Thursday 18 October 2012

Olympic-Style Weightlifting for Athletes

In my previous post on The Real Secret to Athletic Performance, I explained the importance of athletes being able to put a lot of force into the ground in a short amount of time. Olympic-style weightlifting is obviously a great way to do this. However, should athletes use Olympic-style weightlifting to increase their performance?

Some people love weightlifting and think of it as the "holy grail" of athletic performance training. Others think it is fine for competitive weightlifters but not for other athletes. So who is right? Well, to start, let's look at some of the benefits and potential disadvantages:

Potential benefits of Olympic-style weightlifting:
  • Trains explosive power. Power is force over time. Olympic-style weightlifting exercises require you to produce a lot of force in a short amount of time and therefore require a huge power output. 
  • Weightlifters have some of the highest verticals. Success leaves clues. 
  • Research has shown that weightlifting exercises have similar mechanics to vertical jump - hence a good level of specificity.
  • Taking a weight from the ground or just above and getting it overhead in a split second has a fun, empowering feel to it.
  • Because you have the weight of the barbell, it is easy to monitor progress.
  • Gives body a break from plyos. This is a huge, under-rated benefit. Remember that sport practice and competition places a ton of impact stress on the body. Weightlifting exercises typically have less impact stress and thus give the body a needed break from this stress. This is especially true for the in-season athlete or anyone who is already placing a lot of impact stress on their body from training. 
  • The catch phase of the lifts teach the body to accept force - something important for a lot of sports - particularly contact sports. 

Potential disadvantages of Olympic-style weightlifting:
  • Weightlifting is a complex sport that takes years to master. Coaches and athletes need to realize that weightlifting exercises are a long-term investment. It takes time to learn them and time to get better at them before you will notice an improvement in your sport performance.
  • Weightlifting exercises are coaching-intensive. If you do not have access to proper coaching, I recommend you wait on using them until you do.
  • Athletes already have a high demand on their motor learning ability from their sport skills. You can only master so many athletic skills. 
  • Weightlifter’s structure ≠ typical athlete’s structure. Success in sports depends in part on having a body suited to that sport. Most good weightlifters are short. Those who are tall tend to have relatively short limbs in relation to their height. The body that would make you good at a team sport such as  volleyball is drastically different. 
  • The joint stress of catching weights in the snatch or clean positions may place a lot of stress on joints that are already stressed from sport. This of course can be modified by just doing pulls
  • Weightlifters use squats and pulls to bring their lifts up – why not just use those? 
  • Need smaller athlete-to-coach ratio than you would with other more simple exercises. 
  • Higher risk for injury? Most people think that anything done fast has to be dangerous. The reality is that life rarely happens in slow motion. Also, news media loves to show pictures of freak accidents where elite weightlifters dislocate their elbows in competition. However, these freak injuries at the elite level are not the norm. Of course weightlifting can be dangerous – if not coached properly. However, research shows that properly done weightlifting (remember this is the clean & jerk and the snatch - not weight lifting which is what most people in fitness centers do) is very safe. Below are some stats from Hamill which were published back in 1994 in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning research. If my math is correct, according to these numbers, you are 3,600 times more likely to get injured playing soccer than you are doing Olympic-style weightlifting. 
Injuries per 100 participation hours
Schoolchild soccer 6.2
UK Rugby 1.92
UK Cross-country     0.37
P.E.  0.18
USA Football 0.1
UK Basketball 0.03
USA Powerlifting      0.0027
Weight Training 0.0035
Weightlifting 0.0017

Potential solution to some of these potential issues:
Many of these "issues" are lesened with some simple adjustments: adapt traditional weightlifting exercises for athletes. Remember, while there are some benefits from doing the full versions of the lifts, there is a lot you can gain from the explosive pull or drive part of the lift. If using them, I usually have athletes start from the hang position (bar above the knees) as opposed to the floor. Also, in many cases I may use low or high pulls instead of the full lift. These variations make the lifts more appropriate for non-weightlifter body types, easier to learn and safer to perform.

My Professional Opinion: 
I believe the answer to the question "Should athletes use Olympic-style weightlifting?" is the same answer as most good training questions: "It depends."

My current professional opinion on Olympic-style weightlifting is that an appropriate variation of these lifts is a good option for building explosive power in athletes. When making the decision to use these lifts with athletes, I weigh the issues I have written about above and make a decision based on what is most appropriate for the individual athlete at this particular time. I will stay open to allowing professional opinion to be shaped by my coaching experience, current research, my own training experience and the opinions of my trusted colleagues. After all, isn't this what we should do with any training decision?

Note for fitness professionals: if you want to learn how to coach the Olympic-style weightlifting exercises as well as use them and other athletic-based training tools, check out my upcoming workshop: How to Look and Feel Like an Athlete HERE.

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