SUP REBELS! Today I want to touch on a subject that has become a fascination of mine. Powerlifting will always be my first love when it comes to strength sports, but recently, I have been toying with Olympic Lifting. Ok… toying is an understatement, I LOVE THEM! I am such a fan of the Olympic lifts its unreal. However, would I teach them to an athlete, yes! Would I program them for an athlete, probably not.
HOLD UP! Before we throw the baby out with the bathwater. Would I program them for some athletes, sure! But I would not have them as my first port of call. Let me tell you why! There is a debate that is has been raging within the world of strength and conditioning, and that debate is whether or not the Olympic lifts should be a central part of any program which seeks to achieve optimal athletic potential, or whether a more traditional compound lift / Powerlifting based program should be used. Before we get into the meat of this debate, there are a few things that need to addressed before we can sink our teeth into this hot topic, so grab your protein shakes and hold on tight!
“Olympic style weightlifting is an excellent training method for developing power. It consists of two movements, the Clean and Jerk, and the Snatch. The derivatives
of those movements are what make up the majority of training exercises” – Gambetta (2007)
Ok, so, Olympic lifts are the Snatch, and the Clean and Jerk. These are incredibly high skill movements which require a great deal of not only strength, but co-ordination and neuro-muscular development. For some, these lifts are considered the gold standard by which one assesses and develops an athlete’s power. Both the snatch and the clean and jerk require a violent explosion of the body, via triple extension, i.e. full extension of the ankles, knees and hips. This full extension is done over the course of three pulls:
1) From the starting position, to the knee
2) From the knee to the hip
3) From the hip to the catch position
The clean broken down. Can you spot the 3 pulls?
These Olympic movements are essentially a jump, and the action of jumping is the most integral part of power testing for athletes. Don’t think I’m serious? Just take a look at the testing for the NFL Combine, 225lb bench test, 40yard dash, and of course, a depth jump and a vertical leap.
Patrick Peterson’s 38inch vertical leap at the 2013 Combine
It’s not hard to see how there is a direct carry over from developing this violent triple extension into the field of athletic performance. But, why the Olympic lifts? Now, I know what you are thinking – that I have just answered my own question with that whole bit about triple extension and jumping etc. Yet, I put to you the same question – why the Snatch and the Clean and Jerk? Seriously, think about it, have you ever seen a Strongman lift an atlas stone? Have you ever seen a Powerlifter pull a conventional Deadlift off the floor? If you haven’t, go look it up on youtube…. Go on… I have time. Done it? Good! Now, one thing that I am sure the discerning eye of a Rebel will notice is that the strength of the hip extension required is massive. Also, these movements are much more simple to teach than the Olympic movements.
Rob Orlando, Owner of Hybrid Athletics / Crossfit Hybrid, and former Strongman is a huge proponent of the stones
Now, I am a big proponent of KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) when it comes to programming, and unfortunately, the big scary elephant in the rooms is that the Olympic movements, while not difficult to teach, are difficult to master to a level where one can get the full benefit of them. Often in the earlier stages of learning the Olympic lifts technique, not strength, is the limiting factor. While one could argue that this is true with any athletic movement, there is a very big difference in the technical requirements of a Deadlift and a Snatch. So what are our other options?
As I mentioned earlier, the Olympic movements are considered by some to be the gold standard of developmental tools to improve an athletes explosive power. However, as any Weightlifting coach will tell you, you cant get stronger at the Clean and Jerk, by doing nothing but Clean and Jerks. You also have to Front Squat and push press a lot, and I do mean a lot! It is these movements that develop a weightlifters absolute strength, which is why it’s only those freaky genetic outliers that can clean, more than they can Front Squat. So if we work on the principal that if your technique is spot on with the Clean, then the more you can Front Squat, the more you can Clean, then surely, the lighter the Clean, the faster it will go? If this is true – which it is – then the best way to improve explosive strength is to develop ones absolute strength, and it is here that we run into some issues with using Olympic lifts.
Not this kind of issue!
Essentially, all Stength and Conditioning is, is the development of an athlete’s GPP (General Physical Preparedness) in order to allow him, or her, to perform better in their event training. This, in turn, allows them to develop their SPP (Special Physical Preparedness), i.e. a thrower’s actual throw. Throwing technique is something that is a unique physical and technical requirement, which they must make their own, based on their own body mechanics and needs. The Bench Pressing, Snatching, Cleaning and Squatting have given the thrower the requisite strength in order to throw his or her implement, but it does not make them a good thrower, throwing does! The issue with the use of Olympic Lifts is that they require GPP just for the movement itself, which may or may not transfer over into the field of play, as every sport has different athletic requirements of its players.
Yet, without at doubt, they have a huge benefit for those athletes that can do them effectively. But, taking the time to teach the Olympic lifts to the point where they can yield a return which is greater than the time investment the athlete must make in order to become proficient at them, can seriously detract from the main goal, which is to make them better athletes, not Olympic lifters.
Highland Games champion Matt Vincent uses Olympic lifts to great effect, but they are not the basis for this throwing program
The point has been made that where as other strength development programs focus on – how fast OR how strong – an Olympic lifting program asks – how fast are you strong? This has a massive transfer over to sports, and should be a question that we address when programming for athletes as:
“Athletic Activities usually require quick and powerful movements and, consequently, depend on the development of explosive power” – Siff (2003)
However, when we take into account the issues expressed above, we must address other options if we are to allow a maximum return on our training investment. The speed at which you move, throw and lift, is dependant on a number of things. Namely, the rate and efficiency with which your synapse fire during a movement. This, in turn, causes muscle fiber recruitment. The more muscle fibers you can recruit the stronger you are maximally, and the stronger that you are maximally, the faster you are sub-maximally. In order to do this however, one must practice moving at speed, and not just at speed, but brutally fast speed. This can be done via plyometric movements, such as speed Deadlifts, and speed Box Squats. These movements should be done at roughly 40-50% of your 1RM for 2-3reps over 10-15 sets.
The incorporation of speed work allows for development of your synapse-firing threshold. But, this requires moving brutally fast from start to finish. The issue with applying this speed movement pattern with Olympic movements is that, given the nature of movements, it is very difficult to perform them in a touch and go manner, unlike the Squat, Bench and Deadlift. Also, in regards to their sport specific carry over, Olympic Lifts start with a controlled first pull. What sport do you know starts with a controlled first movement?
Now let me be clear, this is not me attacking Olympic lifting. If you needed to be reminded of my opinion on Olympic lifting, refer back to the beginning of this article. I think that every athlete should be taught the Olympic Lifts. Their benefits in regards to neuromuscular co-ordination, stability, power output and efficacy as movement patterns, they are a must. However, as I stated earlier, programming is a question of getting the best return on your investment, and Olympic lifts do not provide that without a huge long-term investment of time, sweat and potentially tears.
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