Olympic Lifts Don’t Optimize Explosive Power

Paradigm shift. Noun: A fundamental change in approach or underlying assumptions.

Before I start, it’s imperative to understand power.  Power is the product of strength and speed [18].  Generating high power outputs is one of the most important qualities an athlete can possess [8, 15, 18] as it largely determines explosive athletic performance [21].  For this reason, higher power athletes are more successful [1, 2, 3].

Growing up, I never did cleans, snatches, or jerks (the Olympic lifts).  I followed a paradigm that didn’t need them:

Sprints and jumps optimize explosive power.

Then, during grad school, I took the USA-Weightlifting certification.  There I was presented with a new paradigm:

Olympic lifts optimizes explosive power.

Twenty-five years ago, the researcher, John Garhammer showed that 100-kg Powerlifters produced 1,100 Watts of power in a maximal Deadlift and Back Squat.

Olympic Weightlifters of the same weight produced 2,950 Watts in a maximal Snatch and Clean, and 5,500 W in the 2nd pull of the Snatch and Clean [13, 14].

These power differences are huge.

I bought into this research and shifted paradigms.

I started cleaning and snatching once per week as well as teaching my athletes to hang clean.

Soon after, I started an internship at the University of Minnesota under Cal Dietz.

Over the span of three months, I saw a total of one Olympic lift performed in his weight room.

Cal is known for building explosive power in athletes, but he didn’t use Olympic lifts.

This time my paradigm was no longer a statement, but a question:

Do Olympic lifts actually optimize explosive power?


Jumping Produces More Power than Olympic Lifts

The best way to train for power is to perform exercises that produce the most power (measured in Watts) [10, 30].

Revisiting Garhammer’s work, the maximal Clean and Snatch produce around 3,000 Watts, and the 2nd pulls (when the bar is near the hips) in these movements produce 5,500 W.

Compared to vertical jumping, people who jumped 19-25.5 inches produced peak power at 5,377, 5,378, 5,438, and 5,782 Watts [11, 12, 16, 20].

In another study, college weightlifters jumped 25.6 inches and produced 6,931 Watts [17].

Because mid-20 inch vertical jumps are terrible, I tested my own.  Weighing 100-kg, I did a 32-inch standing countermovement jump (in the middle of a hypertrophy phase).  My peak power based on an equation by Sayers, et al. [23] came out to 7,409 Watts.

Looks like jumping fairs better than Olympic lifting in peak power production.

These comparisons are telling, but there are a few issues:

1) Olympic lifts produce peak power at loads of 70-80%, not at 100% (such as those studied by Garhammer).

2) The power or hang versions of the lifts are more popular among athletes as they are easier to perform and produce more power.  (Garhammer studied full cleans and snatches).

3) Olympic Weightlifters have greater technical proficiency in the lifts than the typical athlete, meaning they produce more power.

4) The same group of athletes should perform an Olympic lift and vertical jump to compare the two directly.

All of these concerns are covered in these three studies:

Study #1:  In a group of college weightlifters who had weightlifted for at least 2 years, a mid thigh pull (clean pull) produced peak power at 2,204 Watts on average.  In a bodyweight vertical jump, they averaged 6,931 W [17].

Study #2:  In a Power Clean, a group of athletes produced peak power at 4,787 Watts on average. When these same athletes do a bodyweight vertical jump, they averaged 6,437 W [5].

Study #3:  In university football and volleyball players who had routinely cleaned for 2+ years, a hang clean produced peak power at 3,532 Watts and a vertical jump produced peak power at 4,384 W [19].

To repeat: The best way to train for power is to perform exercises that produce the most power [10, 30].

Vertical jumps produce the most power [22].  Olympic lifts do not.


Improving Jumps: The Trap Bar

There are not only exercises that maximize power, but loads within these exercises that maximize power.  Finding this load will optimize athletic performance gains [30].

For example, a heavy deadlift can produce 1,100 Watts [13] compared to a light deadlift that can produce 4,388 W [27] (these in similar level Powerlifters).

And if the barbell is swapped for a trap bar, power can get up to 4,872 W [27].

Both changing exercises and changing load can increase or decrease power.

Since this is known, will adding weight to vertical jumps increase its power output?

The barbell jump squat is most commonly used as it produces significant amounts of power [25].

In one study, the barbell squat jump produced 4,091 Watts and bodyweight vertical jumps produced 4,324 W [28].

Adding weight decreased power output.

But…

In that same study, the trap bar jump beat out both exercises with 4,606 Watts [28].

Weighted jumps should be done at arms’ length (trap bar) instead of on the shoulder (barbell), and with ~20% 1RM load.

This altered position and light load increases power output among all jumps [28], leading to further improvements in power [30].


How to Maximize Power

If you are weak, get stronger first.  Increasing strength will make you more powerful [6, 21, 26].  Power gains are compromised in weaker athletes [15, 9, 7].

As for training power directly, pick up a trap bar and jump with it.

This improves sprinting [24, 29] and jumping [29] performance.  Do both vertical jumps and trap bar jumps to cover different velocities [9], sprint, sprint with weight, and throw heavy and light med balls.

Combine the two: power training and heavy strength training for a synergistic effect [4, 9].

As for my paradigm, I’m back where I started:

Sprints and jumps optimize explosive power.

Limitations:  This article addressed Olympic lifts for power development.  There are other benefits to performing them (flexibility, triple extension, force absorption, rate of force production, etc.).  With a good coach and years of time and energy, the Olympic lifts can be useful exercises, even for power gains.  The best?  Probably not.

If they don’t make you as strong as a back squat or as powerful as a trap bar jump, then ask yourself:  Are Olympic lifts really optimizing my power training?

When your goal is to sprint faster, hit harder, and jump higher, maybe you should think twice about Olympic lifting.


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