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Olympic time with Nicholas



I have to confess that in the last 4-5 years I have developed a great love for Olympic lifting. To me both the lifts i.e. the clean & jerk and the snatch are a measure of whole body power, muscular co ordination, and a great example of what some like to call “functional exercises”. In fact I will even say that just doing the two moves by themselves will provide you with a good minimalist strength workout if that’s what you desire. Unfortunately there are many “fake” experts on the web who demonstrate some rubbish and at times dangerous executions of the lifts. No wonder then, that so many people feel that these lifts are dangerous. 

While surfing the net one day, I was delighted to come across Nick’s fabulous site which offers a free e book called “The 7 deadly sins of Olympic weightlifting, and how to avoid them”. The book covers the basics of Olympic lifting in great details and is highly informative. It is one of the few good books that one must check out if they are in anyway interested in the Olympic lifts.

I was then naturally curious to have a discussion with Nick on Olympic lifting and pick his brains on this subject. So let’s get straight away into the interview.




Arnav Sarkar (AS): First of all Nick, I would like to thank you for taking the time to do this interview. Why don’t you begin by telling us a bit about your current coaching commitments and what your typical clients are like?

Nicholas Horton (NH): I work as a Strength and Conditioning coach in Portland, Oregon, focusing primarily on Athletes in the age range of high school and college on up to Masters level lifters.  What ties them together is that my clients are usually people who are relatively new to serious heavy training, and who need to develop a strong foundation of strength, power, and speed in order to excel at their respective sports.  I see myself as the guy who builds up their foundation so that they can eventually reach whatever goals they have set for themselves. 

If you think of training for athletics like a house, then it makes understanding the proper order of things easier.  Things like agility and sport-specific skill training are like putting a nice roof on your house and adding a coat of paint.  That isn't what we do.  What we do here is we focus on building up the concrete foundation, and laying in the support beams.  Without a proper base of strength and power training, any other work you do for sport is hindered.  In some cases, your house will simply fall apart.  In other words, I'm basically a stone mason!

My flag-ship operation is the competitive Olympic Weightlifting club that I've been coaching for the last 5 years.  I run one of the largest and most active clubs in my state.  We compete all the time, and train year round in the sport of Weightlifting. 

Regardless of their sport, every athlete trains on the Olympic lifts here.  These lifts aren't the only thing we do, but they form the foundational bedrock that allows the athletes to make faster progress than they would training somewhere else.



A great session of lifting



AS: I remember that the oldtime strongmen were big time into the Olympic lifts. However, unfortunately maybe around the late 70’s its practice went on a decline in most gyms? Why do you think that happened, and do you think that it has started to resurface in gyms nowadays with the call for functional training?


NH: That really was unfortunate.  Why do I think it happened?  I think there were two reasons.  The first is that in 1972, the world Olympic weightlifting community dropped the Press as one of the (then) official three Olympic lifts:  Snatch, Clean and Press, and the Clean and Jerk.  Now, it's only two: the Snatch and the Clean and Jerk. 

The problem with that was that the press was the only one of the three that was relatively easy to learn and do.  Back then, everybody wanted to know “how much do you press?”  It was a “gateway” drug, sort-of-speak.  People would learn the press, get good at it, then try their hand at the rest of the events.  It brought people in.  Once it was removed, we lost the only “normal” lift that people could relate to.

The second reason was the rise of the sport of Powerlifting.  In Powerlifting they contest the Bench Press, the Deadlift, and the Squat.  These are great lifts, but the fact is, they are FAR easier to learn than the snatch and clean and jerk.  So, people gravitate towards those lifts (and Powerlifting) in greater numbers.

What is changing all of this?  CrossFit.  It's that simple.  In my opinion, CrossFit has been a major, and singular, game changer.  They took hold of the weightlifting movements and popularized them in a way these lifts have never been.  There are more people (average people, not competitors) doing the Olympic lifts in America now than at any other time in history (even before the loss of the Press).  We owe CrossFit a lot.  I don't always agree with all of the methodology that comes from CrossFit Headquarters, but I can tell you, the grassroots movement of CrossFit athletes is nothing but good for all of us.


AS: Nick, you are personally a success story of going from scrawny to brawny. Could you share some of your own methods that helped you? Also could you suggest a sample mass and strength training routine centered mostly around Olympic lifting for the readers?


NH: Haha!  Well, it wasn't easy!  But, I'll do my best to outline the basics. 

The first step is to stop reading the stupid bodybuilder magazines!  (Or, at the very least, stop following their advice.)  I was a victim of the 90's bodybuilding obsession.  I did all the routines, followed the diets, and what it got me was a very lean but scrawny body!

