Olympic Weightlifting and Powerlifting for Strength and Conditioning

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Olympic Weightlifting or Powerlifting?

Two years ago, I had the honor of speaking in front of a Strength and Conditioning Class at Winston-Salem State University taught by Professor Mike McKenzie. I was excited that the Exercise Science Department at WSSU has added a Strength and Conditioning tract for the students. My topic was Olympic Weightlifting and Powerlifting as they pertain to sports. It was fun doing a little research to back up my presentation, and it always keeps me sharp lecturing in front of sharp young students. I started with the sport of Weightlifting, so I’ll get right to the points.

Without a doubt the Power output (P=F*V) of the triple joint extension that takes place in both the Snatch and Clean is superior to any other form of training. This isn’t my opinion! It’s just fact Jack! The Power output is exactly four times of any movement performed in Powerlifting, so if your sport is dependent upon Power, do the Olympic lifts. The reasoning is quite simple because you have four main variables in the Power Equation: Mass, Acceleration, speed and distance. Weightlifting will always win at least three out of the four categories, so it’s just not a contest. This is why Olympic weightlifters will always have tremendous vertical leaps and amazing 10m dashes without even training them. Don’t get me wrong! I still love the Powerlifts, but for other reasons that I will explain later.

Movement alone is another great reason to use the Olympic lifts. The hip, ankle and thoracic spine mobility required to perform the lifts correctly also comes in handy for sports requiring an athlete to move well. In my experience as a strength and conditioning coach movement is more important than absolute strength. My athletes that could move well through all planes of motion were always the best athletes on the field with all other things being equal. I am not just talking about soccer players, basketball players, and skill position football players. The best linemen on a college football team could still move really well into a squat, a lateral lunge, and into a side lunge.

Kinesthetic awareness or the body and limbs as related to space is also very high. This simply means that the weightlifter is able to move the body rapidly around the bar, and all the while they know exactly where they are in relation to the bar. Watch the sport of football and you will see how important it is for the athletes to know exactly where they are in relation to the ball and potential threats. A receiver goes across the middle of the field, leaps into the air to catch a high pass, and avoids receiving a smashing tackle.

What about force absorption? The way the body absorbs force will determine how well and athlete sprints, changes direction, and decelerates. Each time the foot strikes the ground; it has to absorb that force as quickly as possible, while transferring that force into propulsion forwards. If you want the research, simply look up Loren Seagraves. If you are running right and need to shift directions, you have to decelerate, absorb force, and redirect that force the other direction. What about jumping, landing, and then jumping again for basketball players? Yep the same thing happens, force absorption. Every time an athlete catches a clean or snatch, force is being absorbed. Whether you are catching in the power position or at the bottom, force is being absorbed with as much stability as possible to maintain proper positions.

The last reason that Olympic Weightlifting is superior for athletes is when compared to Powerlifters researchers found that Olympic Weightlifters had significantly larger Type IIA Fibers even in the pectoral region. This one actually blew me away, but never the less that’s what the research says. That means that the fibers that are able to mimic slow or fast twitch fibers are being recruited more to the fast side of things. That’s where you want them. Here’s the thing. The body will adapt specifically based on the demands placed upon it. If you want to be fast and explosive, then you probably want to add in the Olympic lifts.

Now let me tell you why Powerlifting is also great for sports. I want to say right now that I love my fellow Powerlifters, and I am grateful for what the sport has done for me. I am just stating facts not opinion. The one place that Powerlifting ranks second to none is developing Absolute Strength. Absolute Strength is simply one’s ability to move mass through space. Can you lift some heavy stuff or not? Powerlifters are simply strong! There is no denying that fact.

Powerlifting is also superior for getting jacked! What I mean is that Powerlifting will produce more hypertrophy due to there being more time under tension. Hypertrophy is a fancy word for muscle growth, and for a significant amount of this process to take place, the muscles have to be under tension longer especially in the eccentric phase. The Olympic lifts are so fast that very little time under tension is taking place, but you will notice a lot of Olympic lifters with huge legs and butt. That is normally from all the squatting that they do.

