High Rep Olympic Weightlifting

This topic has been festering on the internet for a few days because Mark Rippetoe wrote an article titled “The Fallacy of High-Rep Olympic Lifting” for T-Nation. By the way, I see a comparison between Rip and Stone Cold Steve Austin in his heel (bad guy) days in WWF — he’d come out and buck the system and some people hated him, some loved him for it, yet both fan groups paid attention while another group just said, “Get this guy outta here, I wanna watch Shawn Michaels hit a side-lunge-front-double-bi.”

Rip’s article basically says that using the Olympic lifts is misguided because they are injurious, reinforce poor mechanics, and aren’t optimal for conditioning anyway. You also get the gist of an anti-CrossFit sentiment. Various CrossFit-oriented responses will point out that the end will justify the means in the pursuit of well rounded conditioning (or maybe just CrossFit capability).

Well, I’m a fence rider. I always tell people that there are things I like and dislike in CrossFit, but overall I have a favorable opinion (more on this from a couple years ago. Edit: From 2012). Anyway, let’s ignore the idea of CrossFit and focus on the primary topic: the deabte of high rep Olympic weightlifting movements in conditioning.

Proper mechanics with the lifts is necessary before using them in conditioning

Proper mechanics with the lifts is necessary before using them in conditioning

Do they have a place in a training program? Like all programs, it depends. If someone is doing high-rep, light-weight snatches or clean and jerks, can their form fall apart? Of course. Can someone do a conditioning workout and maintain technique? Certainly, but they’d probably have to slow the overall workout down a little. I agree with Kelly Starrett in that performing snatches or clean and jerks in a conditioning session is not only acceptable, but that they can provide meaningful training adaptations. The trainee in question would need to have the appropriate strength, mobility, and technique to even be considered for such a workout. 

Snatches and cleans are beautiful movements where a lifter creates tension in their system, explodes to release the tension, and then creates tension in a completely new position. They are the epitome of full body, technically demanding lifts. Not only do they have their gross motor pathway demands (e.g. proper pulling position, proper mechanics through all phases of the pull, proper receiving position, and proper recovery), but they have acute motor pathway demands (e.g. keeping the torso solid and not extending or flexing the spine, maintaining external rotation in the hips and shoulders when applicable, etc.).

A 5 year old picture of cleans in a conditioning workout. It's possible to maintain technique while fatigued.

A 5 year old picture of cleans in a conditioning workout. It’s possible to maintain technique while fatigued.

A trainee who plays a sport or has a physically demanding job can use snatches and cleans to test whether they can maintain gross and acute motor pathways when their muscles are tired and they are breathing hard — the latter of which is extremely important for anyone who has to run around with heavy gear on. If a soldier can’t maneuver his battle space with proper mechanics, it can lead to acute injury or chronic irritation that will deem him nonoperational.

The point is that movements like snatches and cleans can help teach a trainee to maintain positioning in extreme fatigue so he can learn what is right and what is wrong. I’ve worked with a lot of athletes and military personnel, and both parties are guilty of reverting to bad positioning in the heat of the moment.

Should these populations bother with the weightlifting movements if they perform them poorly? Of course not; training would only serve as a source of injury. But it’s up to the coaches to develop their trainees to the point that they can do lots of technically sound cleans in a row. That’s one thing CrossFit has taught us: doing the high reps matters not for the sake of increasing the work output, but having proper mechanics to reduce the wear and tear on the body. I’m not so sure CrossFit would emphasize the latter, but it’s up to us as coaches and programmers to learn and acknowledge that.

Are there are a lot of CrossFit coaches who have no business putting someone in a workout with high rep snatches? Fuck yes. Is that a CrossFit problem? I don’t care, because at the end of the day it’s the responsibility of individual coaches to properly prepare their trainees for whatever workout they create for them. Instead of lambasting the use of high rep Olympic lifts and CrossFit, let’s use this as an opportunity to learn and get better as coaches. And that means developing a trainee’s mobility, getting them strong, and teaching them how to lift technically sound before challenging them with fatigue and high ventilation rates.

31 thoughts on “High Rep Olympic Weightlifting

  1. Unless it is a giant metaphor where the “battlespace” is a lifting platform and a soldier is a person attacking a workout, I feel running around in gear is too different than Olympic weightlifting to use to test/train gross and acute motor movements. Doing battle drills or actual training in gear under fatigued, stressful conditions would be better and hone in on specificity of the task at hand. A good example for that would be a fire muster for firefighters to train essential life saving skills under stressful conditions in a fun competition or practice reloading your weapon after getting an elevated heart rate. This is probably similar to the importance of event training for strongman to train the gross motor pathway to properly load atlas stones.

