The Olympic Lifting Myth: Why power cleans won’t make you powerful… in anything except the power clean

As a sprinter, I see a lot of funny things go on in other athletes’ training regimes. Without wanting to offend too many folks, a lot of sprinting coaches in the UK simply don’t have a clue what they’re doing when it comes to strength training in the gym.

In particular, I see far too many professional sports coaches prescribe the Olympic lifts to their athletes – the power clean and the power snatch – in an effort to make them more powerful on the track or on the playing field.

Here I’m going to explain why that’s not only a waste of time, but even worse – a waste of central nervous system reserves that could be used for their sports-specific training.

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Please note before reading any further: This is not an anti-Olympic weightlifting article. I have total respect for the amount of training that Olympic weightlifters do, and their immense week-in-week-out commitment to their sport.

The power clean / snatch movements are also great fat burners, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend them to people who aren’t serious about a certain sport, and just want to get fit and lose weight. And if you’re just a guy who really enjoys the power clean – then that’s awesome.

This is, however, an article encouraging you to realise that for serious athletes, the bulk of their CNS reserves should be channeled toward their sports-specific training, rather than excessively taxing lifts in the gym.

Power clean (CrossFit?) photograph

I’m not the first to question the utility of the Olympic lifts for serious athletes. Erick Minor asked the same question in his article for t-nation a year ago.

In his article, he made this excellent statement:

Many coaches believe that building explosive lower-body power requires performing Olympic lift variations such as the power clean and power snatch. The theory goes that the O-lifts improve rate-of-force development, which transfers to similar movements in the athlete’s chosen sport.

I say it’s not true.

Power, on a neurological level, is a specific skill, one enhanced through specific practice and coaching. And the only training that develops the raw material that can be molded for this specific practice is good old strength training.

The main fallacy he refers to is that lifting heavy weights in a fast way will directly transfer over to becoming faster on the track or on the playing field.

I say this is plain wrong.

Any performance gains in your sport that carry over from the power clean or power snatch arise from the strength you gain from the triple extension that the lifts exercise.

But when we talk about power, power is something very specific.

Just think about this real quick. Usain Bolt is the fastest man in the world, and pretty strong in the gym, but he’s no champion weightlifter.

Now as a comparison, take any top-level Olympic weightlifter you can think of. Jon North, Donny Shankle, and Pat Mendes all come to mind. These are all incredibly strong, in-shape guys, and I’m sure they’re all pretty fast over short distances.

But do their elite numbers in the Olympic lifts enable them to run the 100m in less than ten seconds? I think not. All the axial work they do leaves much to be desired in the sagittal plane – by 60m they’d probably pull a hamstring.

Usain Bolt is a faster sprinter because he spends 90% of his CNS reserves doing fast, intense, sprinting work on the track. He practices his specific sport all through the week. He lifts weights and does hang cleans, as shown in the above video, but he doesn’t let them dominate his training program.

He lifts weights less than quite a lot of sprinters out there. But has that damaged his speed? I don’t think I need to answer that question.

Strength, however, is important for gains in athletic performance. There’s no doubt about that at all.

No other physical ability acts as much as a foundation for all other physical qualities like strength. Strength acts as a foundation for power, and for endurance as well.

If you don’t believe me on that last point, think about it this way: if you improve your bench one-rep max to 100kg, do you think you can lift a smaller weight for more reps? Of course you can.

Army football media day

However, while still improving your strength, you musn’t ever get distracted from practicing your specific sports activity. To get faster and better at your sport, you need to practice it.

The power clean / snatch movements are incredibly CNS-intensive. Holding a heavy barbell in your hands and jerking it upwards explosively causes a lot of neural stress. (It should be noted that pushing movements are a lot less taxing on the central nervous system, and can be done quite often with little ill effect.)

The problem then, with having the lift too prevalent in your program, is that you end up detracting vital nervous system reserves away from training time that could be better spent on practicing your actual sport.

So not only are they unnecessary, if done too frequently and for too high volume with too little recovery, they can actually detract from your sports performance.

Think about that when planning your next training week. Do the top football players and track athletes lose sleep over whether they can power clean 400lbs? No, and that doesn’t harm them one bit.

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