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:

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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?

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