Teaching the Olympic Lifts in the CrossFit Group Setting: Part 1
Greg Everett

Sometimes your clients are confused. It’s true. Some want to squat to big padded balls instead of just learning where their asses are and squatting like grown-ups all the way to the bottom. Some want to do low-bar back squats. And some aren’t very interested in learning the snatch and clean & jerk. Fortunately, as a trainer or coach, it’s your responsibility to train your clients according to what they need rather than what they want—if they knew what they needed, they wouldn’t be your clients.

This is not to say that as a trainer you get to determine your clients’ goals—it means simply that the reason someone is paying you is to determine how best to achieve those goals and to lead them through the process. This often means their doing certain things they may not want to do initially.

When it comes to complex lifts like the snatch and clean & jerk, this lack of interest can make learning a difficult and comparatively unsuccessful endeavor. At least part of the issue is that many in CrossFit—both on the client and trainer levels—don’t understand the extent of the lifts’ complexity, and consequently fail to put in adequate time and effort to learning both the lifts execution and methods of teaching them. This magnifies the silliness described previously and leads to behavior such as celebrating lift performances like those seen during the snatch event of the last CrossFit Games.

In addition to this, teaching the Olympic lifts in a group setting in which they’re not only not the primary focus of training, but in which individuals are typically all at different levels of experience, skill, motivation, strength, flexibility and similar factors, becomes far more complicated and frustrating.

In order to address both basic problems described above, we can create a system of teaching the lifts that accommodates different levels of ability, reduces time dedicated to the lifts within any given training session—which allows a breadth of training as well as minimizes the possible effects of clients’ disinterest in the lifts and consequent lack of focus and effort—yet not only remains effective, but is arguably more effective than more focused teaching approaches. 


Building the Foundation

The finer details of the teaching system employed by each gym will vary just as all other details of training with vary among CrossFit gyms. There are numerous possible approaches to teaching the lifts in such a setting, and which is used and most effective will vary depending on factors such as how exactly the group training program is administered and the relative emphases on various training components. For example, a gym with a relatively small and consistent clientele is able to do things differently than on with a large and less consistent clientele. Similarly, a gym that emphasizes strength work will have better options than one that uses the common Jazzercise approach of random and extended metabolic workouts with equally random and infrequent strength work. That’s another article altogether, but suffice to say if your gym falls into the latter category, you have some fundamental restructuring to do before really worrying about getting this jiggy with the Olympic lifts specifically.

Get Perspective

The first step in develop such a teaching system is learning to consider training in the long term. The failure to do this is a common problem in CrossFit gyms, resulting in random or arbitrary programming that is unable to address long term progress. Your clients will not be training for only a day or a week—why would you approach their training plan in such a term?

Know What You’re Doing

This is a fairly important one. If you don’t understand the Olympic lifts and how they should be executed, you have no business teaching them to your clients. A Level 1 certification and some CrossFit Journal videos are not an adequate background. There’s nothing wrong with such a background—what’s wrong is believing or insisting that it prepares you to teach and coach the lifts. Have the integrity as a professional trainer to recognize this and do your homework. Learn more and get better by working privately with qualified weightlifting coaches and attending seminars. (I know of a decent book that might be helpful too.)

Until that point, bring in an outside coach to work with your clients occasionally in a seminar or occasional class format; if this isn’t possible stick with the exercises you know how to teach. Anything else is a disservice to your clients, who are likely paying you handsomely for your presumed expertise. They will respect and appreciate you far more for admitting your lack of expertise in a particular special area, than for teaching them poorly. You don’t have to be the greatest weightlifting coach in the world—you do need to have a solid grasp of the fundamentals to avoid teaching your clients so many of the ridiculous things they find out later they have to change.

Have a Plan

This ties in with gaining perspective. Figure out what you’re doing before you start doing it. This saves everyone time and frustration, and allows far more effective teaching. Having a plan doesn’t necessarily mean that even the most minute details are in print three months prior to starting—it means having a level of detail sufficient to guide you to your intended goals. This plan can be flexible, and must be to some extent considering the setting about which we’re talking, but at no time should the approach be arbitrary or based on what you happen to feel like doing at the moment.

