Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Part One: A basis for using the "Full Olympic Lifts" in training

My brother Orrin performing a snatch at the Utah State Championships a few years ago.

This is part one of a two part article based on my opinions advocating the use of the full olympic lifts, not only in training for the throwing events, but in any power sport. This is sort of a follow-up to the previous post on weight training for the throws. Comments, ideas, contradictions are welcomed from either post. Either post it in the comment section, to the shout chat box, or feel free to email me @ oliverwhaley@yahoo.com.....also stay tuned...we hope to post more training ideas, videos on training, throwing drills, etc in the future...keep checking back.....thanks

By Oliver Whaley

Lately, I have been reading many interesting articles and points of views pertaining to the Olympic lifts and their use in training athletes. A lot of people say that the lifts are nothing more than a means to reach triple extension and that there are other ways to achieve this such as jumping, bounding, squat jumps, box squats, kettle bell swings, tire flips, etc.

People have various opinions and stances on training, but I think the biggest factor is to find what works best for you in your given event and in your own personal goals. There are so many different ideas and principles in the world of strength for training athletes in power sports, from Louie Simmon’s Westside philosophy to the whole stability ball, “functional strength”, and sport specific movement… etc.

As for myself, I am a huge advocate of the Olympic Lifts. They’re athletic, they’re powerful, they’re precise and yet each lift is really one simple movement that activates everything between your fingernails and your toenails. They can be very addicting too. It just feels good to hit rock bottom and catch a snatch over head or stand up with a heavy clean and stick the jerk. And they just plain ol’ work! I’m not talking about power cleans or power snatches, but the lifts in their full form. I think they’re an excellent exercise not just for athletes, but for anyone, including your grandma. I remember watching 85 year old Mel Katz compete while a member of Peaks Weightlifting Club in Flagstaff, Arizona. Most 85 year olds are just trying to get out of bed. By the time you hit 25 years old, if you haven’t regularly used or overloaded your fast twitch muscle fibers they begin atrophy. They continue to atrophy if not overloaded, more and more each year until finally you can’t even get yourself up out of your favorite TV chair. Then before you know it, you’re 85 years old, stuck in a nursing home bed being spoon fed jello.

The physiological workings of the human body are truly quite amazing.

We know that strength is the ability to exert a force. Force is equal to mass times acceleration. The basis of all motion is force. All activities in life require the movement of an individual or the ability of an individual to set a given piece of equipment in motion. Like getting up out of our favorite TV chair or the ability to pick up a hammer and drive a nail into the wall, or better yet with your bare hands!

And then you have power, which is equal to force times velocity. Power is the rate of work we are able to accomplish in a given unit of time. By increasing a person’s power output you can increase the probability of athletic success in any given event. A 60’ foot shot putter is now able to throw 65’ feet. An 11 second hundred meter sprinter is now able to run 10.5 seconds. The greater we can manipulate power output the bigger results in improvement will be.

It would be nice if increasing power was as easy as it looks on paper. We would all be Christian Cantwells or Usain Bolts, winning medals and breaking records. But every athlete has his or her own genetic capabilities and limits. What makes a successful training program is being able to help each athlete reach their maximal potential, even going beyond it, while avoiding injury and enjoying the journey. So what we choose to do in any allotted training time, i.e. types of lifts, volume, intensity, etc., is of optimal concern. We want to choose the things that will help us to safely achieve the best results with the least amount of effort and/or time.

There are only two ways to increase an athlete’s ability to generate power. Increase the strength of the muscles that exert the force or increase the velocity of the movement being made.

While the exact physiological cause of increased strength is not known, we do know where the possible sites of adaptation can take place.

In the nervous tissue, changes in the nervous system can result from the effects of a proper stimulus. As a result of neural adaptation, an increased neural drive to the muscles, an increase in the synchronization of motor units or an inhibition of the protective mechanism of the Golgi tendon organs can occur. All of which would allow your body to react faster and produce more power over time.

In the muscle tissue, hypertrophy (the increase in cell size) or hyperplasia (the splitting of the cell) can occur. When we strength train, we stretch the muscle which then signals the body to release the hormones that lead to hypertrophy (muscle growth).

In the connective tissue (the transmitter of force), as a result of a heavy stimulus overload, adaptations can lead to an increase in collagenous fibrils, making your connective tissue stronger.

In the skeletal tissue, an increase in the density of the bone can result from strength training due to an increased deposition of mineral salts in the skeletal tissue. Bone modeling is a response to mechanical loading by application of a weight-bearing force which causes the bone to bend, thus creating a stimulus for new bone formation at the regions experiencing the greatest deformation.

The Sports Science Exchange gives these qualifying characteristics of a bone-building exercise:

It should involve faster, rather than slower, movement

It should exceed 70% of maximal capacity

It should involve some type of impact

It should involve a variety of muscle groups and movement direction.

It should be closed kinetic chain activity. (standing on your feet)

And then there are the factors that can affect speed. You can improve the power to weight ratio. You can develop better mechanically advantageous techniques in your given event (good technique is important in anything we do!). You can decrease resistances to movement by losing fat, improving joint mobility, increasing flexibility, etc. You can train the central processing mechanisms of the stimulus-response component (fast twitch muscle fibers) to react faster. Or you can maximize the awareness of signals (cues to attend to).

Now, after examining the physiological properties of the body and how adaptations take place, we can ask ourselves, what movement in sport best facilitates these factors in promoting the generation and production of power as well as the positive adaptations we seek in performance and body composition?

