Virtually every athlete starts doing Olympic lifts for one of two reasons.
Reason 1: Because their coach or gym teacher read an article in “Bigger Faster Stronger” magazine and subsequently made them do Olympic lifting.
Reason 2: Because they heard it would improve their explosive power and vertical leap.
Chances are if you are reading this that you train with the Olympic lifts because of reason 2 (if you do them at all). Can the Olympic lifts help you jump higher? Sure… but they can also make you jump lower; I bet you didn’t think THAT was possible. There are also a lot of other things outside of Olympic lifts that cause high vertical leaps such as squats, deadlifts and step-ups. Why are the O-lifts considered a vital part of the jumping recipe then?
A large part of the reason that Olympic lifting is so popular for athletes is due to the principle of “correlation vs causation”. An example of this phenomenon is that people see elite runners and assume that if they do what they do, it will make them skinny, where in reality, elite runners are largely good at running because they are skinny in the first place! Same thing with Olympic weightlifting. Olympic weightlifters often carry with them huge verticals, because they are explosive, genetically gifted beasts. Chances are, if you have a great vertical jump, you will make a pretty good weightlifter!
Check out this powerlifter who deadlifts over 3x bodyweight at age 19.
Powerlifter goes between the legs to dunk! Guess all those deadlifts aren’t hurting him.
The two main arguments for Olympic lifting in power development are
1: Olympic weightlifters are beasts and obviously they became that way because of their high speed lifting.
2: The second pull in Olympic weightlifting is one of the most powerful, if not the most powerful movements in sport so clearly that will give us all 40 inch verticals.
With such compelling arguments, let’s dissect each of them briefly.
For argument 1, it is really a question of correlation and causation. What if you took an elite Olympic weightlifter with a 40 inch standing vertical leap, threw them in a time machine, and started their training years all over again with standard powerlifts and plyometric training rather than Olympic work? Would they still jump as high? The answer is probably yes, maybe higher, or at least pretty close.
For argument 2, power is a bit of a relative phenomenon. Just because I can throw a hammer far in track and field doesn’t mean I will be able to run the 100m dash well. Now Olympic lifting resembles things like jumping a little more closely, but we must remember that the sequence of events is backwards! Jumping starts with the arms and ends with the legs. Olympic lifting starts with the legs and ends with the arms. The only thing that the two share is how the legs extend.
Despite all of this, there are some really nice benefits that the Olympic lifts do carry, and isolating those benefits to our training can bring some nice results. What are some elements of an Olympic lift done correctly that do transfer to sport? I think I can boil it down to three main areas:
- Mix of posterior chain speed and power
- Powerful and correctly performed triple extension
- Deep squat “catch” with a vertical torso
The posterior chain power developed from Olympic work can just as easily be performed by deadlifting. With Olympic lifting however, the pull from the floor is usually performed with a better torso angle (chest up). Perfect Olympic lifting also involves pushing hard through the heels. This initial pull is lower velocity than the second, using more of the slow-twitching units of the quads, glutes and spinal erectors. The second pull is very fast, hitting the faster twitching units of the glutes, erectors and trapezius.
If the pull is performed incorrectly, however, a greater amount of the force will be transferred to the erectors and arms, leaving the legs and glutes to a lower contribution. When it comes to optimizing the body for a singular task such as jumping or sprinting power relative to bodyweight, this can be a hindrance. Unfortunately, many lifters perform a watered down version of Olympic lifting, known as the “hang clean”, which in and of itself primarily works glutes, traps and calves, but in many lifters tends to only hit the back and arms giving a minimal involvement to the legs.
The Hang Clean, one of the most overrated and poorly executed lifts in sports training.
Triple extension is something that most coaches talk about, but most don’t really know what it is. It refers to the forceful and complete extension of the hips, knees and ankles. Many coaches have the first two down, although few really enforce the hips extending enough to reach in front of the body. Even less enforce the extension of the ankle joint. I have noticed a very direct correlation with lack of extension in the ankle joint during Olympic pulls and vertical jump. Athletes are often taught to “stomp” their cleans which will always lead to a minimal extension of the ankles at the end of the pull. Athletes who continually stomp on their pulls (thus not reaching a complete ankle extension) will tend to have a poor standing vertical. This is where the Olympic lifts can actually HURT you if you don’t do them correctly for an extended period of time.
This video demonstrates how the Olympic pulls are often done incorrectly, and gives some great ideas on how to perform them for maximal effectiveness.
The two reasons above for the effectiveness of Olympic lifts were pretty nice, but the best aspect of O-lifting for explosive athleticism are the manner in which their squats are performed: vertical torso and rock bottom. Powerlifting squats are a bit more inefficient for athletes because they are done in a stance that doesn’t really resemble athletic feats (unless you are a sumo wrestler). A wide stance powerlifting squat features high lengthening and load on the adductors, a chronically shortened psoas (hip flexor), and a premium on spinal erector strength. Granted, many intelligent powerlifting coaches place big time emphasis on the glutes/hamstrings, but it is more the pattern in which a powerlifting squat is performed that limits it’s effectiveness.
Exhibit A: Powerlifter Squat. This will help increase strength, but is not the optimal way of squatting for athleticism.
An Olympic lifting squat is superior, due to its emphasis combining strength with hip mobility. There is always balance present. An athlete will never build strength out of proportion with mobility while doing this type of squatting. On top of mobility, research has shown that the deeper the squat, the greater the contribution of the knee extensors (as opposed to the back) becomes (Bryanton 2012), and thus improves any athletic feat which requires leg strength. Super-secret facet of athletic training: jumping relies heavily on knee extension. Squat deeper = jump higher.
An Olympic squat. Vertical torso… check. Hip mobility… check. Ankle mobility… check. Extreme leg and glute activation… check. Here is a recipe for squatting and athletic success.
Finally, the Olympic squat, when used in the clean/snatch catch is very ballistic. It is a fast explosive eccentric/isometric motion which recruits a LOT of motor units and promotes explosive strength and mobility to an even greater extent than traditional squatting. Think of it this way, Olympic pulls combine a stable first pull with an explosive second pull. They also feature slower squatting outside of the Olympic lifts with ballistic squatting during the actual lifts. The power aspects of the lifts add a “nitrous oxide boost” to the static aspects to build a powerful athlete.
In conclusion, Olympic lifters derive a lot of their success not from the “power” inherent in lifting tons of weight overhead, but rather in the manner in which they do so. Lessons learned from the concepts of these lifts can be transferred to any athletic training program for maximal results.
Effect of Squat Depth and Barbell Load on Relative Muscular Effort in Squatting: Bryanton, Kennedey, Carey, Chiu. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research Oct 2012