Olympic lifts in this article refers to Clean, Jerk, Snatch or derivatives.
Personally, I am a big fan of the Olympic lifts for youth athletes. As with everything, there are pros and cons. However, I believe my job as an Athletic Development Coach is to leave the athletes in a better place athletically having spent time with me. I want to have added to the athlete's technical toolbox, so that the next coach can implement any type of training s/he wants to. Whether the following coach wants to implement Olympic lifting or not; whether they have the resources to implement Olympic lifting or not; or whether they see value in Olympic lifting or not; I want athletes to progress out of my program with the skills and abilities to perform whatever is asked of them. They are also fun - both to watch and do. Sharing videos of Olympic lifters competing has created much interest among our group and it has helped with the coaching aspect of it, so athletes can see what a near perfect lift looks like.
So here is a question to start off with. Given that I have touched on before that much of what an athletic development coach does is develop capacities, for example, strength & power. And I have also been a huge proponent of athletic development coaches developing skills as well as capacities, specifically agility or acceleration. So, is Olympic Lifting a skill, or a capacity? This has been a very, very thought-provoking question.
It really depends on the context (sit on the fence). Olympic lifting has no representative value to rugby union, or any other team sport for that matter; so it does not make better rugby/football/GAA/AFL players. The reality is, that Olympic lifting is a sport of it's own, so even that makes Olympic lifting a key skill in that sport (if not the only skill in that sport). In the context of Olympic lifters, Olympic lifting is a skill; in the context of field sport athletes, Olympic lifting is a tool to develop the capacity of power, in the same way that a squat or a bench press are both tools to develop the capacity of strength (both could be classed as skills in powerlifting). The argument could then be, why are we preparing for one sport, by playing a completely different sport? Again, referring back to Newell's model of Constraints, we are not trying to develop the individual-environment-task relationship, we are looking to develop the individual only.
Ultimately, I think the Olympic lifts are great for developing high load power, but there are many alternatives that could also be used (DB Squat Jump, TB Squat Jump etc.), so a one size fits all approach should be avoided. I like implementing Olympic lifts, and I have mentioned before about skills being more enjoyable to develop than developing capacities. Comparing a DB Jump Squat to an Olympic lift (in this example a hang clean), the hang clean is more complex to a DB Jump Squat, and it requires more focus and effort cognitively which makes it more enjoyable. This is the value I see in Olympic lifting, but, as I will discuss, the context I have been in has allowed me to implement a thorough Olympic lifting program. In an ideal world, athlete's would spend a set amount of time in a single S&C program, and preferably they would never get injured, but the real world does not work so simply, and this can negatively effect the impact the coach has on youth athletes. But all things going well, I want to ensure I equip all youth athletes with tools to succeed in programs they progress to.
Obviously, the context around which they are implemented is important, and I have been fortunate to have a suitable context. Exploring the STEP model to practice design (discussed further here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tj6hW2DpXr8) and applying it to a gym environment to teach Olympic lifting, we can quickly identify some critical factors that highlight if you have a suitable environment or now.
Teaching Olympic lifting requires suitable space - it cannot be done in a crowded gym or in a squat rack. Athletes literally need a safe space to fail, so they can drop the bar forward or back, depending on the exercise (clean or jerk or snatch).
The task isn't simple. It takes a long time to learn and even longer to get proficient at. As a result, there needs to be mutual understanding between coach and athlete that failure is expected at regular intervals and players should not be criticised for failure.
If you have only one dowel and one Olympic bar, then it will be very difficult to implement a quality and efficient training program. Olympic lifting platforms are also important, to avoid damage to equipment.
There are two elements to this for Olympic lifting: a) the number of athletes in the group and b) the number of coaches. For me, a suitable coach to player ratio is 1:4. However, this is often not possible in team sports, and it could be that there is one coach for a squad of 30 players. Combining the "equipment" and "people" limitations, if you have one Olympic bar for 10 players, there will be a lot of waiting around and this will lead to an inefficient session. Of course, you could implement a circuit type class, but this would require more coaches and careful planning to ensure players are in a reasonably fresh state when arriving at the Olympic lifting station.
Coaching Olympic lifts
I was fortunate with the Podium (boys and girls) program I was part of in Hong Kong, and I was afforded a huge amount of time with players. Looking back through the STEP model of session design, my environment with the boys' program ticked all the necessary boxes - I had space in the form of an open gym setting, I had a dowel for every athlete and I had at least one assistant coach at all times (sometimes two). There was between 16-20 athletes within the program, but this number included both Senior and Junior Podium athletes, and I taught Olympic lifting to a maximum of 12 athletes at any given time (often it was as low as 8).
