A Debate Between Powerlifting and Olympic Lifting as the Main Athletic Training Method

With Philip Louis Sabatini and Monte Richard Sparkman, Jr.

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In the world of strength training, there are numerous methodologies that are used to increase the performance of athletes. Olympic lifting and powerlifting tend to be the most popular philosophies for coaches to incorporate because of their focus on power and strength development.

With their proposed popularity comes a little controversy. Many Olympic lifters and powerlifters proclaim their style of training as the “method of choice” for training athletes. Each method of training elicits a unique training philosophy, program, and outcome. For instance, “Olympic-style weightlifting is an excellent training method for developing power. It consists of two movements—the clean and jerk and the snatch. The derivatives of those movements are what make up the majority of the training exercises” (Gambetta 2007). Unlike its name, powerlifting is a training method that focuses on maximum strength. “Powerlifting is centered on the three competition lifts of the squat, bench press, and the deadlift; powerlifting develops strength in almost all major muscle groups” (Piper & Erdmann 1998).

The question that many strength and conditioning professionals and personal trainers try to answer is, “Which method is best to use when training athletes?” This article will try and answer that very question with responses from two elite strength athletes. Phil Sabatini is a nationally ranked Olympic lifter who is also the football strength and conditioning coach for the Virginia Military Institute. Monte Sparkman is a nationally ranked powerlifter who is the powerlifting coach for the Virginia Military Institute’s powerlifting team. Their candid responses to the upcoming questions will be used to understand the position of each style of weight training and determine the most desirable method to use when training athletes. Therefore, each respondent will answer six questions that are designed to provide insight into the training philosophy and training methodology for each discipline of weight training.

Question 1: What is the most important aspect of training, and how does your style of training support that aspect?

Sparkman: Absolute strength is the foundation for all other strength abilities. “Absolute strength controls all strength gains. Analysis of Hill’s equation shows that speed of movement is dependent on absolute muscular strength: v = Ft/m” (Simmons 2006). From this statement, we can assume that the most important aspect of athletic development should be focused on the training of absolute strength. Powerlifting is rooted in this philosophy. Powerlifters are constantly training to develop absolute strength and explosive strength. They (powerlifters) understand that without this basic strength, training cannot progress.

Powerlifting methods make the training of absolute strength a priority. It is my view that strength and conditioning coaches across the board do the same. Too many strength and conditioning coaches are quick to implement Olympic lifting methods into their training programs without first developing an athlete with a strong foundation of absolute strength training. This opinion can be support by a statement from Vern Gambetta’s book, Athletic Development–The Art & Science of Functional Sports Conditioning. “It has become very popular among the strength coaching community, especially in American football, to center strength training programs on Olympic lifting” (Gambetta 2007). In my opinion, this is putting the cart before the horse. You can’t develop an explosive athlete without first satisfying this common need for the development of absolute strength.

Sabatini: The most important aspect of Olympic weightlifting as it pertains to athletic performance is power specific force development or “speed strength.” Olympic style training involves “using heavy loads that are performed at a high velocity resulting in a high power output” (Hoffman, et al 2004). The term speed strength combines two very crucial attributes of athletic performance to express “power development.” An athlete’s power capacity includes “maximum strength, high load speed strength, low load speed strength, rate of force development, reactive strength, skill performance, and power endurance” (Hori & Stone 2004).

Through the training of Olympic lifts, athletes can increase their speed strength. This is done specifically because “during the pull phase of the clean and snatch as well as the drive phase of the jerk athletes extend their hips, knees, and ankle joints to push against the ground as hard and as rapidly as possible producing acceleration on the body and the barbell, which is done remarkably similar to jumping” (Hori & Stone 2004). Also, functional core strength is developed due to the large amount of overhead activity and movements with high loads away from the body’s center of gravity. Different training methods are used to increase performance by becoming stronger and faster. Specifically, different sports require different demands. One sport may ask, “How strong?” Another may ask, “How fast?” However, in terms of Olympic weightlifting, the question becomes, “How fast are you strong?”

