Is Olympic Lifting Right for You?

Due to the prevalence of the CrossFit games and the increase in accessibility facilities where platforms and bumper plates are kosher, Olympic lifting has surged in popularity in virtually all demographics. People from all walks of life are getting over the bar and learning how to snatch, clean, and jerk. At the end of the day, are these explosive lifts really worth the hype?

All exercise carries some form of risk. Anyone that is trying to get better at anything is in danger of failing at some point. Yes, even pull-ups at home bring the possibility of something going wrong. You can’t get stronger without pushing your limits a little.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T74Xek-pDLM&w=560&h=315]

I want to start off by saying that I am all for the Olympic lifts. Athletes from all sports can effectively use Oly lifts as conduit to increase speed, power, strength, and mobility. That said, these explosive lifts come with a higher risk of injury for a litany of reasons. Here are a few of the big ones:

  1. There are a lot of moving parts. Every Oly lift involves every joint in the body in some capacity. To top it off, they are moving at different times and varying velocities. Learning to synchronize each one takes years of practice. If just one of the movement patterns is out of sync, you are increasing your chance for, at best, a failed lift, and at worst, a barbell landing somewhere you don’t want.
  2. They are power movements. They require all muscles to contract at high velocities when performed properly at low volume (lower sets and reps). This type of activity carries a high tax burden on your central nervous system. Once you’ve tapped your nervous system of all it’s immediate resources, your muscles simply won’t be able to contract at the necessary velocity to complete the movement. You will also see a sharp drop in motor unit recruitment, further limiting your ability to finish the lift.Inexperienced lifters often don’t realize when their body has had enough.
  3. They are often poorly coached. Drilling bad movement patterns or allowing clients to get away with faulty mechanics is a terrible sin. Without using proper leverage, you’re setting yourself up for failure, or worse, injury.
  4. They are often poorly programmed. This expands off the previous points a little. Over-prescribing cleans and snatches during periods of high fatigue can and will lead to injury. It’s only a matter of time. Whether it’s an overuse injury or a barbell to the back of the neck due to a missed catch, it’s only a matter of time.

Competitive athletes, particularly those playing contact sports, are used to this kind of risk and their bodies usually have a solid training base to absorb early mistakes. The added risk of an Oly lifting injury is but a microscopically small percentage of their total daily risk. For them, the performance benefits and elite coaching they have access to negate much of the downside.
For the rest of us, it’s time to conduct a serious needs analysis. You have to ask yourself, why are you exercising? The majority of responses usually boil down to two broad answers: to stay healthy and to look better. While the Oly lifts can be used as a tool to both of those ends, there are literally thousands of techniques that will get you the body you want without all of the unnecessary wear and tear. This isn’t just limited to Oly lifting. It applies to a lot of popular training modalities as well. Take into account that everyone’s body is a little different and will react differently to the same stimulus.
If mastering the snatch is your personal goal, who am I to stop you? Performance-related goals drive physical change. However, you should find a specialist: someone reputable to coach you though your inevitably inefficient movement patterns. You’d be a little nervous if you drove your car into a shack to get your brakes fixed by a teenager, right? The stakes are a little higher here because this is your life and your health is on the line.
At the end of the day, the choice is yours. If you have performance-related goals that Oly lifts can assist you in achieving, dive right in. But if your goals fall into the biggest two categories (health and aesthetics), you should find a better way. I’d be remiss If I didn’t admit that there was a cool factor involved in PR-ing your clean, but the risk just isn’t worth the reward. After all, you can’t get stronger in a coma.

Coach Runner is the Owner and Director of Sports Performance at Full-Stride Performance. Prior to founding FSP, Runner was formerly the Strength & Conditioning Coach for the Atlanta Gladiators of the East Coast Hockey League, a minor league affiliate of the NHL's Boston Bruins. Coach Runner was also the Head Strength & Conditioning Coach for the Husson University Eagles, Graduate Assistant Strength Coach at the University of Maine, and a former collegiate hockey player for Plymouth State University. He earned his Master of Science degree in Kinesiology & Exercise Science from the University of Maine and is recognized as a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist by the National Strength & Conditioning Association in addition to numerous other certifications.

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