Olympic weightlifting at the highest levels is a beautiful fusion of speed, strength, power, mobility and technical mastery expressed through the three competition movements — the snatch, the clean and the jerk. Elite weightlifters are extremely explosive athletes, capable of producing a great deal of force at an exceptionally high rate of speed, an attribute that has attracted the attention of sports and physical preparation coaches for years. Coaches from all backgrounds and disciplines have attempted to implement the lifts and their variations with their athletes in the hope that executing these movements will allow them to develop the same explosive capabilities as the athletes who compete in the sport of Olympic weightlifting.
While it is true that these lifts have been utilized in the programming of athletes for decades, there has been an exponential growth in their popularity recently due to greater exposure to the lifts through Crossfit, as well as the wealth of information available to coaches and athletes on the Internet. As a competitive weightlifter myself, the fact that more people are learning about the lifts and the sport is exciting, but the growth doesn’t come without drawbacks.
Far too often field and court sport athletes are being asked to perform these extremely complex and technical movements without first developing a strong base of general physical preparedness, and in an inappropriate context. The fact of the matter is, the Olympic lifts are not for everyone, and coaches are doing their athletes a disservice if they persist in implementing the Olympic lifts in inappropriate contexts. This article will provide information regarding the principles of power development, explain when and with who application of the Olympic lifts is appropriate, and detail the progressions we use at Parabolic to help develop athletes.
RATE OF FORCE DEVELOPMENT
The first step in understanding proper application of the Olympic lifts is to define and understand the goal of implementing them with athletes. The main goal of utilizing the Olympic lifts in the physical preparation of athletes is to improve rate of force development. Rate of force development, also known as power, is the speed at which an athlete can produce maximal force. The athlete’s neural drive and ability to coordinate muscular contraction to produce power are cornerstone qualities that every physical preparation coach should seek to develop in order to maximize athletic success.
Being strong is great, but it means nothing if the athlete is unable to express that strength quickly. The need for a high rate of force development can be seen in nearly every conceivable team sport and in many individual athletic endeavors as well. Driving to the basket in basketball, skating up the ice on a fast break in hockey, coming out of the blocks in track, shooting a takedown in wrestling, and accelerating out of cuts on the football field are just some of the situations that require high-velocity force production in order to achieve athletic success.
Power is THE bio-motor quality that separates a good athlete from a great one. This quality can be trained through various methods to improve the nervous system’s ability to recruit motor units and coordinate muscular contraction in an optimal sequence to produce force rapidly.
During the Olympic lifts, the greatest power outputs are achieved during the second pull, or the triple extension phase of the lift. Triple extension refers to the coordinated and simultaneous extension of the ankles, knees, and hips. This triple extension pattern is common to many athletic movements, including jumping and sprinting.
It is the similarity in patterns between the Olympic lifts and sprinting, jumping, driving off the line in football, etc. coupled with the explosive movement of heavy loads that coaches point to as the reason the Olympic lifts are best for developing power.
The flaw in this thinking is that power is not a single attribute. It exists on a spectrum known as the force-velocity curve, which indicates an inverse relationship between force and velocity.
In order to completely prepare athletes for the variety of speeds and forces they will face in the heat of competition, it is imperative that they are exposed to stimuli across the entire force-velocity curve.
THE FORCE VELOCITY CURVE: What Is It and Why Do I Care?
Now that the goal of utilizing the Olympic lifts is defined, the next step in the appropriate application of these techniques is to understand the relationship between force and velocity, and where Olympic lifting variations fall on that spectrum.
As indicated in the previous section on rate of force development, the force-velocity curve is a graphic representation of the inverse relationship between force and velocity. To put it simply, the greater the load (force), the lower the velocity of movement and vice-versa.
There are five key characteristics that exist on the force-velocity curve, and they are:
- Maximal Strength
- Peak Power
- Maximal Speed
The Olympic lifts and their variations fall under the “strength-speed” category. These lifts involve high force outputs at higher velocities than maximal strength movements.
By comparison, squats, bench presses, deadlifts, etc. are considered maximal strength exercises and fall at the furthest end of the force side of the curve because they involve the highest force outputs and lowest velocities, while jumps and sprints are maximal speed exercises because they involve little to no external loading and extremely high speeds, and fall at the furthest end of the velocity side of the curve.
