In Praise of the Full Olympic Lifts (by Dan McQuaid)

First, let me hedge on that a little bit. I’m going to leave the jerk out of this discussion for the moment and focus on convincing you that teaching young athletes the full clean and full snatch is absolutely to their benefit.

Here’s what I call a “full clean.”clean sequence

As you can see, the athlete begins the lift by raising the bar from the floor and ends up dropping into a full squat while receiving it. Here’s a vid of a full clean.

fallwinter2006 138

Here’s what I call a “full snatch.”

snatch sequence

Once again, the lifter begins by raising the bar from the floor and sinks into a full squat while receiving it.

(Okay, there should be one more photo at the beginning of this sequence, but trust me, this was the Olympics–he took it from the floor.)

Here’s a vid of a full snatch.

fallwinter2006 166

If you have visited a high school or college weight room recently, you know that the Olympic lifts are considered an essential part of training young athletes. We had a track meet at a nearby school this weekend, and their new weight room contained ten lifting platforms with plenty of Olympic bars and bumper plates. I assume the school would not have spent the money to buy all of that equipment just to make me envious (we have four platforms).  They clearly intend for their athletes to be trained in the Olympic lifts.

And here’s why:

snatch extension

This is the top of the second pull in the snatch. The lifter has executed an explosive “triple extension” launching herself upwards with a coordinated hip, knee, and ankle extension.  This is a movement demanded of athletes in many sports. From the waist down, she could be a volleyball player leaping for a spike, a discus thrower blasting out of the power position, a defensive lineman elevating to knock down a pass, or a basketball player extending for a rebound.

That’s why the school I visited this weekend has–like schools all across the country–devoted a bunch of money and space to establish a proper training area for the Olympic lifts. The idea that these lifts can improve performance in a variety of sports is now widely accepted.

And I could not agree more.

But teaching kids how to properly execute the full lifts takes a lot of time and effort. A coach cannot bring his kids to the weight room, turn up the heavy metal music, and then sit down and play Angry Birds while the athletes manage themselves. Coaching the Olympic lifts is just like coaching the discus, or tackling, or a pickoff move. The athletes must be drilled in proper form and given regular, guided practice by a knowledgeable coach.

And, as with any sport, it takes passionate commitment to become an effective coach of the Olympic lifts.

But, if your passions are already focused on becoming a great football, volleyball or basketball coach, will you have the time and energy to pursue the training necessary to become a great lifting coach?

Or, is there a way for your athletes to garner the benefits of Olympic lifting without having to go to the trouble of teaching them the full movements?

Might partial versions of the Olympic lifts be the answer? If it is the middle portion of the clean and snatch (the “second pull”) that makes athletes more explosive can’t we just focus on that and forget about having to teach our athletes to raise the bar from the floor and to receive it by sinking into a full squat? After all, that stuff seems a bit complicated.

Let’s take a look.

Here is an athlete demonstrating a “power clean from the hang position.”

hang-power-clean

She begins the movement not from the floor but with the bar just above her knees, she blasts through triple extension, and she finishes by receiving the bar without dropping into a full squat. Based on that middle photo, it sure looks like she is getting the full benefit of performing an Olympic lift without having to go to the trouble of learning how to raise the bar from the floor to the hang position (no easy matter for many young athletes) or to sink into a stable front squat while receiving the bar (also not a simple matter for young athletes).

And the same approach can be taken with the snatch.

fallwinter2006 170

Problem solved, right? Just teach your athletes these simple variations of the Olympic lifts and you can go back to playing Angry Birds while they reap the benefits of the full Olympic lifts without having to…well…perform the full lifts.

Hold on one second there, mon frere.

I’m ready to argue that taking the time and effort to teach your athletes the full Olympic lifts is absolutely worth it. Here’s why:

Reason #1  Training kids to lift the bar from the floor to the hang position strengthens their back, butt, and hamstrings in a very healthy way.

Ask most kids to pick up something from the floor–a weighted bar, their dirty laundry, the burrito they just dropped on the carpet, whatever–and they will immediately go into hunchback mode, rounding their shoulders and spine rather than bending at the knees and hinging at the hips with a set back. This is not a safe way to pick up a weight, but many young athletes lack the strength in their back, butt, and hamstrings to keep their back set while bending forward. Is it unreasonable to suggest that this weakness might negatively effect their performance in their chosen sport ?

Olympic lifters cannot tolerate weakness in those areas. They have to be able to raise a loaded bar from the floor to the hang position in a mechanically sound way…

snatch liftofffirst pull clean

…or they would not be able to manage heavy loads.

You tell me, would your athletes benefit from developing the back, butt, and hamstring strength it takes to raise the bar from the floor in the manner demonstrated by this lifter?

Yes, it takes time and great care to train beginners how to perform this movement, but the potential benefits…

back muscles

…are worth the trouble.

