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Olympic Lifts for Sports Performance - The Ultimate Tool for Power

I've always been a proponent of utilizing the Olympic lifts for Sports Performance, ever since the first day I was given my first team to train back as a graduate strength and conditioning coach. Before I even dug deep into the science behind the Olympic Lifts for traditional athletes, I inherently knew that there was something about the Snatch and the Clean that made every athlete perform better. When I was a graduate strength coach at Ball State University, I used them for my softball players, track athletes, and even cross country athletes as well. In athletic performance, the ability to produce as much power with minimal energy loss is critical to boosting success. Whether it's from a softball player creating energy from their legs into a swing or pitch, a thrower driving a discus, or a every stride a distance runner takes; if you can eek out a little more power, technique being equal across the board, then you have the advantage. This is the primary goal of the Strength part of Strength and Conditioning.

However, despite the growing knowledge of the Olympic lifts, and popularity of the sport, utilization of the Snatch and Clean are still minimalistic in nature for many strength and conditioning coaches, particularly in the University or Professional setting. The former is mostly due to colleges valuing their athletes and sports coaches more so than the strength and conditioning staff, and any unseemly movements may be reported to administration, putting the coaches on the chopping block, despite repeat cases of athletes getting injured without the use of Olympic lifts (see University of Oregon football rhabdo case, University of Iowa Football Rhabdo Case, Ohio State Women's Lacrosse rhabdo case, South Carolina swimming rhabdo case....you get the picture). 

I don't have much experience with the professional sports level of Strength and Conditioning, but from what I understand with some contacts, it's a mix of athletes being so powerful, financially wise, that sometimes they don't even bother with workouts, or, that Strength and Conditioning Staff believe that the athletes are "strong enough" and don't benefit from any more resistance training that focuses on increasing strength and power, focusing more on muscular balance, and plyometrics for power production. This is also a trend that is growing in the University level, even though some athletes at the best athletic universities in the country pale in comparison to some recreational CrossFit participants in terms of performance in literally anything outside of their sport's domain.

Don't believe me? Go to your nearest D1, top tier university, volunteer in the weight room for a week, and watch running athletes learn how to jump and land, or watch swimmers try to learn how to squat. My personal favorite is trying to watch football players try yoga.

Now let's be clear, this isn't about bashing or criticizing the University or Professional Strength Coach, they have hard jobs to do, with usually being under the microscope by administrators the whole time and are usually cannon fodder when an athlete gets hurt. This is about finding a way to not only help them, but help athletes as a whole, from the youngest to the veteran professional, become better at their craft, and help those strength coaches get better paychecks. Well...one goal at a time.

So why am I such a big proponent of the Olympic Lifts for every athlete that can perform them?

 

The Literature

It's well established that if you want to produce more power you need two things: Strength (the ability to move a load) and Speed (the ability to move relatively faster than something else). Power, in the athletic sense, is the ability to move a load at a certain velocity; If you can move 100lbs at 20m/s you have X power. If you have 100lbs and you move it at 40m/s you have double the power. Conversely, if you move 200lbs at 20m/s, you have double the power compared to the same velocity at a lighter load. While it would be amazing to have an athlete be able to do squat jumps at the speed of light, it's most likely never going to happen. So the only way to practically increase power in an athlete is to increase their strength, and increase their ability to move sub-maximal and maximal loads at faster velocities.

There are numerous studies showing that by doing plyometrics, such as box jumps, hurdle jumps, and other explosive bodyweight movements, can increase the speed of an athlete under their own bodyweight, and increase their overall power. Similarly, there are plenty of studies that show that by training under sub-maximal loads, an athlete can get physically stronger while still maintaining contractile speed of muscle groups, and increase overall power. Further more, combining these two methods, plyometrics and resistance training at appropriate loads, can increase overall power output at greater levels than either modality on their own. To summarize, training explosiveness at the bodyweight level, while training strength at appropriate loads, will make you more powerful than the next athlete doing box jumps and unilateral muscle balance work all day long.

So where do the Olympic Lifts come in with power production? While it would be awesome to have every football player at the university level cleaning 400+lbs like Penn State's Saquon Barkley, it's not realistic for a number of reasons that we won't get into.  I believe that every Athlete should lift like a National or International Weightlifter, in terms of technique, they shouldn't train in the lifts like a National or International Weightlifter. Primarily due to the fact that the referees on the turf don't care if you can clean 400lbs, you still didn't get the ball into the end zone. 

