What are the Olympic Lifts? What is the Sport of Weight Lifting? In recent years, a lot of attention has been focused on the sport of weightlifting and its ability to enhance sports performance. Although the sport of weightlifting has been around over a century, its use as a sports performance training modality is relatively new and the subject of debate among sports performance professionals.
The consensus among many strength and conditioning coaches in college and professional sports is that the debate over whether or not to use Olympic lifts to enhance sports performance lies within the risk to reward ratio of Olympic lifts, not in their ability to improve specific athletic qualities. There is a significant volume of research that shows measurable improvements in performance qualities such as: counter-movement jump height, max force output, rate of force development, activation sequencing (coordination), etc. from Olympic lifts. The purpose of this article is two-fold:
- To discuss some of the known adaptations from Olympic lifts and their variations.
- To discuss how Olympic lifts can be used to improve on-field performance.
The two lifts used in Olympic competition, the Snatch and the Clean and Jerk, employ highly technical movements that require years of practice and skill development before they can be executed properly and safely. Each lift utilizes multi-joint, high-intensity compound movements and requires a high level of kinesthetic awareness, proprioception, coordination, posterior kinetic chain development, core strength, flexibility and joint mobility. If any of these qualities is lacking, the athlete is at an increased risk of injury. Since the priorities of all sports performance training programs are to avoid injury, enhance athletic qualities and improve work capacity, injury prevention must be paramount. As we all know, “a team can’t win if its best player is sidelined and can’t train or play”. Training is a prescribed stress for a desired adaptation, and it is up to the performance coach to design a program that is developmental, challenging, progressive and safe. Olympic lifts can promote structural, strength and neurological adaptations, but must be valued in comparison to the increased risk of injury while performing these lifts.
What are the Benefits? It is important to remember that there is a difference between weight lifting for competition and weight lifting to improve sports performance. The sport of weight lifting is based solely on the execution of the two lifts, the snatch and the clean and jerk, at max weight. When using these two lifts for training, it is the execution of these lifts that produces adaptations that might lead to improvements in sports performance. Individual exercise is not the reason for improvements in performance. It is the execution and skill development within the exercise that transfers into improved performance.
Resistance training is performed with the purpose of improving joint kinematics, strength through range of motion and adaptations within soft tissue that will improve contractibility and resiliency. Most resistance training programs use a moderate to maximal load to teach the body appropriate muscle activation and coordination through a full range of motion. This process is very important because it sets a base for athletic performance. This building block is the foundation of all ground-based power sports such as baseball. Ground-based power sports require athletes to generate force from their lower extremities that will then create stability for ballistic core movements (throwing and swinging) or locomotion.
The key to improving performance of ground-based power sports lies as much in the timing as in the amount of force produced. Power is defined as the amount of work performed in a given amount of time or distance. More work in less time equates to more power. In sports performance, we are looking to increase the amount of force being produced (work) in the least amount of time possible. Increases in power can enhance reaction time, acceleration, top-end speed and rotational power. A primary goal of resistance training is to improve strength in order to maximize the ability to produce force, i.e., apply strength as fast as possible in order to gain advantage over opponents. Speed and strength go hand-in-hand in the sports performance.
Olympic lifts allow us to become more efficient and focused in training. Since Olympic lifts are ground-based, power movements, they fit well into the training goals for performance enhancement in baseball. Athletes must create core and posterior kinetic chain stability, so that ground reactive forces can be efficiently applied in the upward movement of the bar. With proper posterior chain activation and core stabilization, the extensor muscles of the hip and knee become the primary movers. This is a vital role of ground based sports, as poor core stabilization during locomotion leads to inefficient
Movement, energy leaks and decreased power output. Training with Olympic lifts can improve efficiency of movement and coordination through repetitions that enhance muscle activation sequencing.
