An Alternative to the Olympic Lifts

First things first, let me put it out there that I LOVE the Olympic lifts (from here on out referred to as the O-lifts). I think they're a fantastic tool to develop strength, power, and enhance athletic potential. Not to mention, I can't help but tip my hat to those that have accomplished near-impossible feats of power with them, and there are few things I find more beautiful than a perfectly executed snatch. In fact, while I currently can't back this up with any scientific research, I'm convinced that Maximus utilized the O-lifts as part of his training arsenal to utterly own anyone who stood in his way in his quest to avenge the death of his family.

HOWEVER - and as Sarah recently noted in her Squat vs. Box Squat post - the O-lifts are an extremely complex movement that many ELITE athletes spend their entire lives perfecting. Not to mention, 99 times out of 100, the limiting factor in the athletes we work with at SAPT is simply a lack of strength. They lack the strength (and subsequently, joint integrity...) and neuromuscular control to produce and decelerate movement, and THIS is the primary reason that they can't seem to improve their change-of-direction speed, or throw that ball faster.

In fact, the interesting thing is that even if I wanted to start them off with O-lifting, the majority of them would lack the strength to do that, too! Walking someone, and strengthening them, through the squat and deadlift progressions will actually help them with the O-lifts (cleans, snatches, jerks, etc.), but performing the O-lifts WON'T necessarily have carryover the other way around and help them become better at squatting and deadlifting. It's just not a reciprocal relationship like that.

Nevertheless, this post isn't about sparking a "Should I O-lift or Not O-lift a New Trainee" debate. If you are a coach that has found this to work for you, then great. I respect that. We have just found that, especially with consideration to the fact that we often don't work with a given athlete for more than six months at a time, we can accomplish more in less time by working with other tools in the "strength coach toolbox."

And, while I may personally feel that the majority of athletes spend too much time on the speed-strength end of the spectrum and really don't need a whole lot of "speed and power" work (at least, initially) to enhance their athletic potential, I still feel it's important to incorporate explosive movements in training to teach someone how to control their body in space. Not to mention, these movements will often serve as a CNS primer for the squat and deadlift portion of the session, just like the O-lifts are often performed prior to strength work.

What do we use to accomplish this? Jumping!

Yes, jumping. Anyone from a beginner to an advanced athlete can utilize this powerful tool that is much more "dummy-proof" than the O-lifts. While I'm not going to list the specific progressions we'll use with someone, I just wanted to make a quick point.

Take, for example, two jumping variations we use; the box jump and the hot ground to tuck jump (the latter shown the video):

In both variations, if doing them correctly, you'll still be producing force through the "triple extension" motion that the O-lifts are frequently praised for working. This being, simultaneous extension of the ankles, knees, and hips. Essentially all this means is that the toes are pointing down, and the knees and hips are straightening out.

Note the similarity of the body position (specifically at the joint angles of the ankles, knees, and hips) during the picture of O-lift in the very beginning of this post, and my body positions during a box jump, and a freeze-frame of the same hot ground jump performed in the video above:

Box Jump:

TripleE Box Jump
TripleE Box Jump

Hot Ground to Tuck Jump:

TripleE HotGround
TripleE HotGround

Crazy, huh? As an added bonus, one of the most difficult portions of the O-lifts is ACTUALLY achieving triple extension. If you youtube nearly any run-of-the-mill person doing an O-lift, and carefully watch their ankles/knees/hips, you'll quickly see that they're not even doing the very thing that makes the O-lifts so beneficial!

Also, with some of the jumping variations, you also receiving a bit of often-neglected hip flexor work at greater than 90 degrees of flexion, such as in the top of the hot ground jump:

Still 5
Still 5

Now, these jumps must be progressed appropriately, just as a skilled coach of the O-lifts would do with a trainee. And, the volume must be monitored, as mindlessly having an athlete jump around until their knees explode isn't going to help their vertical. Usually fifteen TOTAL reps will be more than enough to receive the intended benefit.