The ability to understand where on the force-velocity curve a particular movement falls is of vital importance to the physical preparation coach for three reasons:
- To truly optimize power production, all aspects of the force-velocity curve should be trained because the combination of high force and high velocity training will yield the best outcome
- Based on sport and position, athletes may need to spend more time training in one area of the force-velocity curve than another. For example, an offensive lineman in football may spend more time training on the force side of the curve because he is required to produce power against the force being produced by other large linemen, while a wide receiver may spend more time on the velocity side of the curve because his position demands that he sprint greater distances and produce power at higher velocities to outrun and out-jump defenders.
- Understanding where movements fall on the force-velocity curve can help coaches optimize an athlete’s power output by addressing weaknesses. For example, some athletes can produce a great deal of force, but when it comes to their sport, are unable to utilize the high force production capabilities they possess because they are too slow. In the case of athletes who fit this description, the physical preparation coach should implement more high-velocity movements to improve the ability to produce force quickly. Conversely, some athletes excel at sprinting, jumping, and other high-velocity movements, but have low force production capabilities. If this is the case, these athletes need to train more on the force side of the curve and develop strength in order to maximize power output.
The problem with many coaches who either treat the Olympics as the be-all and end-all of power development, or who avoid the lifts altogether, is that when they neglect some aspect of the force-velocity curve, they miss an opportunity to develop well rounded and fully prepared athletes.
Yes, athletes need to sprint, jump, and throw medicine balls to develop the ability to produce high-velocities. And yes, they need to squat, press, deadlift, and pull with heavy loads to develop the ability to produce a great deal of force, but variations of the Olympic lifts occupy a unique characteristic of the force-velocity curve.
The Olympic lifts and their variations fill the gap between maximal strength and peak power production, known as “strength-speed.” Training strength-speed develops the athlete’s ability to move heavy loads at high velocities. The explosive nature of the Olympic lifts and their variations demands that the athlete move the load at high velocities in order to execute the lift. While it is possible to deadlift or squat a heavy load at a very low velocity and still complete the lift, Olympic lift variations like snatch high pulls and power cleans require violent triple extension and higher bar speeds.
If the bar moves too slowly in the Olympic lifts, the parameters of the lift will not be met. For example, if the athlete is executing a power clean, and he or she cannot receive the bar in the rack position, or can only catch the bar in a squat position well below parallel, it is safe to assume the load is too heavy and power output is less than desirable for that particular exercise. Another example is if the athlete is performing a snatch high pull and the coach notices that the athlete is no longer able to reach full triple extension, or the bar is barely moving above the athlete’s hips as opposed to reaching the chest as it should, then the load is too heavy and bar speed is compromised.
In this way, variations of the Olympic lifts are self-limiting if the physical preparation coach understands the requirements for proper execution of the movement and is honest about how well the athlete is moving the bar. When these movements are executed properly with relatively heavy loads, they provide a strength-speed stimulus that cannot be replicated by any other means.
Some have argued that a strength-speed stimulus can be applied by adding bands, chains, or other forms of accommodating resistance to traditional powerlifting exercises like squats, deadlifts, and bench presses. While forms of accommodating resistance do require the athlete to accelerate the bar throughout the movement more than straight bar weight alone, the bar still must come to a complete stop at the end of the movement, which means its speed at that point is zero.
What separates the Olympic lifts from movements loaded with accommodating resistance is that variations of the Olympic lifts require the athlete to accelerate the load throughout the entire movement. Movements like the jump shrug, high pull, and power clean involve the athlete’s feet either leaving the ground entirely, or the bar to be driven upward utilizing a coordinated and powerful extension of the ankles, knees, and hips to propel the bar. As such, there is far less or in some cases no deceleration of the load, which creates a far more optimal environment for power development.
Other ballistic exercises like loaded squat jumps, which do not involve deceleration of the load, are excellent for improving rate of force development, but do not have the potential to be loaded as heavily as variations of the Olympic lifts. Loading squat jumps beyond a certain point will not only lead to less than optimal power outputs because not only does the load need to be accelerated, but the athlete’s entire bodyweight must be driven off the ground as well. Additionally, loading jump squats too heavily presents a significant risk of injury when the athlete lands and has to decelerate the loaded barbell on his or her back.
