Stronger Athletes

Help Me Understand Your Thoughts on Olympic Lifts

January 13 "The man without a purpose is like a ship without a rudder-a waif, a nothing, a no man." -Thomas Carlyle

Dear StrongerAthlete: Help Me Understand Your Thoughts on Olympic Lifts

Again, we have gone way too long without a post. Please forgive. Today's is a good one though and we have removed the name of the author because of the sensitivity of the issue. However, we believe this is just another example of how people with different backgrounds can have open diologue.

Disagreement seems to be the leading paradigm in the debate as to the relevancy of the utilization of the Olympic weight exercises and the development of athletic performance via the utilization of the weight room in a non-clinical setting.

I am a coach at a high school who gives direction to the development of the athletes. I am the head track coach, a mathematics teacher and have a degree in kinesiology from CSUF. Our trainer at the school is using your website to invalidate our program by "educating" and therefore "invalidating" much of what I have studied and found through observation and non-clinical research to be effective training methods for the recruitment of muscle fiber that aides in the development of athletic performance. His and your contention is that what we are doing is wrong, although all but 2 of the 16 core lifts we ascribe to are traditional comprehensive joint and single joint exercises. I have taught the athletes to move from comprehensive moves to specific moves during their workout routines, emphasizing slow to fast movements through a varied but given range of motion. Specifically, I coach "down slow...up with force". I teach the athletes to constantly modify their workouts with graduated 6-8 repetition cycles for anaerobic activities and increase weight or decrease weight according to their achievement along this rubric. I use a 8-12 cycle for the aerobic athletes.

I coach the power clean and push-press as explosive exercises. Tonight I have found clinical research that says a correlation exists between athletes who can perform these movements and their performance in the vertical jump (Campbell, ready set go fitness),(Nicholson,sportscience). It is obvious that neural pathways are BEST developed in actual performance. Restrictions in practice time vs. conditioning time have forced coaches to leave the practice fields in the off season and discover alternative methods to develop the athletes as specifically as possible in off-season programs including weight training, running programs and plyometric exercises including sprinting, a plyometric.

Why is the basis of the anti-Olympic argument that the lifts don't specifically transfer? As a track coach I have non-clinical research that says the tall basketball kids who can jump in the gym towards the hoop will very likely be able to have success in the high hurdles and high jump, an event that uses similar muscle groups but not specifically the same neural pathways. My conjecture is that a SIMILAR correlation exists between the Olympic lifts and explosive athletic movements such as the throws, jumping, vaulting and some aspects of sprinting. Is not the Olympic clean a logical exercise for these athletes to use in conjunction with the traditional weight room exercises?

There may not be specificity but I believe there is a correlation and that transfer and timing of what I refer to as "PUNCH" exists between the clean and explosive athletic movements. Students can learn kinesthetic awareness through the weight room, timing of the release and application of forces to accomplish a task as well as obtain a background in understanding concepts of movement such as the summation of forces, transfer and inertia. Specificity is a narrow argument to invalidate an activity that is healthy, requires multijoint coordination and a summation of forces that cannot be acquired in anything other than specific movements that are no longer accessible due to regulations in CIF codes of conduct.

The weight room is great place to improve balance, strength and flexibility. Other movement activities can be enhanced through proper weight room instruction as well and bashing the clean and snatch as irrelevant and antiquated is narrow in it's scope and lack's a broad view of what coaches may be trying to accomplish. You cannot clean properly without engaging several neural pathways, similarly you cannot solve complicated analytical proofs in mathematics without training several pathways in the human mind. As one experiences a greater number of challenging math problems, pathways become shared, schema is recognized, storage and retrieval become easier to access. My conjecture is that the same concepts apply to all human learning including human motor learning, as pathways are enhanced our ability to access those neural pathways increases in speed and efficacy and transference of similar skill acquisition aides in the performance of related though not necessarily specific activities.

Gratefully, Coach [Name Withheld]


We appreciate your comments and your commitment to find answers to tough questions. Quite frankly from your words its seems that you are not in seek of discovering anything but validation of what you already do. Please do not take that statement the wrong way, we appreciate the discourse and are similar in many ways.

First, your trainer obviously has a concern concerning some of your training methodologies. We won't speak on the possible strain this has put on your relationship with him and that is often regrettable in cases like these. We feel it is beneficial for the kids if the adults in their lives can find a way to get along.

Regardless of your relationship or feeling towards your trainer his concerns should not be dismissed without some consideration. We will address these considerations below.

Your background as a coach and teacher is refreshing. Your knowledge of training is evident. We have found too many coaches who are put in the position of "strength coach" who know little to nothing about exercise science. The danger here is the risk posed to the kids under that coaches guidance.

