One of the questions I’m asked most frequently is how to integrate Olympic weightlifting with CrossFit training. The lift’s appearance in typical CrossFit programming is often inadequate or unsatisfactory for many athletes. In addition, I’ll be arguing here for learning of the lifts outside standard CrossFit programming until a reasonable level of proficiency is reached.
Greg Glassman once (at least) commented that the Olympic lifts are not remarkably complex movements, making the comparison to a litany of gymnastic movements that far surpass the snatch and clean & jerk in technical complexity. There is no reasonable argument that the Olympic lifts are equal in terms of difficulty to the expansive collection of advanced gymnastics movements; but that comparison notwithstanding—because, while tapping into the gymnastics realm, CrossFit’s use of gymnastics movements remains confined to the extremely elementary—the lifts remain technically difficult relative to any other movement found in the CrossFit program. Understand that this is considering the development of what I would consider excellent technique, not just moving a barbell from the floor to overhead in any fashion (any CrossFitter can accomplish that on day one). That being the case, the snatch, clean & jerk and their derivative lifts deserve their due in terms of technique development in order to deliver the expected training effects.
The CrossFit community is not short on athletes who quickly enough develop passable technique—passable meaning adequate to get them through the workout of the day without injury, death or irreconcilable embarrassment (at least among other CrossFitters). This, to many, is wholly sufficient, and no more consideration is given to the subject. In my opinion, this is not sufficient, and I don’t say that simply because I have a particular affinity for the beauty of the lift’s technical precision at the elite level. Instead, my argument is based entirely on the intention of improving the potential training effects of the movements within the CrossFit framework. And before we proceed any further, consider one of Glassman’s oldest and truest maxims: The magic is in the movements. When and where in the CrossFit philosophy has “adequate” ever been acceptable? It’s not a stretch to say, in fact, that the entire program ostensibly arose from an unwillingness to accept the adequate as satisfactory.
High-Rep Olympic Weightlifting
Risk to an athlete is associated with poor technique and performance beyond his or her capabilities. Many in CrossFit will argue that if one’s technique during a workout is excellent, it’s an indication that he or she is simply not pushing hard enough—form breakdown is a necessary result of the level of intensity they’re encouraging.
Unfortunately, the same individuals who demonstrate poor lifting technique amid multiple reps in a fatigued state are similarly unable to perform the lifts well in an non-fatigued state with even single reps. In such cases, intensity is not the cause of poor form—a lack of technical proficiency from the ground up is the culprit, and this problem is merely exacerbated by the fatigue inherent to a conditioning workout.
CrossFitters need to first learn and develop their lifting technique in isolation. A greater foundation of technique will allow the athlete to perform the lifts safely much further into the realm of fatigue into which he or she will repeatedly venture, and, possibly more importantly, that technique will allow the lifts to better produce the athletic characteristics being sought instead of simply producing more nausea.
I should note clearly here that I personally don’t believe in using the barbell Olympic lifts in conditioning workouts. I believe it to be unnecessarily risky and generally counterproductive from the broader perspective. There are exercises that can be used to create similar and even greater metabolic demands that have less injury risk and do not interfere with more complex motor learning. That said, this article is for athletes who are participating in CrossFit competitions, where it’s safe to say these movements will likely be used.
CrossFit athletes will be capable of far greater progress in the long term if the lifts are trained exclusively in isolation during an initial development stage. Granted, CrossFit is predicated on great variety, but the temporary elimination of the Olympic lifts from conditioning workouts will not have any significant limiting effect considering the depth of the CrossFit movement pool. Understand as well that I’m specifying the barbell lifts—this does not include dumbbell, kettlebell, medicine ball, or other implement Olympic lifts. I encourage dumbbell snatches and cleans emphatically at any stage of learning—the movements are different enough to not compete with or disrupt each other.
Some have argued—while defending some heinous technique—that performance of the lifts in the conditioning workouts is their practice. It is indeed practice, and very effective—the problem is that it’s practice of poor technique made even poorer by fatigue and limited focus. Performing a movement incorrectly a million times will not magically teach you to perform it correctly; in fact, you’ll find the more time you spend performing it incorrectly, the more trouble you’ll have relearning it correctly.
There are three basic reasons the Olympic lifts are worthwhile to any strength and conditioning program. First and foremost is the development of leg and hip extension power, which is alone more than enough reason for the lifts’ inclusion in training. Secondary and tertiary to this is developing the ability to safely and effective absorb and control external force, and to improve motor skills generally.
