The Olympic Lifts: Are They For You

So the other day I found myself in a globo gym esc environment. I think it was a YMCA, but I'm not entirely sure.

Either way, while I was trying to get a lift in on the road I couldn't help but notice two fine gentlemen approximately twenty feet down to my left.

They looked to be in their mid 20's, and were probably working professionals or grad students at one of the nearby colleges.

What grabbed my attention you ask?

Well...let's just say they were trying to do power cleans, and doing so quite unsuccessfully.  It looked like they were reverse curling and humping the bar into submission, as opposed to performing the beauty that is a power clean.

All kidding aside, I'm not one to sit hear and bash other people.  I hate that.  My hat goes off to both of them for at least making it into the gym and working hard.  For all I know, they just wrapped up a 10 hour day at the office and the fact they made it in to train is awesome. I watched them lift all I thought to myself was:

"Man.  These guys could be getting so much more out of their training right now."

Which got me thinking about the olympic lifts, and how popular they've become over the past several years.  You used to hardly see anyone performing olympic lifts outside of high school, college and professional weight rooms, but now they seem to be just about everywhere.

Not only that, they've become a pretty divisive issue:  some coaches swear by them, while others are moving in the opposite direction.

As I pondered this more and more I finally decided to sit down and write a post on the subject, so here we go.

The Lifts

Let' quickly take a look at a few different olympic lifting variations, just so we're all on the same page going forward.

The Clean and Jerk

The Power Clean

The Snatch

The Power Snatch

There are many variations to the olympic lifts, but these are some of the most popular and make it relatively easy to understand the other ones.  Other notable variations I did not include are the hang clean, hang snatch, hang power clean and hang power snatch.  These are performed the same way as the above videos, except the lift does not start from the floor.  Take a look at this hang clean video and you'll know what I mean:


When you perform the olympic lifts with proper technique, you can derive a lot of benefit from them.  In fact, one could easily make the argument that they get you the most bang for your buck.  For example, they:

Teach you to generate/put force into the ground

Are great for power development in the sagittal plane

Teach kinesthetic awareness

Can cause hypertrophy

Create positive neural adaptation by increasing intra-muscular and inter-muscular coordination

*if you don't know what intra or intermuscular coordination are, then checkout this free webinar.

Train functional stability through the core

Help maintain and possibly increase range of motion

While that's an impressive list, there are some downsides to the olympic lifts as well.



For starters, these lifts are highly technical, and while technicality alone shouldn't be a deterrent, it raises a significant issue:  time.

If you read anything written by the Chinese or the Russians concerning the development of their lifters, you'll know their athletes do thousands of reps with a wooden dowel before ever touching a weight.  As a coach, I have to question if I have enough time to both teach the lifts, and get a training effect out of them.

For example, am I getting a young kid who I'll have under my wing for an extended period of time, or am I getting a professional athlete who has 12 weeks to prepare for camp?

High Movement Demand

The olympic lifts put a premium on moving well.  In order to perform a legit clean and jerk, and a legit snatch, you better be able to move like a boss.

In my experiences thus far, I just haven't met many people who walk in day one with the capacity to perform these lifts.  Not only do they lack the necessary amounts of "range," they also don't know how to move.  Things that seem simple, like a hip hinge and a squat, often need some serious work.'s a timing issue again:  how long will it take to improve range of motion, how long will it take to train basic movement patterns, how long will it take to get technique down etc etc.

I Can Get the Same Benefits With Other Options

For as great as the olympic lifts are, I know I can get the same benefits from an athletic standpoint using far less technical movements and exercises.  I can squat, deadlift, jump, throw, and sprint, among other things, to get after the same list of benefits from above.

So it raises the question:  do I need to spend a lot of time with these exercises, when I can plug in other options that are simpler, possibly safer, and just as effective?

Questions to Ask Yourself

Ultimately, it's impossible for me to sit hear and tell you whether or not you should be performing olympic lifts.  I know nothing about you, and the answer to that question varies from person to person.

What I can give you though are some questions you can ask yourself to help guide you to the right decision.

What's my skill level?

This is really combining two questions:

1.  How well do I move?

2.  Can I perform the lifts with good technique?

If you're good on both, then you just need to worry about whether or not the olympic lifts are specific to the demands of your sport.  If you aren't good on both, then you really have to consider the next two questions.

How much time do I have?

As I discussed above, time is really important.  How much time do you have before you need to be ready for x?  And can you afford to devote any of that time to learning a new lift?

Are there other ways to reach the same end goal?

This one is pretty self explanatory, but once you have an end goal you need to determine the fastest, safest, most efficient way to get there.

What does my sport demand?

Do you need to throw a baseball or do you need to play football?  Do you need to compete in olympic lifting?  Do you want to compete in Crossfit?  Do you need to play soccer?

All of these situations are different, and before making a decision you need to consider what each athlete needs to be successful.

Closing Thoughts

The olympic lifts have been around for a long time, and watching someone who's good at them is like looking at a beautiful piece of artwork.  The timing, the flow, the strength, the's really a sexy thing when you break it down.

For as beautiful as a well executed lift can be though, a poorly executed lift is just as ugly.  It's like watching a really bad train wreck in slow motion.

So, what I want you to do is ask more questions.  Go out of your way to clear yourself to perform these lifts as opposed to just doing them.

Because at the end of the day the olympic lifts aren't inherently good or bad, they are what they are until you put them in a specific context.

Header Photo Credit