The argument of whether the Olympic lifts are needed to develop power in athletes has been long debated. While the following ideas are not meant to debate this exact question, my two cents is that while they are a great tool to develop power, strength, and coordination, Olympic lifts should be viewed as just that, one tool of many to do the job.
Within the Olympic lifts there are many variations we can use to develop power. The two I want to distinguish between and discuss are the traditional pull (aka low pull) and the high pull.
Traditional pull (aka low pull): This pull is characterized by an aggressive leg drive to a fully extended position with very little to no arm involvement.
High pull: This pull is characterized by an aggressive leg drive with the bar being continuously elevated to the chest by an upward pull with the arms.
Now that we’ve got the descriptions of each type of pull out of the way, the question I’m posing is the what exactly should be the role of a high pull? Should the high pulls be used to develop lower body power, for teaching the lifts, for both, or for neither?
There are a few reasons why I believe many coaches would use the high pull variation in training:
- To teach sequencing of the legs and arms
- To teach how to keep the bar close
- To teach how to finish the pull
- To develop lower body power
Just to touch on the first three bullet points regarding teaching very briefly. I have never been a big fan of high pulls to teach the lifts to someone with minimal to no experience in the weightlifting movements and here’s why:
If a high pull is executed proficiently it can, in fact, help to teach the timing and sequence of the legs and arms. That’s a big if. Typically, you see newer athletes perform high pulls extremely poorly because they pull with the arms too early in an attempt to get the bar higher because, well, ultimately that is the goal. The error of pulling with the arms too early in an attempt to get the bar higher will almost always cause the athlete to miss the power position in it’s entirety – where peak velocities and power occur during a properly executed pull or lift. Along with missing the power position, in my experiences, the high pull will also create habits of overpulling. When executing a lift, I consider an overpull a pull that is excessively high with a great emphasis on the arm pulling action far after the legs are finished driving. An excessive pull during the lift potentially creates a slow and mistimed turnover due to there being less time to actually execute it.
I’m not totally opposed to high pulls, but I personally limit high pulls to experienced weightlifters with already appropriate timing and rhythm that have a very clear error of not finishing the pull or letting the bar travel away from the body during the transition under the bar.
With that idea out of the way, from here on out I’ll focus mostly on the last point from above: using high pulls for power development in non-weightlifting sports. Most coaches use Olympic lift pulls to improve lower body power and strength. Hopefully most can agree on that point. I do understand that some coaches use high pulls to develop total body power, but more on this later.
To even start a discussion on power development, we must understand what affects power in the weight room.
Power = (Force * displacement) / time
Note that peak power uses the same formula as average power, but calculated at a specific point in time where combined variables would create the highest power output possible.
This formula can be manipulated a few different ways to achieve higher power values (assuming all other variables are constant). Force (mass and/or acceleration) can increase, displacement can increase, or time can decrease.
A thought I’ve had for a while is that high pulls are no more effective in developing lower body power than traditional pulls. Even if the two peak power values are similar, the fact that the proper execution of an effective high pull is much more difficult makes it a tool I would rarely use. Also, if you did use high pulls with novice athletes with regard to the Olympic lifts, you might find power values drop considerably because of the active arm involvement long before where peak power and velocity should occur. I finally attempted to do a very small scale test on this using PUSH.
I think the thought with a high pull is that if the athlete increases the distance of the pull, power will increase. And well, frankly, this is true due to increasing the distance in the high pull (and assuming the time does not increase in the same proportion). It is important to note that this would most likely affect only average power since peak power is an instantaneous measure.
Below are two charts. The blue barred chart shows peak power. The green barred chart shows peak velocity. I performed 8 sets of 3 reps at 70% of 1RM snatch. The first 4 sets are snatch high pulls and the last 4 sets are traditional snatch pulls. Each set is shown in the gray sections.
It’s noticeable that there is a higher peak power in high pulls. The typical snatch high pull peak power is ~3,300 watts (first 4 sets) and the low pull peak power is ~2,500 watts (last 4 sets).
While it doesn’t tell you where this peak power or velocity occurs within the lift, I would have to assume that the peak power and velocity in a high pull would occur as one finishes the leg drive and initiates the arm bend for the high pull (or slightly before if there is a minor early arm bend). If this idea is true, peak power and velocity in the low pull should occur as the legs finish the drive assuming there is no passive arm bend.
The increased power can then be attributed to either 1.) the contribution of the arms or 2.) the intent to drive the bar higher with the legs. With regards to point number two, I was using maximum intent to do both high pulls and low pulls at maximum intensity within the confines of the definition of the exercise outlined above. With this is mind, we now have a good understanding that once the leg drive is completed, the arms are most likely where we can attribute the additional power to. So I can safely rule out point number two as the main contributor.
Clearly, moving the bar through a greater distance increases average power output (assuming all else constant). After all, a higher power output is what we are mostly aiming to achieve in the Olympic lifts.
With VBT metrics increasingly becoming more popular, maybe we’re being fooled into thinking that any higher power output is better regardless of where it’s coming from. In most sports, however, lower body power is king. When performing high pulls we are producing what seems to be “artificial” lower body power through contribution of the arms. This is not what we should be aiming for.
With this being said, I understand that a high pull may be useful for total body power, to an athlete that has odd anthropometry and can’t receive the bar properly, or with an athlete that may be viewed as “high risk”, like a baseball player with a million dollar arm. I don’t necessarily think that the latter two reasons are legit reasons all the time, but I realize those are possible objections and realistic scenarios.
Ultimately, I still don’t believe that high pulls are any more effective at improving lower body power than a traditional pull and in fact can be detrimental to athletes that don’t have adequate experience with the lifts. My suggestion would be to either do power variations or traditional pulls. While in a power variation you may still be achieving similar bar heights to that of a high pull, you get the additional benefits of eccentric loading and stability during the catch that you can’t get from a high pull.