It is no secret that I love the Olympic lifts. I think the snatch is the closest thing to poetry in the weight room. To see a fully loaded barbell tweaked from the floor with a herculean effort and finish atop a pair of straining shoulders is to see beauty in action.
A big clean is a much less pretty affair but no less skilful. An intimidating weight dragged from the floor to the shoulders in a display of brutal willpower and commitment. And then to push this overhead using as little effort as possible? Awe inspiring.
Yep, I love the Olympics lifts. So do lots of other people. Jump started by the surge of Crossfit, the renaissance of these lifts over the past decade has been nothing short of staggering. Even bigbox commercial gyms now regularly boast about lifting platforms and bumper plates. 10 years ago I can assure you this was not the case!
So what I am about to say may shock you. The Olympic lifts are undeniably cool, undoubtedly impressive, and understatedly difficult. But not everyone should include them in their training. In fact, I would go as far as to suggest that for the average bodybuilding enjoyer they should be actively avoided. Unless it’s an Olympic year and they’re on TV – in that case sit back and marvel.
Don’t miss yesterday’s fantastic training article, on how to build your strength and conditioning program from the ground up!
Yesterday, we ran another article by expert coach Dan Simons in which he discussed, in the simplest terms, how to build an effective strength and conditioning program from scratch.
“New year, new start? Not always. Now that the festive period is safely in the rear-view mirror and you have hopefully deflated from 36 hour cookie binges, you may be wondering how to really go after that goal in 2022. It might be a two-plate overhead press, or a four-plate bench. It could be that elusive double bodyweight deadlift, or maybe you’d be happy squatting your previous 1RM for a set of 6.
Regardless of your goal, it’s too common to get trapped in a cycle of overenthusiasm and underperformance at this time of year. We recognise that we need to make changes, but sometimes our own inexperience or lack of awareness of our weaknesses can hamper us from ever truly making a substantive change.
Often, we plan a program for ourselves that doesn’t really pass muster which then it all falls apart and by March you are back on 5×5 and spinning your wheels….”
A bit of backstory
I have trained the Olympic lifts off and on since around 2011 when a friend who was also a coach invited me down to the local rugby club to use the facilities. In between mucking around with their tractor tyres and playing with the scrum machine, we trained snatch and clean and jerk two times a week.
The feeling of being able to slam the bar on the floor was exhilarating, and the strange new lifts that I had only seen on TV captivated me. I became hooked and continued training them until around about 2017 when I decided to scale back. In that time I was lucky enough to train with the coach of the English Commonwealth Games squad and lots of national athletes. I was never particularly good but I picked up a ton of tips and made some friends. It was great fun.
So why did I stop? Well, simply, balance. I realised what it was that I wanted out of training – and the suite of results on offer from the O-Lifts didn’t give me that.
Cons of the Olympic lifts
Drawback #1 – Time
To get good at the Olympic lifts takes two things. Time and motivation. I was training Monday – Wednesday – Friday – Saturday and each session would take between 2-3 hours. We’d start off mobilising and stretching, then into the warmup lifts. The stronger you got the longer the warmup would take because you’d always start with an empty bar! Then you’d have your working sets, then the accessory lifts and every session would end on squats.
You would be exhausted, but happy and head off home satisfied. The problem was that I would get home and it would be gone 9pm. I had to eat, attend to my life, work and girlfriend and somehow get some sleep in too. It all became too much. Sure you can do less, but if you do less are you going to be as good as you can be? For me, the time commitment was the greatest drawback of all
Drawback #2 – Physique goals
This one may rustle some jimmies but it needs to be said. Most Olympic lifters do not have good physiques. “But Dan, what about Klokov?!” I hear you squeal. Yes indeed, what about Klokov. Judging the average Olympic lifter’s physique based on Klokov is like judging the average heavyweight boxer’s physique based on Tyson Fury. There is no doubt Dmitry Klokov is a chad and a stud but sadly he is not emblematic of his sport (plus he’s a crossfitter now!)
Olympic lifting gives you huge quads and massive shoulders, but the pursuit of a rounded physique is not the goal of the sport, so many lifters are undoubtedly strong but in civilian clothes don’t look especially different to a non-lifter. Granted this was different in the Golden Era when Olympic Lifting and Bodybuilding were still intertwined, and you would have to demonstrate BOTH to win a competition.
I wanted to look like I lift – I don’t doubt you do too. For this reason, I scaled back on the Olympic lifts.
Drawback #3 – difficulty
The Olympic lifts are hard. Really hard. Which is great – as above – if you’ve got the time and enthusiasm to master them. The rotation of your elbows can be the difference between catching or failing a snatch. A one-inch bar misplacement can result in losing 5kg on your lift. I would contend they are easy to learn but very difficult to get good at, and the gains come slowly. You will fight for every 1kg fractional plate that you put on that barbell.
This is not necessarily a bad thing, and in fact can be a very good thing. But if you just want to get in, crush a workout and get on with your life, consider a different training modality.
Benefits and adaptations
I did start this article off stating how much I love the Olympic lifts – and I do. I often have my athletes perform Olympic variations in their training for a specific purpose; to develop power, to develop explosiveness, to develop speed. However, I program this within a specific context with a specific end-goal. Without this direction and focus it can be too easy to get lost within the labyrinth of advice, technique and information that surrounds the lifts.
So what adaptations can be made? The variations are almost endless. Some of my most trusted ones are:
Hang power snatch – when someone needs to develop power, and quickly, without having time to learn technique. The Hang Power Snatch has great carryover into throwing sports.
Clean pull – want your ears to disappear? Program yourself heavy clean pulls twice a week and be prepared to buy some new shirts with more neck real estate.
Snatch grip high pulls – use some straps so grip isn’t a limiting factor, pull the bar as high as you can to your chin and watch your back grow. These never fail to make me feel ‘yoked’.
Power clean – simple, traditional and powerful. Power cleans have many strength benefits and are also great fun. The best part about them is that form is not as important as the full clean. Grip it and rip it. They will blow up your upper back and make you strong as an ox.
If you want to incorporate the Olympic lifts into your workouts then go ahead. They have a place, and a time, and I will not stop you. I’ll even shake your hand.
But be cautious – they can direct your energy away from your physique goals and can end up swallowing all your free time.
You can still achieve bear-like strength and own a set of doorframe-filling shoulders by following a more traditional, easier to learn, set of power-building exercises.
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