Jerva Performance

Weightlifting for Sport Performance

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“Weightlifting” refers to an Olympic sport, in which the participants compete in two movements – the snatch and the clean & jerk, with the goal to lift as much weight as possible on both of those lifts. In this context, weightlifting as a term is very different from general resistance training, which is the umbrella term for all types of training against a resistive load.

Despite the movements being very specific to the sport of weightlifting itself, this does not mean they couldn’t or shouldn’t be incorporated to the resistance training programs of athletes who are not competing in weightlifting. Snatch and clean & jerk and their derivatives can be effective tools for strength and power development in all types of athletes.

There are several arguments as to why weightlifting movements and their derivatives might be preferred over other methods to improve an athlete’s strength and power, specifically in the lower body.

One such factor is related to triple extension, which is the coordinated extension of the hip, knee, and ankle joints. Triple extension is among the most common movements in sports, as variations of jumping, sprinting, and change of direction all require triple extension to occur. Triple extension also occurs during weightlifting movements. If you compare that to classic compound exercises, like deadlifts and squats, you will observe hip and knee motion, but there will be no real coordinated extension (plantarflexion) of the ankle joint.

Another consideration is the overload aspect of weightlifting exercises. Exercises like the snatch and clean & jerk allow the athlete to move a moderate-to-heavy load with ballistic intent (that is – accelerate the load throughout the range of motion). This is different from various other types of methods used to improve strength and power, such as other free weight exercises or plyometrics. Using a back squat example, you might be able to produce high forces during squatting, but as there is a pre-determined end-point to the lift, you will only be able to accelerate the load so far before needing to decelerate as you approach the top of the squat and full extension. As such, back squat is not a ballistic exercise, and the velocities produced during the lift are lower. On the other hand, comparing plyometric exercises to weightlifting movements, it is evident that the ballistic intent is involved in plyometric jump exercises, which consequently lead to higher velocities produced as acceleration can occur for longer. But plyometrics don’t and shouldn’t typically incorporate heavy external loads, and thus the forces produced are lower.

I will not dive too much into the technique aspects of weightlifting, as it is difficult to go over that in a written format. You are better off getting a proper in-person coach to teach you the technicalities of the lifts.

In general terms, the snatch requires the athlete to lift the barbell from the floor all the way to an overhead position in one continuous motion. The clean & jerk consists of two parts. The clean itself refers to lifting the barbell from the floor to a resting position on the front of the athlete’s shoulders. The jerk refers to lifting the barbell from the shoulders to an overhead position. In both of the lifts, the weight must be received overhead with the arms fully extended for the lift to be counted in a competition.

The snatch and the clean & jerk are among the most complex exercises to learn or coach in a gym setting. Due to their complexity, they are often broken down into partial lifts, known as weightlifting derivatives. Even though a part of the lift is removed, they are still useful for athlete development. Especially for athletes not competing in weightlifting, it is often the case that only the derivatives of the main weightlifting movements are included in their overall training plans.

Weightlifting derivatives are easier to coach and help focus on a certain movement or an aspect of the lift that has relevance to other sporting movements as well. Weightlifting derivatives can be divided into catching and pulling categories.

Catching Derivatives #

Catching derivatives are partial lifts that involve catching the load overhead as in the snatch or onto the shoulders as during the clean. These can be used to produce high power outputs during the triple extension movement, along with teaching the athlete to decelerate an external load. Sports like rugby and wrestling can benefit from such abilities, thus catching derivatives shouldn’t be overlooked. Additionally, catching derivatives may help improve landing characteristics, which are also innate to many different sports.

The most common catching derivatives used are the power clean and hang power clean. The word “power” simply refers to how the barbell is caught on the shoulders without dropping into a squat in order to do so. The catching is done at a height where hips are higher than the knees. The addition of the word “hang” means that the movement is not started all the way from the ground but rather from a hang position, in which the barbell can either be below, at, or slight above knee level.

Clean derivatives are more commonly used in a training setting for non-weightlifting athletes as opposed to snatch or jerk variations. The incredible amount of overhead stability required by the snatch and the jerk is not often worth it to overly rely on those movements for anyone other than a Olympic weightlifter.

