Olympic Lifting vs. Powerlifting training for sports…the argument is as old as time it seems. I have never understood why these two training styles seem to be mutually exclusive. Why do you have to choose between them? It has long been accepted that Olympic lifting developed explosive power, and powerlifting develops absolute strength. Don’t most athletes need both?! Luckily the body has no Olympic or Powerlifting bias. It just tries to become proficient in whatever the task at hand may be. Unless the “athlete” is a poker player, fisherman, or NASCAR driver (hey, they’re on ESPN) then I think the obvious answer is YES! The problem with trying to do both is that there are only so many training hours in the week. I think training economy is one of the most important aspects of programming for athletes. Even in the offseason, athletes spend a significant amount of time developing specific skills for their sport, or at least they should. If they are a high school athlete, then they might even participate in multiple sports. So how do we decide which training style to follow? Let’s look at each, shall we?!
One of the main concerns strength coaches have with Olympic lifting is the complexity of the movements. And honestly that reflects some ignorance on their part. If you have ever seen any of Coach Dan John’s videos or seminars he breaks down the movements and can have you snatching and cleaning in a matter of hours or days. Having said that, I consider the Olympic lifts are still somewhat technical. They require a lot more attention to detail than the powerlifts do. Also there is a limiting factor to the loads you can use in the Olympic lifts. Consider that the clean is comprised roughly of a deadlift, hang clean, and front squat. One of those three movements will hold back the other two. How explosive do you think you could be if you limited your deadlift poundage to what you could handle in the front squat, or hang clean? A 500lb deadlifter that could only front squat 300lbs, would develop a hell of a lot of force pulling 300-350lbs for explosiveness. And that’s only IF the athlete could clean 300lbs.
Also if you watch Olympic lifters closely, the first pull is not explosive. The first pull can’t be explosive because you are building up, and getting in position for the all important second pull. They are slowly stretching the rubber band, otherwise known as the hamstrings. The second pull is where the hip snap and jump occurs; these movements are basically the basis of most sports performance. This is the part of the movement that Olympic lifting proponents attribute to building explosiveness for sports, and I do not disagree with them.
After reading this you are probably expecting me to say that powerlifting training is definintely the way to go for athletes. Well I hate to disappoint you, but since training should be fluid; the answer is yes and no. Powerlifting training allows you to use significantly higher loads, and develop absolute strength. Which I personally think should be the basis of a strength and conditioning program for athletes. However, there are some major limitation to the powerlifting workout as well. The main one being that they are all single plane movements. Take the deadlift, my overall favorite lift for training athletes and assessing their progress. It, and the squat, will build absolute strength and overall muscle mass like very few lifts. Yet they both are single plane movement, done while holding your breath. And aside from sitting on the sideline hoping a game winning field goal is made, that’s not how we play sports.
So if neither of these by themselves are optimal then what is the answer?! Well in my opinion there is a dark horse in this race. One that is finally starting to get some mainstream acceptance, though I am not sure if that’s a good thing. Mainstream acceptance usually means a bunch of young coaches bastardizing a perfectly legitimate training protocol. From my work with athletes the best hybrid between powerlifting and Olympic lifting is Strongman Training.
Strongman training has many benefits over the other two classic disciplines. One advantage is that you are taught to be strong in several planes. You are forced to be strong while having to breathe. This is HUGE. I remember the first time I used a strongman yoke. At the time I had squatted close to 800 lbs, and thought that carrying 600lbs. on my back for a distance would be relatively easy. It was a rude awakeining. Having to balance the weight while walking was difficult, but what really got me was I had to BREATHE. As soon as I let out that initial breath, I started losing tightness, and the weight started to crush me. Learning to be strong while breathing is something every athlete must do.
Another advantage that strongman training has is a forgotten element sometimes. Attitude and aggressiveness are things that should be encouraged during training, especially football strength training. Making your players mentally tough should be a goal of any strength and conditioning program, as I addressed in my article about finishers. Think about it, the amount of aggression that you can apply to a lift is inversely proportional to how technical a lift is. Which is more technical, a tire flip or a snatch? Even with an superior coach like Coach John, it takes some time to develop proficiency in a complex move like the snatch. Where as, as long as the tire is the proper weight, you can show a kid how to flip a tire and have them doing it in a matter of minutes. It’s kind of like teaching a kid to play an instrument. You can hand them a drum, and right away they can beat the hell out of it. Give them a French horn and see how they do. We all know that the less an athlete has to THINK the better, and that goes for the weight room as well as the field of play.
You also don’t make small jumps in strongman. A bigger tire is probably a hundred more pounds at least. If you are using a barbell, kids will always want to add weight, even if it’s only 5 lbs. With strongman they have to become more proficient at the same weight, work on moving it fast and developing more explosiveness. There is no way you could get kids to stand still for that if they had a barbell in their hands. And speaking of barbells, another advantage of strongman training is that tires and sandbags don’t have handles….neither do offensive/defensive linemen. Yes I know that grabbing them under the armpits will work for a handle, but it is “technically” illegal…wink wink.
The final point I will make about strongman training is that most of it is done outside in the elements. Which is where most of sports are played as well. It is different, and fun. Most younger athletes need the training to be fun for them to give there best effort. Not to mention that strongman training lends itself to a healthy competitive atomosphere.
So does this mean that I think that strongman is the end all and be of all strength and conditioning for sports? Not at all. I think that the best program will take something from all the disciplines. Powerlifting movements such as the squat and deadlift build absolute strength as well as packing on tons of muscle mass. Olympic lifts such as hang cleans, and muscle snatches are great for developing, hip snap, jumping ability, and overall explosiveness. Then there are crossover movements like Front Squats and push presses. Most athletes should do more of each. There is no reason to only use one style of training. There are things to draw from all three. Strongman training helps an athlete take his strength in the weight room to his chosen field of play. And performance on the field is what really matters.