Olympic Lifts are usually unnecessary

Athletes and other fitness minded people sometimes ask me about the Olympic Lifts. Click here for a decent synopsis of what these are referring to.

Of course the cost/benefit of doing these movements depends on your training status and goals. But we'll move past the hard evidence and canned answers in order to get down to some solid opinion. This video of an amateur hitting an impressive lift is a prime example of both the good and the bad of the clean, one of the simplest Olympic Lifts. 

Olympic lifts are low-tech, high effort, effective movements. They will absolutely improve explosive power. But so do other things. And unless you're competing in the sport of Olympic weightlifting or other fitness competitions that require them, the Olympic lifts are usually unnecessary.

1. There are better ways to gain power.

Fitness professionals often talk about how Olympic lifting trains athletes to be more powerful. And I agree that they are a great way to increase the capacity of the nervous system to generate a lot of force quickly.

Gaining power is all about making your nervous system AMPED. To apply strength to game-speed functional performance, I prefer plyometric activities of maximal total body effort in various activities like hops, jumps, and medicine ball throws. Plyometrics are far less risky way to fine-tune the nervous system for total body coordination and explosive power.

I think a lot of the evidence and "advantages" of Olympic weightlifting is more of a problem with program design. An Olympic lifting day for a basketball player may include one or two exercises with three to five sets of one to five reps. After warming up, the athlete is looking at a total of approximately 20 maximal total body efforts. But when fitness professionals and coaches design a plyometric training program, they prescribe various jumps, hops, and throws in sets of 20 to 50 or even 100 repetitions. Coaches have athletes run bleachers and do P90X. Jumping around for that many reps demands a lot of effort, but it's a far cry from from increasing an athletes peak power output.

2. There are better ways to gain size.

Just because the best fitness and weightlifting competitors are fairly big badass dudes does not imply that they got that way because of doing Olympic lifts. More likely, they became big and strong people who then spent plenty of time gaining neurological efficiency specific to those movements.

Muscle growth occurs from ripping your existing muscle fibers apart, which demands both heavy loading and a certain amount of time under tension. Contrast this with Olympic lifting, which necessitate lighter loads relative to any individual athlete. For example, everyone can deadlift (traditional lift) far more than they can power clean (Olympic lift).

Olympic lifting is far more about generating momentum in the most mechanically advantageous portion of the movement so as to apply during the more difficult phases of the movement. This looks and feels pretty cool. But the time under tension is minimal and it does relatively little to stress your muscles through a full range of motion with sufficient loading.

3. Time

Mastering form on these technical movements takes quite a while. With school and practice and games and family and social schedules, most athletes have a hard time learning proper form and technique of the basic squat and deadlift variations much less high speed Olympic lifts. With off season practices and travel clubs, most fitness professionals are lucky to get 2 solid months of training out of our athletes. That time can be better spent elsewhere.

Why are we seeing 130 lb athletes with profound weakness and/or mobility issues doing Olympic lifts with huge low density 10 pound bumper plates? Wouldn't it be a far better use of their time (and safer) to get them to, say, an easy set of 5 squats or deadlifts with 1.5 times their body weight? And no snatch grip anything until you can perform a fairly strict standing overhead press of your bodyweight.

While I'm on a rant let me also say that while high rep Olympic lifts are definitely taxing to the system, the far majority of athletes are nowhere near ready for high reps for the purpose of conditioning. Instead have them sprint up the hill or go to town on a rowing machine or push the car or perform high rep goblet squats or...

Fine tuning the computer "nervous" system of a Prius still leaves you with a Prius. Time would be better spent building the engine.

4. The Face Factor

I'm no stranger to missed lifts or strained muscles and joints. But the risk/benefit ratio of Olympic movements is just not there, especially when you really want to push your limits. The Olympic lifts require great strength, mobility, and coordination. That does NOT imply that the Olympic lifts are the best way to improve where these qualities are lacking. Far from it.

There are no other forms of exercise or sport that demand athletes to move very heavy and hard objects very quickly (again, outside of weightlifting and fitness competitions). The margin of error is rather small and the consequences relatively severe as compared to other forms of exercise.

Contrast this with traditional multijoint lifts, which employ the use of relatively greater loads but simply don't have the same face-driven-into-the-floor factor. Take, for example, something like barbell squats. You can tell when you're going to lose and/or miss a heavy squat. The intention to create an explosive lift is there. But since the load is so heavy, the movement is relatively low velocity and controlled.

5. Training = Rehab, Rehab = Training

It's rare to find a person who does not have some kind of musculoskeletal issue. It may be a slumped thoracic posture, a leg length discrepancy, or poor lumbar stability. It may be inflexible hips, weak glutes, or tight ankles. Olympic lifts will often mask various compensations. There is little room to identify, much less correct faulty positions and movement patterns. Traditional lifts and their variations usually allow for some degree of focused attention on your weakest link.

6. Gear

The Olympic lifts require bumper plates, space, and a favorable atmosphere. This is no huge thing, but go ahead and try throwing even the 3-pound purple dumbbells up overhead in your basement with light fixtures and 7 foot ceilings. Drop anything substantial at Planet Fitness, and you are about to be judged.

But yeah - pretty much any type of worthwhile exercise can go wrong. Like this squat that went wrong from start to finish:

 - - - - -

What say you? Keep in mind that I'm not claiming that you cannot gain size from Olympic weightlifting or that you cannot get injured by doing other exercises. Have you found the Olympic lifts to be unnecessary and mostly pointless? Or are they an essential key to unlocking your greatest everything?


you are what you eat [and do]

Unpacking the proverb.  