Question 2: Specificity is an important variable within a training program. How does your method of training support the theory of specificity?

Sparkman: “Athletic activities usually require quick and powerful movements and, consequently depend on the development of explosive strength” (Siff 2003). If an athlete wants to enhance explosive strength, he must train absolute strength. The most important aspect of powerlifting is the development of absolute or maximal strength. According to Zatsiorsky, “maximal strength is regarded as a prerequisite for high movement speed” (Zatsiorsky & Kraemer 2006). This statement confirms the belief that an athlete must first develop maximal strength and make it a priority in training over high velocity movements in order to develop explosive strength.

Although Olympic lifting is the gold standard with regards to power development, I feel that powerlifting can develop explosive strength within the particular movement that the athlete is training. I believe that once that explosive strength is developed within the trained movement, it (explosive strength) can then be transferred to the field of play.

Sabatini: All sports require different amounts of muscle synchronization, balance, flexibility, and coordination as well as strength, speed, power, and metabolic development. Olympic weightlifting provides development in all these areas. While training for maximal strength can have a positive effect on performance, it can also have a “negative effect on movement speed and the ability of a muscle to display explosive effort” (Wenzel & Perfetto 1992). However, this does not mean that strength gains do not happen through training at high speeds. Wenzel and Perfetto characterized strength gains from high speed training as adaptations “due to an increase in the number of fibers recruited or a more synchronous firing of motor neurons” (Wenzel & Perfetto 1992). Also, in sports requiring short-term, explosive energy, Olympic training incorporates the necessary mechanism that will accommodate the production of the power-endurance component. This, in turn, will lead to a positive effect on athletic performance.

Question 3: Describe why powerlifting or Olympic lifting is a better approach for training athletes.

Sparkman: Powerlifting is a superior way for training athletes because it addresses this common need for developing absolute strength. Without a training foundation rooted in absolute strength, there is no potential for explosive strength development. Many strength professionals regard Olympic lifting as the method of choice for training explosive athletes. If that is the case, why are so many strength and conditioning professionals concerned with developing absolute strength? You must have the absolute strength foundation before any explosive strength development can occur.

Another reason that powerlifting training methods are superior to Olympic training methods is the trainability of the movements. “To achieve optimal return, you must consider that Olympic lifting is a sport. Those lifts have a high technical demand, but the skill is a closed skill that occurs in a narrow range of motion. The Olympic movements do produce tremendous power because of the distance the weight must travel and because of the weight and speed requirements. This power production is highly dependent on the technical proficiency of the individual lifter” (Gambetta 2007). The above quote illustrates the disadvantages and technical complications that are involved with Olympic style training. For athletes to reap the benefits of Olympic lifting, they must be sound technical lifters. Not only that but the athlete must be able to move a significant amount of weight relative to his body weight in order to produce a positive training effect. There aren’t enough qualified strength and conditioning coaches out there with the time or staff to properly give athletes the coaching they need to become proficient in the Olympic lifting exercises.

Sabatini: Olympic lifting is a better approach for training athletes, largely due to biomechanical specificity and speed of the movements. As mentioned earlier, not only do multiple movements in Olympic lifting (snatch, clean and jerk) closely mimic the movements involved in any type of athletic performance, but training the exercises does not compromise any explosive effort, much like the maximal strength training does in powerlifting. Although there is a definite initial explosive movement in maximal strength training or powerlifting, the exercises are performed at a slow velocity. Olympic lifting “may be superior to traditional powerlifting training because the exercises, while using heavy loads, are performed at a much higher velocity, which leads to a higher power output” (Hoffman et al 2004). This higher power output production could lead to a greater effect on athletic performance than the production that powerlifting could provide.

Question 4: What is the basic philosophy of your method of training? How does that affect the training of athletes?

