Friday, 24 August 2012

The NEW Crossfit rules - Olympic Lifts

Podium SC Athlete Lindsay M - Regionals 2012

Olympic lifting is awesome – performed correctly it requires an impressive combination of strength, power, flexibility, balance, and speed.  It is truly an athletic form of lifting huge weights overhead and requires dedicated practice to get it right.

In CrossFit however, most are doing it wrong, VERY wrong.  I can’t tell you how much it bugs me to see “another” Crossfit video posted online with people lifting with terrible form... and there are WAY too many of these already.

Two factors are at the heart of this issue - the low average skill of Crossfit coaches in terms of effective teaching practices and the relative ignorance of whoever is planning the wods.  If that sounds harsh to you that’s fine, but I’ve seen a LOT of coaching and a LOT of programming and these are the conclusions I’ve come to.  Your members are paying you good money with the expectation of high level service, so it is up to you to provide it and make sure they get their money’s worth.

The “typical” Crossfit coach is an interesting phenomenon in the physical training world – a weekend, $1000, and you are set up to teach others highly complex skills.  You might mention that there are a bunch of personal training courses that run similarly but the reality is that those people are NOT turning around and teaching cleans and snatches and doing 30 of each for time.  You also might mention that there are a bunch of specialized Crossfit courses out there for lifting and gymnastics etc.  I will respond that these are merely the STARTING point of your skill development as a coach, and in no way truly prepare you for actually coaching these lifts effectively.

In order to fully understand teaching the Olympic lifts, you have to train them yourself and for a LONG time.  You really will not know how to truly coach these lifts until you have reached a reasonable level of proficiency (which in my mind would be about a minimum of 50/70kg for women and 80/110kg for men).  Bodyweight plays into this a bit but for average sized individuals, if you are lifting those loads with good (FULL snatch and FULL clean) form, you probably know a thing or two about what works and what doesn’t.

Class structure, contrary to popular belief, is NOT a restriction on effective teaching – you just need to know HOW to do it and how to identify technique issues.  Without extending the length of this blog unnecessarily, this means a lot of skill transfer exercises (NOT 5x3 snatch balance for max load) with a reasonable progression and KNOWING what you are looking for so that you can cue corrections. 

You should probably also have a structure for your class in terms of WHEN people lift so that you are watching 4 or 5 people at a time as opposed to a whole class of 15+.

So, RULE #1 – if you are a coach, GET BETTER, a LOT BETTER at the Olifts yourself through dedicated practice (and I mean a LOT of practice), LEARN what works and what doesn’t through personal experience and research, and develop a teaching progression that is sensible and with a long term view.

Issue #2 is programming.  I almost hate this word in the Crossfit world since it is so abused.  “Programming” used to mean employing a systematic series of physical challenges that progresses someone (or a group of people) towards an end goal.  It requires forethought, an understanding of the goal, proper progression, and reasonable knowledge of the energy systems and muscular characteristics of the body.  What it has degenerated into in the Crossfit world is shotgunning wods based on a “we did that yesterday so we’ll do this today” type approach.  Believe it or not, when I first showed up at the affiliate I used to co-own, the programming was done on a night-before basis or even sometimes 15 minutes before class time!  “Programming” has become synonymous with “making up workouts” and it is not surprising to me at all that people are F’ing things up badly as a result.

The Olympic lifts are one of the biggest victims of this trend.  Here’s the deal – the Olifts are best performed and LEARNED from at least a “relatively” rested state with a focus on accuracy and coordination.  This is the exact OPPOSITE of what happens in a wod.  Case in point – Isabel – 30 snatches for time.  If someone is reasonably proficient, they will get maybe up to 10 reps with pretty solid form and the remaining 20 reps with successively worse and worse technique.  In that scenario, you have AT BEST 10 reps that are developing a “good” motor program and 20 reps that are developing a POOR motor program... guess what wins out?

