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Olympic lifts as Correctives – part 2

So, in my earlier post, I was singing the praises of the Olympic lifts & making bold claims that all their variations/regressions are the total package when it comes to training. Most coaches will gripe that the learning curve is simply too much and outweighs the benefits of the lifts. To an extent, I understand, particularly when it comes to full power cleans and snatches from the floor. But in this post, I’ll get into the specifics regarding certain lifts and how/where they would fit into a training program and still provide benefits.

(Again, if you’re more inclined to follow the Olympic lifting school of thought and want more, check out Wil Fleming’s new DVD – he’s the pro, I’m just an Olympic lifting minion in comparison)


Typically, after an initial assessment using whatever strategy you employ (that’s another post in and of itself) the most important movement to teach is the hip hinge – this is the foundation for all of the lifts and has to be perfected before anything else can be taught. Even if Olympic lifting isn’t on your agenda, all hope is lost if a proper hip hinge isn’t the goal of your program. This is accomplished in a variety of ways, but my favorite is using a PVC pipe and an RDL movement. The PVC pipe is great because it isn’t loaded, but when you’re forced to hold something and keep it close to (or, in this case, touching) your body, the movement pattern is much easier to accomplish. Once this is mastered, I like to throw in variations like KB hip hinges, band pull throughs, kettle bell swings, etc.

[See for more on teaching the Hip hinge movement]

Another movement that is very telling as an assessment but that I like to keep in programs no matter what is the Overhead squat. This can be particularly unforgiving if you’re lacking flexibility or stability, but is a crucial movement should your athlete/client progress to catching a load overhead. If they are particularly lacking in the skills necessary to make this movement worthwhile, assisted variations should be used (cable or TRX OH squats) and unilateral work should be emphasized. For one, you can load the hell out of it, and two, you will see significant progress vs forcing a movement pattern that just simply isn’t there. This is where you can employ the use of OH bulgarians, OH lunges, and some of the TRX Y’s & T’s. In most cases, a lack of core stability is a problem as well, so your plank variations and roll outs are useful here too. Again, it is worth noting, that even if your athlete never needs to catch a load overhead, the ability to progress to a solid OH squat is a great goal because it corrects imbalances, improves posture, and makes you closer to being an actual human being (instead of a version of real life version of the QWOP game)

click the picture to understand what he’s making fun of – then die laughing.

The front squat is probably the most useful component to teach for a variety of reasons. It is my favorite to work with because it builds a solid foundation, is easy to monitor (if an athlete is ever struggling, it is much easier to drop a bar from the front than the back), and demands excellent form. With the load in the front, the body is forced to maintain a neutral spine and upright chest, which is sometimes hard to constantly cue when using another variation. The learning curve can be tough, particularly for females who find the bar placement on the chest slightly uncomfortable and/or the stress on the forearms to be painful, but it does not take long for them to get used to it – plus there are a ton of variations in grip to use. To progress to the bar, front loaded KB squats/Goblet squats can be an option (to teach stabilization with a front load) and the PVC pipe can be used to teach that hand placement. Again, even if this is as far as you go, a solid front squat can be loaded substantially for awesome strength gains in a later phase of training.

Proper landing mechanics will need to be enforced simultaneously before loading the clean movement. I find it is really easy to teach the hip hinge, but once it needs to be done at speed (i.e. the catch portion of the clean), the athlete/client defaults back to a quad dominant pattern. In this case, I like using drop squats (that’s what I call them – essentially you start in an athletic position and drop into a squat as fast as possible. The key is to drop down without jumping first. The hips flex rapidly and the athlete gets comfortable sitting back). Once that is mastered, box jumps and plyo variations are awesome. Emphasis on landing silently through the heels will help enforce the proper hip hinge. Not only is this great prep for an eventual hang clean, but these exercises are neuromuscular necessities for athletes to improve speed and reduce the risk of injury. Doesn’t seem like a waste of time to me….

Finally, a full clean cycle will be used. This will be the 3 components that make up the hang clean and can be used as a neural prep once the athlete has mastered it. They start with the clean pull (a rapid jump shrug), then a high pull, and finally the full hang clean. This is usually done with just the bar for 2-3 sets of about 5 reps each. Eventually, you can start loading the cycle and emphasizing the clean pull and high pull in this phase.

There are also variations you can start to use – RDL with a hang clean receive, hang clean to step up, SA snatch, just to name a few. These are great total body “connector” exercises that improve athleticism immensely.

As you can see, a beginner is still doing a whole lot of work and getting stronger, more flexible, and also improving power using this method. Most of these exercises can be used in the beginning of a workout, and other movements, like loaded pushes/pulls and other circuits will complete the workout. As I mentioned earlier, the hip hinge/landing mechanics/and core stability are all components that need to be taught and emphasized ANYWAY – so that whole ‘learning curve’ thing is really just a poor excuse. Even if you stopped here, and didn’t emphasize heavy cleans or full snatches, the Olympic lifts still create a perfect base for most of the training. From there you can go on to teach some pretty awesome deadlifts with athletes that actually have the capacity to pull from the floor.