What really turned the tide was deciding I wasn't going to focus on gaining muscle size, per se, but instead focus on just getting stronger on big lifts, and eat like a horse … a very hungry horse.  Once you're at a point when you can push press and snatch around your bodyweight, and deadlift about double bodyweight, you are going to start looking quite muscular.  It's not at all uncommon for a male lifter to come to me and end up gaining 15 to 30 pounds of functional mass in a relatively short time.  Most of the time, they didn't even mean to!  They just ate lots of healthy food, and trained their tails off.

My favorite routines for building mass look simple on paper, but are very hard in the gym.  There are a lot of options, but this is a great one to start someone out:

A-Day:
1) Front squats: 5x5
2a) Push Press:  5x5
2b) Chin Ups: 5x5
3a)  Dumbbell Incline Bench: 4x8
3b)  Pendlay Rows or 1-arm Dumbbell Rows:  4x8


B-Day:
1) Snatch: 5x3
2) Clean and Jerks: 5x2
3) Romanian Deadlifts: 3x5
4) Core exercise (rotational work is good, as are back extensions)

Do this 3 or 4 times a week and you have something that will work quite well for a beginner who is primarily focused on getting bigger and stronger. 

All the rest is diet. If you don't eat a lot of good calorie-dense food, it ain't gonna happen!  Get in enough protein (about a gram per pound of bodyweight), some healthy fat, and fill in the rest with carbs.  If you are under 30 years old and skinny, then you need at least 300 grams, if not up to 500 or 600 grams of carbs a day.  If you are over 30, stick to 200 or 300.  Once you get past 30, your needs shift more towards protein, quality fat, and less carbs.  For the young athlete (especially those in high school), carbs are king.

When I was young, I never ate enough.  Changing that one variable did wonders. 


AS: How would you suggest that one should warm up for a weightlifting session?

NH: I'm a big believer in the K.I.S.S. Principle (Keep it Simple Stupid).  What that means for us is following a 3-part process.  1. Stretching.  2. A General warmup (get your body temperature up).  3. A specific warm up.  Nothing magic, here. 

Always start by doing a lot of stretching of the 4 major joints: ankles, hips, shoulders, and wrists.  Get in some good external rotation of the hip, don't just do the “sit and reach” stretch!   Google "Kelly Starrett Mobility WOD" to find a plethora of amazing work you can do to make your lifting life easier.

Most athletes can then go directly to an empty bar and start doing some kind of a complex that combines squats, muscle snatches, presses, and stiff leg deadlifts.  Just the bar, even a stick or PVC pipe will work.  You want to warm yourself up in the motions that you are about to do.  Sometimes, masters-level athletes will do better if they first warm up on a stationary bike, or even just ride their bicycle or walk to the gym to get the blood pumping before they hit the bar.

Then, once you're body temperature is elevated, you can start with snatches for triples.  Do this until the bar starts to feel “snappy”.  Don't put any weight on the bar until you can make the bar move FAST!  Then go to 40k for a man, or 30k for a female (that's a generalization that does NOT hold for everyone!), and stay there doing doubles or triples until this weight feels fast and easy.  That should do it.  You can then start adding weight to the bar.

The important point is to not move up until the weight is moving fast and with great form.  No exceptions.  Ever.






AS: Let’s talk a bit about flexibility. The readers may find it interesting to note that once a test on flexibility of Olympic athletes was done, and the results showed that weightlifters were the second most flexible athletes after the gymnasts.

Do you think that it is so because of the exercises that are involved in Oly lifting or are the lifters genetically flexible to begin with? Could you also suggest some useful flexibility exercises that should be done before a weightlifting session?


NH: This is a great point!!  Most people, who aren't "in the know", associate weightlifters with muscle-bound meat-heads who can't touch their toes.  The reality is the opposite.  Weightlifters are some of the most flexible athletes on earth. 

I don't believe it's that weightlifters are already "naturally" flexible (though, of course, sometimes this happens).  Usually, the flexibility has to be taught.  Anyone can become quite flexible if they train for it.  Most people are just too lazy.  You have to work flexibility EVERYDAY if you want to get good.  This is especially true if you aren't 18 years old anymore! 

A great example is one of my male Olympic weightlifters, Chris.  When he first came to us, he was so inflexible that he couldn't hold the bar over his head without pain in the jerk position.  He could almost snatch more than he could clean and jerk!  It looked BAD.  But, after lots of work and dedication, he's now got one of the biggest clean and jerks in our club.  It's gone from his worst lift, to his best lift.  There is no substitute for dedication.

The basic stretches are a calf-stretch, hip external rotation (with focus on the periformis), groin stretch, shoulder dislocates with a stick, wall slides, and anything to stretch the hip-flexors and quads.  Men will often have a hard time at first with the rack position of the clean, and will need to spend some time working on wrist flexibility. 