Due to the lower loads being utilized, ballistic exercises like jump squats are far better suited to develop speed-strength and peak power than strength-speed.
To put it simply, the complete athlete is developed through exposure to forces and velocities across the entire force-velocity curve. There is no single best exercise to develop power, because optimal power is developed through a combination of a high force/low velocity, low force/high velocity training and the training of all qualities in between. As such, there is a time and place for everything, and the best physical preparation coaches understand how and when to incorporate a variety of exercises to optimize power production in their athletes without bias.
OLYMPIC LIFTING VARIATIONS FOR ATHLETIC DEVELOPMENT
With the goal and rationale for use established, it’s time for the fun stuff — the variations of the Olympic lifts that are applicable to athletes.
One of my favorite quotes from legendary coach Dan John is “keep the goal, the goal.” While it sounds so simple, it is far too easy for physical preparation coaches to lose track of the goal in an attempt to implement new movements, concepts, or things that the coaches feel their athletes should perform.
Physical preparation coaches must not forget that their role in athletic development is to improve traits that support the athlete’s on-field performance while maintaining health. The ultimate goal MUST be kept in mind in every decision the physical preparation coach makes.
If the goal of utilizing the Olympic lifts in the preparation of athletes is to improve rate of force development, it is inappropriate to have athletes perform the full competition lifts. As stated before, peak power outputs in the Olympic lifts are achieved during the second pull, or triple extension phase. It is this coordinated and explosive extension of the ankles, knees, and hips under load that improves strength-speed and helps to improve overall power output.
To continue past the second pull of the snatch or jerk specifically requires a far greater level of technical prowess and presents an increased risk for injury. The full snatch and jerk involve the reception of a heavily loaded barbell over the athlete’s head. Most athletes do not possess adequate motor control, mobility, and stability to achieve a proper overhead position at all, let alone in a high-velocity, dynamic movement under heavy loads.
In the interest of full disclosure, some argue that learning and developing the ability to receive a heavily loaded barbell overhead is valuable to the athlete. While deceleration is vital to athletic success and health in competition, the risk-to-reward ratio must be considered. Receiving the bar overhead places a great deal of stress on the shoulders, wrists and thoracic spine, even when executed properly. However, if the athlete makes a mistake or fails to achieve an optimal position, that stress is magnified and the risk of injury increases to an even greater extent.
The ability to decelerate can be trained in a much safer and more sport-specific way through jumps and landing drills, plyometrics, decelerating from sprints, agility drills, and heavy eccentric loading. These methods require far less technical mastery then the full snatch and jerk and put the athlete in a better position to develop the ability to decelerate with less risk of injury.
Likewise, executing any variation of the snatch or clean from the floor involves extraneous work with very little benefit to the athlete. The first pull, or initial movement of the barbell from the floor to just above the athlete’s knee, can be thought of as a set-up. The main goal of this portion of the lift is positioning, with the goal of setting the lifter up to optimally execute the second pull, or triple extension phase of the lift.
According to highly respected American Weightlifting coach Greg Everett, “The first pull can remain relatively slow without detriment to the lift, and in fact a more deliberate first pull generally improves the ability of the lifter to enter into a better second pull position, leading to improved lifts,” (Everett, 108).
While a good first pull is vital to the competitive Olympic weightlifter, it provides very little benefit to the development of the athlete. The slow or deliberate nature of the pull means that very little power is produced during the first pull, especially when compared to the power output of the second pull of the lift.
Additionally, in order to properly execute a lift from the floor, the athlete is required to have a far greater understanding of positioning and technique in successfully completing the movement.
To optimize the athlete’s ability to produce power, appreciable loads must be utilized at relatively high velocities. If the movement is too complicated or the athlete is incapable of achieving proper positioning, their ability to use loads heavy enough or move the bar fast enough to achieve any appreciable adaptation will be compromised or delayed, and the entire goal of having them perform the Olympic lifts will be lost.
While it is inappropriate to implement the full Olympic lifts with athletes, derivatives and variations of the lifts have a place in the development of strength-speed and kinesthetic awareness. Here are the variations used at Parabolic.
- Jump and Shrug From the Power Position
The power position or position one refers to the final position that must be achieved before initiation of triple extension. In the power position, the torso is erect, the lifter’s weight is over the middle of the foot, and the knees are bent.
