Here's what you need to know...
- Skip Olympic lifts if you've sustained injury and lack mobility. There are tests you can do to see if you're mobile enough to do Olympic lifts correctly.
- Unless you're a competitive Olympic lifter there's no reason to do O-lifts from the floor. Doing them from the hang position can prevent injury.
- Olympic lifts are beneficial for certain athletes but unnecessary for others. They're best for vertical jump training and power.
- Complexes containing O-lifts can help with both hypertrophy and fat loss.
Power Training Is Misunderstood
Power = Strength x Speed. Everything we do in life, in or out of the gym involves an expression of power.
Whoever finishes the marathon first produces the most power. Whoever does the most push-ups in a minute produces more power than those who do fewer.
If it used to take you a minute to get up a flight of stairs, and now it takes only half a minute, then you're producing more power now then you used to.
Chances are, you don't think of any of those things as "power" activities. There's no explosive component like you'd see in a sprint or a one-rep-max bench press. But there is still a foundation of power there.
The goal of Olympic lifts is to improve explosive power, and everyone can benefit from it. It trains your body to transfer force from the ground to your fingertips as efficiently as possible.
Injuries and Olympic Lifts
You shouldn't attempt Olympic lifts when you're injured. But what about lingering effects of past injuries, which might produce pain or mobility limitations? Let's discuss.
Holding a load overhead – as you would in a snatch or push press – creates some of the highest cervical-spine compression forces you can produce in the weight room.
So if you have any history of neck problems, avoid overhead snatches and push presses. Cleans may or may not be a problem, but check with your doctor first.
Lower Back Issues
If you've had past problems with your spinal discs or facets (the bone structures on the outer edges of your vertebrae that prevent spine-damaging movements), skip the Olympic lifts without an okay from your doc.
The starting positions involve loaded trunk flexion, which is potentially dangerous for your discs. Those with facet damage – usually from arthritis, acute injury, or long-term wear and tear – will have trouble with the trunk extension at the end of each lift.
Quick test: If you can bend backwards at the waist without pain or limitations, you probably don't have facet problems.
It's possible to do O-lifts without pain even if you've had disc or facet injuries. But that doesn't mean it's a good idea or that you'll get benefits from these exercises that you couldn't get from exercises with fewer risks.
How to Know if You're Ready
Try these tests before you jump into Olympic lifts.
Test #1: Shoulder Mobility
Stand with a neutral spine (in its natural arch, in other words). Lift your arms straight up as high as you can without changing your spinal alignment. This is a test of shoulder flexion in conjunction with thoracic extension. Compare your range of motion against the three photos at your right.
The first photo shows ideal range of motion with the correct posture. The second shows what happens when you have limited range of motion, but compensate with excessive spinal extension. The final one shows limited shoulder range, without compensating by moving something else.
Test #2: Shoulder Impingement
The illustration shows what impingement looks like from the inside. The test to see if you have it is quick and simple: Stand or sit up straight with one hand on the opposite shoulder, as shown in the first photo. Now lift the elbow straight up, as shown below, without lifting your hand off your shoulder.
If you can do this without pain, you're clear to do whatever you want in the weight room. If you do have pain or discomfort, skip the O-lifts for now, see a qualified physical therapist, and work to alleviate the problem.
Test #3: Hamstring Symmetry
This is a test of the functional range of movement available to your hamstrings. It's important because the hamstrings play a major role in the triple extension mechanism of your ankle, knee, and hip joints that occurs during the lifts.
Lie on your back with a slab of wood or two five-pound plates under each thigh, as shown in the pictures above. Lift one leg as high as possible without bending the knee or allowing your lower leg to come off the weight plates. Check both sides.
We're looking for symmetry here. It doesn't matter if your hamstrings are tight, as long as both sides are equally tight.
If one side is tighter than the other, it's likely to cause unnecessary torque in your hips and lumbar spine when you lift anything from the floor. This applies to deadlifts as well as O-lifts.
The solution is to do your lifts from a hang while working to improve your mobility on the side that's tighter.
Test #4: Hip Mobility
Before you do Olympic lifts from the floor, you need to be able to do the toe-touch squat, shown above from two different angles, with your spine in its neutral position. If you can't, scratch floor-based lifts off your workout charts.
You still might be able to do Oly lifts from a hang position, depending on whether you can achieve the shortstop position, shown below, with a neutral spine.
