Why Weightlifting? 5 Reasons to Include the Olympic Lifts in your Training

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[P]ractice of the Olympic lifts teaches an athlete how to apply large amounts of force
— Artie Dreschler

Stop me if you’ve heard these: 

“I don’t want to get too bulky.”

“Lifting heavy weights scares me.”

“I don’t care about using the barbell at all.”

“Olympic lifting is dangerous the way CrossFitters do it."

Okay I’ll stop. 

One of the hangups people have when they start CrossFit is how much weightlifting we do. The belief that weights are the direct path to "bulky unattractive muscles" on women is one of the big offenders, and a preoccupation with the complexity and perceived danger of the lifts. 

On the other hand, for the initiated, it’s often one of the best parts of training. Some people cherry pick barbell workouts, and don’t think I don’t know who you are. Weightlifting classes are a popular offering at CrossFit gyms, and some people take their proficiency with the lifts for granted. 

So I’m here to drop some truth bombs on both camps: why we utilize the snatch and clean+jerk and their variations in our general program. 

1- More. Power. Less. Bulk.

The Olympic lifts are unparalleled in their ability to develop explosive power in your musculature. They make you jump higher, sprint faster, and pick up things safer while keeping the muscles the same size. So far from being movements that necessarily “bulk” you up, what they do is make each muscle turn on faster and produce more strength for its size. It's great for weight class athletes and anyone else who just wants to stay/get lean and get/stay strong. 

The geeky terms for this, if you want to look them up, are as follows: 

  • Rate of force development
  • Kinetic chain integration
  • Neural recruitment

Basically, you can get moving faster, with more of your muscles, more efficiently. 

2- Use everything. 

From the pull to the squat, you’re going to use every muscle you have to complete a successful Olympic lift. And whether you’re training for total strength or some form of conditioning stimulus, there’s value in using your whole body in concert to accomplish a task. It’s the epitome of functional fitness. 

3- Stretchy strong. 

This is where you should evaluate whether or not you should be doing the lifts in your own training. The positions required for the snatch, clean, and jerk, are difficult, but they demonstrate “full” range of motion. It shows me a person’s mobility and flexibility, and gives me a great idea of what to do to improve their flexibility in ways that more isolated movements can’t. At CrossFit Glen Ellyn, mobility and flexibility work is baked into the program, so we progress everyone towards safe and productive positions. 

On top of that, you need to have access to your strength in these ranges, which is different from other flexibility practices. I want you to be flexible and strong, unlike the stocky immobile meathead stereotype. These are assessments and training moves. 

4- Skill transfer. 

I’ll go into this topic a little more deeply later, but the coordination required to balance an Olympic lift is intense, even at light weights. You’re passing through a variety of shapes in relationship to an external load that mimic dozens of other movements in CrossFit and other sports. As a result, the more effort you put into perfecting your Olympic lifts, the better all your other skills get. You get better at CrossFit, but you also get better at learning new skills. 

5- Competing in a sport? Double down. 

If you are a competitor in sports (especially CrossFit as a sport), you need to be good at weightlifting. At one point, the Olympic lifts and their pieces accounted for 36% of the movements and tests in the CrossFit Games season. Now with the focus on dumbbells and odd objects, that’s intentionally lower, but we still see heavy lifts as part of the “Tests of Fitness.” 

You want to be able to move a lot of weight, but you need to do it quickly. While the power lifts (squat, bench, deadlift) are great at developing top-end strength, they can actually cause your athletic performance to decline as they increase, depending on the speed and agility demands of  your sport and position. 

For conventional sports, it goes back to #4, Skill Transfer:

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.
— Philip Sabatini

 You want to be able to move a lot of weight, but you need to do it quickly. While the power lifts (squat, bench, deadlift) are great at developing top-end strength, they can actually cause your athletic performance to decline as they increase, depending on the speed and agility demands of  your sport and position. 

Conclusion

If you’re not doing a good deal of weightlifting in your program, or you intentionally skip snatch day, then hopefully this cursory overview gave you something to think about. If this stuff is your favorite, then you should now have more insight into why you love it so much and why we’re doing split jerks today. 

-M

P.S. These lifts are complex, so it’s best to learn them from a qualified coach. We’re pretty good at CrossFit Glen Ellyn, so you can email mitch@crossfitglenellyn.com for 1-on-1 attention.

P.P.S. I also have recommendations if you want to make this your sport. I’m not the best WL coach in the area, but I have a list of people who are. Hit me up for that as well and I’ll help you out.