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Stronger Athletes

Safe, Effective Strength Training for Athletes

July 8 "Fall seven times, stand up eight." -Japanese Proverb

Dear StrongerAthlete:Pro Athletes / Elite vs High School Athletes / Safety Part 1

Since last week's reply to misinterpretations of our website, we have received several e-mails from members of that particular list-serve. It almost seems that we have turned into a soap opera for their reading pleasure. What follows below is a letter we received... sort of like a spin-off of last week's post. StrongerAthletes.com's reply follows in BLUE.

Dear StrongerAthletes.com,

I must first tell you that I am an Olympic lift proponent and work with several elite levels from various sports and of various ages. I have also written several articles about the Olympic lift variations for the training of athletes. Nevertheless I hope that you will not perceive my letter as antagonistic.

I would only wish to make several objective comments in regard to your listing of supposed "Non Olympic lift teams".

Coach Thibaudeau expresses a concern that w have attempted to amend this past week. The following note was posted at the top of our Teams Page.

I do not doubt that the official strength coaches of the pro teams you cite do not use the Olympic lift in their programs. However I would like to say that several, if not all professional athletes follow the official team program only during the season. In the off-season most players hire the services of personal coaches. I know this because I'm currently doing this with over 20 pro hockey players (including some under contract with the Pittsburgh Penguins which are a non Olympic lift team) and they all use the Olympic lifts.

For example, Dermonti Dawson, former Steelers center was a shot puter in college who is reputed for having a huge power clean.

David Boston of the Arizona Cardinals also uses some Olympic lifts (mainly power snatch and some power clean) despite his team being a non Olympic lift team.

The same could be said of all the players coming from college programs relying heavily on the Olympic lifts (e.g. Miami, Nebraska, Texas, Tennessee, etc.). Most of these guys will go back to their roots in the off season.

So even if some professional teams do indeed hire a strength coach reputed for not using any Olympic and ballistic lifts, most of the players still engage in those lifts during the off-season (which is the most productive training portion of the year).

Sure one could argue that these players are paid by the team and thus obey the team rules and use their strength training program ... but it just doesn't happen! I would say that at least 60-70% of the players train on their own or hire a personal strength coach during the off-season.

It is also important to talk about athlete movement. In sports, especially pro sports an athlete might change teams. In which case the training philosophy will change altogether. As a result most elite athlete will practice the Olympic or explosive lifts at one time in his career for a significant length of time. This holds true for a "non Olympic lift" HS player who moves on to an "Olympic lift" college, a "non Olympic lift" college player who moves to a "Olympic lift" pro team or from a "non Olympic lift" pro tram to an "Olympic lift" one.

So what you get is an erroneous portrait of the quantity of athletes who are non using the Olympic lifts.

We understand that athletes in the off season do what ever they want. Although, we do not believe that all athletes from non-Olympic Teams do cleans and other quick movements. Now, we also understand that teams such as Nebraska, Miami etc... have Olympic style movements in their programs but do not forget the number of athletes from Penn St., Michigan, Michigan St. etc... that produce NFL players as well year after year.

These athletes do train in a slow controlled manner in season as well as off season because they are sold on it. They believe in that type of lifting. For example, Lavar Arrington played at Penn St. and went to the Redskins who use strictly slow movements even now after the coaching change. It is all that he has known therefore he is likely to do the same in the off season.

Since your question we have asked several persons who may have better knowledge than us concerning this issue. We have found that many Pro athletes feel that the risk of injury is already high on the playing field, and they do not need to expose themselves to further possible injury by doing ballistic movements in the weight room. One such reply indicated about 10-15% as opposed to 60-70%. "Most pro football players are under the supervision of their strength coaches from the middle of March to the end of June and then from the end of July until the end of the season. At this point, many players take a few weeks or a month off from training in order to heal up. Along the same lines, I believe that a lot of players from Olympic lifting teams do not perform Olympic movements when they are left to train on their own."

We also think that it goes both ways. Some athletes that play for a team that does the Olympic type of lifts do not like them and will not do them in the off season and some that play for a team that does not do them will go back to them because they enjoyed them in college.

