The Importance of Olympic Weightlifting for the Sport of Fitness – Collection

1) General Introduction:

The mere practice of the Olympic lifts teaches an athlete how to apply large amounts of force. Part of the extraordinary abilities of an Olympic lifter arises out of his having learned how to effectively activate more of his muscle fibers more rapidly than others who aren’t trained to do so. This becomes extremely important for athletes who need to remain at lower body weights for athletic purposes but need to learn how to apply greater force.—Artie Dreschler

Mr. Dreschler literally wrote the book on weightlifting. Clearly he wasn’t writing for competitive exercisers, but his comment could not be any more appropriate in relation to our sport. I say this at every camp, and I’ll say it again here: Rich Froning has the highest WL total of any Games athlete—Rich Froning has won the Games twice.

The debate on the importance of weightlifting should stop with my last statement, but fools will continue to quarrel. So here’s a quote from “Were the Games Well Programmed?” on Anders Larson’s CFG Analysis site:

What is clear from this is that HQ puts a large value on the Olympic lifts. The clean and snatch were worth a total of 5.35 events on their own! Add in shoulder-to-overhead (0.67) and that’s more than 6 events worth of points based on the Olympic lifts. Although I am a big fan of the Olympic lifts myself, I do think the snatch in particular was over-valued. It was worth nearly 14% of all the available points, including 20% of the Open and 17% of the Regional.

These are actual numbers and facts, not opinions about what you “think” will be programmed. Larson also has added up the total point values for every movement tested during both the 2011 and 2012 Games seasons. The snatch and clean & jerk are worth 20 percent of the total point value. If you add accessories, you have 36 percent of the total point value—read that again, except in all caps: THIRTY-SIX PERCENT. I can and will talk about exactly how the lifts develop the athlete from an overall perspective, but strictly from a sporting perspective, that’s a lot of points.

We are not programming for and coaching athletes to be Olympic weightlifters. Our athletes’ success in Olympic weightlifting is secondary to this fact: to be successful in the “sport of fitness,” they must be good weightlifters. Rich Froning’s 293kg Total (in f-ing Nanos) would have been good for third place at the 2012 American Open. Rich Froning is the two-time CrossFit Games champion.

2) Science:

> Rate of force development
> Kinetic chain synchronization
> Neural recruitment

These are just a few of the benefits of Olympic weightlifting. They are buzzwords that are sometimes thrown around without definition, and they are all paramount to athletic performance. Athletes who compete in “the sport of fitness” are no different from athletes in any other sport. They must develop the ability to apply force, in a synchronized manner, and do it as quickly and efficiently as possible. The great difference is that our sport awards roughly 30 to 40 percent of its points based upon proficiency in the Olympic lifts, whereas athletes who compete in nonfitness-related sports use the Olympic lifts as strictly a training protocol to develop athletic potential.

All sports require different amounts of muscle synchronization, balance, flexibility, and coordination as well as strength, speed, power, and metabolic development. Olympic weightlifting provides development in all these areas. While training for maximal strength can have a positive effect on performance, it also can have a “negative effect on movement speed and the ability of a muscle to display explosive effort” (Wenzel & Perfetto 1992). However, this does not mean that strength gains do not happen through training at high speeds. Wenzel and Perfetto characterized strength gains from high-speed training as adaptations “due to an increase in the number of fibers recruited or a more synchronous firing of motor neurons” (Wenzel & Perfetto 1992).—Philip Sabatini, February 2011 interview with elitefts.net.

The single most important requirement for strength development is the ability to produce force. Force, in terms of strength training and athleticism, is the body’s ability to recruit and initiate muscular contraction. Greater ability to produce force means greater ability to act upon external load, greater ability to control/manipulate the body in space, and greater ability to maintain efficiency with higher-repetition sub-maximal endeavors. The single best tool to gain the ability to develop force is strength training. The strength training protocol used must involve movements performed at either maximal or near-maximal weight (90 percent plus), or lighter weight moved as quickly as possible (70 to 90 percent). The ability to produce force, sans coordination, is a quintessential component of athleticism.

