By Carl Valle
I have heard all sorts of excuses, ranging from having too little time to having too many athletes to teach and train the clean and snatch. I agree that in some circumstances it’s not a great fit to have snatches and cleans in a training session, but don’t give up. While it’s safe to say that Olympic-style weightlifting—more appropriately known as weightlifting—does require more organization and teaching demand, saying that it’s impossible to get groups of athletes trained safely and effectively today is flat out wrong. Some programs may never use the jerk, some may only snatch, and others may get a lot from just pulls.It’s flat out wrong to say it’s impossible to get groups of athletes trained safely and effectively. Click To Tweet
The goal of this article is to share how the Olympic lifts connect with training, and how training for performance is parallel to training with the Olympic lifts. Anyone reading this will get something out of it, as this piece isn’t about how I train athletes but about the way my mentors and colleagues inspired me to be better and not complain about my circumstances. I have some athletes use the lifts extensively, some groups just do a few derivatives, and some only do warm-up drills. Coaching is hard work, but don’t let it alarm you: This is about being a little more clever and about the little wins, not overhauling a program.
The Difference Between Excuses and Explanations
My biggest lesson in life was simply learning that others may be in a rougher situation than me. Any time you have a bad time as a coach with bad politics or a toxic work culture, remember that someone else is starving or getting shot at in a war zone. In the gray area between, some schools have no weights or barely have a team, with only volunteers. Some programs may have multimillion-dollar facilities, but most of us are simply in a good situation that isn’t easy. It’s about perspective.
Coaching is not for the lazy, as time will eventually expose the lack of effort and organization. What separates those that fail from time to time and those that are failures is the difference between excuses and a valid explanation. Excuses are camouflage for not getting the job done; explanations are similar but not the same. Explanations are why something is not working now, and they are midpoints to success. Identifying why something is not working is important, as that is the first step to fixing it. Explanations are temporary; excuses are crutches.
Take each excuse and flip it around to make it positive. I learned the hard way that even when you feel like your program has the fewest resources in your league, entire leagues may be worse off. One example that I remember from a long time ago was my disappointment when I coached a track team that was understaffed. It was overwhelming with three coaches for 110 kids.
It turned out that the coach at the school next to us had more kids and it was just him and his wife. She took care of the endurance events and anything that included an implement was his job. With no strength coach, they did Olympic lifts with 90 athletes (every speed and power athlete) and could use their technique to sell an online course. It embarrassed me that I had complained, and I visited them that summer to learn more.
General Progressions of the Athlete – Not the Lift
Progressions with exercises is a hot topic. The idea of sequencing exercises so that they seem to teach the athlete without having to fight the learning process is great on paper, but eventually you need to get your hands dirty. Still, thinking of exercise progressions is a bad idea in many cases. I love progressions but I also realize that trying to think linearly all the time is limiting. At times, we all need to cut wood and carry water, but with innovation comes better thinking, not just fancier ways to do the same thing.
If an athlete is not coordinated, mobile, and strong, they are not great candidates for cleaning or snatching with a load that does much. Weakness, poor mobility, and clumsiness will need remedial work, but not touching a bar is extreme. I stole this progression of scaffolding strength and power from coaches in the past.
- Fundamental Coordination is footwork and controlling your body in time and space. If you can’t do this, loading a bar is going to be limited.
- Stabilization Strength is a priority to create an anchor for tension and true joint mobility later. Range of motion without strength is not an evil quality, but having both is more effective.
- Mobility and Range of Motion are highly genetic. If you don’t have the arthrokinetic motion, self-therapy isn’t going to work much. Some upper spine and shoulder mobility helps, but hip and ankle mobility seems to be less responsive.
- Speed and Technique are the intermediate focus, as other training elements can create the overload and specificity for performance.
- Power Development from the Olympic lifts comes later in the development process, and the journey to get there teaches and trains the body outside the general force production adaptations.
As you can see from the progression, sometimes over two years, the integration to Olympic weightlifting as an overload modality is slow for some. The weaker the athlete, the longer it takes for any type of snatching or clean derivative to make a difference. Some research hints that you don’t have to wait as long to train power, but putting strength on the bottom of the totem pole is a bad idea. Simply working strength that is accessible early and teaching sprinting and jumping early leads to more opportunities in Olympic weightlifting later.
The Secrets of Body, Ball, and Bar
One progression I found to be a great fit is making sure athletes can move their body first, before moving to implements and barbells. Training with a barbell is easy when an athlete is coordinated, strong, and disciplined. The soul of this article is coaching in general, but its heart is how a properly trained and educated athlete is ripe for performing the Olympics lifts faster if you front-end development.
I wrote about the three areas of velocity-based training when I addressed body speed, ball speed, and barbell speed years ago. Now it’s about using the coordination and general preparation to get the benefits of those three modes of training.
