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Teaching the Olympic Lifts in the CrossFit Group Setting: Part 2
Greg Everett  |  General Training  |  September 29 2009

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Teaching the Olympic Lifts in the CrossFit Group Setting: Part 2, Greg Everett,
Before we continue on this particular adventure, I want to provide some clarification on a few items from the first part of the article. It has been pointed out to me that some of my remarks offended certain individuals, and because this was not my intention, I’m going to take a moment to apologize for any offense that was taken, and to provide my rationale for those remarks. While I may make jokes of certain things, my opinions on them are never without reason.

These reasons are not ones pulled from the ether—they are based on the sum of my training experiences, both in and out of CrossFit. My experience with CrossFit itself dates back to some time in early 2004 when I started working with CrossFit coach extraordinaire, Robb Wolf, and shortly thereafter became a partner in CrossFit NorCal, the fourth affiliate. I had been a credentialed trainer for six years prior to this, but very quickly saw CrossFit as not only an amazing training system, but a community that was beginning to attract the kind of coaches and athletes with whom I wanted to interact, learn and improve. This included people like Robb, Greg Glassman, Michael Rutherford (CF Kansas City), Mike Burgener, Jeff and Mikki Martin (Brand X Martial Arts), and Josh Everett (strength coach, UCR—and not my brother). To this day, these people are some of the greatest contributors to my education as a trainer and athlete, and are good friends—one of the greatest aspects of CrossFit.

Since my start with NorCal, I’ve had a lot of time to experiment with and evaluate various CrossFit-related protocols with my own clients (I’ve never counted, but I’m guessing I’ve worked with at least 10-20 over the years), as well as to discuss such things with other trainers in and out of the CrossFit community. It is on this collective experience that I base my opinions—not whim, fashion or convention.

The Low-Bar Back Squat

Let’s take care of this one first since it’s such a popular topic. Most readers of the PM are likely already familiar with my opinion regarding the low-bar back squat, and particularly its use by weightlifters. If you’re not, you can get the entire argument in this article.

Generally I confine my opinion regarding the LBBS to weightlifting, but let me turn over another stone and explain my aversion to it for the generalist. First, if you are a generalist, do it… sometimes. Don’t replace the back squat with it completely. I say this not because I like the LBBS for the generalist, but because as a generalist, the more exposure you have to more exercises, the better off you’ll be. In my opinion, its use should be infrequent and more as a tool for achieving occasional variety than as a staple exercise. I see it the same way I see the box squat—it has a purpose, it can be legit in the right circumstances, but it’s not an exercise on which to build a training foundation.

The reasons for this can be found partly in the aforementioned article, but obviously there’s more to it since we’re not talking about weightlifters here. In short, the squat is the only potential full knee and hip range of motion strength exercise—the bottom position of the LBBS limits the range of motion of the knee and prevents an opportunity for the quad to open the knee joint in its most mechanically disadvantaged angles. We can combine the LBBS with the front squat, of course, to accommodate this desire for complete knee flexion and greater quad reliance, but two problems arise. First, it’s a different lift—in a sense more of a core exercise than a leg and hip exercise. Second, individuals whose only other squat is the LBBS invariably perform the front squat poorly. This is due in part to having trouble reconciling the movement pattern of the LBBS with that of the front squat; the former involving an active backward drive of the hips, and the latter requiring simultaneous knee and hip flexion with as direct of a downward path for the hips as possible. This results in front squats with the hips swinging back on the way up and down, which pulls in more posterior chain and reduces the work for the quads, changing the effect of the exercise (and ultimately limiting loading).

The technical causes of this problem can of course be corrected through coaching and practice, but the strength-related causes are more difficult to correct. For an individual who emphasizes the posterior chain through squatting and pulling exercises, the requisite quad strength will simply not exist to maintain the upright posture and hip path that we’re after in the front squat. This leads to the poor performance described above, which simply reinforces the current strength disparity around the knee.

Contributing to this problem is the deadlifting and Olympic lift pulling postures typically employed by generalists who use the low-bar back squat. These pulling postures are also designed to emphasize posterior chain contribution and limit knee involvement.

This prevalence of posterior-chain emphasis strength work fails to balance the quad-dominance it is often claimed to be correcting, and simply swings the pendulum to the other side, creating the kind posterior-chain dominance that prevents desirable front squat and Olympic lift mechanics. This limits an individual’s athletic development by retarding progress in the lifts and placing too much emphasis on certain elements, positions and movements. For the generalist, attempting to improve in all respects, this should be quite clearly a problem.

