Why So Much Weightlifting?


Weightlifting legend: Pyros Dimas

“Olympic weightlifting…develops strength (especially in the hips), speed, and power like no other training modality. It is little known that successful weightlifting requires substantial flexibility. Olympic weightlifters are as flexible as any athletes. The benefits of Olympic weightlifting don’t end with strength, speed, power, and flexibility. The clean and jerk and the snatch both develop coordination, agility, accuracy, and balance and to no small degree. Both of these lifts are as nuanced and challenging as any movement in all of sport. Moderate competency in the Olympic lifts confers added prowess to any sport.” – Coach Greg Glassman from What is Fitness?

I love the snatch and clean & jerk. Olympic lifts are not only fun, but phenomenal for developing athletes. When I get the privilege to program for group classes, I make sure to program each of the lifts multiple times. Between last week and this week, I programmed Snatch on 5 days and Clean & Jerk (or variation of) on 5 days. Weightlifting takes a lot of practice, but the riches are worth the journey.

Furthermore, Coach Rudy Nielsen of The Outlaw Way has compiled information regarding why he places such an importance on weightlifting in his programming for CrossFit. (“sport of fitness”)

“The mere practice of the Olympic lifts teaches an athlete how to apply large amounts of force. Part of the extraordinary abilities of an Olympic lifter arises out of his having learned how to effectively activate more of his muscle fibers more rapidly than others who aren’t trained to do so. This becomes extremely important for athletes who need to remain at lower body weights for athletic purposes but need to learn how to apply greater force. “ - Artie Dreschler

If you don’t want to get nerdy, stop here and understand that by progressing in weightlifting, you will become better at producing force. If you want to get nerdy, below is the science he has gathered and explained so nicely:

2) Science:

> Rate of force development
> Kinetic chain synchronization
> Neural recruitment

These are just a few of the benefits of Olympic weightlifting. They are buzzwords that are sometimes thrown around without definition, and they are all paramount to athletic performance. Athletes who compete in “the sport of fitness” are no different from athletes in any other sport. They must develop the ability to apply force, in a synchronized manner, and do it as quickly and efficiently as possible. The great difference is that our sport awards roughly 30 to 40 percent of its points based upon proficiency in the Olympic lifts, whereas athletes who compete in nonfitness-related sports use the Olympic lifts as strictly a training protocol to develop athletic potential.

All sports require different amounts of muscle synchronization, balance, flexibility, and coordination as well as strength, speed, power, and metabolic development. Olympic weightlifting provides development in all these areas. While training for maximal strength can have a positive effect on performance, it also can have a “negative effect on movement speed and the ability of a muscle to display explosive effort” (Wenzel & Perfetto 1992). However, this does not mean that strength gains do not happen through training at high speeds. Wenzel and Perfetto characterized strength gains from high-speed training as adaptations “due to an increase in the number of fibers recruited or a more synchronous firing of motor neurons” (Wenzel & Perfetto 1992).—Philip Sabatini, February 2011 interview with

The single most important requirement for strength development is the ability to produce force. Force, in terms of strength training and athleticism, is the body’s ability to recruit and initiate muscular contraction. Greater ability to produce force means greater ability to act upon external load, greater ability to control/manipulate the body in space, and greater ability to maintain efficiency with higher-repetition sub-maximal endeavors. The single best tool to gain the ability to develop force is strength training. The strength training protocol used must involve movements performed at either maximal or near-maximal weight (90 percent plus), or lighter weight moved as quickly as possible (70 to 90 percent). The ability to produce force, sans coordination, is a quintessential component of athleticism.

The kinetic chain is simply defined as a “combination of several successively arranged joints constituting a complex motor unit” (Steindler). The greatest/safest open chain tools we have to develop the kinetic function of multiple motor units—in our sport and in our training—are the Olympic lifts. The wave of contraction that must be produced to perform a full barbell Snatch is unparalleled by any other gym-based movement. To get similar kinetic chain development, you would have to play an actual sport for some length of time, and it would have to be a sport requiring massive amounts of mobility and joint stabilization (such as gymnastics). In my years of coaching I have seen more than my share of athletes who simply cannot perform a full snatch or a comfortable jerk. This is a prime example of dysfunction, inhibition, or tightness at some point in the kinetic chain and is NOT indicative that the movement is too hard to master or not for certain people. To the contrary; diagnosing these issues, taking steps to correct them, and continued practice of the lifts will allow for a greater overall development of the athlete’s kinetic chain, which will lead to the correction of a multitude of basic movement issues.

Hold on to your hats, boys and girls… I’m going to quote Coach (that’s Greg Glassman for those of you who have only been around a year or two):

The missing link in so much mainstream fitness programming, from bodybuilding to monostructural endeavors, is the neuromuscular piece—in particular, the development of coordination, accuracy, agility, and balance. We can sum these elements up as “technique.” Omitting them from one’s training necessarily results in only partial fitness, partial expression of one’s genetic potential, and a decreased threshold of maximal capacity. To increase work capacity across broad time and modal domains (the goal of CrossFit), technique is the crucial connection—whether your goal is to win the game, protect your life, complete the mission, or just be fit for the demands of everyday life at any age.—Greg Glassman

Again, the snatch takes center stage for this discussion. As the most highly technical movement in our sport’s training lexicon, it takes the prize for greatest/easiest high-level neural developer. And yes, again, high-level gymnastics and other sports can elicit similar neural responses, but the length of learning curve for those sports is far greater and, honestly, in most instances their practice is harder to pull off. Weightlifting’s ability to manipulate neural recruitment and the central nervous system through myriad rep and load variations is essential to “the sport of fitness.” Sorry to use Rich again, but not only does he have a national-level snatch, his 1:20 Isabel at the 2012 Games may have been one of the most efficient and impressive performances I’ve seen in person. With a high level of neural development, the athlete can move through greater ranges of motion with less effort, therefore allowing for greater capacity and less central nervous system fatigue.

Crossfit Watsonville



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