CrossFit | In Defense of High-Rep Olympic Lifts

In Defense of High-Rep Olympic Lifts

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ByCrossFit Training & EducationAugust 10, 2021

On Aug. 26, 2013, (yes, almost eight years ago), Mark Rippetoe pontificated in the T-Nation article “The Fallacy of High-Rep Olympic Lifting” that Olympic lifts done at high reps are not only a poor form of conditioning, they’re dangerous. Actually, this paraphrasing doesn’t do Rippetoe justice. What he really wrote in framing his argument was:

The vomit I see on the internet — complete lumbar flexion, everything pressed out, everything intentionally rebounded from the floor, all done under the watchful eye of some moron saying “Nice!” — makes me of two minds. Part of me hopes the fools hurt themselves badly (after all, orthopedic surgeons gotta eat too), and part of me hopes their incompetent, stupid-ass coaches all die in a great Job-like mass of infection (boils, abscessed hemorrhoids, lungs full of fluid, etc.).

Despite a number of logical and well-referenced rebuttals to these statements (see Jacob Tsypkin’s article HERE and Lon Kilgore’s deep thinking on the subject HERE), CrossFit trainers continue to be bombarded with attacks that require them to defend this safe, effective, and necessary component of CrossFit’s methodology.

Rippetoe’s dogmatic, if not exactly eloquent, statements on the pitfalls of high-rep Olympic lifting persist in cyberspace. Shouting about the perils of high-rep Olympic lifting makes for an easy headline for someone wanting to take a shot at CrossFit’s methodology to garner views. Unfortunately, these clickbait articles sow the seeds of doubt in trainers and athletes who begin to second-guess whether high-rep Olympic lifts are an acceptable training tool. For anyone to stop using high-rep Olympic lifting because of misinformation, thereby missing out on the countless fitness benefits these lifts offer across all rep ranges, is a threat to the comprehensiveness of the CrossFit methodology. The intent of this article is to help trainers cut through the noise of the argument. In doing so, trainers will be better prepared and well versed on the topic such that they can communicate to their clients the role Olympic weightlifting plays as part of CrossFit’s broad, general, and inclusive fitness program.

Note:Clickbait is a text or a thumbnail link that is designed to attract attention and to entice users to follow that link and read, view, or listen to the linked piece of online content, with a defining characteristic of being deceptive, typically sensationalized or misleading.

Wikipedia.com

Olympic Weightlifting: A Cornerstone of an Effective Approach

The Olympic lifts have always been a cornerstone of CrossFit training. The snatch and clean and jerk hold a prominent position in CrossFit’s foundational article “What Is Fitness?”  and are highlighted in “Fitness in 100 Words” in the same article.

The snatch and clean and jerk are unparalleled at developing many of the adaptations essential for peak fitness: speed, strength, power, flexibility, coordination, agility, accuracy, and balance. Performing high-rep sets of these movements boosts strength endurance, cardiorespiratory endurance, and stamina in spades. CrossFit programs the Olympic lifts through a wide range of rep schemes specifically to develop all these skills.

Before advancing to the counterpoints for the various criticisms of high-rep Olympic lifting, we first need to establish what high-rep lifting is. Purists will say a single set of more than 5 reps in the snatch or clean and jerk is high-rep lifting. A series of low-rep sets (1-3 reps) with little to no rest where the athlete is performing the lifts in a fatigued state, such as an EMOM, also counts as high-rep Olympic lifting. And of course, workouts like Grace, Isabel, and Randy epitomize CrossFit’s high-rep Olympic lifting workouts. So, for the purposes of this debate, high-rep Olympic lifting is defined as any single set in the snatch, clean, jerk, or clean and jerk of 5 reps or more, or a series of sets, regardless of rep number, strung together so the athlete is performing these lifts in a fatigued state. 

CrossFit’s detractors claim:

  1. Olympic lifts are dangerous at higher rep ranges because of the inevitable technical breakdown.
  2. High-rep Olympic lifting is a poor method of conditioning.
  3. High-rep Olympic lifting doesn’t build strength in the lifts.
  4. High-rep Olympic lifts erode an athlete’s technique in the classic lifts.

Below, we will delve into a deeper discussion of the counterpoints to each of these four arguments.

More broadly, critics will claim “average people” shouldn’t do these lifts at all. This line of argument often follows from an assumption that the lifts are too technical or complex to benefit the average person. But the challenge and technical complexity is what makes these movement patterns and lifts so effective. Per CrossFit’s definition of fitness, our goal is to increase work capacity across broad time and modal domains, and the Olympic lifts serve this end for the athlete who is dedicated and willing to put in the time to achieve a higher level of athletic prowess, performance, and health.

