What is Olympic Weightlifting?
It is sad that these great movements hardly exist anymore in the training programs of the West. Those who are performing Olympic weightlifting still have a clear-cut advantage over those who are not in improving performance. How often do you walk into a gym and you see somebody snatching, or clean and jerking a barbell? Not often, if ever.
Many people are dragged into fearing these lifts because of the words of a few. Over time these lifts have been credited as being the most dangerous form of exercise in existence. What people don't understand is this: exercises do not injure people, people injure people. It's the uneducated lifter using poor form and inadequate warm-up that results in injuries. The safety of Olympic lifting has been documented in several studies. One study has shown that Olympic lifting has the lowest number of injuries per 100hrs trained compared to both bodybuilding and powerlifting (1).
Olympic lifting is often trained very intensely and with a much greater frequency than a bodybuilding routine. The Bulgarian's train 4-6hrs a day in the gym spread over several sessions, working Olympic lifts for 6 days a week. (2). The Chinese also train in a similar manner. In the Eastern European countries Olympic lifting is virtually the national sport and being a weightlifter is a full time job, with bodybuilding a distant second. Far from being the safe option, traditional bodybuilding methods can be very hazardous to athletes in speed and strength sports such as American football or soccer. The reason for this is Olympic lifts use a much greater range of motion, which exposes the connective tissues, tendons, ligaments and muscle fibres to various angles and degrees of resistance. This helps the body become more functional, in that it can learn to cope with a variety of forces and activities without becoming injured. Whereas bodybuilding uses isolation movements that can often make the body imbalanced. In addition to this, bodybuilding exercises slows you down. Having a great deal of muscle mass does not necessarily make you slow, but if you gained that muscle mass through bodybuilding style training it is not functional.
If you look at the best Athletes in the Olympic Games 90% of them will have one thing in common, ranging from pole vaulters to shot putters, they all have some form of Olympic weightlifting in their program. Even if that ranges from the traditional power clean to the much more complex snatch. These athletes understand the importance and benefits of these movements and the carry over to their sport. Olympic lifts train the athlete to explode and use the maximum possible force. They develop a high Rate of Force (RF), a key point in sports training. Olympic lifters train fast twitch muscle fibres, the fibres that are employed to give you speed, explosiveness and power. It has been shown that the percentage of fast twitch fibres in the body directly contributes to the vertical jump, the more you have the higher you are able to jump (3), and this is the best indicator for athletic ability in American football athletes (4). The jumping and running abilities of Olympic lifters were documented in the Mexico City Olympic Games where they out ran and out jumped the jumpers and sprinters in the vertical jump and 25m sprint! This is an amazing feat considering these men do not train specifically for jumping or running. Here is a list of jumping feats by Olympic weightlifters, from Chad Ikei's 'Pulling to Jump Higher' article:
"Nicu Vlad of Romania, world record holder and two time Olympic medallist, came to the United States back in 1990, with now current US National and Olympic Team Coach Dragomir Cioroslan for a training camp. It was here at the US Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, that this 100kg (220lbs) weightlifter recorded a 42" vertical jump. Not to mention he was in weightlifting shoes, which weigh a lot more than tennis shoes and no formal warm-up (Snatch 200kg, Clean and Jerk 232.5kg).
Wesley Barnett of Team USA, 3-time Olympian and silver medallist at the 1997 World Championships, has legs (especially hamstrings) and ass like a thoroughbred on him that most bodybuilders would like to have. He has recorded vertical jumps of over 39" at a height of 6'1" and 105kg (231lbs). I've even witnessed him dunking a basketball while jumping over my head, and I do mean literally jumping over my head which of course only stands a mere 5'2" but he straddle jumped directly over my head and dunked (Snatch 175 kg, Clean and Jerk 220 kg).
Mark Henry, 1996 Olympic Team Member, now known as 'Sexual Chocolate' on the WWF scene, had quite a vertical jump. At 6'3" tall he could dunk a basketball, not to mention that he could squat over 1,000lbs and dead lift over 900lbs. Now dunking a basketball at 6'3" doesn't sound that hard, but take in to account that he weighed at that time 175kg (385lbs). Now that's impressive for a big guy (Snatch 180 kg, Clean and Jerk 220 kg).
Shane Hamman, 2000 Olympic Team Member and current National Super Heavyweight Champion, another big man weighing in at 163kg (358lbs) but only at a height of 5'9" tall, can jump onto boxes over 42" high. Of course Shane was also known for his squatting ability of over 1,000lbs (Snatch 195 kg, Clean and Jerk 230 kg)."
