Powerlifting for Sport: Five Reasons Why Your Athletes Should Be Doing It

The development of absolute strength as an athletic quality is pivotal for sporting success. Strength and conditioning coaches, personal trainers, and performance coaches around the world use many different means to create strong, powerful athletes. The debate heard around the strength world is whether athletes should be using powerlifting or traditional Olympic style weightlifting movements (and which is more productive). Addressing that argument is beyond the scope of this article. However, I will give you five very good reasons why powerlifting exercises and repetition schemes should be used in your athletic conditioning programs.

1. Stronger athletes use less energy.
In tight games that come down to the wire, it’s often the stronger and better conditioned team that comes out on top. This is also true for individual sports such as wrestling and mixed martial arts. Many would attribute success at the end of a game to the conditioning and energy systems training that the athletes have done. While this is true and necessary, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

Each step becomes easier and requires the expenditure of less energy when a person has increased his levels of absolute strength. When this is translated into athletic competition, the effect is even greater because force is being generated as quickly as possible, requiring greater amounts of energy. So when athletes can generate more force and are more neuromuscularly efficient, they’ll use less energy to complete each task required of them during competition. The ability to generate large amounts of force and neuromuscular efficiency are both products of powerlifting type training.

2. Moving loads quickly is still emphasized.
One of the most common criticisms of using powerlifting exercises and rep schemes to train athletes is the slow movement of the load. This is a misconception that is far from reality. Moving a load as quickly as possible is always emphasized. While completing a maximal effort squat, a lifter is never trying to move the weight slowly. The intention is always to move the weight as quickly as possible. Due to this fact, those who use maximal effort training become more powerful at all training loads (1).

The conjugate method is a common methodology among powerlifters. Using this method of training allows an athlete to develop different skills concurrently by employing different rate and load protocols. The three integral components of the conjugate method are the maximal effort, which is working to a one to three rep maximum; the dynamic effort, which involves moving a submaximal load as quickly as possible; and the repetition effort, which involves moving a submaximal load until failure. The goal of the dynamic effort method is rate of force production, a key component of athletic training. Loads are being moved as quickly as possible, making an athlete more powerful and better able to express the strength gained through maximal effort training explosively. One would be hard pressed to find a coach who doesn’t want a stronger and more explosive athlete.

3. Stronger athletes can run faster and jump higher.
Power and speed are the two most commonly examined markers of athleticism applied to team sport athletes with the vertical jump test and the 40-yard dash the most common tests to determine appropriate levels of these two qualities. If success in these two tests is compared with a strong performance in a squat one rep maximum test, you’ll see a strong correlation.

Research has shown that maximum effort squat strength is easily related to performance in the vertical jump test. Athletes who scored strongly on the one rep maximum squat test had higher vertical jumps compared to those who didn’t perform as well. It has also been shown that as strength in the squat improves, so does vertical jump height. When applied to competition, the vertical jump has been shown to be a great measure of athletic success (2).

Squat strength has also been examined in relation to sprinting speed. Using Division I football players, a study compared squat strength, strength/body mass ratio, and sprinting speed. It was found that the athletes with the highest strength/body mass ratio had the best sprinting times. The stronger athletes were able to apply greater amounts of force to the ground, allowing them to sprint at greater velocities (3). When measurements of maximal strength are applied to athletic tests, it is obvious that employing maximal effort training for athletic conditioning is a must.

4. Deadlifting is functional!
“An exercise is not deemed functional by the way it looks but by what it produces.” The quote above is from Gray Cook, and when training athletes, it rings profoundly true. Our industry’s current trend toward functional training leaves many of us confused about what functional training actually is. I don’t think that it can be said any better than it has been by Gray Cook. We need to examine the application of exercises to our athletes by what they will get out of them. The deadlift is a perfect exercise to look at in this perspective.

In order to keep all things equal, let’s look at the conventional barbell deadlift. What is required to complete this lift and what would an athlete obtain from its completion? If we start from the ground up, the ankle needs the ability to dorsiflex properly and then translate from dorsiflexion into plantar flexion as the lifter applies force to the ground. The knee must have the ability to properly stabilize as force is produced, and the hips must have the mobility to descend into the proper lifting position. Examining the core, we see that the glutes must fire properly to work as the primary hip extensor, and the abdominal musculature, along with the spinal erectors, must stabilize the spine so that force can be generated. The hamstrings must assist the glutes in extending the hips while the quadriceps apply the initial force to move the weight off of the floor. Strong lats and traps and strong upper back musculature give the pull that help the spine to stabilize. This allows the athlete to “lockout” the weight. Let’s not forget the grip strength required to hold on to the bar throughout the movement. If there is a sport that doesn’t demand all of these functional qualities from its athletes, I would certainly like to see it.

There is also a certain part of the kinetic chain that is always a hot topic in sport conditioning—the posterior chain. The deadlift is without a doubt the most productive strengthening exercise for the entire kinetic chain, giving a great benefit to any athlete that uses the exercise. As a deadlift is completed, every part of the posterior chain from the calves to the traps must work to make the lift successful. What coach wouldn’t want to use a lift that produces so much?

5. Improving one rep maxes boosts confidence.
Confidence levels can make or break a person, not just an athlete. Building confidence in an athlete can be applied across his entire life, helping him to succeed in any endeavor that he takes on. A very productive and simple way to build confidence in athletes is to allow them to see the progress they have made through setting personal records on lifts. If a football player can see that his bench press one rep maximum has improved by 30 pounds over the past year, it will go great lengths to boost his self-confidence, as strength is strongly associated to self-confidence in males.

Female athletes can also get a great amount of benefit from seeing their gains in strength. If a female volleyball player sees that her squat has improved by 10 pounds and knows that this will positively affect her vertical jump, she will attack the net that much more aggressively. If an athlete can see himself getting stronger through measuring maximum effort testing, it will only work to boost confidence, putting him in a better mindset to succeed athletically and in life. An incredible way to improve one rep maximums is through powerlifting focused training.

Though it is incredibly productive, by no means is powerlifting training the end all be all of sports conditioning. When powerlifting exercises and set and rep schemes are used in an athletic conditioning program along with other properly applied programming, the benefits can be monumental. Different training philosophies will come and go and functional training will eventually progress into the next trend, but being strong will never go out of style.

References

  1. Moss BM, Refsnes PE, Abildgaard A, Nicolaysen K, Jensen J (1997) Effects of maximal effort strength training with different loads on dynamic strength, cross-sectional area, load-power and load-velocity relationships. European Journal of Applied Physiology 75:193–99.
  2. Strong hops: the relationship between strength and jump height. Journal of Pure Power 5(1):33–5.
  3. Squat strength: strength may rule supreme over power. Journal of Pure Power 5(1):31–2.
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About the Author

Todd Bumgardner is a performance coach and personal trainer at Victory Sports and Fitness in State College, Pennsylvania. He is a competitive powerlifter, competing in the 198- and 220-lb classes.