In terms of the production of optimal power with those derivatives, loading in the 70-80% 1RM range is often recommended for power and hang power cleans. The loading percentages used for weightlifting derivatives are usually taken from the athletes maximal power or hang power clean value (1RM). It is unnecessary to establish a 1RM for every single weightlifting derivative.

Still, whereas a suggestion can be made about the loading parameters, coaches should consider which magnitude of power is specific to the athlete’s sport. As I’ve continuously described in my previous articles, power is the product of force and velocity. Utilizing a range of loads is probably the best approach for the training of maximal power output.

When prescribing catching derivatives, or any weightlifting movement for that matter, the incorporation of cluster sets can be a good strategy. Due to the complexity of the movements, cluster sets in the form of 20-40s interrepetition rest periods may allow for the power output to be maintained longer throughout the working sets with minimized technique breakdown, thus allowing for better training stimulus altogether.

Pulling Derivatives #

Pulling derivatives are the ones that cut off the movement before the catch phase begins. Pulling derivatives finish the movement with the second pull. For clarity sake, the first pull is the initial movement of the barbell from the floor to a position just above the knee. The second pull refers to the movement of the barbell from the just above knee position, to the midthigh (upper midthigh for the clean, up to the hips for snatch due to wider grip on the bar), where a rapid triple extension occurs along with a shrug-like movement at the shoulders. This is the movement that would cause the barbell to rise up vertically, resulting in the greatest force, rate of force development (RFD), velocity, and power output during weightlifting exercises. Completing the second pull marks the completion of pulling derivatives. No catching or receiving the weight follows.

Examples include clean pull and jump shrug. Pulling derivatives can be effective as the exercise complexity is decreased, making them easier to learn. Pulling derivatives also allow for greater ability to overload the triple extension movement, as no subsequent catching and thus no controlled deceleration of the load is required.

Catching and pulling derivatives can both be useful for different training aims. For maximal force production and rate of force development against heavy external loads, pulling derivatives might be more relevant as they allow for the use of heavier training loads.

Athletes are often able to use loads in excess of their 1RM power clean on clean pulling derivatives because these don’t require dropping under the barbell to catch the load. As long as technique is maintained, up to 120-140% of 1RM power clean can be prescribed. Thus, it is evident why pulling variations are effective for force production development. Those force production adaptations might not occur if only catching derivatives are used, as loads in excess of 1RM cannot be implemented.

For more rate of force development and speed-strength aimed goals, pulling derivatives such as the hang high pull can be used in the range of 30-45% 1RM power clean, as this can result in high magnitudes of velocity and therefore power.

This moves the discussion towards the consideration of interactions between force and velocity and towards developing the athlete’s force-velocity profile. Force and velocity are at the opposite ends of the spectrum. Given maximal intent, the relationship is inverse (in case of a concentric muscle action). Basically, this means that the higher the load is the slower it will move. Inversely, the lower the load is, the faster it will move, at least when maximal intent is used.

It makes sense for the training of an athlete to cover the whole force-velocity spectrum. In case access is available to a velocity tracking device, the coach can distinguish which parts of the overall profile need more emphasis. But on a fundamental level, the whole spectrum should be trained.

Whereas there are numerous ways to target the force-velocity curve, a sequenced progression of weightlifting derivatives can be used to target the whole force-velocity profile of an athlete.

A simple way to move up and down on this force-velocity spectrum would be to pick a weightlifting derivative and just change the load used on that specific derivative to manipulate the force and velocity outputs. Still, some derivatives might be better to emphasize certain points on the spectrum.

A good way to cover this is in relation to classic training phases. This helps you get an idea of where to use which weightlifting derivatives and how to sequence them alongside your classic resistance training exercises.

Strength-Endurance Phase #

This is commonly referred to as the hypertrophy phase of training. A classic characteristic of this stage of training is high training volume in the range of 8-12 repetitions with moderate 60-70% 1RM loads. The aims are to increase athlete work capacity and stimulate morphological changes in muscle cross-sectional area.