Myth 1: High-Rep Olympic Lifts Are Dangerous

Good Technique on the Path to Fitness

Before highlighting the benefits of high-rep Olympic lifting, it should be made clear there is no disagreement that any movement done with poor form is less than ideal and exposes the athlete to a greater risk of injury. This concept is not specific to the Olympic lifts and is present in the execution of any skill or capacity, whether it is fast or slow, light or heavy, small or large.

Basing the claim for the unworthiness of high-rep Olympic lifts on the assumption that they must be performed with poor technique is the strawman’s argument. CrossFit has never condoned poor technique on the path to fitness. In fact, technique is everything in CrossFit; it is at the heart of the program precisely because technique dramatically increases results while supporting safety in training. CrossFit involves incessantly drilling technique to develop great mechanics and consistency, before intensity (in terms of weight or reps or speed) is added to the mix. This is non-negotiable. If you are coaching CrossFit and you are not adhering to the mechanics-consistency-intensity charter, then you are coaching CrossFit wrong. If you are an athlete and you are skipping over mechanics and consistency to wallow in intensity, you are doing CrossFit wrong.

No Place in the Discussion

Understanding the value CrossFit places on technique effectively negates the argument that poor technique in high-rep Olympic lifts renders them dangerous, since poor movement has no place in the discussion. Opponents of high-rep Olympic lifting will say it is impossible to perform these lifts with sound technique for high reps. How can that be? CrossFit affiliates and local, regional, and Games competitions are replete with examples of individuals performing high-repetition Olympic lifts with excellent technique. Even Rippetoe acknowledges, “For an experienced lifter, high-rep snatches won’t be a problem.” Therefore, the real issue is making sure an athlete has great mechanics and consistency at the weight they aim to use before they tackle high-rep sets, especially for time — that is, making sure they attack this training method exactly the way CrossFit teaches.

It is true the Olympic lifts are technically complex. However, the contention that it takes months or years to learn these lifts adequately is simply not true. Many great lifters, weekend warriors, garage gym CrossFit athletes, and affiliate members have taught themselves these lifts in short order by studying photos or videos.

Coach Mike Burgener, a world-class weightlifting coach, is a big believer in high-rep Olympic lifts and uses them regularly with his athletes. Ironically, when Burgener first saw the workouts CrossFit was programming with snatches and cleans, he thought, “Oh my God, these guys are crazy.” But as Burgener began to expose his lifters to these workouts, he found them to be a potent tool. Burgener emphasizes the key to successfully implementing high-rep Olympic lifts is spending the time to dial in the technique first, starting with a PVC pipe and progressing from there. Only after significant technical ability has been achieved is intensity added — slowly. In Burgener’s garage, as in all the best CrossFit gyms, an athlete’s technique dictates the acceptable level of intensity. When athletes are ready to attempt a workout like Grace or Isabel for the first time, it’s not a bad idea for them to use a relatively light load and perform the workout without a timer. Burgener’s expectation for his athletes is that every rep is an “8 out of 10.” This means minor faults — such as a slightly inconsistent bar path, the feet not hitting the exact same spot on every rep, or the arms pulling a little early — might appear. Nothing dangerous at all. The athlete is displaying sound technique overall. Throughout the workout, the athlete receives coaching and makes technical adjustments to prevent more egregious faults from happening. That’s how high-rep Olympic lifts are done CrossFit-style.

Burgener regularly teaches adolescents and “newbies” how to high-hang snatch beautifully in minutes and how to do the full movements properly in a few weeks. He accomplishes this with much repetition, coaching, and the use of proper loading and rep schemes. In a relatively short period of time, Burgener’s athletes are able to prudently venture into high-rep Olympic lifting because they have ingrained the fundamental positions — they know how to set their back, move the bar, and receive the bar. They are also able to display sound technique rep after rep and to receive coaching on the fly to adjust technique as needed. These athletes understand when to slow down or rest — or even decrease weight — to prevent unacceptable technique faults such as rounding the low back, not receiving the bar properly, or using footwork that puts the knees, ankles, or hips in precarious positions.

Myth 2: High-Rep Olympic Lifts Are a Poor Conditioning Method

CrossFit uses high-rep Olympic lifts as a phenomenal conditioning tool. Coach Burgener says, “I don’t think there’s a better test for strength endurance” while adding that high-rep Olympic lifts) “develop tremendous work capacity and have major carryover to everything else. They make everything … better.”

