How To Program Olympic Lifts For Field Athletes

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The snatch and the clean and jerk are the two lifts used in Olympic lifting competition. They are a test of skill, power, strength, balance, flexibility, and coordination.

These movements, when incorporated appropriately, can have a high degree of impact on an athlete’s strength and power capabilities. They are preferred exercises to include in many programs for the field athlete.  

In this article, I want to review the fundamental variables and related issues when it comes to programming the Olympic lifts for the field athlete.  

Not long ago, the Olympic lifts were quite specialized and not observed or trained in health and fitness facilities meant for general populations. The Olympic lifts are relatively technical, take time to develop proficiency, need specialized equipment to be performed safely, and often require extensive coaching.

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For various reasons including an increase in access to training for sport performance at younger ages and market-driven demands, the Olympic lifts are now more popular than ever. They are used in a number of commercial training facilities and local weightlifting clubs. Plus, they are incorporated into performance competitions such as Grid and CrossFit.

Why Are Olympic Lifts Important To Field Athletes?

The nature of field sports such as football, baseball, basketball, volleyball, and soccer is to have contact with the ground. 

  • When in contact with the ground, the athlete is most likely moving their body and/or manipulating an implement like a bat or ball in an attempt to gain a competitive advantage
  • When the athlete is in contact with the ground, their body is transferring force to the ground; the greater the force, the faster the mass can move

As an example, the greater the force into the ground, the faster the athlete runs. This is Newton’s Third Law known sometimes referred as “Action-Reaction.” 

On a neuromuscular level, ground-based sports coordinate muscles and the nervous system in a similar fashion as the Olympic lifts. Here's an example. When running, the lower body coordinates the muscles of the lower leg, thighs, and hips. A similar scenario occurs when performing the snatch and clean and jerk.

The Olympic lifts are ground-based, meaning that the feet are in contact with the ground. Having the feet (or hands) in contact with the ground is termed “closed chained.” During Olympic lifting in the upward motion, extending at the hips, knees, and ankles requires activation of the neuromuscular system in a similar fashion as running.

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Open chain exercises are movements where the distal end of the segment, the foot for instance, is not in contact with the ground (a leg extension machine exercise is an open chain exercise). It is likely the movement of an open chain exercise will not provide the same level of specificity and transfer of training as closed chain exercises.

How To Program Olympic Lifts

When it comes to programming the Olympic lifts into a comprehensive strength and conditioning program for field athletes, there is no one best way. There are a multitude of variables that need to be considered: age, skill, capability, injury, “trainability,” and coaching competency.  

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All that said, there are general guidelines we can use to help make an informed decision how to use the Olympic lifts.

The following bullets are a starting point to consider when incorporating the Olympic movements into the training program of a field athlete.

  • The Activity: Make a characteristics list of the activity and weigh them based on your perception of how important they are to the activity. This process is the first step when considering the physiological and performance characteristics of the sport and associated player position. Consider the body mass of a defensive back to an offensive lineman. It is apparent that the mass of a lineman would be considerably higher compared to a defensive back, thus prioritizing body mass as a prerequisite to performance. Another example is an outsider hitter in volleyball compared to a libero. The vertical jump reach height of an outside hitter would most likely be higher than the libero based on function of the position - blocking and hitting verses defending and passing, respectively.   
  • Times Per Week: Olympic lifts can be performed and incorporated as little as two times per week or as many as six times. Typically, novice athletes incorporate Olympic lifts two or three times per week. As an athlete develops physically, the more frequently the Olympic lifts can be used. Many strength and conditioning professionals incorporate at least one Olympic lift or derivation in every resistance training workout.
  • Rest Periods: Rest periods (time between sets) should allow full or nearly full recovery to optimize training effect. A full recovery allows maximal effort and associated strength and power capabilities to be recognized. It should be noted that recovering from a set of 100 kilo power cleans will be significantly greater than a set of 50 kilo power cleans. Larger, stronger athletes who use heavier weights when training will take longer to recover than a smaller, weaker athlete.
  • Reps: Something that makes the Olympic lifts unique is their purpose: develop power or the ability to move heavy weights quickly. Recorded power outputs of a clean are more than twice of the squat exercise for the same athlete. And again, the Olympic lifts are comparatively much more technical than other ground-based exercises. So using a repetition range of 1-5 is advised. Higher repetitions are observed in some training conditions. But when performing high reps schemes, power output is diminished, negating optimal power capabilities and development. 
  • Sets: The number of sets performed for each exercise will vary from 3 to 6 or sometimes more. Managing fatigue by selecting the appropriate number of sets is essential. An experienced strength and conditioning professional can observe changes in biomechanics when fatigue is observed. Then the exercise is terminated. There are also a number of devises that measure power output of exercises, so you can measure fatigue each repetition during the set.
  • Number of Exercises: The number of exercises performed in the training session will range from 3 to 10. The number of Olympic lifts or their derivatives performed per training session could be as few as 1 or as many as 5. Below is a two-day example:

