Full or Partial Olympic Lifts: What’s the Benefit? Risk?

The weightlifting movements (herein, Olympic lifts) and their derivatives have long been used by strength coaches to develop power qualities in their athletes. Unfortunately, there sometimes exists a problem, or multiple, in implementing these movements. Whether the coach is not competent enough to teach the movements, doesn’t have the appropriate equipment, or works with athletes who aren’t interested or can’t “get” the movements, Olympic lifts are not the easiest to implement. Say you are able to implement some of these into your program, though. Should you use the full movements? Partial movements? Both? Let’s break it down.

Utilizing the Full Movements

The full movements can be considered the Olympic lifts that begin from the floor and end with a full, deep squat. These are also known as the squat snatch and squat clean or, simply, the snatch and clean. 

Aside from being able to compete in the sport of weightlifting once the full movements are learned, how else could athletes benefit from difficult-to-learn movements? For one, as I mentioned in a recent article on the clean, performing the full movements teaches the athlete how to use their body in a coordinated effort—one that is synchronous, in which their body segments move efficiently together in the proper sequence. We’ve all seen the little kid that is just learning to run, or the teenager who has just had their growth spurt and is just trying to move. Their movements are awkward and, sometimes, asynchronous. In other words, their body segments do not move in a coordinated, efficient pattern. 

Another reason to perform full Olympic lifts would be the required range of motion to reach the final positions. The power derivatives, where the bar begins on the floor and is caught at a position above parallel, also develop strength and power qualities, as well as coordination. However, the mobility required to perform power movements is not nearly at the level that is required in the full movements. The hips and knees are required to go through a greater range of motion to catch the bar in the full squat, while the thoracic spine and shoulders must also go through greater ranges of motion to keep the torso as vertical as possible. 

Strength. We all want it, but some want it more than others. The full Olympic lifts are not easy to learn, nor are they easy to coach. However, one of the benefits of performing squat snatches or cleans over the power derivatives is the development of strength. Am I saying that these movements are the best for developing max strength? No. What I am saying is that the squat derivatives are better than the power derivatives. The athlete can handle more load in the squat versions, and this also teaches them to move quickly under heavier loads. Of course, this is all dependent on the movement efficiency of the athlete. 

Many coaches all throughout the nation work with physical-specimen athletes every day. The problem? Many of these athletes, while excelling physically, do not ever master their psychological performance. Training to lift heavy weight over your head in less than a second or two can be extremely intimidating to many people, including these physical specimens. The amount of concentration and grit needed to grind through these movements is most always misunderstood. “Oh, lift that heavy weight over my head? Sure thing.” People have no idea of the preparation involved for those couple seconds. However, should an athlete overcome these psychological decrements, they will surely excel further than they would have otherwise. 

What are the risks of full weightlifting movements? Yes, an athlete could be injured, but this is very unlikely if they were prepared by a competent coach who taught them the proper technique before loading the bar too heavy. There is no evidence that weightlifting training causes excessive injury. There are actually more incidents of injury in sports such as basketball, football, and gymnastics. The injuries that are present in weightlifting are usually due to maximal performance.

Utilizing Partial Movements 

While it’s always better to go through full ranges of motion for joint health and strength gains throughout that full range, there are certain instances where utilizing partial ranges of motion are better. Some athletes simply cannot perform full weightlifting movements safely. Sometimes coaches feel more confident in their ability to coach partial movements over the full versions. There are always different situations and, luckily, there are many tools to help with each occasion. 

I heard somewhere that weightlifters are the second-most mobile athletes next to gymnasts. While I’m not sure that this came from the most reliable source, I can certainly believe it just by watching some of the world’s best weightlifters train and move. The immobility and tightness we see among our athletes on a daily basis is astonishing. With the advent and continued use of technology among the youth, this problem seems to just get worse; sitting in a flexed-spine position with rounded shoulders for hours each day does not lend itself to improved athletic performance. Because of this issue, many athletes are not able to get into full-depth receiving positions, let alone a good starting position from the floor. We often see tight or weak hip flexors and immobile thoracic spines, which limit athletes from reaching these proper positions. If this is the case, it is better to utilize partial derivatives like power cleans and snatches from the blocks. Starting from various block heights allows athletes to get into safer positions when beginning their repetitions. 

Some athletes may not be strong enough to catch the bar into a full-depth receiving position. They may, in fact, have the mobility to do so, but not be able to stand after receiving the bar. This is a rare case, but it can happen. In these instances, it would benefit this athlete to perform some power movements like power cleans and power snatches and their derivatives. 

Another reason coaches may decide to use partial movements over full movements is when an athlete has very specific technical weaknesses. By using partial movements, coaches put athletes into specific positions to work on strengthening those technical weaknesses. An example would be an athlete who has trouble staying over the bar due to poor posterior strength. Aside from strengthening those specific muscle groups with accessory exercises such as RDLs, good-mornings, glute-ham raises, etc., the coach could have the athlete begin from the blocks. In this position, the athlete can really focus on staying over the bar and stressing the involved joints and musculature in the proper technical positions.  

All right, I saved the most common reason, in my opinion, for using partial movements for last. Obviously we have sports, like basketball and volleyball, that cater to longer limb lengths. Longer limb lengths are not conducive to weightlifting, though we may see an outlier from time to time. Just like in any other sport, weightlifting and its included movements require very specific anthropometrics (fancy word for the way the body is built). That’s not to say that a basketball player cannot perform the full weightlifting movements, but most will not be able to get into the proper starting position due to their longer limb lengths. Again, this is where using partial movements like hang cleans and hang snatches, as well as starting from various block heights, can be beneficial. 

Are there risks to partial weightlifting movements? Along with what has already been mentioned above for risks, one that is most apparent is similar to any partial movement: usually more weight can be attempted. However, this is only for certain movements like clean pulls from a high-hip height, or from high blocks. Extreme loads can be used in this instance, similar to when powerlifters perform rack deadlifts from higher heights. 

The other risk that has been noted is the stress to the lower back during derivatives such as the hang power clean. Because the bar is being supported before the movement begins, the athlete must support the load with the proper musculature (in this case, the abdominals, glutes, and hamstrings). Sometimes, though, we see a rounding of the lumbar spine when these muscles are overcome by the load, which may lead to lower-back injuries. 

There you have it; differences in risks and benefits with full and partial weightlifting movements. What’s your choice? Do you like one over the other, or are they both just “tools in your toolbox?”

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  1. Chiu, LZF, and Schilling, BK. A primer on weightlifting: from sport to sports training. Strength Cond J 27(1): 42-48. 2005. 


Doug Berninger, CSCS*D, RSCC, USAW is a guest contributor to the Volt Blog. He is the Assistant Strength Coach at the National Strength and Conditioning Association’s (NSCA) World Headquarters Performance Center in Colorado Springs, CO. He received his master’s degree in kinesiology from Bowling Green State University. Learn more about Coach Berninger at On the Platform and Beyond.