There are also many other great benefits of Olympic lifts that help athletes. They develop great amounts of flexibility, a key factor in sports. They teach an athlete to coordinate their body. They teach discipline in studying and mastering the technical challenges of the lifts. They have also been used for helping athlete's recover from older injuries. In a study done by Stone, Wilson, Blessing and Rozenek (5), athletes performed an Olympic lift for eight straight weeks, and it was found that the athletes' resting heart rate decreased by 8%, systolic blood pressure decreased by 4%, lean body weight increased by 4% and body fat dropped by 6%.
It is a very sad fact that there are only around 1,500 competing Olympic lifters in America today. If I could I would change that, but there is very little one can do but to open up people's minds and help them realise the benefits. Perhaps one day we will walk into a gym and we will not see dumbbells or bench press machines, but we will see men on platforms moving huge amounts of weight from the ground to above their head like it was nothing. Hopefully I have shown you the benefits of the lifts and cleared out some of the negative factors that people use to knock down Olympic weightlifting.
How to Perform Olympic Lifts
In the snatch the barbell begins on the floor. As you address the bar your feet should be about hip width apart and many people prefer to have their feet pointing out slightly for stability. The grip on the barbell should be wide; many people prefer to grip as wide as possible, with your hands touching the collar either side. Although others prefer a grip just outside the rings, it depends on your flexibility and height, generally the taller the lifter the wider the grip.
You are now in the starting position with your feet flat on the floor, weight on the back of your feet. Shins should be against the bar or almost against the bar and your shoulder should be over the bar. Hips should be low so that your knees are above your hips. From this position the whole body should be tensed ready to spring into action.
You begin the snatch by extending the legs not by raising the torso. A good guide to proper form is that your hips and shoulders should rise at the same speed keeping the angle at which your back is bent over constant. There is no need to overly rush this first portion of the lift, as this is not where the real power comes from. The power section of the snatch only occurs when the bar reaches slightly below your hips. At this point your torso should still be bent over at the same angle as in the starting position, shoulders over the bar. In order to initiate the second phase of the pull, you push your hips through violently in a horizontal plane, push off with your calves creating plantar flexion, and shrug your shoulders. That should all happen at the same time. Bear in mind that none of the lifting is actually done with the arms. If you make a conscious decision to pull with the arms it will actually hinder the lift. The hip drive should put the barbell in a position where it brushes the mid-thigh. It is actually very important that the barbell runs up the thighs because it puts you in a mechanically efficient position and shows your hips drive has been effective. The barbell should travel up your body not in front of you.
At this point you can either perform a power snatch or a classic snatch. In the power snatch from this point all you need to do is let the bar travel up overhead and catch it. The point at which the bar loses its momentum is called the catch position; it is actually quite helpful to think of the snatch as a jump, a throw and a catch.
If you chose to drop into a squat to catch the bar, this is a classic snatch, and is the lift used at the Olympics. You need to literally pull yourself under the bar, and drop into a full squat. By full squat it means not just upper legs parallel, you glutes should be touching your calves. Balance is difficult in this position, so try not to stay in it too long. Feet should be flat on the floor to help with this, as opposed to heels raised. All you have to do now is stand up. The lift is now complete, to let the bar down in a commercial gym make sure you do it in stages, don't be silly and try to drop it, or let it down in one go. Injuries occur that way.
Clean and Jerk:
It had been said that the clean is the same exercise as the snatch, with a different catch position. This is true to a large extent, but there are some crucial differences, mainly arising from the difference in grip width.
To begin the clean the barbell is on the floor. The grip should be shoulder width apart or very slightly wider than shoulder width. This grip width makes it easier to catch it on your shoulders when the lift is completed. Starting position is similar to the snatch: feet flat on the floor, feet hip width apart, shoulders over the bar. Your hips may be slightly higher than in the snatch but this is caused by the grip width, and is not a technical consideration. To begin the lift the legs are extended and your hips and shoulders travel up at the same speed. Throughout the lift the back is arched and tensed, arms are straight.
The second part of the lift, the explosive section, is initiated slightly lower than with the snatch. The bar should brush your mid-thigh as opposed to upper thigh as in the snatch, but again this is more a function of grip width than efficiency. At this point you explode by driving the hips through, raising up on the balls of your feet and shrugging the bar. As in the snatch these elements are done simultaneously.
In the power clean, as preferred by many bodybuilders due to it being technically simpler, the bar will travel up the body and the catch is made on the shoulders. A slight dip may be helpful in order to successfully catch the bar. Elbows should be high as the catch is made.
In the classic clean a full squat is employed to catch the bar. This allows a much greater weight to be used. As you drop down you need to pull the bar down with you so that the bar is on the shoulders when you reach the squat position. Once you have stood up you have finished the first part of the lift. Now all you have to do is get it overhead.
