Olympic Lifts and Fatal Flaws
Most people who want to get bigger, stronger, and more powerful don't need the Olympic lifts. That said, I have the greatest respect and admiration for those who can do these lifts well. I also consider O-lifting to be perhaps the most exciting sport imaginable, and I've even competed in it.
However, we need to be willing to take a clear, dispassionate look at our goals and the most direct route to achieving them. If your goal is to be a great weightlifter, you should obviously be doing the snatch, clean & jerk, and their derivatives. But if what you care about is being stronger, more muscular, or a better athlete, there are far better approaches.
Let's take a closer look at why the O-lifts have a few fatal flaws for most of us.
1 – The Olympic lifts are too technically demanding.
Sure, you can develop a "workable" snatch or clean pretty quickly, but if you're a typical lifter, it'll take a long time before you're snatching or clean & jerking enough weight to make you significantly bigger or stronger... assuming these lifts can make you bigger and stronger in the first place. We'll get to that soon.
If you've got good athletic chops, the learning curve may be shorter for you than for most, but it'll still take considerable time to navigate. That's time that could be spent getting bigger and stronger with much more effective drills for that purpose. Even for weightlifters who ARE big and strong, I'd argue that most of their size and strength still comes from the use of assistance exercises (squats, pulls, presses, etc.), not the competitive lifts themselves.
Consider, too, that most O-lifters don't want to get bigger because that would bump them into a higher weight class. Their training is designed to prevent or at least minimize weight gain. However, when a weightlifter does want to jump a weight class, he or she will typically ramp up the volume on squats, presses, and pulls. Think about that for a moment.
2 – The Olympic lifts are overrated for developing strength or size.
When I competed in Master's weightlifting, the snatch portion of my workout would typically take well over an hour, and my top snatch attempt might be 176 on a good day. That's not a lot for someone who at the time was squatting well into the 300's and pulling well into the 400's.
After snatching, I'd usually do some form of snatch-assistance drill (overhead squats or snatch balances) and the last movement might be pulls or squats, but by then I was running on fumes. Interestingly, at the gym where I trained, if a lifter was suspected of having relatively weak legs, he or she was instructed to squat BEFORE snatches or clean & jerks, not after, as is the norm. I hope the take-home lesson here isn't lost on you.
Sure, the Olympic lifts alone will serve to build size and strength at the beginning, at least to some degree. But before very long, the constraining factor will be technical precision or mobility, not strength or size. For most lifters, there simply isn't enough load or eccentric time-under-tension to develop meaningful strength or mass gains.
3 – The Olympic lifts are highly overrated for developing athletic power.
This is part that will send the most venom to my inbox from the keyboard warriors. Look, any time you try to move a moderately heavy weight as fast as possible, you'll be improving your power, at least to some degree.
Despite that, the O-lifts are not particularly good for developing athletic power, even if you're good at them, at least relative to other options. Instead, these lifts are good ways of demonstrating athletic power. Key word: demonstrating.
Think about vertical jumping as a close analogy: Does the vertical jump develop power or simply express it? This is a classic example of confusing correlation with causation.
"Power" is defined as strength x speed. In other words, while strength is defined as how much external resistance you can overcome, power is about how fast you can overcome that resistance. This being the case, if you want to improve power, there are ways you can tackle the problem:
- Get faster: Sounds good in theory, but speed is largely a feature of the central nervous system. As a pure motor quality, speed is largely genetic.
- Get stronger: Since speed has significant genetic limitations, focusing on strength acquisition is likely the best way to improve power. How do you get stronger? Not through the Olympic lifts, unfortunately. The loads aren't high enough for most people. Classic barbell lifts such as squats, pulls, and presses are a much more expedient path toward that goal.
- Get leaner: If your body mass is mostly muscle and very little fat, you'll be able to move your bodyweight with greater speed. In fact, for anyone looking to improve their 40 yard dash or vertical jump, losing some excess baggage is the fastest and easiest way to do so. How do you get leaner? Not through the Olympic lifts.
When you get leaner and stronger, you get more powerful. And when you get leaner and stronger, your snatch and clean & jerk will improve – not the other way around.
Go back to the vertical jump example. Sure, doing vertical jumps by themselves will improve power initially, but very soon you'll need to do some solid strength training to keep that jump improving. The same goes for the Olympic lifts.
Photo Credit: CrossFit Fortius South
What the Olympic Lifts ARE Good For
Despite their limited strength and muscle-building value, Olympic lifts are great. Here are just a few reasons why you might consider learning them, despite the precautions above:
- You want to compete in weightlifting or do CrossFit. This is the strongest and most obvious case for learning the lifts.
- The Olympic lifts are fun and satisfying. Having fun is a seriously under-appreciated aspect of sustained, lifelong training habits. And the O-lifts are immensely rewarding to learn.
- Developing and refining fundamental lifting skills. Just as an example, it's a very practical skill to be able to efficiently clean a bar to your shoulders in preparation for overhead presses. Similarly, a solid "shelf" position – where the bar rests on the front of your shoulders – is a nice skill to have for front squatting.
Tools Can't Be Appreciated Without Context
Usually, specific exercises and training approaches aren't objectively good or bad. It just depends on what you're trying to accomplish with them. Olympic lifting is a rich part of our heritage as lifters. That said, it's simply a tool, and wise lifters pick their tools with care.