“Olympic lifts” commonly refers to the snatch and clean-and-jerk exercises, and their variations, whether or not one is competing in the sport of Olympic weightlifting. One of the oldest forms of Olympic sport, the Olympic lifts are a tradition in sport training for sports other than Olympic weightlifting. I don’t use Olympic lifts for rowing training, which is a somewhat controversial position. In a 2011 study of Great Britain rowing coaches and rowing strength coaches, 26 of the 30 coaches responded that they used some sort of Olympic lifting in their training program, with 19 coaches awarding the top importance rank to the clean exercise (eight coaches selected the squat).
I believe that Olympic lifts are remnants of traditionalist coaching dogma, and that other exercises are more effective for the goal of developing strength and power to build better rowers. The Olympic lifts are a time-intensive method of training, and are too dissimilar to the rowing stroke to expect significant return on training time investment to rowing performance. In this article, I’ll explain why I don’t use Olympic lifts for rowing training, and what I use instead to build strength, power, and muscle mass to carryover to rowing performance and reducing risk of injury.
The Purpose of Olympic Lifts
The explicit purpose of Olympic lifts is to compete in the sport of Olympic weightlifting. Olympic weightlifting is the sport of three attempts for a one-rep maximum in the disciplines of the snatch and clean-and-jerk. The lifter who lifts the most combined weight between the two lifts is victorious. Olympic weightlifters may also use variations of these lifts in their training, to improve performance in these two lifts. Some sports and athletes have found a utility for the Olympic lifts and their variations in training for performance in a sport other than Olympic weightlifting. In the USA, this commonly includes football and track and field, though other sports and athletes may use them as well. However, there is nothing about Olympic lifting that inherently develops strength, power, and muscle mass better than any other lifts, and there are a number of drawbacks to Olympic lifting as a training method for other sports.
Olympic lifts in non-Olympic weightlifting sports are commonly vaunted for their development of “athleticism” and “explosiveness.” Next time you hear someone use these terms, ask them specifically what they mean. Athleticism is defined by one dictionary in exceedingly broad terms as, “the physical qualities that are characteristic of athletes, such as strength, fitness, and agility.” Explosiveness might be defined as the ability to exert force rapidly, synonymous with “power” or “rate of force development.” It makes little sense to restrict the development of either of these concepts to the training methods of one single sport, or to one style of lifting weights. Furthermore, Olympic lifters themselves typically do a great amount of general squatting, pressing, and pulling exercises to complement their sport-specific training in the Olympic lifts. If the Olympic lifts were such comprehensive developers of athleticism and explosiveness, one might think that Olympic lifters would perform only these exercises in their training. That most do not (and yes, I do know about the so-called Bulgarian method) suggests that there is more to developing athleticism and explosiveness, to say nothing of sport-specific performance, than two single lifts.
Olympic Lifts Versus the Rowing Stroke
To generalize the training of Olympic lifts beyond the sport of Olympic weightlifting, one major purpose of Olympic lifts is to develop the physical skill of ballistic triple extension, or rapid full extension of the hips, knees, and ankles in sequence. This is an important sport-specific movement for athletes whose sports require jumping, sprinting, and throwing. Olympic lifting is certainly one way to effectively develop this skill. However, rowing requires exactly zero jumping, sprinting, or throwing, and triple extension is not a sport-specific skill for rowers. The stroke cycle takes rowers through full extension of the knees, but only partial extension of the ankles and hips. A boat-stopping crab is the only time a rower reaches full triple extension of the ankles, knees, and hips.
Teammates observe with horror as stroke demonstrates triple extension in the rowing stroke. [Row2k]
The Olympic lifts have an additional sport-specific requirement that is not shared by rowing. As the lifter reaches full triple extension in the propulsive phase, they enter what is referred to as the “third pull,” in which the athlete reverses the direction of their body and pulls under the bar to catch the bar across their shoulders in the clean-and-jerk, or overhead in the snatch. The athlete then performs a bottom position front squat or overhead squat to complete the lift. This allows the lifter to lift significantly more weight than if they simply expected the bar to float to their shoulders or overhead following triple extension. This is another key feature of training the Olympic lifts that is utterly dissimilar to the rowing stroke. The propulsive phase of Olympic lifts lasts only until the athlete reaches triple extension, at which point they enter rapid flexion against an external load to receive the bar. The propulsive phase of the rowing stroke lasts from the catch until the finish, at which point the blade is unloaded and flexion occurs very gradually (relative to propulsion) as the athlete enters the recovery phase of the stroke.
Below, the finish positions of the Olympic snatch and rowing stroke propulsive phases.