Recent studies indicate that, at worst, utilizing the Olympic Lifts will produce similar increases in power as traditional Powerlifting movements (Squat and Deadlifts), but the majority of the research is showing that the Olympic Lifts increase overall power output greater than the squat or deadlift. To be clear though, most of these studies are looking at Power Output during the movement, rather than a set standard movement that participants in both groups can perform, like a vertical jump test, however there are a few that practice this method and Olympic Lifting seems to produce more power over Powerlifting movements.

 

Intermediary Loads

As mentioned previously, it would be amazing to have traditional sports athletes lifting loads that would put them on the podium at USAW Nationals, but you're not likely to see that, even if they are capable of doing so. For the purpose of Sports Performance, the Olympic Lifts should not be trained to maximal effort regularly, just like any strength coach worth their salt wouldn't max out on squats or deadlifts regularly. Seeing increases in the Olympic Lifts during testing phases is a great objective measure to show your bosses that you're doing your job, but don't get caught up in PR's all the time just to prove a point.

Proper training of the Olympic lifts, just like with strength movements, should be focusing on loads that are increasing overall power output of the athlete. For a lot of strength coaches, this is problematic as you might not have a 1RM in the snatch or clean to gauge this off of, but the solution is simple. Just progressively overload the athlete in the Snatch and Clean until you find a feasible 1RM without maximal testing, and go off of there for the time being. When I was coaching track and field athletes at the university level, I only tested the athletes in the Olympic Lifts at the end of the school year, mostly because I needed to get them stronger and couldn't waste a day testing the Snatch and Clean when we already spent a week testing everything else, and also because they weren't moving in a proper manner with the lifts yet, so any 1RM would be moot in a few weeks' time. 

Finding decent working loads with the Lifts is a great way to bridge between plyometric work and strength work. If you're pressed on time, like most professional strength coaches are, the Olympic lifts are a great way to cut down on warm up time for strength movements like the Squat and Deadlift, while also gaining vital explosive training under loads. If you only have 60 minutes 3x per week to train an athlete, you want to cut down on warm up sets as much as possible to get as much work done. Olympic Lifts easily get the body ready for moving loads, and can prepare the athlete to make quicker, yet proper, warm up jumps during their strength movements.

 

Movement Patterns

Following along the lines of warmups, the Olympic Lifts improve another aspect of Athletic Performance that often takes up much of the training time in weight room: movement patterns. While it is very, very simplistic to say that things like the Snatch, Clean, and Squat mimic movement patterns through a biomechanic lens, there is some truth to that. Whether it's the stride in a runner, exploding off the line for a football player, or turning off the wall for a swimmer; lower body mechanics have similar properties between sports, and benefit equally through strength training movements that mimic them. Explosive lower body movements benefit the most through Plyometrics, Olympic Lifting, and Squatting.

The Olympic Lifts may be the best way of improving power, while improving human movement. The Olympic Lifts require a higher level of athleticism to execute compared to jumping drills, and even higher level compared to squatting and pulling motions. The ability to take an object, lift it in the air, and then immediately change direction, receive the weight, and then stand it up, combines numerous aspects of physicality that Plyometrics and Strength movements lack. Think about how fast beginners progress compared to advanced lifters, this is mostly through coordination of movement and muscle recruitment, and less about pure strength gains. The ability to learn how to move effectively leads to significant gains in strength and power for the exercise being used, but there is some crossover into functional strength as well. 

By learning how to to move better under a load, Athletes become stronger. By maintaining those proper movement patterns, Athletes can continue to get stronger as the program evolves. Similar to the warmup concept, learning how to move with the Olympic lifts improves one's ability to move with other movements as well. In some of the aforementioned studies, there are some that note that improvements in jumping and strength skills is also in part to the practice of said skills, and that by practicing these movements, they improved in post training tests for the groups that individuals were in, as well as improving overall power output. Simply put, by practicing moving better, the subjects became better at the movement they were selected to participate in, as well as overall performance of the study. Consider what being able to move a barbell like a top level weightlifter might do in junction with plyometrics and strength movements.

 

Take Away

While I am saying that the Olympic Lifts are a major key to improving Sports Performance, I am not saying that they are the end all be all. If you are improving your Athletes without the use of the Olympic Lifts, then by all means, you are doing your job as a Strength and Conditioning Coach. However, if you're not utilizing the Olympic Lifts in your training plan, I believe you're missing a giant component for accelerating performance.