Squatting to Balls

The use of medicine balls as depth gauges for squats is not one I endorse, and one I have admittedly ridiculed—not with intentions of insulting anyone in particular, more to make a point that happens to involve what some find funny. There are times very early in the learning stages for some clients during which achieving adequate depth in a squat is difficult, and during which the client’s sense of his or her depth is not accurate. In such cases, one method of encouraging better depth, teaching a sense of position, and better engaging the glutes and hamstrings is to have such clients squat to an object of appropriate height.

This practice is not one I object to, because it can be quite effective. That said, a medicine ball is not, in my opinion, an appropriate object for this. If a client is having difficulty of a degree and nature that necessitates this method of teaching and practice, a ball is not only generally too low of a target, but more importantly, is not a stable and reliable platform to support that client should he or she crash at the bottom. If you have a client who is unstable, weak and in such little control over his or her body that they need to be squatting to a target, the last thing you want is that target being one that allows a fall and actually magnifies the potential for damage.

Medicine balls roll, compress, and otherwise provide an unreliable target; more importantly, their height is not adjustable, and no one can tell me with a straight face that people of all statures and abilities should be squatting to an identical depth. Boxes provide a stable, consistent and reliable target and platform for support if needed, and their height can be easily adjusted appropriately for an individual by stacking plates or similar items on top or underneath.

Finally, if as a trainer you decide to use a box in the early stages of teaching an individual to squat, it should be confined to that stage—it is a temporary tool to achieve a specific set of goals. To continue using anything once an athlete is able to squat to proper depth—especially a ball that rolls, allows an individual to bounce, and is very unlikely the proper height—is a disservice to your clients, who need to eventually develop a reliable sense of position on their own. The concepts of “elite” and “unaware of ass location” cannot describe the same individual. (And of course, as was alluded to in the remarks contained in the first part of this article, actually squatting all the way down makes this much less of an issue—it’s pretty difficult to not recognize when your hamstrings are pressed against your calves.)

Sumo Deadlift High-Pull

I lumped this exercise in with medicine ball cleans as “silliness” I ostensibly wouldn’t allow with my own clients. This is a minor objection, but my view is simply this: Why not just perform a deadlift high-pull? What advantage does a sumo stance provide for this exercise other than making it easier, and why would we want to make it easier? If, for conditioning, we’re interested in moving large loads long distances quickly, why would we shorten the distance we can possibly move the weight, and particularly in a manner that reduces the work of the legs and hips but maintains the work of the shoulders and arms?

I actually use kettlebell deadlift high-pulls in our On-Ramp program, but following those few exposures, it rarely comes up again. Once out of the beginning stages of learning, our clients no longer need such an exercise—they can deadlift, clean, snatch and the like with various implements. I’m not completely averse to ever doing high-pulls, as I do feel they have their place in certain situations, but the reality is that in large and frequent doses, they encourage habits that interfere with clean and snatch technique, which is already difficult enough to teach to generalists. The SDHP is absolutely not an acceptable substitute for the clean, and it should not be considered a part of a teaching progression for the clean. It is strictly a metabolic workout exercise, and, in my opinion, is not one of the better options available.

Level 1 Certifications and the Olympic Lifts

I’m actually not sure if my remarks on this topic were among those not taken well by certain individuals, but in the interest of thoroughness, I’ll address it anyway. First, I’m not interested in critiquing the curriculum of CF certifications. It’s not my business, and I’m happy to leave the decisions to those who make a living running them—I’m going to assume they have good reason for doing what they do how they do it, and that their guiding intention is creating what they feel are the best fitness trainers possible. My point was actually quite simple, and disagreement with it would absolutely baffle me—the Level 1 certification does not prepare trainers to teach the snatch and clean & jerk, and to insist otherwise is completely irresponsible.

CrossFit trainers who want to become competent in teaching the Olympic lifts need—at the very least—to attend one of Coach Burgener’s weightlifting certifications. The reality is that no two-day seminar, even on a single topic with an incredible coach like Burgener, can provide as much instruction, practice and experience as is needed to become genuinely competent in instructing the lifts. It should be considered one part of an ongoing process. In fact, I strongly encourage trainers to attend Burgener’s cert more than once if possible—the second time through will be even more enlightening with the experience accumulated since the first. This being said, it should be fairly obvious that a two-day seminar that barely touches on the Olympic lifts certainly cannot create great weightlifting coaches. This just means, as one of our weightlifters, Steve, likes to say, staying in your lane—teach what you know, and continue to learn more.

Not being an expert in the Olympic lifts does not make you a bad trainer—posing as an expert to the detriment of your clients does. The experience level of new CrossFit trainers generally parallels that of their clients; that is, trainers will be able to continually improve their experience and abilities at a pace that keeps up with the needs of their clients. It’s unnecessary to reach beyond one’s scope of experience, then; clients will be better served by instruction and practice of the fundamentals before venturing into more advanced movements.

