Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

Why You Should Do The Olympic Lifts as a Strengthlifter – and Vice Versa

by Carl Raghavan, SSC | November 12, 2019

 josh wells racking a snatch starting strength houston

While spending some time in Houston recently, I was fortunate enough to be hosted by Josh and Shelley Wells, two SSCs and expert Olympic weightlifters. It was great to spend some quality time with old friends, but what really struck a chord with me was the compelling argument Josh put forward about weightlifting. Up late one night in the living room, we were talking shop and Josh mentioned the importance of the power clean. The power clean is a weightlifting variation, and we use it in Starting Strength to train power: the idea is that as you gain in strength and size you should also gain in general athleticism, making the program more complete and well rounded. 

You may be wondering what I mean when I say “weightlifting.” After all, isn’t Starting Strength about lifting weights? What’s the difference? Well, I’m using the word in a specific sense. Weightlifting is a sport centered around two movements: the snatch and the clean & jerk. At competitions you have three attempts to execute a snatch and three for the clean & jerk. Your best lift for each movement makes up your total, and the biggest total in each weight category wins. It’s a great sport, but my feelings about teaching the power clean are mixed. 

When Josh brought it up that night, my initial reaction was typical: I rolled my eyes and blew out a short sigh. With my clients I tend to drop the power clean. Usually they’re just too old, too weak and/or are not blessed with much kinesthetic skill, to put it kindly. The wasted time – time that should be spent getting stronger – and risk of injury outweigh the benefits, so for these reasons I put the power clean on the backburner. Surprisingly, even those of my clients who can perform the lift correctly often don’t enjoy it. That’s not to say I don’t like it; it simply hasn’t shown enough bang for most of my clients’ buck. What I really want is for my lifters to get strong as safely, logically, and effectively as possible.

And yet – efficiency isn’t everything. Josh’s argument about incorporating weightlifting was essentially this: “Why not? You’ve trained hard with the Big Four (squat, bench, deadlift and press), so why not express your strength in the most athletic way possible?” And let’s be honest: as a feat of athletics, Olympic weightlifting is far more interesting to watch than a strengthlifting meet. 

In fact, if anything, I find it a little too interesting. I get way too excited watching my lifts go up. It’s addictive. I end up wanting to max out my snatch and clean & jerk every session, which is not smart. Usually I hit PR after PR until I catch one heavy clean badly and hurt my wrists, then I take a year off to let the pain subside, focusing meanwhile on the Big Four, and then repeat the cycle. Weightlifting has always felt like fun – rather than like real training – so I’ve always approached it in that spirit, incorporating it at the beginning of my sessions when I’m fresh to mix up my routine and break the monotony of a strength program. Weightlifting, I’ve always felt, is the spice of strength training. Not that I’d advise this approach for my clients (or anyone else, for that matter) – I always tell them to do as I say, not as I do. I might be okay with making dumb mistakes and getting injured, but that doesn’t mean they should be. 

Technique worship

If strengthlifters are sometimes unnecessarily dismissive of weightlifting, the opposite is also true. Weightlifting and strength training (what I’ve been calling “real training”) both involve strength, but, strangely, the importance of strength to weightlifting is often downplayed. I learned this while coaching at a CrossFit gym, where weightlifting was a core component of the philosophy. Strength, however, was undervalued. How do you know if you’re strong? Well, can you do fifteen strict pull ups? Can you do a double-bodyweight squat? Or a 2.5-bodyweight deadlift? Or a bodyweight overhead press? Then yeah, you’re strong. The better CrossFitters were able to do most of these things, but often they stopped focusing on strength and pursued more “fitness”-oriented goals. This became their biggest downfall. They neglected strength. 

Occasionally I would train with them, trying to lead by example, even though on the whole I hated the CrossFit approach and thought it was stupid. Still, some workouts appealed to me, so I’d cherry-pick the occasional WOD (Workout of the Day). Usually they left me in a puddle of sweat, flat out on the gym floor like a starfish. My favorite training, however, was weightlifting – and they all respected and appreciated strong weightlifters. 

