Shoot for the Starr. The Big Three – Revisited


Since the first edition of the book The Strongest Shall Survive in 1976, Bill Starr’s “big three” – back squat, bench press and power clean – have often been revisited in the effort to identify a handful of strength training exercises that can significantly improve performance in sport. Theories or maybe dogma, for the most part based on the assumption that stronger, more powerful athletes are better athletes. A paradigm that has brought elite level throwers to train like weightlifters, powerlifters at times, misunderstanding the difference between snatching, cleaning, and jerking, but also squatting or bench pressing for the seek of lifting heavier weights instead of lifting heavier weights as a way to improve athleticism.

Strength (absolute strength) is, with no reasonable doubt, necessary to improve performance in sport, and throwers are surely not an exception to this rule. Brute sheer strength, however, is the consequence and not the main reason why athletes squat, bench press and power clean. A shift in paradigm from heavy strength training to explosive strength training that does not want to diminish the importance of heavy squats, presses and pulls in the development of elite level throwers. It does, indeed, stress the importance of specificity in the training of elite level athletes, a concept that applies in track and field as well as in many other disciplines.

Dr. John Garhammer – brilliant mind, with a terrific understanding of Newtonian mechanics, physics and mathematics and a great deal of experience in training athletes, from Olympic weightlifters to throwers –  addressed the important similarities in terms of peak power output (a derivative of absolute strength) and rate of force development between Olympic weightlifters, high jumpers, and throwers. In his masterpiece Propulsion Forces as a Function of Intensity for Weightlifting and Vertical Jumping (1992). Dr. Garahammer laid the foundation for a new approach to strength training in sport that implements fundamental skills such as throwing, lifting and jumping in the effort of bridging the gap between general and sport specific training while providing the necessary overload to improve speed, power, and agility.

When explosive strength does, indeed, become a limiting factor in the development of elite level athletes – this is, for instance, the case of throwers, whose performance in the track and field arena is directly correlated with the amount of power they can generate in the weight room –  fast, explosive movements rather than slow, heavy lifts seems, therefore, to represent a better, more suitable option, in the development of stronger and more powerful athletes. An alternative to the original “big three” that has emerged after the Fall of the Berlin Wall when Eastern Europe, elite level throwers started experimenting with what is known  today as velocity-based training (VBT)

#1 Throwing: Throwing exercises for track and field throwers can be considered as skill work when the weight prescribed and the drills chosen are the same used in competition (sport-specific training). Throwing exercises, however, can also be considered as strength work: they can prescribe the use of lighter or heavier implements (+/- 10% depending on age and gender in order to preserve proper throwing mechanics) while focusing on more basic, fundamental; throwing skills (special; strength training). Medicine ball tosses, back throws, overhead throws, lateral throws and other variations of general throwing patterns offer, eventually, the opportunity to use heavier weights without affecting proper throwing mechanics as a way to develop absolute and explosive strength without compromising technique (general strength training)

#2 Jumping: Jumping exercises comprehend a broad variety of unilateral and bilateral plyometric drills. For the most part, these are vertical jumps with and without countermovement, performed with light medicine balls or weighted vests and adapted as needed to address specific skills involved in throwing mechanics  (special strength training).Considering the average size of elite level throwers, high impact plyometric training such as depth jumps and drop jumps should be avoided. Despite the terrific amount of strength these athletes are capable of generating – largely above 2 times their body weight in the back squat – high impact, open chain movements can increase the risk of overuse injuries. Plyometric drills can also include hops, leaps, and bounds as a way to work on coordination, balance, rhythm and muscle-tendon stiffness  (general strength training).

#3 Lifting:  Snatch and snatch variation – hang snatch, power snatch, snatch pulls and high pulls – seem to provide a better chance of increasing peak vertical bar velocity, a distinctive feature that ultimately reflects the ability to generate and apply force over a longer period of time (special strength training). This is an essential component in throwing mechanics, normally achieved by a combination of shoulder external rotation and a longer, more pronounced series of steps before the release to increase the overall displacement covered by the implement. Clean, jerk and their variations, although excellent alternatives to more conventional pulling exercises (see: deadlift), prioritize strength over speed, and their use becomes a more valuable asset in the development of a solid foundation of general athleticism (general strength training).

According to Bosco’s original Strength Continuum, peak vertical bar velocity between 1.00 and 1.30 m/sec (power clean) is ideal to develop strength-speed whereas peak vertical bar velocity  in excess of 1.30 m/sec up to 1.90 m/sec (power snatch) are more indicated to develop speed-strength, the athletic-like manifestation of absolute strength in sports. B.Mann, PhD

Although evidence seems to point out the importance of prioritizing speed over strength, skill over muscular development – see: “train the movement, don’t train the muscles”  (Vern Gambetta) – it is imperative to realize how the key concept in developing stronger, more powerful athletes is training integration, a monumental quote from the work of Gregory Haff. Heavy strength training exercises such as back squat, bench press and clean from the floor (described in minute details in the book Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe, a must to follow up with  Starr’s original teachings)  are still a necessary component in the training of speed and power athletes, such as throwers. However, the ratio between general and strength training exercises should progressively move from a 3:1 ratio during GPP to a 1:3 ratio during the season with more emphasis on those special strength training movements such as snatch, power snacth, vertical jump, and medicine ball throws that can develop “strength in the presence oif speed“, the paradigm of strength training for sports

Antonio Squillante
Antonio Squillante is the Director of Sports Performance and Training at Velocity Sports Performance, Los Angeles, California. He graduated summa cum laude from the University San Raffaele – Rome, Italy – with a Doctorate Degree in Exercise Science. Antonio has an unlimited interest in the field of sports biomechanics and long-term athletic development conducting academic research and presenting at national and international events as a member the International Society of Sports Biomechanics (ISBS) and the International Youth Conditioning Association (IYCA). He is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (NSCA-CSCS*D) and a member of the NSCA Advisory Board for the State of Pennsylvania and California. He is currently the Weightlifting Head Coach at California State University of Northridge (CSUN).
Antonio Squillante
Antonio Squillante

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