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WEIGHTLIFTING AS A MEANS TO IMPROVE ATHLETIC PERFORMANCE


It has been reported that more than 90% of strength and conditioning coaches, in United States, incorporate some type of weightlifting movements in their training

Weightlifting is far more than just a sport. Weightlifting has for years, if not decades, been used as a means to improve athletic performance. From team sports like football, American football, rugby, and handball to individual sports like most of the track and field disciplines, badminton, tennis and many many more!


First of all, what is athleticism

There are several opinions on what complete athleticism is. That being said, there are also 10 pillars that are quite popular for describing the characteristics of athleticism. (Keep in mind, there could be characteristics added or deducted from this list, all depending on who you talk to)


1. Strength

2. Speed

3. Power

4. Mental Resilience

5. Aerobic Capacity

6. Anaerobic Capacity

7. Balance & Coordination

8. Agility

9. Stability

10. Mobility

Can weightlifting improve all the attributes of athleticism?

Out of the 10 pillars, I'd say weightlifting has an impact on 9 of them (No way can it affect aerobic capacity. I've trained weightlifting for two years now and I'm still knackered after one flight of stairs...)


Out of the 9 attributes that weightlifting has an affect on, it does have a greater affect on certain ones compared to others. For instance, weightlifting will have a much greater affect on strength than it will have on balance & coordination, however, it will have some effect on balance & coordination. The same goes for power and anaerobic capacity, large impact on power but small on anaerobic capacity, yet, some nonetheless.


HOWEVER, weightlifting has one hidden superpower that most other types of training methods don't acquire. But we'll get to that later in this blog post, so keep reading.


Which one does weightlifting have the largest impact on?

This is an easy one: Power and strength Because no one can be asked to read a 40 page blog post about all 10 characteristics, this blog post will only cover power, in the form of derivatives, and strength, through the back squat.


Power Development through weightlifting

Power, described as "the ability to create maximal force in minimal time" or "work x time" (if you want to get all geeky about it) plays an essential role in most sports, and is often referred to as a superior athletic characteristic to possess. In many cases it's the difference between winning and losing. But to understand how the Olympic lifts can contribute to power development, we first have to take a look at the force-velocity curve.

Force velocity curve
Force velocity curve

On the left hand side of the figure we have lifts that exceed 90% of a 1RM. And in this case that would be in "absolute". A squat or deadlift for example. So the "maximum strength" represents movements which are low in velocity — move slowly — but are extremely high in force, meaning it requires maximum voluntary muscle contraction. On the right hand side it's the opposite. "Maximum velocity" represents movements that are high in velocity but low in force. These are movements like sprints, ball throws, kicks, and others alike. They have low resistance and are executed in a rapid manner. The snatch and clean & jerk, however, are situated in the "strength-speed" category. Their resistance is relatively high, in comparison to "maximal strength", yet they still require a great deal of velocity.


You've probably already spotted that there is something referred to as "peak power". And yes, you're right in thinking that it is more effective to train in this phase for power development than it is in the Strength-Speed phase. Movements in the Peak Power phase are what often, and rightfully so, is referred to as "explosive" or "powerful" movements.


How come Peak Power is superior to Strength-Speed, and yet the olympic lifts are in the Strength-Speed phase?

This is where common sense and weightlifting derivatives come in the picture. The common sense lies in lowering the weight in the snatch and clean & jerk to shift the force velocity profile to the right on the curve, making it a Peak-Power movement. But more useful, you can use the weightlifting derivatives in the same manner. All derivatives have a "place" on the force velocity curve, some on the left half while others on the right half. If you know how to use them properly they can be extremely effective. But before we go into some of the derivatives, let's look into the hidden superpower of weightlifting.

The hidden superpower of weightlifting

The olympic lifts and their derivatives, although they seem quite unique, resemble two of the most used movements in all of sport: sprinting and jumping. Yep, you read that right! Sprinting and jumping. Basically it's the triple extension they have in common, and the olympic lifts are amazing for improving that.


You're probably thinking "You must be on some funny medication, mate. Sprinting is a horizontal unilateral activity, how on earth could weightlifting and its triple extension benefit to that?"


Where my answer would be "Well, tell me all about how Usain Bolt doesn't have an incredible triple extension from the blocks in this photo... Yeah that's what I thought!"

Usain bolt utilising the triple extension to get out of the blocks

Triple extension, the weightlifting superpower

As mentioned previously, what the olympic lifts have in common with sprinting and jumping that is so crucial for power production is the triple extension.


What is the triple extension, you ask?