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  • Intensity: The intensity of the Olympic lifts is relatively high compared to many other resistance training exercises, specifically on the clean and snatch. The associated intensity would be approximately 88 percent repetition max to 100 percent. Using heavier weights generally yields higher power outputs.
  • Length of Training Session: Weight training sessions that include Olympic lifts are usually performed within an hour and 15 minutes for the athlete who has developed a tolerance to training. Younger or less experienced athletes may not be able to tolerate longer training sessions. Once fatigue has reached a level where the athlete cannot maintain proper form and sustain the desired weights, training should be done for the day.

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How Often Should the Olympic Lifts be Included in the Training Program?

During the yearly training cycle, there are times where it could be beneficial to include or exclude the Olympic lifts.

During the season, strength training should be streamlined to include the most beneficial exercises. Most of the athlete's time and energy is spent training and competing for the sport. Thus only the most effective exercises, including the Olympic lifts, are to be included in the strength and conditioning program.  

The time immediately after the season (2-6 weeks) is a good time to include training for overall fitness excluding specialized training. This transitional time could be considered ideal to exclude Olympic lifting.

The period of time leading up to the competitive season, 2-3 months, is often more focused and specialized when an athlete can work on physical improvement. This period of time is ideal to incorporate the Olympic lifts.  

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Transfer to Sport

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In the text Principles and Practice of Resistance Training, the principle of transfer of training is discussed at length considering the known research.

They compare explosive strength measured via vertical jump and associated gains made either using free weights like the Olympic lifts or machines. The work indicates superior results compared to free weights in gains and higher degree of transfer of training effect. 

The ultimate goal when training for sport is to improve performance; it iis not to get bigger, stronger or faster (although at times improvement in size, strength and speed often lead to improved performance).  

No matter what the sport is the goal is to improve performance.   

Combination Lifts

Combination lifts are a great, time-effective way to learn, master, and implement Olympic lifting into field sport strength and conditioning programs.

Combination lifts use different aspects of the Olympic lifts in combination for a set of training. A combination set could include one power clean, one push press, and three front squats. The weight on the bar is never changed and the repetitions are performed in succession.

Three evident advantages of using combination lifts are

  • Time management
  • Variety of exercise
  • Distribution of effort from different muscle groups or regions of the body

For instance, if an athlete would like to train for whole body power for the day, they could use combination movements to push, pull, squat, and lunge each set.

The variety of movements to be included in each set is inherent to the selected exercise/set sequence of the combination lift. The pulling segment uses the extensors of the lower body for power and strength. Jerks, pressing the bar quickly overhead, emphasize the upper body targeting strength and power. The squats and lunge variations that can be used in the combination lifts are to develop lower body strength.

The associated muscle group effort and emphasis comes from changing the movement within the sets.

Safety of the Movements

The safety of the Olympic lifts has been in question for a number of years. The movements are technical and performed quickly.

But the truth is, the Olympic lifts are no more risky than other forms of sport and in some cases less risky. 

The Olympic movements do, however, require a coach who has experience and competency in teaching the movements. These individuals typically have a degree in Exercise Science and a certification that requires knowledge of the Olympic lifts, continuing education requirements and a code of ethics. 

Coaching The Lifts

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There are several excellent courses coaches can learn to teach the Olympic lifts. Two courses that teach weightlifting are organized by the National Governing Body USA Weightlifting and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. You may contact these two organizations for details.

The Olympic lifts can be considered a fundamental tenant of a strength and conditioning program for the field-based athlete. Programming the Olympic lifts into a comprehensive training program takes planning and understanding on how to most effectively leverage the advantages the movements offer.  

Keep in mind the Olympic lifts are not to be used to get better at the lifts, but as a tool to become a better athlete.

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About The Author

Michael Barnes brings over 20 years of experience to the strength and conditioning/ fitness industry. His previous experience includes working in Division I athletics at the most successful collegiate programs, several years in the National Football League with the San Francisco Forty Niners, and the Director of Education with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Michael is an author, speaker, subject matter expert, industry consultant and practitioner.

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