There is a lot of movement from team to team and we are fully aware that slow controlled movements are in the minority but we do not believe just because a player may move to an Olympic movement team that the benefits of these movements will last for years even if they do not do them even in the off season after they move. There are people that believe the benefits of doing cleans for a couple of years will last their entire career. That is not true and most know it but we receive e-mails of this nature.

We have witnessed some NFL players train in the off season and many do not train with much intensity. Many of course do because of their drive to excel but some get a little lazy in the off season and will wait until it is absolutely necessary to start getting in shape for the season. I guess they figure that their genetic talent will carry them. (This is true for many players)

I would like to also bring up another point about Olympic lifting advocates like the University of Nebraska. They do 2-3 Olympic type of movements but lets not forget that Coach Eply and his assistants also have them do squats, deadlift, bench press etc... (in a slow controlled manner). Could it be that these movements are creating power and explosiveness as well? There obviously are many other variables that contribute to their success like genetics and recruiting. If they were to take the Olympic type of movements out of their program I would be will to bet that they would still be a top team. It would not affect their performance at all.

I would also like to address a point in your reply to Dr. Mel Siff's post. In his post Dr. Siff asked you to provide examples of world class athletes from quantitative sports that used your training principles. You only cited discus thrower Al Oerter. Oerter was indeed a fantastic athlete however I would not cite him as a proponent of your methodology since:

a) His elite competitive career spanned from 1956 to 1968. Certainly a long and productive career, but a bit early to be associated with you or your methodology.

b) During the 50s and 60s strength training was just in it's beginnings with elite athletes from our side of the ocean. Certainly field athletes were among the first to include lifting in their training regimen, but any methodology they used at this point was hardly scientific and thus should not be used to promote a certain type of training.

c) The first lifting methods used in training by field athletes were based on the training of Olympic lifters (at this time many athletes were both Olympic lifters and field athletes) because it was still the most widely known form of strength training and the only form remotely accepted by athletes (bodybuilding methods were still believed to make one muscle bound and slow). In fact the Olympic lifting methods remained the preferred way of training up until 1960-1962 or so. When the performance of US weight lifters began to drop in the mid 1960s this form of training took a step back to resurface later.

So that having been said, it is likely that Oerter did in fact practice a form of Olympic lift since he started his career during the golden era of Olympic lifting. It is also likely that he engaged in plyometric exercises and ballistic exercises (e.g. med ball throws) as these were popular in track and field athletes which shared a common basis in training.

We would point out that most high school coaches are dealing with everyday, run of the mill adolescent athletes. We want to make them stronger to avoid on the field injuries as well as develop strength. However, since many have latched on to bask Oerter as if he were the StrongerAthletes.com poster-child, we should say that we have never met Al Oerter nor have we ever maintained that he has an association with us. We simply pointed out that as an "elite" athlete, he did not use Olympic, or Russian, training methods.

This issue seems really silly in regards to our training program. Again we train 150+ high school athletes in a safe, efficient and productive manner. We would like for other high school coaches to think about what they are accomplishing with their athletes when they employ Olympic lifts with their kids. Are these coaches using them because you train your elite athletes with them? DO they have the skills to teach them safely? Do they understand the issue of transfer?

But since you and your list wants to burn Oerter lets take a look at some things. From what we understand he is not an Olympic lifting advocate and in fact he spoke at an NSCA annual conference a few years ago against the training methods used by his opponents, the Soviets and East Germans. (That takes a brave man, much different than internet chat rooms!)

He mentioned that these athletes trained the muscles that were involved in throwing (like the Olympic style lifts) so much that it made the other muscles weak. Because of this type of training he indicated that all of his opponents had to undergo back operations. Al Oerter relied on the basics of moving weights with intensity. He worked up to very impressive lifts in the squat, bench , and deadlift. His coach believed that these movements would make him muscle bound but he did not believe it. He still does not believe in the supposedly sport specific movements as well as periodization etc... He continued to train after his last gold medal in 1968 and was still making record throws as late as 1982 at age 45 (not in competition). He believes in basic movements then get in the ring and perfect the discus technique. This is exactly what we are teaching.

As far as we are concerned the Oerter issue is over. He trained his own way, not ours, or HIT's, or Stalin's. It just so happens that some of his methods are like our own.