Along with learning how to activate correctly, the demands of high velocity/high load training will increase rate of force development through improved tissue stiffness and increased neural drive. Neural drive is the summation of motor neuron activation and the number of muscle fibers innervated in an effort to produce force. Heavy loads activate more fast-twitch muscle fibers, just the same as high velocity movements do. By combining high speed and heavy loads, the athlete is forced to innervate more fast-twitch fibers, thus teaching the body to activate the desired fibers in a specific sequence for that movement. Once we have taught the body which muscles need to activate at each position of the movement, the athlete’s muscles and tendons will adapt to accommodate greater force production by increasing musculo-tendon complex stiffness to decrease the stretch – shortening cycle of the muscle fibers. A study by Foure’, Nordez, and Cornu showed that ballistic movements can increase the stiffness of the Achilles tendon, which in turn decreases some of the dissipative properties of the tendon. This equates to faster transmission of contractile force from the muscle to realized movement about a joint. The faster a muscle can be activated, the faster that muscle can create force and initiate movement, and the more powerful an athlete can be.
Considerations for Youth and Amateur Athletes. Olympic Lifts are learned movements that require years of practice to master and execute efficiently. Providing exposure to proper training progressions and development at an early age can minimize the learning curve and enable athletes to more effectively utilize Olympic movements in their later years. The higher the training age, the lower the risk of injury from Olympic lifting. Movement patterns develop as athletes grow and develop. Training proper muscle activation sequencing and movement patterns while athletes are most impressionable can a provide advantages later in their careers.
Biomechanical/Anatomical Limitations of Baseball. When working with baseball players, the performance coach must keep in mind the specific needs and limitations of baseball. Baseball players will show multiple areas of asymmetry, including shoulder, hip and wrist mobility. Olympic lifts require mobility and stability across all major joint complexes. An athlete lacking in stability at either the shoulders or hips will /not allow for efficient movement through the lifts and increase the need for compensation along the kinetic chain, which in turn increases the chances of injury. When an athlete lacks mobility in the hips, shoulders and wrists, their ability to get into the positions needed for safely loading heavy weights will be compromised.
Baseball is a rotational and overhead sport practiced and played on a daily basis. The athletes’ bodies are subject to morphological changes in their development. Although these changes aid them in on-field performance, they can limit their ability to use certain training practices such as Olympic lifts. For example, most baseball players will have limited internal shoulder rotation. Internal rotation is necessary for the upright row position seen in the transition from the second pull to the front rack position of the clean. This leads into another issue some baseball players might have with wrist flexion. Poor tissue quality of the wrist flexor complex can lead to a decrease wrist extension, making it difficult to receive the bar in the front rack position.
A tight or restricted latissimus dorsi muscle on the throwing side can lead to a lack of shoulder mobility, specifically flexion about the shoulder. The front rack position requires shoulder flexion, elbow flexion, and wrist extension, along with shoulder external rotation. Although baseball players have above average external rotation, it is secondary in the front rack position. The majority of movement will be through elbow and shoulder flexion. Max elbow flexion combined with external shoulder rotation places a great amount of valgus stress on the elbow, which is in addition to the valgus stress seen during overhead throwing. This additional stress can lead to overuse injuries, tissue damage, or joint dysfunction in situations of poor mobility. It is very important to keep in mind the risks versus rewards of training. As a performance coach, we must be accountable for our athletes stress from game and practice activities when creating our training programs, to ensure we do not push athletes in the direction of overuse.
Six Stages of Progression. Baseball players are inherently asymmetrical because of the unilateral and rotational nature of the sport. While traditional Olympic lifts may not be advantageous due to the demands of movement efficiency in the lifts, we can use the principals of Olympic lifting in training programs to gain power adaptations similar to those seen in competitive lifters. We can modify the Olympic lifts to optimize gains and minimize the risk of injury during training. Progressions need to begin with movement qualities and work to the point of max effort dynamic movement. Progressions should be viewed as a pyramid in which movement qualities are the foundation for building strength through Olympic movements. This then leads the athlete into using that strength dynamically.
I divide this progression into six stages: 1) Mobilization/Stabilization; 2) Sequencing; 3) Strength; 4) Strength-Speed; 5) Speed-Strength and 6) Power. The primary purpose of the mobilization/stabilization stage is to find restrictions in movement or points of instability. The purpose of the sequencing stage is to learn how to activate specific muscles in proper order to accomplish a given movement with efficiency. Once the athlete has learned the movement, we can add additional loads to build strength in that movement and begin the process of improving force production. The next progression is the strength-speed stage, which puts an emphasis on force production with time emphasis. The difference between the strength-speed stage and the speed-strength stage is the emphasis of force production versus RATE of force development. Players begin to make use of strength gains during the strength-speed phase with a focus on neurological adaptation. The final stage, power, focuses on maximizing the adaptations from the previous stages in dynamic movement.
