An increasing number of sportsmen and women are using the Olympic lifts and variations as part of their conditioning work to improve performance in a large range of sports. As a weightlifting coach I have repeatedly heard (and read) that it’s not necessary for athletes from other sports to be as technically proficient at the classical lifts (snatch and clean & jerk) as weightlifters need to be.
While on the face of it this seems true, it’s not directly important how much a golfer or sprinter can clean, I think this attitude owes more to a lack of coaching ability than to any inherent merit in the argument. In this short article I’d like to suggest a couple of reasons to concentrate on technical excellence in athletes from sports other than weightlifting.
1. Safety. As a strength and conditioning (S&C) coach, your first priority is to minimise the risk of injury to the athletes under your supervision. A flat back at all times, elbows high or strong lockout in receiving positions and the general application of sound technique in all weightlifting movements greatly reduce the risk of injury. Even the extra time spent learning the movements correctly familiarises the athlete with the lifts and helps reinforce the movements before they attempt maximum lifts.
2. Efficacy. If it is accepted that the movement of heavy weights at high speed using the hip, knee and ankle extensors as practiced in the Olympic lifts is an effective way to improve performance in running, jumping, throwing etc then it seems to make sense that the more weight the athlete is capable of moving at these fast speeds, the greater the power produced and the greater the benefit of the exercise. The snatch, clean and jerk techniques have developed over the past hundred years or so to move the largest weights possible at a fast enough speed to give the lifter enough time to get under them into the relevant receiving position. The snatch is said to be the fastest movement in sport. If you can lift like a weightlifter, you’ll benefit from moving the heaviest weights possible for you at the fastest speed you can go. Less efficient technique leads to less weight being lifted more slowly. This in turn reduces the effectiveness of the lifts as a training tool.
This leaves the most often used excuse “it’s too difficult to learn the full classical lifts (squat snatch, squat clean, split jerk)”. I’ve only ever heard this reason from non-weightlifting S&C coaches. I myself teach a beginners weightlifting class at Bethnal Green Weightlifting Club at which I teach the full squat lifts with a brush off the thigh and after 6 lessons most learners are fairly proficient and can start heavier training. These aren’t classes full of talented sportsmen and women, they are people of all ages with a variety of backgrounds.
One of my pupils, during their second class, recently said “after reading about weightlifting on the internet I thought you virtually needed a PhD to do it but it’s not actually that bad”. I was on the national squad for ten years so I would know if you had to be a genius to learn or teach weightlifting. You don’t. If you’re an S&C coach and not proficient at weightlifting, get yourself trained or send your athlete to a weightlifting coach for some technical sessions. At worst, the process of teaching the lifts is a useful way to identify mobility issues (I’ve found mobility to be the most common barrier to good technique) and to find which variations can be used effectively for that athlete to allow for deficiencies in their technical ability. This may even help to prevent injury while performing in their primary sport. Approximately ten hours of learning the lifts with lighter weights doesn’t seem too great an investment when you consider the returns that using these lifts in training can bring.