My View on Olympic Weightlifting for Athletic Development in Team Sports
Olympic Weightlifting. BOOM. Fair to assume that most sport performance professionals tend to get into their feelings reading those words?
Okay, maybe that’s just an ever-so-slight exaggeration. But visualize yourself attending any given sports performance conference. Out of nowhere someone yells out loud ‘OLYMPIC WEIGHTLIFTING’. The vast majority of the attendees are likely to voice some pretty strong opinions. For argumentation’s sake, let’s assume that we see some fairly opposing opinions. Out of each camp, there’s one especially ‘enthusiast’ who represents their camp and voices their opinions rather expressively. Let’s run through the opinions of these two enthusiasts for a quick second.
Enthusiast A: lives and dies by the Clean and Jerk and Snatch. Including the lifts in athletic development programs is indisputably the pre-eminent love story since peanut butter met jelly. The Olympic lifts should unquestionably be a staple in any athletic development program. Enthusiast A might, totally coincidentally, over-value Deadlifting, Squatting and Bench Pressing to the point where it has zero (zilch, nada) remaining transfer to sports performance. But who’s counting?
Enthusiast B: despises the use of the Clean, the Jerk, and the Snatch. They are far too time-consuming to teach and the added value over other tools is really not all that impressive. To be honest, there really isn’t any added value at all. Basically, it’s the worst bang-for-your-buck method within athletic development. How these lifts have managed to still be relevant to this day, even as their efficacy in athletic development has long been disproven by ample evidence, is utterly baffling.
Our absolutist-loving enthusiasts A and B are showing signs of escalating passive-aggressive behavior. And there you are, caught in the middle, asking yourself: “wouldn’t the value of the Olympic lifts be totally context-dependent?”.
So, let’s mute our designated enthusiasts for a little bit. Let’s dive a bit deeper into the efficacy of the implementation of the Olympic lifts within team sport settings.
Context. Is. King.
I’m here to advocate for the following: the efficacy of the Olympic lifts depends on a nearly infinite number of variables. ‘It depends’ is probably the single-most run-of-the-mill answer you can get. But there’s truth in it, and stay with me here!
In the next sections, we’re going to run through some of the primary advantages and disadvantages of using Olympic Weightlifting within our programs for athletic development, specifically geared towards team sports settings. I’ll aim to come at it with a fresh perspective, which is mainly a result of my own experiences working within the sport of Olympic Weightlifting as well as team sports settings. Finally, to conclude, I’ll provide how context has influenced my own decision-making process, diving into when I have and haven’t implemented the Olympic lifts and their derivatives.
So why should you care about my opinion?
Well, you probably shouldn’t. It’s only an opinion. The globe spins no different with and without it, and Olympic lifts will be utilized with and without it too. But…
So far in my career, I have been very fortunate to work with a wide variety of athletes and sports. While I currently work primarily in basketball and football, a decent part of my background is working with Olympic Weightlifting athletes at the national and international (European) levels. You know, the athletes on this planet that HAVE TO actually do the Olympic lifts. Considering, you know, it’s their sport and all! This has given me the opportunity to see Weightlifting athletes and team sports athletes up close. So, I’ve been given the opportunity to recognize commonalities as well as distinct differences between the types of athletes.
Now although Olympic Weightlifting is highly technical and requires a very special set of skills to compete at the highest levels, athletic development within the context of Weightlifting is relatively simple. Don’t get me wrong, it’s hard. Very, very hard. But unlike team sports, we’re not facing seemingly endlessly interconnected variables. It is much easier to determine the best practices that we need to use in order to optimize our odds of outperforming our previous best.
For team sports athletes, there are a gazillion interrelated factors that influence performance in sport. To determine the relationship between an exercise in the weight room and performance in sport we need to filter out the noise. And thus, determining whether the usage of the Olympic lifts is actually substantiated is pretty darn difficult.
With a training method as often used as the Olympic lifts within athletic development, we must be able to provide ample reasoning as to its widespread implementation at all levels. In order for us to ‘understand’ in what contexts we can successfully apply the Olympic lifts, let’s dive into some of the biggest advantages and disadvantages of the Olympic lifts in team sports settings.
Just to clarify, I don’t want to blast through every run-of-the-mill piece of literature as to why Olympic Weightlifting would be advantageous for athletic development. I’d say there are better ways to spend your time, as the usual test subjects in most of the available literature (college students, anyone?) will see improvements doing pretty much anything.