Yes, I would say the Olympic lifts are an amazing fit. There is a reason why Olympic weightlifters are some of the most powerful and amazing athletes on the planet.

What other lift or movement in sport overloads and stretches the whole bodies muscular system (not only forcing the large muscle groups to fire but sending a chain reaction throughout the body to every muscle) to the point of hypertrophy, while also promoting an increase in the collagenous fibrils of the connective tissue, while also meeting the criteria for a bone-building exercise, while also training the nervous system for optimal response along with training the body to move in precision at maximum speed (mechanically advantageous techniques), at the same time requiring enormous flexibility and joint mobility while being safe (if done correctly with good technique) and able to produce results in the least amount of time and with less effort than combining a bunch of exercises in hopes of manipulating the same results?

And in what sport do athletes have a greater power to weight ratio than Olympic lifters?

So why would we not incorporate these lifts into our training programs?

In the next article I am going to play the role of antagonist to many of these common arguments against the use of the "Full Olympic Lifts" for training athletes of all levels of performance.

Al Feurbach world record holder in the Shotput and National Weightlifting champion.
Smart athletes like my sister Deezbaa use the lifts as big part of their performance enhancing toolbox.


  1. I think you may have been oversimplifying when you made the statement about increased power output = incread results and how you said that we cannot reach the ability of usain bolt or cantwell because of our genetic limitation. I will stick to the example of discusas this is the event I spend the most time studying. The best discus throwers in the world usually manage to impart enough force into the discus for it to reach 25-26 m/s. This ability, however is also replicated by a huge number of 60 meter and less throwers. The amount of force it takes to get a discus to 70 meters or even 80 meters is not very difficult to achieve at all. Even you and I can produce that amount of force. The difficult thing though, is transferring this energy into the discus efficiently and at a good trajectory angle, andle of attack, rotational energy etc. I think that you may have been overlooking the fact that in the throws (I will stay away from sprinting because I don't spend much time in this field) force production isn't that much of an issue, but rather efficient transfer of the force into the implement is more important.

  2. That is a good point....efficient transfer of power comes mostly through proper technique. In the case of throwing, precision technique at maximal speed. But being able to move heavy loads at high speeds definitely doesn't hurt. My point was more so the benefits of the full lifts for an athlete. But there is a point where strength and power levels become sufficent and don't have much impact on throwing farther. Thats why we lift to throw, technique should be of the foremost importance. Thanks for the feedback! Part of this has been to help me learn and grow in my knowledge too, so the feedback has been awesome.

  3. Yeah mate your right. This is a topic I have spent much thought on recently.

    I figure that being able to move large amounts of weight will increase the amount of power you can potentially produce. The olympic lifts ofcourse being one way of doing this.

    Because lifting and throwing are two different movements though, the increase in potential force production does not have much of an immediate carry-over to the throw. But if, once you improve your potential power output through olympic lifts, you then decrease your lifting intensity and increase your throwing intensity, your body will become more familiar with the motor pattern of the throw and may be able to put some of this increased force into the implement.
    My opinion is that it is a common misconception that you have to have certain lifts to throw certain distances. It is possible for someone who can clean, squat and bench press only 200 pounds to throw 70 meters

    Which event do you associate yourself most with? I am focusing on the discus in this discussion.

  4. This is good stuff! I myself have exclusively devoted my time this year to the hammer throw. But the information is good for all, thanks!

  5. Ahh true, I just started throwing the hammer recently and have not even thought much about this event. What are your thoughts on basic hammer technique?

  6. Your right about the misconceptions and weight room numbers. I think thats one of the biggest problems most American throwers face. We place to much emphasis on being strong. I think alot of that has to do with some of the influences to the sport of lifting here (powerlifting, etc), and then just plain old vanity and pride that American culture seems to breed especially through the media. Common questions when weightlifting discussion arises are, how much do you squat and bench? lol That's one of my biggest challenges, I like to lift heavy weights. But it should never take precendence over training for the throws.

    With basic hammer throwing. I think the biggest thing is learning to turn and to turn properly. Maintaining good posture, keeping equal balance on both feet, having a solid left hip to turn around, turning on both feet as long as possible then steping (or in sense driving) to the front with the right and learning to get it down quickly, and most importantly learning to relax the upper body and not pull or fight with the hammer but to let it travel as long as possible on its radial path. They say a cenimeter of radius amounts to three feet of distance. Developing a good rythm to the throw from the start I think is also important. Letting the hammer travel on the left side and then pushing on the right. Alot of times beginners get in the habit of trying to accelerate the hammer on the left by pulling which we all know is a big no. In the throw, especially with a three turn thrower, the winds and entry are very important. As they set the tone and rythm of the whole throw. If you pull the hip in at the beginning of the throw it can be hard to recover from later on in the throw. And if you pull the hip at the beginning you will most likely pull it through the whole throw.

    I always think of driving in the direction of the throw and then lifting at the finish. Alot of times I think beginners get the misconception we are just spinning fast. We do build speed through the turning, but we also have to get the momentum of the hammer traveling in the direction of the throw.

    But turning and turning and turning a whole lot I think is one of the most beneficial things a beginner can do. I really like drills for this as they can be done in high volume and repetition.

    Hmmm, as of now thats all I can think of this morning as for my thoughts. I have some weight-room hammer drills I am going to post soon. And I would like to get some technical dicussion going here soon on the hammer and also the other throwing events.