Olympic Lifts: Form and Function

st pete barbell club spsc crossfit

Since the emergence of CrossFit as we know it today, there's been a tug-of-war going on about olympic-style weightlifting --- how the lifts are used, the number of reps that should be done, and so on. The origin of this impassioned debate is that an established (and pridefully underground...at least in America) sport has been introduced within a younger, thriving sport of a completely different philosophy. The two implementations of weightlifting that are being compared here exist in two very different contexts.

On one hand we have weightlifting in its purest form: mastery of two different contested lifts. On the other, CrossFit's model of being able to adapt to many different skills and movements while performing them quickly and efficiently. I'm not going to get sucked into this debate, opining over whether or not we should be heaving weights overhead for an excessive number of repetitions. It's tired and I'm tired of hearing it. Instead, I want to discuss the value I see in learning these lifts, how we have implemented them in our gym and I'll most likely toss in some minor ranting. We are nothing if not passionate, right?

Why is Weightlifting Good?

To quote the great Joe Dirt, "Why is a tree good? Why is the sunset good? Why are boobs good?" I think that about sums it up. But seriously, weightlifting offers a lot of benefits both physically and mentally. First, it's fun. You may not feel like weightlifting is fun everyday, but to me it doesn't get much better. These lifts are about power, finesse, body awareness and operating in harmony with the physics taking place around you. If it doesn't impress you to watch someone propel and gracefully move themselves around a bar that outweighs them two or three-fold, then I can do nothing for you.

We often compare the lifts to a golf swing. I love this analogy because I know what a good swing feels like and, more frequently, what a shitty one feels like. Timing and sticking that perfect snatch or clean is an accomplishment you must experience to understand. It's that sort of feeling that makes all that is going on in your life seem manageable if not easy. You can't deny that programs like CrossFit have exposed this sentiment to the masses and hold a great deal of responsibility for the rising popularity of weightlifting in America. This is a good thing, even if some coaches are not doing a great job of implementing the lifts. Let's chalk it up to a misunderstanding...that may or may not result in injury.

I'm Ready, Coach.

This is where I toe the debate line. As a trainer who is responsible for keeping people safe while getting them in better shape, I cannot simply toss a new client into a timed workout with something like snatches involved. We'll find an appropriate alternative, but it would be reckless to allow someone who is not even close to technically sound in the lift perform a lot of fast repetitions. Looking at CrossFit gyms and athletes as a whole, I think we have come a long way in the past couple of years in regard to educating ourselves on the lifts and becoming proficient in performing them. Just look at the difference in technique in regionals athletes from 2012 to 2015. Huge difference.

Both lifts are very technical if you want them done correctly. Sure, there are plenty of brawny and ox-like men and women out there that can pretend to do the lifts based on a freakish amount of requisite strength. Muscling through it, whether you are strong enough or not, results in compromised technique and failure to squeeze out the intrinsic benefits at stake.

In competition, a good lift is a good lift. Get it from the ground to overhead and stay locked out. Within the walls of our gym, you are here to improve your fitness, athleticism and skills. Doing multiple reps of the olympic lifts (or any lifts for that matter) is bound to expose flaws in form due to fatigue, poor positions, etc. Here's an idea: let's work on the technique first, so that when it breaks down you don't ruin your shoulders, back, {enter body part here}.

Efficacy comes first. Efficiency comes next. When I talk efficiency, I'm referring to the athlete's ability to produce sound movements under a limited time domain and/or fatigue. This is where "muscling through" fails. Again, you're missing out on what makes these lifts enjoyable and beneficial. By laying the foundation of solid technique, you are prepared to adapt as the weights get bigger.  Which brings me to my next point.

The Almighty PR Pursuit

I think it's pretty clear at this point that I'm a fan of technique. We should all strive to apply the same approach to a 15lb training bar as we do with a 300lb loaded bar. Unless you are new to lifting, PR attempts probably don't come around every day. My YouTube video voyeurism reveals the painstaking fact that too many people have sacrificed form completely to get a new number in their notepad...or simply to show everyone else how strong they are. Don't get me wrong. A PR attempt will often be less than perfect on the technique end. How far are you willing to let it slip, though?  You see weights getting bigger, I see regression and an unwillingness to take a small step back in order to take that next jump forward.


If anything, pursuing progress in weightlifting has taught me how important patience is. That may be patience in pulling from the knee to the hip, or patience with getting the lift right in the first place.  The bottom line is this --- why are you training the lifts? Your programming should differ if you are looking to do a weightlifting meet versus getting a good "Grace" time in a CF competition. The technique will also be altered, but it should always start with the same fundamentals.  So do what you want with the lifts.  Just know where you need to start or get a competent coach that can get you there.

Interested in learning more about CrossFit and/or weightlifting? Check out SPSC CrossFit for a free trial!

-Taylor Race, co-owner of St. Pete Strength & Conditioning / SPSC CrossFit