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.

Pendlay’s MDUSA Program

Glenn Pendlay recently posted an article on his blog explaining how he trains the Muscle Driver USA Olympic weightlifting team (article).

It’s your standard fare of doing the competitive lifts, doing power and other variants when necessary, and getting stronger with presses and squats. There are some peculiarities that help distribute the work load throughout the week, like making the Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoon workouts the heaviest days, doing doubles and power variants in the morning sessions, and always trying to improve the squat.

Glenn sits with his beard at the National University Championships

Glenn sits with his beard at the National University Championships

Pendlay also mentions using the Texas Method to push the squats. For those of you who never read my Texas Method e-books, the style of programming was coined when the Wichita Falls Weightlifting team fell into it with Pendlay as the head coach. It’s a good general approach that can push an Olympic weightlifter’s squat without interfering too much with the competitive lifts’ training. The way I program the Texas Method is more for general strength trainees and raw powerlifting, but a weightlifter will have success with the core program of using a volume day, light day, and intensity day.

Anyway, check out Glenn’s article; his system is a simple outline that he dials in for specific lifters depending on what they need, whether their weaknesses are in squatting, overhead strength, cleaning, snatching, or jerking.

Efficient Training: The Squat

My travels have led me to many gyms ranging from performance centers for special operations personnel to CrossFit gyms, from storage containers to globo gyms. There is a constant in all of these facilities: inefficiency.

Though I’ve rehashed topics like this ad nauseam in the past (see additional links at end), it’s always good to revisit them and put them back in the fore front of readers’ minds.

Typical 5x5 weight for me was 445

445 for 5×5

The squat is the most important exercise anyone can do for any goal. 

Want to get stronger and/or bigger? You’ll need to squat since it strengthens the legs and hips through a full range of motion while the trunk isometrically maintains position; it’s a full body exercise. And since it’s training the majority of the musculature in the body, it garners a systemic (i.e. large scale hormonal) response in order to heal the damage done from an effective squat workout. This systemic response is what augments any other lifting you’ve done in the same training session and is the adaptive stress that spurns recovery and strength gain.

Want to lose body fat? The systemic stress response from squatting means hormones are working in overdrive to recover — a process that requires calories and stimulates muscle repair and growth. By using calories and growing new muscle — and doing this regularly with consistent training — the body is in a hormonal environment that facilitates body fat loss. To this day I’ve never had a female trainee not lose body fat on a strength training program.

Want to get faster? The squat takes the hips through a full range of motion and accentuates hip extension — the fundamental athletic movement. The squat also inherently involves a stretch reflex out of the bottom; the musculature about the hips and thighs moves into a position of tension and quickly shortens, or contracts, to explode out of the bottom. The squat perfectly prepares the related musculature for speed and power training as well as teaching the trunk how to stabilize the spine and hips to efficiently transmit force while moving (an important aspect of sprinting). The act of improving absolute strength will decrease the difficulty of repetitive movement, resulting in the capacity for higher or faster rates of work.

By regularly loading the muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bones with a full-body movement like the squat through a full range of motion, these structures adapt to be stronger, more dense, and ultimately less likely to be injured.

However, in order for all of this to be the case, the squat needs to be performed efficiently with adequate mobility. And the first god damn step is squatting all of the way down — a point in which the hip capsule (acetabulum) is below the top of the knee (or patella). If you’re reading 70′s Big, then you most likely squat to full depth on each rep, but statistically speaking there are a few of you who don’t.

As I’ve said before: Every time you don’t squat to depth, I pour a beer down the drain. And I HATE wasting beer.

For the sake of the gods, let’s make this simple: a cue to help reach depth on any squat type is shove your knees out”. Sure, there is a lot of other things we could focus on like stance width, toe angle, torso alignment, breathing techniques, chest positioning, eye gaze, and so on, but anyone can squat to depth if they shove their knees out. The rest will figure itself out.

Dat depth.

Shoving the knees out externally rotates the hips to point the femur out away from the mid-line. It helps clear the femur from impinging on front of the hip capsule and surrounding tissue and allows for more hip flexion, AKA depth. It also helps create the “torque” at the hip that Kelly Starrett frequently talks about and results in distributing the force application across the hips and thighs efficiently (more on that here). It can help if the “knees out” cue is originating at the outside of the hips (imagine a twisting motion on the lateral hip that results in the knees out).

