By: Kevin Abelbeck – President, Milo Fitness LLC
Need Power? Olympic Lifts Are the Answer!
Most coaches now know that power is more important than strength for most athletic events. To generate maximal power athletes must train powerfully. That includes speed-strength power (lighter resistance and focusing on speed, such as with a sprinter) and strength-speed power (greater resistance, focusing on strength, such as a linebacker, weight lifter, wrestler, etc.). To properly train for power, the goal is to progressively increase the athlete’s power output, focusing on that athlete’s speed-strength or strength-speed goal, within some periodization program. How do most coaches train their athletes for power?…Ask them and they will say “Olympic lifts”. Olympic style lifts, power cleans, hang cleans, push presses and so on are actually throwing motions. The athlete is explosively throwing the weighted bar, and usually their body weight, vertically. As you will see in the following paragraphs, this is why these lifts are effective. In terms of translation to the athletic event, they may also be limiting in three areas.
The first limitation is the athlete must catch the weight. This places a cloud of reservation on the lifter to “hold back” from maximal effort. Competitive lifters train for years to develop the skill and confidence to perform these lifts at their full potential. That can take years to achieve. Do you as the coach have that kind of time? In addition, the catch is usually where the injuries are most likely to happen. If you can eliminate the catch, the likelihood of injury naturally decreases. Why do Olympic lifts take so long to become proficient? Well, it’s just physics. Take our functional training product the Flipper. It acts as a lever, with the far end supported on the ground. This provides, at most, 2 degrees of freedom of movement of the handle the athlete must control. A weighted bar has 6 degrees of freedom. The movement in each plane and rotation about each axis must be controlled by the athlete throughout the lift and caught in a position of balance of the athlete and the weighted bar.
The second limitation relates to fluid motion. An Olympic lift is taught in segments or phases. The athlete is taught to repeat one segment of the lift over and over and when proficient, then that segment is added to another segment. This trains the athlete to move in phases. A start to push position, using the sample of our Flipper, is similar to a power clean with a bar, but because of the increases stability of the Flipper, this movement can be learned in minutes, grouping segments together from the beginning. This coordinated movement neurologically trains the athlete to work as a synchronous system. A coach in Nevada told us he witnessed, among other things, that after training with the Flipper consistently in the pre-season, his high school athletes’ bodies seemed to work more as a “system” and not a “series of parts” on the field during that season.
Finally, what sport requires only vertical movement? Power lifting and Olympic lifting are the only two that come to mind. Ironically, for most sports, these are used as training tools for performance on the field, court or mat, each of which for success must focus primarily on horizontal movement. You want your athletes to move down the field, not up and over the field. Using a lever that is designed to be thrown, inherently the movement is substantially vertical, but as one end is lifted, the lever changes angle and a horizontal component is added. This exploding up and INTO the opponent or object is lacking in more traditional lifts because the bar must be balanced by the lifter and can only move vertically. The bottom line is Olympic lifts certainly help develop explosive power, but there are functional tools that may do the job better and translate better to the sport.
Start Throwing Some Stuff Up…or Over
In addition, the Flipper also allows for the upper body to rapidly extend in a similar pattern and in some cases simultaneously with the lower body. When the body extends rapidly, the athlete is “throwing” their body (such as a countermovement jump) and any additional resistance, such as a weighted bar or other device they are moving or lifting. Why is this important? Research has demonstrated that if a lifter is able to throw an object, the force and velocity will be significantly different compared to when the lifter must maintain a grip on the object (Newton, Kraemer, Hakkinen, Humphries, & Murphy, 1996). Two of the figures of this study are shown here. The first figure below (Fig. 2) shows the change in velocity of the bar with subjects performing a bench press and bench press throw. In both conditions the subjects were told to move the bar as rapidly as possible through the entire range of motion.
The top curve (closed boxes) shows the velocity throughout the range when the bar was thrown. The bottom curve (open boxes) shows the velocity throughout the range when the subject kept their grip on the bar. As noted, in both cases the subjects were told to move the bar as rapidly as possible throughout the entire range of motion of the movement.
How does this translate to applied force, you may ask? Fortunately the researches asked this as well. The graph below (Fig. 3) follows the same 0-100% of range of motion of the explosive bench press (open boxes) and explosive bench press throw (closed boxes). The force applied to the bar that was able to be thrown (top curve) was relatively flat throughout most of the range. On the other hand, when the subject was forced to hang onto the bar, the force applied to the bar steadily decreased throughout the lift (bottom curve).
As a coach, when you use a Jammer, push press with a bar, or any other object the athlete cannot throw, the neurological path that is being burned into the athlete’s neuromuscular system is to “pull the punch”, or slow down prior to contact. With a throwing movement, they are being conditioned to explode through their opponent.
If we look at power production (work done over time) at the end portions of these movements, this data is quite revealing. At 90% of the range of motion, the “press” power was approximately 135 watts. At 90% of the range for the “throw” the power output was858 watts. Throwing provided a greater power output of over 6 times versus pressing. At the end of the movement (100%), which is where it counts if you are throwing anything, the power is 40 watts for the “press” and 702 watts for the “throw”. Yes, this is a 1700% greater power output at the end of the movement when the subject can throw the object as opposed to keep it in their hands!
The moral of the story is clear. To be powerful you must throw. Oly lifts offer a level of throwing but have inherent limitations primarily due to the high level of skill required to master any of the Oly lifts or even a segment such as a power clean or hang clean. Traditional lifts all have value, but for truly functional explosive power, try explosive throwing in a safe environment using equipment made for this purpose. We have been told, “My athletes are setting new PR’s all the time now on their Olympic lifts.” My comment back is, “I think I know why.” It is from safely throwing things heavier than a medicine ball.
Newton, R. U., Kraemer, W. J., Hakkinen, K., Humphries, B. J., & Murphy, A. J. (1996). Kinematics, kinetics, and muscle activation during explosive upper body movements. Journal of Applied Biomechanics, 12(1), 31-43.