Frequency: A Case For and Against Olympic Lifts In Training
I am biased. I am a Weightlifter by athletic experience, with a majority of my athletic background coming in the sport. Out of the nine sports I have competed in over the last two and a half decades, my longest time was in the sport of Weightlifting. Of which, I was introduced to at the age of 16 while training for Wrestling. The Weightlifting movements of the Snatch, Clean, and Jerk have a special place in my heart. But as I've coached Weightlifters, Athletes, and adults in the Functional Fitness realm, there's something I've come to realize which is so necessary to understand when it comes to the programming of these lifts in efforts to improve performance.
The Olympic Lifts, both as a skill and as a developmental tool, demand a high amount of frequency in order to reap the benefits.
I recently started training out of a CrossFit style gym with my athletes a few months ago. Since, I have been revisiting my Weightlifting movements frequently in my training even though I am a solid four years into an (un)official retirement from the sport. I get asked all the time about how to improve the lifts by those I am around. The answer almost always comes down to frequency.
It's no secret of how complex the Olympic Lifts can be. Which contributes to both their benefits and downsides of being used in sport performance or functional fitness. If we look at those who are typically good at Snatches or Cleans, they do them in a fairly high frequency, since the skill demand is high. The higher the skill, the greater the output you can have from the movement. In the weightlifting world, most of us mediocre or slightly above average Weightlifters (from what I've grasped over my sport and coaching career) perform 5-7 sessions per week of weightlifting movements. Usually Snatching 4-5 times per week, Cleaning 3-5 times per week, and doing some form of jerk 2-4 times per week. At an elite level, where everyone loves to highlight the displays of power of the athletes, these lifters can double these numbers, performing 9-12 sessions per week (those are two a days). But for those playing field, court, or mat sports, we clearly don't have this time or real need for this frequency.
With all of this in mind, it is important to note how frequency in the Olympic Lifts is key to why you should place them in a sport or functional fitness training program, and also why they should be discarded for other means.
On the benefits, frequency in the Olympic Lifts is usually beyond just the lifts as they're done in competition. During competitive phases, my locally competitive lifters will do 4-5 Snatch sessions during the week. One or two are usually a competition style day, one or two sessions are usually segmented components or variations of lifts, and one or two days of these are power based days (note there can be overlap of the segmented lifts into the competition and power based days). The Clean is very similar.
The benefit of doing this frequency, is how the repetition of the skill increases the ability to perform it. Movement Patterns become smoother and more fluid, coordination of muscle contractions becomes more rhythmic, and the weights one is able to use increases. This then leads to a tremendous amount of power output (though realistically only in the sagittal plane). I think most coaches would remember the grainy cell phone video of the Korean Junior National Team members jumping on stacks of plates almost as tall as they are. This frequency and variance, if done well and mimicking the training of Weightlifters, will then allow athletes or those trying to improve power outputs as part of a functional fitness plan to improve their power output without doing the same lift variation everyday.
On the downside, the benefits derived from the Olympic Lifts is tied to this frequency, and for athletes whose sport is something highly skilled or requires a large amount of multiplanar movement this means sacrificing precious abilities to spend time learning and developing skills in the weight room. Especially for those training teams in schools or facilities where time is limited per session, and weekly frequency is low, then frequency in the Olympic Lifts becomes your enemy. Not to mention, many athletes in a team setting may lack the focus or discipline to repeat a lift or its variants multiple times per week. There's a good reason most Weightlifters are also fairly "heady" or have a higher predisposition to neuroticism. Going through the same lifts time and again is monotonous, and for athletes who need a little higher variation in lifts or means, the Olympic Lifts become a meaningless chore.
In this regard, for athletes in the team setting or for those pursuing functional fitness, we have other means of developing power output. Especially when you consider how Olympic Lifts are essentially just an overly technical, exaggerated weighted jump, you can start to find other means of getting similar outputs or adaptations. Jumps, tosses, or throws with loads or unloaded movements can be great means of developing power. There is no absolute need for the Olympic Lifts. Especially when the time demands are high, and you have a lot of buckets to fill, dumping all of your efforts into a single lift or two can have short-term benefits and long-term consequences. The demand for frequency thus becomes a negative for these individuals.
In sum, the Olympic Lifts are a great tool for developing power. But they require a high amount of frequency to get the benefits. Frequency drives skill, skill drives output, and output leads to positive adaptations. If you have the time to commit to them, such as a weight training class which meets five days a week in a high school, then by all means they're a great tool! But if you don't have the time you can, and probably should, use other means to accomplish the goals you're wanting to accomplish.