Sparkman: The basic philosophies used in powerlifting methods are derived from the understanding that training explosive strength through the development of absolute strength is the most important component of athletic development. “All ball players run fast and slow and have quick changes in direction. This is very taxing on the central nervous system. If one wants to become more explosive, he or she must raise maximum strength” (Simmons 2005). Coaches who are using powerlifting methodologies to train athletes understand this important relationship between explosive strength and absolute strength.

It is also important to note that powerlifting methods are not just about lifting heavy weights. Plyometrics, or reactive training, is becoming increasingly popular in powerlifting training as a method to develop explosive strength. “It is essential that explosive strength play a large role in training, as it not only a means of developing absolute strength but also a method of raising physical fitness that is directed toward solving a specific sports task” (Simmons 2001). By combining absolute strength and plyomterics training methods, an athlete will have a more complete balance of the skills needed to perform at a high level on the field of play.

Sabatini: The basic philosophies used in Olympic weightlifting methods of training are based around injury prevention, power output, metabolic specificity, biomechanical specificity, high rates of force development, and muscle synchronization. Each of the fore mentioned components will directly transfer to the improvement of athletic performance. Through the training of Olympic lifting, the goal of the training session can be manipulated. For example, if the goal of the training session is to specifically train the biomechanics of a countermovement vertical jump, the majority of the exercises used throughout the training session would be cleans and snatches from the hang position and jerks. On the other hand, one can also train specific to the energy systems used in a specific sport. If a sport demands an explosive movement every 30–45 seconds such as football, the exercises performed in training would be completed specific to the interval of that sport or activity.

Also, because we know greater maximal strength could lead to greater power outputs, maximal strength must be trained. However, when incorporating Olympic lifting, maximal strength can be trained specific to the movement being performed. This can be achieved by training specifically through the use of clean pulls, snatch pulls, Olympic-style back squats, front squats, and other core multijoint exercises.

In terms of injury prevention, two critical areas to protect in athletics are the knee and shoulder joints. Due to the large amount of hamstring activity in Olympic lifting, which we know are stabilizers to the knee joint, Olympic exercises can play a major role in protecting the knee joint during performance. Also, because of the overhead activity in the training of Olympic exercises, the stabilizers of the shoulder joint (primarily the rotator cuff muscles, the trapezius, and the deltoids) are being worked, thus shoulder stabilization is accomplished in training. There are many philosophies regarding joint stabilization. However, I don’t think there is any better way to train stabilization than to stabilize.

Question 5: What are the safety concerns for your specific method of training?

Sparkman: Due to the maximal loads lifted while training for powerlifting, it is important to utilize proper lifting and spotting techniques. It is important that the spotter be of comparable strength level to the athlete he is spotting.

Sabatini: Because Olympic lifts are highly explosive, complex, open-ended movements, there is always a risk for injury. However, “missing” a lift correctly can easily avoid injury. Also, Olympic bumper plates are specifically designed to be high enough so they can “roll” over a lying body. Secondly, bumper plates are meant to be dropped, so not only does this discard the use of spotters, but it also prohibits athletes from being “caught underneath” the weight.

Question 6: Although you have defended and described your style of training, do you incorporate techniques and philosophies from other methods of training?

Sparkman: Although Olympic style lifting is viewed by many strength and conditioning professionals as the gold standard for training explosive athletes, it is my belief that in order to maximize athletic performance you must incorporate both Olympic style training and powerlifting style training. Explosive strength is crucial in just about every sport out there, but without absolute strength, explosive strength cannot flourish. Explosive strength and absolute strength training must be incorporated simultaneously in athletic development to maximize results. This idea can be summed up by Kawamori and Haff who studied the effects of an optimal training load for the development of muscular power. “Additionally, the development of some fitness components (e.g., maximal strength) should be a prerequisite to the development of other components (e.g., speed strength, power). Therefore, it is crucial to train different components in the logical sequence (i.e., periodization) so athletes can maximally develop muscular power toward the end of macrocycle or a yearly cycle when the most important competitions are scheduled while minimizing the risk of overtraining or injuries” (Kawamori & Haff 2004.

