Monday, April 09, 2007

The Olympic Lifting Bandwagon: Don't be blinded by the light

Those of you who read this blog regularly know I'm a big fan of the sport of weightlifting; a real geek. It is a beautiful, technical sport with a great deal of history. I was never a weightlifting athlete myself, but I coach a bit now and have had the opportunity to be mentored by some of the best weightlifting athletes and coaches in the US. I've come to know some of the most knowledgeable academicians--John Garhammer, Mike Stone--who study the sport and the attributes of its athletes.

Weightlifting movements are an end in themselves for the athletes that compete in the sport. The assistance movements are a means toward the specific end of performing the classical lifts (clean, jerk, snatch). Assistance movements can be used by other athletes for the purposes of learning how to generate vertical forces, being explosive, etc. They can be used to help athletes develop basic strength, power, stability and mobility.

But every coach must ask her or himself whether or not certain movements are the best means of achieving the end for that specific athlete. "The Olympic Lifts" are not the be-all, end-all in athletic development. Weightlifting athletes are not the best/fastest/most powerful athletes on earth--watch out for the overzealous sweeping generalizations. They are the best at lifting heavy weights very fast. What else would you expect??? Some are VERY good all-around athletes, but not all. There is nothing magic about the sport of weightlifting.

In my opinion, the power clean is the most abused, bastardized movement in the college/high school and fancy sports performance weight room. Very few athletes really know what they are doing and why they are doing it; the same goes for most of the sport coaches who teach it. It looks and sounds cool and it utilizes those fancy barbell sets and platforms the DI schools and the wealthy facilities like to show off. Some strength coaches and athletes get it. Others really lack the foundation to successfully use this tool. It pains me to see the end results.

Here is a little story. Back in the spring of 2005, I was hired to be the associate director of a new franchise sports performance facility opening in St. Louis. I was supposedly hired for my knowledge of weightlifting, weight training and my rehab background. (Did I mention my husband is the AD of the largest private high school in the state too?) Hot damn, my dream job. I could finally put my ideas to work and reach out to coaches, athletes and maybe even the national franchise. What an opportunity! Two weeks after opening, we put on a very good clinic for the high school coaches. I was then asked to revamp the franchise weight training plan for our facility, as we were given the okay to develop something better than what the other franchisees were currently doing. Now this particular franchise devotes 30 min of a 90 min session to resistance training. I spent several weeks working on a framework where kids would not just be put in age groups, but would be methodically introduced to appropriate resistance training movements and principles, and then progressed when they met key performance criteria.

One of the key points in this plan, was that the athletes NOT be introduced to the "Olympic Lifts" until they had passed certain criteria and had been through a 2-4 hour special class that reviewed the rationale for and the foundations of these movements, and assessed the athletes' physical readiness and their ability to attend to safety issues. There was no way in hell I was going to throw these kids on the platforms without proper preparation. Yes we had 4 beautiful bumper sets and platforms, but that didn't mean ANYONE was prepared to use them properly. Nor did we have enough properly trained staff.

I spent the entire 2005 Memorial Day weekend typing and formatting this plan in a grand document. When I presented it to my superior, I got the following reply: I don't have time for this. I was heart-broken. It became clear to me that the bottom line was the bottom line. It was sell the Olympic lifts and our beautiful equipment, and do them regardless of the readiness of the athlete or the time we had to prepare the athletes. Tell the parents and coaches their kids will be doing this cool stuff that will make them the best athletes. Don't try to educate parents as to why don't do this stuff yet. We were not going to take the time to implement a comprehensive developmental program that attempted to build foundations and progress kids when appropriate. Just do something; it doesn't matter if it isn't done well, as long as the kids sweat and appear industrious.

Three months later I resigned, as did the guy who was next in line for my position. We both decided we needed something different; not just the bottom line. I don't know what this facility is now doing with all the nice platforms and Uesaka bumper plates, but I do know there haven't been any more coaches education clinics. They are too busy trying to herd kids in the door and keep them there. Sell, sell, sell!

I don't automatically teach my athletes any barbell weightlifting movements. Maybe some dumbbell options; maybe a push press. But the power clean or any other weightlifting movements aren't the only or best movements an athlete can do to further develop their general athleticism or their sport-specific abilities. If they want to be a weightlifter, fine. If they are being asked to do it in their high school or future college program, I will help them learn to do things correctly. But I don't do them just to do them or because I think they are essential for any athlete at a given point in their career.

Make sure you understand why you are on the bandwagon before you make the leap. Use the tools of the trade wisely and remember there is nothing magic about them. How appropriate that I'm listening to Manfred Mann's Earth Band sing "Blinded By the Light" on my latest Midnight Special DVD (1977).
With a boulder on my shoulder, feelin' kinda older,
I tripped the merry-go-round
With this very unpleasin', sneezin' and wheezin,
the calliope crashed to the ground....

But she was...
Blinded by the light,
revved up like a deuce,
another runner in the night


Anonymous said...

kinda, sorta, mostly agree.

I've coached rowing for years, and as much as rowing and the o-lifts both stress the posterior chain, there is nothing truly explosive about rowing (despite what some coaches say). The difference is one of tenths vs. hundredths of seconds. So I definitely agree with the sentiment.

Still, olympic lifts are fun and I've had a great time learning them over the last year or two. Completely changed how I view the gym. And I'd rather see my rowers try clean or snatch than leg press.

The university club I lift with is not world-class, although we have a few very strong athletes. The weightlifters mock the football players' and wrestlers' form doing olympic lifts. And there are times when their form is cringe inducing.

But I have to admit, a lot of wrestlers and football players are very, very strong. Their goal isn't to become great olympic lifters, but to become better wrestlers. How important do you think perfect form to them, as long as they're safe?

What do you think of Dan John's nuts&bolts approach to olympic lifting? It won't win m/any competitions, but his goal is to get people to learn the basics very quickly.

Do you think this is effective? Or just misguided?

PS: terrific videos. Every time I see Woolfolk lift, I get a little rush. And that hang split clean is just too cool.

The Iron Maven said...

I'm not sure about Dan John; I'd have to check it out. My beef with technique is whether or not the athletes are using the lower extremities to propel the bar vs the old upper arm row/reverse curl. If the lift is a little ugly, that's okay. Do they get what they are trying to do? And can they please front squat and rack the bar safely without putting their wrists under severe stress?

And I agree with you on choosing weightlifting moves vs leg press. Poo on the leg press.

There are many athletes and sports that effectively use the lifts: track cycling, throwers, jumpers, football, rugby--anyone who expresses maximal explosive force would probably benefit from learning them. For other athletes, especially the younger ones, let's lay a better foundation of general physical preparation movements and then we can incorporate more advanced motor skills.

I'm with you, Brother Anonymous. How about that Doreen Fullhart and her split cleans?

Vern Gambetta said...

Tracy - Great overview, as someone who has been label anti olympic lifting over the years, I do undersatnd where it fits and where it does not. It has a place, in some sports aa bigger place more than others