Again, what I am NOT saying is to avoid the O-lifts like the plague. Again, they are phenomenal tools, and there's no chance that jumping variations could take the place of O-lifting in the appropriate scenario.

But, like anything, one should be sure they understand where he or she (or someone they're coaching) is honestly at when taking into consideration what will be the most bang-for-your-buck training approach, given the time and resources you may have at your disposal.

Remember Why You're Here

The other day, one of our baseball guys was deadlifting and, upon finishing his second work set, turns to me and asks if he can put another ten pounds on the bar. Given that his form was less-than-impeccable, I gave him a simple "No." In fact, I wanted him to take it down ten to twenty pounds, as it was his lumbar spine that was buckling (I wouldn't have been as concerned if it was something like failing to keep his neck packed or forgetting to finish the movement with his glutes). He immediately became exceedingly frustrated and started rambling about how he felt like he wasn't as strong as he thought he should be, and that he ought to move UP, not down, for his next deadlift set, how he felt it had been too long since he improved in his squat and deadlift, yadda yadda yadda.

I asked him: "Well, how have you been playing on the baseball field?"

He replies: "I've hit more home runs, my 60-yard dash time improved, and my movement, positioning, and throwing from home plate has become way better as compared to last year." (note: he's a catcher)

I then reminded him that he had averaged only one training session every 7-10 days over the past six months at SAPT (due to in-season baseball and then traveling the country playing on various club/select teams), so he was not only fortunate to have maintained his strength levels in the weight room but also - and more importantly - his markers of sport performance had IMPROVED.

I concluded with: "Don't you think this is a pretty darn good indicator that we have accomplished what you came to SAPT for in the first place?"

Our goal with him was not to put up huge lifting numbers, but to help him become a better baseball player. Does squatting, deadlifting, performing single-leg work, and movement training help us get there? Absolutely, but there's a point where we can't force bad form just for the sake of hitting a weightlifting PR that day. Not to mention, we each get only one spine. Yes, just one. It's not worth destroying it over a 10-lb deadlift personal best.

Now, this athlete is pretty accomplished (committed to a Division 1 program and was one of only two players in the entire Northern Va region to be named to the Nationals roster for the Area Code Games), so I couldn't blame him for wanting to succeed in every endeavor he put himself into. But it reminded me of something I heard from Jim Wendler when he was talking about strength training the football team under him:

"We're chasing wins, not numbers."

So simple and profound. So often we get caught up in the minutia that we forget what our primary goal was in the first place. We can't see the forest for the trees, so to speak.


Don't forget to keep the primary goal, the goal.

- If your goal is sport performance, remember that it's not the end goal to have a gigantic bench press or squat. - If your goal is fat loss, why are you obsessed about your strength levels not being what they used to be? - If your goal is maximal strength development, should you really be performing three to four conditioning sessions a week so that, heaven forbid, your "work capacity" slightly diminishes?

Heck, I remember during the Fall of 2009 I was following a program specifically designed to improve my squat, bench, and deadlift numbers. Yet, I was also performing these insane conditioning sessions multiple days per week (see video below), and wondering why my numbers were stalling!

Note: Yes, if I could go back in time, I'd give myself a quick scissor kick to the face.

My mentality in 2009 reminded me of a football player we're currently working with. He's about 170lbs soaking wet, and has been musing that he can't seem to put on any weight. But when we give him some very practical suggestions on adding some size he responds with, "Well, I also want to keep myself looking good, too."

(Dude, don't worry, your six-pack isn't going to go anywhere if you pack on some size in order to open up a can on the football field).

It's tempting to chase multiple qualities at one time, but I've found that the body responds better to sticking to ONE goal at a time, as opposed to trying tackle everything at once. In other words, it would be better for you attack fat loss, HARD, for one to two months, and then go back to your standard strength-oriented program afterward than it would for you to try and accomplish both (fat loss and setting lifting PRs) at the exact same time.

So, to conclude, remember why you're in the gym in the first place. The big picture, so to speak; and allow that to dictate your choices. Don't miss the forest for the trees.