I was the crazy one. Training with Olympic lifts in a commercial gym circa 2000 gave you the instant label of “dangerous.” It was not unusual to hear about other trainers following my clients into the locker room or parking lot to forewarn them about the severely unsafe methods I was using. Fast forward to 2016, and I’m the crazy one again. Seeing Olympic weightlifting platforms all over the same commercial gyms makes me really shake my head.
As someone who has competed, loved, and used Olympic lifting, it may surprise you that I often wonder if those just looking to be “fit” really need it. Is it really functional for the goals of most people? We need to understand why Olympic weightlifting has been used by non-Olympic lifters over the years. If we don’t, we fall into the trap of doing stuff because it simply looks cool. Sadly, cool and effective aren’t always the same thing.
Iron Game History
I fully expect, if you love weightlifting, that you’ll defend it with all your heart. But one thing you can’t say is, “we have always done it this way.” Some of the strongest athletes never did Olympic weightlifting as we know it. Many will tell you that Olympic weightlifting has been around almost as long as civilizations themselves, but the lifts we think of today were really established around 1928. That means weightlifting as a sport has been around less than 100 years.
“Strength training is not a modern invention. Egyptian tombs show pictures of lifting bags filled with sand and stone swinging and throwing exercises… dumbbells originated in the 1700’s when a rod was placed between two church bells. When a clapper was removed from the bells, they became silent, or dumb, hence the word dumbbell. Indian clubs, which resemble a bowling pin and kettle balls (cast-iron balls with a handle), were popular in the early 1800’s.”
Relative to the history of strength training, weightlifting equipment hasn’t been available very long. Even the barbell just over 100 years old. Iron historian Jan Todd explains:
“Although professional strongmen apparently found individual metal workers who created spherical dumbbells and barbells for their shows, the average man who wanted to emulate these show- men had difficulty finding weight training equipment. In America, that problem was finally solved by Alan Calvert of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, who founded the Milo Barbell Company in 1902.”
Interestingly enough, Calvert’s invention wasn’t the plate-loaded barbell we use today, but rather the spherical, shot-loaded variety. In fact, Calvert was against such equipment, even though he would begin to sell plate-loaded barbells later. He wrote:
“The principal defect of bells that load only with plates is that they cannot be increased in weight except in jumps of 5 lbs or more. In order to practice weightlifting safely and successfully you must have a bell that can be increased one ounce at a time if necessary—and this alone makes it unwise to use a bell which loads only with iron plates.”
One of the lessons we should take from history is that ideas evolve and change. Olympic weightlifting may have to go through the same to meet the real demands of people. “Old-school” training is not quite as old as we often like to believe.
It may seem like a silly question, but it is something that should be asked of any training tool you use. If the answer is “get strong,” or “be more powerful,” that is far too vague. When someone responds in such a manner, my next question is, “ok, but is there a better way of achieving that goal?”
If you love Olympic weightlifting, that’s awesome. But besides sharing your love of an activity, why should others do it? And is it right for them?
I was going to dig straight into the textbooks and give you a very boring answer to this question. Then I thought, why not first see what real coaches say to the benefits of Olympic lifting? I found many great answers, touting benefits such as speed, power, coordination, balance, accuracy, and to activate more muscle fibers than anything else. If weightlifting does all that, how do you not want to go out and hit some clean and jerks and snatches?
Does Weightlifting Do All that?
Once we delve a bit deeper, we realize those claims may not say anything meaningful. A literature review1 on the role of resistance training on the ability to change direction found that:
“The training studies in the literature that have utilized traditional strength and power training programmes, which involved exercises being performed bilaterally in the vertical direction (e.g. Olympic-style lifts, squats, deadlifts, plyometrics, vertical jumping), have mostly failed to elicit improvements in [change of direction] performance.”
Is it possible that the power generation we often tout for Olympic lifts doesn’t magically transfer to many powerful activities? Is it possible that Olympic weightlifting gets a bit of an over-rating for building functional strength?
What about some of the other attributes given to weightlifting? I hear “balance” all the time, but most don’t realize there are different types of balance, or even what balance means. Balance has been defined as:
“A biological system that enables us to know where our bodies are in the environment and to maintain a desired position. Normal balance depends on information from the inner ear, other senses (such as sight and touch) and muscle movement.”
The evidence of balance development is scant. A study of athletes found female gymnasts and soccer players exhibit very similar balance skills.2 Others have contended that balance is something we form very early, and may be fixed around age 8.3 What many of us think of as balance is really “dynamic stability,” which can be improved in training and is something that should be a focus of power based training.
We get very attached to ideas without really understanding them. Does Olympic weightlifting have benefits? Absolutely, from decreasing body fat, improving some cardiac factors, and yes, some specific types of power. Yet there are qualities that we don’t get from weightlifting that could be of even greater benefit to many.
Not Everyone Is Built for Weightlifting
If there are benefits to Olympic weightlifting and it can be a fun activity, why would you not use it? The problem begins when we believe everyone can have the same success and achieve the same benefits with weightlifting. When many people point to great Olympic lifters and what they are able to do, they often fail to realize that they were usually identified early on as possessing specific traits that would allow them to be great at the sport. World-renowned spine specialist Dr. Stuart McGill points out:
“Olympic lifting must find the lifter. Not the other way around, given the special anatomical gifts needed to lift with efficiency and injury resiliency. The flexibility required in the hips and shoulders in many cases is a gift from your parents. No matter how much stretching is attempted, some will never have the hip and shoulder socket anatomy to deep squat and support a bar overhead.”