The sole purpose of the Olympic lifts is to bring a barbell from the floor to overhead—nothing more. That the lifts produce remarkable explosiveness for athletes outside the discipline of competitive weightlifting is entirely incidental. Both through lifter experimentation and changes in competition rules, the technique of the snatch and clean & jerk have slowly evolved into their present forms, which rely almost entirely on vicious vertically-oriented extension of the legs and hips to accelerate and elevate the bar.
Violations of excellent technique often circumvent to varying degrees the very positions and movements that we seek to train and improve. A common example of these technique violations is a reliance on the arms and upper back to elevate the bar. In this case, the athlete removes the explosive action of the legs and hips from the movement, which has obvious consequences—power-curling your bodyweight is an impressive feat, but it will have extremely limited effect on improving your athletic or functional abilities considering how much originates from the hips and legs in sport and life.
We’ll not go into specifics of technique or learning progression because both have been covered in great detail elsewhere. The take-home point here is that the reason for continued technique improvement is not simply for the sake of looking impressive—it has a direct and powerful effect on the athlete’s functional abilities. Additionally, technical consistency improves the safety of the lifts dramatically, and for competitive CrossFitters, proper technique and consistency rep to rep significantly increases efficiency and speed, reducing effort, fatigue and the time to complete a given number of lifts.
There are three basic people who may want to implement the information in this article:
The individual is a CrossFitter exclusively; that is, he or she is interested in nothing more than excelling at the prescribed workout of the day, which may include Olympic lifts.
The individual is primarily a CrossFitter, but is motivated to improve his or her lifting to a degree that exceeds the requirements of the typical workouts.
The individual is interested in being a competitive weightlifter at a level that allows continued CrossFitting.
Each of these situations has distinct demands and consequently requires a somewhat unique approach.
The CrossFitter situation is the simplest with the simplest integration solution. In this case, the lifts can be treated no differently than any other skill CrossFit encourages, such as gymnastics elements. In this case, the technique of the lifts—or lack thereof, more accurately—is the limiting factor. The Olympic lifts appearing in the prescribed workouts generally do not demand remarkable strength, and as a consequence, strength development is no more a priority than any other element of fitness as defined by CrossFit and should be covered sufficiently with the standard programming (assuming an “average” strength level of the individual and decent programming—these both may be poor assumptions).
What is required here is primarily quality repetition. Skill sessions are best performed prior to any CrossFit training to ensure neurological and psychological freshness; the whole idea is to avoid attempting to learn skills in a fatigued state in preparation for performing them while fatigued further along in the athlete’s development.
Every CrossFitter is likely familiar with the Burgener Warm-up, at least by name. This is a simple, convenient and potentially effective approach to initial skill practice. I use the term potentially because its effectiveness is related directly to how correctly the Warm-up is performed, and I’ve witnessed some staggeringly horrific interpretations. Fortunately Coach Burgener is a generous guy and has made a video on the BWU available for free on his site. For those not well acquainted with the Warm-up, this is a great reference from which to learn it and with which to compare your own performance. If you’re familiar with my teaching progressions and prefer them, they of course can be used instead.
Once one or both of these progressions can be performed consistently well with PVC, the athlete can transition to a light bar and continue his or her practice. Adding even this small weight will expose problems unnoticed to this point by providing some feedback to the lifter regarding positioning. Over time, the athlete can progress until able to handle a regulation bar, at which time more focus can be given to the whole lifts and somewhat less to the progressions. Pieces of these progressions can be used as technique primers or the entire progression as a warm-up prior to more advanced training when the athlete has reached that stage.
The fundamental principles of skill development apply here—invest practice time according to need at all scales. That is, if the lifts overall are in need of much improvement, practice of all lift components or segments in equal doses is appropriate. If certain segments—such as the turnover of the snatch or the rack position of the clean—are lagging behind, they deserve a greater portion of the time committed to practicing the lifts. This is nothing remarkably revolutionary, but I’m continually surprised at how well it’s ignored. We all prefer doing what we’re best at; no one wants to stand in the corner of his or her local CrossFit affiliate gym muscle snatching the little girl’s bar for twenty minutes while attractive and possibly available members of the opposite sex observe.