If you can't achieve either position but do Olympic lifts anyway, there's a significant chance you'll be buying a new set of breast implants for some orthopedic surgeon's wife.
Higher-Risk Olympic Lifts
You can get all the benefits you want from O-lifts by starting from a hang. Competitive weightlifters are the only ones who need to start from the floor.
Olympic lifts from the floor bring a higher risk of injury than other variations. There's just too much stress on the lower back and too much room for error, even with good technique.
The other big danger comes from doing repetitive Olympic lifts with heavier weights. Anything greater than your five-rep max should be done as a series of singles, and dropped to the floor on each rep. That means you need to work out in a facility that allows you to drop the bar from overhead.
If you don't drop it, you're taking a weight that you needed your entire body to lift overhead, and then lowering it with just your arms and shoulders. That can lead to elbow, wrist, and/or shoulder injuries.
Using lighter loads repetitively shouldn't present problems, as long as you can do it without pain. Barbell complexes using Oly lifts are a great tool for improving overall conditioning and accelerating fat loss.
Complexes for Hypertrophy + Fat Loss
Complexes for fat loss can also put some muscle on your back and shoulders. The one above is for shoulder, back, and arm hypertrophy.
- Bent-over row
- Hang clean
- Pogo hop
- Shoulder press
- Good morning
- Hang snatch
- Biceps curl
Do five to eight reps of each exercise, and then move on to the next exercise without rest; don't set the bar down even to change hand positions. (In the video, you'll see me flip it around in my hands when I go from the hang snatch to biceps curls.)
Do the complex two to five times, resting one to three minutes in between. It works best if you do it at the end of a hypertrophy workout, especially if you're in a cutting phase. You can build new muscle and cut fat at the same time.
Do this one with slightly heavier weights:
- Hang high pull
- Hang clean
- Split jerk (alternate legs)
Go for four to six reps per exercise, and do the same number of sets with the same amount of rest in between.
O-Lifts for Sports Performance
Olympic lifts transfer very well into performance in a lot of sports. They just work better for some athletes than others.
O-lifts are really a form of vertical-jump training. If you're playing a sport in which you need to jump, or coaching an athlete in one of those sports, you'll probably get great results... assuming you or the athlete is a good candidate for these lifts, as determined by the tests shown earlier.
So if you're a basketball or volleyball athlete, O-lifts would probably be a smart addition to your training program.
But if you do sports like boxing, golf, or rock climbing, it's hard to see how vertical-jump training will help. Sure, boxers bounce around, and rock climbers have to dyno every now and then, but it's not the same.
In fact, any good boxing coach will tell you that most punches should have a slight downward motion. The expression of power transfer in Olympic lifts goes the opposite direction.
I might use variations on Olympic lifts as part of their conditioning in certain stages, but those lifts wouldn't be the focus of our training.
On the other hand, MMA lifters, like linemen in football, need to be able to attack and dominate their opponents, which often involves exploding into them with an upward trajectory to lift them off the ground or knock them off their feet. O-lifts are a great tool for those athletes.
So it's a mistake to use blanket statements about O-lifts and sports. Assuming the athlete in question is ready and able to do them with good form, it all depends on which sport we're talking about, and how the athlete would transfer what he learns from Olympic lifting to what he does in competition.
The biggest problem I have with O-lifts is the same problem I have with kettlebells. They require a lot of time and energy to learn the proper technique.
I'll start most of my athletes off with basic O-lift variations as part of their training for explosive power. Some will get it, and some won't. The ones who learn the fastest will probably continue using Olympic lifts in their training, even if those lifts don't have a direct transfer to their sport.
But with the ones who don't catch on, I rarely have enough time with them to work on technique.
I need to find the most effective and efficient ways to improve their ability to play their sport and tolerate its stresses without overloading them with stuff that they may not need. If I know of two ways to accomplish the same training goal, chances are I'm going to use the one with the shorter learning curve and least risk of injury.
I use the example of kettlebells because it takes some coaching and practice to be able to use them without bruising up your forearms and wrists.
Swings are a great exercise – I absolutely love them and use them with most of my athletes and in my own training. But you can do all the other popular KB exercises with dumbbells and not really lose any of the benefits.
As an example, check out the one-arm dumbbell snatch shown in the video below. Sure, you can do a more technical version with a kettlebell, but I'm not going to invest the time it takes to teach that to an athlete when I can accomplish the same goals with a dumbbell.