Physical education is the most important part of teaching the lifts, because a literate body is easier to work with than an ignorant one starved for coordination. The ability to move generally requires a well-rounded athlete, and simple footwork and coordination literacy without anything in the athlete’s hand is the foundation. Internal loading, not unloaded motion, is the requirement for progressing to additional loads and complexities.A literate body is easier to work with than an ignorant one starved for coordination. Click To Tweet
The second progression is medicine ball throwing, and the ability to focus all of the energy of the body to project a ball ballistically is a skill worth teaching. While the lower body contributes a major portion to the output of the ball, if it doesn’t include a firing pattern of the hips and upper body properly, it’s better to use a jump test. Throwing a ball for distance, whether up or out, is a great precursor to barbell projection.
Finally, the barbell integration connects the athlete’s raw, explosive, internal skill sets with external load demands. While the load on the bar is part of the puzzle, the athlete still has other skills. The barbell, which is an investment for life, isn’t just a phase of training for an athlete’s career. Repetition is necessary to refine technique, but the previous modes of training allow the athlete to hit the ground running. Sometimes a bar or ball can help simple movements because the implement is a wonderful distraction, but most athletes benefit without the added demand of manipulating a ball or barbell.
Drills Are Not Just for Teaching
The military has used drills for years to train and they have a tight relation to teaching athletes, especially in track and field and swimming. The use of drills is popular, but they are not just progressions or parts of a skill, they are preparatory in nature for the body itself. When I went to the USATF Level I school in Seattle in 1997, the experienced coaches in the advanced Level III school told us that drills didn’t transfer. After speaking to them, I was emotionally frightened that my entire template of teaching was destroyed. I then asked what we should do instead and the coaches said the process is more complicated than a catalog of exercises.
I didn’t stop using drills, but I knew they were ways to warm up better and they hopefully had some indirect qualities that were useful for the challenge of making people faster. High knee drills became hip flexor exercises, and Deions became ankle stiffness work. Even if the drills don’t teach athletes to move better, just doing them helps athletes get better and teaches them how to learn and be a coachable athlete.
Video 1. Sometimes drills are great ways to warm up and build a little durability. You don’t need to load heavy to get long-term benefits, but the goal should be to progress so that you can.
Many of the exercises that I do for warming up are modified Olympic lifting drills and they are great for muscular mobility. Joint mobility is about joint motion, but sometimes the restriction is just an inability to coordinate and relax muscles or an adaptive shortening from poor program design. Drills from Olympic lifting may just be a template of reference points for technique and nothing else, but for our inherited underprepared athletes, they have worked better than ever.
Drills are disguised answers to mobility, strength, balance, and skills that really help athletes actually train better, not just perform the Olympic lifts better. Having the athletes do the drills as part of a warm-up routine is a great idea, since nobody in their right mind will say that they don’t have time to teach warming up or perform drills for sprinting. Doing a few drills to warm up or warm down is great with groups, as athletes get the repetitions they need by just religiously executing the drills.
Preparing a Body to Snatch, Clean, and Jerk
In my experience—and now it’s policy at some gyms and with some teams—you have to earn the right to start Olympic lifting and other more demanding training. Similar to the drill discussion, an athlete needs to be “in shape.” While this term is a little fitness-related, I love it because I don’t like talking about training for performance when the athlete is not fit for recreational fitness. Just because an athlete is good at a sport doesn’t mean they walk around with swagger when their preparation training is crap.In my experience, you have to earn the right to start Olympic lifting and other demanding training. Click To Tweet
I already outlined a scaffolding pattern to load athletes while the skills of Olympic lifting can be learned without compromising adaptive elements. Being prepared to Olympic lift means general attributes are developed enough to start training hard and intelligently. While it’s an overused adage now, not rushing athlete development is called “slow cooking” and I found that it’s the best way to improve faster in the long run. I don’t expect any transfer from Olympic lifting in the first two years because I don’t try to strain the body, as sprints and jumps do that, and strength training supports those two modes.
Usually, when the athlete hits bodyweight on a snatch and about 1.5 times bodyweight on a clean, that is when the clock is ticking. All the preceding early work just warms up the oven, as the overload is less than ideal. Actual “cooking” time is not when an athlete achieves those standards, but how long they hit those loads. Getting there the right way means the process effectively reached the first part of the destination, so the main leg of the training is properly implemented.
Video 2. Heavy pulls, whether full or partial, can help athletes prepare for demanding lifts such as heavy split or back squats. While they don’t have an eccentric component worth noting, they are great for general preparation phase training or teaching.
Usually, the athlete that is slow-cooked is the one that improves far faster later in development, as they got to their later stages the right way without compromising technique and other important skills and adaptive qualities.
How to Make the Student the Master
The reason many coaches coach is because their experience as an athlete inspired them. Instead of waiting for athletes to retire and then become coaches, make the athlete a coach—this means you have taught them enough to help others. Captains are leaders, and leaders are likely teachers as well, not just someone who gives orders or makes a motivational speech before games.