The point is that there are many considerations to determine if Olympic weightlifting is the best strategy. As much as I loved Olympic weightlifting, I had the realization years ago that my clients wouldn’t all achieve great results with them. There were qualities I wanted them to still benefit from, but there has to be a better way.
Effective Alternatives to Olympic Weightlifting
As a coach or an athlete, we should all have the goal to always maximize benefits with minimal risks. That core belief led me to search for better ways to get the results I wanted for my clients. Here are some of the answers I found:
Kettlebells and Sandbags
What first attracted to me to kettlebells was the beautiful simplicity of the training. Their effectiveness led me to explore another ancient training tool, the sandbag. Most would throw kettlebells and sandbags into the category of nice add-on tools, but I consider them foundational. No, they don’t shine like that expensive barbell and no, they may not allow you to live your dream of standing on the Olympic platform. However, kettlebells and sandbags deliver incredible results.
Their design may appear simple, but as DaVinci said, “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” The fact these tools can be implemented immediately and effectively doesn’t make them less sophisticated, it makes them more useful. Their simplicity also allows them to be more accessible to more people. The mobility and orthopedic issues some may see in classic Olympic weightlifting aren’t an issue with these tools.
Sandbags and kettlebells challenge balance, coordination, and athleticism, perhaps even more than Olympic weightlifting. The barbell is the most balanced and stable lifting implement in the gym, outside of machines. The weight distribution and independent motion of kettlebells, and the shifting and unique leverage of sandbags, challenge these fitness qualities more than a perfectly balanced implement.
One of the main reasons kettlebells and sandbags have not enjoyed the popularity of the barbell is the fact that barbells go heavier. But the raw numbers can lie. The early research on these tools shows that, even at lower loads, they are able to produce training effects very close to that of barbells of much greater load.6,7 The added dynamic challenge of kettlebells and sandbags means you don’t have to go as heavy. You are far more likely to find people that can clean 225lb than people that can clean double 48 kg kettlebells (212lb), or even a 150lb sandbag. The fear of these implements not being heavy enough isn’t a reasonable one.
Most people find these tools limiting because they try to mimic their barbell training with them. But they aren’t barbells, which means they offer unique options, such as changing planes of motion, body positions, and load placement. Ever perform a frontal plane clean? How about a rotational snatch? Our body moves in three dimensions; shouldn’t our training engage all of them?
Sleds and Carries
We tend think of activities like sleds and carries as simply conditioning tools, but they offer more than that. Dr. McGill again:
“Exercises are tools to get specific jobs done… Usually the best exercise is the one that creates the largest effect with the minimal risk to the joints. If the purpose is to create hip extension power, then exercises such as weighted carries and sled drags have to be considered.”
Do carries actually improve your strength? One study found something interesting with the impact of faster farmer’s walks:
“The farmers lift may be an effective lifting alternative to the deadlift, to generating more anterior-propulsive and vertical force with less stress to the lumbar spine due to the more vertical trunk position.”4
One of the qualities that is easy to overlook in the above statement is the idea of “anterior-propulsive” forces. This is a measure of force that we use during activities like walking. In other words, we aren’t just learning to move up and down, but in a manner that really does meet human function.
And sleds aren’t there just to make your heart jump out of your chest. Research has found some impressive results for heavy sled pulls that have implications beyond the vertical jump or linear speed:
“… the heavy sled pull may improve acceleration sprinting performance in many athlete types and the ability to break and make tackles in contact sports such as American football and the rugby codes.”5
Better Tools for the Job
These are just a few ideas that allow us to access the tremendous benefits of Olympic weightlifting without its potential drawbacks. Not only can we get results, we can enhance the training experience and find new ways to progress our functional training. We can find better balance between risk and reward, and develop training programs that not only kick out butts, but truly make us better!
If your goal is health, don’t become an athlete:
1. Brughelli, Matt, John Cronin, Greg Levin, and Anis Chaouachi. “Understanding change of direction ability in sport.” Sports Medicine 38, no. 12 (2008): 1045-1063.
2. Bressel, Eadric, Joshua C. Yonker, John Kras, and Edward M. Heath. “Comparison of static and dynamic balance in female collegiate soccer, basketball, and gymnastics athletes.” Journal of Athletic Training 42, no. 1 (2007): 42.
3. Peltenburg, A. L., W. B. M. Erich, M. J. E. Bernink, and I. A. Huisveid. “Selection of talented female gymnasts, aged 8 to 11, on the basis of motor abilities with special reference to balance: a retrospective study.” International Journal of Sports Medicine 3, no. 01 (1982): 37-42.
4. Winwood, Paul W., John B. Cronin, Scott R. Brown, and Justin WL Keogh. “A biomechanical analysis of the farmers walk, and comparison with the deadlift and unloaded walk.” International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching 9, no. 5 (2014): 1127-1143.
5. Keogh, Justin WL, Craig Newlands, Sandra Blewett, Amenda Payne, and Lin Chun-Er. “A kinematic analysis of a strongman-type event: The heavy sprint-style sled pull.” Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 24, no. 11 (2010): 3088-3097.
6. Lake, Jason P., and Mike A. Lauder. “Kettlebell swing training improves maximal and explosive strength.” Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 26, no. 8 (2012): 2228-2233.
7. Manocchia, Pasquale, David K. Spierer, Adrienne KS Lufkin, Jacqueline Minichiello, and Jessica Castro. “Transference of kettlebell training to strength, power, and endurance.” Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 27, no. 2 (2013): 477-484.