The olympic lifts, the Snatch and Clean & Jerk are two of the most complex movements to master, they require lots of practice to develop the strength, speed, power, flexibility, balance, accuracy and co-oridination to perform them well, so why do we make you practice them?
If we remind ourselves of the ten skills of fitness as defined by CrossFit (cardiovascular endurance, strength, stamina, speed, power, flexibility, balance, co-ordination, accuracy and agility) the olympic lifts covers a large number of these skills so it makes sense to practice them, but theres more to it than that.
There are two main goals in CrossFit, 'general physical preparedness' (GPP) which when we drill down into it means, preventing sickness and decrepitude as we age, taking the body into health, wellness and fitness or CrossFit as a sport and the development of high level athletes.
To achieve GPP we need to choose movements that are going to solicit the correct neuromuscular response and be relevant to the ten skills of fitness, hence the use of the olympic lifts. Our nervous system plays a vital roll in achieving health and fitness as this is the channel via which the brain communicates with the rest of the body, not just muscles but all vital organs, right down to a cellular level. How well the body maintains health relies heavily on the nervous system being free to send fast accurate signals back and forth from brain to body and visa versa. As we age, the better we can maintain these signals the more likely we are to stay in a state of good health, with the ability to react quickly. We can train the nervous system to send fast accurate signals by learning complex motor patterns and developing the neuromuscular response.
Have you ever watched an Olympic lifter in competition and marvelled at how fast they can move?
Learning movement like the Snatch and Clean & Jerk develops, not only a whole body strength but speed and power. Training the speed at which we can recruit muscle fibre (rate of force development) is a primary way of training the nervous system. The goal is to train movement to the point of unconscious competence, they no longer require conscious learning but are an instant reaction. Elite Olympic Lifters have reached this point with their sport. Their reactions to the bar are instant and an unconscious process. Our aim in CrossFit is not necessarily to become elite Olympic Lifters but to continually strive to reach a level of unconscious competence in movement. If we continually train to reach this level, in some instances the nervous system can become so accomplished at translating the messages that it can bypass the brain completely.
Having the ability to react quickly throughout life is crucial and even life saving. Image, you are walking along and you slip on some ice, what is the first thing that happens? You put your arms/hands out to balance you. It's not a conscious reaction, the reaction is a reflex produced but the nervous system. The longer we can maintain the ability to react the longer we can maintain a quality of life. We can even go as far as to say that learning and practicing complex motor patterns can have help to prevent deterioration of brain function and the development of diseases like Dementia.
The ultimate goal for most athletes is to develop speed and power. Boxing, football, tennis as examples all require the athlete to react quickly and create powerful movement. They also require the athlete to spend the majority of their time on the forefoot, the boxer must stay 'on his toes' as must the tennis player. We run, jump and react on our forefoot, not on our heel. Despite popular belief, conventional heavy weightlifting which focus primarily on developing muscle hypertrophy, is not a comprehensive means of developing better athletes. Excessive training of maximal strength with heavy loads and slow resistance inhibits the ability to perform complex motor tasks which is usually the most technical phase of sports development. Over use of maximal force can even regress your accuracy by over developing prime movers in a linear pattern. To put it simply, the heavier the weight and slower the movement, the slower and less efficient the muscle contraction and movement become as a result. This impairs the ability to develop the power and speed required for the majority of sports, in the simplest terms it is "muscle memory" you move the way you train.
So you can see for athletes to develop true speed and power they have to balance their training with the use of complex motor patterns that require fast accurate reactions and from a GPP perspective complex movement goes a long way towards experiencing longevity in health, hence the use of the olympic lifts as well the plyometric work we love in CrossFit.