From this position you need to begin the jerk. Drop down into a roughly a half or quarter squat and without pausing drive up with your legs and onto the balls of your feet. It is important that you don't pause at the bottom due to the nature of the stretch shortening cycle.
This motion will make the bar rise off the shoulders. At this point you need to perform the split step. Move one foot forwards and one backwards, it doesn't matter which one goes where. The front foot needs to be flat on the ground for stability and bent at the knee to achieve a dipped position. With the back foot the weight should be on the ball of your foot with a slight bend. It is important to realise that in the jerk there is no pushing motion as such with the shoulders. The bar should go straight from the shoulders to lockout by its momentum, without having to be pressed.
To complete the lift move your front foot back, and your back foot forwards afterwards to help your balance. Again let the weight down gently and smoothly, in stages if you are in a commercial gym.
These two lifts described are all about explosion and speed. The entire lift should be completed in less than one second. Don't be scared off the lifts by the complications of the descriptions above. When performed correctly they really are very natural and flowing. You will not have to think about form once you have it perfected. It is advisable however to get some advice or coaching, it's often hard to see our own mistakes.
An Example of an Olympic Lifting Routine
Clean 5 x 3
Power Clean 3 x 6
Push Jerk 5 x 3
Behind the Neck Press Snatch Grip 3 x 12
Vertical jump 3 x 6
Snatch 5 x 6
Overhead Squats 5 x 6
Squats 3 x 10
Hyperextensions 3 x 12
Weighted Sit Ups 3 x 12
Snatch 4 x 6
Overhead Squats 4 x 6
Front Squats 3 x 8
Good Mornings 4 x 10
Incline Sit Ups 3 x 10
Sprint 3 x 20 meters
Clean + Jerk 5 x 3
Hang cleans 3 x 6
Behind the Neck Press combined with Overhead Squats 3 x 3+3*
Jump Squats (no more than 50% one-rep max) 3 x 3
Note that there are no rest days specified, the four days should be completed within a week, a rest day should be taken whenever the lifter feels they need it.
How should we train the Olympic lifts?
In Olympic lifting there is no typical routine as there is in bodybuilding. We can't use a training split because we are not attempting to work each muscle in isolation. We are working at developing power and speed, which requires a completely different training concept. Don't be scared of training Olympic lifts more frequently than a typical bodybuilding routine allows, despite the level of effort involved in it is surprisingly hard to become over-trained. Although it does take a toll on the body's fast twitch fibres, Olympic lifts are more concerned about developing the body's central nervous system (CNS) than the musculature. Because there is no eccentric element to the lift, because the lifts are completed so rapidly, and because the few reps are performed in each set, there should be little soreness the next day (delayed onset muscle soreness or DOMS).
In training for Olympic lifts, break down training into core lifts and assistance lifts. You will notice in the above routine that core lifts (snatch/clean/jerk and variations) are first, in order to train them whilst you are fresh, and assistance lifts afterwards. Assistance lifts are in place to help the body deal with the strains imposed by the core lifts, to create a basic level of hypertrophy and to develop absolute strength. Hypertrophy does have a role to play in Olympic lifting, a larger muscle is a stronger muscle, if this wasn't the case it wouldn't be divided into weight divisions at the Olympics. But obviously training for CNS development is our main purpose.
It is the central nervous system that inhibits us from using our full potential in sports. I'm sure you have heard of the old lady finding superhuman strength to lift a car off her child. This is an example of CNS inhibition being completely neutralised. The body's musculature is actually capable of a great deal more strength than we can tap into, but if we constantly used our whole potential we would constantly injure ourselves. What Olympic weightlifting does is increase the strength of signals to our muscles, creates greater synchronisation between muscle fibres and allows us to recruit more muscle fibres by reducing inhibition.
References and Work Cited:
(1)Source: Brian P. Hamill, "Relative Safety of Weightlifting and Weight Training," _Journal of Strength Conditioning Research, Vol. 8, No. 1(1994): 53-57
(2)Zatsisorsky, VM "Science and Practice of Strength Training" Human Kinetics, 1995
(3)Bosco C & Komi (1979b) Mechanical characteristics and fiber composition of human leg extensor muscles Eur J Appl Physiol 41:275-284
(4)Sawyer D, Ostarello J, Suess E, Dempsey M. (2002). Relationship Between Football Playing Ability and Selected Performance Measures. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: 16(4), pp. 611 - 616.
(5)Stone, M.H., et al. Cardiovascular Responses to Short-Term Olympic Style Weight-Training in Young Men. Can. J. Appl. Sport Sci. 8(3): 134-9.