Becoming an Olympic Weightlifter is like becoming a Samurai. CrossFit is like hunting dinosaurs with a canon. Both are awesome, but in totally different ways! Despite this, the two groups seem to find themselves in bed together quite often. And, increasingly, CrossFit athletes are become ever hungrier for knowledge about how they can train to compete in the sport of Weightlifting (or at least get much better at the snatch and clean and jerk) while staying true to CrossFit.
My CrossFit friends, this is for you.
In spite of their successful attempts to work together (including the first combo CrossFit/USA Weightlifting competition) Olympic Weightlifters and CrossFitters still have a love-hate relationship.
CrossFitters can find Weightlifters myopic, arrogant, and elitist. Weightlifters can find CrossFitters to be undisciplined, hot-headed, and impatient. And, they both have good reason to feel this way. Their descriptions of one another are surprisingly accurate! They don’t tell the whole story, of course, and they are gross generalizations that don’t apply across the board, but they represent a side of the truth that is correct more often than either of us would like to admit.
Olympic Weightlifters have a long history of believing themselves to be the chosen few. They believe their sport to be comprised of some of the most complex and difficult tasks of any sport on earth. They believe the type of training required to get to the top of the sport to be among the hardest (both physically, and even more so, psychologically) in existence. And they are correct.
Weightlifting is brutal, but in a truly unique way. If you are content with rudimentary skill levels and below average strength, then it is easy! But, to break the near infinite number of glass ceilings that exist in this sport, you have to spend years and years battling with a powerful amount of monotony and mental fatigue.
Combining high levels of technical mastery with huge weights is a stupid idea! But, that’s the sport.
The few people who stick with it, and do well, are a breed in themselves. They share certain odd-ball characteristics that are highly unusual in the general public. Among those traits are determinism and focus combined with patience and a “roll with the punches” attitude toward failure. These characteristics are not often found together. Usually you get someone who is determined but hot-headed and impatient, or you get a patient person who is so lax that they don’t care to try very hard (the classic Beach-Bum type). Olympic lifters need to be the best of both worlds. That is VERY rare.
But the key trait is patience. Unerring, amazing amounts of patience. It takes upwards of 10 years to get to the top in this sport, sometimes 15 or more. And the workouts are often frustrating and mind-numbingly repetitive. If nothing else, a potential weightlifter MUST be patient.
The people who have these traits will find it down-right shocking to see that others don’t. Other people will appear to be much too impatient and emotional in comparison. Weightlifters can, over the years, easily develop a sense of superiority without even realizing it. As nice as most weightlifters are, hearing them talk about other athletes (especially Powerlifters, endurance athletes, and CrossFitters) is telling.
When taken too far, they can become arrogant and elitist which leads to a belief that no other types of training have any value what-so-ever; and that everyone, regardless of their goals, should train like weightlifters to the exclusion of everything else. That is idiotic.
CrossFitters have their own issues. Just as the sport of weightlifting selects for a certain personality type, so does CrossFit.
CrossFit clubs don’t have workouts. They have mini-competitions, everyday! Nearly every “workout” is timed; the workouts are all done in the “endurance-range” (5 minutes for a round is considered short); and, the culture is aggressive. These combine to lure-in the same types of people who otherwise might have become Tri-Athletes: The classic Type-A person. (The pop-psychology term “Type-A” is useful in a conversational sense, but we should be careful not to take it too literally.)
These people have the general belief that more is always better, and that if they push harder good things will happen. Lucky for them, in the world of CrossFit, this belief system turns out to be true! (Especially in the first year or two.) If you are someone who has gone from a life of doing very little physically to full-bore CrossFit for two years, then your body is going to change dramatically, and for the better.
The success CrossFit folk get in the first couple of years is so palpable that it will confirm their initial theory that going all out, all the time, is the right way to live your life. For the same reasons, it isn’t uncommon for CrossFit athletes to be highly successful in their careers and other areas of life. They work hard, all the time, non-stop. You might call this the Uber American personality type.
The downside of such a personality is that they flat-out can’t understand how you can make progress without killing yourself. After all, so much of the success they’ve experienced in all of the areas of their life came through a “nose to the grindstone” form of hard work.
If you aren’t exhausted and dead at the end of a workout, was it really a workout? Did I elicit a training effect? Or, did I waste my time?
These questions are rattling around in the mind of CrossFit athletes every time they come in to see an Olympic lifting coach like me who makes them stick with lighter weights to work technique for an hour and then tells them to go home. WHAT?!!
