Olympic Lifts; attempting a balanced view!

Introduction
For most people the sport of Weightlifting or Olympic Weightlifting is something that they become briefly aware of every 4 years when some highlights from the Olympics Games are shown on TV. Whether you are a fan of the sport or not, most agree that the feats of strength and power demonstrated by the competitors during the Snatch and Clean & Jerk are extremely impressive.

Strength and conditioning coaches often include the movements in their programs to train athlete's ability to develop strength, speed, mobility and coordination. They are however, one of the most debated subjects in the field, with passions about whether to use them or not running to absurd levels (just look at the comment count on previous O-Lift articles here)! Within this article I will discuss two of the main myths around the lifts and provide some objective and subjective rebuttals, so that people can make a more educated decision as to whether or not they utilise them in their own training.

Myth 1: "The Olympic Lifts Cause Injuries!"
Sadly the main deterrent for people using the lifts is the misconception that they are dangerous and likely to cause injuries, especially in youth athletes. The truth however, has been shown that weightlifting has an extremely low injury rate (1), especially when compared to other sports such as soccer (Table 1).

Sport Injuries per 100 participation hours
School Soccer 6.20
UK Rugby 1.92
US Basketball 1.03
Cross Country 0.37
US Track and Field 0.26
US Football 0.10
Squash 0.10
US Gymnastics 0.044
Weight Training 0.0035
Powerlifting 0.0027
Weightlifting (competitive) 0.0017

Table 1; Multi-Sport Comparative Injury Rates, adapted from Hamill (1)

Another study that focused on a group of children who trained and competed in Weightlifting over a 2 year period and experienced no injuries or lost training days during this time (2). How many other sports could achieve this? While I am not denying that injuries can occur when using the weightlifting movements, to say that they are inherently injurious obviously is not true. I personally came to the lifts later in life and certainly experienced some aches and pains whilst learning new positions, however this was due to previously poor training history on my part, resulting in limited mobility. The key to using any lift safely is to understand why the injury rates are so low, so that you can ensure the safety of your own athletes at all times;

  1. The gym platform is a very controlled environment.  Despite the speed involved in the lifts, they are done with the athlete fully focused on the task at hand and on a stable surface, using suitable equipment. Soccer players have to combat pitch and weather conditions, team mates calling to them and the opposition trying to take the ball off them; as a result injuries can come from many different places, even when all precautions are taken. 
  2. Very few children or adults are competing in Weightlifting (or Powerlifting for that matter) unsupervised! There is almost always coaches watching and critiquing form, as well as advising on loads to be used. In other sports it can be difficult to coach on finer movement patterns that can lead to injury. As an example when a basketball coach watches someone making a lay-up, are they watching the mechanics of the knees during take-off and landing, or are they watching whether the athlete moved away from defenders effectively and if the basket was scored? 
  3. When failing a Snatch or a C&J, whether because of poor technique or lack of strength the athlete is usually in a place they can dump the bar onto the platform. Yes, occasionally this doesn’t happen and the athlete becomes a YouTube celebrity, but honestly this is not exclusive to the Olympic lifts! Invariably this is down to a freak incident or the athlete not ditching the bar properly (I should know, I’ve been that guy!).  Exercises don’t cause injuries, the way in which they are performed is what leads to injuries and this is true of all exercises we ask our athletes to perform, not just cleans and Snatches!!!


Appreciate these points and apply them in your own coaching and you should be providing a safe environment for your athletes.

Myth 2: "But the Olympic Lifts Take Too Long to Learn"

Image 1
A Championship Rugby player using Power Cleans in training.

Some coaches believe the length of time it takes to learn the lifts is too great and takes away from the time the athlete has to train for their actual sport.  They say that Weightlifting is a sport in its own right and question whether you should learn one sport in order to prepare for another.  Interestingly these same coaches have no issues recommending their athletes use Sprints or the Powerlifts (Squat, Bench Press and Deadlift) in their training.  These are all sports in their own right as well, with hundreds of books, videos and articles made regarding proper technique and that when done wrong can lead to injury and failure to develop the targeted physical attribute.  The key to deciding whether you include any exercise in your program is whether the athlete can develop technique of a quality so that the exercise can benefit them in their chosen sport and they will not get injured in the process.  Good coaches identify where the athlete needs to improve, select exercises that are effective at training these areas and then regress or progress the exercises in accordance with the athletes ability.