Reason #2 Teaching kids to sink into a squat when receiving the bar develops leg strength, flexibility, and stability.

Simply put,  you must have all three in order to hit these positions…

front squat

snatch squat

…and then rise up from them without dumping the weight.

It takes time to train even the most gifted athletes to do this with heavy loads. Kids need to start out with PVC pipes and light bars and build from there. Some need a lot of stretching to remediate tightness in their hips, shoulders, and wrists,  but again, wouldn’t increasing flexibility in these areas have a beneficial effect on their overall athletic performance?

Reason #3 Kids who are only taught the partial lifts often lose their form (and many of the benefits inherent to Olympic lifting) as they increase their loads.

There are many examples of this on Youtube.

Challenged to attempt a heavy load from the hang position, kids will often get the weight moving by swinging their hips into it and then splaying their feet awkwardly as they receive the bar. What was meant to be an athletic movement focused on an explosive triple extension degenerates (in the case of a clean) into a hip-assisted reverse curl with little or no extension of the ankles, knees, and hips or (in the case of the snatch) into essentially a straight-armed, overhead weight toss likely ending with the bar crashing to the floor behind the lifter.

Yes, the athlete in one of the videos above performed a very crisp, athletic, and technically sound hang snatch without dropping into a squat as he received the bar, but he was not maxing out. Like many Olympic lifters, he was using this partial lift to train a segment of the full lift.

Clearly, athletes need to challenge themselves with increasingly heavy loads in order to gain strength. It would be tremendously boring–not to mention a waste of time–to spend month after month executing your lifts with the same weight.

But, asking young lifters to attempt near-maximum weights in the Olympic lifts without training them in the correct methods of lifting the bar from the floor and of receiving the weight in a solid, stable position is a mistake.

If we are going to encourage kids to put up big numbers, we owe it to them to train them to do so in the safest and most effective manner possible. And in the case of the Olympic lifts, that is the full version.

Allow me to close with a rather major qualifier.

Every kid is different. You cannot expect all of your athletes to fit a single training template. In spite of your best efforts at remediation, you may find certain athletes whose shoulder tightness will never allow them to safely rack a snatch overhead. Very tall athletes sometimes need to begin their Olympic lifts from blocks as their height does not allow them to set up in a solid starting position when lifting from the floor. Here is a vid of the fine shot putter Jordan Clarke lifting from blocks:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sH4gblO6w84

So as you lead your athletes down the path towards executing the full lifts, you will have to take the occasional detour.

Yes, this approach can get a bit complicated. Yes, it takes a lot work.

But the payoff is that you will help your athletes improve their stability, balance, explosiveness, and flexibility. To me, that makes it worth the effort.

My advice to any coach who wants his athletes to reap the many benefits of training with the Olympic lifts is to take a coaching course from USA Weightlifting. They offer these two-day seminars all over the country, and it is time well spent.

2 thoughts on “In Praise of the Full Olympic Lifts (by Dan McQuaid)”

  1. I agree 98% with this. I have a question: Do you have any idea why there has become a trend in world of “weight training guruism” to NOT do full cleans and snatches? I can hardly think of better exercises to do!!! At my school, the “guru” has NEVER had kids to lifts off the ground. Drives me crazy. It is also amazing how much power and influence the “gurus” can wield.

    1. I have a theory. Most coaches today acknowledge the potential benefits of the Olympic lifts but do not want to put in the time necessary to learn how to coach them or the time necessary to teach kids to execute them properly. I have several sophomores in my program who work very hard and are just now, well into their second year of lifting with me, to the point where they can execute the full lifts. This is after many thousands of lift-offs, power clean-pause-then front squat, power snatch-pause-then overhead squat, now the let’s try the full lift wait let’s back off and do some more liftoffs because you are not keeping your back set…it takes a lot of patience, and there is no way you can produce fine lifters unless you are right there in front of the platform coaching them day in and day out. Norm, you and I believe strongly in the benefits of going down this path (what better for a young athlete than to exectue all of those light and moderate weight front and overhead squats and liftoffs during the learning process?)but head basketball and football coaches don’t get paid for being patient. They are expected to win now, and that attitude carries over to the weight room. As you know, early on kids can lift more weight by doing a horse bleep reverse curl “hang clean” than they can while learning to move the bar quickly and efficiently. We know that before long, the reverse curl kid is going to come up against the limits of his technique while the kid who is taught to lift correctly will thrive, but (and I’ve been through this many times) coaches who don’t understand lifting get very antsy when they see one of their players training with a bare bar for more than a session or two. So I guess the answer is that while basketball coaches have no problem with a kid taking 8 million three pointers in practice to improve his shooting, and football coaches (including myself) will spend whatever amount of time is necessary to teach players a balanced stance, most of them just want some meathead-looking guy to tell them that he will get those players to lift heavy weights pronto.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *