Does the Olympic Weightlifter benefit from a Strength Program?

I was asked the question recently whether a Weightlifter who had developed reasonable technique would benefit by taking time out from normal Weightlifting training to pursue a training program that was more exclusively about developing strength.

The questioner elaborated by asking, if he spent six months on a strength program would he improve his total faster?

It’s a great question and one I am sure is commonly asked. My initial retort was “strength for what?”. But a question of this nature is important and deserving of a more in-depth answer.

It’s easy to make the assumption that a program labelled as a “strength program” would cause an athlete to expend greater time and effort on exercises that develop leg, back and overhead strength. It is common to witness athletes on “strength programs” undertake intensely hard regimes of squats, pulls, deadlifts, good mornings, and various forms of shoulder work. The training usually involves pumping out sets of 5 repetitions or more, and sessions carry high levels of muscle fatigue which satisfy the athlete that they are working hard and getting stronger. No doubt a commonly desired objective of such training is hypertrophy, the development of greater muscle mass. The general view is that athletes in Olympic Weightlifting must rise in muscle mass considerably if they have a desire to compete at a high level. Therefore, it seems plausible that a strength program, if it promotes hypertrophy, is a definite advantage for the Weightlifter.

It is very conceivable that at the end of a “strength program”, the athlete should have improved on the exercises on which they have focused. This assumption should hold true unless an injury appears or other life factors intervene. Yes indeed, if the strength program causes the athlete to develop leg strength especially, then it seems justifiable to say that the strength program worked and that there was value in diverting from a normal Olympic Weightlifting Program.

But does Olympic Weightlifting really work this way?

The conventional Olympic Weightlifting Program

A conventional Weightlifting program for a lifter of experience is often rated as 40% technique and 60% strength. The strength component would normally include a considerable volume of work on squats as developing leg strength is always a preoccupation of the Weightlifter. A conventional Weightlifting program would also include multiple variations of pulls at differing intensities, and an array of different overhead strength exercises for both the snatch and the jerk. Importantly, a significant proportion (perhaps 20%) of the Weightlifting program focuses on power lifts and in particular the Power Snatch and the Power Clean. Whether these exercises are counted as part of the 40% technique component or part of the 60% strength component is open for question. It is probable, though, that many will assume they are part of the technique component.

It is important to state at this point in the discussion, that athletes with less than 2 years experience should focus on technique development and it is a grossly incorrect for such athletes to be pushing hard on strength development in lieu of technique work. It takes time to develop excellence of skill and to learn how to train. Pushing too hard too soon is likely to produce physiological, psychological and technical issues from which the inexperienced athlete may never recover.

It’s hard to conceive, therefore, that the conventional Weightlifting program lacks sufficient work on strength development. Small adjustments can and should be made for individual needs of the athlete in both the technical and strength dimensions. For example, the effect of changing just one exercise in the weekly training schedule from a technique focus to a strength focus, or vice versa, is quite surprising.

The above table is based on the assumption that the experienced athlete has enough energy and time for five (5) exercises per session. In reality, this is a tough task and some sessions need to be shorter and easier in duration to allow for recovery.

But, of course, the conventional Weightlifting program can be skewed towards strength not just by changing the content of the exercise schedule but also by increasing the volume or intensity of work when performing strength exercises. Presumably, such a change would have physiological affect on the athlete and a compensatory reduction in effort on so called “technique” exercises would be needed. The physiological affect would include soreness, stiffness and high levels of fatigue.

But if you are a keen observer of Olympic Weightlifters in training, especially those who are achieving, you will have noticed no lack of effort on squats, pulls and overhead strength exercises. Is it possible, therefore, that the Olympic Weightlifting training program is already optimised for strength development and that to pile on more pressure on squats and pulls would simply overload the athlete.

Is strength the wrong term?

To get back to the question of whether an Olympic Weightlifter would find advantage in diverting from a conventional Weightlifting program to a dedicated strength program, it is necessary to consider the type of strength needed.

