by Jonathon Sullivan MD, PhD, SSC, PBC
You can and should do Olympic Lifts, IF you meet the three criteria.
This essay was subsequently produced as a video, which you can watch below.
The Barbell Prescription for healthy aging has a deep rationale, as expounded in the book of the same name written by myself and Andy Baker. These rationale are grounded in the physiology of aging, the components of the Sick Aging Phenotype, the power of Exercise Medicine to combat the degenerative diseases of aging, the bioenergetic and biophysical signatures of candidate exercises, and the basic criteria for any sensible prescription of any type. But the prescription itself is sheer simplicity: four compound barbell movements and a conditioning component. The conditioning component, as we explain in Chapter 26 of The Barbell Prescription, is the most variable, and can be anything from a dedicated program of high-intensity interval training to any of an almost limitless variety of physical or athletic pursuits--"lift weights and play your sport," as the old saw goes. However, there is a bit of a wrinkle in exercise selection, and this is the role of the Olympic Lifts and their variants. Anybody who can do the squat, press, bench, and dead should do them, as discussed at length in the book and more concisely in these videos.
In addition to these four so-called "slow lifts," however, there are two other barbell movements that are commonly incorporated into strength and conditioning programs: the power clean and the power snatch. These are variations on the contested lifts in Olympic Weightlifting: the clean and jerk, and the snatch. The Olympic variants are fundamentally different from the slow lifts, in that they are intrinsically explosive. The power clean and the power snatch both involve a pull from the floor, like a deadlift, followed by a powerful, explosive jump and rapid extension that launches the bar into the racking position: on the shoulders for the clean, above the head for the snatch. In general, a program will usually include one or the other.
The power clean allows more weight to be used, but anthropometry--in particular, the length of the forearm relative to the humerus--will sometimes make the clean impossible, indicating the snatch instead. Some athletes love the O-lift variants and will want to use both in their program. We outline how intermediate programs can incorporate one or both lifts in The Barbell Prescription. The rationale for including an Olympic variant in a strength and conditioning program are, in a word, contentious, and beyond the scope of this essay. In essence, they have to do with the ability to display the strength gained through he slow lifts in an explosive movement pattern. Explosiveness, or power, the product of force and velocity, is a fundamental physical and athletic attribute, and therefore valuable. But our ability to train explosiveness is controversial, and some people discount the importance of including these movements in a strength program for any athlete other than an Olympic weightlifter. When it comes to Masters, athletes over 50, I think the Olympic lifts can have value, even if we did discount their ability to meaningfully improve explosion (which I'm not quite prepared to do, myself). I think these movements, which are dynamic, exciting, and beautiful, can do a lot to improve the confidence of the Master, their enjoyment of the training, and their sense of accomplishment. If you're doing cleans or snatches in your sixties, well, you are a very special person, basically by definition.
A Public Service Announcement From Greysteel
But the problem with doing these dynamic, difficult, and explosive movements is that...well, they're dynamic, difficult, and explosive. They are intrinsically athletic, demanding, and stressful in ways the other movements are not. Every action causes an equal and opposite reaction, after all, and if you apply explosive force against the bar, it will apply an explosive resistance right back at you, thank you Isaac Newton.