May 17, 2009

Nature vs. Nurture and Olympic Style Strength Training

Do the hard jobs first. The easy jobs will take care of themselves.  Dale Carnegie

If you follow strength training as it relates to athlete’s one thing is certain. Many people will tell you the best way to strength train to improve an athlete’s performance is to build the foundation of your program on Olympic lifting style movements. The reasoning is that
these “quick lifts” enhance explosiveness in the athlete rather than teaching slow strength as other forms of lifting are considered by the quick lift proponents.

Here we lay out some of the myths perpetuated as reason athletes should embrace this style of strength training.

Myth 1: Olympic lifters when tested, were the best group of athletes for vertical jump, so it follows that your athlete’s should train that way as well.

Reality 1: Olympic lifters are Olympic lifters because they have nervous systems that inherently (that means without ever touching a barbell) allow them to jump higher or be more explosive than the average person. These genetic traits carry them far in their chosen sport. Having an athlete do these movements will strengthen the muscles that are involved in a vertical jump, but they will not turn a genetic plodder into a skyscraper leaping superman as the quick lift proponents lead you to believe.

Myth 2: Olympic lifts mimic major sports movements and thus are more likely to have a transference to the athletic skill.

Reality 2: Specificity is VERY specific. A power clean though rather like jumping with a barbell is no means specific enough to jumping up as say… jumping up. [See specificity and skill transfer] You can get far greater benefit simply by strengthening the muscles used in a movement and then training them. For example, strengthen the hips and legs by squatting, leg pressing, or dead lifting. Then go practice jumping to use your newly developed strength. Because jumping is exactly specific to jumping and the muscles that perform the movement are stronger, jumping will improve. That improvement is because the muscles are stronger and you practiced the specific movement. It doesn't matter if you developed that strength with bodyweight exercises, barbell exercises, machines, dumbells, with a fast motion, slow motion whatever. It's the increased strength in conjunction with practicing the movement you are trying to improve.

Myth 3: Olympic lifts are statistically less dangerous than performing your chosen sport, so that means they are safe enough.

Reality 3: That's certainly one way to look at it, but aren’t other less ballistic, less risky forms of strength training even safer. Especially since we now know Reality 2. It’s so simple even a caveman understands it. (this is the part on an internet lifting forum, where people would get called a wimp or sissy if they suggested that a power clean may not give sufficient benefit to offset the risk)

The other part of the statistically more safe argument is that the statistics don't indicate the severity of an injury or any lasting issues due to the injury. It's one thing to turn an ankle in basketball and quite another to blow a disc power cleaning.

To summarize, Olympic lifts are complex movements that require a coach to actively coach the athlete in order to perform them properly and safely. If performed in poor form they have a greater capacity to injure than other types of strength training because of their ballistic nature. Think of this in terms of a car accident, the faster you are going the worse will be your injury.

For the time pressed high school and college athletes, StrongerAthletes.com doesn't believe Olympic style lifts are worth the tradeoff in time to spend learning the lift properly when that time could be better used practicing some sport specific skill.

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