This hypertrophy will also cause another quality of Powerlifting, and that is the ability to gain some body weight. This factor is super important for athletes like Football Players or possibly Rugby players. Dan John makes another interesting argument for the Powerlifts, and that is there “bulletproofing capabilities”. He explains that by saying the heavy Powerlifts ready Football Players for the field of battle. Most Powerlifters have huge traps, backs, chests, and legs, which gives them a slight advantage when it comes to taking or giving those huge hits on the field.

Absolute strength is the quickest way to increase the Olympic lifts, which is why they should be completed simultaneously. You really can’t have the Olympic lifts without the Powerlifts, so really it’s not really a discussion of one over the other. It’s simply how they fit together to produce the best result.

There are several debated topics that surface from both camps. The first is the highly debated low bar vs. high bar squat debate. For all of you that don’t know the low bar squat is a technique popularized by the Powerlifting world where the bar sits low on the rear delts shifting the center of gravity closer to the mid-line of the body. Of course this allows the lifter to use more weight, but it doesn’t necessarily make you stronger. It just gives you a biomechanical advantage. One negative is that it normally puts your back in more of a horizontal position placing higher sheering forces on the spine (not a lot of research to really back this statement up). Low bar will also cause the lifter to barely go below parallel (crease of hip to the top of knee)because of the forward lean and sitting back. Sitting back engages the hamstring sooner, and it’s the length of the hamstring that determines depth. The extra tension is great for strength, but not so good for mobility.

The high bar is a little better for training athletes for a few reasons. First, I want all of my athletes to be the most mobile guys/gals on the field of play. I want the squat to be butt to the floor with a vertical back, so my 300 lb linemen are also agile. If you want to get a lineman to college, make sure they are mobile. Also when your high bar gets stronger, so does your low bar. It doesn’t however work in reverse, so it doesn’t make sense to train it. The longer range of motion will also cause more hypertrophy, which is obvious when you see an Olympic Weightlifter’s legs and butt.

A big topic debated is the time it takes to teach the Olympic lifts. This is laziness! Take the time to learn how to teach man! I can teach almost anyone how to do a clean in about 20 minutes, so that is a terrible argument. I agree that we as strength coaches shouldn’t spend the whole session on the Olympic lifts, but if you schedule 15-20 minutes per session to teach the lifts, your athlete will catch right on in no time. If you are coaching athletes that are required to run, jump, start, and stop all the while catching, kicking, or throwing a ball, teaching a clean should be easy.

The other problem that coaches have with teaching a lot of the lifts whether Power or Olympic is the risk of injury. That is a terrible argument as well. All the lifts are safe if performed properly. Having the ability to screen is a big part of being a strength coach. If someone can’t perform a Snatch, your job is to find a way to get him or her there. Maybe they need more thoracic spine mobility. Then your job is to get them more mobility in the Thoracic spine. Statistically there are about .3 injuries per 1,000 training hours for the Olympic lifts. This number is significantly lower than other modalities. I especially love when coaches are fine with having their athletes perform squats while standing on an unstable surface, but are afraid to teach the Olympic lifts.

There are some common mistakes that I see in the world of strength and conditioning that need to be addressed. First poor coaching is a big part of the problem. If you are going to be a strength and conditioning coach, then you need to be proficient in the movements that you are teaching. If you are going to teach the clean or snatch, then you need to be able to perform the lift yourself. If you are going to teach the squat, then you need to be able to perform the squat properly and safely. A knowledge of programming and energy systems is also important, so that your athletes are getting the proper workout that will help them in their specific sport. I’m just saying that if a football player wants to be fast and explosive, then don’t do four rounds of wall balls and 800m sprints. However for a soccer player four rounds of wall balls and 800m sprints is a good choice because it matches the energy system that they use on the field. This could be a whole new article.

The perfect program would use both Olympic Weightlifting and Powerlifting optimally in a program designed to improve the energy systems used in the athlete’s chosen sport. Learn as many techniques, skills, and fields of strength and conditioning as possible, and then learn how to apply them optimally and safely. This is what makes my industry awesome! The fact that we can always learn something new! Embrace that! Never stop learning!

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