However, with the girls' program, the environment was not as suitable. As the girls were essentially all at the same level (different ages groups, but entering the program at the same time), coaching Olympic lifting to 20 girls at the same time is a tough challenge. We just about had enough equipment and space, but if four athletes are lifting at the same time, I have to ignore three of those to focus on a single athlete to provide constructive feedback. This was a mistake I made - I tried to adapt the group in front of me to my program, rather than adapting my program to the group I was presented with. On reflection, a number of questions could be raised:
Could I have organised the group better? (maximise space)
Could I have utilised my other coach better? (maximise people within the environment)
If I didn't trust my other coach with Olympic lifting, why did I not put in the time to develop their competence?
Diving further into the program I implemented with the boys Podium program, from day one, I exposed the athletes to Olympic lifting, starting of with a dowel. For the first 3 months (some athletes less depending on progression), the Olympic lifting with a dowel was the basis for all warm-ups. Breaking this down:
Each warm-up was 10 minutes.
We trained in the gym twice per week.
Within the first three months we had twelve weeks of training.
Therefore players were exposed to 3-4 hours of Olympic lifting in the first 3 months alone.
As players progressed from this initial stage, 10 minutes of every session continued to be allocated to Olympic lifting, but rather than coming through the warm up, it would come through the first core lift. I would program a maximum of 3 reps per set, with up to 5 working sets, and I would ask the players to perform at least two warm up sets of three reps each at a reduced load. This would mean players would complete between 11 and 21 reps of Olympic lifts per session, which would lead to between 350 and 400 reps throughout the following six month period. Alone in year one of the Podium program, a player would get a lot of exposure to Olympic lifting.
This alone highlights the benefits of having a suitable set up (think STEP model) for coaching Olympic lifts. As every environment is different, it is possible that unique solutions will need to be applied to every environment, while keeping key principles of programming at the forefront of any design.
To put it simply, I would start with the bar at hip height (athlete standing tall), ask them to lower the bar to a hang position, and then explode to either get the bar to a clean or snatch position, depending on the exercise. Some cues I would use to describe the process:
Stand up tall.
Lower the bar to just above your knee, pushing hips back (esentially part of an RDL).
Get into a jumping position (hips and knees pushed forward).
"Catch" the bar in the necessary position - Front Squat position for Clean; Overhead Squat position for Snatch.
For me in programming the lifts, I would never ask an athlete to complete an Olympic lift from the floor. Essentially, I would only program Olympic lifting derivates, mostly from a hang position. Why? So the athlete does not have to deadlift the bar from the floor. From an athletic development view point a full Olympic lift (Clean or Snatch) would essentially be a Deadlift plus a Hang Clean/Snatch. If I want the athletes to Deadlift, I will program it separately.
However, going back to my original point around the role of an athletic development coach - I want to have added to the athlete's technical toolbox, so that the next coach can implement any type of training s/he wants to. While I may not see the value in full Olympic lifts, the next coach might feel it is of utmost importance. My job is to put the player in a better place, not serve my own interests; so once the player is competent with the hang derivates of Olympic lifting, I may start adding some reps from the floor, depending on the time of year, age of athlete and priority for that athlete at that stage in their development; on some occasions, the time may be better invested elsewhere. Here, I will simply ask the player to lift the bar straight up into a hang position. The knees must move back to clear a path for the bar to move vertically, and then the knees must move forward to get into a "jumping position".
One thing I have done in the past is combine an Olympic lift derivative with a linked core lift. For example, I would program an exercise "Hang Clean + Front Squat" with reps of "3+3". This means that the athletes performs a Hang Clean into a Front Squat, and repeats this three times. This is something I would do if I felt the athlete needed to get more comfortable under the bar in a Front Squat position (it is technically driven).
I would always program Olympic lifts early in the session (first core lift). My own philosophy with a strength program is to move from the most neuromuscular demanding exercises to the most metabolically demanding exercises in a single session, so an athlete is freshest for the most demanding work on the central nervous system (CNS). Initially, it must be said, the Olympic lifting aspect of an athlete's program is unlikely to have a high CNS demands, simply due to the fact that the athlete does not place much weight on the bar or is not moving as fast as they can.
I have identified some of the key features of an environment that suits an Olympic lifting program, and key features that I have been lucky enough to have in my environment over the last 4 years. However, it is important to adopt a critical mindset when implementing these lifts with some important questions:
Can I chase the adaptation I am looking for with a different methodology?
Do I have the necessary time long-term to coach these lifts?
What does the athlete need - am I coaching Olympic lifts because I enjoy the challenge of coaching them, or am I trying to make a difference to this athlete's career?
Thanks for reading. I would love to hear about other challenges that people face when implementing Olympic lifts or other aspects of training.