Coaches should not consider powerlifting or Olympic lifting as being better or worse than the other but rather as two pieces of the puzzle working together to enhance athletic performance as stated by Chui. “Rather than one or the other, it is the combination of both maximal strength training and explosive weight training, in a sequenced manner, that will elicit the best results for the strength and condition professional” (Chui 2007).

Sabatini: Within Olympic lifting, there are other facets of training that should be incorporated in order to address all components of performance enhancement. When considering that the sole purpose of the training is to enhance athletic performance, one must also consider all other attributes that my play a significant role in attaining that lofty goal. This includes training for muscle hypertrophy and maximal strength and training the mechanics of sprinting, changing direction, and any sport-specific adaptations that are demanded. Since Olympic lifting is the primary method of training being utilized in order to optimize training performance enhancements, the athlete must follow a well-rounded strength and conditioning program with a wide variety of demands.

Conclusion

In a perfect world, all facets of training (i.e. power, strength, speed, agility, balance, and conditioning) would be incorporated into an athletic strength and conditioning program. Therefore, both methodologies (powerlifting and Olympic lifting) are important entities for the development of athletes. “Weightlifting (Olympic lifting) and powerlifting should not be considered competing but rather complimentary methodologies” (Chiu 2007). A well-rounded training program should not be limited to only one area of emphasis but rather should incorporate all components that are specific to the athlete’s sport or activity. Although the philosophy of training may be different, the goal of training athletes should be the same. Enhancing performance and reducing injury should always be the centerpiece of a strength and conditioning program (Baechle & Earle 2000). In conclusion, the adaptation of both major training methodologies could illicit a greater return because both parameters are being trained (maximum strength and power). It is the inclusion and variation of training variables that will give added benefit to the athlete versus the exclusion and elimination of competing methodologies and standards.

Definitions

1.      Explosive strength: The ability to exert maximal forces in minimal time (Zatsiorsky & Kraemer, 2006, p. 228).

2.      Maximum strength: A measure of the maximal voluntary isometric muscular force which can be produced without a time limit or limit to the amount of weight lifted (Siff, 2003, p. 106).

3.      Absolute strength: The maximum strength that can be produced by an athlete irrespective of body mass (Siff, 2003, p. 1).

4.      Plyometrics: Muscle lengthening under tension with the external forces acting in the same direction as the motion. Also known as eccentric muscle action (Zatsiorsky & Kraemer, 2006, p. 228).

References

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  • Gambetta Vern (2007) Athletic Development: The Art & Science of Functional Sports Conditioning. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, pg. 188–89.
  • Hoffman, et. al (2004) Comparison of Olympic vs. Traditional Power Lifting Training Programs in Football Players. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 18:129–35.
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  • Simmons L (2005) Reactive Methods. Retrieved: June 28, 2008 from http://www.westsidebarbell.com/Articles%20Top%20Ten/PDF.Files/05PDF/REACTIVE%20METHODS.pdf.
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  • Zatsiorsky VM, Kraemer WJ (2006) Science and Practice of Strength Training. 2nd ed. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Philip Louis Sabatini, CSCS, is a strength and conditioning coach at the Virginia Military Institute. His main priority is working with the VMI football program. Before coming to VMI, he was a graduate assistant at Ohio University in the area of strength and conditioning.

Monte Richard Sparkman Jr., is a lecturer of physical education at the Virginia Military Institute. He is a nationally ranked powerlifter who also coaches the VMI powerlifting team.

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About the Author

Jack B. Johnson Jr., PhD, CSCS, is an assistant professor of physical education at the Virginia Military Institute. He has also spent 12 years as a strength and conditioning coach at Radford University, Virginia Tech, and VMI.