Three effective alternatives to Olympic lifting

Throughout my coaching career I have come to understand that the majority of coaches who work in athletic development can be divided into two categories. On the one side there are those who feel the Olympic lifts are the end-all-be-all to training. They often think that in order to be successful you must do the Olympic lifts. On the other side are those coaches who feel that the Olympic lifts are only necessary for those who compete in Olympic lifting. These coaches don’t necessarily use any type of Olympic lifting or variations of Olympic lifting in their training.

As with many areas of life, the choice seems to be all or nothing, yet somehow I find myself in the middle. The purpose of this article isn’t to push coaches to one side of the debate or the other. Instead I want to dissect what training benefits the Olympic lifts can provide, and what some alternatives could be. I won’t settle the debate about what is best, but I will show coaches some options in case they find themselves in situations where they cannot use Olympic lifting.

Defining the Olympic lifts

Before we go any further, I’d like to define how I define the Olympic lifts. For me the Olympic lifts include the traditional competitive lifts (snatch, clean, and jerk) as well as the derivatives and variations of these lifts. 

There are numbers of variations that can be used for a variety of reasons. The clean and snatch can be done from blocks varying in height, from the hang position, or from the floor. Furthermore, you could choose to do a power clean or power snatch instead of the full movement. In the power version of these lifts you tend to catch the bar in a higher position similar to a quarter or half squat, as opposed to the full squat catch position in the standard clean or snatch. Jerks can be done in front of the neck, behind the neck, and with or without a split.

The Olympic debate

As you can see there are many different options and variations of Olympic lifts. Because of this it can intimidate coaches from applying any of these lifts into their training. The common reasons I have heard why coaches don’t use Olympic lifts include:

  • Being too hard to teach;
  • They take too much time to teach;
  • They take too much long for the athlete to get proficient at performing the movements; and
  • You can get the same benefit from doing other movements that are simpler to teach and execute.

Coming from a sport that incorporates the Olympic lifts for nearly every athlete I don’t necessarily agree with the Olympic lifts being too hard or complicated to teach. Teaching the Olympic lifts is like teaching/coaching anything else. The more you do it, the more you study it, the better you get at it!

That being said, I find myself right in the middle of the debate since I do agree that you can get the same benefits doing other movements. I feel like I am in the minority of coaches who use Olympic lifts but feel you can also get away without doing them. So, what are some of the substitutes you can use instead of Olympic lifts to get the same benefits? We will discuss this as we move on throughout this article.

Alternatives to Olympic lifting

When you ask strength coaches why they use Olympic lifts for athletes who are not competitive lifters, the main reasons seem to be: develop explosiveness, train the triple extension of the ankle, knee, and hip that takes place when performing the specific sport, and “it’s what we we’ve always done.”

These are all good reasons. However, like I mentioned above, all of these can be trained without utilizing the Olympic lifts. Here are a few I use and have found to be very effective:

  • Hex Bar Jump Shrug – If you’re looking for the triple extension and the goal is to develop explosiveness, then the hex bar jump shrug checks both of those boxes. Arguably, the hardest part about teaching the Olympic lift can be the transition between the final pull and the rack/catch position. The hex bar jump shrug takes the catch position out of the equation, and you still get the benefits from the triple extension of the ankle, knee, hip, and finally the shrug to finish. Some coaches like to rack the clean or snatch for the deceleration aspect of that sequence or for the sense of accomplishment. My view is if your goal is to be explosive then is it so important to rack/catch the bar? I would lean towards no. I am not saying one is better than the other, but it is my opinion why risk the wear and tear of catching the bar if it is not necessary. 
  • Dumbbell variations – In my foundation phase in which I use with all novice/beginning athletes includes 3 substitutes for Olympic Lifts. These are DB Jump Shrug, DB High Pull, DB 1-Arm Snatch, and DB Push Press. We do some variation of these movements for 8 weeks. When those 8 weeks are complete each athlete’s pulling patterns are extremely efficient. In turn this carries over to the Olympic lifts and gives us a head start on understanding how to pull the barbell when we do move to the true Olympic lifts. Dependent upon the sport these substitutes can be a mainstay in the training program. 
  • Multi-jump and multi-throw routines – Examples of these routines can be found in the HMMR Classroom on Video Lesson 3: Multi-jumps and Video Lesson 4: Med ball routines. Multi-jump routines can take place on all three planes of movement .This is also true for the multi-throws routines, which gives them a distinct advantage over Olympic lifting. One can say that Olympic lifting is primarily sagittal plane based and therefore not as specific to sport play. The multi-jumps and multi-throws routines allow you to utilize movements that take place on not only the sagittal plane but the frontal and transverse planes just like many sports are performed. Furthermore, the multi-throws routines allow you to incorporate both pulling and pushing explosive movements as seen in the heaving and pressing series that I use. 

Final thoughts

Do you need Olympic lifts to become more explosive? I would argue no. You can use all of the substitutes I explained and still be effective. Need some more evidence: look at the numerous powerful and succesful athletes that have trained without using the Olympic lifts. The bottom line is that in order to be explosive you must train explosive. So, if your opinion is to utilize the Olympic lifts, and you’re comfortable doing so, by all means I feel it is a great method. But there are many ways to become explosive. If you prefer substitutes like the Hex Bar Jump Shrug, DB Jump Shrug, DB High Pull, DB 1-Arm Snatch, Multi-Jumps, and Multi-Throws routines I feel those are great ways to develop explosiveness as well.

One caveat I would add is that I also try to prepare my athletes for their next coach. Many of my athletes will continue their career at the collegiate level, where their coach might require them to do the Olympic lifts. Even if I think I could live without them, my job as a high school coach is to prepare athletes for the next level.

Considering all of these factors, I personally utilize all of the methods we discussed. Within reason there are no absolutes. Use what works best for your athlete, what is optimum for your facility, and ultimately what you feel produces the best results! Hopefully I provided some ideas you can use as a substitute for the Olympic lifts or to add to your tool box