What I do want to get into are reasons that are relevant for practical applicability of the Olympic lifts in team sports settings. So, let’s start off with some of the positive stuff.
Fun and engaging
We shouldn’t have to care about fun, it’s all about results! Looking at training from that perspective is fine. But I consider fun in training a pretty easy win. Maybe the most valuable aspect of why you SHOULD be incorporating Olympic lifts in your programs…
Not Power Development. Not general physical development or competency within the weight room. Just good ol’ fashioned FUN.
Fun, and thus athlete engagement, in my eyes is the single most underrated and valuable aspect of Olympic Weightlifting. Sometimes we forget the perspectives of our athletes. Generally, they grow up playing a GAME. And then we throw them in the weight room and suddenly we make them TRAIN.
We take them from situations where they are moving fast and thinking even faster. We put them in a situation where they move slow and have to rely on a feedback model. I’m sure that this can occasionally lead to a disconnect, mentally. And now I’m DEFINITELY NOT saying that there isn’t a time and a place for the boring stuff (read: heavy and slow). However, there is something about weightlifting that makes athletes more engaged. Ask yourself a question, how much excitement do you get from a loaded jump?
But have you ever warmed up, and pulled an 80% Power Clean that was so snappy, it felt like you could shoot the f-cker to the Moon? Yeah, that feeling. It FEELS athletic, it’s fun, it’s engaging. It is much easier to get intent for sub-maximal weights on Cleans than with pretty much any other training means. And that makes sense. Before you throw the Olympic lifts out of the window, consider what how your athletes can experience FUN in athletic development. Because it’s an aspect that in my eyes is truly misunderstood and undervalued. Allow your athletes to have fun and give them the chance to WANT to come back for more.
Enhanced Power Development with a Twist
Yeah, this one is pretty damn obvious. Isn’t it? The Olympic lifts serve pretty well as a means of Power Development.
For reasons I will dive into in the next paragraph, I’m actually a fan of the fact that the Olympic Lifts are semi-ballistic. What I mean there, is that the barbell’s trajectory is largely ballistic. But, in contrast to Loaded Jumps (and most other forms of Power Development training) our body does not become a ballistic object. Why is this important, you ask?
Less of the Same-Same
Working with basketball players over the years I’ve realized that I want to move away from doing more of the same. Working in a sport highly characterized by jumping volume, there is another added benefit to the Olympic lifts. During the season, I don’t want to add to the bucket that’s being filled by their sport to the point of overflowing (plyometric/jumping volume) through dosing even more of the same movement patterns in a weight room setting.
Part of the beauty of the Olympic lifts is that they allow the athletes to get ballistic intent in, without actually becoming projectiles themselves. To explain, the beauty of ballistic exercises is the exit velocity during the exercise. This is due to the fact that the movement ends with the maximal possible velocity, projecting the object into outer space. Think of a Vertical Jump, which is entirely ballistic in nature as the athlete’s body is launched off the ground. Or think of a Medicine Ball Throw, where the object becomes the ballistic projectile. Compare this to most explosive movements in sport and you’ll see high similarities between them, and subsequently a high degree of transfer. But now compare these explosive movements in sports to a Squat or a Deadlift, movements we can refer to as non-ballistic exercises in nature. Non-ballistic movements have an exit velocity of 0 meters per second, meaning there’s inherent deceleration of the body and the object towards the end of the movement. The Olympic lifts are somewhere caught in the middle. While the bar trajectory during the Olympic lifts is LARGELY ballistic (exit velocity being the moment the bar passes the hips), the athlete’s body is not projected into the air. We get ballistic intent and the Peak Concentric Force outputs that accompany it, while decreasing the amount of impact of the landing compared to when the body leaves the ground.
What goes up, must come down. This semi-ballistic movement pattern might be ideal during the season, as our athletes are then already experiencing extreme volumes of jumps in sport practices. And consequently, experiencing the high impacts upon landing.
This applies to basketball but can also be applied to any other jump-dominant sport. And having ballistic intent without the athlete becoming the ballistic object might also be very beneficial working with “heavier” athletes. There are likely phases where we aim at limiting impact, and this will especially be the case for heavier athletes. My experiences working with heavyweight fighters and front-court players in basketball has been that they have a harder time with fully ballistic movements, which makes a ton of sense.
