by Nick Tumminello
It’s easy to start an Internet flame war. Just write something about Olympic lifts.
You like them, and use them with the athletes you train? Unless you’re specific about the context, you’re likely to hear from coaches who assure you the lifts are non-functional and fall on the wrong side of the risk-reward continuum.
You don’t like Olympic lifts, and don’t use them with your athletes? Prepare to get your ass handed to you by coaches who’ll tell you about their success training the Mongolian chess team to a world title using nothing but O lifts and finger-specific mobility drills.
I got sucked into the maelstrom when I said, in this edition of Mythbusters, that “if you aren’t an Olympic weightlifter who trains in a facility set up for Olympic weightlifting, you have no business doing Olympic lifts.”
Since then, I’ve wanted to modify that statement, to move past black-and-white, good-or-bad arguments to focus on these important points:
• Why “Olympic lifting” and “power training” aren’t the same thing
• Why everyone needs to do some power training, and how O lifts can be used for that purpose
• How to know if you’re ready for O lifts
• How to do them without increased risk of injury
• How to use O lifts for hypertrophy, fat loss, and overall conditioning
• Why you need to break two rules of Olympic lifting when you’re training to improve in a specific sport
Power Training Is Misunderstood
Let’s start with a simple equation: Power = strength x speed.
By definition, everything we do in life, in or out of the gym and on or off the field of competition, involves an expression of power.
Whoever finished the marathon first produced the most power.
Whoever can do the most push-ups in a minute produces more power than anyone who does fewer.
If it used to take your grandfather two minutes to get up a flight of stairs, and now after working out he can get up the same flight of stairs in only one minute, we can say he’s producing more power.
Chances are, you don’t think of any of those things as “power” activities. There’s no explosive component, as you’d see in a sprint, or a one-rep-max bench press, or if Gramps decided to take the steps three at a time.
So, just to prevent confusion, I want to be specific about this: Just about everything you do in the gym helps improve your ability to generate power. The goal of Olympic lifts is to improve explosive power.
Everyone, in my view, can benefit from doing some form of explosive power training. You don’t have to do that with Olympic lifts, but you can. The goal is to teach your body to transfer force from the ground to your fingertips, and to do that effectively and efficiently.
Injuries and O Lifts
It almost goes without saying that you shouldn’t attempt Olympic lifts if you’re currently injured. But what about lingering effects of past injuries, which might produce pain and/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, I highly recommend avoiding overhead snatches and push presses.
Cleans may or may not be a problem. As they say in the Flomax commercials, check with your doctor first.
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), I’d skip the Olympic lifts without an okay from your doctor.
The starting positions involve loaded trunk flexion, which is potentially dangerous for your discs. Those with facet damage — usually from arthritis, an 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.
(For corrective exercises, check out Mike Boyle’s article on mobility drills.)
Test #2: shoulder impingement
The illustration at right 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 in the next photo, 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 test of the functional range of movement available to your hamstrings is part of the functional movement screen originally developed by Gray Cook. 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 O lifts.
Lie on your back with a slab of wood or two five-pound plates under each thigh, as shown in the pictures to your right. 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 O lifts from the floor, you need to be able to do the toe-touch squat, shown at your right 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 in the next photo, 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
As you’ve probably guessed from the tests you just tried, Olympic lifts from the floor bring a higher risk of injury than other variations. The athletes I train don’t do any O lifts from the floor, regardless of their fitness level or lifting experience. There’s just too much stress on the lower back and too much room for error, even with good technique.
In my view, 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.
The other big danger comes from doing repetitive Olympic lifts with heavier weights. My opinion is that 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.
All that said, 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. (This article shows three different complexes using variations on the clean.)
“O” Is for … Hypertrophy?
The complexes I just mentioned for fat loss can also put some muscle on your back and shoulders. I’ve seen it with female athletes as well as with the guys I train.
Here’s a complex I’ve used for shoulder, back, and arm hypertrophy, shown in the first video at right:
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.
Here’s another, which you’d do with slightly heavier weights:
Hang high pull
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
Here’s where I want to clarify the remarks I made in the Mythbusters article I mentioned earlier. In my view, Olympic lifts do transfer very well into performance in a lot of sports. They just work better for some athletes than for others, and they work better for athletes in particular sports.
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 I showed earlier. So if I’m coaching an athlete in basketball or volleyball, O lifts would probably be a big part of our training program.
But if we’re talking about sports like boxing, or 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. (More on that point in a moment.)
So it’s a mistake to use blanket statements about O lifts and sports, whether it’s me discounting their effectiveness or another coach saying they’re great. 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 O lifting to what he does in competition.
Now it’s time to piss off a whole new part of the readership: 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 O 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 to your right. 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 at right 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
Let’s say that you’re a coach who’s training an athlete with a 38-inch vertical jump — fantastic explosive power. When he plays his sport — let’s say it’s basketball or volleyball — he’s going to have to jump many times, not just once.
So, as a coach, what’s the most important quality to train in this athlete? You want him to be able to repeat that explosive power throughout a contest, right? So if you end up with an athlete who can jump 38 inches once, but jump 35 inches throughout a grueling contest, you’ve done a good job.
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 want that athlete to be explosive at the end of a competition, when he or she is exhausted, you must train the athlete 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 or coach, is to make sure form doesn’t get sloppy, no matter how tired you or the athletes you’re training become. You simply don’t allow bad form. 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 or the guys you’re training 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 from Ground Control MMA Baltimore. 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.
Wrapping It Up
It’s easy to praise or condemn Olympic lifts, or any other system of training, but the truth is always somewhere in the middle. Whether you’re an athlete, a coach, 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 what they can do, and how to use them.
For me, 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.
• Some athletes, especially those whose sports require explosive power on a vertical or downward plane, probably 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, O lifts are a great tool, particularly when you 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 bodybuilder or strength athlete, you have to use caution before training with Oly lifts. Make sure you can pass the tests of mobility and symmetry I describe in this article.
• Take time to learn the lifts. If you’re a gym rat who’s training for your own development, you have years to develop the technique required. 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, I strongly discourage 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 understand all these point and decide O lifts are the right choice 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.
This one shows the ideal range of motion in your shoulders and thoracic spine with good posture.
Here you see the range of motion achieved only with excessive extension of the lumbar spine.
This last one shows poor range of motion without compensation.
The drawing at the right shows shoulder impingement from the inside.
Hamstring symmetry test
Ideal range of motion for the toe-touch squat.
If you can do the shortstop position with a neutral spine, you can probably do Olympic lifts from a hang without an excessive injury risk.
About Nick Tumminello
Nick Tumminello, the director of Performance University, is a nationally recognized coach and educator who works with a select group of athletes, physique competitors, and exercise enthusiasts in Baltimore, Maryland. Go to his new website to get your free “Smarter & Stronger” video course.
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