Practice of the above-described nature is not physically taxing in any significant way, and consequently it can be performed with great frequency, such as every training day, without interfering with the athlete’s performance in a subsequent workout or recovery for next one. This kind of practice can even be included in active recovery work on non-training days as long as the loading remains light and the volume is not excessive. This can be a good combination with mobility work on off days.
All that remains is the decision of when to begin performing the lifts when they arise in the workouts. Unfortunately I can’t provide a clear set of objective criteria since this is a technique issue. What I suggest is waiting until the lifts feel consistent rep to rep and day to day, and a weight used for a workout is well within the athlete’s ability, even if this means scaling it down dramatically from prescribed weights.
Anytime you’re feeling itchy, compare a few videos of actual weightlifters to your own and recognize you still have plenty to work on. A little more commitment to isolated technique work in the beginning will result in much quicker improvement and far greater long-term progress despite any temporary frustration arising from not performing the workouts as prescribed. It’s OK to be your own person.
Until reaching the point at which the barbell lifts are performed in the workouts, the dumbbell variations can serve as substitutes.
The Weightlifting CrossFitter
The Weightlifting CrossFitter is an individual who is a CrossFitter in practice but has developed a particular interest in the lifts and would like to get his or her numbers up. Unlike the CrossFitter, the need for specific strength improvement will now be an issue in addition to technique and modifications to the CrossFit training will most likely be necessary to accommodate this.
Everything regarding the CrossFitter applies here in terms of learning the lifts initially. The Weightlifting CrossFitter moniker and the following suggestions assume reasonable proficiency already exists. If not, again, start with the CrossFitter section first.
In a recent conversation, first-generation CrossFit monster Josh Everett (no relation—I’m the other white Everett) told me some CrossFitters asking him for advice on improving their snatches were surprised by his suggestion they consider snatching more than once every two weeks. Whether this reaction arose from their being so accustomed to the constant variation of CrossFit or their adherence to the mythical notion that heavy things cannot be lifted often, I’m not sure. Regardless, countless similar interactions I’ve had have made it clear programming for the Olympic lifts remains a complete mystery to the wider world, even among those with extensive strength training experience. Interesting complications in planning arise due to the random nature of the CrossFit program.
Each individual in this category will fall onto a different place on the continuum of the CrossFit and weightlifting balance depending on how much he or she is interested in focusing on the lifts relative to CrossFit. I’ll present a few sample approaches that can be modified according to each athlete’s needs.
The primary issue in this instance is that of recovery. Our bodies can unfortunately handle a limited volume and intensity of training in any given period of time, although our work capacities can be increased significantly over time with smart programming.
The first thing we need to do is identify the athlete’s weaknesses. If he or she has a huge squat, for example, we probably don’t need to commit much time or energy to squatting. If the athlete is greatly lacking in strength all around, he or she is advised to focus on bringing up this base strength level.
The generally strength-less aside, the most common situation at the beginning end of the spectrum will be a need primarily to spend more time progressively increasing the loading on the lifts themselves. Technique sessions can still be placed before CrossFit workouts on all training days—these will be restricted to very light snatching, clean & jerking—i.e. 50-60% or so—and any drills or variants to improve specific lift segments. A session might look something like:
1. Warm-up and any drills for problem segments
2. Snatch: work gradually up from very light triples to 3-10 sets of doubles at the maximum weight for the day.
3. Clean & Jerk: Work gradually up from light doubles, focusing on the weaker part of the lift, to 3-10 sets of doubles at the maximum weight for the day. For example, if the jerk is weaker than the clean, perform 1 clean + 2 jerks for each rep.
This is very basic and can be modified extensively according to each individual’s needs. If time is an issue, the athlete may choose to focus on only one lift each training session and alternate lifts each day. Or he or she may simply keep the volume of one lift very low and spend more time on the other.
In addition to these technique sessions, we need to drop in some heavier training. The most basic option would be to simply insert a weightlifting day to the CrossFit schedule in a manner similar to Michael Rutherford’s ME Blackbox template:
Day 1: CrossFit
Day 2: Weightlifting
Day 3: CrossFit
Day 4: Rest
The content of that weightlifting day can vary immensely. If sticking to the MEBB principles, the athlete may choose to perform only a single lift that day, taking it up to a max effort. Because of the variation of CrossFit workouts, if you’re not programming them long term, you can use a more intuitive approach to loading in the lifts. This can be done by working gradually up to the heaviest weight you can do well on that day, whether it’s for singles, doubles or triples. After hitting the day’s max lift, if you need more work, you can drop the weight 5-15% and do a few more sets. This allows the athlete to get in the max effort as well as some more heavy reps, but keeps “heavy” appropriately relative according to how the athlete is feeling that particular day. This kind of intuitive approach is more appropriate in conjunction with something as varied and random as CrossFit than any attempts at long-term programming. It will allow the athlete to take advantage of the days on which he or she is recovered, fresh and spitting fire to reach for new records, and to back off on the days he or she is worn down and clearly in need of a little more rest. Ideally, however, the CrossFit work is being programmed within a framework of long term planning, in which case the weightlifting element can be better planned as well.
