Last week I published a blog about a study that at least suggested that we may not need to catch the bar to get the optimal benefits from the Olympic lifts. I got a lot of emails, messages, and comments about that study. So, I figured I’d put my thoughts together about this.
Let me start with a confession, I began as a really arrogant Olympic lifting believer. In college I was a 70-kg lifter who could clean and jerk 140kg and snatch 100kg. Not exceptional, but not terrible numbers. I would look at our football players and think I’m better because I weigh less and lift the same as them on these lifts (never mind my lack of comparable athleticism). With that in mind, back then I felt that everyone should train like Olympic lifters to become better at sports. In fact, below is the kind of workout that I would have written twenty years ago as I was interning at the Olympic Training Center. This is something I would have written for bobsleigh, luge, or speed skating.
Squat clean: 3x3x70%
Push jerk: 3x3x70%
Front squats: 3×6-10×70%
Bench press: 3×12-15×70%
Military press: 3×12-15×70%
Squat snatch: 3x3x70%
Overhead squats: 3x6x70%
Back squats: 3×12-15×70%
Romanian deadlifts: 3×12-15×70%
Power clean + Split jerk: 3×3+2×70%
Clean pulls: 3x6x75%
Incline press: 3×12-15×70%
Seated dumbbell press: 3×12-15
Snatch pull + Power snatch: 3×6+3×70%
Good mornings: 3×12-15
Week one would be at 70%, week two 75%, week three 80%, week four would be a max week for each lift listed at a percentage except the pulls, which are at a percentage of the squat clean or squat snatch. The next four-week mesocycle would be slightly heavier and the exercises would be varied (perhaps lifts from the hang, something like that).
So, what’s wrong with this program? First, look at the Olympic lifts: squat clean, push jerk, squat snatch, overhead squats, power clean, split jerk, clean pulls, snatch pulls, and power snatches. Getting the athletes to the point of being able to safely and effectively execute this lifts will take a good three to six months. That’s a lot of time spent using wooden dowels, PVC rods, light barbells, and light weights to teach the movements. While it is an effective way to teach the lifts, it means that this time is not spent improving strength and power from these lifts so it is, in a sense, time lost from training. That’s also the length of a sport season in high school.
Second, we’re going to waste a week of training on max testing. While we’ll have great weight room numbers, we will not have spent that week training. With so many lifts being done at a percentage of maximum, we’re unable to integrate the max testing into training, so we lose a week to that. In addition, max testing on some of these exercises is inviting injuries (like the overhead squat).
Third, there’s monotony of loading each week. By that I mean that every week is being trained at the same percentage of maximum. The sample week is at 70% every day. This doesn’t seem like a big deal in the week shown, but when the weights get heavier and we spend 4-8 weeks at 90%+ for strength-building, then we’re going to begin seeing injuries, overtraining, and a lack of motivation for the weight room.
Fourth, these are long workouts. Practically every exercise in every workout requires two to three minute of recovery between each set. So figure that each workout is going to take at least 45-60 minutes. Somewhere along the way we have to add in speed training, agility, mobility, recovery, core, sports practice, film, studying, school, work, etc. There aren’t enough hours in the day.
Fifth, in a team situation you have an exercise order challenge. Squat variations of the Olympic lifts have to be done first in a workout. You don’t want to be too tired before doing overhead squats. Etc. This means in a team situation with 20-100 athletes in the weight room at one time, you are going to have some challenges organizing the flow through the room.
Finally, almost every exercise in these workouts takes up the same physical space in the weight room. Looking at the first day, the squat clean is done on the platform. This is located in front of a power rack. Push jerks are done from the power rack. Front squats are done from the power rack. The bench press is done from the power rack. So is the military press. That means that all of our athletes are standing in the same spot to do the exercises.
So, we’ve taken apart the kinds of workouts that I would have written over twenty years ago. Let’s talk about the research next.
Why invest a lot of time teaching these lifts? These lifts are thoughts to have many benefits to a strength and conditioning program. First, they require a great deal of velocity to perform (the bar moves at 2-4 meters/second). Second, they generate a great deal of power, especially compared to slower lifts like the squat and deadlift. Third, they use most of the muscles of the body. Fourth, they involve exerting force against the ground.
