Monday, September 20, 2010

Alternatives to the Olympic Lifts for Power Development

I received the question below from a reader and I thought it-and my answer-would make for a good post.


I really enjoy your blog and I have a question for you. I know you deal mostly with people who are trying to enhance their general fitness and lose body fat, but, I also believe you train some elite athletes as well and I thought you might be able to help me. My son is 13 years old and is an excellent basketball player. I'm sending him to a local strength coach/sports performance trainer in our area with the hopes of keeping him injury free and also improving his performance on the court.

The trainer I have him working with has him doing exercises such as power cleans and jerks. He says this will help him improve his power and vertical jump. I understand the rationale, but, my son has complained to me that his wrists and shoulders sometimes hurt after performing these types of exercises. What are your thoughts on using exercises like cleans for improving power in young athletes? Are there any other exercises which can accomplish the same objective but without exposing his shoulders and wrists to "wear and tear"? Thanks in advance for your feedback.

Paul in Austin, TX


First of all, you (and the coach who is working with your son for that matter) have to understand that Olympic weight lifting is a sport in and of itself. Performing the Olympic lifts and variations of these lifts takes a great deal of precise technique and repetitive perfect practice to master. Personally, I don't think MOST (not all) athletes have any business performing these types of exercises unless they are actually competing in weight lifting meets. Furthermore, as you mentioned, these exercises subject the shoulders, wrists and low back to extreme forces during the catch phase and open up the door for injuries to occur.

With all of the above being said, power development is a crucial and necessary part of a sports performance training program. However, you can train power (force X distance / Time) and teach an athlete to produce force rapidly WITHOUT having them perform Olympic lifts and variations of the Olympic lifts. There are many safer and less technical exercises which can easily be implemented into an athlete's program which will allow them to improve their power output. Also, many strength coaches have their athletes perform the Olympic lifts because of the "triple extension": the explosive and simultaneous extension of the ankle, knee and hip joints. However, if you watch the typical athlete perform snatches, cleans, etc., there is very little triple extension going on. I'm all for training this quality, but, again, this can be done in a much safer and more efficient manner using other exercises.

So, here are some of my favorite exercises for developing power in athletes (and a lot of my adult fitness clients do these as well):

1. Weighted Jumps (barbell/dumbbell jump squats and split jump squats, trap bar jump squats, X vest jump squats, etc)
2. Body weight or weighted jumps onto boxes of varying heights
3. Broad Jumps
4. Body weight of weighted jumps over hurdles of varying heights
5. Kettlebell Swings
6. Various medicine ball throws and slams
7. Explosive rotational cable row
8. Explosive cable lift
9. Explosive cable push/pull (*one of my very favorites for improving total body power...see below)


There are many others which can be used besides what I have listed above, but, these are the ones I use the most and are easily taught to most anyone. If the coach/trainer working with your son insists on continuing to use Olympic lifts and their variants, you might suggest (you are paying him after all) that he use ONLY the single arm dumbbell hang snatch and/or the clean grip barbell hang snatch (do a google video search for "Mike Boyle snatch" to see demos of these 2 exercises). Both of these variations are a lot less technical and, IMO, safer as well. I use both of these with SOME of my athletes, but only after they've had a steady diet of the exercises I listed above and do not have any injury concerns. In most cases, even if my athletes do not have any injury concerns, the risk/reward of doing the these 2 snatch variations, especially if they are overhead throwing athletes, does not make any sense and we'll stay away from them.

As for sets/reps/loading on power exercises, I prefer 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps with a longer rest period (2 minutes or so). The focus should be on speed and developing force rapidly and not so much on load. If the speed of the movement is compromised, and the repetitions slow down significantly throughout the set, it defeats the purpose. Load progression should be very gradual, and, once again, if the reps start to slow down, load should be regressed. 

One final thing. You said your son is 13 years old. In my opinion, if your son just simply continues to get progressively stronger in all his major muscle groups, power development will improve regardless. The power equation is forceXdistance/time. The "forceXdistance" part of that equation is STRENGTH! If he gets stronger, he'll improve power regardless if he is performing "power" exercises. I think after 2 or 3 years of focused strength training, then he could start to incorporate some of the exercises I talked about above, but, again, this is just my opinion. Hope this helps!

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