Even if we ignore the “third pull,” and only focus on the propulsive phase power application, we still see marked differences in power application between the rowing stroke and Olympic lifts. The Olympic lift force curve is more similar to what we might expect from a single sculler or small boat, characterized by more gradual force application due to the slower speed and higher per-stroke load. Rowers in larger, faster, team boats with a lighter per-stroke load will tend to have a force curve characterized by high early drive force, peaking around 40 percent of the drive. This is a crucial skill for faster-moving team boats, so that all rowers apply power simultaneously and effectively. Below are three force curves for the rowing stroke, Olympic clean, and Olympic snatch, to demonstrate this difference in propulsive power application.
Better Tools than Olympic Lifts for Rowing
We’ve identified three major problems in the Olympic lift carryover assumption:
#1. Dissimilarity to the rowing stroke in finish positions
#2. Different propulsive phase muscular sequencing
#3. Different propulsive phase power application
An additional drawback to the Olympic lifts is the amount of training time required to achieve proficiency in the Olympic lifts. Olympic lifting is self-limiting in technique. If you are not technically proficient through the highly refined motor pattern of the Olympic lift exercises, you will not be able to lift enough weight to stimulate gains in strength, power, or muscle mass. Compared to other exercises, it’s much harder to achieve a level of proficiency in the Olympic lifts to be able to lift appreciable weight. For example, the hex bar deadlift is a relatively simple motor pattern, and trainees will be able to perform close to their limit strength within a few training sessions. We can then use the hex bar deadlift to develop maximum strength, muscle hypertrophy, and power, by altering the sets, reps, and load of the exercise. The Olympic clean is a complex motor pattern, and it may take weeks or months for a trainee to be able to lift a weight that is close to their limit strength.
This presents a problem for coaches who wish to use Olympic lifts for rowing training. Rowers are already highly focused on developing rowing technique, which requires great physical and mental effort. Adding to this training load with yet more highly technical, though quite different, physical movements is likely to be very frustrating for both the athlete and the coach, and a poor use of limited training time. The counter-argument to this point should not be to lower the expected technical proficiency of Olympic lifts and perform them poorly to achieve a faster training time or get closer to limit strength. Common Olympic lift errors of early arm bend, poor power sequencing, failure to reach full triple extension, and spreading the feet to catch the bar rather than learning to pull under the bar (aka “the starfish catch”) all reduce the effectiveness of the lifts, expose the lifter to increased risk of injury, and in general do no one any good.
Some might suggest using simpler variations of Olympic lifts. I think there’s an argument to be made here, and on the few occasions when I have used Olympic lifts for rowing, it has typically been a high pull or muscle snatch variation. However, the express purpose of these lifts is still training ballistic triple extension and rapid propulsive reversal, two complex motor patterns that do not occur in rowing, so while these exercises are simpler and do reduce teaching time investment, I still believe other exercises will offer more carryover to rowing performance with even less complexity and teaching time. When I have used them, it has been with rowers who are highly proficient already, usually have some Olympic lift training time already invested from prior training, and have mostly exhausted other forms of strength training with more direct carryover to rowing. We are in the “turn over every stone” phase of their strength training to try to find marginal gains.
What Olympic lifting does do well is teach power development from the lower body, power transfer through the torso, and power expression on an implement held in the hands. This is a similar skill to rowing, though again, achieved through very different physical movements. Olympic lifting also teaches a similar mindset for power development that maximizes lower body power through a relaxed, though stable, upper body, and does not reward an approach that makes heavy use of the upper body, though again, achieved through different propulsive phase sequencing. There are many other exercises and methods might we use to achieve these goals, without the larger investment of teaching and practicing time to achieve proficiency, with less risk of injury, and with better carryover to rowing performance.
Lower Body Strength and Power
Squat and hinge exercises develop general lower body strength and power. We use strength training to develop general strength and power, and rowing training to improve application of strength and power to the rowing stroke, to improve rowing performance. Single-leg squats and two-leg squats, building up to the barbell front squat, develop leg extension strength, power, and lower body muscle mass. Hip hinge exercises like Romanian deadlift and hex bar deadlift, as well as supporting exercises like the Nordic hamstring curl or glute-ham raise, develop posterior chain strength through simpler movement patterns. Train these exercises for strength and muscular development in the off-season, and then transition to a focus on rate of force development and peak power during the pre-season and in-season phases.