As I’ve written elsewhere, while superior to slow strength lifts, the velocities in the Olympic lifts don’t compare to what running, throwing, and kicking athletes do. If you ran at a velocity of 2-4 meters per second you would run 100 meters in 25-50 seconds. So at best the Olympic lifts are general training when it comes to preparing athletes for athletic performance.
Now, power outputs. In a classic review, Garhammer (1993) reports power outputs in the 50 watts/kg range for Olympic lifters. Now, this isn’t really duplicated by modern research looking at the World Championships. One study (Hadi et al 2012) reports power outputs for the snatch at 37-42 watts/kg (which is close to 50), but others are in the 19-30 watts/kg range (Harbili 2012, Akkus 2012). While an impressive sounding number, it’s not the 60 watts/kg that a 100-meter sprinter is developing.
Also with regards to power output, in a series of studies Comfort et al showed that the hang power clean (mid-thigh) is superior to the power clean from the floor in terms of force output, power output, and rate of force development. In all those studies, the clean high pull from the hang was superior to the power clean variations in terms of power output and rate of force development (Comfort et al 2011a, Comfort et al 2011b).
So, for a strength and conditioning coach’s perspective that is working with really large groups of athletes with limited time, if you can get superior power output, force output, and rates of force development from a simpler exercises (i.e. high pulls) doesn’t it make sense to focus on that? Well, the argument is that while that may be true, the power clean teaches deceleration and rapid loading which may be important for contact sports. As I covered in a different blog (http://www.cissik.com/blog/2017/07/olympic-lifts-maybe-we-dont-need-to-catch-the-bar/) the jump squat and high pull were similar to or superior to the power clean when looking at this (Suchomel et al 2017).
With this kind of information in mind, my approach to this has been evolving over the years. First, as a result of research I’ve read by a number of authors (Comfort et al 2012, Cormie et al 2007, Kilduf et al 2007) I keep the weights for the Olympic lifts around 60-80% of 1-RM. No need or additional benefit to go much heavier than that for athletes that are not Olympic lifters. Second, I generally cut back to one day a week for this type of training, but I devote an entire session to it (usually three exercises). Third, the exception I make is with higher level track and field athletes who have a second day/week during certain phases of the year so that we can add split variations of the clean. Finally, I do still include variations of the power clean, lots of pulls, and variations with kettlebells and dumbbells but the snatch and (often) the jerk have been dropped.
The interesting thing over the years is that you figure out there is no “best” approach to training. Plyometrics works, increasing strength works, kettlebells work, dumbbells work, sandbags and other odd implements work, it’s a question of what works for the coach and their situation. The most difficult thing for a coach to learn is to set aside their prejudices and be flexible – but those coaches are also the most successful.
Akkus, H. (2012). Kinematic analysis of the snatch lift with elite female weightlifters during the 2010 world weightlifting championship. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 26(4): 897-905.
Comfort, P., Allen, M., and P. Graham-Smith. (2011a). Comparisons of peak ground reaction force and rate of force development during variations of the power clean. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 25(5), 1235-1239.
Comfort, P., Allen, M., and Graham-Smith, P. (2011b). Kinetic comparisons during variations of the power clean. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 25(12), 3269-3273.
Comfort, P., Fletcher, C., and McMahan, J.J. (2012). Determination of optimal loading during the power clean, in collegiate athletes. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 26(11): 2970-2974. (power output and the power clean).
Cormie, P., McCauley, G.O., Triplett, N.T., and McBride, J.M. (2007). Optimal loading for maximal power output during lower-body resistance exercises. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 39(2), 340-349.
Garhammer, J. (1993). A review of power output studies of Olympic and powerlifting: Methodology, performance prediction, and evaluation tests. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 72(2): 76-89.
Hadi, G., Akkus, H., and Harbili. (2012). Three-dimensional kinematic analysis of the snatch technique for lifting different barbell weights. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 26(6), 1568-1576.
Harbili, E. (2012). A gender-based kinematic and kinetic analysis of the snatch lift in elite weightlifters in 69-kg category. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, 11, 162-169.
Kilduff, L.P., Bevan, H., Owen, N., Kingsley, M.I.C., Brunce, P., Bennett, M., and Cunningham, D. (2007). Optimal loading for peak power output during the hang power clean in professional r
Suchomel, T.J., Lake, J.P., and Comfort, P. (2017). Load absorption force-time characteristics following the second pull of weightlifting derivatives. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 31(6): 1644-1652.