For year, nutritionists and trainers have explained that a person cannot achieve their health and fitness goals by exercise alone. "You can't out-train a poor diet." I stand by this advice, and I've said it myself. A 30-minute run burns approximately 300 calories above and beyond resting metabolic rate. Most people can take in that many calories in 5 seconds. (Well, I can). Hey, lay off my eating etiquette! The point is that exercise to merely burn calories is a tedious means of achieving energy balance.

Dismounting the dieting/treadmill...treadmill.

There's definitely more to the story of how you look, feel, and function. What we eat will always be relevant, but it's not the bottom line. Exercise is important, and overall lifestyle even more so.

[runs away, screaming in terror]
So many of us are ultra particular about what we will and will not eat. Of course there's the gluten thing, which kind of ruins it for people who really do have celiac disease. I've recently heard intelligent people describing how non-organic apples are pure poison and having a little chocolate wrecks the immune system. Does everyone believe they are the exception to the basic tenets of human physiology? By definition, this cannot be the case.

How refreshing would it be to hear someone say "I'm not having cake right now because I already had a huge cheeseburger and some fruit salad. But really, right now I'm just trying not to be a hog?"But instead, we are far more likely to get "Take these non gluten free croutons off my organic non-GMO free range chef salad because, yeah, I can't eat those."

I wish people would quit kidding themselves. Don't tell me that you never go home and pound the m&ms. You could have, well, pretty much anything if you ate it less frequently and in reasonable amounts. I've seen what happens when an individual musters enough willpower to follow the diet and their metabolism crashes and they look and feel deflated. We pound the m&ms. And then, well of course - we need a more strict diet!

I think we are asking too much of our diets.

We place far too little value and effort in a common-sense approach to eating, and far too much emphasis on -our- particular diets. Most of these particular/fundamentalist diets have no legitimate research behind them and their rules are over-rated. But do you know what's under-rated? Not eating the whole bag. Eating your fill and holding off on desert most of the time. Getting enough sleep. Turning your attention to something productive when you're bored in front of the TV. 

The NKYCS (No Kidding Yourself Common Sense) diet is sufficient for those who are reasonably active and carry some muscle on their frame. Eat fruit, vegetables, lean meats/proteins, and minimally-processed foods most of the time. Eat what you need 80 or 90% of the time and a reasonable amount of what you want 10 or 20% of the time. The everday readily available foods can be healthy if we use a little forethought. 

Why is such common sense advice and follow-through insufficient? One of the reasons, I believe, is because we have it too good.


We have so many options. After all, in America the poorest among us are not starving, but obese. Instead of using common sense and following through when it's challenging, we become diet Pharisees. We find or make rules to lean on when we don't want to think for ourselves. Rules to narrow our options. We look to ever compounding minutia that will deliver us to the health and fitness Promised Land, staring right past our freedoms and blessings and a million and one other more important things.


Most of us take rather drastic measures to achieve comfort. Have you stopped to consider the typical grocery store and gym? What I witness at the Giant grocery store and Golds Gym is not typical of the human experience. So many of the foods, gadgets, machinery, and exercise programs are an attempt to achieve health and fitness without getting too uncomfortable. Comfort is king and we have lost perspective.

You sit on this behemoth so you can straighten your elbows.
The thing we're most lacking is not some perfect "Eat this" and "Don't eat that." The missing ingredient is simply making formal and informal physical activity a priority in our busy schedules. And what if we could add a willingness to gradually get acquainted with discomfort? This is not a call to injury, but to pushing through the inertia that got us where we are, to carefully increasing the intensity in all it's forms, to confronting weaknesses instead of doing what comes easy.

Informal activity

Informal activity is the movement behind life. You enjoy hiking or gardening or serving others or chasing your kids or playing softball or whatever you get lost in.  Calories are burnt, for sure, but this is not the primary point. The point is living life, and getting yourself busy with something productive or enjoyable. This could be just about anything that does not involve sitting on the couch or at a desk.

Formal exercise

Some people enjoy limited amounts of formal exercise, but please understand that the point is not enjoyment or merely burning energy. This is where you work on specific impairments in movement quality. Two or three times per week you emphasize building strength, balance, and coordination. Adding muscle is not just for middle school football players. Muscle keeps you functioning well and moving in life. Muscle on the frame increases energy expenditure around the clock and stops the cycle of more exercise and more dieting rules needed to maintain energy balance.

Formal exercise should not look like hours on the elliptical or sitting on various exercise machines. Whether or not you enjoy walking and running, exercise should include more than straight ahead "cardio."

In conclusion

It's a shame that the NKYCS diet would not sell. Asking people to shift their priorities, to get busy and be uncomfortable is also unlikely to be well received. I'm sure the next big diet will be sciency, flashy, and new. There will be a physique, realistic but with just enough digital alteration to promote discontentment. Add an exercise contraption, a sense of urgency, and dash of fear to complete the winning formula.

And remember that I'm no dietician or chemist. I'm just a physical therapy guy who will readily admit that ANY activity, even walking three hours per day or driving to the huge temperature controlled environment to sit on a tricep extension machine, is likely better than nothing at all.

- - - - -

You have heard that it was said long ago, "You cannot out-exercise a poor diet." But I say that you should not diet at all; neither by calorie counting, for this is unnecessary tedium; nor out of fear, for some form of hatred quickly follows; nor by an appeal to the past, for the blessings and curses of the present are inevitable.

Instead, seek common sense, self discipline, and gratitude. Use your time and abilities wisely. And stay strong.



The Other Testimonial

I have mixed feelings about the patient testimonials that you see everywhere. Well here's one testimonial that you never see allied health professionals listing on their marketing materials.

"This is not helping."

Read more here at The High Calling.