Plyometric exercises like jump and throw variations allow us to train rate of force development with lighter loads and more complete acceleration. Even lifting with full explosive intent, such as in the pre-season and in-season phases, involves an element of deceleration as the athlete comes to the top or lockout of the exercise. Jumps and throws allow the athlete to accelerate through the entire propulsive phase, because they either leave the ground at the end of the jump or release the ball at the end of the throw. This is an effective and economical way to train rate of force production with very minimal requirement of teaching time, additional equipment, and injury risk. Watch my video below for demonstrations and cues of a dozen different plyometric exercises I use with rowers, including countermovement, non-countermovement, and seated jumps, as well as the backwards overhead and forwards overhead medicine ball throw.
Kettlebell Swing for Power Application
The kettlebell swing is my go-to exercise for similar propulsive motion to the rowing stroke. Unlike the Olympic lifts, the kettlebell swing has no “third pull” phase. The lifter accelerates the kettlebell through the hinge motor pattern, with shoulders in the packed position, reaches hip extension and the end of the propulsive phase with minimal contribution from the upper body, and then decelerates the implement during the recovery phase. The kettlebell swing is a simple and effective exercise to develop lower body strength, power, and muscle, in a way that at least does not conflict with, and I believe benefits, the technical development of the rowing stroke. There are many kettlebell exercises beyond the simple swing, too, which we can use depending on available loading and athlete ability.
Shoulder Girdle Stability
I prefer to take more of a hypertrophy training approach for the scapular muscles of the shoulder girdle. The muscles of the lower and middle trapezius, rhomboids, and shoulder external rotators are commonly underdeveloped in rowers, due to a stroke cycle that emphasizes the powerful latissimus dorsi (lats) muscle and upper trapezius fibers. We begin with unloaded YWT raises to learn to control the small scapular muscles. We progress to lightly loaded YWT raises, band pullaparts, face pulls, and heavier, more compound exercises like the one-arm row, x-band row, and inverted bodyweight row. We train these for general strength and hypertrophy year-round, at greater volumes and intensities when rowing training is less intense, then scaling back when rowing training is more intense. Rowers can then apply their strength and stability in this muscle group to the stroke, and practice lower body ballistic power with shoulder stability on the erg or water.
You Might Use Olympic Lifts for Rowing If…
You just plain want to. This isn’t a good reason, but it is a reason. I am not so constitutionally anti-Olympic lifts that I would stifle an athlete’s enthusiasm for strength training to tow this particular line. (Bench pulls though…) I believe that coaches have a responsibility to demonstrate deeper thinking and better reasoning, in all areas of training.
Your coach requires them, or your future coach will require them. I believe that a primary responsibility of a junior coach or strength coach of junior rowers is to prepare athletes to row at the next level. If a rower is a junior or senior and has committed to a college program that places a priority on Olympic lifting, then introducing and developing this skillset is a part of preparing the athlete to succeed at the next level. This does not mean you need to design a whole program around the Olympic lifts. In these cases, I have used one variation after the full-body warmup, as a sort of ballistic warmup for the main work and assistance work lifting. The goal is basic technical development, and therefore the athletes should not exert themselves heavily in this part of the training session. Warm up, work up, and do 3-7 sets of 3 reps on an Olympic lift variation with 1-2 minutes of rest between sets, without thinking too much about the weight, and then move on to your other strength training work.
The rower is already proficient in Olympic lifting. If a rower has already invested the training time in Olympic lifts to reach proficiency sufficient for effective training, then Olympic lifts can be used to effectively develop strength and power. This may be the case with an athlete beginning rowing from a background in football, track and field, Olympic lifting, or Crossfit. I still think Olympic lifts are overrated for development of stroke power, due to the lack of triple extension and the non-existent “third pull” in the rowing stroke, but at least we’ve mitigated the big drawback here by having someone else invest the time to develop proficient technique.
Of course, it is ultimately your decision whether or not to use Olympic lifts in your training. I have presented my training philosophy and why Olympic lifts do not fit my training philosophy. To summarize, the Olympic lifts are too dissimilar to the rowing stroke. Triple extension is the focal point of Olympic lifting, but rowers are only ever in partial extension in the rowing stroke. Olympic lifters must contend with the “third pull” phase of the lift, in which they enter rapid flexion against the bar to receive it in the bottom squat position, while the recovery phase of the rowing stroke is unloaded, and occurs in an entirely different motor pattern. Using Olympic lifts in rowing training adds too much complexity, and requires too much teaching and practicing time, compared to other exercises that are easier for athletes to master and use to build strength, power, and muscle mass. After all, all strength training is general training for rowing. We must keep the goal of building better rowers our goal, and not get caught up in making better lifters for the sake of making better lifters.
Updated January, 2024