Conditioning is not complex – or is it?

I know, the title of this post is too clever.  Thank me later.

But for real: barbell/dumbbell complexes are intense- they build strength, “blast fat” (which is a hilarious term) and give a heck of a conditioning workout in a short time.  They’re the ultimate time saver in the gym – but you get massive benefits from including them in a program.  To keep it simple, a complex is just a sequence of moves that flow together using the same modality (dumbbells or a barbell).  They’ve been written about a lot in the fitness world – but I still rarely see people program them (correctly) into their workouts.  I get why – they’re beyond a lot of people’s comfort zones, it is hard to know exactly where to put them in a program, they’re sometimes hard for beginners to write/perform on their own, and they are FAR from glamorous if done correctly.  Usually when I’m done with a few rounds of complexes, I’m laying in the middle of the gym not caring who has to step over me.  Trust me, though, they are worth every painful second.

Istvan Javorek is the father of complexes (because, with that kind of name, of course he is) and he explains his intentions with this punishing system: “My Original Goal with the Complex exercises was to find an efficient and aggressive method of performance enhancement that saves time and makes the program more enjoyable.” ….And by “enjoyable” we mean “deadly”.  But who doesn’t love blood, sweat and tears?  
I’m kidding – sort of – but these exercises really do add a lot of variety into your program and they are MUCH more entertaining than running.  Nope, that’s not an opinion – just a fact.
Similar to circuit training, these complexes are ideal for body composition changes due to the easy manipulation of work:rest ratios. Complexes will use a set weight (usually 35-55 for women, and maybe 60-75 for men) and combine movements in a specific pattern. You have a ton of flexibility in terms of how many reps, how many rounds, and how to set up the rest periods – all dependent upon training goals.  Want to get diesel?  Add more weight, go less times.  Want to go build stamina?  Drop weight, add more sets.
There are a few different ways to construct complexes, but the most important thing to keep in mind is that this is a CONDITIONING workout.  You want to perform moves in rapid succession with very little transition time – so it is important to pick moves that flow well together.  It is also awesome because you don’t have to worry about people taking your equipment – just clear some space & hit it.  For example, check this video:
When I go home to upstate NY in the winter and running outside is an absolute disaster, barbell complexes are a staple in my programming.  [One of the few reasons I’m reppin the Syracuse tshirt in the vid – also a shout out to some fabulous friends back home].  It helps me keep my strength and technique on most of my lifts and helps me stay conditioned.  I wrote up this complex in December with two goals in mind: 1) conditioning and 2) some split stance and core stability work – hence the overhead & reverse lunges. I typically pair the movements based on the ease of transitioning the bar.  In this case, I go hang clean with a high receive, which sets me up perfectly for any front loaded movement: a front squat, or in this case, a push press.  I chose the overhead lunges because the bar was already in the top position from the previous push press.  After the lunges, when I brought the bar back to chest level (front loaded position) it was easy to perform front loaded reverse lunges.  Finally, I brought the bar back down and performed the RDL+Row combo.
The other unique thing about this complex is I chose to do 1 rep of each move in succession.  I only showed one progression on the video, but one “round” of that complex consists of 3-4 times through the entire progression.  By the time the round ends, you’ve performed 4 hang cleans, 4 push presses, 4 OH lunges each side, 4 reverse lunges each side, and 4 of the RDL/Row combos.
Another (more common) approach is to perform the exercises in succession, like a circuit.  Here is another example:
In this video, I chose 4 front squats, 4 push presses, 4 reverse lunges per side, then 4 RDLs and 4 rows.  After that, you would rest for a certain time (45 sec-2 minutes, depending on your goal and your training tenure) and hit it again for a few rounds. I happen to like using 4 reps at the moment, but I’ve seen anywhere from 3-6 being used.  Keep in mind the total time you’re working & plan it accordingly.
The best way to start incorporating these into your training is to do them on their own day.  If you already have specific “cardio” or “conditioning” days built into your program, try substituting barbell complexes in there as the the main component.  You won’t really have the energy to do anything else, but you’ll become a monster at them.

There is no off switch

When you get used to this type of training, you can start playing around with when you use it.  Sometimes I save these until the end to finish with, and other times I’ll start my workout with them if I know I don’t have anything else extremely taxing planned.  There’s no “wrong” way – just make sure you’re comfortable with the moves before you try to do them.  ALSO – if you start to lose your junk and you become a hot mess, drop the weight down.  This isn’t about getting the rounds done any way possible.  Its about getting the rounds done and looking like a person.  I don’t have time for injuries, sorry.

If you use these in your training – what’s your favorite combination of moves?