Olympic Weightlifting for Sports Performance
Now, this is a complex topic, and there's a lot of strong opinions floating around. But as someone who works both as a professional strength and conditioning coach, AND as a weightlifting coach, tutor and educator, AND did his masters thesis on the topic, I feel uniquely qualified to explore the question. In this article, we'll be looking at 2 common dogmatic misconceptions, as well as the pros and cons of weightlifting for sports performance, before ending with some practical recommendations for coaches and athletes. Let's get started, shall we?
Misconception 1: You HAVE to use weightlifting movements for sports performance
This is a viewpoint that I've seen a lot over the years, including from some prominent and well-respected coaches. If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, right? And, yes, whilst a lot of athletes will benefit from weightlifting movements, there are plenty of reasons not to use them, for example...
Poor athlete body awareness
Low athlete confidence
Lack of equipment availability
Training set up or team size doesn't allow for safe practice
Sessions may not be long enough for quality practice
And these are just a few, I can think of plenty more. Fundamentally, weightlifting movements are one of MANY tools in the toolbox that is athletic development for sports performance. So the idea that you HAVE to use them is just plain dumb.
This is not the way
Misconception 2: You should NEVER use weightlifting movements for sports performance
On the flip side of our coin we have another dogmatic position, the idea that you shouldn't perform weightlifting movements because they're too difficult or dangerous. In fact, if you even THINK about doing a snatch you'll get injured. Again, this kind of thinking is just plain dumb. Ever heard the saying "guns don't kill people, people kill people" Well, the exact same applies here. No single exercise is inherently dangerous or injurious, provided that it is performed properly, within an acceptable range of technical practice. People don't get hurt snatching or cleaning, they get hurt doing what they THINK is a snatch or clean, but is actually a hot mess. I've had plenty of athletes use weightlifting movements for multiple training blocks without so much as a niggle.
Olympic Weightlifting for Sports Performance - The Pros
Now that we've got the misconceptions out of the way, let's dive into the actual pros and cons of using weightlifting movements for sports performance. We'll start with the pros. Weightlifting movements lead to significant improvements in jump height, and jump Distance as assessed through vertical and broad jumps. (Hackett et al. 2016, Ayers et al. 2016, Teo et al. 2016) This makes it a great addition to the training of sports like basketball, netball, american football and even rugby. Weightlifting movements are also positively correlated with improvements in short sprint distances such as 40yd dashes for both youth and adult athletes (Hori et al. 2008, Chaouachi et al. 2014) Making them useful for sports such as soccer, american football and rugby which involve regular short-distance sprinting. I would also argue that the movements train balance and proprioception qualities, as well as the ability to maintain torso rigidity under load. Ultimately, weightlifting's utility lies in its ability to improves athletic qualities such as Rate of Force Development (Haff et al. 1997, McLellan et al. 2011) - also known as explosive strength - and to do so in a way involving biomechanics that have a decent transfer to a wide variety of sporting activities including throws, golf swings, cycling and sprinting/jumping as discussed above.
Olympic Weightlifting For Sports Performance - The Cons
Weightlifting cues change outcomes. My masters research found that differences in the coaching cues given to athletes changed second pull movement mechanics enough to create significantly different sports performance outcomes after six weeks of training. Coaching and learning the movements can be time-consuming. The full movements are complex, and some athletes will struggle to learn them.
Logistics can be tough to organise in larger group sessions, or in smaller gyms. Mobility restrictions may prevent proper movement execution
Practical Recommendations for Coaches and Athletes
Alright, so at this point we've got a decent understanding of the reasons to use weightlifting movements, as well as some of the obstacles and issues that you might encounter. In my experience, there are three steps to work through. 1) Assess the environment and the equipment Do you actually have the right equipment? Do you have enough of it? Is the gym big enough and is it laid out in a way that provides enough space to practice?
2) Assess the athlete(s) How big is the group you're working with? Will the group be too big to actually monitor and coach complex movements? Plus, what is the average ability level of the group? Are they experienced and confident? Or are they beginners who still need to focus on the basics? 3) Pick appropriate learning progressions and weightlifting variations Snatches and cleans don't have to be full snatches and cleans. You've got dozens of variations to choose from. Exercises like power snatches or power cleans might be good if your athletes can't overhead squat comfortably. Or exercises like pulls and high pulls might be good to teach pulling mechanics without having to worry about any catching component. For loads of detail on this I strongly recommend reading Tim Suchomel's paper on weightlifting derivatives here. But a good general rule is to start with simpler variations and build to more complex ones over time. To provide a couple of examples from my own experience...
I've had great success implementing high hang clean high pulls into the training of a group of rowers, then knee hang, then floor high pulls.
Similarly, I've used block clean pulls with a team of rugby players, before moving onto block power cleans.
And for 1:1 athletes with good body awareness, such as climbers, I've taken them from Muscle snatch + overhead squat, through hang snatches and into full snatches.
It really is just about matching the right movements to the athlete in order to reap the benefits. . That's all for today. If you enjoyed the article feel free to share it around. And as always, if you're looking for sports performance or weightlifting coaching, you can book a quick chat with by clicking here.
'Til Next Time Alex
MSc Strength & Conditioning British Weightlifting Tutor/Educator
Ayers JL, DeBeliso M, Sevene TG, Adams KJ. Hang cleans and hang snatches produce similar improvements in female collegiate athletes. Biol Sport. 2016 Sep;33(3):251-6. doi: 10.5604/20831862.1201814. Epub 2016 May 10.
Chaouachi A, Hammami R, Kaabi S, Chamari K, Drinkwater EJ, Behm DG. Olympic weightlifting and plyometric training with children provides similar or greater performance improvements than traditional resistance training. J Strength Cond Res. 2014 Jun;28(6):1483-96.
Hackett D, Davies T, Soomro N, Halaki M. Olympic weightlifting training improves vertical jump height in sportspeople: a systematic review with meta-analysis. Br J Sports Med. 2016 Jul;50(14):865-72. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2015-094951. Epub 2015 Nov 30. Haff, GG, Stone, MH, O’Bryant, HS, Harman, E, Dinan, CN, Johnson, R, and Han, KH. Force-time dependent characteristics of dynamic and isometric muscle actions. J Strength Cond Res 11: 269– 272, 1997.
Hori N, Newton RU, Andrews AW. Does performance of hang power clean differentiate performance of jumping, sprinting, and changing of direction?J Strength Cond Res. 2008; 22:412-18. McLellan, CP, Lovell, DI, and Gass, GC. The role of rate of force development on vertical jump performance. J Strength Cond Res 25(2): 379–385. 2011.
Teo SY, Newton MJ, Newton RU, Dempsey AR, Fairchild TJ. Comparing the Effectiveness of a Short-Term Vertical Jump vs. Weightlifting Program on Athletic Power Development. J Strength Cond Res. 2016 Oct;30(10):2741-8.