Shaping the System

Whatever system is finally established, it must take into account a few key elements:

1.     Different skill levels among clients in a class

2.     Regular influx of new clients

3.     Inconsistent training schedules of clients

4.     Available time in training sessions for this component

5.     Attention span of clients

6.     The role of the lifts in the overall program


Different Skill Levels

Unless a gym brings on new clients in a structured group format like an On-Ramp program, and subsequently keeps these clients locked into given class times for the duration of their membership, there is bound to be a broad spectrum of skill and experience among clients in a class (even with such a rigid approach, different clients learn more quickly and perform better than others). With an system for teaching the lifts, we need to be able to accommodate all of these clients, not just teach to a certain level because it’s simplest for us. This is easily the most difficult aspect of the process.

The ideal way to address this problem would be to separate clients into different classes based on demonstrated ability. Such stratification is immensely helpful with respect to all aspects of training, but is often very impractical. It means limiting, often greatly, the number of possible classes for each client, while simultaneously increasing the burden of the trainers. There are few gyms that are able to make such a structure work. However, few if any gyms should be unable to separate the absolute beginners from the rest of the clientele—this again can be accomplished by using a system of entry to the program like the On-Ramp classes. This alone makes the task of teaching the lifts far easier and more effective by simply removing the least skilled clients from the equation. They don’t factor in until they’ve achieved a basic level of proficiency with fundamental exercises.

The next best option would be multiple trainers working with the clients in a given class so those clients can be grouped together according to skill level and lead through different training during a single class. While somewhat more practical than separating actual classes, this is still difficult and expensive.

Instead, we need to find a way to have clients function independently enough that a single trainer can run a class without sacrificing the effectiveness of their training or the trainer’s ability to provide the necessary instruction. This can really only be accomplished with a genuine plan and structure as discussed previously. In general terms, this means simply determining how much skill variation exists among the clients of a given gym, deciding how many levels of instruction are required to accommodate all of those clients, and then what exactly each skill level will be working on during a given training session. The details of this will be filled out later in the article.

Influx of New Clients

The regular influx of new clients to a CrossFit gym is the source of numerous problems with regard to class structuring and instruction. How this affects the instruction of the Olympic lifts specifically will vary depending on how a gym channels these new clients. A facility that simply jumps new clients into existing classes will have a far more difficult time than one that takes new clients through some sort of introductory class series to establish fundamental exercise proficiency, a base level of work capacity, and a general understanding of how to function as a client within a group training environment. Again, the ideal way of addressing this problem is to use some type of introductory system like an On-Ramp program that separates rank beginners from the rest of the crowd.

Inconsistent Training Schedules

Often one of the most frustrating and limiting aspects of CrossFit style group training is the inconsistent training schedules of the clients. That is, some may come three days each week, and some six; some may come on the same days and times each week, while others show up randomly. This of course makes programming a far more difficult task, and unavoidably reduces the effectiveness of the program for individual clients.

While we can’t control clients’ attendance, we can prioritize clients and channel our time and efforts accordingly. Our commitment as trainers and coaches should reflect the commitment of our clients—those clients who go out of their way to attend frequently and regularly and train with focus and dedication deserve more attention and effort than those who attend inconsistently and appear to be interested in little more than post-spastic-workout euphoria.

This means programming with your priority clients in mind. This can be done literally—considering the schedules and needs of actual priority clients—or using a theoretical model of your ideal client (as long as it’s reasonable). For example, we may program with a consistent 5-day weekly client in mind and simply be flexible for clients who don’t fit into this category.

Available Time

How much time in each training session is available for Olympic lift instruction will obviously shape to a large degree what we do. Ideally the instruction and practice of the lifts is taken into consideration when designing the overall structure of the gym’s program rather than it being an afterthought. If it is, this will be far less of an issue because adequate time will always be available. If it’s not, we will have to work around silliness like medicine ball cleans and sumo deadlift high-pulls in obscene quantities. This just means less time to dedicate to the important things in life like skill and strength.

Client Attention Spans

CrossFitters tend to have comparatively limited attention spans—this characteristic is part of the attraction to a training system that prides itself on constant variation, extremely brief workouts and goals that are by design entirely non-specific. This needs to be taken into account when designing a system of teaching involved and complex movements, particularly when so many clients will have been convinced that the Olympic lifts are not actually technically complex and can be taught adequately in three minutes with a medicine ball.

