“The clean is a very important movement, both for motor skill development and for full-body conditioning. Learning it is important, since it is complicated, and learning complicated things improves the ability to learn.” That’s a quote from Mark Rippetoe in this piece on the power clean.
Learning how to learn new motor skills does represent a fundamental stage in the development of young athletes, a pragmatic approach that tends to promote a positive transfer of learning over the positive transfer of training. Learning new skills, such as snatching, cleaning, or jerking, represents nothing but a basic application of the general motor pattern (GMP) theory first identified by Richard Schmidt in his seminal work in the early 80s: once the central nervous system (CNS) defines the basic, invariable aspects of the movement the cerebellum can incorporate speed and power to perform the lift.
Lifting weight or throwing a football, in terms of motor learning and control, does not really make any difference. So why are Olympic-style weightlifting exercises mostly neglected when it comes to young athletes? The misconception comes from a fundamental lack of understanding of the intimate relationship between muscular strength and speed. It comes, also, from a general lack of understanding of the physiological development of these physical attributes across childhood and adolescence.
Olympic-style weightlifting exercises teach athletes how to overcome inertia with speed: speed – linear speed but also quickness, the ability to move the upper and/or the lower extremity in a fast manner – naturally develops between the age of 7 and 11 years old with a proportional increase in rate of force development that significantly improves as pre-adolescent male and female athletes approach peak height velocity.
Explosive Olympic Lifts – An Early Stage Training Tool
Strength will, eventually, increase throughout puberty although the ability to learn and master new movements reaches its best during this age. Explosive in nature, Olympic style weightlifting exercises can, therefore, be introduced relatively early in the training routine of younger athletes: to preserve speed, evidence shows that 35% of an athlete bodyweight is sufficient to promote optimal inter and intramuscular coordination, as well as optimal motor unit recruitment, a condition sine qua non any effort of learning proper lifting mechanics, would be vain.
What that means is that young male and female athletes can start practicing snatches, cleans and jerks with 15 to 20 pounds bars (youth bar): they will master the skill while fostering optimal development of those neurological aspects that are responsible for any major improvement in the weight room but, most importantly, on the filed and/ or on the court of play.
By learning Olympic-style weightlifting exercises – snatch, clean and jerk but also their many variations and derivative – young athletes will improve performance in an activity involving sprinting, jumping and changing direction. This is the fundamental skill that athletes need to master in the process of sports specialization that begins after the onset of puberty. Olympic-style weightlifting exercises have shown to foster the acquisition of a broad variety of sport specific skills via transfer of learning, a key concept in the process of laying the foundation for athleticism to develop. Muscular strength will follow alongside with a most remarkable improvement in peak power out, the beginning of a train to compete phase that will benefit from a positive transfer of training between the weight room and the field and/or court of play.
If you’re a member of the International Youth Conditioning Association, you can get read more of my observations on Olympics-style weightlifting exercises for youth athletes: Olympic-style Weightlifting Exercises for Youth Athletes. Evidence-based recommendations to introduce youth athletes to the snatch, the clean and jerk, and their derivatives.
1. Lloyd, R. S., Oliver, J. L., Meyers, R. W., Moody, J. A., & Stone, M. H. (2012). Long-Term Athletic Development and Its Application to Youth Weightlifting. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 34(4), 55-66.