some proponents of power pulls, or performing the Olympic lifts with just a focus on the creation of force, argue that the “meat” of the lift is just the pulling action and the rest is not that valuable. While catching a weight is not practical for some athlete’s upper body mobility restrictions, reliable tests of which athletes have enough range of motion to catch in the first place are still not available. If an athlete can’t physically catch, does that mean entire populations should remove half the exercise?While Olympic-style lifts aren’t a panacea, they do touch many areas in sport. Click To Tweet
This debate, to catch or not, is worth an article itself, but a few sentences can easily explain the value. More than enough elements in a program will help athletes be better with bracing, but adding time and energy isn’t always an option. It’s not that Olympic-style lifts are a panacea, it’s just that they do touch many areas in sport.
The catch is very harmonious and natural if well-coached, and athletes know if they hit achievement. The pulls are great options for athletes that can catch well, but some simply find the exercise either a mongrel hybrid of deadlifting and upright rows or an ugly, slow Olympic lift. Pulling only is not better or lazier, it’s just an option that doesn’t include a one-second investment and does provide a value.
Moving a weight above or close to the head is a great exercise for coordinating the body to handle loads without over-recruiting. Coaches believe that bracing is about core muscle activation, but it’s really about body coordination. The ability to be stiff and relaxed quickly in a cyclical pattern is part of human locomotion and general movement abilities.
Diversity of Movements
Many athletes love to do the Olympic-style weight lifts, derivatives, combinations, and even sub-family of drills. I love what athletes love to do, and I know that many of them simply enjoy the lifts because they provide excitement. Learning from powerlifting, other exercises may provide ways to address needed development, but a mental break is necessary when things become a little dry. While the development of a world-class weightlifter might not need drills and specific alternate exercises, some sport athletes who are not as enamored with training tend to find a break in just doing other movements. It’s not that the athletes stop working hard—doing the same exercises over and over just burns them out.
I currently don’t have many athletes jerk: I am a fan of it, but only the right athletes in my program will benefit. I do have more and more athletes jerk as part of their warmup though, because athletes that watch videos or other athletes want to do them. While the training effect of lighter loads is not huge or perhaps even there at all, having an athlete eager to step on a platform and train is priceless.
Video 2. The muscle snatch has a few different flavors or styles, and while it may not have the physiological benefits of a power snatch, it has teaching benefits that coaches may want to employ.
Athletes can manipulate the start of the lift, the type of lift, the part of the lift, and the combination of the succession movements. Drills and supportive exercises are great contributions to improve the lifting technique and output, but they are also intrinsically valuable to help total body development as well. It’s true that powerlifting has the same benefits with the use of bands and chains, and even assistance exercises, but the great thing about Olympic weightlifting is it typically doesn’t need extra equipment except for boxes. Having different exercise options is great for those that might have to work around an injury or find a way to challenge athletes and improve when they hit plateaus and ceilings.
Mastering a Grip
Grip training is different than learning grips and placing your hands on a bar, but working with the Olympic lifts is a journey of technique exploration, not just a time period of training. I do think some incidental grip development occurs in Olympic weightlifting, but it’s mild because of the use of the hook grip and straps in some cases.
What really is key with grip is the dexterity—a bar connected to an athlete’s hands throughout an entire motion requires a lot of coordination. As fans, the swing of a bat, a vaulter clearing the standard, and a slap shot at insane speeds all amaze us, but the barbell seems disrespected. Sure, the motion is not as complex as a golf swing, but it should be valued and respected as an athletic action. The connection from the feet pushing through the ground and manipulating the bar in time and space is an athletic action, though talented lifters may make it look deceptively simple. Effortless displays of any art take effort, and daily work with a bar is a constant refinement of the way the gripped bar interacts with the force through the ground.Barbell training is a literal handshake w/ the iron and a reminder that a fee for results is due. Click To Tweet
Many athletes, even if they use weight vests and machines, need to be exposed to a barbell. While a dumbbell has a grip area, the bar is the most symbolic representation of improvement, where the space on either side can be incrementally loaded. Barbell training is a literal handshake with the iron and a reminder that a fee for results is due. No matter what exercise or variation, the grip of the bar, from the pull to the release, is a commitment that permeates through the athlete’s career.
Still Undecided About Using the Olympic Lifts in Your Program?
Don’t feel pressured, as that’s exactly the opposite of the point I am making. My point is that you might swap out some of the benefits listed above for other modalities. Olympic lifts are not the Holy Land, but they are also not Sin City.
If you are undecided about using them, my suggestion is not to bother. Half-hearted interest is a bad idea with anything demanding, especially loaded barbells that require focus and expertise to train them. I changed my mind years ago after seeing a few horror stories. However, as I learned, I realized that everything has risk, and the way to reduce it is to improve education and experience.
While this article may be a defense of the Olympic-style lifts, it’s also just a template for coaches to rethink everything they do and see what is possible with a few exercises. Sometimes training is more than just a barbell, and sometimes it’s just a barbell. But it is always about the art, and not just the science.