Dear Strength Coaches: Please Don't Prescribe Olympic Weightlifting Movements

Nothing to see here. Mid-distance runner doing snatch high pulls. Move along if this frightens you.

Nothing to see here. Mid-distance runner doing snatch high pulls. Move along if this frightens you.

One of my masters athletes who rows, does triathlons and road racing sent me an email from a rowing strength coach she follows.

I don’t use Olympic lifts--the clean, snatch, and their variations--in my rowing programs for a few reasons.

First and foremost, for rowers, I feel that they require too much teaching and training time to develop good enough technique to actually be able to use enough weight to stimulate gains in strength and power. I prefer to keep strength training as simple as possible, so that rowers can focus their technical efforts on all of the technical mastery of rowing. Just like rowing, Olympic weightlifting is its own sport, and Olympic weightlifters dedicate their entire training lives to mastery of the clean and snatch lifts. While you don’t need to be a total expert to still train these lifts, you do have to be very proficient in them before you can really start adding weight to the bar. Then, you have another ways to go before you’re using weights even remotely close to your squat, front squat, and deadlift, and we have to hope that this skill and strength will carryover to improved rowing performance.

Two of my pet peeve "lazy strength coach" cliches are in this email: 1) Olympic Weightlifting is a sport and thus the movements are not useful to other athletes 2) The snatch, clean and jerk and related exercises are too technical and can't be trained heavy enough soon enough by non-weightlifters to get any benefit.

Let me address these red herrings in order:

1) Yes, Olympic Weightlifting is a sport. So what? Pretty much all the implements we use in the weight room are attached to one weight sport or another. Kettlebells are an endurance strength sport, squats, deadlifts and bench presses are all contested in Power Lifting. Some strength coaches use Atlas Stones, Yoke Carries, and so on, despite the fact that their athletes will not likely be contesting Strong Man competitions. The balance fall into body building by and large, also a sport.

Every strength coach worth their salt knows that strength training is not a substitute for sports skill training: it is supplemental and should be complimentary. These movements are at root all simply exercises. The concern should be whether an exercise offers benefits to athletes that other exercises do not.

2) Yes, the snatch and clean and jerk and assistance exercises are technical and take a while to learn. But then, so do the bench press, squat, deadlift and any other exercise worth doing. All exercises require good technique and some basic athleticism to perform. It is clear to me that if the athlete has to up their athleticism somewhat to learn a new movement that's a plus.

No one learns to squat with 300 lbs. And every weightlifter I know started with a broomstick or PVC pipe. It takes years to get good at the Olympic lifts. But it takes years to get good at squats too. Just as long, actually. But we aren't doing the lifts to be competitive in the lifts. We are using them for what they can do for our athletes. If you think it takes too long to teach your athlete how to power clean, I will bet dollars to donuts your athletes don't squat very well either.

The beauty of the Olympic lifts is that just learning and practicing the technique offers great benefits, including teaching the athlete to recruit more of the muscle fiber she already has. The weightlifting movements are uniquely useful for training and developing key neuro-muscular qualities, elasticity and reactive strength, all of which contribute to improving rate of force development and speed. Sure, all trainees should squat, press, deadlift and develop basic "absolute" strength. But it's not an either-or, its both-and. No one is born knowing how to barbell squat. You gotta learn to squat, you might as well learn how to power clean too.

Teachable moment: Looky here - If we ruled out resistance training movements because they were 1) also sports themselves and 2) because you had to teach safe, proper technique, what would be left for your athlete to do?

I have been teaching the weightlifting movements for almost 20 years, to many athletes who wanted to be weightlifters, and even more productively, perhaps, to athletes in other sports trying to find an edge. I have a substantial track record (no pun intended) of athlete who are HS State Track Champs, Club Cross Country contenders, Olympic Trials Marathon qualifiers, Pro National Champion and World Team champs. High school students who started with me as HS Frosh and made it to Div I programs; all of whom improved their respective games using my strength programs. And please note: none of them had ever snatched or clean jerked and most had never squatted before working with me. If you don't have the time to work towards excellence, then, well, you just don't have time to be excellent. Many of us don't, I suppose. (Where is that channel changer?)

So please. If you are a strength coach and "don't like" the weightlifting movements, don't ask your athletes to try them. Like the author above, tell them in an email that you are committed to under serving and short changing them on their strength, speed and power development because you have a prejudice about movements you don't fully understand. I will be happy to continue to sit back and enjoy watching my athletes dominate yours.

On the other hand, if you do care about your athletes and want to help them reach their full potential and you are near Boulder, CO, I will be happy to help you take your athletes to the next level for you. Drop me a note. I do workshops, private training and group lessons.

In the end it's not about trying to rationalize or justify your lack of understanding. You only end up embarrassing yourself with your peers who know better. It's ultimately about your athletes. And, believe it or not, a lot of them know better too.

Randy Hauer