Olympic Lifts For The Rest Of Us

Why let CrossFitters have all the fun? The Olympic lifts can have incredible benefits for every lifter if you start with the appropriate version for you. Here's your guide!

Learning the Olympic lifts is a game-changer for a lot of lifters. Yes, the clean and jerk and snatch require coordination, timing, mobility, and explosiveness to perform successfully and safely. But here's the thing: Once you have those skills...you have those skills. And you'd better believe they carry over to other stuff.

As I explained in "3 Explosive Moves for Muscle Growth," not every movement you do in the gym is worth doing explosively. But the ones that are suited for it, like the Olympic lifts, can be uniquely transformative when you do them right. You'll need patience, focus, and a reasonable approach to make any appreciable progress, but your reward will be unlocking your potential both as an athlete and as a lifter after muscle.

If you're looking for knockoffs of the lifts where you can cheat big weights up for reps, go somewhere else. But if you're ready to learn, let's start.

What You'll Need to Start

First, it's important that you establish the prerequisite mobility to have ideal finish positions. I'll say this now: If you can't perform solid ass-to-grass front squats, or full and technically sound overhead presses, you need to spend more time working on your foundation before incorporating any version of the Olympic lifts into your programming mix. No beginners allowed here! But if you're an intermediate lifter who's passed the above tests, you're ready to add some explosiveness.

Clean variations require a triple extension through the ankle, knee and hip, and then a high pull with the shoulder and elbow after that. If one of these isn't there or is done poorly, the entire strength of the lift suffers.

So before you go any further, spend a lot of time with these two drills to understand the extension phases and the catch phases.

Drill 1 Triple Extension Drill
Watch the video - 00:13

Drill 2 Upper Body "Clean" Drill
Watch the video - 00:18

Once catching the empty bar becomes second nature, you're ready to slowly and systematically add some weight.

Option 1 The Hang Power Clean

Thanks to CrossFit, many exercise enthusiasts and coaches these days shame the idea of multi-rep Olympic lifts. But if you ask me, there's nothing wrong with doing sets of 3-5 hang cleans with good form.

Lee Boyce Hang Power Clean 225x5
Watch the video - 00:21

That's right: I wasn't on a platform, and I wasn't using bumper plates. The weights were rattling like an old pickup—and that's kind of the point. If you've got a barbell, plates, and the basic form down, you can go train like this today in pretty much any gym.

Do it first in your workout when your tank is full, and focus on exploding up out of the bottom position.

Option 2 The Dumbbell Snatch

Maybe you can't Olympic lift at your gym, or you don't have the prerequisite ability—or the time, desire, or spare cash for coaching to learn to perform them safely. If that's the case, you can still throw some dumbbell snatches into the mix for a makeshift version of the same training effect.

Lee Boyce Dumbbell Snatch
Watch the video - 00:18

For the life of me, I don't know why more people don't do these. They're perhaps the greatest unilateral total-body movements to build speed, strength, and coordination. Plus, the conditioning they demand is sneaky. Do a few reps, and you might wonder who pumped all the oxygen out of the room.

Start your reps from a hang position rather than the floor, and remember to add a solid hip drive to generate momentum for the weight to travel upward. This is especially important once you progress to using heavy loads.

Option 3 The Power Clean and Jerk

Once you're confident throwing a couple of plates up into the rack position in a hang power clean, it's perfectly natural to get curious about putting them overhead for singles. If cleans are no problem technically, the next step is to get your whole body into them by learning the full clean and jerk.

Pulling from the ground is a great goal, but early on I recommend using slightly lower loads and pulling from the hang, as shown in the first hang-power-clean video. The shortened pulling space can be a true low-back saver, which could exempt you from overuse injuries down the road.

It can also force you to be more explosive, which can lead to some surprising gains in trap and delt development. Alternately, you could perform the pull from blocks.

Lee Boyce Power Clean and Jerk (from 14" Blocks) 295lbs
Watch the video - 00:58

If you're starting to aim for ambitious pulls, then yeah, getting access to a platform and some bumper plates is necessary at this point. Aside from all being the same size, the rubber these plates are made of allows them to be safely dropped. This is invaluable to a trainee looking to maximize power on the lift itself, and to avoid the injury risk posed by having to control a heavy eccentric down the floor.

If you don't have access to bumper plates or can't drop weights in your gym, this is where your Olympic journey ends. Stick with accelerating lighter loads, so you can deal with the negative reps safely.

If you've got the gear, though, it's time to start moving toward the big lift. Start by doing a version where you perform a power clean, pause in the rack position, and ride it down into a full front squat. Then set your feet and drive through your legs for a full push-press or split jerk.

Once you're confident there, you've earned the right to aim for the finished product.

Lee Boyce Clean and Jerk 310lbs (141kg)
Watch the video - 00:29

Option 4 The Power Snatch to Overhead Squat

This is where things get serious. The snatch requires more mobility than the clean and jerk, because the weight forces you into an overhead squat. As I've written before, the overhead squat is a totally different animal than a front or back squat, and it comes with its own cues and difficulties. But make no mistake: If you want to snatch, you need to be able to overhead squat first.

Lee Boyce Overhead Squats
Watch the video - 2:22

Once your overhead squat is up to snuff, use the same drill I recommended for the clean and jerk. Perform a full power snatch, then ride it down into an overhead squat with weight that safely works for your abilities. This will help build the confidence and balance you'll need to perform the full snatch.

Lee Boyce Power Snatch to Overhead squat - 185x1
Watch the video - 00:24

You don't need to get as single-minded as professional Oly lifters to get a respectable weight overhead, but you will need to approach this very seriously in order to be safe and technically sound. Approach your time with the bar as practice—don't just run to the nearest platform and load up.

News flash: You're not going to the Olympics. So if you're humble enough to do what it takes, start where you're at and start getting better.