Since I’m preaching to the choir about squatting to depth, it’s up to all of you to help your friends do the same. If you frequent a gym and establish relationships, then it is your honor-bound duty as a lifter to help them. Don’t be a dick and just ask them if they mind if you say something about their squat — most people are very open to this because they secretly have no fucking idea what they are doing and ultimately have six pounds of anxiety building in their chest. Don’t over-complicate the matter — make simple and quick adjustments and give them a single cue before sending them back to the bar. For example: narrow up the stance, change the toe angle, then just have them think knees out — the first two are passive cues that they don’t have to think about and the last is the only active cue they worry about.

Whether you’re a half squat abuser or you are guilty by proxy, spread the word that the only way to squat is to full depth.

More 70′s Big articles on squatting:
A Half Squat Is Not A Squat
Squat All of the Way Down
Low Bar vs High Bar Squatting

Guest Post: Jackie and the Platform

Today’s article is courtesy of Jackie. She gives us an honest and frank look into her story of going from a gym-stud to fresh meat on the platform, with a little prodding from her coach. More importantly, it’s easy to see just how much the work we do with the barbell effects our outlooks in the rest of our lives. A huge thanks to Jackie and her coach Chris for bringing us this story – keep ‘em coming, folks! – Jacob


When it comes to training, I have had some significant personal accomplishments. Deadlifting 300lbs, pressing the 24kg kettlebell, 32kg Turkish Get Ups, and repping out pull-ups have all been exciting feats. But I must humbly confess that these have all come relatively easily to me. Which begs the question, what am I capable of if I really applied myself? I’ve never really found out the answer, but it’s a question I hope I never stop asking myself. As a recovering fitness trend-junkie, in addition to a stubborn Italian (which is more of a character asset if you ask me), I have always struggled with training “ADHD,” and I occasionally relapse back into old habits of over-training, under-eating, lack of mobility work, and training with the purpose of vanity. This resulted in disturbed sleep patterns, inevitable injuries, mood swings, apathy and boredom. This is a lesson I have learned all too many times, and am frankly sick of getting beat over the head with it (if you’ve met my mentors, you would understand I mean this both figuratively and literally).

The truth is that I haven’t ever really worked hard for something. I mean, really worked for it. To clarify, I have applied myself in school, work, relationships, and I do have experience setting goals and meeting them. Yet, the goals I set were mediocre at best, and easily attainable. To be even more candid, if I did ever set a high standard that would require some serious dedication (which was rare) I would usually quit. Give up. Just like that. If it wasn’t executed perfectly, exactly as I expected, it was over.

But to work hard, hours on end, sacrifices, compromises, losses and gains and more losses, all for something that looks and feels so far away, and promises no guarantees? Nope. Never really knew what it felt like. I’ve been one of those people who would back out in the middle of a winning streak for fear of losing face, who would “stop while I’m ahead,” who wouldn’t pursue something because it would entail some serious effort and risk failure. I have been this person, this way, for most of my life. Which, ironically, isn’t really living it all.

For two years now, Chris Falkner, coach for Tucson Barbell, has been fighting to get me into Olympic lifting. While I did play around with the idea and techniques, it just seemed ‘too hard’ to actually commit to. Recently, however, life threw me a couple of curve balls, leading me straight to the platform. After feeling uninspired for so long, it became the only place that I could seem to find the solace and serenity that seemed so absent from my life.

Spending 1-2 hours, 5-6 days a week, for 3 months (and counting), focusing on the same movements and techniques over and over can be very humbling. You fail… a lot, and start to discover more about yourself and your “limits.” You can’t afford to use any energy on giving a shit about what you look like, what people think of you, or, God-forbid, getting “bulky.” The goal becomes the focal point, and it’s amazing how your perspective changes when you do finally wake up. It’s like seeing everything for the first time… finally. I remember watching my coach in his training session one day. I had seen him lift before, but this time I saw it differently. Before approaching the platform, he stood back for a few moments, almost as though he was paying his respects. There was complete silence, no music, not talking. It was just him, the platform, the bar, the weight and the passion to become better. Everything he would talk about, in that moment, had finally started to make sense.

