Happy 2017 to all my readers out there. These past few weeks have been extremely productive for Iron Athletics and I hope it’s been the same for all of you. Recently I returned from Nashville Tennessee as an attendee of the NSCA’s 2017 Coaches Conference where I had the opportunity to meet and talk sport performance with some of the most decorated strength coaches in the industry. One of the presentations that really interested me was presented by Mr. Wil Fleming of Force Fitness. Wil discussed olympic lifting and the programs he would implement with his athletes. After much note taking I updated the Iron Athletics databases and came away with a fresh perspective.
Having worked in both a college and high school sport setting, I understand the differences between both levels. Regardless of age the goal is always the same: improve sport performance, win championships and keep your athletes healthier longer. What is required to make an athlete competitive? Mental components aside the answer is relatively simple. We must get stronger for longer and get fast to last. Olympic lifts are a great tool for the development of power, especially power that can be transitioned to a practical sports setting. The movements are full body and replicate the explosive nature of many sport motions.
To break it down, let’s use the example of an athlete focusing on jumping higher. If you dissect the mechanics, it leads to the athlete performing a counter movement in triple flexion (ankles, knees, hips) to them exploding vertically into triple extension. The motion of a clean or snatch essentially is just that. You start in triple flexion and are required to explode into triple extension to generate enough force to move the weight above your body into the racked (catch) position. The application to sport is very evident and has been proven in many studies. Even horizontal movements can be improved using olympic lifts.
A hinge motion is a common power movement. It requires the athlete to keep soft knees while driving their glutes (which are pushed backwards to start) toward the bar or dumbbell. Consider rowing athletes if you will. They transition their pulls going from a hinge position into a more extended position all the while smoothly pulling the oar towards their chest. Again, the practical application is evident and the message clear: athletes need to be doing olympic style lifts.
The point that coaches tend to overlook is this:
we are training athletes, not weightlifters. Once coaches grasp that understanding, they can move forward in their strength programs. Unless your athletes are training to be olympic weightlifters or powerlifters, there is no reason to hammer in full olympic movements at all times. Unless you are a competitive weightlifting athlete, olympic lifts are a supplement to what you are trying to accomplish in your respective sport. As coaches, we need to keep this in mind. Adapt the lift to fit the athlete, not the other way around.
Next issue is mobility and technique. Olympic lifts are extremely technical and require years of practice to nail the form down while building awareness of limitations. If we have athletes who have never done them before, do we avoid them all together? No, you adapt and coach. For example, having athletes practice front squatting and deadlifting is crucial. Both movements are beneficial to sport and are components of olympic lifts. Building comfort with lifting from the floor or blocks leads to confidence when pulling explosively. For power, kettlebell swings are a great introduction. The hinging movement used to explode the kettlebell is very similar to the second pull in an olympic lift. If athletes are more comfortable, they can practice RDL’s with an explosive tempo. Have them keep control pushing backwards and explode their hips to the bar.
What if there isn’t sufficient time to teach lifting fundamentals during the season? Although I recommend at least introducing fundamentals, medicine balls are awesome (and safe) for explosive development. The risk of injury is significantly reduced and they have the potential to move in all directions. You can slam, toss or pass in all planes of movement to build full body power using a little creativity. Again, the above examples are just some ideas for teaching or substituting for olympic lifts.
What about athletes with flexibility concerns? Many athletes have different body types that prohibit traditional olympic lifting movements. Some are taller and long, others are big and compact. The fact of the matter is that not everyone will be able to execute certain aspects of the lifts perfectly. So what do you do? Aside from flexibility work, you adapt the exercise.
For athletes who can’t rack the bar or reach it from the floor, we tell them to stick to high pulls from the hang position (above the knee) or from the blocks. The rack or floor positions aren’t priority for power development however if an athlete can start and finish properly we don’t stop them.
The focus is the powerful hip explosion and shrug. If athletes need work with posture, we lighten the load and add a pause to their lifts. This reinforces a strong back position while emphasizing an explosive transition of bringing their hips to the bar. These are just a few examples of many possible combinations of the same two lifts. As a strength coach you need to be able to break down the movements, relate patterns that replicate sport movements and then adapt the exercise to fit what the athlete needs.
For those who think you need to complete full cleans or snatches constantly to develop power, I recommend looking up what many university weight rooms across the United States are doing in regards to strength and conditioning. I have included a link to University of Iowa Football Program led by Head Strength Coach Chris Doyle. You can click here to watch Part 1 and then click here to watch Part 2. He breaks down some of the lifts they do in order to build explosiveness for his football players. The fact is that athletes who perform variations of olympic lifts improve vertical jump, sprint time and upper body power. When you compare it to athletes performing full olympic movements, the differences were found to be insignificant.
In closing, the strength coach needs to first understand the group he is working with. The demands of the sport, the age and skill level of the athletes as well as their experience with strength training all play a factor in safe program design. The key to remember is that we are training athletes, not weightlifters. They may not care about how much they lift as much as we do because they are focusing on what matters to them: winning championships in their sport. We are there to improve sport performance, not to set lifting records every session. Make sure a purpose is given for every exercise and that it relates back to one thing: performance.
Matrixx specializes in adolescent athletic development. He coaches some of the top athlete prospects coming out of high school in the Niagara region. He also works with dedicated members of the community who are passionate about improving personal fitness. Matrixx is also the author of The Iron Guide to Building Muscle.