Olympic Lifting – Sheep Walking Again


Thefollowing is an excerpt from my book. In light of the sheep walkingphenomenon (Blindly following the flock)I observed at the NSCAConvention I thought this would be appropriate. Hope it makes you think.

Inthe athlete development process the role of Olympic style weighttraining has occupied a large role. This has good and bad implications.Olympic style weight lifting is a training method that is excellent fordeveloping power. Olympic lifting consists of two movements, the cleanand jerk and the snatch. The derivatives of those movements are whatmake up the majority of the training exercises. There is no question ofthe inherent value of these exercises as a tool to raise explosivepower, but once again the method must be kept in context and reconciledwith the overall goal of the strength training program.

Inorder to achieve optimum return there are several key points that mustbe considered: the first point is that Olympic lifting is a sport. Thatsport consists of lifting as much weight as possible in the clean andjerk and the snatch. Those lifts have a high technical demand, but theskill is a closed skill that occurs in a narrow range of movement. TheOlympic lifting movements do produce tremendous power productionbecause of the distance the weight must travel, the weight and thespeed requirements. This power production is highly dependent on thetechnical proficiency of the individual lifter. Essentially, thetraining of the weight lifter consists of the actual Olympic lifts andsome derivative and assistance exercises. There is no running, jumpingor other demands on their system. The sole focus is on lifting as muchweight as possible.

Olympiclifters traditionally have lifted several times a day. This began inthe 1980s because of the influence of the Bulgarians who emerged as adominant power in the 1970s. The Bulgarian weightlifters were reportedto have had as many as six lifting sessions in a training day, repeatedfor up to five or six training days in a microcycle. Each sessionseldom ever exceeded sixty minutes. All sessions were at very highintensity. Once again the point must be made that all these athletesdid was lift. It also should be pointed out that they were full time“professional” athletes. Perhaps the most important underlying factorthat enabled them to accomplish this severe training regimen was aprogram of systematic doping. We know that was a huge factor in thelifters ability to recover and handle the high volumes of highintensity work necessary to make the type of strength gains theselifters were making. It also should be pointed out that on theinternational scene Olympic weightlifting is the “dirtiest” sport interms of positive drug tests.

Thisis not meant to be negative or to denigrate the sport; rather it is toput the emphasis on Olympic lifting in perspective. Too many coacheshave blindly copied the methods of the Olympic lifters without takingthese things into consideration. Even if you are an Olympic liftingcoach the volumes and intensities reported from the former Eastern bloccountries are beyond anything a drug free athlete can possibly handlefor any significant length of time. Richard Lansky, coach of Team Floridaweightlifting, has found that a realistic adjustment in volume andintensity is in the range of one third less for his athletes than thosecommonly reported in eastern European weight lifting literature.

Let’stake this a step further. It has become very popular among the strengthcoaching community especially in American football to center theirstrength training program on Olympic lifting. Many of the footballstrength coaches blindly copied the volumes and intensities of theBulgarian and Soviet lifters without taking into account the previouslymentioned facts. This volume and intensity was applied in addition tothe running, agility work, jumping and the sport specific training. Itshould be easy to see the problems that would arise.

TheOlympic lifts are very technical in their demands. Typically when wework with athletes their lifting sessions are sequenced after theirother work. This is not optimum time to utilize lifts with asignificant technical element and high neural demand, because fatiguewill compromise technique. The other factor that must be consideredwhen extrapolating from the world of Olympic weightlifting is bodyproportions. Olympic lifters, in effect, are pre-selected by their bodytypes. In order to be successful tall athletes with long limbs arequickly selected out. Smaller athletes with limb lengths that afford alever advantage succeed. Therefore, to apply Olympic lifting movementswithout taking into consideration body proportions can severelycompromise the effectiveness of the methods. I have seen back injuriesoccur in tall basketball players who were required to perform variousOlympic lifting movements without modifying the movements for theirbody proportions.

Anotherargument given for the use of the Olympic lifting movements is thatthey help with jumping because in biomechanical analysis of Olympiclifting the pattern of force closely resembled the vertical jump. I maybe missing something here, but then why not just jump with resistance.To learn and master the technical complexity of the Olympic liftingmovements to improve jumping seems to be a bit of a stretch. In mostsituations when working with athletes there is not an infinite amountof time available for training. Therefore chose methods that will allowyou to train the athlete in order to be better at their sport withinthe restraints of the available time.

Recognizingthese limitations, the use of Olympic lifting movements are viable andhave a place across the spectrum of sports because of their potentialfor power development. But the movements must be adapted and modifiedto fit the athlete. It must fit the athlete literally. Body proportionsmust be carefully considered. Significant modification must be made forthe tall athlete. It is important to point out that the Olympic liftingmovements do not have to be done with a bar. I have found that Olympicmovements with dumbbells to be particularly effective. The factor ofbody proportions is eliminated because the dumbbell will “fit thebody.” The disadvantage of the dumbbell is that you will eventually belimited in the amount of weight that can be lifted so that if you areworking with sports that require strength dominated power like footballor the throws then it is necessary to use the bar to achieve heavierloading. Dumbbells also allow modification of the pulling movements tobe done in diagonal and rotational patterns. The bar essentially locksyou into the Sagittal plane. Another interesting modification ofOlympic lifting movements is the use of sandbags. This method hasreportedly been used extensively by Jan Zelezney, world record holderin the javelin. Sandbags not only allow you to work multiple planes,but they can be thrown which significantly raises power production.

Froma technical perspective make sure that you as a coach know andunderstand the technique. Master the teaching progressions. Be sure toallow time in the training program for skill acquisition before addingsignificant loading. Also teach and preferably train the movements in anon-fatigued state. Adapt the method to the athlete, not the athlete tothe method. Remember you are not training Olympic lifters; you aretraining athletes who use the Olympic lifts and derivatives to raiseexplosive power.

Discuss entry

Vern Gambetta

Vern Gambetta

Director at Gambetta Sports Training Systems
Vern is the Director of Gambetta Sports Training Systems. He has been the a conditioning coach for several MLS teams as well as the conditioning consultant to the US Men's World Cup Soccer team. Vern is the former Director of Conditioning for the Chicago White Sox and New York Mets. He has lectured and conducted clinics in Canada, Japan, Australia and Europe and has authored six books and over one hundred articles related to coaching and sport performance in a variety of sports. He has a BA in teaching with a coaching minor and an MA in Education with an emphasis in physical education from Stanford University.
Vern Gambetta


Athletic Development Coach & Consultant. Founder of GAIN Network. Proud dad. Love to read everything.
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