Using Olympic lifting: a perspective

The following is excerpted from my book Athletic Development: The Art & Science of Functional Sports Conditioning with some updates.

In the athlete development process, the role of Olympic style weight training has occupied a large role. This has good and bad implications. Olympic style weight lifting is a training method that is excellent for developing power. Olympic lifting as a competitive event consists of two movements, the clean and jerk and the snatch. The derivatives of those movements are what make up the majority of the training exercises. There is no question of the inherent value of these exercises as a tool to raise explosive power, but once again the method must be kept in context and reconciled with the overall goal of the strength training program.

In order to achieve optimum return, there are several key points to consider: the first point is that Olympic lifting is a sport. That sport consists of lifting as much weight as possible in the clean and jerk and the snatch. Those lifts have a high technical demand, but the skill is a closed skill that occurs in a narrow range of movement. The Olympic lifting movements do produce tremendous power production because of the distance the weight must travel, the weight and the speed requirements. This power production is highly dependent on the technical proficiency of the individual lifter. Essentially, the training of the weight lifter consists of the actual Olympic lifts and some derivative and assistance exercises. There is no running, jumping or other demands on their system. The sole focus is on lifting as much weight as possible.

Olympic lifters traditionally have lifted several times a day. This began in the 1980s because of the influence of the Bulgarians who emerged as a dominant power in the 1970s. The Bulgarian weightlifters were reported to have had as many as six lifting sessions in a training day, repeated for up to five or six training days in a microcycle. Each session seldom ever exceeded sixty minutes. All sessions were at very high intensity. Once again, the point must be made that all these athletes did was lift. It also should be pointed out that they were full time “professional” athletes. Perhaps the most important underlying factor that enabled them to accomplish this severe training regimen was a program of systematic doping. We know that was a huge factor in the lifters ability to recover and handle the high volumes of high intensity work necessary to make the type of strength gains these lifters were making. It also should be pointed out that on the international scene Olympic weightlifting is the “dirtiest” sport in terms of positive drug tests.

This is not meant to be negative or to denigrate the sport; rather it is to put the emphasis on Olympic lifting in perspective. Too many coaches have blindly copied the methods of the Olympic lifters without taking these things into consideration. Even if you are an Olympic lifting coach the volumes and intensities reported from the former Eastern bloc countries are beyond anything a drug free athlete can possibly handle for any significant length of time.

Let’s take this a step further. It has become very popular among the strength coaching community especially in American football to center their strength training program on Olympic lifting. Many of the football strength coaches blindly copied the volumes and intensities of the Bulgarian and Soviet lifters without taking into account the previously mentioned facts. This volume and intensity were applied in addition to the running, agility work, jumping and the sport specific training. It should be easy to see the problems that would arise.

The Olympic lifts are very technical in their demands. Typically, when we work with athletes their lifting sessions are sequenced after their other work. This is not optimum time to utilize lifts with a significant technical element and high neural demand, because fatigue will compromise technique. The other factor that must be considered when extrapolating from the world of Olympic weightlifting is body proportions. Olympic lifters, in effect, are pre-selected by their body types. In order to be successful tall athletes with long limbs are quickly selected out. Smaller athletes with limb lengths that afford a lever advantage succeed. Therefore, to apply Olympic lifting movements without taking into consideration body proportions can severely compromise the effectiveness of the methods.

Another argument given for the use of the Olympic lifting movements is that they help with jumping because in biomechanical analysis of Olympic lifting the pattern of force closely resembled the vertical jump. I may be missing something here, but then why not just jump with resistance. To learn and master the technical complexity of the Olympic lifting movements to improve jumping seems to be a bit of a stretch. In most situations when working with athletes there is not an infinite amount of time available for training. Therefore, chose methods that will allow you to train the athlete in order to be better at their sport within the restraints of the available time.

Recognizing these limitations, the use of Olympic lifting movements is viable and have a place across the spectrum of sports because of their potential for power development. But the movements must be adapted and modified to fit the athlete. It must fit the athlete literally. Body proportions must be carefully considered. Significant modification must be made for the tall athlete. It is important to point out that the Olympic lifting movements do not have to be done with a bar. I have found that Olympic movements with dumbbells to be particularly effective. The factor of body proportions is eliminated because the dumbbell “fits the body.” The disadvantage of the dumbbell is that you will eventually be limited in the amount of weight that can be lifted so that if you are working with sports that require strength dominated power like football or the throws then it is necessary to use the bar to achieve heavier loading. Dumbbells also allow modification of the pulling movements to be done in diagonal and rotational patterns. The bar essentially locks you into the Sagittal plane.

From a technical perspective make sure that you as a coach know and understand the technique. Master the teaching progressions. Be sure to allow time in the training program for skill acquisition before adding significant loading. Also teach and preferably train the movements in a non-fatigued state. Adapt the method to the athlete, not the athlete to the method. Remember you are not training Olympic lifters; you are training athletes who use the Olympic lifts and derivatives to raise explosive power.

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