I’ve always felt like it would have made more intuitive sense to have CrossFit combined with Strongman. CrossFit is really the endurance cousin of Strongman, anyway. In both sports, you take some random heavy crap and then you do a round of lifting with it for a set length of time, distance, or reps. The only real difference is the length of time, distance, or amount of weight that is on the bar/log/car.
In Strongman, the weights are stupid-heavy, the distances are short-ish, and the time over-which you’re asked to lift it is fairly short. (Anything over one minute would be considered long.) In CrossFit, they do similar “workouts”, they just do them with significantly lighter weight, for much longer distances, and for way higher reps. But, the underlying principles are the same.
Grab something with weight on it, do stuff for a while, lay on the ground to recover.
Also, in both sports, there is a wide margin of error when it comes to technique. You don’t have to spend years and years teaching your body the finer details of the log press in Strongman. You just pick the heavy son-of-bitch off the ground and press it! Similarly, kipping pull-ups, in CrossFit, have some technique, but it’s mostly just flailing around a bar as fast as you can.
The key factor in both sports is how hard you are willing to push, and for how long.
Contrast this with Olympic Weightlifting (or any other “skill” sport).
If you are off in your technique for a nanosecond during a heavy attempt, you will miss it. Period. There is no recovering from that (unless it honestly wasn’t heavy enough for you). There is the tiniest margin for error. While every lifter will have maybe one thing they do wrong consistently, they are consistent about it and have found a way to compensate for it. And they compensate in the same way every time.
Consistency is everything because in a contest you MUST do things exactly as you trained to do it. You have no time to recover. An attempt on the snatch takes less than one second from the time it leaves the ground to the time it is overhead. A clean and jerk takes longer, but most of that time is in the mid-position after the clean and before you jerk it … breathing. The actual clean and jerk each take no time at all.
No time. No room for error.
Putting the Odd-Balls Together
Most people believe the reason that there is a split between CrossFit athletes and Olympic weightlifters is because CrossFit is an endurance sport and Olympic Weightlifting is a strength sport. That is the minor reason. The REAL reason is because of the personality type that it takes to be good at one is in direct contrast to the personality type it takes to be good at the other.
Olympic weightlifters fundamentally don’t have the “go go go” attitude that is required to excel in a tough endurance sport like CrossFit or a Triathlon. They don’t even see the point. Why in the Hell would anyone find that fun?
CrossFit athletes don’t understand why Olympic lifters find it fun to go in every damned day and fail over and over again because of the tiniest of finicky details. How is that compelling?
But … here we are.
CrossFit and Olympic Weightlifting have decided to hop into bed together. Opposites attract, I guess. And there are a lot of CrossFit athletes who are genuinely interested in competing in the sport of weightlifting.
Sometimes, odd pairings make for the most fun!
I’ve found that when working with someone who does CrossFit, it is best to structure their program around their CrossFit schedule and not the other way around. CrossFit comes first.
The primary reason for this is that I only have control over the weightlifting side! But, just as importantly, CrossFit athletes love CrossFit and when they go in to workout at their CrossFit club, they are going to go all out. It will inevitably be the most recovery-taxing workouts that they do in the week. I can’t give them something equally as taxing on their recovery or I will drive them into the ground. (I know that you CrossFit folk HATE to hear that you have limits … but you do.)
Instead, let’s just assume that you will be doing at minimum 3 CrossFit workouts per week. We have no idea what these will be, so we’ll assume the worst: hard as hell, hitting the entire body, taxing every muscle, and causing substantial fatigue. We are going to have to find a way to keep you progressing in your weightlifting IN SPITE of this. It isn’t easy, but it is possible.
A lot of the training options available to people who do Olympic weightlifting and nothing else are not available to you: Russian-like periodization, Texas Method squatting, ultra high frequency training, etc. They will tap into recovery too much when combined with CrossFit. Instead, I believe the more “Bulgarian” (read: intuitive) your approach to weightlifting, the better. You will do what you can, when you can, and that’s it.
Your focus is on getting in as many good quality singles and doubles as you can, at as high a weight as you can, while keeping your technique as pretty as you can.
Sounds easy enough, right? Well, it isn’t.
Because of the previous days CrossFit workout, your body will not respond like you want it to most of the time. You will rarely have a “good” workout. You have to accept this. It is impossible for your muscles to fire at maximum the day after you beat the crap out of them doing high reps. It doesn’t matter how hard you push, or how determined you are. It isn’t going to happen.
Be cool with that.
The key to being a good weightlifter is motor learning. Your body’s nervous system must be taught a series of highly specific motor patterns via rep after rep of a movement done in exactly the same way every time. And, every time you add weight to the bar, the movement changes just a bit, meaning you have to RELEARN it all over again! This process is frustrating.
Again, you have to be cool with that.
