My first reaction when anyone talks about alternatives to the Olympic lifts is to say, "No, there are no alternatives!" I will readily admit to having some bias on this issue. I come by it honestly. This is coming from someone who grew up in Pennsylvania in the United States, not too far from York, the Mecca, Muscletown, USA. I visited the old York Barbell Company as often as I could when I was growing up. My daily choice of clothes usually included a York Barbell T-shirt. I have always been fascinated by weightlifting and what it could do for a person's body.I have conversed with John Grimek, Bob Hoffman, (I still have my signed copy of Strength and Health magazine) and watched Bob Bednarski,Bill March, Rick Holbrook, Gary Glenney, Bill Starr, Tommy Suggs and many others train. In other words, lifting is in my blood. All my children (both sons and daughters)grew up with a love for lifting that paved the way to competitive success as well as a solid physical consitution for other sports.So when someone talks about alternatives to the lifts, there had better be a good reason and the alternatives better be really good. As the years pass and maturity sets in, I have to admit that there are circumstances where an alternative or variation can be beneficial, if it is for the right reason. Following is an article I came across recently. I have to admit, I agree with some of it. As usual I will include some comments in Blue.
By Rich Jacobs, MS, SCCC, CSCS
Though Olympic lifts are great in many ways, like any training tool, they have limitations such as environment, training goals, or sport coach's expectations. These days, there are many (I would say more like a few )alternatives the strength and conditioning coach can use to build a comprehensive program that will increase power while mimicking the movement and results of Olympic lifts.
Before discussing alternatives, let's take a look at the purpose behind the Olympic lifts. Touted as the most powerful lifts by research and practitioners, they are primarily used to train powerful triple extension and utilize a full body movement that requires coordination and skill. Triple extension is the explosive concentric contraction of the glutes, quadriceps group, and gastrocnemious in unison to provide acceleration in all planes. Therefore, these lifts make sense to be used in athletics since every movement in sport requires triple extension. This is not the only reason however. The lifts are also great for developing total body coordination and summation of force. They stimulate the metabolism and promote a balanced "finernails to toenails" development. They are also fun and add a level of competitiveness to training, not to mention promoting dynamic flexibility. While these lifts are fantastically effective, there are a variety of ways (as effective?)to achieve powerful triple extension without requiring the extensive amount of time to teach these very complex movements. Does it really take that much time to teach an athlete?And in some cases, the alternatives are better when athletes display a lack of lifting skill. Why not work with them and improve their lifting skill? It's not "rocket science." In addition, performing an Olympic-only program may not provide sufficient opportunity to benefit from injury prevention techniques and body composition changes. Arguable, I think the lifts do. Another disadvantage is the limitation of multi-planar training. Olympic lifts are performed in the sagittal and frontal plane, and the transverse plane is left untrained. But the stabilization required for overhead lifting supports rotation. Other rotational exercises can easily be added.Am I saying that Olympic lifting may not be the best option for a strength and conditioning program? No. Good judgement there.It is important to understand that some strength coaches are met with many obstacles that may get in the way of developing their ideal training program. My opinion is: remove the obstacles. Don't let limitations define your program. Sport coaches may not like certain exercises, the facility may not have the proper equipment (bumper plates and/or platforms), or the head strength coach has a different philosophy regarding weight training. But no matter the obstacle, there are other ways to achieve an explosive triple extension without using a traditional Olympic lift.
At Xavier University, we do not have platforms, bumper plates, or the space to perform many Olympic lifts, so I am forced to adapt to the environment by using plyometric boxes, dumbbells, Olympic bars, the Vertimax, and kettle bells. This doesn't make much sense, a good bumper set, while expensive, is still probably cheaper than all that other junk. I hope in the meanwhile you are doing all you can to get the right equipment. Armed with these alternatives, my objective is to achieve an explosive triple extension through movements other than the traditional Olympic lifts.
