Do they make you run faster? Jump higher? Do they increase your athleticism?
The Olympic lifts got their “street cred” after a phantom study (phantom because I’m not sure anyone knows if it really happened) during the 1968 Olympic games in Mexico.
Some research dudes lined up athletes of all sports and had them sprint. Guess who sprinted the first twenty-five meters fastest?
Olympic weightlifters. They even beat the sprinters.
Then the research dudes had them jump.
Guess who had the highest vertical jumps?
Yeah. Olympic weightlifters.
Didn’t take long for coaches to notice. And so athlete’s were soon doing the Olympic lifts for the “PF Flyer Effect.”
(For those that are The Sandlot inept, the PF Flyer Effect is something guaranteed to make a kid run faster and jump higher.)
But PF Flyer Effect or no PF Flyer Effect, there were some complications.
The initial trouble with the lifts
The legend says that athletes quickly found the lifts difficult. (Probably partly from inept coaches.) So instead of spending time learning how to legitimately weightlift (when “weightlift” is used as one word, it refers to Olympic weightlifting) they simplified things.
The squat clean became the power clean.
Still too tough.
The power clean became the hang power clean.
And before blinking, athletes from all over were doing hang power cleans in order to “reap the benefits” of Olympic weightlifting.
Starting to see the faulty logic here?
For a long time—even into today—the Olympic lifts have been associated with the PF Flyer effect.
Good? Bad? Right? Wrong?
A little bit of both. Or both of both.
There are “hiccups” with associating the Olympic lifts with the PF Flyer effect.
Hiccup #1: not considering the era
The first hiccup is forgetting the time period of the supposed Mexico study and neglecting to consider the entirety of how athletes in that era trained.
Athletes didn’t always strength train. Of course, Olympic weightlifters did though.
So Olympic weightlifters squatted, pressed (the standing press was still a contested lift), and pulled from the floor.
But what about sprinters? Jumpers? Throwers?
And if they did strength train, how intensely did they train?
I don’t really know this answer, but it’s certainly something to think about. Especially considering the first phase of a sprint has a lot of quadriceps involvement. I’m sure all of that squatting didn’t hurt.
Hiccup #2: avoiding the full squat versions
The second hiccup: training methods. This should go without saying, but hang power cleans are just a bit different than squat cleans.
The complex, full versions were replaced by simpler versions. Consider why the Olympic lifts have some PF Flyer juice in the first place.
The pull—the hoist in the air—is only one part of the full lifts. So anytime you rock a power version of the lifts, you’re only rocking one part of the lift.
The second part is the free fall, catch, and squat. And it might contain even more PF Flyer juice than the pull.
You have to seriously relax your body to free fall under hundreds of pounds. Yet once you “catch” the bar, every muscle in your body fires in a last ditch attempt to not become squashed meat.
Think about it.
Relaxation followed by rapid, intense contraction.
Sounds a lot like depth jumps, drop jumps, and other shock training methods…
Here’s something to think about.
Unrack your front squat max. Prepare to squat. Only don’t. Free fall instead. Upon landing in a deep squat, shoot yourself back up as fast as possible.
Think it might improve your vertical? Make you explosive?
(The answer is yes.)
And yet this “second half” of the lifts is almost always ditched.
An aside: more on the two halves of the Olympic lifts
There are two prominent pieces of the Olympic lifts.
The first piece is the rapid hip and knee extension it takes to hoist the bar in the air. Don’t be fooled: this isn’t always triple extension. Triple extension is defined by the ankle, knee, and hip all reaching extension at the same time. It’s usually one of the benefits thrown out when mentioning the use of Olympic lifting.
But triple extension doesn't always happen. Nor should it.
A lot of true weightlifters, like Pyyros Dimas, don’t even hit triple extension. Other, like Taner Sagir hit it heavily. And then others, like Ilya Ilin, hit a pseudo-extended more so to reposition the feet, not pull the bar higher.
The second piece is the free fall, catch, and squat. Or as we should call it: the depth jump on steroids.
So you can see why the Olympic lifts have some credence for athletic performance based on these two pieces.
Rapid hip extension drives most explosive lower body movements.
The free fall and catch trains reactivity—what most of us would call “plyometric” ability.
Hiccup #3: neglecting the power of proficiency
You aren’t as good at the lifts as those lifters at the Mexico Olympic Games. And unless you have a lot of years “under the hood,” you aren’t even remotely close.
Being “good” at the lifts matters. Without the “good,” you’re not extracting all potential usefulness from the lifts.
