Integrating Olympic lifting into personal training

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With the rise of CrossFit and the Internet the general public is getting more and more exposure to Olympic weightlifting. Until very recently Olympic lifting has been relegated to only Olympic Weightlifters themselves or athletes training for explosive sports. Now you are seeing more and more recreational trainers attempting to perform the Olympic lifts. Before we go on we should make sure that we have terminology straight.

Olympic Weightlifting: A sport that is comprised of 2 lifts: the clean and jerk and the snatch. Also known as the classical lifts, they developed from the idea of lifting a bar from the ground to overhead in one (the snatch) or two (the clean and jerk) motions. These lifts require great speed and coordination which differentiates them from other common exercises.

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Powerlifting: a sport comprised of three lifts: the squat, the bench press and the deadlift. These lifts are slow and require less speed and coordination than the Olympic lifts, but this makes them easier for the general population.

In both of these sports, you are training for the most weight you can lift for a 1 rep maximum in a competition.

Bodybuilding: Amount of weight or exercises used doesn’t matter. The point is to try to achieve a certain aesthetic using a combination of diet and training.

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There are many variations of the Olympic lifts just like there are many variations of a squat or bench press. Most of them share the qualities of the Olympic lifts themselves. Outside of competitive Olympic lifting the two Olympic lifts and their variations have a lot of use and the training of athletes. They involve a coordinated effort from many muscles in the body acting all at the same time and they involve motor patterns that are similar to many actions in explosive sports such as jumping. They also tend to not make people as sore because of the lack of eccentric action. This is advantageous when you need to actually train for your event instead of worrying about how sore the weight room made you.

So let’s start with a few reasons the Olympic lifts are good for your average client trying to get in better shape both for looks and for functionality in everyday life.

  • They require the action of most skeletal muscles in the human body
  • They don’t create much muscle soreness
  • They require excellent mobility and flexibility to perform correctly
  • They can be fun
  • They tend to have good carry over into other activities
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Now let’s look at a few reasons why the Olympic lifts may NOT be good for the average client.

  • They don’t build as much muscle as slower lifts.
  • They require excellent mobility and flexibility to perform correctly.
  • The coordination required can be too challenging for some people.
  • They take the time to learn.
  • They require specialized weights.
  • They require a qualified coach.

You may notice that some reasons in both lists are very similar. This would be true of many exercises because of the wide variety of people you are likely to have as clients as a personal trainer. Let’s look at the first reason on both lists.

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While it’s true that Olympic lifts use almost all the skeletal muscles in the human body, the contraction of the muscles during the lift is very fast and many muscle groups don’t experience any eccentric action during the lift. This is one of the reasons the Olympic lifts do not create the same muscle soreness that other lifts do. As you know, one of the factors in developing muscle is time under tension. The Olympic lifts expose the body to very little time under tension. For these reasons, the hypertrophy response is not nearly as great when using the Olympic lifts exclusively as opposed to using standard bodybuilding exercises. This could be good or bad depending on the client. Some people are just trying to be healthy or stronger and don’t care about having more muscle. This is a great time to employ the Olympic lifts. Also, because of the coordinated action and the use of a lot of muscles at once the Olympic lifts burn a lot of calories versus body part training.

Mobility and flexibility are mentioned on both lists. Because of the large range of motion that the Olympic lifts require the trainee has to have a certain level of mobility and flexibility to perform correctly. This is a great goal to have because if you can perform the Olympic lifts correctly most of your joints will have a good range of motion. However, because of the same reason some people are not qualified to perform the Olympic lifts. If you cannot perform an overhead squat, then there is no way you can perform a full snatch. If you cannot hold the bar for the front squat, then there is no way you can perform a clean. The qualities required performing the Olympic lifts are much higher than any other lift in the gym. For this reason, many of your beginning clients will not be capable when they start training and should not be exposed to Olympic style lifting before they are.

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The other topic worth going into in detail is teaching and learning the Olympic lifts. They are a fun challenge for some people but for others the time required to learn is not worth it when they are paying for limited time with you. Your client would have to be motivated to want to learn the lifts to take the time out of their sessions to do so. More importantly you, the trainer, must be qualified to teach the Olympic lifts. In the United States, the Olympic lifts are becoming much more popular but the coaching does not seem to be getting much better. I hope this will change. If you have a desire to teach these lifts, it is important to educate yourself and take a qualifying course. Simply passing this isn’t enough just like when you got your certification for personal training. It is simply a starting point. I highly encourage any trainer interested in them to perform them proficiently yourself. This will give you a great platform to start with as you will have to overcome many of your own issues and this will help you to know when to implement them.

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A responsible trainer has a plan for his/her clients. There is no reason for people to do something that just looks interesting or isn’t right for their goals. A trainer’s job is to know the why and when to employ certain exercises and programs. The Olympic lifts are not required for high performance in any sport except for Olympic weightlifting. Just like the bench press is not required for a well-developed chest. The Olympic lifts and their variations are wonderful tools for a trainer to have in his or her toolbox, but they are not required. It is up to you to decide where to put your efforts regarding learning skills and concepts applicable to your job as you know your clients better than anyone else.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rob MacIntyre

Rob MacIntyre

personal trainer & strength coach

Rob has established himself as specialist in strength, power and physique development working with Olympic athletes, powerlifters, fitness models and sports entertainment talent.His clients include multiple medalist and world record holders as well as WWE talent such as John Cena.

Rob MacIntyre

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