Although the term “strength” is used ubiquitously in all forms of Weightlifting, it is perhaps not the best term to use in the context of Olympic Weightlifting. A better way to think is that the Weightlifter must produce “force”, which is a product of mass and acceleration.

Force is a vector and this means it has magnitude and direction. The magnitude is dependent upon the amount of acceleration achieved and in Weightlifting we must give this serious thought. For example, it might be useful to question the value of performing really slow-moving heavy pulls in training. Yes, you could say that this type of training will increase “strength” but is this the best strategy for developing the force characteristics needed in Olympic Weightlifting? In particular, it might be an erroneous assumption that training at the limit of our capability to lift the bar from the floor will produce the acceleration characteristics we need to perform a Snatch or Clean.

Athletes, quite naturally, tend to focus on increasing the weight (mass) of the bar as a measure of performance improvement. This is to be expected as the mass of the bar is obviously easily measured. As yet, it is not simple enough to measure the acceleration of the bar and be able to obtain immediately usable results. If it were, coaches and athletes would have a whole new dimension within which to work. It would be possible for athletes to focus, rep by rep, on attempting to set new personal bests with bar acceleration in exercises such as pulls.

It is a reality of Weightlifting training, therefore, that there is perhaps only one objective measure we can use on a moment-to-moment basis that gives us a clue about force characteristics. It is relatively inexact but that measure is, of course, whether a lift was successful or not. The measure can be applied with greatest confidence in training exercises such as the Power Snatch and the Power Clean. Experienced Weightlifters know that for a lift to count as a Power Snatch or Power Clean, the depth of the receiving position must be above parallel. This means that the athlete has to work really hard to gain as much acceleration of the bar as possible in the final stages of the pull.

This brings us back to the conventional Olympic Weightlifting program which devotes as much as 20% of total training time to power lifts. Athletes and coaches need to understand the importance of power lifts to develop the very specific “strength” that the Weightlifter needs. This can be explained by the following definition:

Strength is the maximal force a muscle or muscle group can generate at a specified velocity.

Knuttgen and Kraemer, 1987

As stated by Harman (1993), according to the Knuttgen/Kraemer definition, someone who is strong under one set of conditions, is not necessarily strong under another set of conditions. In other words, it is important to understand that the velocity, acceleration and force characteristics of heavy deadlifts may not have much relevance to Olympic lifts. We know that the peak velocity achieved by Weightlifters in the final stages of the pull is around 1.8 – 2.0 metres per second, and this is perhaps the specified velocity around which training effort should be focused.

In addition to the specificity required in the magnitude of force, there must also be specificity in terms of direction of force produced by the Weightlifter. Athletes on strength programs are often observed to be performing non-specific exercises on the basis that such training will contribute to hypertrophy. The mentality is perhaps that if a muscle is overloaded in many different ways, it will be caused to grow. Well this might be true, but the mere fact that a muscle or muscle group may increase in size as a result of training that resembles bodybuilding, does not necessarily have any bearing on the athlete’s ability to improve their result in the Olympic lifts. The specificity principle stands as perhaps the most profoundly important principle of training, and we simply cannot ignore it. Athletes in Olympic Weightlifting must produce force in a manner that is highly consistent with the principles of excellence in Weightlifting technique.

For these reasons, in the view of this author, diverging from conventional Weightlifting training to a so-called strength program brings a very significant risk that the Weightlifter will not benefit. The strategy will result in valuable time wasted and a lost opportunity to improve results. A well designed Olympic Weightlifting program, skewed slightly to meet the needs of the individual athlete, is a much better proposition. Only very slight changes need be made to cater for individual strengths and weaknesses and this can be managed by the coach, to a large extent, on the floor of the gym.

In answer to the question above, it would be far more productive for the athlete to perform two 13 week cycles of a Weightlifting program than to devote 6- months to a strength program.