To the untrained eye, Olympic lifts look easy, until they try it. They think that lifting the bar over head is as simple as grabbing it and throwing it to the ceiling. I’ve had the chance of training and watching Pierre Roy coach, one of the best Olympic coach on this side of the globe, and although he seems to break it down so simply, it could take up to a few months until you master the basics… of the basics.
The main goal for Olympic lifting is to lift the maximum amount of weight while using the optimal line of pull with optimal speed, power, and technique. So, in order to perform at the best of your abilities, every portion of the lift has to be perfect. If you were to look at Olympians lift and imagine an invisible line that follows the barbell, you would realize that they all pull and lift with the same line, almost straight from bottom to finish. Not too far from the middle line, their center of gravity. The further away from the line/center of gravity, the harder the lift and no breaking personal record here.
Let’s say you want to execute a power clean, from point A with the barbell on the floor to point B, the top of a front squat position. Although doing a deadlift followed by a reverse curl would bring you to the same end result, you would not be able to lift as much weight as the actual power clean.
Using the optimal leverage and momentum, in other words, using speed and power in the perfect line of pull and optimal technique will help you lift a maximum of weight with way less effort than a deadlift followed by a reverse curl. This is exactly the goal of Olympic lifts, potentializing the biomechanical line of pull by using optimal strength and power at the right moment.
A simpler way to see it would be to analyze a barbell curl. As you increase the weight, it gets harder to stick with the perfect technique, which would be to keep the elbows in line with the body, not moving them, while curling the bar forward and up. The heavier it gets, your elbows will tend to go backwards. Only because the weight is trying to stay closer to the center of gravity, which is the easiest line of pull.
Let’s go back to the power clean. Unlike the curl, the heavier the bar is, the closer it will stay towards the central line of pull, which is exactly what you want. If you move it out of the line, you will fuck up. So basically, as you start pulling the bar up, you will have to accelerate the bar and gain momentum to lift the bar as high as possible in order to get under the bar, which is called the catch(almost half squat), on the shoulders as if you were setting up for a front squat.
Now, if you were to do a full clean, you would probably be able to go up in weights. For a full clean, as you would have to catch the bar lower, and have to squat all the way down for the catch, where on the power clean you don’t have to go as far down. The point of the power clean is to generate power and speed where on the full clean, power is the greater force. The full clean however is a bit trickier and require greater skills.
For all the lifts, the clean, the snatch, the hang variations, etc, you have to use strength, speed and power to potentialize the best biomechanical line of pull to lift the bar on your shoulders or overhead.
Why should you start to implement Olympic lifts into your workout routine? As we see in crossfit, they are great for overall strength and power development. Not all of them should be used since some are more complex than others, but they could also be used for metabolic conditioning if they are coached and used well.
I personally love to use them for sport performance. Some qualities you gain from it are transferable to sports like football, hockey, and combat sports. Teaching them is what I like the most but not given to every coach. It’s not because you do crossfit that you can coach Olympic lifts. I have done many hours with Pierre Roy, one of the best coaches around and Charles Poliquin. In fact, I had to coach someone in 3-4 sets how to do a clean and a snatch. Matching the cues with the person you have to coach is the trickiest part, no one learns and understands the same. You don’t coach the lift, you coach the person in front of you.