An interesting insight into Isabel in particular comes from a personal programming experience of mine.  I create a wod for my Affiliate called “Breaking up with Isabel” which consists of 6 rounds of 5 snatches, each successive round starting on the minute.  Interestingly enough, MANY people got a BETTER Isabel time out of this workout than they did when they actually did the full 30 snatches in a row... and guess what, their form was a WHOLE lot better.

Now I understand completely the need to test wods like Isabel and Grace ON OCCASION, especially as athletes near competition time, but these (and things like barbell complexes) should not form the majority of any Crossfitter’s exposure to the Olifts.

Secondly, much too much time is spent on learning (and training) the power variations of the lifts.  The power variations are technically simpler but can create serious flaws when it comes to developing full clean and full snatch techninque... primarily, the arms in the power variations are used excessively in pulling the bar UP whereas one of their main functions in the full lift is to pull the body DOWN.  Repetitive power snatches and power cleans will interfere with the timing for full snatches and full cleans.  I have met a LOT of people who can power snatch and power clean who CAN’T do the full lifts... But I’ve yet to meet ANYONE who can full clean and snatch who can’t do the power variations.

I’m wary of giving programmers too much info as the absolute worst scenario is utilizing methods that you don’t fully understand, but this is too big of an issue to let slide for much longer.  So here are the NEW Crossfit rules for programming the Olifts:

RULE #2 – If you want to do Olifts in metcons, make those metcons interval-style with the Olift as the FIRST component.  The rest period leading into the Olift will preserve the “good” stuff better this way.

RULE #3 – Program both Snatch and Clean variations (i.e. teaching and skill transfer exercises) at LEAST once per week... it is preferable to have some sort of technique work (bar only in some cases) on an everyday basis to ensure your members get good contact with these movements

RULE #4 – Spend MORE time at 75-85% loads and LESS time “going for max”

RULE #5 – PLAN ahead with your progressions and work towards an end goal 4-8 weeks down the road

RULE #6 – The vast majority of your programming of Olympic lifts should be as a technique/strength portion prior to the WOD... I’m talking 80% or more of the reps should be under low fatigue conditions

RULE #7 – Program with the goal of the full lifts in mind as opposed to the power variations

 I could go on for a while on these, but that is the starting point.  If you do the above, you will be ahead of most Crossfit coaches and Affiliates in terms of sensible, safe, and progressive programming of the Olympic lifts.

Before I end this blog though, one more request – if you have a wod video and the form is TERRIBLE, please please PLEASE do not post it up online.  We’ve got enough people sniping at us already, let’s make things better as opposed to worse!



  1. I agree, the olympic lifts are my favourites, but they are also the easiest ones to ruin.

    On a side note, whenever I go somewhere new and clean or snatch I always get lots of compliments. I'll extend those to you and Lucas, the guys that taught me to do them with style.

  2. Hey Craiggers, glad we could help you on your way to athletic righteousness! Your inherent flexibility and body control were easy to work with plus you've always had the right mindset of technique before ego.

  3. Completely agree with the contents of this post. Your methodology, cues, and approach as been instrumental to myself learning the lifts and discovering some significant breakthroughs!

    I find myself on the same side as Craig as well. But there is still much to be learned and refined!

    1. Good to hear from ya Felix! I still remember the first time you were in a class at the old Zone, you've come a long way bud, thanks to your dedicated and consistent approach... hope all is well!

  4. Replies
    1. Hi Mike, thanks a lot man... that topic has been swirling around in my head for quite a while... just needed to sit down and write it! Hope all is good.

  5. Great post Cam, I totally agree with every point. I don't see alot of these things as I train alone, however, when I do get a chance the visit a Box, I do see some of this stuff going on. It is definitely up to the coach in the class to make sure people are in good positions and keeping the weight that they are using reasonably so they can stay in a good position, and to cue them when they are not. A Crossfit coach needs to be fully engaged in every second of every class, or he/she is not doing there job. BTW- looking forward to the Oly session @ Lee's tomorrow. Chappy

  6. Good stuff Cam. You forgot Rule #8- Never do "Randy" Dumbest "Oly" workout ever.....

    1. haha yeah that's probably not a bad add-on...