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Got Power? Three “Athletic” Olympic Lift Variations for Improved Performance

In the world of athletic performance, modern coaching is all about “transfer”.  Granted, when you are in the weightroom, and moving barbells, things change tremendously vs. what you might see on the court, field, or track, but it’s always important to know what direct benefits you might see through the utilization of particular exercises and lifts.

When we are talking “athletic” lifts, we are often talking Olympic lifts.  Why?  The Olympic lifts rely on the sequential application of power that often compliment athletic rhythms in many sports and movements, particularly acceleration and jumping.

With Olympic lifting, by nature there is a strong benefit to the rhythms of track and field athletes and even swimming, as I have found.

I’ve seen my fair share of Olympic lifting, however, that is performed fairly “un-athletically”.  From poor rhythms in the pull, to bouncing hang cleans off the thighs, as well as terrible spinal posture in the catch, the Olympic lifts can definitely be implemented all kinds of “wrong”.

In addition to this, doing Olympic movements “slowly” (relatively speaking), there is very limited transfer to similar athletic movements.  Olympic movements should carry a similar hip joint angular velocity if they want to carry transfer to sport, especially to higher levels of athleticism.

Today, I’m going to share three means of doing the Olympic lifts that are particularly athletic.  I’ve seen small-school football programs who thought a good clean was deadlifting the bar, and then proceeding to sway back and forth at the hips, with the final thrust bringing the bar with, into a limbo-catch.  Multiple athletes cleaned over 315, but it was a terribly un-athletic bunch of players!

There are some Olympic lifts that explosive athletes just seem to perform better.  They are as follows:

  • High Hang Clean from Blocks
  • Drop Snatch
  • Split Snatch

Let’s dig into the basics of these three lifts, and what makes them “more athletic” than other Olympic variations.

 Got Power? Three “Athletic" Olympic Lift Variations for Improved Performance

High Hang Clean from Blocks

The standard hang clean has two issues that often keep it from achieving good transfer to athletic performance:

  1. Poor rate of force development in the initial pull
  2. Poor posture and routing of force in the pull

To solve these issues, performing a “high” hang clean from blocks is a great solution.  When performed from blocks, cleans now have a high priority on rate of force development, since the weight of the bar must be overcome as rapidly as possible for the lift to have a good success.  The force required to get the bar moving from the block is also known as “starting strength”, or the ability to overcome inertia from a dead start.

With the bar resting on the blocks, one can also set themselves each rep for optimal positioning in the pull.

I’ve found, that generally speaking, for two athletes with the same “clean”, the more “athletic” one in terms of sprinting and jumping ability, especially who has strong abilities in extension, will be better at performing a high hang clean from blocks.   A less explosive athlete can use the distance and rhythm of the pull to lift the weight that they can’t make up for in the high rack pull.

“This could be caught in either the low or high position.  I typically go for a high catch with athletes”

The high hang clean also is indicative of terminal (end-range) extension power in athletes, which is important for things like top end speed and jumping off the run.

Drop Snatch

There is a common “complaint” as far as static lifts, such as traditional squats and deadlifts go: “they are too slow” to transfer to higher level athletes.  Although I do think there is always benefit to the static lifts in some fashion, there are means to perform the squat in the muscle-contaction manner more closely associate with sport, the “explosive isometric” contraction.

When Olympic lifters move weight in the classical lifts, they always catch several hundred pounds, explosively, in “the bucket”.  This transition from pull to catch, however, takes some specific practice to pull off.  Simplified, it can be filtered down to a drop snatch.  If an athlete can perform an overhead squat, and has any basic force absorption capability, they can perform a drop snatch.

In a drop snatch, an athlete simply moves from a position with the bar racked on the back-shoulders, down into a deep squat position with the bar caught overhead.  This movement was also a featured force-absorption exercise in “The Greatest Sports Training Book Ever” by DB Hammer.

The deep catch portion of the Olympic lifts is, in my opinion, their distinguishing feature from any other athletic movement.  Even the pulls of Olympic lifts do not teach as much explosive triple extension as a vertical jump or depth jump, or a depth jump to medicine ball granny (sounds sissy, but isn’t) throw (although the require a stronger posterior chain and postural component).

Catching an Olympic lift in the “power” position (above 90 degrees knee bend in a squat) is a nice force absorption means, but the overload is paltry compared to doing plyometrics, which are both specific in means of load (bodyweight), and have better positional transfer.

The explosive catch in a drop snatch, similar to a squat clean catch, has the power to drastically improve athletic measures, such as vertical jump, in a short period of time.  To do it, athletes must relax the quads and glutes, and fire up the hip flexors, to drop, and to catch, they must reverse the pattern.  This agonist-antagonist pairing is the essence of athletic movement.

I put this lift in the article, instead of a traditional hang squat clean, on account of ease of use.  This movement is far easier to learn, and the catch can be directly overloaded more easily, so long as spinal and overhead stability are good.  The next lift proves slightly more difficult.

Split Hang Snatch

This last lift is the most difficult of the three to perform, but rewarding.

The last Olympic lift that captures a good deal of athletic ability is a proper split snatch.  Although it isn’t used in competition anymore, the “split” catch was the preferred way to catch a snatch until the 1950’s.  These days, it’s more of a specialty lift, but it takes a good deal of athleticism, and coordination, to perform a snatch pull, and then catch the bar overhead with good posture, and a split stance.

It’s almost like a jump sequence with a two leg takeoff and an asymmetrical landing.  There are many very poor demonstrations of the movement on youtube, below is a decent one.

Although the split snatch certainly loses its transfer to common sporting movements at a particular level of proficiency (i.e. if you can hang split snatch 120kg, doing 130kg will certainly not help you jump any higher), it is a great early season training modality in the weightroom that presents a fun challenge and builds a unique form of athleticism and stability that can be built on as training progresses.

Conclusion

So there you have it.  Three Olympic variations that can be utilized to build explosive athletic ability, and have decent transfer to basic athletic qualities.  This doesn’t go to say that doing traditional Olympic lifting isn’t helpful for building athletes (I do really like power cleans from the floor for the sake of improving early acceleration), but I can say that good athletes are those who can do the above movements well relative to their peers!

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