This is the first progression for teaching the Olympic lifts, and can be executed with a snatch grip, where the grip is wide enough that the bar sits in the crease of the hips in the power position, or with a clean grip, where the bar sits at the top of the thigh.
Working from the power position without “hinging” at the hips develops the athlete’s ability to produce power purely through leg drive. With no momentum and a very small window of movement to get the bar going, the athlete has no choice but to learn to apply force to the ground by driving the legs through the floor.
The jump and shrug is a great way to teach athletes to move the bar through explosive triple extension and not by pulling with the arms which will transfer to more advanced variations of the Olympic lifts, but also to applying force to the ground in athletic movements like jumping and sprinting.
- Jump and Shrug from the Hang
Once the athlete can demonstrate proper leg drive and triple extension from the power position, it is then time to move to the hang position. The hang position is characterized by “hinging” at the hips, with the knees slightly bent, the back slightly arched, the shoulders in front of the bar, and the bar positioned just above the knees.
From here, the athlete will push through the floor to drive the bar up the thighs, keeping the shoulders out over the bar and the hips back until the bar has reached approximately the mid to upper thigh. At this point the shoulders are pulled back, the hips shift down and under the torso, and the knees “re-bend” into the power position, which point the ankles, knees, and hips are violently extended to propel the bar upwards. The transition from above the knee to the point of triple extension should be smooth and seamless, and the bar should continually accelerate throughout the pull to the point where it reaches maximum velocity at triple extension.
This is the second step in the progression due to the longer pull, which requires greater technique and positional awareness from the athlete. Additionally, the longer pull allows more time for the athlete to accelerate the bar, and therefore, greater loads to be used and higher velocities to be achieved, leading to increased power output.
High Pulls from the Power Position
After the athlete has shown proficiency in the jump and shrug from both the power position and hang, arm action during triple extension can be taught via the high pull. The high pull not only involves greater propulsion of the bar, but also develops strength and muscle in the upper back.
Just as with the jump and shrug, the high pull should first be taught from the power position. This will teach the athlete to propel the bar upward with leg drive and finish the movement by guiding the bar up the body with arm action, as opposed to initiating the movement by pulling with the arms.
The arms should not pull the bar up, but rather the bar should be propelled upward through violent triple extension and the arms should guide the bar up the body. The elbows should rise high and to the outside, the bar should be kept close to the body, and the bar and forearms should always remain below the elbows.
The coordination and timing of triple extension and arm action is a valuable skill in the development of athletes, especially those in contact sports like football, where the ability to distribute force from the legs to the upper body is of vital importance.
Emphasizing bar height in the high pull will make the movement self-limiting, because at some point the load will become too heavy for the athlete to achieve the required bar height for a high pull (approximately chest height). This will place the focus on keeping the load in a range that allows for high velocities.
High Pull from the Hang
An extremely effective movement for improving rate of force development, high pulls from the hang — like jump and shrugs from the hang– begin with the bar lowered to just above the knee. However, unlike the jump and shrug, high pulls conclude with the bar elevated to chest height through the high pull.
Power Clean from Power Position
The power clean is the most technical variation of the Olympic lifts that an athlete should perform. It involves the reception of the barbell in between the anterior deltoids and the throat, in what is known as the rack position. Due to the reception of the barbell and the need to decelerate the load in the rack position, the power clean is an advanced lift that only athletes that have demonstrated competency in the variations that precede it should perform.
While the clean refers to a lift where the barbell is received in the rack position in a full squat, the “power clean” simply means that the bar is received above a parallel squat.
There are two main reasons that the power clean is preferable to the clean for athletic development. First and foremost, the power clean forces the athlete to receive the bar higher, which means the bar must be pulled higher and the turnover must happen faster. The high bar reception also limits the weight that can be used, which keeps the velocity of the bar high enough to ensure a high power output is achieved.
The second reason is that most athletes do not possess the mobility, stability, and motor control to achieve and control the deep squat position required by the clean. Therefore, it is much more advantageous for athletes to execute the power clean to maximize bar velocity and minimize injury risk.
Again, keep the goal, the goal.
The power clean is taught first from the power position, as with any of the other lifting variations. From the power position, the athlete must forcefully drive through the ground to extend the ankles, knees, and hips and propel the bar vertically. As the bar travels upward, the athlete must quickly and violently use the arms to reverse the direction of the body and pull him or herself down and under the bar.