One point that has always bothered me a bit about "anti Olympic lift activist" (pardon the term) is that they are quick to give examples of team/athletes who are non using Olympic or ballistic lifts yet refuse to acknowledge the vast majority of the teams/players who use these lifts. They are allowed to brag that XYZ team doesn't use Olympic lifts but when we retort that there are more teams who use them we are told that the performance of the athletes has nothing to do with the Olympic and ballistic lifts.

The fact remains that the number of elite athletes using the Olympic lifts and other ballistic/explosive lifts outnumber the number of elite athletes not doing them so much that non explosive lifts athletes are a non-significant minority.

Now, I'll be the first one to admit that this doesn't prove the superiority of the Olympic and explosive lifts. But if you are going to cite which teams do not use Olympic lifts and use that list to convince peoples of the well-founded of your beliefs aren't we allowed the same? Would you care to compare both lists?

Again we are fully aware that our philosophy is in the great minority but I guess we just assumed that everyone knew this. In fact, we spoke at a couple clinics the past years and coaches just thought it was common knowledge that everyone did power cleans. They are shocked that we do not. What really irritates me is that when we ask the question to high school coaches: "Why do you have your athletes do power cleans and other Olympic type of movements?" They will respond in one two ways.

The Olympic lifts do not carry a greater risk of injuries than other lifts if they are performed properly. That's why with the athletes I train I use the simpler Olympic lift variations (power snatch from the hang, power clean from the hang, push jerk). These can be learned safely and rapidly.

In fact over the past 3 years I have taught these lifts to over 250-300 athletes and we did not have a single injury that necessitated missing a day of practice or training. On the other hand I have witnessed several athletes getting injured during practice or long distance running. I have taught the lifts to a wide variety of athletes, ranging from figure skaters to football players, hockey players, boxers, judokas etc. And of all ages. Not a single injury during 3 years! Although I do realize that it only take one bad injury to make a bad name with athletes, this example should illustrate that when a coach knows how to teach the Olympic lifts and how to guide the athlete there is no greater risk than doing a squat or a bench press.

I wish you all the best,

Christian Thibaudeau

Your are very fortunate not to have any injuries in the athletes you have trained. We agree that the better one's technique is in the Olympic lifts the less chance of injury. Not having injuries indicates that you do know how to teach these lifts and I commend you for that. (However, the long term safety of their lower backs may be in question as discussed in previous articles.)

Now I will disagree with you that these lifts can be taught rapidly. Olympic lifters spend years trying to master the lifts and perfect their technique. They should because it is their sport. All athletes want to perfect the skills in their sport. Spending a career perfecting ones technique is not rapid.

But again you have to understand that we primarily work with high school athletes. Right now, we are training 150+ athletes and we have 2 coaches supervising these athletes in their training. This is a common thing unfortunately in high schools. It’s even worse in the winter having only one supervisor. We do have a lot of equipment which enables us to train up 68 athletes at a time while the other group is doing conditioning with other coaches.

For us to implement any type of Olympic movements would be unsafe for our athletes. Because of our strong belief in our philosophy we would not implement these lifts even in a 1 on 1 situation. But if we did, these lifts are highly technical and do require good coaching. It is enough for us to teach these athletes the importance of reaching muscular fatigue in their exercise. I’m sure you would agree. It is much safer for us to use slow controlled movements because you can use spotters and set safety bars in the racks for the athletes who do not spot as well.

Lastly I have to say that I disagree with you stating that there is no greater risk than doing the squat and bench press. Many Olympic lifting advocates fall back on this statement in an attempt to convince people that the Olympic lifts are safer. I do understand that all lifts have a certain amount of risk whether it be the power clean or bench press.

What makes the bench and squat safer is the proper use of spotters which we coach constantly and the use of safety bars in the power rack. Also by not allowing momentum in any lift, we are minimizing injury. I still feel that the momentum created in the power clean puts unnecessary stress on the back, neck, wrists, and forearms and other areas. We had a potential shot putter a couple of years ago who did cleans behind our back in another gym and injured his wrists which prevented him from competing in the sectional and state competition.

The bar will NEVER crush an athlete's chest in the bench if you spot correctly and set the safety bars in place. Same with the squat. Our athletes do an excellent job staying close with the athlete and even if they cannot help them at the end (which is rare) they