It is essentially the combination of three movements: ankle plantar flexion, knee extension, and hip extension. The combined forces generated from these extensions achieve a synergistic effect. Meaning, the combined forces generated from the triple extension will be greater than the sum of the forces generated by the independent extension of each individual joint. This is HUGE and plays a MASSIVE role in sports. For example, during every step in a sprint a triple extension takes place, especially during take off. The same goes for every jump. The more powerful the triple extension, the faster you'll sprint and the higher/further you'll jump. During either the snatch, clean, or their derivatives you're essentially just loading the triple extension, causing the structures that create the triple extension to adapt to greater higher level of stress and therefore become more powerful, faster, bigger, and stronger.


"But you could just strengthen each one of those muscle individually". Well yes you could, but remember that the triple extension has a synergistic effect, and isolated movements don't. And, why do 3 different exercises when you can do one? Heck, why do 3 different exercises that have completely different motor patterns to what you're trying to improve when you can do one movement that works all of those muscles in a more specific manner? Yeah, stupid question. Next!


"You can have a parachute behind you whilst sprinting, that's quite specific, in fact, even more specific that the olympic lifts and adds resistance". I completely agree, parachute/resisted sprintin is more specific and adds resistance. They definitely have their place on the force velocity curve. But that place is Speed-Strength... And because of the lower resistance, compared to the "Peak Power" phase, it will not be as efficient for power development. Don't get me wrong, it does help, however... ahh, you know what I mean... NEXT!


"Doing jumps with a weighted vest". Nah, I could use the same argument for this one as I would with the parachute question! "But how about a very heavy one". Hahah... oh, seriously? I'm not going to answer that one... NEXT!


"You utilise the stretch shortening cycle while sprinting, but you don't during the olympic lifts". Seriously? So they don't have a heavy weight on their shoulders/overhead while bouncing out of an ass to grass clean/snatch and utilise the stretch shortening cycle through the patella and achilles tendon? Right... You're welcome.


The good, the bad, and the ugly...

We've been through the good, now let's go through the other two.


The bad

But seriously, the olympic lifts have their downside, like everything else I guess. First and foremost it's the time it actually takes to learn the movements. It can take a while, a long while. And even after a long while it's probably not good enough. On top of that, to begin with you won't even get the benefits of the lifts since the weights will be too light — due to the lack of technique. This kind of sucks, I'm with you on that. But don't get discouraged, because in the long run having proper technique will out perform some other methods of training.


Rocky Balboa said it best. "Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place and I don’t care how tough you are it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life... But it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. THAT'S HOW WINNING IS DONE!"


Gotta love Rocky!


If you keep grinding at the technique it will get good at some point. You'll just have to trust the process. And in the long run, having the technique nailed down will give you a massive advantage for improving your power output. #trusttheprocess


The ugly... Literally

To be able to do the lifts properly they require a fair amount of mobility. For most people that is more than they currently have. Unfortunately this is often what puts people off doing the olympic lifts. If you've ever seen someone with limited shoulder mobility do a clean you'd know what I mean by ugly. Just look at the video below (Sorry to whoever the guy in the video is for using him as a bad example...)




At this point it's probably where you go: "So this geezer has been telling me all these great benefits of the olympic lifts — being a superpower and all of that jazz — and now he's telling me it'll take forever to even learn how to do them and it requires loads of mobility? Mobility I don't even have, mobility I don't even want!... what a muppet"


CALM DOWN! Just keep reading! I'll try to save this by the use of derivatives. You'll love.


Mastering the use of derivatives

Although it may take a long time to get the best benefits from the snatch and clean & jerk, and occasionally you'll look like an arse doing them, the benefits of the derivatives are absolutely amazing for power development. They're both easier to perform, don't require that much mobility, and I'll say it again; they're amazing for power development. "What is a derivative? " A derivative of the olympic lifts is essentially a segment of either the snatch or clean & Jerk. Instead of doing the whole clean, for instance, only doing the second pull will be a derivative of the clean. Movements like the clean pull, snatch pull, mid-thigh clean pull, power clean, power snatch, hang clean, hang snatch, snatch balance, front squat, back squat, overhead squat... the list goes on and on, are all derivatives of the olympic lifts. They all have a specific purpose. Some will develop greater speed while others will improve strength. All of them have different learning curves and levels of difficulty. But if used properly, and in the right context, they could be extremely beneficial to improve athletic performance. Essentially it's just taking the clean and/or snatch and picking the part of the lift that has the greatest effect for either strength, speed, power, or even mobility and just completely forget about the rest of the lift.


Studies have looked at the mid-thigh pull and the back squat to see if it has an effect on the sprint performance and vertical jump height. The results show that the use of both has a positive implication. It should go without saying but I'll say it anyway, this is obviously when the movements are done correctly.


Here, let me give you a couple of derivatives and explain why to use them. Starting off with the simplest ones.


This is a great movement to overload the triple extension. It's fairly simple to execute since the movement is small, has a good carry over to sports, and doesn't require much mobility. "heh, Who am I kidding!? if you can't do a mid-thigh pull due to a lack of mobility I'd recommend you to piss off, get a couple of pints, a cigarette between your lips, and pursue a career in cheese rolling somewhere in Gloucestershire..."