What goes up… Must come down. And thus, a semi-ballistic method such as Olympic Weightlifting can definitely add value to your toolbox.
Competency within the Weight Room
General weight room development. This might be another underrated aspect of the Olympic lifts. Allow me to explain. From my experience, athletes who have developed competency in the Olympic lifts are highly competent in other general weight room movements such as Squatting, Hinging, Pushing and Pulling movements. Anybody that can Snatch and Clean and Jerk has probably also developed some kind of bracing mechanism, allowing our athletes to protect the spine under higher loads. They will also have developed a pretty decent level of controllable range of motion in the ankle, knee, hip, thoracic spine and shoulder. We need to control some pretty large ranges of motion, if we want to execute the Olympic lifts safely and efficiently.
Okay, reality is not always all fun and games. So how about the possible downsides of using the Olympic lifts.
Time needed for technical competency
No matter what most coaches will say, teaching TRUE technical competency in Olympic lifts is DIFFICULT and very time-consuming. It’s an OLYMPIC sport. Just because your athletes don’t look like your favorite cartoon baby deer on ice doesn’t mean they’re doing it right. 30% might learn it quickly. 40% might take some more time. 30% might never learn it properly.
Limited transfer & Increased Risk
RISK. Without technical competency in the Olympic lifts the athletes are likely to produce force through less-than-ideal mechanics.
The athlete’s knees looking like they love each other just a tad bit too much?
Feet splitting out wider than a world-record Sumo Deadlift or a modern-day remaking of Bambi?
A dash of lumbar hyperextension in the catch?
Elbows touching their stomach when catching 95% on a Clean?
The first question that comes to mind: what does this do for our injury resiliency? A fast movement requiring high technical competency executed with relatively heavy load. Almost seems like a perfect storm for increased risk of injury. Since it’s our job to keep players available to play the game, we should probably consider the best bang-for-your-buck methods in the weight room instead of pushing athletes into unnecessary risky positions. The best ability is availability.
I shortly unveiled some technical issues that could potentially increase risk during the Olympic lifts, especially when executed with heavy loads and at fast speeds. But that perfect storm still misses an ingredient before it truly becomes a devastating force. That, my good people, are movement restrictions. The Olympic lifts, when performed to absolute technical mastery, are like a beautifully orchestrated symphony. But we do have to understand that the vast majority of our athletes will look and move considerably different from the athletes who achieve technical mastery.
Nature’s pre-selection will generally determine that most team sport athletes won’t be built ideally for the Olympic lifts. That doesn’t mean that they can’t achieve competency. I’ll refrain from saying mastery instead of competency, as team sport athletes 99.9999% will NEVER achieve true mastery of the Olympic lifts.
Additionally, adaptation to imposed demand of the sport will also determine that most team sport athletes won’t move ideally for the Olympic lifts. Again, that doesn’t mean that they can’t achieve competency. But it will often-times mean that we need to expend tons more energy and spend more time developing the athletes. And all of this time and energy would be spent at efficiently and effectively executing the Olympic lifts. If the athlete’s sport is Olympic Weightlifting, this will be a very wise investment of your resources. But we could easily argue that this time and energy is better spent elsewhere when we’re dealing with team-sport athletes.
For instance, it’s well documented that in order to be competent at the Olympic lifts we need to tick a lot of boxes mobility-wise. Ankle dorsiflexion, hip external rotation, thoracic extension, shoulder flexion, et cetera. Improving this can be very time-consuming. Whether seeking the necessary improvements is a whole other discussion, as some movement restrictions will be largely structural, or adaptations based on sport demands. Again, maybe that time would be better spent at developing other aspects of athletic development for their sport. Technical and tactical development, anyone?
Ideal Speeds at given loads for Power Development?
How can we optimize the speeds at a certain load? By using exercises that are minimally complex, so that technique isn’t as much of a restricting factor. Loaded Jumps surely fit the bill, while Olympic lifts are kind of a different story here. This isn’t necessarily a knock on Olympic Weightlifting, but in order to move with technical proficiency the bar speed is generally lower than the velocity it can potentially be moved at. The reason we’re slowing down the movement is to ensure that we’re not LOSING our positions. Compare a 40 kg Power Clean to a 40 kg Trap Bar Jump. During the former, the athlete needs to maintain proper positions to not lose their technique. During the latter technique is much less of an influential factor. The decrease in complexity from the Power Clean to the Trap Bar Jump allows the athlete to move the bar FASTER.