Burgener is not the only high-level weightlifting coach who values the benefits of high-rep Olympic lifts. Jim Schmitz, a former U.S. Olympic weightlifting team coach, espouses performing sets of 10 in the clean and jerk for cardiovascular fitness and muscular endurance.

Critics of high-rep Olympic lifts claim there are much better ways to condition athletes, like hill sprints and sled pushes. Sled pushes and pulls and hill sprints are great conditioning tools that definitely have a place in a strength and conditioning program. However, these low-skill movements do not hone the most important quality a conditioning program should deliver: the ability to handle complex tasks with proper technique in a fatigued state.

The ability to maintain impeccable technique during an entire competition is the mark of every great athlete who has the label “well-conditioned” bestowed upon them, whether in the context of fighting, basketball, football, soccer, or hockey. In the heat of competition, late in the game, as an athlete’s fatigue mounts and technique begins to degrade, the athlete must be able to accept external cues from a coach or provide their own internal cues to preserve the technique required to prevail. An athlete who demonstrates this ability in action is seen as conditioned, whereas an athlete who cannot maintain or fix technique as they tire appears out of shape or not well prepared. To be clear, demonstrating proper technique under stress and fatigue is not a skill reserved for professional athletes. Anyone who wants to perform at their best in their chosen physical activity, whether it is jogging, a favorite hobby, CrossFit in the garage, or flag football, must hone this skill.

Learning how to manage fatigue while displaying optimal technique can only be trained by practicing complex tasks while fatigued. In practice, football and basketball players train precise footwork, keep their hips low, and maintain proper posture as they fatigue. In sparring, martial artists work on maintaining proper footwork, takedowns, kicking, and striking combinations as they fatigue. Soldiers shoot and move with great precision while fatigued. Consider high-quality, high-rep Olympic lifting a general-physical-preparedness (GPP) method of conditioning with no equal in developing the crucial ability to properly perform complex tasks while fatigued.

Those who have performed high-rep Olympic lifts immediately recognize the benefits of this style of training. With hill sprints and sled pushes, the athlete definitely has to strain and provide maximal effort. However, the brain needs to do very little other than think “drive the legs!” or “keep pushing!” and register the burning sensation in the legs and lungs. With a set of high-rep Olympic lifts, the brain cannot shut off and simply cheer. On every snatch or clean and jerk in a high-rep set, the athlete must assess their position every second, evaluate their technique from moment to moment, and adjust as needed on the fly. Rep after rep. This process is extremely taxing mentally. Many athletes don’t even realize how fatigued they are until they’ve completed all the reps because they have been focusing so hard on their technique. This is exactly the mental approach all athletes, whether professional or recreational, should bring to competition and everyday activities.

As a conditioning method, high-rep Olympic lifts flat-out work. Besides forcing athletes to focus on technique under stress and fatigue, these lifts are full-body, explosive movement patterns with no peer in developing athleticism. They are also a great method for training an athlete’s repetitive explosive power or ability to give maximum effort, recover during a short rest period, and repeat that maximal effort over and over without a decline in performance. Repeated maximal efforts with short recovery are critical for success in most sports. Top strength coaches, such as Josh Everett and Ethan Reeve, use high-rep Olympic lifts to develop repetitive explosive power in their athletes. For example, a set of 2 power cleans on the minute for 12 to 15 minutes almost perfectly simulates the total work as well as the work-to-rest ratio experienced on a typical drive down the field in football. The cleans are performed explosively, aggressively, and with great technique to mimic the demands of a play. This is highly effective conditioning for sport. This type of training also transfers incredibly well to everyday life and preparing for unknown and unknowable tasks we can’t predict but need to be ready for.

Myth 3: High-Rep Olympic Lifts Hurt Technique in the Classic Lifts

There are a few differences in technique between the high-rep version of the Olympic lifts and the classic lifts used in competition for maximal load. Athletes performing high-rep Olympic lifts tend to set up with their hips a little higher in more of a deadlift position than the “squatty” starting position used for maximal lifts. The higher-hip starting position helps save the legs from fatiguing and makes it easier to breathe in the bottom position. It is also the most efficient position for the touch-and-go reps many athletes use to string reps together. Also, the feet tend to stay in the same spot during high-rep lifts instead of sliding from the jumping position to the squat position as in maximal lifts.

These are minor variations that have evolved to support the task of moving submaximal weight for reps, quickly. The major components of the lifts, including how the bar is received in the top position, the strong low-back position, and the triple extension of the ankles, knees, and hips to generate vertical momentum on the bar, all remain consistent regardless of whether the goal is maximal load or total reps. Instead of being detrimental, as some claim, to one’s technique in the max clean and jerk or snatch, high-rep Olympic lifting can help athletes improve their technique in a few notable ways.

