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How Strong Should You Be to Safely and Effectively Train Weightlifting Exercises?

Inaugural CrossFit Games winner James FitzGerald presents the case for minimum strength requirements to safely and effectively train weightlifting exercises.

Olympic weightlifting is highly complex and demands a great deal of skill and technique. The dynamic nature of the snatch and clean and jerk also require stable joints and strong tissues from head to toe. 

You wouldn’t register for a 400-level calculus class before finishing high school math, but when it comes to training in the gym, many of us are tempted to skip the prerequisites necessary to help us earn an A grade. 

What does this mean for learning the clean and the snatch?

Learning to clean and jerk or snatch is a bit like framing a house: It’s not going to go so well if a solid foundation hasn’t been built underneath. In this case, cleaning or snatching before you have reached a prerequisite strength level is like starting to build a house from the roof down.

I get it, cleans and snatches are sexy and make you feel kind of accomplished and cool, but it’s doing a disservice to your health and fitness to force these speed strength exercises before you’re ready.

Before you’re ready meaning before your joints and tissues are strong enough to do them safely and effectively. 

This doesn’t mean you can’t get there one day, but you need to respect the appropriate order and earn complexity by honouring the basics first. 

Prerequisites Required

In the OPEX Coaching Certificate Program, I teach coaches to assess the following four prerequisites before having an athlete begin to train speed strength movements (i.e. movements like cleans and snatches):

  1. Back Squat: 3 reps at your bodyweight at a 30X1 tempo
  2. Deadlift: 3 reps at 1.25 x your bodyweight at 30X1 tempo
  3. Strict pull-ups: 3 reps
  4. Strict dips: 3 reps

Before you throw your hands in the air and say, “This is BS,” hear me out and let me explain why these prerequisites are required before training speed strength.

First things First: What exactly is speed strength? 

Speed strength is the ability to absorb and transmit forces rapidly, or the ability for your neuromuscular system to produce the greatest possible impulse in the least amount of time. Or an even more simple definition: Moving a load quickly. 

Beyond Olympic weightlifting, speed strength can also involve plyometric training, medicine ball throws or barbell cycling. 

Training speed strength rule: Before you program any heavy or intense speed strength for an athlete, that athlete needs to develop both motor control (at a lower speed first) and the ability to produce enough force and strength to absorb it. This is done through progressing through the strength continuum, starting with absolute strength training. 

Why? Having the requisite strength for speed strength training will decrease the chance of injury while simultaneously increasing performance and improving recovery. 

A note on skill development: While you’re taking the time to develop a base of strength, you can still incorporate positional and technique-focused weightlifting drills. Just stay away from heavy loads and high intensity scenarios until you hit the strength prerequisites.

On the topic of injuries: Not only do speed strength exercises require us to produce force, they also demand that we absorb force. In fact, it’s during the eccentric portion of the movement where injury risk is actually the greatest

  • In short, in order to absorb the force and catch the bar safely on a snatch, for example, you need a strong core, strong shoulders, strong glutes, strong hips etc. And building strength and control by moving slowly first—through absolute strength work—will help prepare the body to be able to absorb force safely. 
minimum strength for snatchSource: OPEX

The Power Equation

For those who geek out on physics, it comes down to the power equation: Force x distance/time = power. 

Thus, because cleans and snatches are explosive, power movements, they require not just speed, but also strength. 

Food for thought: In this sense, strength speed training is actually only possible for those who are able to actually produce power. Hmmmm.

The Bottom Line: In order to earn the right to train speed strength movements, a minimum strength requirement is needed to express these dynamic contractions. 

Absolute Strength Versus Relative Strength: Understanding the Prerequisites

To understand how I came up with the strength prerequisites we use at OPEX, you must understand the difference between absolute strength and relative strength.

  • Absolute strength is the maximum amount of force you can exert, regardless of your bodyweight—aka the raw amount of weight you can lift. Absolute strength tends to favour bigger, heavier people. 
  • Relative strength is the amount of strength you have in relation to your bodyweight. All else being equal, relative strength tends to favour smaller people. 

That being said, it’s important to note that improving your actual strength is naturally going to help you improve your relative strength.

Thus, when it comes to speed strength prerequisites, it makes more sense to use relative strength requirements. 

Why? Because if two people both have the same absolute strength numbers, but one of them is 40 pounds lighter than the other, the lighter athlete will be able to apply greater force and move faster, as they have greater relative strength. Therefore, the prerequisites needed for speed strength training are based on strength capabilities in relation to bodyweight.

Why deadlift, squat, pull-up and dip pre-requisites, you ask?

Here’s why I like those specific movements: 

  • Deadlift: If you can’t pull 1.25 x your bodyweight off the floor slowly during a deadlift and maintain a neutral spine, what do you think is going to happen if you tried cleaning that weight from the ground quickly?
  • Squat: If you can’t back squat your bodyweight for reps—if you lack the strength, mobility or stability—what’s going to happen if you’re suddenly expected to catch and absorb load at the bottom of your squat during a clean?
  • Pull-up/Dip: If you don’t have the strength, or stability and mobility, to pull your chin over the bar, or press out of a dip, then how is your shoulder girdle going to handle receiving a load overhead in the bottom of an overhead squat during a snatch?

This is why I recommend the following be achieved before training speed strength with any real intensity:

  1. Back Squat: 3 reps at your bodyweight at a 30X1 tempo
  2. Deadlift: 3 reps at 1.25 x your bodyweight at 30X1 tempo
  3. Strict pull-ups: 3 reps
  4. Strict dips: 3 reps

Put in the time and you’ll earn the right to complexity through honouring the basics. 

Read more: 7 Important Questions Answered If You Want to Start CrossFit

Image Sources

  • minimum strength for snatch: OPEX
  • learn to snatch: OPEX

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