The Complexity of the Olympic Lifts

Related to the previous was my comment of the general under-recognition by CrossFitters of the technical complexity of the snatch and clean & jerk. This actually can be attributed to a number of sources; let me just say that it’s not a surprise when the lifts are given little attention, both within training and in terms of instruction—such a perspective can be expected to develop. Again, trainers are encouraged to spend time with weightlifting coaches and weightlifters—training, watching, talking. Exposure to the weightlifting community directly is the best (and arguably only) way to develop a sincere appreciation for the level of skill required for technical proficiency in the lifts.

This should not be misunderstood as an expectation of generalists to become expert weightlifters—by definition of the term generalist, that would be impossible. It is an expectation, however, that generalists place appropriate emphasis on developing snatch and clean & jerk technique. It should be obvious that the elements of an individual’s training that require the most skill require the most practice: the Olympic lifts and the handful of basic gymnastics movements are these elements. Once an individual can perform a thruster, how much practice does he or she really need with it? The only necessary exposures to the movement after it’s learned are those in which it’s used for training purposes. The snatch and clean & jerk, on the other hand, cannot be mastered in a similar manner and timeframe. Weightlifters perform the competition lifts and variations thereof generally 4-6 days each week, sometimes multiple times each day, for years on end, and continue emphasizing technique improvement. There is not a single CrossFitter, present, past or future, who would not benefit from more coaching and practice in the lifts.

At least once I’ve heard it said that the Olympic lifts don’t even compare in complexity to gymnastics movements. I’ll be the first to agree, if we’re talking about the entire collection of competitive and training movements. Within the realm of CrossFit, however, gymnastics movements are restricted to a handful of extremely basic ones that certainly don’t rival the complexity of the snatch and clean & jerk.

The CrossFit Games Snatch Event

This one may have stung a bit for a number of people, and for that I apologize, but my assessment is not one arising from anything but what I feel are reasonable expectations of a community that strives for and claims the status of elite. The snatch is a competitive exercise that conforms accordingly to a number of technical rules. These rules are not exclusively for the sake of competition, however—there are elements of execution that are important for the sake of athletic development. Two extremely basic ones are that no part of the body other than the feet can contact the ground, and that the bar must be received and held overhead with fully extended elbows. Both of these were violated repeatedly by many competitors, often dramatically. In fact, it seemed at times, the greater the violation, the more people were impressed.

Having said all this, part of the problem could have been resolved by simply not calling the event a snatch—call it a ground to overhead anyhow, and I have no serious complaints. However, if the precision of the exercise is removed, so is much of the point. If the goal is to simply move weight with no concern for how, there are better ways to do it, which move more weight. The only reason I can imagine to hold a snatch event is to distinguish athletes further along in their development to those less experienced—those who have put in the time and effort to develop greater skill than the next athlete. Once you remove the technical requirements, it’s simply another strength event—so why not squat, press, etc. instead?

Jazzercise

If you as a gym owner or programmer have no plan, no long-term perspective, no underlying structure and only infrequent and random strength work, you’re failing to tap into CrossFit’s true potential and are doing your clients a disservice. If this hurts your feelings, quit being satisfied with the easy approach, do your homework, and strive to continue improving the service you provide. Here’s an article to get you started.

Finally—The Medicine Ball Clean

Of all my potentially offensive remarks, this one may have been the most offensive because of its role in the Level 1 curriculum and its use by many CrossFit gyms. My objection to this, despite the opinions of certain individuals, is actually for very specific reasons.

There are a few relatively minor issues that still manage to chap my ass. One is the head position the athlete is forced to assume with the ball in the “rack” position—tilted way back to make room for the ball. More important is the rack position itself—there is no rack. The ball is supported entirely in the arms, which is understandable to some extent, but the ball is racked with the elbows straight down—not exactly a great habit to be developing for future grown-up cleans. Related to this is the elbow movement of the pull under the ball, which is taught as back and around rather than initiating the pull with the up and out elbow direction that is necessary to pull under a heavy clean. Again, these are comparatively minor problems, but problems nonetheless, and when the ostensible goal is to teach a complex movement as quickly as easily as possible (presumably accurately, as well), it makes little sense to create habits that must be unlearned later.

Next is the instruction to shrug the ball up at the top of the leg and hip extension. Not only should the shrug not be occurring at this point, the manner of teaching encourages hesitation at the top of the extension, which is not a problem when one is cleaning a 20 lb padded ball, but will quite effectively prevent a successful clean with significant weights. The athlete needs to be taught to change directions following leg and hip extension as quickly as possible, and needs to understand that the shrug occurs as he or she is moving down under the implement—it does not elevate the implement. Using an odd-object for an individual’s initial exposure to the clean teaches poor body position and stiff arms directed away from the body.

