I’ve often heard that Olympic lifts, i.e., snatch, clean and jerk, and variations, are the best way for an athlete to develop speed and power; therefore, every athlete should do them. I’ve also heard that if you’re not having your athletes Olympic lift for speed and power, it’s simply because you don’t know how to teach them. I think this conversation totally misses the mark on the philosophy of how we should train athletes. Perhaps that’s a topic for another day. In this posting, I would like to discuss when we utilize Olympic lifts for our various sets of athletes and why we might do so.
First things first. It’s important to not be so rigid in your beliefs about the way you train athletes, which allows you only one way of doing things. I see this often, and I think it’s a sure way to keep things uninteresting, not only for your athletes, but also for yourself. It’s important to not throw the baby out with the bathwater in regards to different training systems, because you can always find value in anything. I mention this because not every athlete is going to be an Olympic lifting prodigy. Some might be so bad at it that you would be wasting your time trying to get them to complete the movements efficiently to the point where you could be spending your time developing speed and power in other ways. Don’t be afraid to throw out the original plan for something better that’s more suitable for certain athletes. (Quick note: I understand that in the large-team setting, you can’t completely throw away the original plan, because you can’t have 100 athletes doing 100 different things at the same time).
So, when do we use Olympic lifts with athletes?
1) When athletes have the prerequisite foundation of movement quality
When we get new athletes, we usually find that they have a lot of basic movement inefficiencies that they need to clean up. Some might not be able to hold a plank in a good position for 30 seconds, some can’t squat down all the way without their knees collapsing, some can’t do a proper push-up, some might have pain through different ranges of motion, and the list goes on. These are just a few things that for sure need to be addressed before we think about using Olympic lifts to develop performance qualities.
Now, if we get a strength sport athlete who is solely interested in competing in Olympic Weightlifting, then we’ll throw them right into Olympic lifts and work on movement inefficiencies with regressed versions of Olympic lifts and various other parts of the program. However, the payoff isn’t as high when trying to do the same things for a field-sport athlete who comes in for the first time.
2) When they fit the characteristics of the sport
Not all sports are created equal. There are many different characteristics to each sport. Not everyone has to be super strong to perform well in their sport. Some sports are more skill-oriented, while others might require more strength and power. Your starting quarterback doesn’t need to have the same amount of strength and power as your running back or linebacker. A baseball pitcher doesn’t have to be able to squat 400 lbs. to throw 90 mph.
We’ll use Olympic lifts with athletes if it appears to be beneficial to their developing qualities specific to their sport and if there’s no downside. We are more inclined to use Olympic lifts with football players than we are with baseball players. Football players handle heavier loads on the field and therefore need more general power than a baseball player. A baseball player needs to be able to throw a small ball really hard and swing a relatively light bat really fast, while a football player might need to run through a 250 lb. linebacker. Also, a baseball player’s speed and power are more routed in the skill. Developing speed and power through Olympic lifts might not translate into a faster swing if they have bad technical skills in the swing or lack rotational speed and power. On the field, this translates much more efficiently with a football player, because there’s less specific skill demand. So, we might throw out Olympic lifts with a baseball player to help them focus on developing speed and power rotationally or with loads that are more specific to the sport. A football player needs to learn how to accelerate a 200 lb. barbell, because he’s going to need to accelerate 250 lb. men on the field. This is always the conversation we have when programming for an athlete.
3) If the technique is good enough
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If an athlete has the prerequisites to begin Olympic lifting and it’s suitable to their sport, we’ll throw them into the waters. We have developed National-level Olympic lifters and are competent in teaching the lifts. With that being said, some athletes struggle to learn a lot more than others do. Some catch on very quickly, while others continue to have a lot of difficulty. We teach athletes the Olympic lifts and continue to use them if we continue to see performance progress. If an athlete gets only slightly better after a month or so, we might just find a different way to develop his or her speed and power. If we’re coaching a competitive weightlifter, we’ll hammer the Olympic lifts home all the time, but for athletes who are still in high school, we might only get 6 months with them in the off-season, and one month is a lot of time to waste if they aren’t getting sufficiently better with performing Olympic lifts. We want to spend as much quality time with an athlete as we can if we only have them for the off-season. It’s important to not waste time with things they really struggle with if it’s not going to make them THAT much better. Time is better spent doing the simple things really, really well.
4) When training younger athletes
When training younger athletes (10-14 year-olds), we might be inclined to throw the Olympic lifts into their training. We do this because a younger athlete has more time to learn the technique involved and benefit from the lifts. Olympic lifts are very complex, which can give a younger athlete confidence and a unique set of skills that can help him or her perform at a higher level. Olympic lifting (Weightlifting) is also a sport, so we might throw them into a younger athlete’s program as a way to give them another outlet for competition when they get older. When kids are young, it’s likely that they aren’t completely sure what they might want to continue pursuing when they are older. If we can give them a solid foundation of skills specific to Weightlifting, then they might be inclined to pursue Weightlifting when they get older. And, if they don’t pursue it, we have still developed a very good athlete and given them skills that will help them perform better in whatever sport they decide to pursue.
What separates Force Barbell from many other training facilities is our ability to be personal and flexible when training athletes. We don’t necessarily have ONE system or approach to all training. We use our various skills and the knowledge we have accumulated over the years to make the training as specific to each athlete and THEIR goals as we possibly can. When it comes to the Olympic lifts, we’ll use them if we think it’s going to yield the best possible results for the athlete. If these lifts don’t seem to be working for the athlete, whether physically or mentally, we’ll throw them out and find a better approach.
If there’s anything you’ve learned from this post, I hope it’s to be less rigid and more flexible in your approach to training athletes. It’s important to get on board with the athlete’s vision, not just your OWN. What’s going to make an athlete excited about training is if he or she thinks they’re doing THEIR program and not YOUR program. As strength and conditioning coaches, it’s easy for us to get stuck in our own egotistical way of doing things and forget that we’re training humans, not robots.