    I agree that snatches and cleans are great movements which can add a lot of stability and strength. Increased strength is great lugging around a kevlar and body armor with plates with a ruck and a weapon, but getting strength isn’t gained through high rep Olympic lifting. There are more efficient ways to train to achieve the goals that you want.

    • Obviously “sport-specific” stuff is more relevant to the on the job training, but the gym training I”m referring to is teaching proper motor programs with duress. I can develop either a) athletic ability or b) the ability to maintain athletic ability with fatigue/duress by having a trainee do, say, full cleans or snatches in a conditioning workout. That would be the reason to include them, but I’m not claiming that Olympic lifts are optimal sport-specific preparation. That’d be silly.

        • I’m agreeing that Olympic lifts are great exercises but should be used for strength. You did not make any claims that high rep training was for strength but I wanted to bring that up since strength is very important for physically demanding tasks.

      • Are you saying that training someone to “maintain athletic ability with fatigue/duress” using the example Olympic lifting for conditioning carries over to completely unrelated tasks such as individual movement tactics under fatigue/duress? I feel that you are and that is why I’m saying that other training like battle drills would be a lot more productive for military skills. Along the same lines in a non-combat/physically demanding job environment, sport-specific training would be way better preparation which you agree with so I’m confused.

        • So would you think all a football player needs to do for conditioning is run drills? No more time in the gym? I don’t understand your objection here. Justin is clearly saying job/sport specific drills are critical to job/sport performance, but that doesn’t mean a person shouldn’t still spend time using other methods to condition themselves. And I don’t think he’s saying high rep WLing is the only way to do it, just a good way (assuming the person has been taught to perform them correctly to begin with).

          • Let me enlighten you about my objection – I’m saying don’t waste your time which high rep Olympic lifting will do since it isn’t optimal for conditioning or in other words don’t do stupid shit in the gym. Using your Football example, players should be in the gym and focus on gaining strength there. They don’t need to waste time in the weight room doing conditioning. Conditioning should be sport specific drills for “athletic ability with fatigue/duress” or better choices of high intensity conditioning such as hill sprints. I’ve heard of notable NFL players attribute their speed and career longevity to getting strong in the gym (http://usat.ly/16XJvnS) and hill sprints (http://bit.ly/16TolL0).

            I agree with you that Justin is not saying high rep weightlifting is the only way to do conditioning. He would never put out a blanket statement like that. From all of my years of reading 70′s Big, Justin is very situation-dependent and goal-focused in terms of programming and exercise choice.

            • Weightlifting aside, I want to make sure I understand the broader argument from the statement above. Are you saying that general physical preparedness doesn’t carry over into sport specific drills?

              • General physical preparedness (GPP) would carry over by showing an increased aptitude for sport specific drills. If two people were to do sport specific drills and both people had the same skills except one person had better GPP in terms of being stronger, faster, and better conditioned (or any other aspects of fitness) than the other person, the person with the higher fitness levels would do better at the sport specific training. So there is carry over in terms of aptitude but I’m not going to say GPP training is going to make you better at throwing and catching or any particular skills. That is the purpose of sport specific work.

                To help further illustrate this, I’m going to use Rocky IV or Rocky Balboa as an example. If you’ve never seen the movies, Rocky is already an exceptional boxer at this point and doesn’t focus on sport specific training (sparring, etc.) to prepare to fight Ivan Drago or Mason “The Line” Dixon. You see Rocky doing sit ups in the barn, running, chopping wood, and pushing up a cart filled with Adrian, Paulie, and Duke (http://youtu.be/1SUzcDUERLo) or building “hurtin’ bombs” in the gym (http://youtu.be/eQ2UVRLBkTs). That is all GPP for a boxer; he is working on strength and conditioning – not boxing. All of the strength and conditioning carries over to help Rocky during a boxing match but you can’t take someone with excellent strength and conditioning and throw them in the boxing ring since being strong and having stamina doesn’t make you into a boxer. You need to know how to fight – throwing good jabs, uppercuts, bobbing and weaving (or just getting hit in the face like Rocky). GPP training is all around fitness and a foundation for sport specific training.