With this same schedule, we can add some more work on the weightlifting day if the athlete determines he or she can manage it. If we remain with a single-lift focus on the weightlifting day, we can add lift-specific strength and technique work beyond the lift itself. For example, on a snatch-focus day, our athlete may snatch as described above. Following this, he or she may move on to a few more related exercises. If the overhead position is weak, we may choose to perform snatch push press + overhead squats. If the weakness is more pronounced at the bottom of the squat, as is common, a single “rep” may be one snatch push press + 3 overhead squats. Depending on what the athlete responds to best and his or her recovery abilities, we may work up to a heavy single in this exercise, or we may instead perform a few sets at a medium-heavy weight. This choice may be made on the spot depending on what the athlete feels he or she can handle that day. The following snatch-focus day, we may replace the snatch push press + overhead squat with snatch balances to keep the work focused on the athlete’s weakness but add a little variety.
This schedule can be repeated ad infinitum if satisfactory to the athlete. If not, we can modify the schedule somewhat:
Day 1: CrossFit
Day 2: Weightlifting – Snatch focus
Day 3: CrossFit
Day 4: Rest
Day 5: CrossFit
Day 6: Weightlifting – Clean & Jerk focus
Day 7: CrossFit
Day 8: Rest
Day 9: CrossFit
Day 10: Weightlifting – Snatch and Clean & Jerk
Day 11: CrossFit
Day 12: Rest
This 12-day cycle keeps the lifting frequency about the same but allows us some more options. Our single-lift focus days, for example, may shift from max efforts to high volume training, whether with more reps of the lifts themselves or with the addition of more exercises. The third lifting day in the cycle may then be treated as a day to attempt records in the snatch and clean & jerk, making it a high-intensity but low-volume session. Strength work can be added into this schedule easily as tolerated by the athlete.
A decision will have to be made regarding interference of each type of training with the other. That is, it will be common for an athlete to come into a clean & jerk training day following a day of CrossFitting that has annihilated the legs. Obviously this will have a negative impact on the weightlifting session.
The athlete can choose to accept this and simply train accordingly, not worrying about the inability to lift as heavy as he or she may have wanted to on a particular day. This approach leaves improvement to chance, but this, of course, is one of the defining characteristics of CrossFit. The contrasting approach is to modify the CrossFit training to better accommodate the weightlifting training plans. This is fairly easily done—if a workout calls for an obscene amount of squatting-based movements the day before record day, the athlete may simply substitute other exercises that will tax parts of the body less critical for whatever is planned. Or the entire workout can be pushed to another day and a more appropriate one created.
Another approach is some kind of training split. This can allow a little more flexibility with scheduling or can increase the total workload. An example for an athlete who needs to work on both strength and technique and has excellent work capacity might be:
-Snatch 5-10 doubles – load according to how feeling
-Deadlift 3 x 3
-Press 5 x 3
-Clean & jerk doubles – load according to how feeling
-Front squat to heavy double
-Push press 5 x 3
-Snatch to max for day
-Clean & Jerk to max for day
With this schedule, the CrossFit training can be programmed daily according to how well the athlete is recovered, what is destroyed and what is fresh, and what will need to be fresh the following session.
If the athlete has remarkably high work capacity, he or she may simply be able to add a weightlifting session right alongside the CrossFit training without modification. These creatures are extremely rare, although I know of many folks who’ve mistakenly believed they met the criteria and were quickly reduced to smoldering piles of rubble on the horse-stall mats. A somewhat less ambitious version may simply look like:
-Supplemental / assistance lifts
-Clean & Jerk
Each time this 4 day block is repeated, the snatch and clean & jerk day can be switched to alternate which lift follows a rest day and can therefore be pushed harder.