If your seniors spend time helping the freshmen or your experienced athletes help beginners, your program is on the right track. When you don’t have enough coaches, coach your heart out and make extensions of your program with new coaches. You don’t need to teach athletes how to coach; you just want them to reinforce concepts that are mindless and simple. Scaling the foundation of your program means your athletes know it so well they can instill it in other athletes.Before the student can become a master, they need to be a student of the training. Click To Tweet
The athlete has to also be accountable for their own education, and learn some independence and focus. While coaches are essential to training, dependence is real when athletes feel they need to get constant feedback. An Apple device connected to a used Apple TV and a sale-priced $100 flat screen has done more for skill development than all of my coursework for Olympic lifts. It is a game changer when athletes see themselves on a five-second or longer delay. Large groups viewing videos off-site is also a way to learn, as the short period of time spent lifting isn’t the only way to get better. Before the student can become a master, they need to be a student of the training.
Creating a Better Trail for a Better Bar Path
“Prepare the athlete for the path and not the path for the athlete” is a popular saying, but some guidance is needed to help the journey. Just getting an athlete in shape and more athletic, and tossing in a set of bumper plates, won’t work for teaching the more technical lifts. My personal philosophy is to attack both ends and adjust the placement of resources, such as time and energy, as necessary.
Fighting with one strategy never seems to work in the long run. Never compromise the goal of the movement and force a higher load to create an appearance of progress. If an athlete can’t do a movement with the load used, decrease it. If they still can’t do it properly, adjust the program and rethink what is happening.
Ego often gets in the way with coaching, as most coaches try to outcoach the problem with cues or instruction, when retreating to something different is wiser. This is not a call for regressions, as that is too linear, but a call to think about the entirety of a program. True, lowering the weight or using a less demanding variation helps, but to truly progress a program, think about the weeks and months in advance, not just the last set or previous week.
Sometimes you need a struggle, but you don’t need a time death trap. The utopian improvement is where neither immediate nor long-term benefits are compromised. It’s hard to say what is “optimal,” as no journey needs to be a perfect straight line, but unnecessary delays are never an advantage. My experience is that steady and breakthrough quantum leaps are natural and expected. If power is not developing, it’s fine if other areas are, but stay vigilant. I wish I had something definite to say, but barriers and obstacles will always limit progress, and clearing them entirely is not the solution.
Jump into Battle and Start Coaching
Here are some parting thoughts to ensure the explanations shared earlier are crystal clear. None of the suggestions below are laws or principles—just useful information I have learned by talking to better coaches who were honest and helpful. They may work perfectly for you, but they can also backfire because you can’t insert everything without some mixed results. All of the lessons I learned from great coaches, from high school to pros, removed a lot of frustration for me and I am very grateful.
- It’s fine to train for the Olympic lifts without Olympic lifting, but eventually the reps need to come with a serious load that has a chance to do something.
- Light loads are mobility and coordination options, medium loads are for capacity, and training loads are for supporting power development.
- Transfer is not just about bar speed and load; it’s also the bar path staying close to the body and using the right muscle groups. Too many programs don’t load the hips and we see coaches and athletes chasing numbers instead of correct recruitment strategies.
- Bar speeds matter, as crisp lifts are less likely to injure an athlete and conventional strength training can manage the other side of the F-V curve. Both peak and average velocity matter in Olympic lifting, as each metric has merit but peak seems to have more value for feedback.
- Being prepared to snatch and clean means the athlete can do the parts of those lifts without the bar and with the bar. Front squatting is an obvious example, but medicine ball throws are less obvious and still important.
- Overcoaching comes from poor patience and skipping steps. When in doubt, go slower earlier when changing a program so bad habits don’t haunt you later. Most coaches are so eager to do the full lifts with loads that they paint themselves into a corner when the loads get heavy.
- You can get better results with any exercise by raising the quality of your best athletes and learning to progress smarter with the majority of the group. Trying to raise the average is a bad strategy.
- It’s best to cultivate motor skills with great demonstrations, as bad technique can poison the well for skilled lifters. Better to not look like garbage and work on remedial work than pollute the gym with the lowest denominator.
- Ask for help. When you know your colleagues are more polished, look at their training as a whole, don’t just visit their sessions. The magic of great coaching is usually not instant, and principles are better than cues.
Don’t feel obligated to add back or start using the Olympic lifts with your training groups if you don’t think it’s worth it or you still can’t administer them properly. I am far more impressed with a coach who is humble or aware of their situation and declines to include training they don’t think is compatible with their environment.Always rethink what you can do better, as change is an opportunity to improve. Click To Tweet
Perhaps this article inspires a few coaches to try again to make the exercises work for them with some fresh ideas and a little bit of confidence that other people can do it in similar situations. Maybe the information added a few good training concepts for general coaching and that is definitely worth the reading time. Whatever you do, always rethink what you can do better, as change is an opportunity to improve.