It is important to incorporate bilateral to unilateral progressions within the program. Although players begin in bilateral stances, they will immediately move into unilateral positions. Regardless of whether a player is in the field and breaking for a ball, or in the box and loading to swing, he will go into a unilateral position. As a part of training our athletes to be explosive, we should be training specificity. Baseball is played by beginning movements in a bilateral stance with lateral positioning that leads into a unilateral stance with linear positioning. It is imperative we train our athletes to efficiently move from lateral to linear positions and from bilateral to unilateral stances. Athletes should begin in bilateral stances in each stage and progress to unilateral stances.
Contrast training can help maximize the effects of the power stage by super-setting a strength exercise with a plyometric exercise, e.g. weighted squat with box jump. Contrast training utilizes the effects of post activation potentiation (PAP), in which the neurological system is acclimated to the necessary motor unit recruitment needed for the loaded force to increase neural drive. Residual neurological activation after the loaded exercise is present for up to 10 minutes after the exercise. When timed appropriately, the overactive neural drive can be utilized in the plyometric exercise to emphasize rate of force production and motor unit recruitment in a dynamic capacity. I emphasize that PAP does not increase strength capacity; it enables the athlete to actualize their true strength capacity through maximized neurological activity.
Lift Variations to Enhance Baseball Performance, The Snatch and the Clean & Jerk are very similar in their movements except for the snatch is caught overhead with arms extended, and the clean is caught in a front rack position. The importance of these catch positions for baseball players is always under debate. I believe the risk is the greatest in the catch phase. It is never a certainty that an athlete will get injured doing these movements, but with the aforementioned considerations, I don’t believe the rewards outweigh the risks and I avoid both catch positions.
In my opinion, the most influential phase of these lifts is the hip hinge found in the second pull of both the Snatch and Clean. The second pull begins after the scoop phase, in which the bar has just cleared the knees. This is where the greatest peak force is seen throughout Olympic Lifts. At this point, the athlete is in the best position to maximize power derived from the hip hinge and practice creating force from the ground through the hips. This position is also the most similar to the “athletic” or “ready” position used by both hitters and fielders. Teaching the sequencing and power derivation from this position is the most transferable to the field.
The beginning of the second Pull, the hang position, is similar to that of a fielder awaiting a batted ball or a base runner leading off. This position allows the athlete to load the hips, knees and ankles for triple extension. The hang position teaches triple extension from a starting position similar to that encountered in game situations. In the Clean, athletes drive into extension as quickly as possible in order to generate power. The different catch positions increase reactive strength, i.e., the ability to rapidly assess external forces and produce force quickly enough to overtake external force.
To accommodate the considerations specific to baseball players, I prefer to use DBs in place of Olympic bars. DBs allow the athlete to get into the front rack position without needing as much shoulder and wrist extension. DBs enable athletes to perform exercise more safely and execute the desired movement from the traditional lift that we are seeking.
Conclusion. Research indicates that the physical and physiological adaptations produced by training with Olympic lifts improve sports performance. The issue, therefore, is not about the effectiveness of Olympic lifts, but how to utilize them safely. The Olympic lifts are not the key. The key is the principals within the lifts. Athletes need to generate force quickly, precisely and efficiently. The principals from Olympic lifting to help athletes reach that potential, and is a valid tool that can be used to help improve athletic performance.
Exercise Examples. The following modifications of Olympic lifts can be used to improve strength and performance in a safe and effective manner. Demonstrations of the following exercises can be found on YouTube.
- Handcuffed RDL
- Dumbbell RDL From Blocks
- Barbell RDL
- Dowel Assisted Single Leg RDL
- Single Leg Dumbbell RDL
- Dumbbell Power
- KB Swing Hang Clean
- Dumbbell Hang
- Clean to Split Stance
- Dumbbell Hang
- Clean to Box Step
- Dumbbell Single Leg
- RDL Clean to Box Step
Lauren Green, MS, CSCS, PES, Latin America Strength and Conditioning Coordinator, Los Angeles Dodgers