Don't worry, you will get there.  When I first started, it took me a full month to be able to rack a clean without pain.  I still have to stretch everyday to keep my wrist flexibility – a common problem for men who spent years working their beach muscles!


AS: What about a sample program for fat loss centered mostly around Oly lifting? Would high reps or high sets be the way to go?

NH: Fat loss is hard and uncomfortable.  There are many approaches, but high rep Olympic lifts are NOT one of them.  I'm very against using high reps on the olympic lifts.  This is one of the areas where I disagree with (orthodox) CrossFit. 

The snatch and the clean and jerk are highly technical movements.  As Don McCauley says, “Weightlifting is gymnastics with a bar in your hands.”  Because of this, if you start going past 5 reps, as fatigue sets in and your form deteriorates, you enter the Danger Zone. 

If your goals are simply fat loss (but you also want to get into using the Olympic lifts) then I suggest you learn a close-grip power snatch. 

The Close-grip Power Snatch is just a snatch that you catch without going all the way into a squat, and you have your hands in a clean-grip (or your deadlift grip).  It is very easy to learn, it's easier on the shoulders, it develops tremendous power, and there is very little risk.  Win's all around!

I want to make clear, that in my opinion, all fat loss programs should be prioritized in this order:

1.     Strength Training
2.     Diet
3.     Cardio

You must start with a good strength training program.  If you do it in the opposite order, you will end up failing.  The Close-grip Power Snatches can be a great addition to that (along with squats, presses, pulls, etc).  

Do 2 or 3 days a week of strength training, eat a lot of protein, cut down on carbs, and once you can do that successfully, THEN we'll talk cardio ...


AS: I am glad that you brought up the point that one needs to get strong before they go crazy with all that cardio stuff. I personally always avoid any circuit/metabolic work for a client if they do not have atleast some decent strength, I mean there is no point doing circuits when you cannot even overhead press 10 pounds. Anyways moving on,  I would like to hear your views on focusing on Olympic lifting style workouts for strength training in home gyms or any gym that has only the bar and weights, not much else.

I personally feel that Oly lifting might be the best way to train in such a facility. I mean if you do not have a power rack, then Oly lifting will teach you to lift the bar to your shoulders for overhead presses. Without squats rack, Oly lifts will give you the best chance of to lift heavy weights with front squats (by cleaning). However many training in home gyms for strength development will only rely on some curls, light overhead presses and light squats, etc, when they could have lifted much more by learning how to clean heavy weights to their shoulders and jerking better. What are your views on this point?


NH: Those are my favorite kind of gyms!  No fluff.  You not only don't need much else, the other stuff just gets in your way, and causes you to fail because it's too easy to get distracted.  Learn how to do the basic Oly lifts (at least the power versions), and you are pretty much done.

Power clean and push press is an amazing upper body builder.  The clean and jerk is your overall mass builder.  You can deadlift, you can snatch for power, do rows, and you can squat.  Honestly, that's about all we EVER do, anyway.  Sure, there are little things, here and there.    But, the above exercises describe about 80% of the training I have my lifters and athletes doing. 


AS: What about nutritional considerations for Olympic lifting? What would the ideal diet for lifters be like?


NH: Here's a fact:  Athletes eat like <insert expletive here>!  Most athletes have horrible diets.  They don't eat enough calories, they don't eat enough protein, and they over-eat things that they shouldn't.  Getting athletes to eat reasonably well is a struggle.

There's nothing special about weightlifters, they need to eat about the same as any other athlete.  Lot's of high quality protein, lots of fruits and vegetables, healthy fat, and as much carbs as required to fuel the workouts or gain weight (if that is a requirement). 

The one “magic bullet” that we use is chocolate milk (often with some protein powder in it).  Drinking this after your workout goes a long way.  It's loaded with good protein, it has just enough carbs, some fat, and it tastes good so athletes will actually do it.  That last point is more important than anything else.  Never worry about what is "optimal", stick with what you will honestly do, and do that consistently. 




AS: Now you have this really good FREE ebook called “7 sins of weightlifting”. If you ask me about the sins of WL, I think that the biggest sin that most trainees commit with weightlifting is that they don’t do it at all, ha ha.

However on a more serious note I must admit that it is one of the very few ebooks available on weightlifting and is really good, plus it is FREE. So could you tell a little bit about it to the readers and how can they get their FREE copy?

NH: Thank you very much, Arnav!  I appreciate that.  It's basically just a short report that details the major things I believe are holding people back in their progress on the Olympic lifts.  Some of them are technical, but a good amount are psychological.  One thing most people forget is that the mind and the body are one unit.  It's the reason I named my blog, “The Iron Samurai: Zen and the Art of Weightlifting.”  I believe strongly that if you can train your mind, your lifts will go up. 