Risk is at the heart of what we promote. Your comments in regards to specificity are right on the money. But with regards to the neuromuscular system, it is a little off. We would agree that the more specific the training to the skill the better but the fact is that the training must be exact.

Your comment:

"transference of similar skill acquisition aides in the performance of related though not necessarily specific activities" is not supported by science.

The Principle of Specificity is just that: a Principle of Science which means it is fact. Which would mean that you must practice the exact skill you are trying to become more efficient in. Do not try to simulate the skill with strength training exercises. You will be using different neuromuscular pathways for each. A clean is not even a similar movement to any sport skill. If what you are saying is accurate then tackling would help an athlete power clean more efficiently and this is not the case. Performing skills that are similar is not good enough, they must be EXACT. So we disagree with you on how the neuromuscular system works. We believe we are backed by science.

However, your point that specificity is the "basis for the anti-Olympic argument" is not true in our case.

We point to five reasons why we feel coaches should avoid these lifts.

  1. The first is training specificity, which we have already addressed.
  2. The second, the time involved in training the athlete, as you also mentioned, is time consuming and tedious. We feel that the time spent training the athlete for a movement that may or may not be beneficial to the athletes strength development could be better used elsewhere.
  3. Third, supervision in many high school weight rooms across the country is lacking. To simply assign an athlete 5 sets of 5 repetitions in the power clean and then sit behind a newspaper or talk on the cell phone is outrageous. The power clean, and many other Olympic lifts are skills and must be coached-up.
  4. Point four, due to the use of momentum generated by the quick movements of the lift we find it inefficient in overloading the muscle and developing strength. [We have written tons on this point and will not go into it again here. Please feel free to read some of our older posts on this thought.]
  5. But most importantly, we feel, as probably does your trainer, that the use of Olympic lifts are unsafe.

Like you, we attempt to seek out information from others. Early in the forming of our training philosophy we came across coaches like Ken Mannie from Michigan State. Coach Mannie has received a lot of criticism from people due to the fact that he was very outspoken in his belief of safety's role in training. He currently writes a monthly column for Scholastic Coach Magazine on less controversial issues.

In a 1999 issue of Hard Training, a newsletter published by Ted Lambrinindes, Dr.Ken Leistner, Dave Krall and Ed Cicale, Mannie wrote, "You owe it to the young people entrusted to your care and guidance to offer the safest training methods available. While every phase of athletics involves a certain amount of risk, we are all obligated to search for and eliminate any needless, inherently dangerous training methods. This requires a little homework on your part, but it is time well spent."

The risk of a loaded bar aggressively lifted from the ground, traveling through space at high speeds, and then coming to rest on a flexed wrist, and a hyper-extended lower back, in addition to the previously stated four points is enough for us to have eliminated the use of the Olympic lifts.

You mentioned that you use what we would consider a periodization scheme. In effect, we are doing the same thing simply without prescribing the sets and reps. The purpose of periodization being to keep the muscles overloaded without overtraining... we do the same thing just simply through increased time under load or increased load combined with proper rest. For most coaches that sounds too simple and so they disregard our type of training. We, however, are not afraid of being simple. [Coach, please keep in mind that we are not being judgmental of the way you run your program. Periodization is great we just do things differently.]

In regards to research in the area of safety we choose to avoid anecdotal types of evidence. The "research" that coaches claim, "I have been coaching for 15 years and I have never had anyone hurt doing a power clean." Or the common,"I have had kids performing plyometrics my whole career and kids always get faster from doing them." These two types of arguments are irrelevant in our eyes. First, coaches who have never had an athlete injured on their watch, regardless of training modes, are lucky and/or ignorant of what is actually happening around them. Secondly, athletes in training, especially high school kids who are developing from ages 14-18 are going to get faster due to growth no matter what training protocol they follow.

In an article we posted on June 10, 2002 we listed some sources of further research on the topics we discuss, including the safety of Olympic lifts. Please feel free to look at June 10, 2002 for more information.

Coach, thank you for your e-mail. We hope that you can work things out with your trainer. We are sure that you do an outstanding job with your athletes or you wouldn't go to the trouble of asking others for their opinions. Keep up the good work and coach 'em-up!


If you have questions or comments about this web site or strength development or training please Contact Stronger Athletes.

***No Liability is assumed for any information written on the website. No medical advice is given on exercise. This advice should be obtained from a licensed health-care practitioner. Before anyone begins any exercise program, always consult your doctor. The articles are written by coaches that are giving advice on a safe, productive, and efficient method of strength training.***

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