Why We Practice the Olympic Lifts

By Steve on June 3, 2015 in Coaches Blog, CrossFit
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Right around the fourth day of Foundations, when we start to practice cleans with a barbell, I notice a look in peoples’ eyes. Nothing about this lift is clicking.  They got it up until now…squats, presses, deadlifts.  It all made sense.  All of a sudden they have two left feet and too much to think about while simply trying to get the bar from the ground to their shoulders.

I know the look.  I have seen it dozens of times.  It’s the look that says, “Maybe this CrossFit shit isn’t for me.”

And I always tell them: be patient.  I’m going to tie it all together for you.

Which brings us to the questions I have been asked many times: Why are we doing this?  Why do we do the Olympic lifts (clean, jerk and snatch)?

The answer lies in one of CrossFit’s three models of fitness.  Recall CrossFit’s Ten General Physical Skills.

Take a moment to watch this slow motion video of Chad Vaughn snatching 285 pounds, then continue reading.

Now, let’s look at the 10 General Physical Skills, and specifically how Olympic lifts like the one above fit into those skills.

1) Cardiovascular/Respiratory Endurance.  This is your body’s ability to utilize and process oxygen.  Oxygen is an ingredient in energy production, specifically aerobic energy.  Aerobic means “with oxygen” and anaerobic means “without oxygen”.  How well do the O-lifts score on this?  Meh.  You’re not doing it for an hour, so not so much.

2) Stamina.  This is your body’s ability to utilize, store and process energy.  Energy comes in the form of a molecule called ATP.  Think of ATP as cash for your muscles.  How do you feel after doing one rep of a heavy snatch?  You should have to go sit down.  3, 4, 5 reps?  Yes, that requires a significant amount of stamina.

3) Strength.  The ability of a muscle or collection of muscles to exert force.   The more load you put on the muscle, the more force required to move the load.  Think it takes strength to throw 285 pounds over your head?  Absolutely.

4) Flexibility.  The range of motion at a given joint.  Can you hold an upright torso with arms locked out overhead while simultaneously sitting so far down in the bottom of a squat that you are almost literally “ass to grass?”  Neither can I.

5) Power.  Power is the ability to move a large load quickly.  Think of it as strength with a time component. In the above video, Vaughn gets under the bar in less than two seconds and finishes in about five.  The Olympic lifts are the very definition of power.  Moving a large load (285 pounds) quickly (five seconds).

6) Speed.  The ability to minimize the time cycle of a repeated movement.  Watch how fast Vaughn drops into the squat.  It’s said that in Olympic lifting, it’s not how much you can lift, it’s how fast you can get under the bar.  Power and speed are the holy grail of athletics and all athletes looking for power and speed train with Olympic lifts.

7) Coordination.  The ability to combine several distinct movement patterns into a singular distinct movement pattern.  This is where the beginners start to get that look.  They feel completely uncoordinated. There is a lot going on in these lifts.  This is probably the single biggest problem for beginners.

8) Agility.  The ability to minimize transition time from one movement pattern to another.  Think of a hockey player quickly moving from skating backwards to forwards and sideways, all seamlessly.  Another example might be, I don’t know, pulling a heavy bar off the floor (moving up), then immediately dropping under it (moving down), then standing up with the weight overhead (moving up again).  Kind of like in a snatch.

9) Balance.  The ability to maintain your center of gravity over your base of support.  It’s pretty easy when you are just standing on two feet.  Your center of gravity is just below your belly button and that defaults to being over your feet.  But put a heavy load on your shoulders or overhead, and suddenly your center of gravity has moved.  Maintaining balance in the O-lifts takes focus.

10) Accuracy.  The ability to control the direction or intensity of a movement.  When I ask for examples in sports, people often say “throwing a football.”  That’s accuracy of an external object.  But what about the receiver who has to lay out to catch the football?  That’s accuracy of movement.  Again, look at that video above.  How accurate do you think Vaughn needs to be to throw 285 pounds overhead?

There is an order to this list.

Items 1-4 (Endurance, Strength, Stamina and Flexibility) get better by way of training.  With training, we are looking for a physiological response in your body.  The human body is amazing in how it adapts to stress.  When you exercise, you are putting your body under controlled stress because we are trying to elicit a change.  Changes can be short term (heart rate goes up, blood flow increases, capillaries dilate, perspiration increases, etc.) or long term (increased muscle mass, decreased body fat, blood pressure drops, resting heart rate lowers, etc).  Training gets you all the health markers that a doctor looks for.

Items 7-10 (Coordination, Agility, Balance, Accuracy) improve by way of practice.  What’s the difference between practice and training?  If in training we are looking for a physiological response in your body, with practice we are seeking a neurological response.  The change we are after is in the brain!  Every muscle in your body has a direct electrical line to your brain.  The brain sends a pulse down the line and the muscle fires.  But sometimes, the pulse just doesn’t get through.  Think of it as a street with red lights.  By doing things over and over again, not only do the lights turn green, the lights around them turn green as well. When separate muscle groups are called on to fire together over and over again, eventually they get themselves in sync.

As for 5 and 6 (Power and Speed), those get better with a combination of both training and practice.

So as you can see, the Olympic lifts score extremely high on nine out of ten of the General Physical Skills.  If you are deficient at one or two of them, the lifts will be tough.  Most of us are deficient at seven or eight of these skills.

But what makes these lifts so difficult is exactly what makes them so valuable!  Every time you do a rep, you are improving at nine skills.  That’s tremendous bang for your buck.  And if you get better at those skills, you will get better at everything in CrossFit and everything in your life.  Guaranteed.

Happy lifting.

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