Should Your Be Doing The Olympic Lifts?

My recent viewings of the Crossfit games (yup I said it) on TV was a blow to my self-confidence.  After watching the clean ladder I was embarrased by my performance in the clean.  Feel me?  Sure I’m down in bodyweight and haven’t been training as consistently as I need to, or as heavy, but that’s just a sucky excuse.

As part of my holy cleansing to my rebirth in the O-Lifts (olympic lifting, ie clean + jerk, snatch, and other variations) I’ve spent some time watching, reading, and learning more about the training of the movements. It’s not that I haven’t done them, and it’s not that I don’t believe that they help athletes and people develop strong, fit, athletic bodies – but rather how much, who, and what is needed to get the job done?

As Dan John is fond of saying, “well it depends…”

Not every athlete I train do the traditional O-lifts.  As a matter of fact, I would say that the majority of my clients use very few variations (only what’s needed, safe, and effective in reaching their goals).  The novelty of learning the lifts is cool, but let’s be honest, you don’t have to do them to join the cool crowd (well maybe not…).

So how do you know if you pass the test?  Well, that’s a loaded question, but here are the first two things that will nix the idea of you doing them with me.

1) Lack of T-Spine Mobility.  The upper back (aka t-spine) is one of the most integral pieces to the puzzle of human movement.  A lack of movement will do everything from mess up your shoulders to prevent you from squatting properly. If you sit a lot, you’re a great candidate for horrible t-spine movement.  The good news is that it’s something that can be improved the majority of the time if you’re willing to dedicate some consistent effort.

How do you know if your t-spine doesn’t meet my gold standard for movement?  Sit down on the floor with your legs crossed; now pull your chest up and reach your arms up overhead.  If you can’t get your arms up overhead (vertical) you’re lacking some ability to get yourself into extension.  If you can’t even sit down on the ground with your legs crossed we have other issues (hip/glute issues).

So, how do you fix it?  I use a 3-step process in this order: soft tissue (muscles and fascia), t-spine extension (moving your back foward and back), and rotational.  You won’t be able to achieve full extension if your tissue doesn’t move; and you won’t be able to rotate if you can’t extend (because the body says so!).

Start your foam rolling here:

Next, make sure you drive some motion into the upper back (this is the extension part).

Lastly, we work on driving rotational mobility into the t-spine.

If you think you’re ‘too cool for school’ I get it.  But, unfortunately everyone needs to at least keep the mobility that they have if not drastically improve it!  I would say that roughly 90% of the people that I see (young athletic bodies) still lack enough mobility to properly execute most movements.

2) Can you front squat?  I had an athlete  the other day who I recently started with.  Previously he had been with another trainer who had him cleaning but for some reason or another he had never front squatted.

What’s the issue?

Well, I hate to say this, but cleaning without front squatting is like having a car with no license.  You have to have the license to drive.  Now I’m sure there are people out there reading this who are like, “…well Shelby, actually you don’t have to have your license to drive.  Legally you do, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t drive if you don’t have it.”


However, I would argue that your lack of driving knowledge, skill, and inexperience aren’t helping your progress.  Just like driving without a license, you can clean without good t-spine mobility or having front squatted…but you’re asking for issues.

I don’t know if there is a magic number in terms of how much weight you should be able to front squat before you clean, but I’ll typically give people at least 3-6 weeks to make sure they’re comfortable being in the rack position (elbows up, bar on shoulders) so that they can safely catch the bar during the clean.

If you pass those two tests, you’re free to start the O-lifts!

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