Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Olympic Lifts - A Rant - Sort Of

Probably mostly due to the popularity of Crossfit, Olympic lifts are kind of big. Outside of the Crossfit mentality, I just don't get it. I have long heard of the value of Olympic lifts for developing explosive power for things like jumping and sprinting, but I think their value is overstated. Don't get me wrong, there is value to doing them, but they are not the end all be all of lifts, even for developing explosive power.

One of the big problems I have with them is that they are very easily performed wrong. In this case, bad form is much more likely to lead to injury. People lift with bad form all the time in everything from biceps curls to squats. In some cases this is just a case of ineffectively working out the target muscles. In other cases it is dangerous and could lead to injury over time. A lifter might perform an exercise with dangerous form for a lifetime and never get injured. I see the evidence of this almost every time someone brings up how a video shows bad form, and a commenter points out how they have done it that way for 2 decades and never been injured. It may be true, but it doesn't disprove that they are playing with fire. It helps perpetuate exercise myths and dangerous practices. When people do the Olympic lifts wrong it is just dangerous. There is immediate risk of serious injury. Watch any video of "Crossfit fails", and you will see at least a few examples where you wonder how the lifter can still walk or feel their toes. Olympic lifts are much more skill and technique than most free weight exercises. With their increasing popularity, more people are doing these with inadequate instruction and understanding. They push too hard, too soon, and they just do it wrong.

The other big problem I have is with their specificity, or lack thereof. Our bodies adapt to training very specifically to the training protocol employed. The explosive power trained in even the most basic Olympic lift is only developed by a small part of the lift. I want my jump to improve. I need to overload the muscles used at the kinds of velocity that they will be used in jumping. The lift might reasonably replicate the velocity, but it might not do so through the full range of motion of my jump. It also has a lot of other stuff going on that doesn't help me jump higher at all (or is at least highly ineffective). Add in the aforementioned risk of injury, and you have a superficially superior, but not so effective lift that is dangerous and hard to learn. Two guys with the same 1RM squat, overhead press, and bench press might have vastly different cleans, or snatches, all due to skill and familiarity with the technique. And that doesn't mean that one is going to improve their jump or sprint time that much more than the other.

I can get a more completely and directly applicable range of motion from the rack pull done at jumping speeds than I can with any of the Olympic lifts without having to think about a technically complex lift and nailing the technique. A rack pull has the added advantage of being a lift that you can easily bail on by dropping the bar. The bar isn't going to drop on your head or neck. It isn't even going to fall that far. I can start at a joint angle that closely approximates joint angles at the beginning of a jumping motion to maximize applicability. I can get in a good volume of high intensity reps without getting worn out by the less applicable parts of the lift. I can get more beneficial work done in less time than with the Olympic lifts. Overload and specificity. That's what exercise and training is all about.

If you want to do Olympic lifts, feel free to do so. Please for the love of all that is good and holy, learn to perform them properly, and don't push harder than you should. Don't be the next Crossfit fails star. Just understand that there is a easier, safer, more effective alternative.
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