I am also not saying that you should replace plyometrics and strength work with just the Olympic Lifts. Look at any Olympic Weightlifter at the top level, most of them are utilizing a combination of all three modalities to improve their performance. As stated previously, combining plyometrics and strength training led to greater power output than the individual modalities. Properly utilizing Plyometrics, Strength Movements, and Olympic Lifts, can lead to even greater power out put in athletes, I know from using all three as a Strength Coach personally.

I can't speak for why many strength coaches fail to utilize the Olympic Lifts, but I know from a few examples they think that it takes too much time to teach the lifts effectively, there's a preconceived notion that the Olympic Lifts carry a higher level of risk to them compared to other weight room movements, that the growing trend in muscular balance training is taking over the majority of weight room work in some settings as a new and more effective method, despite not increasing power or strength on a significant scale, or a combination of numerous factors known and unknown. All I know is that if you know how to utilize the Olympic Lifts in junction with other training modalities, you will see significant improvements in your Athletes' performance.

 

Studies Referenced

THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN VERTICAL JUMP POWER ESTIMATES AND WEIGHTLIFTING ABILITY: A FIELD-TEST APPROACH

KINEMATIC AND KINETIC RELATIONSHIPS BETWEEN AN OLYMPIC-STYLE LIFT AND THE VERTICAL JUMP

PROPULSION FORCES AS A FUNCTION OF INTENSITY FOR WEIGHTLIFTING AND VERTICAL JUMPING

EFFECT OF WEIGHTLIFTING VS KETTLEBELL TRAINING ON VERTICAL JUMP, STRENGTH, AND BODY COMPOSITION

COMPARISON OF OLYMPIC VS TRADITIONAL POWER LIFTING TRAINING PROGRAMS IN FOOTBALL PLAYERS

EFFECT OF OLYMPIC AND TRADITIONAL RESISTANCE TRAINING ON VERTICAL JUMP IMPROVEMENT IN HIGH SCHOOL BOYS

IMPROVING VERTICAL JUMP PERFORMANCE THROUGH GENERAL, SPECIAL, AND SPECIFIC STRENGTH TRAINING: A BRIEF REVIEW

VERTICAL JUMP BIOMECHANICS AFTER PLYOMETRIC, WEIGHT LIFTING, AND COMBINED (WEIGHT LIFTING + PLYOMETRIC) TRAINING

POWER AND MAXIMUM STRENGTH RELATIONSHIPS DURING PERFORMACNE OF DYNAMIC AND STATIC WEIGHTED JUMPS

WEIGHTLIFTING EXERCISES ENHANCE ATHLETIC PERFORMANCE THAT REQUIRES HIGH-LOAD SPEED STRENGTH

A REVIEW OF POWER OUTPUT STUDIES OF OLYMPIC AND POWERLIFTING: METHODOLOGY, PERFORMANCE PREDICTION, AND EVALUATION TESTS

A COMPARISON OF MAXIMAL POWER OUTPUTS BETWEEN ELITE MALE AND FEMALE WEIGHTLIFTERS IN COMPETITION

DOES PERFORMANCE OH HANG POWER CLEAN DIFFERENTIATE PERFORMANCE OF JUMPING, SPRINTING, AND CHANGING OF DIRECTION?

A COMPARISON OF STRENGTH AND POWER CHARACTERISTICS BETWEEN POWER LIFTERS, OLYMPIC LIFTERS AND SPRINTERS

WEIGHTLIFTING MOVEMENTS: DO THE BENEFITS OUTWEIGH THE RISKS?

THE EFFECT OF SIX WEEKS OF SQUAT, PLYOMETRIC, AND SQUAT-PLYOMETRIC TRAINING ON POWER PRODUCTION

POWERLIFTING VERSUS WEIGHTLIFTING FOR ATHLETIC PERFORMANCE

THE WEIGHTLIFTING PULL IN POWER DEVELOPMENT

SHORT-TERM PERFORMANCE EFFECTS OF HIGH POWER, HIGH FORCE, OR COMBINED WEIGHT-TRAINING METHODS.

A BRIEF REVIEW: EXPLOSIVE EXERCISES AND SPORTS PERFORMANCE