The Olympic lifts have been scientifically proven to be very powerful, so I feel that alternatives must also have some validity to them as well. Through research, it is proven to achieve a positive adaptation with 0-15% of the athlete's body weight when training for lower body power. It is also possible to increase power through an increase in strength according to the power formula (Mass x distance/ Time). By using scientific data, the possibilities appear to be endless.
All of my programs start with a foundation of what I want to implement. As I have mentioned in past articles, I always meet with the head coach to understand what he or she wants accomplished for their team. Good job.After the coach has voiced their expectations, I complete the program to please all parties.
Working with the women's basketball team here provides me with opportunities to highlight explosive movements in all three planes. Our off-season program consisted of two arm kettle bell swings, barbell power shrugs, high pulls, and push jerks. These movements are building blocks to the clean and snatch, but I am not actually performing the catches/rack and recovery. Why not? These athletes can learn those movements if they can learn to play basketball. However, I am achieving triple extension and activating the full body to incorporate a core component.
In the past, I have used the Vertimax to achieve an explosive triple extension. I like how easy the Vertimax is to set up and use to enhance vertical power, so it is a good tool to have in the box.
The preseason program builds on the off-season program. I progress the movements to a single-arm dumbbell snatch. The post players perform the dumbbell snatch, (actually more complex than the two arm movement) two-arm kettle bell swings, and the barbell power pull once a week on separate days. We do lateral and rotational reaction foot drills to incorporate the other planes of movement.
The guards went through the same progression from off-season to preseason. The preseason program for the guards is a little different from the posts because I add single-leg rotational jumps and broad jumps to attack the other planes. The entire team performs medicine ball work that focuses on extending the hip upon release of the ball to produce as much force as possible. Some examples are the lateral rotational throws and overhead throws. These power movements are done in two to four sets of a 15 set program. The bulk of the program is strength and effort to affect the 'mass' variable in the power equation and injury prevention.
I explain that we are working the muscles being used to rebound the ball or shoot the gap on defense and our team takes pride in working to improve these aspects of their game. They feel like the program will help make them better players.
When it comes to baseball, most coaches want to avoid compromising positions like the catch phase of a clean or anything overhead for pitchers. Why? I don't get that.That can be somewhat limiting when using Olympic lifts. We as strength coaches understand the importance of training in full ranges of motion and the benefits of catching the bar at the end of a clean or snatch. However, as discussed earlier, we may need to compromise with the sport coaches or do a better job of educating them on what we know. I prefer the latter, but ego sometimes dictates the former.To incorporate power movements into the baseball workout, we perform power shrugs. Through this movement, I am able to train explosive triple extension without compromising the wrists. Why not develop wrist flexibility? As a result of performing this movement without the catch, I am able to progress weight a little faster which will also increase power through strength. Following fall ball, we add another day with power movements by incorporating kettle bell swings.
To achieve multi-planar power for baseball, I use landmine rotations, rotational dumbbell presses, and medicine ball throws. These movements require the body to rotate through the transverse plane while achieving the triple extension needed to produce force quickly. It is usually not hard to motivate a baseball player in the weightroom, so convincing them that these lifts will help is easy. However, I take the time to show them how a powerful hip extension through the power pull may help them on the bases and that exploding through the hip with the medicine ball or landmines builds power in their swing and throwing motion.
Strength and conditioning coaches should be versatile in their philosophy when developing programs in order to adapt to the situation. There are many options for the strength and conditioning coach to build a comprehensive program that will increase power using alternatives to Olympic lifts. No matter what your resources or situation, there are enough options for achieving an increase in performance regardless of philosophy.
I believe that the lifts can be used safely and effectively in most situations. Injury or other problems may dictate some variations, but usually the reasons the lifts are not used is lack of flexibility on the part of the athlete,....so improve it! Or lack of knowledge on the part of the coach,... so improve it! Lifting a weight from the floor to overhead is becoming a lost art and that is only to the detriment of the athlete.Rich Jacobs, MS, SCCC, CSCS is an Assistant Strength & Conditioning Coach at Xavier University. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.