The Case Against Full Olympic Lifts

The Case Against Full Olympic Lifts


Now that I have everyone’s attention and probably ruffled more than a few feathers (Cameron’s included), let me explain.

First, let me open with the line that I used in my last post that I stole from the guys at CrossFit Football and Power Athlete HQ: what are you training for? Like I said before, I believe that this is the only lens through which one should look at his or her training to determine if what they’re doing is effective and getting them to where they want to be. This also means they must look at what MOVEMENTS they are utilizing, and whether those are effective or just taking up space.

The snatch and clean and jerk (or “full squat clean/squat clean” and “full squat snatch/squat snatch” for those CrossFit types…I will say those phrases sound like nails on a chalkboard to me) are sports specific movements for two groups of athletes: competitive Olympic lifters and competitive CrossFit athletes. That is to say, nowhere else outside of these sports will you see the snatch and clean and jerk performed on a regular basis. For someone who is a competitive lifter or CrossFit athlete, these movements absolutely need to be included in their training program; strength and proficiency in these lifts are critical to prospering in their chosen sport. But what about the rest of the folks out there?

The main reason the Olympic lifts are utilized in training programs is to build dynamic strength, power, and explosiveness. No other barbell training can truly mimic the adaptation these movements can drive (we’re excluding talk of Dynamic Effort movements…that’s for another day), especially in the untrained athlete. Translate this to a field sport athlete (football, rugby, soccer, etc.), the ability to go from a dead stop, explosively drive with your legs, open your hips, and then absorb force and decelerate, are invaluable tools to build their athletic prowess. It makes perfect sense why these lifts are a regular part of an athletes training cycle. But, are the full variations necessary for building these skills?

Let’s contrast the full lifts to their power variants (power clean and power snatch). Both the power variant and full variant require the same initial explosive push with the legs, dynamic hip opening, big shrug, and tightening of the trunk to receive the weight. But, the different receiving positions (full variant receiving in the squat, power variant in a quarter squat), are where the real money is made. For the full variant of the lift, the bar only needs to be brought up high enough to allow the athlete enough time to pull himself or herself under the bar and receive it (lets say this is around the midsection, for example). That same weight, if it is to be caught in the power position, has to be brought up to approximately chest level (in the case of the power clean) or approximately head level (in the case of the power snatch) before the athlete can receive it. This translates to a more violent hip extension and bigger shrug; simply put, more work is needed to move the bar higher. Don’t believe me? Go set up a barbell with a manageable weight and clean it. Then power clean it. See which one required you to be more explosive and pull harder.

olympic lifts

Try to ignore the huge weight and just look at the height of the bar between the second and third pulls…not a whole lot of vertical displacement

Same thing…look at the image above and try to focus on the bar path. That bar has to travel a lot higher before she catches it, which translates to a more violent hip extension and greater vertical displacement. Thanks be to Starting Strength for the image.

Same thing…look at the image above and try to focus on the bar path. That bar has to travel a lot higher before she catches it, which translates to a more violent hip extension and greater vertical displacement. Thanks be to Starting Strength for the image.

This isn’t a new idea; Olympic lifting coach Greg Everett of Catalyst Athletics mentioned a similar idea in this book Olympic Weightlifting for Sports. At the CrossFit Football Trainer Seminar, the staff commented that the question of why the full lifts aren’t included is all too common, and their stance is similar to the one mentioned above; granted you can move more WEIGHT in the full variations, but you aren’t training to be the best at the snatch and clean and jerk if you’re a field sport athlete. You’re utilizing the lifts to build speed and power, which the power variations are more effective at doing. For athletes, relying on a steady diet of heavy squats (back and front), and power variants of the Olympic lifts will yield the best training results and translate better to their sport of choice. I would even argue that the needs of military members (“tactical athletes”, as some long to call them) would be better met relying on the power variants vice the full variants as well.

And what about non-athletes? The folks who just want to get fit and look good in a bathing suit? I know more than a few gyms that simply don’t have these people performing ANY Olympic lifts. Why? Because they don’t need them. Now, the clients in these gyms are generally older, typical housewives/soccer moms and businessmen, or even retirees that wanted to get active, but I think you can make the same case for anyone who simply wants to just get healthy and fit. These lifts aren’t necessary for them to obtain that goal, so why include them?

It’s been mentioned time and again that CrossFit is responsible for the resurgence in popularity of Olympic lifting, which can be easily seen in today’s gym environment. When I was in college and would come home for the summer I would workout a local 24 Hour Fitness (this was before CF gyms were more plentiful than Cosplay actors at Comic Con) with a friend of mine. Guess who were the ONLY two guys doing any sort of Olympic lifts in that gym? Yep. Seeing us swinging dumbbells, doing kipping pull ups in the cable crossover machine, and performing Olympic lifts (albeit with awful form) were a common sight for the staff there. Contrast that to a few months back when I was travelling and stopped into an LA Fitness for a quick lift session; I could barely get a squat rack because guys were busy doing reverse curl power cleans because it was back day and they needed to pump up their traps. Basic gym logic (Guy A is bigger than me and does these lift, therefore they must be good for me so I’ll do them) took over and suddenly everyone is doing them..

Above and beyond their popularity, the Olympic lifts are FUN. It feels great to jerk a heavy weight overhead, or PR in the snatch, so I know people will continue to utilize them because of that reason, along with the myriad of other benefits they offer. Am I saying the full lifts are useless? Heck no. But, are they the MOST useful for what you’re training for?