Elite weightlifters are some of the most dynamic and impressive sagittal strength athletes in the world. They display impressive speed, power, mobility, and stability with a barbell. But given all of these traits, we are left with one question: are they athletic?
Before we can answer, let’s first go back to the definition of athleticism. At Power Athlete, we define athleticism as: “The ability to seamlessly and effortlessly combine primal movement patterns, through space, to accomplish a known or novel task.” All of the movements in the Power Athlete lexicon can be boiled down to seven fundamental patterns that are responsible for all human movement: the squat/hinge, lunge, step up, vertical push and pull, and horizontal push and pull. We call these our Primal Movement Patterns.
When you break down the snatch and clean & jerk, weightlifters are only combining the Primals of the squat, lunge, vertical pull, and vertical push. The snatch and clean & jerk are also primarily limited to the sagittal plane (front to back movement – think something you can do within the confines of a hallway), foregoing any work in the frontal (lateral side to side movement) and transverse (rotational or twisting) planes of movement. So, the closed loop sport of weightlifting may not check the boxes as the most athletic sport around. But that wasn’t the question.
The athleticism of a weightlifter will largely depend on their coach and/or programming. If their training neglects, horizontal pushing and pulling, movement in the frontal and transverse plane, sprinting, change of direction exercises, and limits lunging and stepping to just doing split jerks on the dominant leg, then the answer will most likely be no, they are not athletic.
If we as weightlifting coaches aim to develop better athleticism for our lifters through a more well-rounded and comprehensive approach, our athletes will be better prepared for the rigors of training, and ultimately more primed to overcome the demands required to succeed on the platform.
The Holes that Create the Biggest Deficiencies in the Training of Weightlifters
What makes the sport of weightlifting unique when compared to field sports is that performance on the platform is more directly correlated to the success or failure of the training program that got them there. Whether at the developmental or elite competitive level, the objectives are very binary – did the athlete improve their numbers in the snatch and clean & jerk, and/or did they lift more than the other competitors?
With a clear understanding of the binary objectives in competition, and what we know about the SAID (Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands) Principle, coaches are then tasked with reverse engineering a training program that will increase the athlete’s snatch and clean & jerk. This clearly defined objective, however, can lead to a trap. Coaches, at times, can get so wrapped up in the idea of specificity when it comes to exercise selection that we become dogmatic in our approach towards training bi-laterally in the sagittal plane. We neglect or scoff at anything different. I know this first hand because this used to be me!
While the Principle of Specificity is the keystone that holds the SAID Principle together, we must be careful that we don’t stick our heads so far up our asses that we lose sight of another crucial component of SAID – assessing, identifying, and attacking performance-limiting factors. And just to clarify, the Principle of Specificity deals with the transfer of training, while specificity deals with set up and execution!
Again, weightlifters are sagittal savages in all things bilateral, but at the limits of their capacity, their posture and position starts to become significantly challenged in a lunge, step up, and horizontal push/pull in the sagittal plane. You add in primals in the transverse and frontal planes, and these performance-limiting factors become magnified to an even more embarrassing degree.
Now, can you still progress an athlete successfully while sparingly incorporating or neglecting these types of exercises all together? Sure, especially with a genetically talented athlete. But, in doing so, you will not be maximizing the principal of Accelerated Adaptation and potentially blunting the athlete’s overall potential.
The Importance of Including ALL the Primal Movements in the Training of Weightlifters
One of the key components in designing weightlifting programs is achieving balance in our athletes, both in strength and technique. Technical or strength imbalances will create performance-limiting factors that will stunt an athlete’s potential for Accelerated Adaptation, and could at worse lead to injury. The more balanced an athlete is, the less likely he or she is to succumb to overuse injuries; time spent nursing an injury is time spent not training. Even when operating on an Olympic quad (the 4 year training cycle culminating in a peak to qualify for or compete in the Olympic Games), coaches and athletes don’t have time to be injured.
Technical deficiencies, especially for intermediate to advanced weightlifters, tend to be the result of muscular weaknesses. After breaking down the primal movements used in the snatch and clean & jerk (squatting, lunging with only with the dominant leg in the split jerk, vertical pulling and pushing in the sagittal plane), you can immediately identify where weightlifters are deficient.
Muscular imbalances pop up anytime a weightlifter starts to venture into limit weights at or near his or her maximum genetic potential. Understanding where those imbalances exist, and how to attack them, become crucially important for athletes at any level. Chances are, those same imbalances on the platform will also become apparent when posture and position is tested with a lunge, step up, and/or a vertical push and pull in any plane of movement.
Getting your athletes stronger by incorporating these movements and planes of motion will have a potent transfer of training in maximizing the Primals that make up the snatch and clean & jerk. By increasing their ability to move through space (athleticism), athletes can remain healthier and less prone to injury, putting them in a position to progressively and continuously add kilos to their total!
Filling in the Holes with the Power Athlete Methodology
Ok, great. This information makes sense and has opened my eyes to how to better structure the training of my weightlifters, but how should I implement these concepts into my training programs? Don’t worry we’ve got you covered.
Your first opportunity to incorporate the Power Athlete Methodology is through the implementation of the Dynamic Movement Prep. This is the time to incorporate and teach MOVEMENT that will better prepare the athlete, not only physically, but also mentally to perform movements like the snatch, clean, and jerk.
Your second opportunity to incorporate the Power Athlete Methodology is through accessory work, sprinting, and change of direction. While the primary focus is still given to those primals that are essential to the competition lifts, the secondary focus is your opportunity to include the remaining primals and planes of motion to create balance, durability, and general athleticism within the athlete.
The closer an athlete gets to a competition or peak, the more we’ll shift the focus towards the specific demands of competition. The frequency of sprinting and change of direction drills will be drastically reduced, if not completely removed altogether, and the volume of accessory and bodybuilding work will progressively decrease as well.
It is important to note that, when working with weightlifting athletes, in person or remotely, you need to provide more specific direction and instruction for what you are looking to get out of the training. Ultimately, it’s up to you – the coach – to step up and provide the proper context to your athletes, in order to maximize training and further drive adaptation and enhance performance traits.
Creating balance and improving overall athleticism in the training of weightlifters will lead to greater performances and development not only in the short term, but also, and more importantly, in the long term. Empty your cup, fill it up with all the Primals, and Empower the Performance of your athletes and sign up for the next semester of our Power Athlete Methodology Course!
Don was a two time National Champion and All-American water polo goalie at the University of Southern California prior to getting involved in coaching strength & conditioning and weightlifting. He is the founder and head coach of DELTA Weightlifting, a high performing USA Weightlifting Club and is a Police Officer in Central Virginia.
The Power Athlete Methodology has been a crucial component in developing better overall athleticism not only for his on the job performance in law enforcement, but also for his competitive weightlifters with international level athletes and national medalists to show for it. In addition to proudly being a Power Athlete Block One Coach, Don is also a USA Weightlifting Level 4 International Coach, a USA Weightlifting Lead Instructor USA Weightlifting Coaching Courses, and a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) through the National Strength & Conditioning Association (NSCA). Don has coached and trained athletes from virtually every sport at levels ranging from youth beginner to National Team level.
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