Technical movements have become infinitely more sexy since the rise of the almighty sport of CrossFit. Suddenly cats are performing handstand walks, ring muscle ups, many other variations of gymnastic style movements. Another highly technical and widely used discipline that has gained popularity as a result is Olympic lifting. While a beautiful sight when executed well and a complete abortion when done with reckless abandon, the snatch and clean and jerk have become regular tools in virtually every competitive athlete’s toolbox. If you ask most individuals what purpose Oly lifting serves, they’ll tell you without hesitation- explosiveness. Sure, the Oly lifts will help train power but what CrossFitters are not saying is that often times their sport requires it- an undeniable part of competition and movement standards.
Now let’s take a look at Power Athletes, field sport, or contact sport athletes – really any arena of competition that is not CrossFit or Olympic lifting itself. For these athletes, the Oly lifts are merely tools- a means to a very powerful end- to express strength dynamically. Therein lies the controversy. If it’s really just a matter of “jumping with the barbell in our hands” to quote Mark Rippetoe, what benefits, if any, are being ignored by utilizing the power variances? Today, we’ll tell you why we take an unapologetic stance advocating dynamic pulls and power versions of the lifts over the full versions. But, before anyone gets too butthurt, let’s examine various schools of thought from our strength and conditioning brethren. Then we’ll tell you why we’re right.
Go to any online forum and note the numerous argument threads and “bitchfests” surrounding the power clean debate. It’s endless and glorious and you know what? I love it. The debate really revolves around one all-encompassing loophole, the ultimate S&C glitch in the Matrix- safety. Arthur Jones, creator of the Nautilus machines, was one of the first prominent and vocal figures to come out against the power clean. He claimed that it was a back-destroyer making Olympic lifting to athletic training what carbs were to the late Robert Atkins. Maybe AJ really believed this, as he frequently used himself as an example for the basis of his findings, but it is more likely that he was just trying to protect his brand. Listen, I get it. If you’re trying to pick up someone at a bar you don’t tell them about your cooler and much hotter friend. In-the-know coaches like Dan John called bullshit and have been activists for the power clean and it’s benefits for years. Former S&C coach at the University of Tennesse, Bruno Pauletto, said it best: “Where coaches get caught is that they hear from other coaches that the power clean should be used when working out. What they do is incorporate it into the workout without teaching it to the athlete. With improper technique the athlete can get hurt like any other lift.”
There is also no shortage of those who claim that the Olympic lifts do nothing to develop speed. Even openly opposed field professional Matt Brzycki of Princeton wrote at length claiming that “lifting weights with rapid speeds of movement is only a demonstration of power not an adaptation.” Sweet baby Jesus. Would you not agree that power is in fact, an adaptation? Granted, Brzycki talks specifically about it’s application to wrestling and takedowns and he does note that the best way to improve double leg take downs is to practice just that. But, assuming we are strength and conditioning coaches, we are not tasked with sports specific skill development (SPP). Instead, our job is to replicate the demands (GSP) and I would argue that a violent extension is a demand of wrestling/wrastlin’. He also goes on to say that “lifting a weight in an explosive manner is less efficient than lifting a weight in a controlled manner due to the increased involvement of momentum”. Then why not have your wrestlers do double leg take downs by approaching each other with a gentle embrace followed by “controlled” hug into submission? If wrestling is too abstract an example of the efficiency of power, here’s another: Take a 100# dumbell off a rack “controlled”. Now tear it from the rack like it stole your lunch money. Which feels more efficient?
