Practice Makes Perfect

The breakdown of technique in the O-lifts at five or six reps can be managed by wisdom in programming.
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The late, great martial arts expert Bruce Lee once said, “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” In other words, effectiveness only comes from good technique, and good technique only comes from practice. To become proficient at the Olympic lifts, for example, there is simply no bypassing regular practice with a good coach to nail down their many technical complexities.

Olympic Lifts

But if good technique comes only from repeated practice, it follows that the corollary is also true: If you practice bad technique, you will become good at bad technique. CrossFit has been criticized for including the highly technical Olympic lifts in fatiguing WODs. That criticism is not without merit because research has clearly shown that when performing the complex, fatiguing Olympic lifts, technique begins to break down at five or six reps. That’s one of the main reasons weightlifters will rarely, if ever, do a set of snatches or clean-and-jerks that’s greater than six reps. In fact, most sets weightlifters perform are at three reps or under.

There you see the twofold basis of the criticism of WODs like “Grace” (30 reps of clean-and-jerks for time). First, because technique begins to break down at five or six reps, the reps occurring after that are simply reinforcing bad technique. This will negatively affect that athlete’s one-rep max in the clean-and-jerk, which CrossFitters do assess and also use for subsequent programming based on a percentage of that one-rep max.

Second, performing complex lifts like the Olympic lifts — that require speed — with compromised technique is a great way to become injured.

So what does that mean? Should CrossFitters never hit a WOD like Grace? No, that’s not the point. But this information does help us identify how and when a person should perform multiple Olympic lifts in one set and what adjustments can be made, especially when that set is being done by a beginner or for time.

Keep in mind that the idea behind a WOD like Grace is for the athlete to develop or exhibit his or her capacity for metabolic power (the ability to generate energy for muscle activity). An exercise like the clean-and-jerk, which exacts a high metabolic cost, would seem perfect for such a challenge. However, because there are other factors to consider — the complexities of the Olympic lifts, their learning curve, breakdown of technique and injury potential — we would do well to make one of the following adjustments for those who cannot yet perform repeated reps of a clean-and-jerk in a technically efficient manner:

1) Have the athlete perform a different, less-technically complicated lift but one with a high metabolic cost that would bring about a very similar result. The deadlift and back squat are good substitution options. They are less complex but use a large percentage of the body’s musculature. (The back squat uses 244 different muscles, for example.) 

2) Substitute a movement that uses the same basic biomechanical patterns so motor learning and technique development continue but without the usual level of technical demand and subsequent injury potential. Try overhead squats (essentially the position of the catch in the snatch) instead of snatches or power cleans instead of the clean-and-jerk.

3) Adjust the WOD so there is sufficient time between sets. That’s a way to maintain some emphasis on metabolic conditioning but also to keep the number of sets high and reps low in a timed workout. Try a snatch ladder or program an E2MO2M (every two minutes on the two minutes) with two reps per set.

Remember, when it comes to the Olympic lifts, technique is king. Never sacrifice technique, especially if you’re a beginner. We would all do well to listen to the research and ensure that those performing multiple reps of the Olympic lifts are aware of the inherent dangers and are biomechanically efficient at them before attempting such a workout.