                GPP is also fluid based on what your sport is and whether the exercise generally helps overall or is for a specific aspect of the sport. Since GPP work is general overall fitness work, GPP focuses on any deficiencies not provided by your sport specific training. So GPP training for a powerlifter would be working on cardio like Prowler push or sled drag while an example for an endurance cyclist’s GPP training would be strength training. Maybe doing bodyweight calisthenics would be good GPP training for both the fictional powerlifter and cyclist but it would depend on the powerlifter’s programming. I view dips, especially weighted dips, as good bench press accessory work so it wouldn’t necessarily be GPP anymore. If you just want to get in shape then pretty much everything is GPP for you since your goal is general fitness.

                While it was great to write about GPP and hope people can learn from it, I’m just trying to say I disagree with Justin that high rep Olympic weightlifting should be used for conditioning for certain populations since I think it shouldn’t be a viable option at all. It just isn’t an efficient way to train in my opinion and there are better ways to achieve endurance/stamina. Also like spartan said I also am “not sold on proper mechanics when snatching under duress means proper mechanics under duress during CQB” or during other physically demanding tasks. So in the meantime, if you are a strength athlete who wants to work on GPP and do some conditioning, I’m saying there are lots of better choices out there than high rep Olympic lifting. If you are an endurance guy and want to work on GPP, go out and build some hurtin’ bombs!

    • It’s kind of interesting that I responded to Justin’s article “Efficient Training: Conditioning Technique” from 19 Aug a few days before Rippetoe’s article in nearly the same fashion and there weren’t any replies to what I said. Some reason nobody cared like a week ago but now people do.

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  3. Firstly, Justin I just shot you an email about some other stuff.
    Secondly, I’m not sold on proper mechanics when snatching under duress means proper mechanics under duress during CQB.

    Lastly (and in my mind most importantly) is that the pool of athletes who can correctly O lift whilst fatigued is so amazingly small that it’s a little pointless arguing about it. 99% of people I see doing the quick lifts (myself included) aren’t good enough to do them well during work sets, let alone during conditioning (not including complexes in that).

    • I agree with all of your points. I’m not surrounded by any decent lifters who know Olympic lifts so I don’t see any folks where Olympic lifting for conditioning would be a good thing.

  4. Robb Wolf and Greg Everett talked about this on one of their podcasts. They suggested using complexes as a means of getting in higher reps with the Olympic lifts. That way you can get some fatigue and metabolic stress without it being “for time” so people aren’t trying to go as fast ad possible and can concentrate more on proper technique.

  5. Justin, this was a great article. I totally agree. i coach some functional fitness classes. personally i steer clear of high rep sub-maximal training on the snatch and deadlift. you can coach good form all you want, but when you do a workout requiring 21-15-9 of say deadlifts and overhead presses at 225 lbs / 115 lbs the form is going to deteriorate.

    overall i disagree with CF on the high rep schemes. I would rather see an athlete do a CF workout with higher weight/lower reps to keep that form good and stress the strength part as much/more than the cardio part. overall CF is a great workout path, but I think they err on the side of low weight/high rep.

  6. Good post, and I completely agree with what was said. Whenever the topic of high rep olympic movements comes up, everyone wants to instantly start ripping it, and Crossfitters, because people see them poorly exicuted by some Crossfitters who lack good technique to start with. I see absolutely nothing wrong with them, as long as their performed correctly. Everyone forgets that long before Crossfitters were using high rep snatches and cleans, the old soviet weightlifters were using them for conditioning. A good friend of mine just finished a internship at Westside training under Louie Simmons, and he uses high rep hang cleans and power cleans as a conditioning tool at Westside. My opinion, is the hate on high rep oly movements is nothing more than people’s hatered for crossfit without fully understanding it

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  8. Justin,

    A nice piece of work. I really like this passage:

    “let’s use this as an opportunity to learn and get better as coaches. And that means developing a trainee’s mobility, getting them strong, and teaching them how to lift technically sound before challenging them with fatigue and high ventilation rates.”

    All exercises are tools. Developing a professional acumen and responsible professional judgement is paramount in becoming a competent and effective in their use.

    Lon

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  11. this seems like a stupid discussion (not Justin writing about it, but that people debate it) …

    It’s like if high rep jump spinning back kicks became a popular exercise for conditioning among Taekwondo athletes.

    >> Yes, if you are technically proficient enough, and have the physical abilities so that any number past 3 reps doesn’t turn into a shit show of sloppy technique that endangers yourself — they’re probably ok for conditioning for you.

    >> No, if you can’t fulfill the above requirements. End o’ discussion.

    Same dealio to me?

    Or maybe it’s not anything like that — but makes sense to me.

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