Variations of the Olympic lifts such as hang and power cleans (figure 2) require much less skill than the full versions and still produce large amounts of force and power via triple extension.  Having worked with athletes from many different sports including Rugby, Track and Field, Fencing and competitive Weightlifters, I can say there is no need to get your athletes ‘platform ready’ in order to achieve the associated benefits, unless they are actually going to be stepping onto a platform.  A rugby player utilising Hang-Power Cleans is going to gain benefit from that lift as long as it is coached to the point of being safe.  Incidentally the technique coached not only depends on the athletes sport but many other factors too; such as limb length and the coaches own personal style.  Different techniques are seen between competitive lifters over the different weight-classes and nations, so why would this be any different when coaching athletes within other sports.  Is there a wrong way to execute the lifts, definitely?  Is it possible to benefit from them without absolutely perfect technique, absolutely!

When looking at the length of time taken to learn the lifts, much of this becomes dependant on the quality of the coach teaching the lifts and the athlete’s ability to learn any new skill.  Studies have shown significant improvements can be made in Weightlifting technique in as little as 4 weeks, training 3 times a week (3).  My own experience has shown that an effective triple extension and a stable, safe lift can be achieved within one or two training sessions or faster depending on the athletes training history.  The older the athlete is, the longer it often takes them to learn the lift due to mobility issues and the movements simply being alien to them, but if you’re working with youth athletes it shouldn’t be a difficult process.

Image 2
A British Fencing Academy athlete learns coaching progressions for the snatch.

For some coaches however this is still too much time.  Strength & Conditioning is a result driven profession and therefore the philosophy has become to make athletes as strong and powerful as possible in the shortest time possible. I understand the demand placed upon coaches; however I still think that where possible, especially with youth athletes we should aim for a ‘slow burn’ approach where long term athlete development is placed as a primary goal.  Not all of us are Joe DeFranco with athletes on 12 week combine prep, as much as we would all like to be! 

Some Final Thoughts

Whether you decide to include the lifts in your programming or not should always be athlete dependent, not coach dependant!  The athlete is the most important person in this relationship.   The athletes sport, training history, injury history, competition schedule and many other factors should be taken into account when designing any program for them.  As coaches we should strive to utilise any tool from the toolbox that can help our athlete achieve success in their sport. I think it has become almost fashionable though for some coaches to not use the Olympic lifts because some well-known coaches do not, when in reality they have often not taken the time to learn the lifts for themselves.  They do not understand the specific experiences that these coaches have, that resulted in them making the decision to not include them.  One things for certain though, if these coaches wanted to teach these lifts, they could.  I know with my own teams I teach the lifts to my rugby players, however do not feel it necessary to coach them with my golfers. I made this decision based on evaluations of the athletes themselves and have seen both programs lead to great performances in their sport, neither have been hindered whether they have used them or not.
I believe you should have the ability to coach the lifts even if you decide not to! So many ‘internet forum coaches’ recite the perceived negative issues without having any experience of actually learning and training the lifts themselves just based upon what other coaches have said.  You should not take another coaches word for anything in this business (yes including mine), take some time to learn the moves and make up your own mind.

In the UK having the ability to coach and demonstrate the lifts is an integral part of the UKSCA’s assessment procedure.  The huge growth of Crossfit in the USA and UK (like it or not) has increased the number of people wanting to learn them, as they are integral to many of the WOD’s.  Crossfit have also created links with the USAW, to improve the level of coaching and understanding within the organisation.  As a result it is not difficult to find someone to help you learn the lifts in person.  There are also some great products from Greg Everett, Glen Pendlay and others as well as countless articles and YouTube videos dedicated to learning the lifts.

If after reading this you decide to stick with jumps & med-ball work for your athletes power development then that’s fine, but if there comes a point that you decide to include the Olympic Lifts in your program then you should be comfortable in the knowledge that they are not suddenly going to become injured and it should not take forever for them to develop an effective technique! As with any new lift, the key is to be patient, use regressions and progressions where appropriate and understand that coaching is an on-going process.  That’s why we’re called Strength & Conditioning COACHES, not just Strength and Conditioning Supervisors!

References

(1) Hamill, B.P. Relative safety of weightlifting and weight training. J. Strength Cond. Res. 8(1):53–57. 1994.

(2) Byrd, R., K. Pierce, L. Reilly, and J. Brady. Young weightlifters’ performance across time. Sports Biomech.2(1):133–140. 2003.

(3) WINCHESTER, J.B., ERICKSON, T.M., BLAAK, J.B. and MCBRIDE, J.B., 2005. Changes in Bar-Path kinematics and Kinetics after Power-Clean Training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 19(1), 177-183.