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.
So power cleans and snatches involve high impulsive forces on aging tendons, muscles, ligaments, and cartilage, in the context of very rapid movement patterns that are difficult to correct in mid-execution, making tweaks and minor injuries more likely than in the slow lifts. I don't have to tell you folks in your sixties that a "minor" tweak can really wreak havoc with training. So the question becomes: should you do the Olympic Lifts, if you're over 50 or 60? I must make it clear that you do not have to do these exercises. They are not part of The Barbell Prescription. They are extra credit. Please understand this. Cleans and snatches can be fun, and satisfying, and excellent displays of hard-won strength...but they aren't essential for training for health and fitness. So on that basis, the answer is no. But what if you want to do them? If so, you have fulfilled the first of my three criteria for prescribing O-lifts in the Master. That first criterion is DESIRE. You have to really want to do them. This is not a criterion for the squat or deadlift or bench. If you come to me for training, you are going to do those exercises if you're physically capable. I don't care if you want to or not. But you're not going to clean or snatch unless you really do want to. The Second criterion is APTITUDE. You must have some basic level of aptitude for the exercise. Cleans and snatches require a minimum ability to jump and quickly coordinate movements. They require that proficiency in the deadlift already be in place. A certain je ne sais quoi has to be there, a certain grace and innate athleticism that, to put it bluntly, not everybody possesses. Nobody has to do the clean or snatch exactly right, or even very well, at the beginning. But within a short period of time it becomes clear whether one has an aptitude for Olympic lifts or not. In the case of Masters, this clarity is realized sooner, and mandates immediate cessation of attempts to go forward. Because, again, the potential for injury or overuse is even greater if one sucks at them. In Masters, such a risk is not acceptable. The third criterion is TOLERANCE. You must physically tolerate the exercises and recover well from training them. It may be that you really want to do the clean or snatch. And it may well turn out that you're actually pretty good at the clean and snatch. But it may also turn out that these exercises, although you love them and are good at them, just beat the living hell out of you. I'm not talking about the usual muscle soreness. I'm talking about pain and loss of function in the day or three after a heavy clean workout. Again: they put a lot of highly impulsive stress on joints and soft tissues. And if that's you, if you enjoy cleans and do them well but they just beat the crap out of you and thereby prevent good recovery and progress in the other movements...then you shouldn't do them.
Sorry. The four basic exercises are the ones that make you really strong and add the most muscle, and O-Lift variants must not interfere with that, even if you want to do them.
To paraphrase a great 20th-century philosopher: You can't always get what you want. But if you squat and press and dead, you'll get what you need. There are people out there who don't think cleans and snatches are a productive use of training time, that they're worthless, that they're contraindicated for Masters, and so on. I am not one of those people. I am almost 60 years old, and I do these exercises myself. I love coaching them in Masters, and I have, although at the moment I don't have anybody over 50 who meets my three criteria. I do not think these exercises are worthless...but I do think they are dispensable in Masters. The three criteria elucidated above have never let me down. Applied dispassionately, they'll work for you, too.
Jonathon Sullivan MD, PhD, SSC, PBC is a retired emergency physician and research physiologist, and the owner and head coach of the Greysteel Strength and Conditioning Clinic in Farmington Hills, Michigan, which specializes in training adults over 50. He is the author of The Barbell Prescription: Strength Training for Life After Forty, with Coach Andy Baker.