The progression is simply backward. An individual who can clean a barbell can clean anything; an individual who has only cleaned a medicine ball can clean things that look and feel like medicine balls, and only do that in the manner in which one can clean a medicine ball. The transferability is bordering on non-existent. It makes no sense at all to teach a medicine ball clean when one can in the matter of minutes teach a dumbbell clean, which can be taught and executed in a manner that closely resembles a barbell clean, will not interfere with later learning of the barbell clean, will provide quality training effects, and actually has the potential for some legitimate loading.

Finally, if, as CrossFit trainers and athletes, we’re so elite, why can’t we even teach or perform a barbell clean correctly?


I Hate to Do It, But…

I’m going to anyway. Because this unplanned detour became quite extensive, I’m going to postpone finalizing the article with the actual teaching progressions until next month. Until then, use your medicine balls for real exercises, go to one of Burgener’s certs, watch some videos of weightlifters, and kick the medicine balls out from under your clients.
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Greg Everett is the owner of Catalyst Athletics, head coach of the national-medalist Catalyst Athletics weightlifting team, publisher of The Performance Menu, author of the books Olympic Weightlifting: A Complete Guide for Athletes & Coaches and Olympic Weightlifting for Sports, and director/writer/producer/editor/everything of the documentary American Weightlifting. Follow him on Facebook here and and sign up for his free newsletter here.
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12 Comments
Alex 1 | 2009-10-02
Excellent article. I cannot find a single thing in here to disagree with. Crossfit is an incredible resource and an incredible community, which has introduced many people, myself included, into the world of actual fitness. But for Crossfit to be as elite as it aspires to be, it must recognize what it does well and what it does poorly and can improve on. Thank you for an excellent article.
Duke 2 | 2009-10-06
Hey Greg, Those of us who regularly read the PMenu and have actually read your posts on the CA and Crossfit forums understood where you were coming from (and the humor). As an ex-collegiate rower, I have my own views of the abysmal rowing technique exhibited by many Crossfitters and Crossfit trainers and have a fairly good idea what would happen to them if they actually climbed into a shell and tried to row on the water. I hope that they would be laughing as their heads broke the surface after capsizing their shell, but I guess some folks take themselves (and life) a bit too seriously. In short, I do not understand why any offense was taken. Clearly, none was intended. Keep up the good work. Duke
Scott 3 | 2009-10-08
Well said Greg, I have the exact same observations and feelings about the subject(s) as you do. Most people only get offended when they know what you are saying is true, but they don't want to believe it. Keep up your excellent work you are truly an inspiration to affiliate owners like me. Aloha Scott
AW 4 | 2009-11-29
Spot on article. For the record, I use to use the medicine ball for squats, after a year I noticed a huge disproportion in leg strength if I squatted deeper without it, even if it was with 95#. I still have issues until I reached that height
Curious 5 | 2012-04-08
Was the final article of this series ever published? I can't seem to find it. I.e., the article explaining the lifting progessions? Thanks.
Greg Everett 6 | 2012-04-09
Curious - The whole series can be purchased here and is also in my new e-book here.
Tonia 7 | 2013-07-14
Finding a good coach is challenge enough. Being sent off course by eager to help CrossFit members is immensely frustrating. Good intentions are not enough.
Fred_A 8 | 2013-08-12
Mr. Everett, You don't and shouldn't apologize to any assclown crossfitter. Honestly, how legit can this program be, when you pay $1,000 for a two day class and $2,000 to get license to practice, no experience necessary…com’ on man!!!
Chris L. 9 | 2013-08-12
I'm sad that instead of receiving a good article about progressions and developing a program, you had to write to explain and/or apologize for remarks in your first article. When will people learn to grow up. If they don't like what you say, they should move on to something else. I'm a Crossfitter and weightlifter, and I felt all of your points were spot on. Thank you, Greg, for your comments and the article. Hopefully next time you are able to complete the whole thing without someone crying about every thing you say.
Nick C 10 | 2013-09-09
Greg, do you have part 3 posted some where? I checked link that you posted above and it didnt go anywhere.
Mara 11 | 2014-02-20
Greg, The link doesn't seem to be working in the article about your argument on The Low-Bar Back Squat. Would this be something I might be able to get to in another location? I do subscribe to the PM, but I don't think my service allows me to go back to earlier articles. Would appreciate your help. Thank you.
Greg Everett 12 | 2014-02-24
Mara - Link is fixed.
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