The sport of weightlifting consists of the clean and jerk and the snatch. This article will refer to those as the olympic lifts. In these lifts, a barbell is essentially thrown upward and then caught in a different location. The video below shows world class weightlifters.
Competitive lifters typically snatch over 60% of their max squat and clean and jerk over 70%. So the movements are definitely on the slower side of the strength-speed spectrum. However a certain level of velocity is required to complete the movement, so the bar is thrown as high as possible in an explosive manner. Thus the olympic lifts measure not pure strength but power, which is the product of strength and explosiveness. (Inconveniently, the sport called powerlifting consists of the squat, deadlift, and bench press. These lifts test maximum strength rather than power, so the name of the sport is senseless.)
The lifts as performed in the video above require a high skill level and years of practice. Those lifts are a sport in themselves. People who do not want to devote their lives to weightlifting, but rather want to use it to train for other sports, typically use simpler versions of the lifts. The first adjustment is the use of the power catch, which simply means the bar is caught with the thighs above parallel. This means the bar must be thrown higher, which means it's a lighter, faster lift. The catch is also less technical. The other simplification that can be made to the clean and snatch is starting with the bar already off the floor. This is called pulling from the hang. A hang clean or hang snatch can mean pulling from anywhere other than the floor, but often people do hang pulls from somewhere above the knee. Pulling from the floor is a bit more complicated. It's broken down into the first and second pull, which correspond roughly to below the knees and above. Pulling from above the knee simplifies it to one explosive pull. The video below shows the hang power version of the snatch. This is the type of simpler version of an olympic lift that is commonly used in athletic development.
Olympic lift variations have characteristics that make them theoretically highly effective for sports training. They train explosive strength of hip, knee, and ankle extension, the joint actions which largely drive most athletic movements. Clean and snatch are particularly focused on hip extension power, which some would say is a good trait for an exercise. In addition, core strength is in high demand. The torso must maintain rigidity for the force from the legs to be transferred to the bar, and a high amount of stability is required through the whole body when the barbell is caught. Upper back and shoulder power are also required. All in all, these exercises seem extremely beneficial. But do they provide anything that we do not get elsewhere?
Let's consider their impact on explosiveness and strength. Because of the velocity requirement of the olympic lifts, they are explosive exercises. But let's be clear. That does not mean you can develop explosiveness for sprinting or jumping by doing snatches. Even though snatch is explosive, the time frame for producing force is still long and the velocity is still slow compared to sports movements. For running and jumping athletes, olympic lifts should be considered strength training. Of course in the strength realm, we already have heavy exercises like squat and deadlift that provide the strongest possible strength stimulus. Olympic lifts cannot develop the same level of strength as squat and deadlift. They are ineffective as explosive training and not the most influential strength training. So do we need olympic lifts? To be honest, no. But they can be useful.
A big issue in training for athleticism is getting strength training to transfer over to sports movements. One way to get better transfer is to develop strength with relatively fast lifting. Olympic lifts fit into this approach perfectly. In addition, by regularly using an olympic lift variation, we get a frequent measure of power to track the progress of a strength training program. When training for sports, measuring power is more relevant than measuring pure strength. Now what is the best way to increase numbers on olympic lifts AKA increase power? It's actually squatting, because squatting is the best strength stimulus there is. We need to practice whatever olympic lift variation we use in order to have the skill for it, but it's the stimulus of squatting that has the most potential to cause increase in power. Because of the limited load and the stronger biomechanical positions of olympic lifts done with a power catch, they are typically not enough of a strength stimulus to make people stronger over a long period of time. I make that claim based on my own experience training athletes. If your experience is different, great. There are gifted athletes who have gotten very strong just by playing sports. I'm sure those same athletes can get very strong using explosive lifting. But most of us need the strongest possible strength stimulus, heavy squatting, in order to get strong. So if you are already squatting, the purpose of olympic lifts is measuring power more so than training strength. (This is assuming we're talking about power catches. If we're talking about heavy cleans with a full front squat catch, then we do have a pretty decent strength stimulus there. But if you're not a competitive lifter, it makes more sense to just do deadlift and front squats separately rather than having to acquire the skills for a full squat clean.)
What if you are not squatting? If you are familiar with Jump Science content, you likely know that I advocate breaks from heavy lifting that allow an athlete to completely recover and get as explosive as possible. One of the challenges in utilizing this strategy is holding onto strength during these breaks. Explosive lifting can provide enough of a strength stimulus to maintain power without the fatigue and the slowness that comes from heavy lifting. The second valuable purpose of olympic lifts is power maintenance during a break from heavy strength training.
Along with measuring and maintaining power, olympic lifts provide a way to measure explosiveness. As stated before, power is a product of strength and explosiveness. (Strength x Explosiveness = Power) Comparing a test of power to a test of just strength provides an indication of explosiveness. Explosiveness can be measure by the percentage of an athlete's max squat that he or she can clean or snatch. For example, consider the pseudo-scientific equation (Max Squat x Explosiveness = Max Hang Snatch). Looking at the snatch, there is a certain velocity that must be generated in a certain short period of time for the lift to be completed. That velocity and that short time will always be the same if the movement does not change. Therefore, snatching a higher percentage of a max squat means that a higher percentage of the maximum muscle tension is being generated in the same amount of time. That, by definition, is an increase in explosiveness. (Note: If technique improves or the lifter drops into a deeper overhead squat for the catch, the movement will be completed with more weight, but that will not necessarily indicate an increase in power or explosiveness. The measure of power and explosiveness will only be accurate if the technique and depth of the catch are consistent.) So what are some good percentages? For a hang power snatch, you definitely want to be above 55% of your max squat. For hang power clean, above 75%. If you reach those marks then start shooting higher. There is no such thing as being too explosive.To sum things up...
- Olympic lifts do not develop explosiveness for sprinting and jumping. They should be considered strength training.
- Olympic lifts are a less potent strength stimulus compared to pure strength exercises, so you do not NEED them.
- Olympic lifts do fit the strategy of trying to get strong with relatively fast lifting.
- They are useful for measuring power.
- They are useful for maintaining power when heavy strength work is not being done.
- They provide a simple measure of explosiveness.