Olympic Lifting For Athletes: Do You Really Need It?

The Olympic lifts are a holy grail of many sports performance training centers.

Coaches really get fired up about all the “triple extension” going on in the pull, and the “force absorption” that’s happening during the catch. You gotta do those cleans to build posterior chain power after all, right?

Well, yes and no.

Let’s bust a quick myth, shall we.

I’m going to say it right now: you don’t need the Olympic lifts to reach your genetic potential in sprinting and jumping.

Then again, you don’t absolutely need a lot of things to reach your best athletic potential. Creative athletes and coaches can use nearly anything to get the job done when it comes to recruiting more muscle motor units in appropriate manners for increasing speed and force.

A False Belief

So many strength coaches prop the Olympic lifts for athletic development, largely because they want to believe that they are a totally essential builder of athletic qualities.

Have you seen Usain Bolt’s terrible hang clean form lately?

OK, well let me quickly show you.

Exhibit A: The world’s fastest man Usain Bolt is a horrible Olympic lifter.


Whoa! Those cleans are really bad! And how many did he just do? Way more than the 2-3 rep range that’s typically recommended. Yet, despite this less than perfect clean technique that a college S&C would ridicule to the end of the earth, Bolt gets it done on the track.

Bolt has absolutely legendary sprint positions, which are not a result of what he is doing in the weight room. His vertical force production during sprinting is so good, that he looks like he is literally floating over the ground.

Would he run faster if he cleaned up his Clean technique? Maybe, but then he might try to start doing Olympic lifts more often, instead of focusing on, and adapting to, what he does really well, which is get out on the track, produce massive vertical forces in <.10 second, and run really fast.

Common Misconceptions of Olympic Lifting For Athletes

So why do we use the Olympic lifts? Well, when properly performed, they can absolutely be one of the most helpful training tools for improved performance out there.

That being said, there are so many misconceptions about the Olympic lifts. Here are a few common ones:

  • The Olympic lifts are the best way to build triple extension of the hips, knees and ankles for athletes
  • The Olympic lift second pull is the most explosive movement in all of sport (half truth)
  • The Olympic lifts are a “bridge” between strength found in the powerlifts (squat, deadlift, bench) and speed seen on the field of play

OK, that being said, you probably think I’m a big time hater on the Olympic lifts.

Well, I’m not! I actually use them in nearly all of my developmental programming (so long as the athletes have a good working ability in the lifts). The thing is that I use them with a different mentality than many coaches do for the purposes of athletic improvement.

Let’s cover those Olympic lifting misconceptions.

First - the Olympic lifts are NOT the best way to build triple extension for athletes. They probably aren’t even in the top 5.

If you are unable to achieve triple extension by simply sprinting, jumping, and performing related plyometrics, what makes you think you are going to get it performing a lift with a barbell in your lap? There are a lot of Olympic lifters out there who actually don’t get that much triple extension in the ankles, because they are so quick under the bar.

Next - the second pull of the clean and snatch may be the most powerful movement that sport scientists have measured, but let’s take it in context.

This is a movement being performed by very specialized athletes who grew up mastering the Olympic movements. An 85 kilo lifter doing a 200 kilo clean and jerk may exhibit unbelievable power in that Olympic pull, relative to their sprinting and jumping ability. A 85 kilo track and field sprinter who can clean 120kilos is going to able to exhibit more power while sprinting than they are doing that clean. Fact of life.

Last - in terms of movement skills, and “bridging the gap”, the Olympic lifts are just another tool in the toolbox.

There are tons of explosive lifts and plyometrics that can build the movement skills athletes need just as well as Olympic movements.

A Different Approach

Here are a few common alternatives to Olympic lifts to build the same type of power (explosive posterior chain oriented pulling, high rate of force development in receiving the barbell):

Hex Bar Deadlift Jumps (Found to yield greater power output than power cleans in average athletes)


Drop Snatch (an easier way to train force absorption in the catch)


Generally speaking, the Olympic lifts have greater benefits for athletes who are more experienced with them, and have good technique. That being said, here are some ways that I approach using the Olympic techniques for athletes.

How To Use Olympic Lifting For Athletes

How do I enjoy using the Olympic lifts with athletes?

I’ll utilize the Olympic lifts for the following reasons in my own training programs:

  • Potentiation of similar movements, such as sprinting and bounding
  • General explosiveness and motor recruitment (and thus, in the 60-80% 1RM range the majority of the time)
  • Motor learning
  • Mobility and coordination

First, the idea of potentiation. I use the Olympic lifts as a means of “complex training” with athletes. My personal favorite combination is the pairing of bounding, or multi-jumps with power cleans. I also like doing various jump movements with full-catch cleans on occasion. Having various jumps and bounds placed in-between sets of the Olympic lifts also really helps athletes to focus on the primary goal of the training exercise, which is to become a better athlete.

Regarding explosivness…

Remember, athletes don’t have a snatch competition after the basketball game is over, and they don’t ask you how much your clean is at the end of the 100m dash. Speed is speed, and needs to continually be in the mind of the athlete. This is also why I don’t like going above 80% 1RM for the Olympic lifts in the majority of cases. This keeps things on the speed end of the spectrum, and athletes are guaranteed to perform the lift with more relaxation and bar speed.

It’s a researched fact that hang cleans don’t improve vertical jump… unless they are performed with the bar on the correct angle of projection, and at extremely high bar speeds.

The full-catch versions of Olympic lifts are an excellent coordination and mobility builder, and are also just a good overall assessment of athletic posture and ability. The hang squat clean is one of my perennial favorites for athletes who do enjoy Olympic lifting that is pretty much omni-present in yearly programming. If I worked with Usain Bolt, I would probably even make him catch a few light cleans deep, just for some general coordination in his movement patterns.

Full-catch cleans and snatches are also a great way to build two footed jumping ability, as the bottom position of the lift has a nice transfer to the loading pattern in a vertical jump. Believe it or not, it’s the bottom of the lift that likely helps athletes more than the pull!

That being said, go use Olympic lifts in your mission of improved performance. Use good bar speeds, and have a proper program balance, and watch your 1RM go up, and athleticism explode at the same time, just remember to always keep the main thing the main thing!

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About The Author

Joel Smith, MS, CSCS is a NCAA Division I Strength Coach working in the PAC12 conference. He has been a track and field jumper and javelin thrower, track coach, strength coach, personal trainer, researcher, writer and lecturer in his 8 years in the professional field. You can connect with Joel on his website.