Author: Anthony Mychal
Are the Olympic Lifts as Good as PF Flyers? Part I
Next to PF Flyers, nothing is said to make an athlete run faster or jump higher quite like the Olympic lifts. This idea came from a sports science study done during the 1964 Mexico City Olympic Games, which found Olympic weightlifters to jump higher and run 25 yards faster than any other athlete. (Sprinters and high jumpers included.)
The results were pretty convincing: Olympic lifting can help strength and power athletes. And so these days, most programs around the country do some kind of Olympic lifting in hopes of their athletes reaping some strength and power benefits.
But does it make sense? Do they really help? Should they be used?
DO THEY INCREASE SPORTS PERFORMANCE?
The Olympic lifts are said to:
- Make you explosive.
- Train triple extension.
- Help you produce force.
- Be sport specific.
But first, let’s remember that the term “Olympic lifts” is used loosely. Few people do the full versions of the Olympic lifts, which is an immediate red flag.
Traditional, “full” Olympic lifts are like depth jumps on steroids. In order to get underneath of a falling barbell, you have to relax your entire body. (Realistically, relaxing to the point of falling faster than 500 pounds.) This is followed by immense contraction to “catch” the bar and explode back up.
It’s not so much the cleans, snatches, and jerks but the squat portion of those lifts (and the corresponding ability of that lifters ability to squat fast) that enables a high class lifter to jump through the roof.
– James Smith/The Thinker
And yet few people do the squat variations. In fact, few people do anything but hang cleans and power cleans.
So I think the Olympic lifts can be of benefit, especially when trained the way Olympic weightlifters train, but that’s simply not the way most people train them. And people don’t train them they way because they can’t.
DO ATHLETES REALLY TRAIN LIKE OLYMPIC WEIGHTLIFTERS?
Most NFL combine wide receivers have a vertical jump—at the least—in the high 30s. So does that mean we should catch footballs and run button hooks to improve our vertical jump?
Most Olympic weightlifting training is in the name of improving the snatch and clean and jerk. And even the highest of high class Olympic weightlifters need a watchful eye to monitor technical precision.
An athlete of another sport can’t realistically follow the same training schedule or program without becoming an Olympic weightlifter themselves. It’s like an Olympic weightlifter doing two ten minute dribbling sessions per week in hopes of handling the ball like an NBA point guard. It doesn’t work that way because basketball players practice those skills daily. Doing them in a program here and there won’t deliver comparable results.
The types of strength, power, explosiveness—whatever you want to call it—are all skills. When practiced regularly, you get better at them. That’s why Javelin throwers are explosive. That’s why Football players are explosive. That’s why high jumpers are explosive. But when do you see Olympic weightlifters play football to get more explosive? It doesn’t happen because each sport has specific demands that fail to carry over.
Now, I don’t doubt that the Olympic lifts make you explosive. But so does jumping, running, and medicine ball tosses – three things that are easier to teach and less stressful on the body. And when you’re dealing with an athlete that has their own sport’s technicalities to worry about, simpler and less stressful is a good thing.
ARE WE AS STRONG AS OLYMPIC WEIGHTERS? DOES IT MATTER?
The highest force production ever recorded during sports was during the second pull of the snatch.
Pretty interesting stuff.
But a part of this is technical proficiency. Again, these studies are done on Olympic level athletes. Their technique is the best of the best. Their neuromuscular efficiency is maximized.
Just think: these athletes are hoisting 400 pounds from the ground overhead in one motion.
Us mere mortals might only be cleaning 50% of our deadlift and 25% of our snatch. We’re moving a lower load, and we’re likely moving it slower because we don’t specialize in it. Part of “power” is force, and part of force is the weight on the bar. Because of the technical nature of the lifts, we can’t use as much weight which reduces the potential for showcasing power.
And the only way to specialize in it is to treat Olympic weightlifting as a sport and not as a method. But once you do that, you become an Olympic weightlifter. It’s impossible for a wide receiver to devote the time and energy necessary to become a master Olympic weightlifter. Besides, there’s no need to. He gets paid to catch the ball and run routes, not snatch or clean. He gets paid to be a football player and not an Olympic weightlifter.
DOES SPEED MAKE THE LIFTS SPORT SPECIFIC?
From a speed of movement standpoint, the Olympic lifts are done faster than more classical lifts. But this doesn’t make them more specific because it only addresses the “speed” aspect of movement. Really, consider anything you do with a barbell in your hands fairly non-specific to anything not involving a barbell. When you think about it, it makes sense. A basketball is specific to basketball. A football – football. A soccer ball – soccer. A barbell – barbell sports.
The Olympic lifts are predetermined movement patterns that happen in closed environments. Most team sporting movements are the opposite. A basketball point guard needs to dribble well, pass well, and shoot well all while reacting to an ever-changing atmosphere. Those are his sport specific demands. What can the Olympic lifts do to improve them? Yeah, maybe they’ll help him jump higher. But that’s all. It’s not going to make him a better basketball player. It will only enhance his general physical abilities, not sport specific needs. There are a lot of people in the world that can jump high and clean 315 pounds that will never play in the NBA.
There is nothing sport specific about picking a balanced barbell off of the ground from shin height, squatting underneath it, and hoisting it in the air.
THE BIGGEST HICCUP IN USING THE LIFTS…
Perhaps the biggest hiccup with using the Olympic lifts lies within form differences and the conceptualization of the triple extension and “jumping” portion of the lift.
I’ll leave you with two snapshots. You tell me the difference between them.
I’ll be back to explain this in Part II.
Anthony Mychal is a former coached turned writer. He’s been featured in T-Nation, STACK, My Mad Methods, Greatist, Elite FTS, and LIVESTRONG.com. In his spare time, he can be found lifting barbells or flipping around on a bed of grass in the name of martial arts tricking (http://www.tricktraining.net). His personal blog, Beast Mode Fitness Systems (http://anthonymychal.com), is dedicated to sending salutations to skinny-fat syndrome and awakening the athletic animal within.