In terms of the weightlifting derivatives, clean pulls from the floor or to the knee are appropriate variations in this stage of training. Alternatively, the snatch pull could be used in a similar fashion.

These are relevant as they serve as foundational exercises on a progressive path towards more complex movements. As such, they are crucial to build in the correct technique early on.

Additionally, the pulls from the floor allow to overload the triple extension movement without the additional stress and complexity from the catch phase that has been removed. Whereas catching derivatives can also be important as discussed earlier, too much stress during the strength-endurance phase can lead to fatigue and technique breakdown.

Cluster sets of 2-5 repetitions might also be prescribed here for the pulls from the floor due to high training volumes often prescribed in the strength-endurance phase. This will help to maintain technique and power output, leading to higher quality of work.

Maximal Strength Phase #

This phase is all about increasing the athlete’s force production capacity. Classically, sets of 4-6 repetitions at heavier weights (80-90% 1RM) are used. A limitation of catching derivatives is that loads greater than the athlete’s 1RM power clean cannot be prescribed, whereas pulling derivatives can go in excess of 100%. Again, clean or snatch pulls from the floor and midthigh pulls with heavier loads will emphasize force production and train the extreme force side of the force-velocity curve.

Absolute Strength Phase #

This phase has similar goals to maximal strength phase, but the loads are even greater. 2-3 repetitions of near maximal 90-95% 1RM loads are used. For pulling derivatives, like the clean or snatch pulls from the floor, these can go as high as 120-140% of 1RM power cleans. In terms of the force-velocity continuum, this phase is emphasizing the very end of the force side of the curve. In preparation for the following phase and for rate of force development enhancement purposes, additional derivatives that incorporate catching, like the hang power clean or power clean / snatch , could be included.

Strength-Speed Phase #

As the phase name suggests, force is still the emphasis, but the power outputs have a larger velocity component to them, as a progression is made towards the velocity end of the force-velocity spectrum. This phase will further focus on increasing the rate of force development, and thus power of the athlete. A combination of heavy and light loads on weightlifting derivatives can be used for those goals. To target the high velocity portion of the force-velocity curve, lighter loads on hang midthigh clean / snatch and power clean / snatch from the knee may be used. To target the high force end of the force-velocity curve, clean or snatch pulls from the floor and power cleans with heavier loads could be implemented.

Speed-Strength Phase #

Speed-strength marks the advancement to the velocity side of the force-velocity curve, as velocity becomes the main contributor towards power output. Here the focus is to peak adaptations in RFD and power. A wide range of weightlifting derivatives can be used to achieve those aims. Most of the mentioned derivatives could be used, but the main consideration is the speed of movement and thus the load used. Jump shrugs and hang high pulls could be better options in this phase due to their higher-velocity nature. But still, a combination of heavy and light loaded derivatives is probably the best approach to peak the power adaptations.

Therefore, jump shrugs and hang high pulls can be used to focus on the velocity end of the force-velocity spectrum, and midthigh pulls or clean and snatch pulls from the floor can be used to focus on the force end. The varying neurological demands will stimulate overcoming the inertia of an external load from a static start (pull from the floor) and utilize the stretch-shortening cycle (jump shrug), allowing for the optimization of RFD and power characteristics.

In terms of the specific loads, loading in the range of 70-80% 1RM can be used for power and hang power clean variations (in case these are to be included in this training phase), and lighter 30-45% 1RM load can be used for jump shrugs and hang high pulls. For the clean/snatch pulls from the floor, around 90% of 1RM power clean can be utilized.

That should provide some insight into the relevance of weightlifting for sport performance. Weightlifting derivatives are effective tools to improve athletes' lower body explosiveness and ability to absorb force. Pulling and catching derivatives are both of relevance but having a logical sequenced approach to progressing the movements is key.

Weightlifting is complex and proper technical execution of the movements should always remain the main focus of incorporating such tools into your athletes' training program. This is also why many coaches stay away from using the classic weightlifting variations with athletes who lack weightlifting experience. Exercises like trap bar high pulls and trap bar jumps could be used as potentially safer and simpler alternatives, while still targeting the same training adaptations.

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