Olympic Weightlifting is a Martial Art.  I strongly believe that.  Shear aggression and brute strength are not enough.  You have to learn how to be in full control of yourself: mind and body.  Part of what I'm trying to teach is this side of the sport.

If you visit my blog, www.theironsamurai.com , then you can download the eBook, The 7 Deadly Sins of Olympic Weightlifting, for free which signs you up for my email newsletter list.  You'll then get access to a bunch of other free advice and content from me.  Also, if you have questions, you can always add it as a comment on my blog.  I'm pretty good about getting back to those and answering them.






AS: In your free ebook you have referred to Olympic weightlifting as the closest remedy for all physical problems in the strength training community (thank goodness for that, I am fed up of hearing how slow aerobics is the be all and end all for total fitness). Could you explain a bit more on that for the benefit of the readers?

NH: I do think the Olympic lifts are the closest thing we have to a panacea for the athlete.  They make you stronger, faster, more explosive, more flexible, less injury prone, increase your core strength, and improve coordination and agility.  What more could you want?!   The downside is that there is a learning curve.  You have to be patient.  And you have to be dedicated.  But, the rewards are so great, I don't understand why more strength coaches aren't using them.

Yes, you can get a lot of the same benefits by using a series of other exercises and movements.  But, with the Olympic lifts, done correctly, you get all of the benefits in only 2 moves.  Since I work primarily with athletes in the beginning of their careers, I feel it is my responsibility to provide them with tools that are of a high quality and will last them their whole lives.  The Olympic lifts are the most expensive, shiniest, high quality tools in your toolbox!




AS: What about Olympic lifting for women who do not wish to compete and like most would just like to be slim and have general levels of conditioning? How would you convince them to get off those damn aerobic machines, aerobic classes and go lift the Olympic bar?


NH: The Olympic lifts themselves, snatch and clean and jerk, are just tools, as I've said. They are great tools, but, I'd never suggest that everyone and their grandma's should be out doing full snatches all the time.  For someone who is looking only to get into good shape (they don't compete in a sport), the close-grip power snatch along with squatting movements, deadlifting movements, push presses, pull ups, rows, and push ups will make for a remarkably effective combo.  These barbell moves are more efficient than machines so you don't need to spend as much time in the gym.

I run a 3 day per week fatloss/fitness bootcamp that runs on the same principles.  My people are in and out in under a half an hour.  That's it.  They get a great workout, great results, and they don't have to spend every waking moment in the gym running on a treadmill.  That's called time-economy!



AS: What about cross training for Olympic lifting? Do you think that adding running, calisthenics, etc for someone who wants to get better at Olympic lifting, will help them in anyway?

NH: That depends upon what you mean.  Let's take two scenarios.  The first is an athlete who has never done any serious training of any kind and is woefully out of shape.  This person will do well to focus on a well rounded fitness routine to bring them back to normal.  They are currently below normal functioning as a human being, and they need to be brought back up in order to do the Olympic lifts properly.  For this person, calisthenics, conditioning, and bodyweight exercises are wonderful. 

The second type of person is someone who is athletic, already has a decent strength base, and is no longer a novice on the Olympic weightlifting movements.  This person must spend more time focusing on the lifts themselves, or they will never improve.  All the "assistance" exercises in the world will do them no good if they don't spent the bulk of their time on the Olympic lifts.  Again, weightlifting is a martial art, and it must be approached as such.

As a side note, and since you brought it up, I strongly advise people to stop running.  The only exceptions are people who love it.  If you love it, then by all means continue to run. But, if you are running only because you believe it is needed to get you into "shape", then stop.  Stop right now.  There are much better ways to increase your fitness that don't lead to long term injuries.



AS: Who are the weightlifters (in Oly lifting and others) that you admire most?

NH: There are so many.  I've always really enjoyed watching Kakhiashvili, Tanev, Gardev, and pretty much anyone on the Chinese team, including Zhang Guozheng and Liao Hui. 

Also, a shoutout to some of my favorite current top American lifters seems warranted:  Donny Shankle, Sarah Bertram, Rachel Crass, Pat Mendes, and Sarah Robles.


AS: Any final thoughts?

NH: Sure.  Be patient, work hard, and never stop having fun.  That's my personal recipe for success. 


AS: Thank you once again Nick, for sharing your valuable knowledge with the readers. Where can they get more information about you and how can they contact you?

NH: My blog is the best source.  Again, the blog is www.TheIronSamurai.com.  If you live in the Portland area, then you can visit my website www.PDXWeightlifting.com, and find out how to join us.  I believe in what I'm doing so much that everyone gets their first 2 weeks free!  So, you don't have any excuse.  




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