The Holy Wars; Why I Use Olympic Lifts…Sometimes

TAGS: hamer, romanian deadlifts, Olympic lifts, explosive, coach, strength training, strength coach

I’ve found that I have the best alone time when walking my dogs on a nice morning. A few days ago, it was unseasonable warm here in Pennsylvania, and I was spending some quality time with two of my dogs. I started thinking about training. I recently read one of Joe DeFranco’s posts, and my thoughts turned to his ideas. I respect and have learned a lot from Joe over the years. That being said, I’m my own man and I don’t agree with everything he says or does. This is where my mind began to wander. I love to read Mike Boyle, mainly because he upsets people. Mike says don’t squat. I squat! Joe DeFranco says don’t do cleans. I do cleans! Jason Ferruggia says don’t eat meat. Well, I’ll let each of you decide on this one for yourself.

For many years, I didn’t use Olympic lifts at all for athletes. Even though I wasn’t using these lifts or versions of them, I did steal ideas from Olympic lifts and the lifters. I’ve trained with Olympic lifters, drank beer with them, and even shared lifting ideas. This might be a sin to some, but I love all people in the iron game. For all those years, I thought extensively about these lifts and why and how they became such a hot topic in strength and conditioning. No other lifts create the same passion in people like the clean and snatch do. Imagine if people argued over pull-ups the way they do over Olympic lifts. Seems crazy, doesn’t it?

After years of thinking, reading, lifting, and texting some great strength coaches at all hours, I’ve decided to use Olympic lifts. Sometimes. Understand that these lifts are no different than any other barbell lift. Yes, they’re a sport themselves, but so is the barbell curl (yes, people do compete in this lift). Let me talk more about the clean here because it’s the more utilized lift and the lift that is generally fought over.

The clean (power clean from the hang to be exact)

Why would you choose to use the clean in all the exercises in your toolbox? Because it’s a full body movement that improves the rate of force development and the ability to absorb weight. Remember, a muscle must be able to express force as well as absorb it. A good catch in the power clean from the hang is a great way to absorb force. I know that many coaches (even me) have said that any lift can be done explosively. This is 100 percent true, but if we’re talking about the power lifts, they aren’t inherently explosive lifts.

Do a box squat as fast as you can with 60 percent and see how long of a contraction you get. Now do a clean with 60 percent and see how long the contraction is. The clean is faster! The best athlete is the athlete who has the ability to turn the central nervous system on and off and on again as fast as possible. Think about the clean. You turn the central nervous system on in the power position, turn it off to drop under the bar, and turn it back on to absorb the force of the bar.

Once you’ve taught your athletes the clean, you can open them up to many different versions of it for complexes and other strength exercises. One of the challenges we do is a complex of five Romanian deadlifts, five clean pulls, five cleans, five front squats, five push presses, and five back squats. This is a great way to get athletes to compete and work hard!

One other discovery I’ve found with adding in cleans was that once the clean was through, we could have an athlete use a squat clean from the hang. Rarely will you have an athlete who has mobility issues be able to perform a squat clean from the hang position.

The down side!

Now, understand that I’m not saying every athlete needs to do cleans. I’m just pointing out that they aren’t good or evil! They are one more tool in our toolbox. I have teams and athletes who will never do a clean. My basketball team does clean pulls but not cleans. I like them to create force vertically, and I like the extra upper back work. But I know they can’t catch the bar due to their limb length. I also have some lineman who will never do a clean because injuries to the wrists or shoulders prevent them from catching the bar. Is there extra stress on the athlete when they catch a clean? Yes!

Every lift we prescribe is a stressor. Everything we do has some danger associated to it. I want someone to tell me that no one has ever been injured benching, squatting, or doing a dumbbell exercise. I learned this year that injuries in the weight room can happen during your “safe” exercises. I had my starting point guard drop a 35-lb dumbbell on his shooting hand while setting it down. It was a freak accident. But this points out the fact that we open athletes up to danger. It is our job as the coach to make it as safe as possible while still understanding that injuries may occur.

I hope that anyone who reads this does so with an open mind and realizes that I’m not saying all athletes should use Olympic lifts or all coaches should teach them. Be yourself and decide what lifts are best for you. If you don’t feel comfortable teaching a clean, don’t teach it! If you think they’re too dangerous, that’s fine. Don’t use them. But if you feel comfortable teaching them and your athletes can do the Olympic lifts, why not add this tool to your toolbox? Good luck and keep learning from everyone!

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