Yet as I trained among the CrossFitters and learned more about their mentality, I discovered a recurring theme. They focused – and I’ve found this among other weightlifters, too – far too much on technique and not enough on strength. It was frustrating. Weightlifting is a strength sport, which means you need a big squat, press, deadlift and bench press to truly succeed. 

Why did American weightlifting legends Paul Anderson and Tommy Kono perform so well? Was it their dashing good looks? No. It was their strength that shone. Tommy used to call the butt “the seat of power”, and the best way to develop powerful glutes is to squat. Weightlifting isn’t ballet. It’s not Olympic diving or gymnastics. Those are technique-heavy sports. In weightlifting, you’re not marked down if your technique is poor; you’re given a white light if you make the lift or a red light if you fail. It’s that simple. No bonus points for arching your foot or executing a textbook-perfect rep. That’s not to say that technique is irrelevant, but it’s usually overemphasized by inexperienced lifters. After all, if strength weren’t important, why would Olympic weightlifters take steroids? They want to be stronger. PEDs have no impact on their technique. Yet all I heard at CrossFit was that it’s all technique, bro. No, it’s really not. Just look around you. 

Have you ever tried to deadlift 246 kg? It’s heavy, right? That’s what Ilya Ilyin clean & jerks. Dmitry Klokov deadlifts 300 kg and strict presses 160 kg every other day according to his Instagram account – and he’s been retired since 2015. Lü Xiaojun can squat 275 kg and Lidia Valentín squats 180 kg for a double. If you can’t see where I’m going with this, I’ll spell it out: these are very strong people and very successful weightlifters, and that is not a coincidence. These athletes have worked their asses off to build strength, because they recognize that strength is the cornerstone of successful weightlifting. 

Strength, not technique, is what separates the gold medalists from the rest. At Olympic level, everyone has good technique, and usually great genetics too. Strength is the often-overlooked third main pillar. You can’t snatch 200 kg like Lasha Talakhadze by using a PVC pipe for twenty minutes, having a positive metal attitude and watching a Tony Robbins DVD. You have to be brutally and animalistically strong

Back in the day, when weightlifting was a three-lift event – the clean & press, the snatch, and the clean & jerk – the focus was on pressing strength, and strength in general. When the clean and press were removed, the emphasis shifted more towards jerks, and less on raw strength. This was a pivotal moment: old notions of training underwent a seismic shift, changing (in my opinion) for the worse. Back when Tommy Suggs weighed 106 kg he pressed 152 kg, snatched 138 kg, and clean & jerked 186 kg. We need to get back to that type of strength in weightlifting, right across the board. That’s why focusing on raw strength lifts as well as the competition lifts is so crucial, and it’s the only way we can restore weightlifting to its former glory. 

Raw strength is crucial not merely for performance but for longevity. Too often, the latter doesn’t get enough airtime. Fact is, if you train hard enough for long enough, injuries inevitably creep in. They’re a product of not sitting on your ass, as Rip says. Technique and smart programming can help reduce this risk, but sooner or later anything done at a high level always comes at a price. This is especially true of weightlifting, which is a high-impact sport on the joints. Now, some people are okay with that. They want to be remembered as a bad mother, and that’s it. After all, if you’re an Olympian, no one remembers your injuries: they remember the glory and inspiration you passed on to the next generation. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take sensible steps to reduce the risk of injury and increase your training longevity, and this is where the Big Four come into play. A stronger body can endure harsher training and recover faster from injuries. Strength builds resilience. Strength enables your body to bounce back from almost anything you want to throw at it. 

Strength training has plenty to offer weightlifters, and vice versa. The snatch and the clean & jerk are beautiful lifts, and they’re a rewarding way to express your hard-earned strength and build athletic power. So please don’t be alarmed if you see me snatching – I’m not going over to the Dark Side. I still have some Big Four goals that I’m hungry for. I’m not going to start lecturing you about how it’s all technique. But I am becoming increasingly convinced that not only can weightlifting and the Big Four happily coexist in the same strength program, but that they can benefit each other. I’ve started to incorporate weightlifting into my own training, and not just as spice. I look forward to displaying my strength and maybe showing up a few technique-worshipping naysayers in the process. Let’s make weightlifting strong again!

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