The kinetic chain is simply defined as a “combination of several successively arranged joints constituting a complex motor unit” (Steindler). The greatest/safest open chain tools we have to develop the kinetic function of multiple motor units—in our sport and in our training—are the Olympic lifts. The wave of contraction that must be produced to perform a full barbell Snatch is unparalleled by any other gym-based movement. To get similar kinetic chain development, you would have to play an actual sport for some length of time, and it would have to be a sport requiring massive amounts of mobility and joint stabilization (such as gymnastics). In my years of coaching I have seen more than my share of athletes who simply cannot perform a full snatch or a comfortable jerk. This is a prime example of dysfunction, inhibition, or tightness at some point in the kinetic chain and is NOT indicative that the movement is too hard to master or not forcertain people. To the contrary; diagnosing these issues, taking steps to correct them, and continued practice of the lifts will allow for a greater overall development of the athlete’s kinetic chain, which will lead to the correction of a multitude of basic movement issues.

Hold on to your hats, boys and girls… I’m going to quote Coach (that’s Greg Glassman for those of you who have only been around a year or two):

The missing link in so much mainstream fitness programming, from bodybuilding to monostructural endeavors, is the neuromuscular piece—in particular, the development of coordination, accuracy, agility, and balance. We can sum these elements up as “technique.” Omitting them from one’s training necessarily results in only partial fitness, partial expression of one’s genetic potential, and a decreased threshold of maximal capacity. To increase work capacity across broad time and modal domains (the goal of CrossFit), technique is the crucial connection—whether your goal is to win the game, protect your life, complete the mission, or just be fit for the demands of everyday life at any age.—Greg Glassman

Again, the snatch takes center stage for this discussion. As the most highly technical movement in our sport’s training lexicon, it takes the prize for greatest/easiest high-level neural developer. And yes, again, high-level gymnastics and other sports can elicit similar neural responses, but the length of learning curve for those sports is far greater and, honestly, in most instances their practice is harder to pull off. Weightlifting’s ability to manipulate neural recruitment and the central nervous system through myriad rep and load variations is essential to “the sport of fitness.” Sorry to use Rich again, but not only does he have a national-level snatch, his 1:20 Isabel at the 2012 Games may have been one of the most efficient and impressive performances I’ve seen in person. With a high level of neural development, the athlete can move through greater ranges of motion with less effort, therefore allowing for greater capacity and less central nervous system fatigue.

3) Technique:

Exhibit A-

This is the max snatch event from the 2009 Games. The only thing I can imagine that’s more embarrassing than this video would be walking in on your parents having sex and being forced to stand there—eyes wide open—for 3 minutes and 46 seconds. Considering that our sport is now full of national caliber lifters, this video is even more shocking. To imagine that these are the top women in 2009, less than four years ago, is mind-boggling.

Here are some numbers to drive the point home:

-Among the top ten women at the 2009 Games, the average snatch was 120#.
-Among the top ten women from the 2012 Games the average snatch is 163.6#.

Here’s one that I had to do the math on at least eight times to believe…

-The average snatch of the 69kg women at the 2012 American Open was 161.6#.

This is notoriously the most competitive weight class in American women’s weightlifting, and 69kg (151.8#) is actually more than 8 pounds heavier than the 143.1 pound average weight of the Games 2012 top ten. (You should probably ruminate on the numbers for a second.)

Technique-

Let’s hear from Mr. Dreschler again:

The mere practice of the Olympic lifts teaches an athlete how to apply large amounts of force.

We have, at times, been criticized for sticking to a lifting template throughout the season. The criticism apparently is that this much lifting will detract from the development of other skills. The reality is that the lifting we do is a developer of overall athleticism, which carries over to all of the skills of our greater sport. Ryan Sunshine has a 240# snatch @ 20 years-old—he just maxed out at 24 unbroken muscle-ups. Spencer Arnold has an American Open podium—he also has 24 unbroken muscle-ups. Camille Leblanc-Bazinet has a nearly double-bodyweight clean & jerk—she has…well, here:

What do we see in this video? Violent hip extension. She keeps the arms long and loose until the power is transferred vertically. Incredible speed and turnover with the elbows. What does all that sound like to you? I’m not trying to argue that if you can’t snatch, you can’t do muscle-ups, but—if adequate time is taken to develop both disciplines—it will never hurt.

We program, practice the technique of, and generally revere the lifts for the overall kinesthetic development they provide our athletes. Kinesthetic awareness is paramount in a sport that rewards efficiency over brute effort. We believe that even the accessory lifts have massive carryover for our athletes. Our best front squatters—who generally have the biggest cleans—have the easiest time with tasks such as wall ball and thrusters. These are things that can be developed by simple repetition, but if the practice of the lifts, and their accessories, can help develop them with less toil, then we have an obvious elixir that can improve athletes in a multifaceted and expedient manner.

