By Cory Albright CSCS, USAW L1SP
Director of Athlete Performance
Olympic lifts, such as the power clean, hang clean, snatch, push jerk, and split jerk are in nearly all strength and conditioning programs throughout college weight rooms and in some high schools. Unfortunately, due to the complexity of these lifts and the sheer number of athletes in the high school weight room setting, Olympic Lifts are typically not performed with much proficiency and can become dangerous. So do we even need Olympic Lifts? Are they really necessary or even the most beneficial exercise for athletes?
The purpose of all Olympic lifts within a strength and conditioning program is to develop triple extension power. Power is defined as exerting a maximal force in as short a time as possible. For example, if an athlete takes four seconds to squat 300 lbs. from the bottom to top position, that translates into his maximal strength because the repetition is done at such a slow speed. However, if an athlete can move that 300lbs from bottom to top position in a squat in just one second or less that translates as power. So, in the Olympic lifts, the goal is to move heavy weight as quickly as possible. The emphasis on triple extension (extension at the ankles, knees, and hips) is crucial because this power motion is performed repetitively in sports. Every time an athlete jumps, lateral shuffles, or accelerates, triple extension is used, so it only makes sense that developing power in this movement will improve an athlete’s performance.
The biggest issues with the Olympic lifts is that they are highly complex movements to perform and a lot of athletes have limitations that prevent them from performing them safely and effectively. Olympic lifters spend years developing the proper form to compete at events, while in the private sector of athlete performance training you may spend twelve weeks with an athlete in preseason before they go into season play. At the college level, they see an athlete for typically 3-5 years and they train in-season as well, so it makes sense that we see Olympic lifts utilized in most programs at that level.
Clean and Snatch
The clean and snatch are two of the most complex Olympic lifts. The easiest part of the power clean and snatch to teach is the pulling movement. The most challenging aspect of these lifts is catching them at the top. The power clean requires enough lat (upper back) and wrist mobility to catch safely and properly. The snatch requires a good amount of lat mobility and shoulder mobility to catch safely and properly. Most kids walking into weight rooms these days lack all the above. Once you diagnose those limitations, then grip strength, core strength, and coordination can also become big limitations while performing these complex movements. As a strength coach, the question becomes with all these limitations do I still implement them into the athlete’s program or are there effective alternatives that will develop the same triple extension power?
What are the alternatives?
Years ago, researchers discovered that hex bar high pulls and weighted squat jumps, both involve weight loaded to the side and in the athlete’s center of gravity, produced higher power outputs than any traditional Olympic lift. It has also been discovered that clean high pulls from mid-thigh produced higher power outputs than the traditional power clean. The hex bar high pull and high pull from mid-thigh become even more useful as they can use loads higher than that of a 1RM (Repetition Maximum – the max weight you can lift one time) power clean because they don’t require the catch. With this said, Olympic lifts still produce a lot of power output, but these alternatives are great choices for athletes with limitations, whether time or physical ability.
As the Director of Athlete Performance at Next Level Fitness & Performance, I take an individualized progressive approach. The goal at the ages 10-12 is to develop the proper triple extension movement pattern using bodyweight plyometrics, such as box jumps in multiple directions. Moving into the next age group, 13-14, a combination of plyometrics, explosive medicine ball throws, and weighted squat jumps to reinforce proper triple extension, but with an added load. Our high school aged, 15+, athletes use a combination of plyometrics, weighted jumps, and begin to utilize the alternatives to Olympic lifts as discussed above. Lastly our elite groups, a combination of highly skilled high school athletes who will make the jump to college or current collegiate athletes training with us while home, utilize a combination of weighted plyometrics, the aforementioned alternatives, and the traditional Olympic lifts.
We put a huge emphasis on our elite athletes learning and perfecting the Olympic lifts because it is used so frequently at the college level. Taking the time to learn these lifts at Next Level before entering college gives these athletes a tremendous advantage over their freshman peers, especially from a power, technique, and training maturity standpoint. By breaking down these lifts into simple progressive templates according to age group and training maturity we can individualize this aspect of their program. We can determine where to start the athlete and how to progress or regress them according to their ability to perform the lifts. And, when they reach a certain level of competency, we then can progress them.
As a strength coach, I feel it’s important to open your mind to alternatives to the traditional Olympic lifts. We have seen significant improvements in athlete performance and progression with this approach. For parents of athletes, before enrolling your athlete into a Strength and Performance Program, be sure that the program is designed around what is best for their athlete’s performance improvement and not just the cookie cutter old-school trend. Or you can bring them over to the new “Athlete Performance Center” at Next Level Fitness and Performance! We’d love to work with them!Learn more about our Athlete programs