Risk vs. Reward: The Olympic Lifts

There are essentially an infinite number of different exercises that you could claim help improve performance. When talking about becoming a more powerful, explosive, faster athlete, what better exercises than the Snatch and Clean and Jerk?

At American Sports Performance and the Olympic Lift Lab, we understand the benefits of these movements. Even though it is a sport in its own right, the characteristics that they build are second to none. They help an athlete move better, be more explosive and increase their maximum strength and athleticism. What kind of athlete doesn’t want this? Especially when this type of training tends to not ‘’bulk up’’ an athlete or put on a ton of mass.

Despite the characteristics these movements build, we don’t blindly assign athletes to start S

Snatching and Clean and Jerking just because it could be a good fit. We take into consideration a lot of factors including the age of the athlete, their sport and position, the level they’re competing at and how they move.

Let’s take a look at each of these factors individually and how they affect our decision on whether an athlete will utilize the Olympic lifts or not.

  • Sport and Position-This is the first thing we take into consideration. If we compare the dominant characteristics of Football and Cross Country, we won’t see much overlap. Football is an extremely explosive sport that requires repeated, high-intensity effort for 8-10 seconds. A Cross Country 5k lasts 14 to 25 minutes, depending on the level of the athlete.

Utilizing the Olympic lifts for a football player is obviously a much better fit as opposed to a Cross Country athlete.

Now let’s talk about a more controversial sport: Baseball. When you think of the characteristics that Baseball requires, it seems like a no-brainer. Throwing, hitting, sprinting; everything in baseball is extremely short duration and explosive. However, we need to consider other characteristics of these two sports, namely the demands both place on the shoulder.

It’s no secret that baseball players are notorious for having shoulder issues. The high velocities, extreme ranges of motion and repetitive motion all wear on the shoulder and increase the risk for injury.

Knowing this, we wouldn’t have a baseball player perform the Olympic lifts. The ranges of overhead motion that the lifts put an athlete’s shoulder through would be too risky when the athlete is already in a sport that demands a lot from the shoulder. The reward of improved explosive strength just isn’t worth the increased risk for injury.

  • Age of the Athlete-There are a couple scenarios that we see when working with different aged athletes and whether or not to utilize the Olympic lifts. For the purpose of example, we will assume that the athlete’s sport is a good fit for the Olympic lifts.

If we have a young athlete that is just starting strength training, we would most likely choose to start training the Olympic lifts right away. Of course, at first the athlete would be doing primarily technique drills, but the goal with a young athlete is to focus on long term development. That way, as the athlete gets older and more efficient in the lifts, we can start using more weight and really improve their explosive strength. Starting an athlete with the Olympic lifts early will ensure that the flexibility of their muscles stays how we want it.

Let’s take a look at an older athlete that hasn’t performed the Olympic lifts before. As I’m sure you have noticed, older athletes tend to be tighter and have more limitations in their mobility than younger ones. This typically presents a problem when looking at doing the Olympic lifts with an older athlete.

Another factor to take into consideration with older athletes is that even if they have the mobility to get into the basic positions of the Olympic lifts, it might be too late in their career to get the full benefits of the Olympic lifts. Since the lifts take quite a bit of time to learn, the athlete might be better off focusing on other methods of improving characteristics that will help them improve in their sport.

  • Level of Competition-We need to look at the level that an athlete is competing at as well. If an athlete is at an extremely high level (professional), there will most likely be a distinct off-season where most of the hard training in the weight room will take place.

If this athlete has utilized the Olympic lifts in the past, then we will most likely keep using them. If they haven’t, we won’t want to be spending a full off-season catching them up to speed on the lifts when they could be doing something much more productive.

Along those same lines, if they’ve gotten to a very high level, whether they use the Olympic lifts or not, it is obviously working out well for them. At that point, we don’t want to make any huge changes to their training, such as adding in brand new, complex movements.

  • How an Athlete Moves-If you’ve ever watched the Olympic lifts being done correctly, you’ll know how much mobility they require to achieve correct positioning. If an athlete can’t get into the right position or close to it, we aren’t going to have them do the lifts.

That being said, the first thing we do when an athlete comes into American sports Performance is take them through a movement assessment. This helps us identify any issues or limitations in their movement that need to be addressed.

This way, we can work them towards increasing their mobility and stability that will allow them to perform the lifts correctly (if that’s the goal) or so the athlete can just move better on the field and stay healthy.

These are the four primary factors that we consider when determining whether we want one of our athletes to learn or perform the Olympic lifts as part of their training. While the benefits are great for nearly any athlete, we need to make sure that the lifts are the right fit for both the athlete’s sport and their current situation. Take into consideration the risk that you’re putting your athlete in by asking them to perform complex movements and weigh those against the rewards that the athlete will achieve by training the Olympic lifts.


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