As ballsy moves go, yanking a loaded barbell from the floor to above your head makes even the biggest bench look about as impressive as a knees-down press-up. But Olympic lifts offer more than just awestruck stares. Moving that much weight that far challenges almost every muscle in your body. Even a moderate 20-minute Olympic lifting session provides the same cardio benefits as a half hour jog. So is it time you raised the bar?
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Why do people do Olympic Lifting?
Elite Olympic lifters are, pound-for-pound, arguably the strongest people on the planet. They’re also among the fittest. Despite putting away as much as 8000kcal a day, Olympic lifters in the lower weight categories boast a cover model-rivalling 5% body fat and expend as much energy every day as marathon runners. Perhaps unsurprising when you consider they’re shifting up to 80,000kg a week.
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But beyond aesthetics, taking on either the snatch or clean and jerk – the only official Olympic weightlifting events – also boosts athletic performance outside the gym. One US study found Olympic weightlifters could jump higher than even gymnasts and basketball players.
Despite a 5’9” frame, American record holder Shane Hamman can slam dunk a basketball thanks to a 36-inch vertical leap. The 160kg Olympian can also do a standing double backflip. Oh, and he can drive a golf ball 320m off the tee. PGA distance king Bubba Watson averages 30m shy of that.
So why is your gym full of guys bicep curling, not snatching? Well, there’s a reason these lifts are an Olympic event. “It’s a skill,” says powerlifter and strength coach Phil Learney. “It’s not like jumping into a leg press. Olympic lifting is the top of the tree when it comes to difficulty.”
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What are the powerlifting lifts?
Take the clean and jerk. At speed it looks like a deadlift, upright row and push press. Not so, says Results FAST founder Ian Mellis. In the clean, an Olympic lifter uses a triple extension – extending their hips, knees and toes simultaneously – to explosively drive the bar to navel height. They then shrug their shoulders to drop underneath it, catching the bar in a glute-to-heel squat.
As the bar reverberates they time their push back to vertical to coincide with an upward flexion, ending upright with the bar across their deltoids. Then comes the jerk: dip then drive the bar up, straighten your arms and end in a lunge. Work your feet back together and hold your body straight until the judges’ nod. Only then can you drop the bar. “You’ve got to pay your dues in the gym before you start trying to tear 60kg off the floor in a clean,” says Mellis. “It’s not going to end well if you haven’t got that base level strength and muscle memory.”
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How to Olympic lift
“The idea is that you’re wrapping your body underneath the bar,” he adds. “If you don’t see that drop then you’re doing a deadlift into an upright row, with the elbows tucking under.” Not only would that get you disqualified in competition, you also limit what you can safely lift. Compared to a clean, the upright row puts huge stress on the shoulder joints, says Learney. With an Olympic load you’ll be leaving the gym in an ambulance.
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As he and Mellis stress, where all you need is a spotter to tackle the bench without any major problems, Olympic lifts are different. Correct form and technique is everything. “You should drill it with broom handles and empty bars until someone has perfect movements,” says Learney.
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Which means hours of practice before you’re actually lifting proper weight. If your aim is to be a competitive weightlifter it’s worth the time investment. If you just want to get your head to more crosses every Saturday afternoon, it’s probably not.
Olympic lifts for beginners
“The only people that would benefit from full Olympic lifts are Olympic lifters,” says Learney. For your ordinary gym goer, he likens nailing the snatch to tackling the London Marathon. “If they want to do it, it’s a nice achievement. But they’re not going to benefit from it.” But that doesn’t mean you should write off Olympic lifts completely. Break them down and you can still boost strength and power without ending up with the posture of the Hunchback of Notre Dame.
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Olympic lifts workout
Learney splits the move into the first pull – getting the bar off the floor – and the second – taking it to either chest height or overhead. “The second pull is what’s most important to athletes,” he says. “Apart from Olympic and powerlifters, most athletes are never going to drop into a full squat. So going for that full flexion and accelerating into extension doesn’t really have any crossover.”
Because you’ll always lift more off the floor than you can clean, Learney recommends working your deadlifts and squats as separate entities at higher loads, but supplementing with hang cleans. Stood up, with the bar held at your thighs, you squat down as if in a deadlift then explode up through your hips, knees and toes simultaneously, using your hands to guide the bar to your chest. It’s this triple extension, using lower-body power to accelerate the bar upward, that’s key.
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“It’s all about your hips and glutes,” Learney emphasises. “Drive them through with force and it reverberates through your knees and ankles; your feet leave the floor; you come up onto your toes.” By hammering the biggest muscles in your legs and back your metabolism goes into overdrive and your body is flooded with muscle-building hormones. Prepare for huge gains in less time, without turning your spine into foie gras.