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Build Strength Like an Olympic Lifter

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Learning the highly technical Olympic lifts can enhance your strength, conditioning and athleticism.

By Johnnie Jackson, IFBB Pro; Photography: Rich Baker; Model: Johnnie Jackson, IFBB Pro

[Q] Johnnie, what exactly are the Olympic lifts and what specific benefits do they offer a bodybuilder?

[A] The Olympic lifts are the snatch, and the clean and jerk. The snatch is very complex, but basically it involves taking a wide hook grip on a barbell and exploding the bar from the floor to the finish over your head. The clean is a two-part lift. The first part is the power clean, which involves hoisting the bar up quickly and “catching” it on your shoulder girdle. Then, you reset your grip and use your whole body to press it up over your head to lockout. Again, the lifts are much more complex, but this is a basic look at these two lifts. As far as strength-building, they definitely help. As in powerlifting, technique is the main deal ⎯ it’s so important. The better your technique, the more weight you can lift because of your leverage. The heavier you can lift, the more muscle you build. So you can implement these exercises into your workout to build dense muscle, the kind of thickness you just can’t achieve with isolation moves.

[Q] Is there really a place in my routine for lifts like the snatch, and the clean and jerk? Aren’t these moves riskier in terms of chance of injury?

[A] Well, these moves are very athletic – they are skill lifts – but I consider myself an athlete first, rather than just a bodybuilder, which is why I implement different kinds of training into my split. As an athlete, you want to get in the best shape possible, and the Olympic lifts are among the most taxing exercises you can do. You’ll gain a little more wind and much better conditioning. And with that, you get separation and a better overall look. I do think more complex and technical lifts increase the risk of injury, but that just means you have to spend the requisite time learning how to do them correctly. And like anything else, you just cycle it in and out of your routine. Do the moves for 5–8 weeks and then switch back to the way you normally lift. This move shocks your muscles and keeps your body guessing so you don’t stop growing.

[Q] When I’m benching, I just think about pressing the weight up as fast as possible. What should my main focus be in terms of rep speed when trying to perform Olympic lifts?

[A] Same thing: speed. As you watch MMA, football or basketball, you find that speed kills. The same applies in lifting. You may have Shaq in front of you on the basketball court, but if you can find a way to get by him, you’ve got a better chance to score on him. You want to lift the same way ⎯ with speed. This is why I say to always start out light and get that down because then you don’t have to worry about getting the form right, you can just focus on getting the weight off the ground. That’s what helps me out of my lifts ⎯ speed out of the hole. By the time I realize that the weight is heavy, I’m past the toughest part of the lift.

[Q] Johnnie, I’m pretty strong but I’ve never performed Olympic lifts. How do I get started and what’s the safest way for me to start learning these moves?

[A] First, learn how to do the lifts with perfect form. Your best bet is to find someone who has been doing these Olympic lifts for years ⎯ that’s ideal. It’s hard to do them just by reading a book because you want an experienced eye watching you. Assuming you’ve been able to get a coach, be sensible about the weight that you start with so you’re constantly practicing your technique. I’ll say it again ⎯ start out light and practice the technique repeatedly. Technique is everything. Even if you’re just using a bar (or even a broomstick if necessary), get the technique down first. The progression will be well worth it. If you don’t work on your technique, you can forget about ever gaining strength with these lifts.
Same thing: speed. As you watch MMA, football or basketball, you find that speed kills. The same applies in lifting. You may have Shaq in front of you on the basketball court, but if you can find a way to get by him, you’ve got a better chance to score on him. You want to lift the same way ⎯ with speed. This is why I say to always start out light and get that down because then you don’t have to worry about getting the form right, you can just focus on getting the weight off the ground. That’s what helps me out of my lifts ⎯ speed out of the hole. By the time I realize that the weight is heavy, I’m past the toughest part of the lift.

GOING OLYMPIC

A few more tips on Olympic lifting from the world’s strongest bodybuilder:

>> “I’d pick a training day to do them exclusively. An off-day in your regular split, ideally. You want to put your main focus on these exercises. Choose one of the two exercises and just go after it.”
>> “I think technique gets better through repetition. Start out with about 10 reps for three sets after a warm-up.”
>> “Wait 2–3 minutes between each set to maximize the recovery. You want to be as strong as possible from set-to-set so your form doesn’t suffer.”

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