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A Case for Training Olympic Lifts in College Athletics

Updated: Nov 30, 2021

In most sports, we not only want to move ourselves but also want to have the ability to move exterior objects—opponents, baseball bats, hockey sticks, rackets, etc. Pulling the bar in Olympic lifts not only trains the triple extension at the hip, knee, and ankle but also force production, proximally to distally into the ground with our feet, to transmit that force into the barbell to drive it up and then it reverses back onto us in the catch position. Based on this information alone, we can see the superiority of the pulling component of the Olympic lifts compared to only jumps.

And what about the catch? Is it necessary for athletes? Consider the speed it takes to drop under a heavily loaded barbell to catch a clean. Going from the pull’s tall, triple extended position to the bottom of a full squat in milliseconds must be worth looking into.

A common argument against training the Olympic lifts is that we don’t need to teach athletes to catch the bar. The detractors argue that the catch doesn’t add any extra physiological benefits to athletes who are not Olympic weightlifters. There are even studies that suggest athletes would benefit more from performing only clean and snatch pulls due to the concentric-only movement, which eliminates the need to decelerate and transition under the bar and, therefore, produces more force at the top of the pull.

The accuracy of these claims is questionable, however, because we never know how technically proficient the athletes are in the studies who perform such complex movements as the snatch and the clean and jerk. If an athlete cannot perform a technically sound clean, of course they will not benefit fully from the exercise.

Critics also argue that the primary goal of the Olympic lifts is to achieve triple extension at the hip, knee, and ankle. Why choose such complex movements to achieve that goal when we can use jumping variations and medicine ball throws, which get the same result?

The Olympic lifts are much more than those two components. When an athlete performs Olympic lifts, consider the forces placed on them compared to trap bar jumps or 20 lb. medicine ball scoop throws. The peak force of a 250 lb. clean surpasses both the jump and the throws. One study compared the differences between a clean pull and a counter movement jump, showing peak force nearly doubled in the clean pull and time-to-peak force was 36% faster in the clean pull. Think of Newton’s 3rd law: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Olympic Lifts and Agility

Agility, a major component of athletic competition in just about every sport, is commonly defined as the ability to accelerate, decelerate, and accelerate again. I argue that accelerating a barbell as fast as possible and then decelerating and getting under the bar and then accelerating the bar back from a full squat checks the box of training agility as well.

Compare Olympic lifts to medicine ball throws. With a medicine ball throw, we completely unload the body after we project the ball into the air or wherever we throw the ball. Olympic lifts require us to exert near maximal force onto the bar and then train the motor ability to reabsorb that force on the catch, which we can do by power cleaning/snatching or full cleaning/snatching.

To take full advantage of the bar’s peak force, we must drop into a squat position to catch it. I understand that the initial “explosive” action of a pull or a jump or a throw attracts most coaches, but it’s important not to neglect the eccentric strength required to catch that bar as well.

Olympic lifts also train athletes to brace quickly. They need to brace when they begin their first pull, to keep a rigid, tight back. And they need to brace as they rack the bar as they catch. It’s a very quick transition between the second pull and the rack position.

Developing Resilience

Specificity is always a muggy topic in the strength and conditioning field because coaches have different definitions for specificity and point to different methods for specific training. But in football, hockey, and basketball, there is contact and that contact can continue to occur over and over again in a matter of seconds.

For example, a defensive end may rush the edge and make contact with an offensive tackle to find himself getting chipped by a running back a split second later and then hit again by the same offensive tackle. The defensive end must be able to brace, or they will get the wind knocked out of them. And being able to rack a clean might be one of the best ways to prepare the athlete for that level of contact. Not only because of the bracing, but also because of the amount of force needed to withstand a heavy clean or snatch.

If our athletes only perform pulls, throws, and jumps (which I believe are extremely beneficial), they only expose themselves once to that high level of force. But if they include the catch, they expose themselves to that high level of force twice. Now take that 2:1 ratio and apply it over the course of a typical four-year college career. What would you rather do? All things being equal with exercise selection, which athletes will be more prepared to get hit in football or hockey? Which athletes will be more prepared to finish at the rim through contact in basketball? Which athletes will have the potential to hit the ball harder in tennis or baseball?

The evidence points to the Olympic lifts as one of the more effective modalities we can use to best prepare our athletes for competition.

Timing and Technique

Of course, it’s going to take time to teach athletes the proper technique, and there might be situations where there’s no time to go through the progressions. Maybe you have a transfer student who only has one season and has never cleaned or snatched before and the season starts four weeks after they arrive on campus.

In that situation, I get it. I spent some time as a player in the NFL and CFL, and the most we ever did was hang cleans. This was probably appropriate given that there’s such a rapid turnover of players, and it would be a logistical nightmare getting guys to clean with great technique when you may only have some guys for a week. That, combined with the fact that the athletes’ job is to play football—not train— puts a coach in a position where what’s best for the long-term may not work in the short run, and a coach does not want to hear concern from the front office.

At the University of North Dakota, however, we redshirt almost every freshman football player, and they train three days a week during the season without any other team in the weight room. It would be a disservice to them if they didn’t start learning the Olympic lifts in those initial autumn months to prepare for the winter season training. We have the time, so we do not need to rush anyone through the progressions. Because there have been so many articles written about the neurological benefits of the Olympic lifts and the development of motor skills and grip strength, etc., I wanted to touch on these other areas that are often left out of the discussion.

Getting buy-in from the athletes and the coaching staff can be challenging. Athletes get embarrassed and discouraged when they perform the lifts without good technique. I had one football player, for example, who was lagging behind when we were cleaning from the floor as a group, and he probably wasn’t ready for that. He would shoot his hips up first, causing the bar to drift away, which caused an imbalance in the barbell-skeletal system. This then caused a jerking second pull and a very inconsistent catch position.

He got frustrated with the program, so we modified his program for the day by having him complete one rep of a segmented clean deadlift, followed by a clean pull, followed by a power clean. The sequence slowed it all down and allowed him to concentrate on each piece of the lift without the complex progressions. He performed that for another couple training days until he felt competent to complete a set of all power/full cleans. This worked since we didn’t have to set him back at all, and he was able to get his work in without feeling like he was being singled out.

Final Thoughts

It makes the most sense to me that we should train our athletes to perform these movements. Sure, it may take some time for them to develop the technique and the timing of it all, but when they’re able to put it together, they can really improve their performance in their sport. Athletes who can clean heavy and snatch heavy give themselves great potential to hit harder, run faster, and jump higher. And what seems to be the least appreciated, their ability to brace through contact (eccentric strength) may give them an edge over their competition.

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