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Olympic Lifting…what’s the big deal?

January 22, 2010

This is a brief summary from Peak Performance… discussing the benefits of olympic lifting on sports performance.

1) The exercises are performed from standing.
The fact that the exercises are performed from standing is important for a number of reasons. One of the most obvious is that the majority of sports are also performed from a standing position – although there are exceptions, such as cycling and rowing (and I believe that Olympic lifting is also beneficial to them). Olympic lifting develops proprioception (basically, the ability of the body to adjust to the forces transmitted through its limbs and muscles) and spatial awareness (the awareness of the body in space and the adjustments made consciously and unconsciously to, for example, maintain the robustness of a sports skill). The lifts develop these qualities.
2) Olympic lifts mirror the way force is produced in sport.
The way the Olympic lifts are performed mirrors the way force is developed in numerous sports: for example, in basketball and football, where it is applied to the court/pitch, carried through the lower limbs, up through the body and transferred (often) through the upper limbs – the basketball jump shot being a prime example.
3) The exercises involve multiple muscles
The Olympic lifts are compound muscle-group exercises as they work across numerous joints. This is important for time-saving reasons. Rugby and football players who are in team training, doing skills practice, speed work and other conditioning have limited time for strength training. But the Olympic lifts and their variants are ‘bang for buck’ exercises. They deliver big-hit training in a relatively short space of time. For example, performing a snatch develops leg, hip, back and shoulder strength just from pulling the bar from the floor; it also develops core and torso stability and strength throughout the movement.
During the catch and recovery phases, the ability to absorb a load is trained, and so are the stabilizing muscles around the spine and shoulder joint, legs, hips and back. The catch occurs when the bar is ‘caught’ overhead with the arms fully extended. The absorption of the lift’s force at this point is extremely useful in training the body to absorb load. The ability to absorb a load is required for most sports – think of catching, being tackled, being hit.
4) The exercises involve triple extension
Olympic lifts replicate the movement patterns involved in running, jumping, throwing, punching and tackling. The main pattern that is trained when performing these lifts and replicated in numerous sports is ‘triple extension’. Triple extension involves the muscles of the ankles, knees and hips engaging synchronously to produce a dynamic movement.
5) They recruit high levels of motor units
Speed is a key requirement for most sports; in fact, you can never be quick enough! Neuromuscular recruitment – the ability to recruit and contract as many motor units as possible (motor units are bundles of muscle fibres and the nerves that spark them into action) is crucial for speed. I believe the Olympic lifts are fantastic speed developers because of this. The snatch, for example, is completed in a split second. In this blink of an eye, the weight is lifted from the ground to an overhead position. To do this you need to engage numerous motor units. Training fast will make you fast and Olympic lifting makes you fast.
6) They increase range of movement and improve posture
We should be aware of the benefits of optimal range of movement and the importance of posture for athletic performance. When range of movement is limited and posture is poor, muscles aren’t able to fire correctly; this limits performance and increases the chance of injury. The Olympic lifts and their variations can increase range of movement and improve posture. The range of movement is improved in key areas across the body – for example, in the hips this is improved through the bottom position of the clean or the snatch.
Stability and strength are also developed across the shoulder joint and the upper spine, when the bar is taken overhead and held and then brought down to the ground, as is the case with the snatch.

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