Why Contact-Sport Athletes Need Olympic Lifting

was casually coaching in my gym the other day with a collegiate rugby player and a competitive weightlifter. Both were on the platform doing full cleans when I thought to pose a question.
“Why should contact sports athletes perform full range of motion Olympic Lifts?”

Before you continue reading think about that. Specifically, why should a contact sport athlete (football, rugby, wrestling) perform full ROM Olympic lifts (snatch, clean, clean & Jerk)?

The first answer I got from both of them was a good thought. They said that these sports require a lot of power and that the Olympic lifts will help them become more powerful. This is 100% true but it’s not the right answer. Statistically the Olympic lifts generate the most power and faster Rate of force development when they are done at about 70% and are done in the power form (powerclean, power snatch). So, technically speaking the best way to recruit power development is to do the lifts like this. Another thought was that the full ROM improves flexibility and strength through multiple positions. This is also true, however we can simply perform front squats or overhead squats at a higher weight and receive the same benefits and more. So WHY?

I recently had a member of Endunamoo Barbell Club mention an article he read titled something like “Why Athletes Shouldn’t Olympic Lift.” The reasoning was along the lines of “complexity” and “risk” factors being too high. I thought it both silly, but slightly accurate. For example I don’t make my golfers or my tennis players Olympic lift, but I make all of my footballers do it. Learning to perform a full clean or snatch requires a large amount of body autonomy and agonist/antagonist activation control. Before heavy weights can be moved, the cognitive and neuromuscular components of the lifts must be trained which may take up valuable training time. As a coach to many highschool and college athletes the risk/reward benefits must be high to sacrifice a lot work to do this. It is.

The unique thing about Olympic lifting is that it teaches an athlete to maximally contract a muscle while simultaneously setting that muscle up for maximally passivity. To be put simply, an athlete learns how to contract as hard as possible while relaxing as much as possible. It’s not an oxymoron, it’s science. Let’s look at the clean.

At first the athlete is contracting as hard as possible using their agonist muscles to create speed on the bar and reach what is called triple extension. To do this as fast as possible all of the antagonist muscles must remain silent. Once this position is reached the bar will enter a phase of weightlessness.

 It is at this precise millisecond that the athlete must contract the antagonist muscles (making them agonists) while simultaneously silencing the agonist muscles (making them antagonists). If any of the muscles and nerves do not fulfill their duty the lift will be missed or will be “sloppy.”

Now look at a football player who is getting hit. They are running as hard as they can into a wall of people running as hard as they can into them. Have you ever heard that the best way to survive a car crash is to relax? In this instance the ball carrier is trying to run over their opponent, but if a weird angle is met (lets say someone goes to clip their leg), the last thing they want is for that muscle to lock up. The ability of the muscle to quickly become silent can carryover into reducing the risk of injury. If that athlete is unable to have a fast turnover they may wind up absorbing the blow in the knee (which can result in joint/ligament damage).

The great thing about Olympic lifting is that it can teach the athletes how to automatically have this reaction when high forces are being applied to their body. So in the end it’s not about power or flexibility but about being a better functioning athlete.

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About Me

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BS, MS - exercise Physiology
EPC - Board Certified Exercise Physiologist

Published Thesis
The impact of three different forms of warm up on performance

Graduate from Midwestern State University, founder of Endunamoo Barbell Club, and Endunamoo Strength and Conditioning. Working to help athletes physically reach their goals and achieve scholarships while spiritually pouring into as many people as possible on all platforms.