As with the high pull, the elbows should travel up before moving back and down to position the athlete under the bar.
Once the athlete is under the bar, he or she must “shoot” the elbows up and forward in order to set the rack position. Simultaneously, the athlete must re-bend the knees and hips to prepare to receive the bar. The bar should be received in between the anterior deltoids and the throat, with the elbows pointed straight ahead and directly in front of the shoulders. The hands should be loose and relaxed — only in contact with the bar enough to maintain control of it — while the load itself actually rests on the shoulders and is supported by the torso as a whole.
The bar should be received above parallel, preferably in a quarter squat position with the hips back, feet no more than shoulder width apart, weight distributed evenly across the entire foot, and the elbows and chest high.
The transition (change of direction of the body’s momentum) and reception of the barbell are the most technically difficult and complex portions of the lift. When first learning, it may be beneficial to move slowly through the transition with a PVC pipe or unloaded barbell, simply to allow the athlete to develop an understanding of the arm action required to transition the bar to the rack position.
Power Clean from Hang
The most advanced version of the Olympic lifts that should be used with athletes, the longer pull allows for greater time to accelerate the bar and therefore, greater power outputs.
WHO SHOULD NOT PERFORM OLYMPIC LIFTS
While the topic of regressions, contraindications, and correctives for developing the Olympic lifts could take up an entire article itself, it’s important to detail a few prerequisites and situations where their use is inappropriate.
When taught properly and applied in the right situation, variations of the Olympic lifts are a perfectly safe and extremely effective way to improve rate of force development in athletes. However, even the variations listed and demonstrated above are not appropriate for all populations.
Athletes must possess a baseline of movement competency, stability, mobility, and motor control before they attempt dynamic, complex, and high-velocity movements like the Olympic lifts and their variations.
First and foremost, the athlete must possess the motor control, mobility, and strength through the posterior chain to perform a proper hip hinge pattern. If the athlete lacks the ability to move through the hips while maintaining a neutral spine position then they have absolutely no business performing a barbell movement that requires explosive movement through the hips.
If this is the case, the coach must work to address the athlete’s weakness or limitation before they are taught any variations of the Olympic lifts. Always keep in mind: quality movement must always precede quantity, load, or high-velocity movement. The athlete will never optimize power output or reap the full benefit of performing the Olympic lifts if they lack the ability to achieve the positions and execute the movements required by the lifts.
Additionally, prior to performing any version of the power clean, athletes must be able to perform a proper squatting pattern, as well as demonstrate the ability to achieve a proper front rack position. Again, if an athlete can’t perform a bodyweight squat and/or can’t rack a barbell in the front squat pattern, they have no business receiving a barbell in the clean.
Check out https://dsstrength.com/ and Darkside Strength on YouTube for numerous articles on movement preparation and improving movement quality in order to achieve the positions necessary to perform the Olympic lifts and their variations
Finally, the Olympic lifts are absolutely not appropriate for general population adults who do not compete in athletics and do not desire to compete in Olympic Weightlifting or Crossfit, where proficiency in the Olympic lifts is required.
There are numerous ways to develop power in general population clients that are far safer and require much less technical prowess then the Olympic lifts. Having clients perform skips, medicine ball throws, kettlebell swings, sled sprints, and in some cases even light jumps are great ways to maintain and even develop the ability of general population clients to produce power without putting them at unnecessary risk for injury.
As my colleague Mike Baker said, “Losing power is how you get old,” and he was absolutely right. Everyone should seek to improve their ability to produce power, but always consider the risk-to-reward ratio. It is much safer and much easier to teach adults to throw medicine balls than perform variations of the Olympic lifts, and by doing so, the goal of performing explosive, high-velocity movements is still achieved.
There are many ways to program and numerous periodization strategies to employ when it comes to the programming of Olympic lifting variations with athletes. The most appropriate application often comes down to individual characteristics such as the athlete’s sport, the time of year, the athlete’s position, the athlete’s individual weaknesses, training age, etc.
One of the most effective ways that a physical preparation coach can begin to incorporate the Olympic lifts into the training of their athletes is to have them practice variations of the lifts with an unloaded bar as part of a dynamic warm up to improve kinesthetic awareness and fire up the athlete’s central nervous system to prepare them for the high force or high velocity work to come.
