Barbell Medicine - From Bench to Bedside

Lifters occasionally ask us whether it is “okay” to include snatches or cleans in a training program that is otherwise focused on building strength in the squat, bench press, overhead press, and deadlift. As coaches, we want to design programs that are best suited to our lifters’ goals. We tend not to recommend lifts like the snatch and clean as assistance exercises for these primary lifts since they offer relatively little benefit for improving performance in those movements compared to other options. This is because of significant differences in contraction velocity, absolute loads, and positions in the snatch and clean compared to movements like the deadlift. For lifters who wish to get stronger in the deadlift, for example, we tend to program more deadlifts and/or closer variations of the deadlift instead of the snatch or clean.

Many individuals still enjoy doing these fast, high-skill lifts. Some are inspired to try them after seeing Olympic weightlifters, professional athletes, or CrossFit athletes snatch or clean big weights. Tailoring a program to our clients’ goals is important, but so is allowing our lifters to exercise in ways that they enjoy; the two need not be mutually exclusive in this situation.

You might ask yourself: why should anyone who doesn’t intend on competing in a weightlifting event learn these lifts?

First, learning a new skill can be enjoyable, and incorporating new lifts can help break up the monotony of a more traditional strength training program. Making training more enjoyable and meaningful increases the likelihood of participating in exercise and adhering to an exercise protocol long-term. This is rather important!

Second, the lifter has the opportunity to train lifts that require high-velocity force production, although, admittedly, there are plenty of other effective ways to train this for different sports contexts (e.g., standard barbell exercises performed at lighter weights, plyometrics, medicine ball throws, etc.). Is high-velocity force production a particularly important quality to develop if you’re not competing in a sport which requires it (Olympic weightlifting, track and field, etc.)? The answer is probably not, especially if the person in question is already engaged in plenty of resistance and aerobic training. But, moving fast is a nice bonus. This might also have a place when training for recreational sporting pursuits.

There are some caveats: if, for example, you are a beginner or coaching a youth athlete without an established strength base, you should probably skip the Olympic lifts and work on power development at a later time. Behm 2017 You might instead—here comes the plug—try Barbell Medicine’s Beginner Template!

If you are an athlete doing highly-specific training in preparation for a competition, or are currently rehabbing an injury or otherwise short on recovery resources, then the added fun of newly incorporating the snatch or clean needs to be weighed against what you must do in your current training or rehab. Diverting resources away from your sports training or recovery may simply not be a good option for you at this time.

If, on the other hand, you are a healthy individual with an established strength base; you are currently “training to train” (i.e., not specifically preparing for a competition); you are meeting the minimum adult physical activity guidelines; and you want to try adding the snatch or clean to your strength training, there are some viable options.

Without having to entirely re-focus their programming, lifters running a Barbell Medicine program can incorporate some practice for either the snatch or clean on GPP days. The Olympic lifts do not function as “assistance”- or “supplemental”-type exercises for any of the primary lifts in these cases, but rather as more general training. They should not take priority over any other lifts in the program in this context.

Take a highly motivated lifter who currently trains 4 days per week alongside 2 days dedicated to GPP/conditioning training. For the sake of time and training economy, we can substitute an upper back or ab training slot for an Olympic lift or variant:

Example A — The Snatch in GPP

GPP Day 1:

Power Snatch, 2-count pause below the knee
2 reps @ RPE 6-7 x 6-8 sets

One-Arm Dumbbell Rows
7 min AMRAP

C2 Rower
20 min, intervals: 20s sprint @ RPE 9-10, 90s complete rest

GPP Day 2:

Snatch + Overhead Squat Complex
2 + 2 @ RPE 6-7 x 4-5 sets

Strict Toes-To-Bar or Hanging Leg Raises
7 min AMRAP

Air Bike or Rower
30 min steady state @ RPE 6

Example B — The Clean in GPP

GPP Day 1:

Power Clean
Work up to 2 reps @ RPE 6-7 and perform a 10-min EMOM (i.e., 2 reps every minute on the minute x 10 minutes)

Ab Wheel
7 min AMRAP

Air Bike or Rower
30 min steady state @ RPE 6

GPP Day 2:

Clean
3 reps @ RPE 7 x 4-6 sets

Inverted rows
7 min AMRAP

Air Bike or Rower
30 min steady state @ RPE 6

Both of these options provide an opportunity for the lifter to familiarize themselves with fundamental aspects of technique. Day 1 introduces the athlete to a variant that works both to set some technical constraints and limit loading. In the snatch example, a paused snatch at the knee is used to give the lifter the chance to work on the first pull and establish the feeling of “staying over the bar,” and we do an OHS (overhead squat) for every snatch to gain more exposure to this position in training. Other variants which can be used for the snatch include the muscle snatch, power snatch, or hang power snatch. Here is not the time to introduce more full lifts, long “complexes,” or other high-stress training. For the clean, we may use a high hang power clean or power clean from blocks to start.

These examples make up a sampling period. This programming is unlikely to be sufficient to drive up strength in the Olympic lifts long-term. Instead, it can serve as an introduction for lifters aiming to gain exposure to the Olympic lifts while maintaining the focus of their current routines.

Say that, after this sampling period, a lifter expresses more interest in competing in a weightlifting event. This lifter now wants to incorporate both lifts into their training with the intention of transitioning into a weightlifting program (for example, BBM’s weightlifting template) for a weightlifting meet or “super-total” event, a five-lift meet consisting of the squat, bench, deadlift, snatch, and clean and jerk.

For the Oly-curious lifter transitioning away from a more traditional strength routine, here is an example of a weekly microcycle:

Example C — Weekly Microcycle Introducing the Snatch and Clean & Jerk

Day 1:
High Hang Snatch
Back Squat
Push Press

Day 2:
Clean from blocks, at knee-level
Deadlift
Competition-Style Bench Press

Day 3:
Snatch
Front Squat
Rack Jerk w/ 3-count pause in split

Day 4:
Clean
Snatch Pulls or Romanian DL
Touch N Go Bench Press

The Olympic lifts present barriers to entry, including access to equipment (platforms, bumper plates, weightlifting bars, jerk/pulling blocks, etc.), quality coaching, or a local weightlifting club, and the time-intensive practice that getting really good at these lifts requires.

But there are ways to include the Olympic lifts in your routine training without making them the focus of your program. There’s no reason to cache these lifts in mystique or make them inaccessible for the average trainee. With some structured/constrained practice—and allowing for technique improvement with time, repetition, and exposure—the Olympic lifts can be enjoyable additions to your training. If you’re interested, that’s reason enough to give them a try!

About Hassan Mansour

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