I remember reading a BFS (Bigger, Faster, Stronger) article talking about just this subject. They cited a study where one of the Air Force Academy S&C coaches administered a 3 year study on how different exercises affected performance of collegiate football players. What they found is that the top three on field performers of varying positions (who all saw incredible gains) were seeing the biggest gains compared to their teammates in one particular lift…the power clean. I had a very similar experience with three separate young go-hards this past summer. They came to me individually in search of preparation for their freshman year pre-season football and volleyball training at DII schools. After doing some testing and assessments the holes were obvious. Power and speed. With little prior technique instruction from their high school weight room, we tweaked the PC form getting it as close to perfect as possible. If flexibility allowed for a solid receiving position, I let them catch the bar. Why did these athletes retest faster (best 5-10-5 dropped .3) and more explosive (best adding 2″ to vert) six weeks later after implementing dynamic pulling into their training?
SPEED Squat for strength, dynamically pull for speed. For on-field athletes, strength is a great equalizer but speed kills. Power is really just a function of strength and speed. The more amount of work you can do over a period of time determines your power output. Not only do the power variations of the olympic lifts require greater musculature due to them ultimately being a longer pull, but functionally, it is more reminiscent to the initial dive and drive phase in sprinting and ultimately knocking your opponent on his/her ass. Don’t think you can get faster in the weight room? Getting athletes to jump with weight in their hands without compromising good position will teach the posture needed to increase speed on the field and track. By strengthening this posture, an athlete will gain efficiency at generating force on the vertical and horizontal vectors (as in sprinting). Thus, allowing the athlete to do more work in a shorter period of time.
TECHNICALITY Another benefit of adopting the power variations is that by their nature they are less complex than the full clean and snatch. Imagine a scenario where you have 30-45 athletes in their teens for an off season. Are you going to spend 4 of the 12 or so weeks teaching them to pull, scoop, dive, and catch a bar when it’s not entirely necessary to their sport? If you choose the far less complex variation you can reap all of the benefits of the power output stimulus without risking progress due to poor technique. This is not to say that the amortization or force absorption phase, as Bob Takano puts it, of the lift doesn’t have merit but when you’re talking about field sport athletes who train to barrel through bodies, you either train to be the hammer or the nail.
EXTENSION Where do most athletes fail in technicality when performing the full oly lifts? A lack of hip extension is, without a doubt, the most common fault during execution. Another interesting point about the power version of the lifts is that when the movement requires a person to get tall and receive the bar high, they very often find themselves performing a full extension. The power clean can be a great training tool for those who can’t feel, find, or see an open hip or finish the pull. Rippetoe mentions this in the CrossFit Journal: “The reason the power clean is an important assistance exercise for weightlifters is that it teaches the “finish” of the pull at the top, that last little bit of extension that must be done before going under the bar.”
The power clean, when taught and implemented properly, can be a literal game changer for athletes. Don’t shy away from using it because of the technicality or supposed risk for injury. Instead, man up (“A coach needs a coach.” -Tex) and seek the best coaching you can find so that your team will reap the benefits of this tool for speed. The movement pattern, bar path, and receiving position intricacies required by the full lifts simply aren’t necessary for most athletes. Get the same applicable bang-for-your-buck by opting for the power variations. Reminds me of a friend who is doing all of her Christmas shopping on Amazon. Sure, it’s less complex than actually going to a store, but the result is still the same- someone’s getting a badass Big Foot statue.
John Welbourn is CEO of Power Athlete and Fuse Move. He is also creator of the online training phenomena, Johnnie WOD. He is a 9 year veteran of the NFL. John was drafted with the 97th pick in 1999 NFL Draft and went on to be a starter for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1999-2003, appearing in 3 NFC Championship games, and for starter for the Kansas City Chiefs from 2004-2007. In 2008, he played with the New England Patriots until an injury ended his season early with him retiring in 2009. Over the course of his career, John has started over 100 games and has 10 play-off appearances. He was a four year lettermen while playing football at the University of California at Berkeley. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in Rhetoric in 1998. John has worked with the MLB, NFL, NHL, Olympic athletes and Military. He travels the world lecturing on performance and nutrition for Power Athlete. You can catch up with John as his personal blog on training, food and life, Talk To Me Johnnie and at Power Athlete.
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