Why I would teach the snatch and clean and jerk to a high school athlete and not a college athlete:

By: Spencer Arnold

If you are paying attention at all to the high school and collegiate strength and conditioning world then you no doubt caught wind of the debate around the utility of the Olympic Lifts. There will always be opinions and for the most part those opinions are worth about as much as the time it took to state them. Recently I heard on a podcast that you can’t be “married to the Olympic lifts” and that to do so would put you in a box when training your athletes. I understood the sentiment and the foundation from which an idea like that grows but the resulting application in strength programs around the country is devastating. What I would like to show in this article is that there are some basic truths about the Olympic Lifts that cannot be ignored. Further, utilizing the Olympic Lifts is always (yes I said always and yes that is an absolute statement) the most efficient way of training, though not always the best way.

Let’s start by stating three facts:

  1. Outside of the Olympic Lifts, there is no more complete way of training rate of force development, flexibility, agility, deceleration, coordination, power,  and ultimately the most necessary skills needed for sport.. Yes there are other ways to train it but there are not better ways to train it. There are no other programs in the world that are able to encapsulate so many attributes and skills so succinctly.
  2. The Olympic Lifts are far and away the most advanced movements to be applied in a strength and conditioning context. They take the most time to learn, they take the most time to perfect, and they take the highest degree of skill to teach. This is much of the reason coaches pushback on the lifts and much of the reason the lifts are poorly utilized in programs around the country and the world.
  3. A 14-year-old freshman football player is massively different than a 18-year-old college freshman football player. Physically, mentally, socially, and developmentally these two athletes might as well be 25 years apart. To treat them the same or to lump them in the same category when making statements about strength and conditioning displays a massive ignorance towards athlete development.

With those facts on the table you can suppose some basic realities. Firstly, if the above facts are true then it makes sense to use the Olympic Lifts in your program as long as they can be utilized well and have carryover to the field of play. Secondly, the Olympic Lifts obviously add a distinct advantage to your program if you are able to teach them and have your athletes carry them out proficiently without risk for injury. Thirdly, there are good reasons, even smart reasons, to not include the Olympic Lifts in your program but ultimately it revolves around the type of athlete you’re training and the coach’s proficiency at teaching and managing the application of the Olympic Lifts in a strength context.

At King’s Ridge, the high school at which I am the strength and conditioning coordinator, the Olympic Lifts are the bread-and-butter of what we do. I have the distinct advantage of working directly with athletes from middle school age all the way to high school graduation. This gives me so much time to work through movement progressions and ultimately lifting progressions such that I am able to ensure proper technique, proper teaching progressions, and resultant applied loading. I’ve heard so many coaches ask why would I “waste eight weeks” to teach the Olympic Lifts when I could just apply a good plyometric program and get the same result.  First off, as stated in the facts above, comparing a good Olympic Lifting program to a good plyometric program is like comparing working on go carts versus working on race cars. One is just for more advanced and produces far more results than the other. Secondly, I’d love to meet the coach who is able to get a athlete from no knowledge of the Olympic Lifts to mastery of the Olympic Lifts in eight weeks. Eight weeks is a ridiculous number and not something that could even be visibly produced in any program, anywhere outside of select elite athletes in a one-on-one privatized environment. It takes months or truthfully a year to ever get to a place where athletes can actually apply the Olympic Lifts (the snatch especially) to their performance on the field. If you are trying to move an athlete from zero knowledge to mastery in eight weeks you are doomed to failure. This is why specific training regimens and recognition of athlete development is so important if you are going to use the Olympic Lifts. However, just because they are hard to perform and harder to teach doesn’t make them irrelevant and certainly doesn’t make the coach ignorant or “wasting time” for applying them in a slow drip, slow progressing model.

This is why I titled the article what I did. It makes sense to take a 14-year-old high school athlete and put them on a slow, progressing model for the teaching and application of the Olympic Lifts. They are a developing athlete who most often doesn’t even know if they’re going to play college sports much less which college sport they might play. Secondly, the way their body moves, reacts, and changes at 14 will be massively different than at 18 or 19. Also, the point and directive of a high school strength program is to create athletes. Good high school strength and conditioning programs make good athletes. They don’t make specifically good baseball players are specifically good football players or specifically good track athletes, they make good athletes. Even the idea of specializing a strength and conditioning program so specifically at 14 or 15 years old to a specific sport makes me nauseous. The athletes in front of you at 14 will not be the same athletes standing in front of you at graduation. To begin to specialize or centralize their training on one sport that early is to disregard human development at its most basic level. Why do we teach the Olympic Lifts to high school athletes and not college athletes? Because high school athletes have time to learn the lifts, master them, and apply them to the field. As a college freshman recruited and expected to perform in one sport, priorities are different. If I come into a program having had no experience in the snatch it would be a grade-A waste of time to try and teach the snatch when they are being asked to perform at a high-level already on the field.  Furthermore, trying to teach a college freshman the Olympic lifts when they’ve had no exposure to them is a little late in the game. Especially when they’ve been recruited to play a sport and are being asked to perform at a high-level on the field already.Here’s the truth that most strength and conditioning coaches don’t want to admit. Most strength
and conditioning coaches have very limited exposure to the Olympic Lifts and therefore have very limited understanding of how to teach and progress an athlete through the complexity of movement. This often results in a complete aversion to the lifts and will later come out as rhetoric explaining how they are not worth the time invested. The strength and conditioning coaches in the world who do you have the ability to teach the lifts and do you have a more complete understanding of their application know that this is ridiculous. A college freshman football player who can snatch 185 is a far more athletic and useful athlete than a college freshman who can backsquat 450. Don’t believe me? Ask any high-level division I strength coach. I’ve heard it from their mouth’s and so have many of my athletes.

I understand the Olympic Lifts are hard. That’s the beauty of them. Not only are they good for teaching so many different skills to athletes but they force athletes to mentally adapt to hard things; to train through tough mental stimuli. I also understand that a lack of knowledge in the Olympic Lifts or a lack of exposure to Olympic Lifts as a coach can be daunting and intimidating. However, your reaction to that reality should not be to disqualify the Olympic Lifts but instead to the ego of the coordinator. Just because they’re hard doesn’t make them useless. Don’t blame the lifts themselves for your own incapabilitydisqualify yourself from teaching them. Applying the Olympic Lifts early in a strength and conditioning context to an athlete early in their career will have ripple effects throughout their entire time on the sports field. That’s not opinion, that fact. The biggest problem with the application of the Olympic Lifts in strength and conditioning programs around the country has less to do with the actual utility of the lifts and more to do with the ego of the coordinator. Just because they’re hard doesn’t make them useless. Don’t blame the lifts themselves for your own incapability.