CrossFit South Rockland

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Can you build strength with the Olympic lifts?

Can you build strength with the Olympic lifts?
 5/11/2011  by  Glenn Pendlay
In a recent conversation with Greg Everett we discussed those who do not believe that the Olympic lifts can build strength.  I have often shaken my head at this, because all the evidence I have seen points to the opposite conclusion. Greg made an interesting observation that upon further thought seems to go a long way towards discovering the origins of this attitude.  He brought up the example of a man who both squats and deadlifts 280kg, but can only snatch 80kg and clean 110kg. This is an extreme example, but it would seem that such people do exist, and they lack the ability to perform the lifts at a meaningful percentage of their maximum strength.  The quality that is lacking might simply be skill at the lifts.  Maybe he is a complete beginner and has not properly learned the lifts.  Maybe he lacks the flexibility to arrange his body in a position where his strength can be properly utilized on the lifts.  Maybe he simply lacks the athletic ability to apply significant force at a speed of movement required to do the lifts effectively.  In most people, skill and proper movement patterns can be gained with practice, flexibility can be built, and even a person who lacks natural athletic ability can improve his lot to some extent with proper training..

But if such a person formulates his opinion about the worth of the competitive lifts based on the way the lifts “feel” and affect them personally, and never engage in the proper training to correct their deficiencies, they may well walk away from an attempt at learning the snatch or clean and jerk certain that snatching a maximal weight has no strength training qualities whatsoever.   If such a person never witnesses cleans being done by a lifter skilled enough to do them with 80% (or more) of their maximal squat or deadlift, and does not have the imagination to conceive such a thing, then this opinion might be eventually ingrained and accepted as a universal truth.  It is hard to blame them, their experience has driven their beliefs.
Robert Roman believed that the snatch and clean and jerk should be about 60 and 80% of the back squat respectively.  I have seen lifts that best even these percentages.  Having coached lifters who have accomplished things like a 182kg clean and jerk without having ever been able to back squat 200kg, a 182 clean and jerk with a deadlift max of 195kg, or a 200kg clean with a best back squat (and deadlift) of 227kg, I see the snatch and clean and jerk as major drivers of strength gain.  I will admit that cleans with around 90% of a maximal deadlift are rare and the result of extreme technical efficiency, athletic ability, and mental toughness.   But, usually discussions about the training of weightlifters center around how to develop high level lifters, and these are the sorts of things that often happen with high level lifters at some point in their career. This is especially true if they begin their athletic career as weightlifters instead of switching from another sport.  The three different lifters who supplied these examples all competed on the international level and all were more efficient than is the norm, the norm being in my opinion correctly described by Robert Roman.

Consider the fact that the argument used to disparage the Olympic lifts as drivers of strength gain is usually that they use too light a weight, move too fast, and are over with too quickly to adequately provide the necessary stress.  But a lifter who clean and jerks in excess of 80% of their squat or deadlift has, when performing a heavy clean and jerk, racked a bar to the shoulders that is higher percentage of their deadlift than most competitive powerlifters  use to train the deadlift, front squatted a weight that is a maximal or near maximal front squat, pushed overhead and supported a weight that is a higher percentage of their back squat than many popular strength programs use to train the back squat, and completed a lift that lasted longer and had the body under the stress of the weight longer than any back squat that most lifters are ever likely to do. 
One of the main sources of the ”Olympic lifts don’t build strength” argument has also stated that one should be able to clean between 50% and 60% of your maximum deadlift, and that anything more than this is the result of extreme athletic ability.  This is difficult to fathom, as I cannot ever recall anyone with percentages so low!  But it illustrates Greg’s point very well.  Such a person, for whatever reason, had obviously not been exposed to lifters with efficient technique or even average talent, or both.  And having not been exposed has formed an incorrect opinion based on a lack of information.

Finally, I will agree with at least part of the argument against using the competitive lifts for building strength.  I will agree that if you train your cleans with only 50-60 percent of your back squat you are unlikely to build strength using the clean.  Luckily this does not, or at least should not, apply to Olympic weightlifters. 

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