Part of solving this problem is educating and re-educating your clients regarding the lifts and their role in their training. If your gym’s program, from the beginning of each client’s exposure, emphasizes the importance of technical proficiency, strength and Olympic lifts, structured programming, and long term planning, you can expect little if any resistance. If instead your program evolves into this from the Jazzercise type of random metabolic conditioning workouts with infrequent and equally random strength training, clients may have difficulty with the transition simply because they’re not accustomed to the new format.

As the trainer, it’s your responsibility to stand by your decision. Don’t feel obligated to explain why the change is being made unless asked. Sputtering on about training theory to clients to aren’t interested simply makes you appear unsure about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. It’s easy to be confident regarding your programming if you develop it logically; if you’re not confident in your gym’s program, you have some serious re-evaluation and restructuring to do.

This will in part, along with the role of the lifts discussed next, determine how involved and technical the instruction of the lifts is. That is, shorter attention spans mean more focus on drills to teach the body how to lift and less focus on actual technical education regarding the finer details and reasons why.

Role of the Lifts

A final consideration when developing your training system is what role the Olympic lifts play in the overall training program. That is how much emphasis is placed on them relative to other lifts and other types of training, and how will they be used—independently as real lifts, within metabolic workouts, or both. Additionally, this will be part of the determination of how technical teaching is. The greater the role the lifts play in the program, the more technical their instruction will need to be in order to improve clients’ execution.


The Lifts within the Training Program

All this talk of mixed skill levels and the importance of technical proficiency begs the question: How do we use the Olympic lifts within metabolic conditioning workouts in a group? The easiest answer is not to. The reality is that the overwhelming majority of CrossFit clients will never reach a level of technical proficiency that makes the lifts’ use within metabolic workouts a great idea, simply because the proportion of their training time dedicated to the lifts is minimal.

There are better options for conditioning that won’t hinder further development of lift technique while still providing a large metabolic dent—arguably more of one, in fact. Additionally, dumbbell, sandbag, and other implement variations of the Olympic lifts can be used to provide most of the metabolic effects desired from the lifts—these lifts require far less instruction and practice to be effective and are distinct enough to not interfere with technique for the barbell lifts. (It should be noted that these exercises do not include the medicine ball clean, because it is hopelessly lame and has no place in anyone’s training.)

Within a CrossFit gym with clients who have established reasonable technical proficiency with the barbell Olympic lifts, these lifts can be used within conditioning workouts if desired. The solution to mixed skill levels within a class is to simply scale the workouts with respect to exercise variation—for example, the top-tier clients may snatch; a middle-tier may 1-arm dumbbell snatch; and a bottom-tier may do jumping dumbbell squats and/or overhead squats. This allows the more advanced athletes to train more effectively, and allows the more novice athletes to train more appropriately without separating them entirely—this helps foster a team atmosphere by keeping everyone performing a similar workout in essence, but doesn’t compromise individual clients’ training.

To Be Continued

In the next issue, we’ll finalize this process with the steps of designing the program itself, as well as a sample program to get you started.

Read Part 2

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Erik Preston
September 13 2009
Greg, thanks for this. You've identified a dilemma that we've strived to overcome. Much of what we do day to day has us programming to the various tiers in our box. We subscribe to the adage of giving our clients what they need vs. what they want. However, we are pragmatists and realize that not all are going to approach the Olympic lifts with the same vigor. These are the clients that haven't shown up to the one day seminars that we've had with Sage, or don't come to the oly lifting night that we religiously have. But these clients are exposed to the dumbbell hang squat clean, the snatch drop, and the Burgener warmup.
Robb Wolf
September 15 2009
You need to come check out our On-Ramp curriculum. It will dramatically improve your OL coaching. Especially of the Med-ball clean.
Dan Martin
September 25 2009
Thanks, great article.
Scott Kolasinski
May 14 2013
Greg- As Rob mentioned, don't you realize that Med-ball cleans help you lift heavy sandbags around the house to build a garden? They are transferable to real life geriatric events!

Great article and hopefully it penetrates a couple of BOX egos.
Laura G
June 17 2013
Great article, shared with my fellow coaches who agree.

I tried the link "decent book" and got "404 Not Found" - little linky help?

Greg Everett
June 17 2013
Try the link now.
July 14 2013
I really enjoy reading these articles. I think 'Constant Variety' is one of the dumbest concepts in learning human movement.
September 9 2013
Great article. I own the book and the DVD's. my confidence and technique has improved 100% Thank you!