Olympic Lifting: Pros, Cons, & Alternatives.
Pound for pound, Olympic weightlifters are amazing athletes and have long proven that they hold a greater level of speed-strength than any other class of athletes in all of sport. That said, many trainers overuse the statement that Olympic lifting will help their athletes with explosiveness. Yet, that’s about all they can tell you. Whether one should include Olympic lifts in his workouts and the applicability of Olympic lifts to sport or general training are the focal points of this article.
While the Russians had been utilizing Olympic lifting for most of their athletes long ago, in 1964, an immense scientific expedition carried out on the athletes at the Mexico City Olympics truly demonstrated the training benefits of Olympic lifting. Sports scientists at the time found that Olympic lifters had both a higher vertical jump and a faster 25-yard dash than any class of athlete. In considering why those Olympic lifters out performed other athletes, the genetics and muscle fiber composition needed for someone to compete at that high of a level as an Olympic lifter is certainly something to consider; however, without question, much too came from the specialized training Olympic lifters undergo in their sport. As a review, among other things, their training revolves around two specialized lifts, the “snatch” and the “clean & jerk,“ and those are the main lifts trainers use to attempt to improve explosiveness.
Since Olympic lifters at the 1964 Olympics out performed other athletes, you might wonder, “should I incorporate Olympic lifts into my workout regimen?” If you already know how to do them well (emphasis on well), and your musculoskeletal system, connective tissue etc. can handle it (yes, we are actually fairly unique snowflakes in that regard), then the answer is absolutely yes. Take full advantage of what those lifts have to offer. If,however, you’ve never really done them and/or you have but are more injury prone, or suffer from injuries they may exacerbate, the answer is no. The latter answer then leads to the question: “how, then, do I get the benefits without some of the risks?” There are several appropriate answers to this, but the one I am hoping to provide is a lower hanging fruit.
I have seen the straight bar clean and snatch injure a lot of people, even those who do them well. And for those whose jobs rely on their bodies, being injured and nonoperational is simply not an option. The straight bar clean and snatch are both beautiful movements. They are movements mainly designed to benefit the lower body not the upper, and even though many people add an awkward reverse curl at the end of a clean to get the weight up, it is completely unnecessary, if your legs are powerful enough to float the bar. So while it may look to some like there is a large upper body component, people who do it well and correctly actually propel the bar upward and vertical via the hips and simply catch the bar in a rack position.
When we teach the Olympic lifts to people who need leg power but aren’t Olympic lifters, there is inevitable risk. Whether sport or occupation is the reason, many need improved leg power; the caveat is that, many a time, doing a clean or snatch can put the wrists, shoulders, and back in vulnerable positions, especially if the individual is not proficient with the movement. So, if we prizethe outcomes from doing good cleans for lower body speed, and that sort of quarter-squat explosion, but not the upper body vulnerabilities because of the learning curve required, then to me, I have found the push press and kettlebell (KB) swing to be great solutions to the problem of achieving some of the benefits of the straight bar Olympics, without as much of the risks.
*Note: To avoid too lengthy an article I will not be covering how to program these movements. But it should be noted that load, intensity, and rest intervals all play a large part in properly utilizing them to develop speed and power.
The reason for the push press is this: if I videoed someone doing a clean from the waist down and then a push press from the waist down, the leg action will look nearly identical. Secondly, as long as you have a good overhead archetype, odds are you can express a push press. I can make that happen by giving someone a slightly bigger weight than they can press with locked knees, knowing the only way they can get it overhead is to cheat, but then allowing them to cheat and providing the proper cues. When done correctly the person will gain upper body integrity and lower body power. Additionally, we can do a left and right push press to assess if there are any serious imbalances. Significantly, with the push press, there is also no vulnerability to the wrist when the press is done unilaterally with a KB or dumbbell (DB). I personally favor the KB because the weight sits more in line with the press.
So when we ask ourselves why we are doing a movement like the clean, one has to come back with the answer “I need explosive lower body power.” If you come back with anything other than that, then you’re missing the point. Now, let’s see someone propel a weight they cannot press with their arms overhead, because, as long as they’re strong enough to lock out the weight, it’s going to look pretty good in terms of leg power. Here in lies an added bonus: the aforementioned lifter is now in a dilemma. The lifter is standing there with a weight—which they can’t press overhead—over their head. Somehow, they have to bring it back down though. So, now I have an eccentric movement built in that leaves me with a lower body explosive drive and an upper body negative in every rep of a push press. The upper body negative is going to have just as good of a stability benefit as it is going to benefit strength. Thus, there is a two-for-one one benefit, but with a fairly low risk.
As with anything, one size does not fit all and the push press may too provide certain problems for some. For example, recently, a physical therapist far smarter thanI brought it to my attention that studies have found that axial load speeds up disc degeneration. Adjust accordingly. This also brings us to our next power movement which also poses great benefits with minimal risk: the KB Swing.
The KB Swing can be used in a multitude of ways to benefit the systems that benefit power as well as to challenge the metabolic system. Some would say that makes it a jack of all trades, master of none—to which I would reply, they’re correct. However, my next question: has said person already developed so much explosive power that a KB swing wouldn’t help? If the answer is yes, then they are far beyond the scope of this article. To the rest of us, the swing will mutually benefit one seeking to get stronger and one who wants to have more speed and power. Because of the dynamic nature of the swing, the opportunity to overload or injure the body is quite low. A well-performed swing is ballistic in nature. A swing should be punched forward and explosivelyby the hips, and not pushed slowly into place. There is plenty of scientific and empirical evidence showing that the KB swings transfers to improved jumping, sprinting, etc. The swing is as ballistic as a standing jump and because of that, and the lower loads that are necessitated by it, the lower back can’t be overloaded the way it could be via the clean or snatch.
As noted before, the KB Swing can be used in training multiple energy systems, and, to focus on power, the appropriate bell size is paramount. When first attempting to increase explosiveness,increasing the bell size can increase power output. That said, studies have shown that the magic number where increasing bell size actually decreases power output is around 30% of body weight. Above that, the need to stabilize robs you from applying all your strength to the task at hand – namely, projecting the kb forward.
In conclusion, should we Olympic lift? Flame on Johnny, but understand the inherent risks and learning curve required to do them correctly. If, however, you would like some extra speed, strength, and power, play around with the push press and KB swing—most of the power we project in any physical activity is either up or in front of us anyway. Both of those proposed power training movements can also be done single arm, so you can assess the left/right interplay, and can be performed more safely than true Olympic lifting, assuming the training continuum leading to them is done successfully.