Is it difficult to teach yourself the more advanced Olympic lifts? (snatch, clean, etc.)

Is it difficult to teach yourself the more advanced Olympic lifts? (snatch, clean, etc.)

If you’re thinking about joining a box soon or just at a local gym and wanting to get a feel for Olympic lifting is there a way how to learn these movements easier? I see folks in gyms daily attempting Olympic lifts, basic squat movements , dead lifts etc and I shudder at both the risk of injury and more often than not complete waste of time as the movements are either incomplete, weights to heavy or being executed in a manner that cannot achieve the desired stimulus.

The questions that you need to ask yourself before deciding to self-teach is whether you have some knowledge of lifting and know important basics like avoiding knee cave, maintaining core stability, reaching full extension and maintaining a neutral spine? Do you have decent body awareness and either a mirror or recorder to compare to what you're looking at online? Are you comfortable staying at low weights for a long time until you build up muscle memory? Are you looking at a reliable source, and have you seen what mistakes to avoid?

It is possible to learn the basics of the lifts if you were to watch a YouTube video and film yourself doing them, but you'd be better off learning with a coach present. Barely anyone starts Olympic lifts knowing how to Olympic lift. You quickly learn that you have no idea what you are doing until someone shows you and it’s better to learn the correct foundation techniques than having to relearn something fundamental later. Even experienced lifters are saddled with this problem when allowing small form issues to creep into their lifts.

You need to be self-aware and intuitive to self-teach. It takes thousands of reps and thoughtful analysis to do. Taking videos, absorbing content and knowledge, comparing your videos frame by frame to reputable sources for what optimal technique looks like. It takes thousands of reps to develop feeling for small nuances in technique. Feel the differences in how the bar travels and how connected you feel to the bar.  Often even being coached in groups can result in poor technique and form requiring dedicated focus to correct. Bad form in one lift will show up in all your lifts.

Often the biggest problem (as with a lot of powerlifters, body builders, gym bunnies and former athletes who never focused on Olympic lifting) is lack of mobility. Front rack positions, shoulder mobility, weak grip strength, tight quads and hamstrings and wrist issues all contribute to poor form and need to be addressed first.  If you have no mobility problems, you could in all essence teach yourself to a degree. If you have mobility problems, work on drills, stretches and exercises to potentially get rid of the issues and get a coach or join a Crossfit box. Many lifters hide poor technique behind strength. I have seen athlete’s that can barely overhead squat, but they can bench 150kg, squat 150 kg and dead lift 200kg. The squat snatch for many is nearly impossible with ankle and shoulder mobility that’s weak and upper back strength that’s questionable.

I have seen many trying to learn by themselves and then give up due to lack of progress and frustration with some of the lifts. These are often good athletes that when spending a little time with a coach show remarkable improvement.  Its more than just demonstrating correct technique that makes the difference. Real time feedback with small relentless adjustments to form and technique hugely contribute to improved lifts.

Trying to learn to snatch without a coach is tough. Recording yourself and posting/sharing it for feedback can be helpful, but nothing beats someone just telling you what to do right there in the moment. Notable though that’s it way more difficult to coach someone who watched some videos & thinks that they have an idea how to do stuff vs someone who comes in fresh and is ready to learn with no bad technique already developed. Even experienced athletes that are above average lifters find adjusting to new coaches hard. Keep it simple and get the right foundations from the word go. A coach will not only help with you with form but also make the smallest corrections necessary to get you moving efficiently.            

There is too much technique that will be hard to reprogram if you develop/teach yourself bad habits or poor form. One on one coaching has many benefits that are not possible to get in group Olympic lifting classes. While classes are great, they are often time constricted and don’t allow for focused attention to a single lift for the duration of a class. This is often needed.

Athletes with experience are regularly surprised by how much they can improve form and technique when having one on one sessions and this just highlights the need to start with a coach from the first moment you need to learn a stable platform. While demonstrating technique is critical, I believe that real-time feedback is critical to improving a lifters from and technique.

As an added bonus you will see much improved strength gains while avoiding injury with correct form.

Charles Lubbe is co-owner and head coach at Crossfit Zest for Life , Queenswood , Pretoria. Call 0717287835 or email for a session.

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