If you're a lifter who likes to challenge himself, I don't discourage you from using kettlebells or learning Olympic lifts. Hell, it's your time and your body, and the strength, power, and coordination you develop should improve your performance in all kinds of ways, in or out of the gym.
But with my athletes, I have to decide if they're truly the best tool for what we're trying to accomplish.
So what are those alternatives? Remember, the goal is to develop explosive power, and there are other ways to do that.
One of my favorites is medicine-ball throws. The video below shows one example, using a sand-filled ball outdoors. Obviously, you can do these indoors with regular medicine balls, as I showed in this article.
One benefit to using med-ball work as a supplement or alternative to Olympic lifts is that you develop explosive power in rotational movements, something you need for most sports but can't train with barbell cleans and snatches.
The Rules You Must Break
To develop that power endurance, you have to break two of the rules of Olympic lifting.
Rule #1 says that Oly lifts and other power training should come first in the program.
But if you're an athlete who needs to be explosive at the end of a competition, when you're exhausted, you must train for that specific goal. That means doing O-lifts and other power work throughout the entire workout session. Even at the end.
Keep in mind that we aren't trying to improve explosive power production here, we're trying to develop the capacity to produce the same level of power for a longer period of time – the length of competition.
The rule is in place for a reason: Since these power exercises require more skill and attention to form, you want to practice them when you're fresh. Form is more likely to break down in a fatigued state.
But that's exactly what happens in competition: athletes get tired and their form breaks down. Watch two UFC fighters in the fourth and fifth round. Even the best ones get sloppy.
Your goal, as an athlete, is to make sure form doesn't get sloppy, no matter how tired you become. Bad form is unacceptable.
All sports require a massive amount of technique and skill. So using high-skill movements at the end of a workout can better prepare an athlete for what's required in actual competition.
Rule #2 says that you train for power using relatively low volume and a lot of rest between sets – five sets of five, say, with two to four minutes of rest.
That's a great way to build peak explosive power. But it doesn't prepare you to go five rounds, or to beat your opponent to the ball at the end of the fourth quarter. It doesn't help you achieve power endurance, in other words.
I'm lucky enough to be able to work with a large group of pro and amateur fighters. O-lifts help the fighters train to explode into opponents, lift them up, and take them down.
Because MMA is a weight-class sport, the weight used during O-lifts should be roughly the same as the weight class the fighter competes in.
If a fighter can clean 1.5 times his body weight for three reps, that's great. But it doesn't help him move his opponent around the ring for the entire fight. For that, he needs to train with loads approximating his body weight at the beginning, middle, and end of a workout.
8 Final Thoughts
It's easy to praise or condemn Olympic lifts but the truth is always somewhere in the middle.
Whether you're an athlete or just a dedicated lifter who wants to develop the most size, strength, and athletic function possible, Olympic lifts can have a place in your program, as long as you understand their purpose.
These are the most important points:
- Olympic lifts train you to jump or to move a load upward. Those are crucial qualities for a lot of athletes. If you're a power forward, using O-lifts in training might help you pull down more rebounds. If you're a fighter or a football lineman, they can help you attack and dominate an opponent.
- Explosive power without power endurance is a limited benefit for an athlete. So if you're training for a sport in which you need to be explosive in the fifth round or fourth quarter, you have to use explosive movements throughout a workout, not just at the beginning.
- If you're an athlete who requires explosive power on a vertical or downward plane, you won't get much benefit from O-lifts. They should use exercises that develop qualities more specific to their sport, like med-ball throws from a variety of angles.
- Most athletes need to be able to express explosive rotational power. O-lifts won't help, but rotational med-ball exercises will.
- If you're training for improved body composition, Olympic lifts are a great tool. Use them in complexes at the end of workouts – you can develop muscle while jacking up your metabolism to accelerate fat loss.
- No matter how advanced you are as a lifter, you have to use caution before training with Oly lifts. Make sure you can pass the tests of mobility and symmetry.
- Take time to learn the lifts. There's no rush to get to the point where you can clean more than your body weight.
- Unless you're a competitive Olympic weightlifter, don't do lifts from the floor. You can get all the benefits, with a fraction of the risks, by starting your reps from the hang.
If you decide O-lifts are right for you, have at it. There's not much you can do in the gym that gives you the satisfaction of completing a clean or snatch with an impressive weight and perfect form.