// The truth about Olympic lifting
by Corey Bocking
Elite athletes have used Olympic-style lifts and their variations such as power cleans, hang cleans and power snatches for strength training for many years. By being incorporated into a regular training program, however, this style of lifting offers numerous benefits for clients of all ages and abilities and with varying training goals.
Olympic-style lifts have enormous potential for myriad clients, whether the desired outcome is power, strength, hypertrophy or fat loss.
Olympic lifts have been criticised by some trainers and coaches who doubt that these advanced strength training methodologies have any direct correlation to improved physical performance. However, I strongly believe that such lifts are extremely valuable, and that ignoring them potentially limits one’s training potential and outcomes.
Olympic lifts and their variations offer the following benefits:
- They are performed standing.
- They are whole body compound movements.
- They replicate movement patterns crucial to movement, performance and sport.
- They have high levels of motor-unit recruitment.
- They increase range of movement and improve posture.
This is important for a number of reasons; mostly because the majority of sports and everyday activities are performed in standing. Standing and dynamic movements require you to stabilise the spine and to either produce or receive force. Training while standing also develops proprioception and spatial awareness – beneficial for teaching the body to support and stabilise itself. In all standing sports and activity, force is generated from the floor and is transferred to the lower limbs and up through the kinetic chain.
Whole body compound movements
Olympic lifts are whole body compound movements, which are vital to quality athletic performance. Performing compound movements is extremely important for athletes who have team training, skills practice, speed work and conditioning with limited time for strength training. Olympic lifts and variations can be considered ‘best value for money’ exercises because they can achieve notable results and don’t require lengthy sessions in the gym. For example, performing a power clean develops leg, hip, back and shoulder strength while also developing core and torso stability and strength. During the catch and recovery phases, the ability to absorb load is trained, so too are the stabilising muscles around the spine, shoulder joint, legs, hips and back.
Replicate movement patterns vital to movement, performance and sport
Olympic lifts replicate natural movement patterns of running, jumping, throwing, punching and tackling. The main pattern that is trained in Olympic lifting and replicated in other sports is the phenomenon of ‘triple extension’. Triple extension is defined as the simultaneous extension of the ankle, knee and hip that occurs when performing lower body movements like running, jumping and hopping. In addition to triple extension, during Olympic lifts force is translated into the floor, through the torso and limbs. This helps develop a strong and stable torso.
Most sports require the ability to absorb load, i.e., when catching, being tackled or being hit. Eccentric deceleration is vital for both absorbing load and for tapping into the elastic potential of muscle. The ability to absorb load and to eccentrically decelerate forces are trained in the catch and receiving positions of the Olympic lifts and their power variations.
High levels of motor recruitment
Speed is a key requirement for the majority of sports. Neuromuscular recruitment, the ability to recruit and contract as many motor units as possible, is crucial for the development of speed. Olympic-style lifts are fantastic speed developers because training explosively with fast movements will make you faster. Power cleans, for example, will develop speed, strength and power if performed quickly and explosively.
Increase range of movement and improve posture
As trainers, we know the benefits of working through optimal range of movement and the importance of posture and how these two factors relate to athletic performance. When range of movement is limited and posture is poor, muscles are not able to fire correctly, meaning that performance is limited and the chance of injury is greatly increased. Olympic lifts and their variations have the ability to both increase range of movement across the body and improve posture. The hip range of movement is greatly improved; just picture the bottom position of the clean or the snatch. Stability and range is greatly developed across the shoulder joint, and the thoracic spine is greatly strengthened. In fact, all the ‘postural’ muscles, which support the spine and the pelvis, are developed with Olympic lifts.
With these benefits of using Olympic-style lifting and its variations, it is surprising that these exercises are not more common among personal trainers. The deadlift from the floor, in particular, is extremely beneficial, especially for improved athletic performance and in the rehabilitation of back injuries. So why do many trainers refrain from using exercises such as deadlifts, clean pulls and clean variations in their training?
There are three main factors that often deter trainers from using these advanced lifts:
- sequencing, progressions and regressions are not understood
- limited exposure to these lifts.
Many trainers believe that Olympic lifts are unsafe. At the Performance Training Institute we have developed, and now teach, the following five prerequisites for trainers to understand and develop the confidence to use these extremely beneficial exercises with suitable clients.
Checklist for Olympic-style lifting
Prior to conducting a program involving advanced strength training, the following screening process should be undertaken to ensure that the participant is ready to begin.
1. Single-leg squat
Participants should be efficient in performing 10 single-leg squats, maintaining proper alignment through the ankle, hips and knees.
2. Thoracic extension
With arms overhead, the participant should be able to reverse their thoracic curve. This is particularly important in any overhead lift.
The participant should be able to maintain optimal technique throughout the deadlift movement, also maintaining proper postural alignment.
4. Isometric back strength test
Have the subject lie prone over a fitball, arms outstretched holding onto a fixed object. The subject’s legs should then be raised into a position that places them parallel to the floor. The participant needs to be able to hold this position for at least two minutes, but ideally between three to four minutes.
5. Training age
Only participants who have been training for at least six months should begin a training program that incorporates Olympic lifts.
If a client cannot successfully perform all of the above steps, they need to work on and develop the required ability before undertaking Olympic-style lifts.
When clients are ready and the exercises are performed correctly, Olympic-style lifts are completely safe. The key is to ensure correct technique, progressions and proper loading parameters. A person’s injury history is also extremely important – you must know your client’s limitation, strengths and weaknesses.
Sequence, progressions and regressions
It is extremely important that correct sequencing, progressions and regressions are understood and applied. Having identified that your client can achieve the five necessary prerequisites, you know where to start and can determine the next progression.
Knowing when to regress an exercise is equally important. For example, if a client is struggling to fully extend their hips in a hang clean, you would need to regress them back to a clean pull.
The following progressions should be adhered to;
Front squat » back squat » push press
deadlift » clean pull » hang clean » power clean
Limited exposure to these lifts
As a trainer, time with your clients is often limited and these Olympic-style lifts can take time to learn and develop properly and safely. This is where some of the variations of the Olympic lift are useful, as the learning curve is shorter and you can build from the simple exercises to the more complex; using your knowledge of progressions.
You should, personally, be able to successfully demonstrate the lifts; you don’t have to be able to front squat 200kg, but you do need to be able to do a squat with the bar in order to effectively demonstrate and coach the lifts.
I believe that everyone can benefit from some form of advanced strength training exercises, with the goal being to teach the body to transfer force from the ground up. When used correctly in a simple or complex strength development program that includes rotational and unilateral strength development, you and your clients will be well on your way to athletic or functional success.
Corey Bocking, BSc
The founder of the Performance Training Institute, Corey has worked with athletes of all ages and abilities from local club level through to Olympic and professional athletes from a variety of sports, including boxing, swimming and basketball. With his background in high performance coaching and business development, Corey understands what it takes to get the most out of people.
NETWORK MAGAZINE • WINTER 2010 • PP43-45