Each lifting session can be varied greatly according to how the athlete is feeling on that particular day. On one 4-day cycle, the snatch training day may be nothing more than snatching up to 50% for a few singles to work the movement and keep the motor patterns fresh. The next cycle, the athlete might be feeling saucy and work up to a record snatch attempt.
The bottom line for the Weightlifting CrossFitter is that the more time spent with the lifts, the more improvement will be seen. Snatching once every three weeks will simply not cut it. There is no single schedule or program that will work across the board, and experimentation based on sound reason will be the key to success.
The CrossFitting Weightlifter
The CrossFitting Weightlifter has decided to give competitive weightlifting a run—or at least desires bigger lifts than can be achieved as a Weightlifting CrossFitter—but is only willing to compromise fitness to a degree short of what is required to reach a more advanced level of competition. This would be someone who greatly values the ability to roll over in bed without becoming short of breath.
This situation, like that of the CrossFitter, is much simpler than the Weightlifting CrossFitter. Here we can start with weightlifting programming and drop in CrossFit instead of the other way around.
Before proceeding, I want to strongly encourage any athlete falling into this category to find a qualified weightlifting coach with whom to train at least occasionally. Granted, truly qualified coaches are hard to come by. Make the effort—it will be well worth it.
There will be varying degrees of commitment to the Olympic lifts among athletes in this group. For those most committed, I recommend a cycling approach instead of an attempt to balance everything at once. That is, I encourage the athlete to dedicate a period of time exclusively to weightlifting. Yes, fitness will slip during this period. But this is an issue of priorities as well as ease of attainment. If you’re in this category, you’ve declared the lifts your priority and need to treat them accordingly. Also, metabolic conditioning returns very quickly after a layoff, so there will be no devastating long-term effects to worry about. With this approach, the athlete can make significant gains in the lifts in much less time and programming is far easier.
1-3 brief conditioning workouts can be performed after the weightlifting workouts each week (this is similar to what I post on the site). This will help maintain somewhat of a baseline of fitness during this period and make the transition back a little smoother.
Once this lifting-specific cycle is over, the athlete can switch gears and move into a cycle that will attempt to maintain the strength gained while bringing metabolic conditioning back up to the desired level. This programming of this cycle may resemble what was presented for the Weightlifting CrossFitter. The frequency of the lifts can be reduced quite a bit without regressing much if at all, which will allow more time and energy for CrossFit training. Snatching and clean & jerking once weekly each may be adequate.
The return to CrossFit training after a layoff will have a high DOS (Degree of Suck), but invariably athletes find the strength gained in the previous cycle will dramatically elevate their CrossFit performances after the initial break-in period has passed and that they have a much greater AKP (Ass-Kicking Potential).
The CrossFit cycle can be drawn out as long as possible without significant drops in the snatch and clean & jerk numbers. Expect a small decrease in lift performance during this time, but don’t make the mistake of letting them slip so far you make no net progress.
If the athlete is unwilling to drop CrossFit training entirely for any period of time, schedules similar to those shown for the Weightlifting CrossFitter can be employed, but with the emphasis on weightlifting instead of CrossFit.
Irrespective of how the CrossFit training is folded into the mix, the fundamental principles of program design for weightlifting will remain unchanged. Some of these have been alluded to or discussed in a limited fashion earlier. The most fundamental of the fundamentals is to focus on the athlete’s weaknesses and take advantage of his or her strengths—this applies to both the strength and technique aspects of weightlifting.
This of course will mean each athlete’s programming will look different to varying degrees—and this is why I’ve so obnoxiously avoided providing complete specific programs. Fortunately, Catalyst Athletics has a large collection of free training cycles
that fit this bill.
Again, the bottom line for the Weightlifting CrossFitter is focus on the weaknesses in terms of both strength and technique, as well as prioritizing training goals during a given period of time. As always, experimentation will play an important role in determining what works for each individual, and this of course will be continually changing as the athlete progresses.
This is What We Call a Dome-Scratcher
The previous is a likely overwhelming dose of information, and despite its epic proportions, is only a cautious step into the shallow edges of a remarkably deep topic. It should be clear at this point that there are no straightforward answers in regards to programming considering the infinite combination of factors. That notwithstanding, the principles guiding the decisions of how to structure your training should be clearer. When in doubt, always return to the fundamentals for guidance. And, of course, always consider seeking individual attention from a qualified coach to further your own training.
For those of you who prefer simply being told what to do each day, the Catalyst Athletics training program
combines weightlifting and baseline CrossFit-style metabolic conditioning.