weightlifting, teen athletes, elmhurst sports performance

Olympic Lifting for Athletic Performance

This article was written by Derek Simpson, a Sports Performance Coach here at The Strength Agenda. Derek is also a weightlifter on TeamSAW and a former collegiate football player.

Just a quick Google search will give you hundreds of results with varying opinions on the topic of Olympic Weightlifting (often referred to as “The Lifts” in our gym) and their place in a Strength and Conditioning program.  At the Strength Agenda, our goal is to build powerful, fast, and strong athletes.  In order to get the best out of our athletes, we place a huge emphasis on programming cleans, snatches, and jerks (and their variations) regularly throughout the week, and teach them from the day a new athlete first walks into the gym.  There is strong evidence that performing olympic lifting regularly provide huge benefits for the athlete.

What is “Power”

In order to effectively make a case for the lifts, it’s first important to define power.  Put simply, power can be understood as “explosive strength.”  In Physics, power is defined as the time rate of doing work.

The following chart is presented in the USAW Sports Performance Handbook and is the result of the work of Dr. John Garhammer, who calculated the Absolute Power of various exercises found in a Strength and Conditioning Program.

snatch power output, clean power outputAs you see above, the power component of strength building movements such as the bench, squat, and deadlift are significantly lower than the Olympic Lifts.  While they do provide huge benefits in developing an athlete’s strength and size, it’s obvious that just performing those movements alone would not be the best option for an athlete wanting to build power and explosiveness, which is one of the deadliest attributes an athlete can possess.

One of my favorite aspects of the above chart is the absolute power of the “2nd Pull” which we refer to as the force generated from Power position, or simply, the explosive, vertical extension in a snatch or clean that is so characteristic of Olympic Weightlifting.  For this reason, we emphasize a strong, aggressive finish, and drill this position first when teaching the lifts to athletes.

Another area that I find important, as outlined above, is the absolute power generated in the Jerk. In my experience, this is a commonly overlooked exercise, but it’s clear that there are huge benefits to adding this exercise to a Strength and Conditioning Program.

Why is “Power” Important For Athletes

When it comes to athletic performance, a simple way to understand Power is energy that can be imparted on the body, or an implement.

Explosive, powerful athletes are dominant.  This spans all athletics, from the volleyball player to the thrower in track and field.  The power an athlete can generate strongly influences their explosiveness in their first step, jumping ability, speed, and other aspects, which directly influences their ability to succeed in their sport.

High school coaches know that developing power is an important aspect of training, but why don’t more coaches incorporate the lifts into their offseason strength and conditioning programs?  In my experience, there are two common arguments against Olympic Weightlifting that cause people to substitute them for other exercises.

They Think Olympic Lifting is Too Dangerous

According to a study by Hamil published by the Journal of Strength and Conditioning and Research, Weightlifting has the lowest rate of injury of all organized high school sports.  This most likely can be attributed to the proper teaching and certification Weightlifting coaches must pass before being able to coach a weightlifting team at a meet.

Most high school coaches simply do not know how to teach the lifts properly.  When taught properly, in an organized and controlled environment, Olympic Weightlifting is extremely safe.

They Have a Technical Aspect

Very similar to the previous point, another argument is made that since the lifts are so technical, the time spent performing that exercise to get proficient can be better spent elsewhere.  I can relate to this argument, especially after being in a few crowded high school weight rooms where the coaches give their kids less than an hour to do their whole workout, including warm ups.

Experienced coaches who know how to teach the lifts can easily break down the technical movements of the lifts into more manageable movements that can accelerate the learning process without hindering the benefits received from the lifts.  For example, a clean from the power position contains much less room for positional error than a full clean, and yet gives a huge level of power development for the athlete.  It’s for this very reason that I specifically program a 12 week beginners progression to the Olympic Weightlifting movements (Snatch, Clean, Jerk).

I fully understand these two arguments, and really wish that more high school coaches were competent in teaching the lifts, as I think that could drastically change the performance of their athletes and sports teams.  Given the scientific facts, it’s impossible to ignore the benefits of doing the lifts regularly if your goal is to improve in your sport and achieve your highest level possible.

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