If you aren’t hitting full extension, you aren’t maximally stressing hip extension. If you aren’t maximally stressing hip extension, you aren’t pulling the bar high enough. If you aren’t pulling the bar high enough, you aren’t using as much weight as you could be. If you aren’t using as much weight as you could be, you’re reducing the power of the catch and squat.
Few people “finish the pull” quite like professional Olympic weightlifters.
They don’t really train full hip extension. And that means they don’t really get the entire shebang of benefits.
Without hours of practice, learning how to hit solid and full hip extension is tough.
Shortcutting the pull is common in an attempt to get back under the bar to catch it.
What does finishing the pull look like? Look at Dimas and Sagir. Both of their hips are extended in a vicious “air hump.” This was what I was getting at in Power Cleans Suck, Here's Why.
Now compare that to recreational athletes or high school athletes. A lot of bent knees and creased hips.
Can’t say this for sure, but part of me thinks these form faux pas frolic because there are two different conceptualizations of how to do the lifts.
An aside: form differences
There’s more than one way to perform the Olympic lifts.
Some teach it with a “jumping” position that emphasizes a vertical jump and shrug. The double knee bend (and sometimes triple extension) is usually a point of emphasis.
- Bar pulled from floor
- Bar passes knees
- Knees rebend under bar
- Pull finished with jump, triple extension, and shrug
Others, like Dan John, teach it as if it were almost a rapid Romanian deadlift with the weight kept on the heels until the bar passes the knees. Once the bar passes the knees, the hips shoot forward and then jump is initiated simultaneously. The double knee bend—or triple extension for that matter—is usually not a point of emphasis.
- Bar pulled from floor
- Bar passes knees
- Hips shoot forward simultaneously with the jump
Nitpicking between these two ways to do the lifts may seem a little off, as the lifts are all about getting the bar from point a to point b.
But, in my opinion, this difference is huge.
The first way is almost like a vertical jump. You think about jumping up. The shoulders are shrugged up. Everything is up.
The second way is more of a broad jump. You think heels-heels-heels until the bar passes the knees. At that point, you unleash the hips forward. Hips forward=hip extension.
This is kind of the magic juice behind An Athlete's Guide to Chronic Knee Pain. I used to have knee pain doing the “vertical” and “jumping” version. After learning how to use my hips and owning the “hips forward” technique, I haven't had the slightest pain.
Hiccup #4: not bringing strength for the ride
If the supposed Olympic study went down, consider that most Olympic weightlifters were squatting in excess of four hundred pounds. (Hell, some of them were pressing four hundred pounds overhead.)
Strength reduces technical demands to a certain degree. You’re more confident free falling under 315 pounds if you can squat 500 pounds.
It also means that 315 pounds is a smaller percentage of your 1RM. You can move it faster. Moving more weight faster means more speed and explosiveness.
Your technique and expertise in the Olympic lifts have to be developed in tandem with deep squats and other traditional strength movements.
Hiccup #5: not considering expertise and time demands
It takes time to learn how to do the lifts properly. That full extension thing mentioned earlier isn’t easy. You have to teach yourself how to get full extension and yet drop fast enough to catch bar before it smashes your face into the floor.
A lot of lifters can power clean more than they can squat clean. It shouldn’t be this way because you have to pull the bar higher in a power variant. Getting under the bar is all technique.
So you have to be comfortable with the catch. For a backyard athlete like myself, this isn’t that huge of a hiccup. I have time. I take time. I can practice this as long as I want. I don’t have much else on my mind.
But for an athlete with a bit more on the line—with a bit more urgency—is the juice worth the squeeze? Or can similar results be had with easier exercises?
- Loaded hip extension: medicine ball throws, jumps and sprints with weight vests, sprints with sleds, prowler pushes
- Shock training: depth jumps, shock jumps, sprints, leaps, bounds
You may be sacrificing some benefit in either direction. But wouldn’t it be worth it?
As an athlete, your goal is to get better at your sport. If you can train the things that need trained, isn’t that all you need?
Few athletes won’t see the PF Flyer on a steady diet of classic lifts, sprints, and various jumping maneuvers. Those three things cover just about the entire spectrum of what the Olympic lifts offer.
Better yet, these are easy to learn. Easy to improve upon. And still yield a similar—if not equal—benefit.
Hiccup #6: thinking about specificity
The Olympic lifts aren’t often sport specific; don’t tell me they are.