Moving on....Due to the small range of the movement it can easily be heavily loaded. And I mean heavy, like 100 - 120% of the back squat. Just make sure to start off blocks or pins. With that heavy of a load the mid-thigh clean pull sits to the far left side on the force velocity curve and is therefore more of a strength movement than a power movement. Yet, a good exercise to overload the triple extension.

Triple extension

Really similar to the mid-thigh pull, but instead of starting from pins/blocks you'll hold on to the bar from just above the knees to start of with. The movement goes through a slightly larger range than the mid-thigh clean pull and therefore the load will be slightly lower in return. However, due to the lower load it will move further to the right on the force-velocity curve and be more of a Strength-Speed movement, as suppose to Maximal-Strength like the mid-thigh clean pull.



Moving the bar from the knees down to the floor will create the same changes as it does from mid-thigh to knees. The range is greater, load needs to be reduced, but the power output will be greater. Well I say that, but it kind of depends on what you want out of the movement. Because with the clean pull, or any pull for that matter, you could increase the load a considerable amount and use it as a "strength exercise", but by lowering the load it can also be used as a great power movement. Although, the fact that the bar goes below the knees it adds further difficulty to the movement.


The hang power clean adds a receiving phase to the previous hang pull. By receiving the bar on the shoulders following the pull, it does require the technique to be somewhat decent, at least compared to the previous 3 derivatives. Yet, the hang power clean is one of the most used derivative in the pursue of improving athletic performance. The reason for that is because it has the greatest return for for such a simple movement.


Oh man, this movement! YES, I LOVE IT! In my opinion, every athlete should be able to do a power clean and should incorporate it in their training on a weekly basis. It's such a powerful movement! The power clean sits perfectly in the force-velocity curve to improve power output, hence the name... DUUH. In contrast to the pull only movements, because the bar has to reach the shoulders, and one can not just sit into a full squat, it's incredibly hard to achieve loads higher than 80% of ones 1RM clean. This means the heavier one can load a power clean the more power efficient the exercise will be. Remember, the Peak Power phase is anything between 80-30%. On top of that it provides the necessity to move fast underneath the bar and is not THAT difficult of a movement, meaning it could be taught fairly quickly. And you don'y only get a powerful triple extension, it'll also improve one's pulling strength. Although, if shoulder mobility is a massive issue racking the bar could become a problem. But despite the slight mobility requirement, I'd say the power clean is the king of all the derivatives, at least in regards to power development. #POWER


ALL of these movements are clean derivatives. The reason I haven't included any snatch derivatives is quite simple; the load has be reduced a considerable amount due to the biomechanical changes with the wider grip, the level of technical difficulty is higher, and greater mobility is necessary... Therefore it will diminish the beneficial return from the movement. That being said, snatch derivatives are, in fact, useful for improving mobility. I'll list some below you can look at in your own time.


3. Overhead duck walks! Although this is not a snatch derivative, it's AMAZING for hip/shoulder mobility and warm up.


Weightlifting makes you stronger

Sport is not only reliant on power but they're also heavy dependant on strength. For two reasons. Firstly; since power is the combination of strength and speed getting stronger will, indirectly, improve power. Secondly; studies have shown that increased overall strength is closely correlated to lower injury rates — Especially the squat. And with the unbelievable amount of injuries occurring in sports, why not try and reduce it as much as possible?

How does weightlifting improve strength?

I thought you'd never ask! The simple answer is because lifting heavy shit up and down consistently will do that to you... Now I think about it, that's actually all it takes — lifting heavy things on a daily basis, and you'll get stronger. Hmm, not bad. More specifically, in weightlifting the back squat is the #legend of all strength movements. In any weightlifting movement the legs should do 90% of the work. No matter if you're picking the bar from the floor, push pressing, cleaning, jerking, or snatching. This is relevant because the same applies for most sports, the legs do most of the work. In contrast to, let's say, the leg extension, the back squat loads the lower leg muscles in a manner in which is more specific to that performed in most sports — namely; in conjunction with all the other structures in the body in a movement pattern that resembles most sporting movements. Dare I say it, it's more "functional" than some of the other movements that strengthen the lower body. On top of that, it's a movement that can be loaded exceptionally heavy in a controlled fashion.


I'd like to make a post solely on the back squat at some point. What do you think? Let me know in the comments!


Other than the back squat, loading the derivatives like the clean pull, snatch pull, mid-thigh clean pull, and front squat heavy will also improve strength. Not only leg strength, but also upper body strength.


 

I'll leave you at that, I don't want to take up any more of your time! Thanks for giving this a read, I really do appreciate it.

If you'd like, you're more than welcome to like, comment, and share this post.


Stay curious


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