Now this might not be much of a factor with heavier loads. At heavier loads we will generally move pretty close to our maximal attainable speed at that given load. But at lighter loads we either have to move at truly submaximal speeds or we need to throw our technique completely out the window.
Maybe these sub-maximal speeds at lighter loads could take away from the effectiveness of the Olympic lifts at Power Development with lighter loads. Fortunately, there are other tools that work very well to fill out the gaps when we’re training the entire Force-Velocity Curve!
Context and My Experiences
If I look back at the list of pros and cons that I’ve just written out, it’s pretty easy to see where, why, when and how I’ve used the Olympic lifts as tools within my own programs.
Just to give you some context, let me explain some situations where I’ve chosen to use the Olympic lifts.
When time isn’t a glaring weakness
Yes, the Olympic lifts are incredibly time and energy consuming. But when technical competency has been achieved, competency in the lifts can be of some serious service within your programs. Developing the Olympic lifts at a young age might build a strong foundation of movement patterns within the weight room for the rest of their careers. This is especially relevant at a young age where we can set the foundations of MOVEMENT QUALITY. An athlete that learns how to lift from the floor all the way to the overhead position is going to develop plenty of mobility. When I see the how many athletes develop less-than-optimal compensation patterns over the years. Well, it’s not always a pretty sight. Developing efficient and safe movement patterns at a young age might be a solid investment of our resources.
When time is a weakness
So, what if we have little time available to us?
My experiences in sports environments have largely been with professional teams, environments where the team’s roster fluctuates from year-to-year. Obviously, my biggest restriction is therefore time available with the players. In most professional team settings, I’m going to be happy if I’m able to train the players for a couple of hours each week. And excited if I see the same player two seasons in a row. That’s very little time to get to know the players and train a wide array of different physical qualities. For these reasons, in my situations I generally move away from the Olympic lifts. There are little viable reasons to take the required time to develop a complex skill when there is so much to work on. More often I’ll choose alternatives, such as Loaded Jumps, Jump Shrugs and Medicine Ball Throws instead of the Olympic lifts.
Now what if the players have had previous exposure to the Olympic lifts? Personally, I’ll just roll with it. Generally, players that have had exposure to the lifts tend to really enjoy doing them. So, if they do have the previous exposure and the required technical development, then we have the advantages of the Olympic lifts with very little disadvantages. Especially if the players ENJOY using them.
But as per usual, it does depend. If the players consistently engrained bad habits in complex skills such as the Olympic lifts, it’ll likely take more time to un-teach the habits than teach from the ground up. Something worth considering. We’d rather teach them properly from the ground up at a young age than having to undo damage when the athletes are older and have established less-than-ideal technique.
So, a verdict?
Is there a problem with coaches investing time into the Olympic lifts? No, not necessarily. Is there a problem with coaches condemning the Olympic lifts and disregarding them entirely? No, not necessarily.
Personally, I wouldn’t disregard them entirely. There’s likely some obvious value in a method as time-tested as the Olympic lifts.
One question I would make anyone ask themselves, regarding any tool or method that they decide to use. What’s the opportunity cost of doing so? Considering, what could we have alternatively done with our available resources?
As a final note: the Olympic lifts that we see in the Olympics aren’t the ones we need to necessarily use in our situations. We can take the Olympic lifts and alter them to our needs. We can use blocks for taller athletes. We can use Landmines to allow athletes with less overhead mobility to perform Split Jerks. We can simplify the technical aspect by performing the lifts from the high hang position, or not fully completing the lifts at all (Pulls). We can even use other implements, such as the Trap Bar, to use aspects of the Olympic lifts (Trap Bar Clean Pulls, anyone?). The options are pretty much limitless, but that’s a topic for another time.
Any method is as much useful as it is useless. Whatever end of the spectrum it ends up on is based on your ability to magnify its strengths and minimize its weaknesses.
Whatever path you choose, keep it simple. Understand pros, as well as cons, but most importantly: that context is always king. Just because it works well for someone else, doesn’t mean that it’ll work for you. And the other way around also holds true.