What I’m getting at is that your weightlifting workouts will involve much less physical fatigue than they will mental fatigue. That isn’t to say, though, that there won’t be hard work. It’s just a different kind of hard work.
The biggest physical problem facing someone who comes from an endurance sport background, like CrossFit, is that their body doesn’t know HOW to recruit enough motor units to lift heavy weight. The body’s tendency to only use the minimum number of motor units makes sense for endurance sports where the weights just aren’t that heavy. Using fewer motor units conserves energy. That’s good for endurance, but it’s bad for strength.
A long-time strength athlete, on the other hand, has taught their body to use all (or as many as possible) available motor units at once on demand. If you want to lift more weight, you have to teach your body to do this. That means lots of heavy reps, moved fast, with long rest periods.
Let’s say you will be able to do at least 2, maybe 3 Olympic weightlifting workouts per week. These are them:
Snatch: 10 to 20 Singles
(Optional) Clean and Jerk: 10 Singles
Front Squat: Max Single
Clean and Jerk: 10 to 20 singles
(Optional) Snatch: 10 singles
Front Squat: Max Single
You are going to cycle these back and forth either 2 or 3 days per week. Sometimes you can “change it up” by doing a heavy double or triple on the squat. But, remember that part of the point here is to teach your body the skill of motor recruitment. This skill is best developed with low reps. Don’t fall into the bodybuilder habit of trying to “fatigue” the muscle, or “feel the burn”. That has NO place in weightlifting. The squats can be done with reps of 3 just as well as singles, but I have found that CrossFit folk need a good couple month period of heavy singles to break some of their bad habits. It’s a good learning tool. Move the weight fast, keep it heavy, and then move on.
NOTE: Keep in mind that this is a Technical sport. If you don’t have a coach to keep an eye on you when you are lifting, you will almost surely develop bad habits. These habits will come back to haunt you. At the very least, hit up a more experienced training partner to watch your lifts. I know that Olympic lifting coaches are hard to find (and it’s even harder to find ones who know what they are doing), but if you are lucky enough to live in an area with a good one, get on that! In my experience, lifters with a good coach make progress at double the pace of self-taught lifters. That is conservative. (Try learning Kung Fu on your own …)
The 10 to 20 singles of the main lift for the day are NOT all max lifts, for heavens sake!
Some will be heavy, others will be medium. Start counting once the weight is such that you have to really try hard to make it a pretty lift. Increase the weight VERY slowly on each set. If you miss a weight, or if you make it with bad form, count the lift. Then drop the weight by 10 or 20% and start over.
In the beginning, it can be useful to stick with a medium-heavy weight for ALL of your sets, keeping the weight the same trying to perfect that one lift at that one weight. But, after a few months of this, start waving the weight up and down as described above. Doing so teaches you better how to deal with the way real competitions work: You increase weight on every lift.
Take as much rest in between lifts as you can. A tendency among CrossFit lifters is to take VERY short rest periods between attempts. Sitting around for 2 or even 5 minutes between sets will feel wrong to you. It is not wrong, it is right. You are not trying to “tax” yourself, or “workout” in the way that you would be in your CrossFit club. The training here is a totally different animal.
The second Olympic lift of the day is optional. Decide on the day whether you have the energy to handle it, or if it is better to move on to the squat rack. Some days, when the previous days CrossFit workout wasn’t so bad, you’ll be able to get it all in. Other days, you won’t. Don’t feel bad about having to dump it. Learning to chill out about these kinds of things is part of your training.
When you get to the squats, the goal is to get stronger and learn how to lift in such a way that you CAN get stronger. Start with an empty bar, and slowly increase the weight on every set until you can’t move the bar fast anymore. You can “grind out” the last rep, but that’s it. All other reps must be moved as fast as you possibly can. You should move so fast that you end up on your toes at the top! I’m serious. Moving lighter weights fast increases your body’s ability to recruit fast twitch muscle fibers. You want to be fast and strong, not weak and slow.
Don’t start adding in other things!
I know that from the point of view of a CrossFit athlete the above program looks mighty boring. You do at most 3 lifts, over and over again, every week, in basically the same way, for months on end. Boring!
Well … too bad.
Learning to get good at a lift like the snatch is like learning a good golf swing. It takes a lot of practice paying close attention to detail. Part of your goal is to develop a Zen-like patience and acceptance that the journey is the thing. Channel your inner Yoda.
You can do it!
CrossFit and Olympic Weightlifting are wholly different activities. And maybe that is a good thing. A person who can develop the physical and mental skills necessary to do both will possess a remarkably rare combination of skill-sets.
Combining them isn’t easy, but then, if it was easy, you wouldn’t do it.