Including jump shrugs and high pulls from various positions in an athlete’s warm up is a great way to develop the skill of Olympic weightlifting, improve the athlete’s positional awareness, increase blood flow, and prepare the athlete for more intensive work. Even just five minutes of practice with one of these drills every session at the end of the athlete’s warm up prior to intensive training can go a long way toward developing an athlete who not only moves well, but can perform complex and heavily loaded variations of the Olympic lifts because they have developed the technique and skill necessary over time.
When it comes to implementing variations of the Olympic lifts to develop strength-speed, anywhere from two-to-four repetitions per set is appropriate. Due to the technical nature of the Olympic lifts and the goal of power production, reps should be kept below five in a single set. As the reps increase, so do the opportunities for technical mistakes that can put athletes at risk for injury. Additionally, once past three-to-four repetitions, fatigue will become a factor and power outputs will decrease significantly.
It is far more advantageous to program a high number of sets with very few reps per set in the Olympic lifts if the goal is to have the athlete perform a high volume of work in the lifts,
For example, four sets of five is a fairly common prescription for the development of strength qualities. While some coaches believe that it is appropriate to program sets of five in movements like high pulls and jump and shrugs, since the goal is POWER OUPUT, it is far more effective to program 10 sets of two.
The volume is the same, but the athlete is exposed to 10 first reps as opposed to four, and because the set only consists of two reps, power output will remain high while it will likely diminish by reps four and five in the first example.
Additionally, when picking which variation of the lifts to utilize with athletes, consider the precise goal. If an athlete needs to develop more speed or high-velocity movement, snatch-grip movements may be more appropriate.
The wide grip in the snatch makes the distance the bar has to travel much further than the clean, and demands far more strength and stability in the upper back. This means that it can’t be loaded as heavily, and may present an opportunity to focus on bar speed rather than load.
Conversely, if an athlete needs to develop more force production, clean variations may benefit this athlete to a greater degree. The decision as to which variation to include in an athlete’s training is largely dependent on the individual’s needs and sport demands.
For example, if an offensive lineman in football possesses the ability to produce a great deal of force, but is slow as molasses coming off the ball, it may be more appropriate to utilize snatch high pulls from the hang than clean high pulls from the hang. Offensive lineman need strength-speed and need to produce high velocities under heavy loads to win the battle in the trenches, but the individual weakness of the athlete in this scenario dictates the particular variation.
Finally, it is essential that the physical preparation coach has at least a general concept of moving from general to specific over the course of an athlete’s training. Far out from the start of the competitive season, it is beneficial to develop strength qualities and high force outputs to support the high velocity and sport-specific movements that will be implemented as the competitive season gets nearer.
Therefore, it may be advantageous to implement variations of the Olympic lifts far from the competitive season, when the athlete’s focus is not on sport-specific training and he or she can devote time and energy to practicing and performing the lifts under heavy loads.
This focus on force production and strength-speed will help to build a base by which high- velocity and pure speed work can be implemented later in the program.
However, if strength-speed is vital to the athlete’s on-field success, such as in the case of an offensive lineman in football, variations of the Olympic lifts may be utilized throughout the entire training cycle.
The Olympic lifts have become a mainstay in the training of athletes of many disciplines in an effort to improve rate of force development. While the Olympic lifts do provide a unique stimulus uncommon to other methods of power development, it is vital for the physical preparation coach to always keep in mind the ultimate goal of his or her role in athletic development—to develop the physical qualities of athletes that will support their on-field performance while always putting their health first.
The Olympic lifts are not the be-all and end-all of athletic development. However, they can be a valuable asset in the development and optimization of power if the athlete is prepared to perform the movements, and the coach makes responsible decisions regarding their implementation.
“Keep the goal, the goal.”—Dan John
Cormie, P., Mcguigan, M., & Newton, R. (2011). Developing Maximal Neuromuscular Power. Sports Medicine, 41(2), 17-38. http://www.8weeksout.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/Developing_maximal_power_Part_2.pdf
Everett, G. (2009). Olympic weightlifting: A complete guide for athletes & coaches (2nd ed., p. 108). Calif.: Catalyst Athletics.