Olympic Lifts Have No Place in an Athlete's Physical Preparation

TAGS: causing an injury, sport preparation, maintain health, athlete physical preparation, explosiveness, weightlifting, coaching athletes, CrossFit, olympic movements, Olympic lifts, training program

I have been wanting to write this article for a couple years now. I waited because I felt like I did not have enough experience in the trenches coaching and I did not want to come across arrogant. Writing this article may piss some coaches off, and I am okay with that. This is in no way a knock on how other coaches are coaching their athletes, but I do have enough experience to believe that certain movements are not necessary for the physical development of athletes. Olympic lifts have no place in an athlete's physical preparation.

I am writing about this topic because I have great respect for the athletes who abuse their bodies and make sacrifices the general population will never know for the entertainment of others. I have learned the athlete comes before the training program. I do not mean they have to be babied, but they need to be kept as healthy as possible. I believe Olympic movements and their derivatives are one of the causes for non-contact soft tissue injuries. I believe the athletes should be given more rest and have reduced volume in their overall training programs. One way this can be achieved is to eradicate the Olympic movements from the physical preparation programs for athletes who do not participate in weightlifting.

With the popularity of Crossfit, Olympic lifting has infiltrated the mainstream of fitness and exercise. However, in the last two decades the Olympic lifts have become more popular in the physical preparation of collegiate and high school athletes. I must admit, performing these movements is fun and will give a lifter more variety in their training. However, when it comes to preparing an athlete for sport (except weightlifting), the Olympic lifts should be exiled from the training program.

Being in the weight room for several years with ten different head strength coaches, I have seen many different ways to perform these movements; and almost all of them are a rep away from either contributing to an injury or causing an injury. There have been several instances in my career I have heard, “coach my wrist hurts, my back hurts, and my knee hurts.”

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The wrist is hurting because the athlete is not punching his elbows up high enough and catching the bar on the shoulders while performing a power clean. Some athletes also do not have enough flexibility in their lats to punch up the elbows. When the athlete catches with the elbows pointed down all the stress is not distributed across the body, instead all the stress is being accumulated in the little bitty wrist joint. What do you think is going to give first?

As far as the lower back hurting, many of the pulls I see have been initiated with the lower back. The pull is supposed to be initiated from the hips. I see butts shooting up high before the bar has passed the knees. Once this occurs, any power that was generated with the legs is lost and must be made up for by utilizing the lower back to finish the movement. So what is supposed to be a power clean ends up looking like a stiff legged power reverse curl. This is an extreme example of technique witnessed, but it is not exaggerated. And when I watch an athlete perform either a snatch or power clean and I see the knees shoot forward when performing the catch phase of the movements, I can see why their knee hurts. Another reason why the knee hurts is the knees are allowed to be pushed in while initiating the pull. The knees look like a newborn baby deer taking its first steps out of the womb.
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I have already touched on the lack of flexibility in the lats, now let’s briefly focus on the lack of hip flexibility. As the weight gets heavier, the lifter is going to need to drop his hips and butt fast and low enough in order to catch the bar at its highest point, which is not very high once the lifter’s load is above 85%. Many of the athletes performing the power clean do not have the hip flexibility to sit in the bottom of a front squat and stand up with the weight. Instead, what is commonly seen is the athlete catching the weight without much hip descent (if any) standing up- right.

I will be the first to admit an athlete must be very strong to perform these movements with bad technique. Very strong! I will also admit all of these examples given are able to be remedied as well. However, at what cost? How much time are you willing to put into fixing all of the problematic areas of these movements? How much time are you willing to put into perfecting these movements? What it all comes down to is time and coaches at the collegiate level are only allowed the time within NCAA guidelines.

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Now, I do understand why coaches use the movements. They believe their athletes will enjoy the same athletic benefits as Olympic lifters. However, the difference is that the Olympic lifters have practiced these movements multiple times a day for several years and the average athlete walking into a collegiate weight room does not have enough experience with these movements to  enjoy the same benefits as an Olympic lifter. The Olympic lifters who are performing these lifts at a high velocity and have incredible vertical leaps are power cleaning more than twice their bodyweight. I have yet to see an athlete duplicate this feat. The best I have seen is an athlete power clean a little over 400 pounds and he weighed close to 260 pounds, if not more. Compared to an Olympic lifter, this is not impressive. Besides, since when did linemen on the football field care about their vertical jump? Their job is to maul motherfuckers, not jump over them. My last week at Southern University I told an O-lineman he made his money by protecting the quarterback, not jumping over defensive players.

Some coaches believe these movements will have a direct translation to the athlete’s sport. There is nothing performed in the weight room that will have direct translation to any sport other than powerlifting, strongman, and weight lifting. During my six years as a coach (both collegiate and high school), nobody has been able to prove these movements will make an athlete better at their sport. This is ultimately what the Physical Preparation profession is all about — assisting the sport coaches with the improvement of athletes.


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I have heard some coaches claim the Olympic lifts will make the athletes more explosive and generate more power. I say bullshit! Much of the volume I have seen is over 60% of the athlete’s 1RM, the last set of power cleans and snatches for an athlete above 75% take longer than the first, and the technique gets uglier. The last set typically takes longer to complete because he is not given enough rest time between sets. By the time the athlete gets to his last set, he has blown his load. He spends more time looking at the bar than he does moving the bar, and the bar speed has slowed down.

The formula for power is as follows: Power equals weight divided by time (P=w/t). In a nutshell, moving weight as fast as possible. The alactic energy system (short term energy system) is trained when an athlete is performing a high intensity movement for less than ten seconds with rest period up to three minutes. This is all basic physiology, but it gets thrown out when it does not coincide with the agenda of the strength coach. So I am left with this question: How is the athlete training for power when the load is too heavy to move at a high enough velocity to elicit a desirable training effect while the set is taking too long to stay within the timeframe of training for power?

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Another point I would like to make is, it is absolutely irresponsible for a coach to have unprepared athletes perform these movements. And what I mean by unprepared is, poor lower back strength, poor posture, weak hamstrings, and weak glutes. Some kids walk into a collegiate weight room for the first time and they cannot hold the bottom of a squat position for long without falling forward. They do not know how to contract their glutes and hamstrings because they were never taught how. They were also never taught how to create a rigid neutral spine when performing a squat and they have slumped shoulders from performing endless sets of bench press and pushups in high school. But when they first get to some college, coaches the first thing they learn after a crash course in squatting is how to do a hang clean even though lower back, hamstring, posture, and glute issues have not been worked out yet.

It is the responsibility of the physical preparation coach to provide the sport coach and staff with a healthy product (athletes) they can use to win games and championships. If a basketball player has a chronic wrist injury because of poor technique with cleans this is the fault of the physical preparation coach, and this can hinder the fluidity of a players shooting and other ball skills. The same goes for a linemen on the gridiron. If his lower back or shoulder is hurt because of Olympic movements, he is going to have a long day against D linemen and linebackers. And I get that all athletes play with pain at some point; it’s part of the game. As I stated earlier, providing sport coaches with healthy athletes is top priority. Not chasing numbers.


Timothy W Martin is a graduate student at Southeastern Louisiana University (SLU) and has interned there for 4 years, plus the 2015 spring semester at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Played club rugby for the SLU Lions in 2012 and has a background in MMA training. He is earning a master’s degree in sport management and is in the beginning stages of opening his training facility Frontline Athletics.  He has recently stopped MMA and is focusing more on getting bigger and stronger; and is training for his first powerlifting meet.

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