Learning the technical aspects of weightlifting is not a one size fits all for athletes. Bob Takano writes:

My experience has been that teaching the snatch and clean & jerk to high-level gymnasts, divers and dancers is a piece of cake. I’ve done it with a couple of these types of athletes in about a half an hour… People lacking in motor learning skills, and that have never done anything to improve their kinesthesia are going to need a lot of coaching and a long time to learn the lifts, if they can learn them at all. June 11th article “How Much Time Does it Take To Learn Technique?

Former athletes, especially from “body control” sports, will have an easier time adapting to the lifts. Athletes or people in general who have done less to “improve their kinesthesia,” as Mr. Takano writes, will have a much harder time. This, however, does not mean that the improvements and adaptations gained from this learning will not have just as much, if not more, carryover for those who have less general body awareness. In fact, I would challenge those of you who have a “high motor” to take the time to fully delve into the learning and perfection of the lifts. Motor is always easier to develop than skill, and once the skill is attained, the motor is just a few grueling weeks from being right back where it was (and likely much improved). The caveat? If you don’t ever take the time to become a barbell virtuoso, no matter how many times you do “Cindy” and “Helen,” you will still be the first person out of the snatch ladder at Regionals.

4) Loading:

One of the biggest misconceptions about The Outlaw Way program is that we have taken a full Weightlifting template, meant to develop both national and world champion level lifters, and inexplicably laid it over a “sport of fitness” full metabolic conditioning template. This notion is both laughable, and glaringly illustrates how little understanding many people have about what “real” Weightlifters actually do. After Elisabeth’s recent trip to train with Team MDUSA, and Coach Pendlay, I asked her what she felt was the biggest difference between the lifting we do, and the lifting that the team was doing. Here’s what she said…

I’m in awe of the volume of heavy, HEAVY work. Their ability to maintain focus and intensity over multiple long training sessions six days a week is almost more than I can imagine. They must start to feel like the BB is an extension of their arms. No lie, after just two days I got on the plane exhausted and immediately fell asleep and started dreaming about lifting. It’s a completely different kind of intensity.

At their AM session on Monday, the team took roughly 8-10 attempts to work to a max Snatch, then another 8-10 attempts to a max Clean & Jerk. After that they did 20 or 30 reps of accessories, then they worked up to a 5RM Back Squat.

Then, in the PM session, they worked up to another near, or in some cases full max Snatch and Clean & Jerk, then did at least five doubles of a Snatch deadlift plus a floor level hang Snatch (far more grueling than a full Snatch IMO), and then repeated the same sequence for the Clean & Jerk. I’ll try to list as close to accurate numbers as I can figure out for the team’s total reps of each movement and overall total:

*Individual Movements

>5 to 10 Max Snatches
>5 to 10 Max Clean & Jerks
>15 to 20 Sub-Maximal Snatches
>15 to 20 Sub-Maximal Clean & Jerks
>20 to 30 Various Accessories
>10 to 15 Snatch Deadlifts
>10 to 15 Clean Deadlifts
>10 to 15 Partial Snatches (hang to 2″ from the floor)
>10 to 15 Partial Clean & Jerks (hang to 2″ from the floor)

And to top it all off…

>15 to 20 Near Maximal Back Squats (working to a 5RM)
>5 to 10 Max Back Squats (attempting or performing a 5RM)

*Total Lifts (using median numbers)

>40 Snatches – between 80% and a training 100%
>40 Clean & Jerks – between 80% and a training 100%
>50 Accessories – all as heavy as technique allowed (including SN & CL Deadlifts)
>25 Back Squats – all roughly between 85% and 105% of 5RM

I know, you want the grand total so you can get down on your knees and thank the Bearded Baby Lord Jesus that you just get to dabble in Weightlifting, and don’t have to fully commit like the crazies down at MDUSA. Here you go…

150 reps at 80% or above.

Lemme reiterate. On Monday, which was a completely normal training day, Team MDUSA (and Elisabeth) performed somewhere close to ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY REPS of a combination of Snatches, Clean & Jerks, back squats, and accessory lifts–almost ALL above 80% of max, and many at max.

On Monday we did less than 40 total lifts, and none were above 85%.

2 responses to “The Importance of Olympic Weightlifting for the Sport of Fitness – Collection

  1. Thanks for the in depth post, coach. Interesting take on the snatch as OKC. I think most coaches and physio’s would disagree, but a imagine that a portion of both weightlifting movements could be considered CKC & OKC.
    Always interesting to read outlaw.

    Thanks,
    CG

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