If you are an athletic performance trainer, a football coach, or even a player himself, we hear it over and over; when it comes to performance in sport, power is the name of the game. And of course, this statement is hard to argue against (though I personally would say success still ultimately boils down to mastery of movement!).
In addition, few activities (well at least if we are looking at the batteries and variations of exercises utilized to enhance the characteristics of power) are as synonymous with power development as Olympic lifts. Of course, I am referring here to the power clean and the snatch (and we may as well throw in all the variants and progressions of these exercise means too). Plyometrics and heavy acts of lifting will come and go but Olympic lifts will unofficially remain the cheese to the meat of the power sandwich. And this can often be for very good reason (note the use of the word ‘often’).
Olympic lifts are scientifically proven, time and time again, to have a high degree of effectiveness and efficacy in helping to enhance overall power development in athletes of all sport disciplines. Because of this, there are certifications directed specifically towards their instruction and many times in the strength & conditioning field your worth as a professional is determined by how well you coach these lifts and how much you know about strength is measured by how proficient your athletes are in the execution of them (how come we don’t evaluate this worth based on movement proficiency of our athletes?). You may have even heard a collegiate and/or high school strength coach and/or sport coach who says: “if I don’t have X amount of guys who can power/hang clean X amount of weight, I know we won’t have a chance to win the conference this year.”
Shoot…take one look at football videos across our industry and you will see guys bragging about how much their players have gained in the clean or the snatch…so much so that sometimes it appears that they have a team full of hopefuls to make the 2016 United States Olympic team (you would think that with all their fancy platform lifting shoes they may be able to display better technique more frequently though…but I digress). The fact of the matter is that many in the football world take their Olympic lifting very, very seriously.
But guess what? When it comes to the training of my NFL players, I don’t use them…I don’t plan to use them…AND I don’t care what you think about it. I am also here to tell you today that if you train NFL players, you shouldn’t implement them either.
Before you stop reading and get your Olympic lifting singlet all up your butt in a bundle, let me explain myself a little further; I think that Olympic lifts and their variants can be highly beneficial IF used for the right athlete and at the right time. But the majority of my NFL players simply aren’t often those right athletes and it usually isn’t the right time for them.
As I attempt to elaborate on this reasoning, let me start by reminding you of the singular goal of every NFL player: to improve his performance on the field. That’s it. Easy as that. It’s all he cares about and it’s all I care about for him. If it so happens that he gets weaker on a clean, snatch, or jerk (or any non-football related activity for that matter)…but improves on a football field within the demands of his position in the sport, he is still happy as a pig in sh*t. Thus, this is my only goal and objective, as well. And I am in complete belief that at the heart of this operating objective is the improvement and optimization of the technical mastery of those movement tasks that are specific to his particular craft. Let me repeat…the only context that matters is the display of the movement on field.
If we look to sufficiently define ‘technical mastery of movement’ a host of potential catchphrases come to mind. However, maybe the best verbiage I have found is one adapted from Verkhoshansky which states that technical mastery comes down to how well the athlete utilizes his specific motor potential in the execution of the sport task (see Special Strength Training Manual for Coaches). To take this one step further, if you have read my blogs before, you have likely heard me speak on the Movement Optimization Model and the factors of it. At a base level of this I am looking to specialize and perfect the kinetics, kinematics, and patterning of the athlete’s movement actions specific to his position on the field, his individual characteristics, and the level of mastery and qualification that he currently possesses. Of course, we must investigate how the athlete develops force, but only in the context of the movement patterns at hand. We must factor in biomechanical positions such as base of support, center of gravity, and joint positions. We must also look at the involvement of the body’s working mechanisms down to the every last detail such as force coupling, length-tension relationships, involvement of the muscle vs. the tendon, reflex activity, and other considerations of both biomechanical and neuromuscular efficiency.
The more specialized the athlete (those of high trainability, qualification, and mastery), the more correspondence must exist between the exact movements he performs on-field (especially those that he is insufficient at) and the training activities we select to enhance them. If the exercise/drill/activity doesn’t match these demands, then we are doing that athlete (again who are of high level) a disservice. That all said any energy and time that we devote to ANY training whatsoever must directly influence his on-field movement patterning in a positive way or it’s useless to us. This is more important as the athlete gets closer to playing the actual sport and specificity begins to take precedence.
But what about all the benefits of Olympic lifting?
Olympic lifts can be highly beneficial for improving coordination, speed qualities, mobility with stability, and even a bit of force absorption (all to varying degrees and magnitudes). But at the end of the day, the biggest benefit that comes from their inclusion is the development of concentric power. It’s about moving any load as forcefully and as quickly as possible.
Some of you may be saying right now, “but Shawn, moving a heavy load from Point A to Point Z as fast as possible IS what the sport of football is about.” When it comes to the power qualities imperative to football success this statement is true. But what I have found, and wholeheartedly believe to be the case for the NFL player, once they attain a certain threshold of sport performance and mastery, most often not only have they exhausted the adaptation found from improving their performance on an Olympic lift, but very few of them would have ‘concentric force development’ ranking as their main weakness that needs to be addressed first.
In contrast, they typically need to increase their ‘eccentric force absorption’ to match their already supreme force exertion characteristics. Adding strength to an already efficiently moving machine will do little good besides placing the athlete at greater risk of injury or developing further compensational patterns. If we ignore that idea, and we attempt to increase upon more of that which the athlete has (and likely isn’t utilizing to the best of his potential in the execution of the sport movement), more won’t beneficial anyway…this is even a bigger talking point when we think about concentric power. More force exertion without adequately improving upon one’s force absorption will often become downright dangerous subjecting the athlete to greater injury risk. And at very minimum, it will lead to less movement efficiency.
