5 Reasons Functional Fitness Athletes Can Benefit from “Formal” Weightlifting

Being a weightlifting coach at a premiere CrossFit® gym in New York City, I have had the opportunity to work with many members and drop-ins from all over the globe, who in one way or another have embraced the functional fitness movement that started nearly some 10 years ago.

Coming from a much more formal background of exercise physiology, bio-mechanics, and strength and conditioning” specifically how it relates to sports performance (D1 football, baseball, and now D3 wrestling, softball, baseball, and track and field), I have had to learn the ways of the evolved fitness environment. In the competitive functional fitness world, athletes need to be strong, powerful, and have an “engine”, all while staying as efficient with the movements and breathing as possible.

At the beginning of the development of my barbell club, Union Square Barbell, I trained a wide array of athletes. While a select few of them were weightlifters looking to progress, there we at least half of every class, if not ¾ of the class, taking barbell club to increase their strength, power, and ability to perform during WODs and Open workouts.

My athletes, who have been training consistently Tuesdays and Saturdays with me and my fellow colleagues for nearly 15 months, have come to me feeling exuberant about their “stunning” improvement in barbell-centric WODs and their ability to stay efficient throughout moderate to heavy loaded movements.

As I took a step back at what I have learned in the past year and a half, I was able pinpoint five aspect of weightlifting that I have relentlessly beat into my athletes.

Therefore, in this article, I will share with you five (5) tips that can help competitive and recreational functional fitness athletes improve their competitive and class WOD performance via weightlifting.

1. High Emphasis on Positioning While Squatting

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This is HUGE in weightlifting, as the squat positioning (both back and front) is intended to specifically strengthen the body so that the force production capacity is highly transferable to the snatch and clean and jerk. Maintaining a strong, upright torso is not only key in weightlifting (snatches, cleans, and jerks), it can also significantly affect an athlete’s performance during wall balls, shoulder to overhead movements, power movements (snatches, cleans, jerks), push presses, thrusters, lunges, etc. The strength and movement specific benefits of formal weightlifting training can highly benefit competitive and recreational functional fitness athletes.

2. Using the Legs on Every Lift

With the exception of strict bodyweight movements (push ups, handstand push ups, pull ups, dips, toes to bar, etc), athletes who learn to use their legs can benefit dramatically during WODs and training sessions. In weightlifting, as well as most human endeavors (seeing we are upright species on two feet), the legs and hips play a pivotal role in expression of physical strength, power, and movement. Weightlifting can teach lifters how to integrate fluidity in their pressing movements, jerks, and pulls (as well as more competitive functional fitness movements such as wall balls, thrusters, etc), and help to sustain those movement intensities longer. The legs are the biggest muscle group in the body, and learning how to integrate them in nearly every workout and WOD may even help athletes perform at a given intensity longer and move more energy efficient.

3. More Individualized Training

While this may sound like a shameless plug, many functional fitness athletes/members can benefit immensely from taking 1-2 days per week of formal weightlifting classes. The added emphasis on the snatch, clean, jerk, and foundational strength (specifically the ability to move moderate to heavy loads with impeccable form) can help many lifters become more muscular, be more mobile, and be able to express their newly developed strength and power better. Additionally, a good weightlifting coach will be able to offer you feedback and even alter your lifts to specifically address your individual faults to help you maximize your training and time investment.

4. No Tap and Go Reps

While barbell cycling is a very critical skill for WODs and functional fitness athletes, I suggest not using tap and go methods in the developmental and formal training of the olympic lifts. While I do feel that athletes do need to integrate cycling barbell work into training regimens, the carry-over to maximal performance in the snatch and or clean and jerk is little to none. Reason being, in weightlifting, and in the expression of maximal snatch/clean and jerk abilities, an athlete must accelerate a barbell from a resting position, which will in turn help them develop the strength, power, and skill that is necessary to increase their 1-rep maxes in the Olympic lifts.

Additionally, and more importantly, tap and go reps can mask deficiencies in a lifter’s pulling strength, positioning and balance, and can hinder the corrective processes that must take place in order to address technical faults with the formal Olympic lifts that many novice and recreational weightlifters may posses.

5. Increased Focus on a Balanced Lift Setup

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When I start a barbell session with my athletes, I often run through the workout card, demo movements, and offer some key words of advice on how to attack the training session. More often than not I will tell lifters to take more time to find an optimal setup position, instead of locking, loading, and pulling the bar with zero to little mental awareness of foot pressure, torso angles, and bracing. In weightlifting, the lift starts before the barbell is moving.

A lifter needs to become more aware of their start positions, and repeat that process for thousands of reps to solidify the proper positioning. Once they have solidified a smooth and strong setup, they can slowly apply that to heavy Olympic lifts and more faced-paced WODS. In the event they fail recognize the importance of a proper setup and first pull, they very well can hinder maximal performance, and in turn all performance in between.

Final Words

By taking some extra time to become better at the formal weightlifting movements fitness athletes and community members can positively impact their performances in class WODs, formal Olympic lifting (snatch and clean and jerk), and even continue to develop a stronger, more stable training base.

Editors note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

Featured Image: @lisahaefnerphoto on Instagram

Mike Dewar

Mike Dewar

Mike holds a Master's in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor's in Exercise Science. Currently, Mike has been with BarBend since 2016, where he covers Olympic weightlifting, sports performance training, and functional fitness. He's a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and is the Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at New York University, in which he works primarily with baseball, softball, track and field, cross country. Mike is also the Founder of J2FIT, a strength and conditioning brand in New York City that offers personal training, online programs for sports performance, and has an established USAW Olympic Weightlifting club.

In his first two years writing with BarBend, Mike has published over 500+ articles related to strength and conditioning, Olympic weightlifting, strength development, and fitness. Mike’s passion for fitness, strength training, and athletics was inspired by his athletic career in both football and baseball, in which he developed a deep respect for the barbell, speed training, and the acquisition on muscle.

Mike has extensive education and real-world experience in the realms of strength development, advanced sports conditioning, Olympic weightlifting, and human movement. He has a deep passion for Olympic weightlifting as well as functional fitness, old-school bodybuilding, and strength sports.

Outside of the gym, Mike is an avid outdoorsman and traveller, who takes annual hunting and fishing trips to Canada and other parts of the Midwest, and has made it a personal goal of his to travel to one new country, every year (he has made it to 10 in the past 3 years). Lastly, Mike runs Rugged Self, which is dedicated to enjoying the finer things in life; like a nice glass of whiskey (and a medium to full-bodied cigar) after a hard day of squatting with great conversations with his close friends and family.

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