Specificity gets into a bunch of nooks and crannies that fall under the umbrella of dynamic correspondence.
When you consider sport movements—be it pitching a baseball, shooting a basketball, running a route—and the Olympic lifts, there are few connections from a specific standpoint.
Remember, the Olympic lifts do two things: train rapid, loaded hip extension and rapid, loaded lower body reactivity.
These are general, even for a sprinter.
Think: if they were specific, wouldn’t an Olympic weightlifter be the best 100m sprinter too?
Sprinting has its own intricacies: the start position, hand movements, muscular adaptations specific to the sprint itself, energy system involvement, and other things.
That’s the sport specific juice.
Anything in the weight room for most athletes is general preparation work. You’re preparing the body and tissues for physical work. Sport specific training takes that general training and applies it specifically to whatever sport movement is in question.
So for sprinting, sport specific work is doing something like starts from the blocks. For a thrower, it’s throwing with the feet stationary.
Not snatches or cleans.
What it all means
I’m not going to degrade the Olympic lifts. There’s nothing wrong with them. They have can potential deliver two positive athletic attributes: rapid hip extension and reactive ability.
The problem is with their use.
As a backyard athlete, I do the lifts for fun. They make training lively. Active. Athletic.
In the winter, when I’m confined to my garage, it’s nice to be able to do something to retain explosiveness. It’s nice to have a mental challenge. Lifting weights becomes more than hoisting iron. There’s an entire psychological interplay with the snatch. And if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you obviously haven’t snatched.
But from one fellow backyard athlete to another, you have to consider:
- You’re probably going to lose a snatch behind you. Are you prepared for this? In 2008, my wooden porch wasn’t.
- Doing the lifts presents an entire new framework of stress. Snatches are tough on the elbows and shoulders. Are you ready for it? Is it something you want to dive into? Can you handle it given everything else you already do?
- Will it interfere with any sports? In the summer, my Olympic lifting volume decreases. Almost disappears. I do so many other things, I simply don’t have the time or emotional investment. Clarence Kennedy—former trickster and current badass—stopped tricking to focus on his weightlifting.
- The Olympic lifts are general training means. They can help you jump higher. Probably run faster too. But, you know what? So can other training methods. Can you reach your goals with a simpler method?
- Are you strong enough yet?
- Are you going to pull the bar high and learn how to extend the hips? If so, you probably need to learn how to use your hips. Period. And would you look at that! I have a resource for that exact challenge: An Athlete's Guide to Chronic Knee Pain.
For more serious athletes, I think these questions all but answer themselves. They can be beneficial, but at what cost?
- The technical demands.
- The time it takes to “master” the lifts.
- The fact that their ultimate benefit depends on the full squat versions. (And if you want to get technical, they’re necessary if you want to replicate the benefits the athlete’s showcased at the Mexico Games.)
- Is the stress, wear, and tear they expose the body to—compounded upon what your sport already brings—too much? (The answer here is almost always yes.)
- You can still reap similar benefits from safer, easier exercises.
- Your goal is to become better at your sport, not a champion Olympic weightlifter. The two are mutually exclusive.
- No great athlete—Olympic weightlifter aside—was ever remembered for their ability to snatch or clean.
- You can’t tell which athletes use certain training methods on the field. The Pittsburgh Steelers training facility, for instance, has no squat rack. It’s mostly dumbbells and hammer strength machines. They won two Superbowls in the past decade.
- You have to realize that Olympic weightlifting is its own sport and that you’re merely “borrowing” it for your own use. Olympic weightlifters don’t play football to get explosive.
So the ultimate conclusion looks something like this:
If you want to, go ahead. Just do them correctly. Assume their baggage. Have fun. Take your time with them. Learn them properly.
If you don’t want to, see below.
More serious athlete
More often than not, you’re better off sprinting, jumping, leaping, bounding, and lifting with basic barbell exercises.
The Olympic lifts are complex things. No way around it. Sure you can “learn” them quickly, but can you learn them quickly?
Sometimes learning complex things is fun. And good. After all, being able to do complex things never hurt anyone. But you have to assume their risk. You have to assume the added stress they place on sensitive parts of the body.
What it comes down to
For us backyarders, it’s a matter of choice. They can go a long way in creating a sweet physique with the amount of upper back involvement they dliver. They can increase your general athletic ability too.
But for more serious athletes, you should reconsider. When it doubt, go with the simplest method needed to produce the results you want. And as much as I love the sport of weightlifting, I admit that it’s almost never the simplest step.