First, as an athlete fatigues during a high-rep set, they must focus on executing a strong, explosive finish with the second pull to get the bar into the receiving position. It is not uncommon for athletes to learn how to really “finish” for the first time in this fatigued state.

A great finish position

Similarly, the skill of effectively pulling oneself under the bar is sometimes best learned in a fatigued state. Whether moving into a power or squat receiving position, most novice lifters just drop to receive the bar instead of actively pulling themselves under. However, as fatigue accumulates with multiple reps and the bar isn’t “jumped” as high, athletes are forced to pull themselves under to receive the bar correctly. Once an athlete feels the difference between dropping and pulling under, they can use this skill for maximal lifts. In the end, our brains are amazing computers capable of analyzing and adapting to many different scenarios. Just as an athlete can successfully employ slight variations in technique for ring and bar muscle-ups, back squats, front squats, and overhead squats, the same holds true for snatches and clean and jerks. The basic principles for each movement remain the same. Instead of causing confusion and inconsistency, these variations enhance skill in the other related movements.

Myth 4: High-Rep Olympic Lifts Don’t Make You Stronger

CrossFit has never made the assertion that high-rep Olympic lifts are the best way to increase one’s record snatch or clean and jerk. CrossFit programs the high-rep versions of these lifts as a phenomenal conditioning tool, improving cardiovascular endurance, strength endurance, stamina, repetitive explosive power, and the ability to perform complex tasks while fatigued. That said, the use of high-rep Olympic lifts can, indirectly, lead to better numbers on the platform. High-rep Olympic lifts can be used in the same way high-rep squats, sled pushes, and calisthenic circuits are used by powerlifters to increase work capacity. Increased work capacity allows for more heavy work to be done in workouts and ultimately leads to new personal records in the lifts. After a workout like Isabel or 10 clean and jerks at body weight, 3 sets of 1 at 90% in the snatch, snatch balance, and overhead squat feels like a deload! Furthermore, the mental toughness developed by high-rep Olympic lifting helps athletes cope with greater workloads in training as well.

Developing the capacity to do more work per session is a key ingredient in achieving better results in a sport like weightlifting. Top male CrossFit athletes who regularly engage in high-rep Olympic lifts as part of their sport are also snatching over 300 lb. and clean-and-jerking close to 400 lb. Their female counterparts are snatching close to 200 lb. and clean-and-jerking around 250 lb. These competitors display astounding strength not only in the Olympic lifts but in all types of challenges. And while it’s easy to highlight the tremendous capacity of CrossFit Games athletes when making a point about building strength, a visit to any affiliate will reveal the impressive strength levels CrossFit athletes all over the world are developing. The CrossFit methodology, high-rep Olympic lifts included, makes you stronger at everything.

When Asked the Question

Poorly executed Olympic lifts do not belong anywhere in this debate and are simply a smoke screen obscuring the actual training adaptations and benefits. High-rep Olympic lifts are a great tool when used properly — in the way CrossFit has always intended.

To paraphrase Lon Kilgore’s eloquent argument in “Conjectural Fatigue: High-Rep Weightlifting”: The best strategy for Olympic lifting (and all movements, really) is to always strive for the best technique on every single repetition while not adopting a dogmatic stance about rep ranges. Both ends of the repetition continuum (low rep to high rep) produce desirable adaptations effectively and safely.

The next time someone questions the safety or efficacy of high-rep Olympic lifts, use the information in this article to broaden their understanding of the lifts and the safe, effective, and necessary role the lifts play within the CrossFit methodology. Having a logical, well-articulated response to an athlete’s concerns reinforces the trust the athlete has in their trainer’s dedication to keeping them safe and making them better.

Comments on In Defense of High-Rep Olympic Lifts

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Thomas Finklea
August 13th, 2021 at 2:20 pm
Commented on: In Defense of High-Rep Olympic Lifts

mechanics-consistency-intensity: if it's not reinforced from the get go you end up with consistently poor-mechanics done at high intensity.

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Richard Norris
August 11th, 2021 at 3:29 pm
Commented on: In Defense of High-Rep Olympic Lifts

These arguments are just as solid when applied to any sport. Watching the Olympics, all those athletes have achieved elite status because they have listened to their coaches who have dialled them in constantly, incessantly on holding technique even when fatigued. Each time this is done builds resilience and the ability to go a little further, a little harder, a litter faster the next time. Success and excellence are developed incrementally over time.


Start with the basics. Crush the fundamentals. When the focus is form before speed (mechanics-consistency before intensity), adaptations and, thus, fitness improves.

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