A few days before the Grand Canyon Winter Open in Phoenix, AZ, Chris had suggested I register as a participant. Immediately I got flustered and scrambled to find reasons not to. ‘I’m not ready.’ ‘I have too much homework and a test to study for.’ All euphemisms for: ‘I am a chicken shit.’ Chris did what he does best and called me out, and I was fuming. (You see, when people other than myself are right, I get pissed.) I decided to do it, even if it was mostly out of spite.

At 5:30am on a Saturday morning, I braved the 2-hour drive, in pouring rain on Interstate 10 (which is scary as hell) to participate in my first official weight-lifting meet. Already sleep-deprived from the nerves the night before, I spent the entire two hours talking myself into going and not turning around back towards a warm bed. I weighed in, warmed up, and it was time to lift. The gym owner was explaining the rules, and I honestly don’t remember a single word he had said, I was so preoccupied. My hands were shaking and I had to remind myself to breath. But I remember finally setting foot on the platform and having the visual of coach training, and my teammates. In the moment before, I suddenly stopped giving a shit about anything other than the lift. In the moments between, I was too busy admiring the other girls’ lifts and paid no attention to the adrenaline rushing through my body. I ended up hitting all three of my snatch attempts, setting a new personal record at 47kg. I landed two attempts of the clean and jerk at 60kg and 64kg, and missed my last one at 67kg. Three of my teammates and I qualified for University Nationals in April. It was an amazing time, and I learned an invaluable lesson. The experience wasn’t about hitting numbers higher than the next girl, or having the best technique, but to work hard and compete with the older, weaker version of myself.

In the days following the meet, I have felt more confident in my training and technique. The gym has become a refuge and I count the minutes until I get there. I realize my numbers aren’t necessarily the most impressive. I am a little fish in a rather large pond and I acknowledge the cards are stacked against me ever becoming the “best.” But as long as I show up and am better than yesterday, I’ve found my calling.


Tsypkin Thursdays #4

David C asks, “If you were going to hire/follow one of the bigger CrossFit coaches out there to help you prepare for the Open, Regionals, and Games, who would you choose?”

Rudy Nielsen of Outlaw.  In part because he has a deep and sound understanding of how to program effectively – but there are a lot of people with that. What Rudy has that a lot of others lack, is a deep and sound understanding of how CrossFit – the SPORT, not the fitness program – functions. He doesn’t debate silly shit like “is CrossFit too strength biased” or “has too much cardio” or whether the “definition of fitness” is legit.  He observes the parameters of the sport, and trains people to compete in them.


Dave F asks, “I am training the Olympic lifts three times a week, one day being committed to the snatch, one day to the clean & jerk, and one to both. What is a good rep scheme for a novice?”

First: if you are a novice, I do NOT think that 2x/week per lift is enough. You need to be doing them 3x/week so that you can learn the patterns and learn them well.

About rep schemes…don’t worry about them. Focus on sets of 1-3, get a lot of good reps in, and when you feel great, go for a new PR, whether it be a single, double, or triple. If you’re training alone, don’t do so much that you are exhausted for the last third of your session and do nothing but shitty reps.


Vee G asks “I was trained using the ‘scoop method’ ala Coach Burgener.  A lot of my fellow weightlifters have been taught in a style more similar to Coach Pendlay’s, which does not teach the scoop. What are some advantages/disadvantages of either technique?”

I’m assuming that by the “scoop method,” you mean teaching an intentional rebending of the knees – sometimes referred to as the double knee bend – under the bar before the second pull.

Did someone say scoop method?

I personally do not teach the scoop/double knee bend as such. I teach the lifter to move into the correct position, and the knees move into the right spot – slightly in front of the bar – just before the lifter extends into the finish. It is my opinion that teaching the intentional double knee bend only serves to confuse new lifters, slow down the transition, and lead to the lifter pushing the bar forward and shifting the weight onto the front of the feet too early.

Although there are certainly good coaches who have made this method work, I cannot see any advantages this way of teaching has over those which do not coach the lifter to intentionally perform the double knee bend.

Editors’s Note: Please remember to ask Tsypkin anything your crazy little heart desires on our facebook page. Otherwise, he’s going to have to come up with his own questions to answer, and that would just be crazy. 


Jacob Tsypkin is a CrossFit and weightlifting coach, the co-owner of CrossFit Monterey and the Monterey Bay Barbell Club in Monterey, CA. He is available for weightlifting seminars and has excellent taste in shirts and gainz.