Now, in some/many cases, it could be said that these athletes may need to increase their display of strength (which is very different from increasing strength)…but again, this usually comes down to improving upon their ability to use their strength in the execution of the particular movement tasks at hand (aka specialized strength). For that, I prefer to include more specialized developmental activities as we can directly impact the movement that the athlete must perform regularly on-field (usually I do this in a part-to-whole/local-to-global sequence fashion). During and/or after the use of these types of exercises and drills, the player can immediately feel the difference…and I can also see the difference of the methods on the stuff that counts too. The catch is; we must find the exercise that is going to work for that athlete to address his specific weakness. This can be in regards to technical execution, specific motor potential, or special work capacity.
Now, you may say, “if it’s about finding the right exercise that works for the athlete…what if this athlete saw huge gains in his on-field performance when he used a given exercise before (cue the argument FOR Olympic lift inclusion for many footballers), then why can’t we say that he may simply respond very well to this exercise and we should include it in his current regimen?” Well, here’s why: simply put, any training means (particularly strength training exercises) that once worked for an athlete will never work like that again…at least not to the same degree or magnitude as they once did. In addition, the inclusion of these same training means can even lead to diminishing returns in performance on-field (dirty little secret for you!). The athlete’s morpho-functional structure (a fancy of way of saying his particular level of mastery and preparedness at the time) has become much more specialized over time to the demands of his tasks that correspond to his level of qualification (i.e. the highest level aka the NFL). Thus, our training activities we select must reflect this specialization as well.
Finally, I want to point out that even though these guys are professional athletes they still have limited training time as well as limited adaptation ability at that moment (even those that were hit by the sperm lottery and are hyper responders like those in the NFL). We know that the hunter who chases multiple rabbits ends up with none. At this level of mastery, we must get very specific with our training aims (i.e. directed at individual weaknesses and characteristics) in order for the athlete to realize any appreciable change. Simply put, we must chase the activity that is most representative of the highest degree of direct carryover and transfer to the field.
To add to this, in order to perform them safely, Olympic lifts must be executed in a precise manner. With any activity, the more technique-driven it is, the more I have to ask myself, “does this exercise/drill truly look, feel, and act like that which will have to occur on the field for the athlete?” When we investigate the kinetic and kinematic factors of most football-specific movement tasks and compare them to the clean or snatch the list of similarities often comes up well-short. I am referring to considerations here such as base of support, directions & lines of force, amplitude & range of motion, force-time & force-velocity characteristics, working muscle groups & synergies, etc. All in all, if performances in the Olympic lifts are not all that closely related to most of the movement performances on the field, why on earth then would we ever want to focus so much on their improvement (at least as much as so many in our field do)?!
Would I ever include Olympic lifting?
When it comes to my NFL guys, the only time/place that I would include them (this is if said player is absolutely married to the use of these exercises in their training toolbox) would be in earlier periods of General Physical Preparation. This placement is contrary to most traditionally-held thoughts on periodization where most would suggest the use of Olympic lifts in later offseason training cycles as our athletes approach their respective season. Many rationalize this because theoretically this time is when the greatest amount of power is not only required but also likely to have the adequate physical preparation foundation to be developed. I don’t disagree with that last statement…however, I would argue (and I would win) that our training protocols and programmed activities should become more and more specific to the demands of the sport as our training year progresses. And contrary to popular belief…Olympic lifts just aren’t that specific to most movement actions that take place on a football field as we discussed above.
The thing is, when it comes to the GPP Phase of most NFL players (considering that the guy actually played during the season), this phase is usually marred by things such as physical ailments manifested by their age, the overall wear and tear of playing in 1-20 games throughout that prior season, movement compensations developed during these games, and players having a certain desire to maybe take a break such as vacation and see the world (or maybe even their families for once!). These are all the realities and they aren’t going anywhere. Thus, for myself…out go the Olympic lifts. Quite simply, early in the offseason, the last thing they want to do is pick a weight up off the floor and throw it overhead after going straight-up gladiator just a few weeks or even a couple months prior to that.
In addition, even if they would be in the mood to do them, and I wanted to incorporate them, it still may not be the wisest choice. It takes a lot out of NFL athletes to improve at Olympic lifts (both physically and mentally). As we’ve already touched on, the activities are very technique driven. And, if that player is specialized for his in-sport/on-field position and his unique characteristics that he possesses, getting back to cleaning, jerking, or snatching weight will not be like “riding a bike” where they can just get back and pedal, balance, and ride the race. Many of these players haven’t done a clean or a snatch in years since they left college. So, even if we would want to include the lifts in their programming, would we be better served to incorporate other more basic exercise means or methods like jumping activities and medicine ball drills and still get similar types of benefits? I think you know my answer to those legitimate questions by now.
Hate to break it to you all
If you still aren’t convinced by everything I just pointed out, let me bring this to your attention; I have yet to meet an NFL veteran (I am talking here of guys who have played in the league for 3+ years), who actually WANTS to be doing Olympic lifts regularly. If you are their Strength Coach (employed by the team), they may tell you otherwise cuz of course no one wants to look like a pansy in front of their coach or teammates…but the thing is; they are lying to you. Yes…lying. (I know, I know…imagine that!).
I am not saying that players have to enjoy every activity they are required to do…in fact I am SURE that there are plenty of exercises that I ask of my athletes that they don’t enjoy…and its intuitively obvious that everything that could potentially make the athlete better will not fit under this distinction of tasks that players enjoy. But the coach who says “we include Olympic lifts because our players enjoy them too much to get rid of them” is simply fooling themselves (again; if we are talking about NFL vets).
One final thought
As we close things out, I want to implore you to ask yourself this: are you utilizing Olympic lifts because that is the way that most have always done it or is it because it actually makes the most amount of sense to do it this way? If it’s the latter, don’t be afraid to just say no.