By Carl Valle
This second part of a three-part review covers more information about the clean, jerk, and snatch lifts based on a series of discussions I had with one of the finest strength and conditioning coaches in the U.S., Al Vermeil. This article is not an interview, but it presents what we discussed on a series of phone calls. If you read the first article in its entirety, you can skip the background passages below and get right to the new stuff. If you did not read the first article, you can benefit by reading this part (but we recommend that you start with the first article).
A great thing about debates is that they fuel good scientific research in the future and lead to intelligent commentary from past greats. Recently, a few arguments about weightlifting have made the rounds on social media again, with the same weak rhetoric, but a different tune. One coach was watching the arguments behind the scenes: the highly respected Al Vermeil.
Coach Vermeil is a legend in the profession and pulls no punches when it comes to strength and conditioning. While long retired, Coach Vermeil keeps up with the scientific studies every month and his coaching experience influences his decision-making. Due to the character limit of most social media platforms, Al Vermeil and I decided to address those Twitter and Instagram debates.
I had a few phone calls with Coach Vermeil to get his balanced view on training. The calls were nothing extraordinary—just conversations and questions about training—and he shared valid points supporting the exercises in a modern performance world. This article and the next that follow are summaries of our conversations and include his own words periodically.
While this is an article series on the exercises (clean and jerk, snatch, etc.), it’s also a philosophy of getting back to the essentials and doing things right. This is a long article series, but the information is deep and worth reading a few times over. The juxtaposition between old-school training and cutting-edge science is, frankly, some of the best information I have picked up in years, and I am sure you will benefit as well.
For those who are young, from other countries, or not informed on the history of strength and conditioning, Al Vermeil is a legend in coaching. He is the only coach I know of who has won in the NFL and the NBA and is in the Hall of Fame for strength and conditioning. Due to the fact he still reads research in his 70s and his vast experience ranges from high school to the professional ranks, he is an important part of the field and should be recognized. Coach Vermeil does his homework and brings in countless specialists and experts to learn from. I can’t say enough good things about his generosity and sincerity and hope you enjoy this set of three blogs.
Is the Catch a Waste of Time or Does It Still Have Value?
I love the debate on eccentric forces during a catch or whether receiving the bar has value or not. In fact, the term “catch” is strange because you always make general contact with the bar, so it’s more about racking the load. A few studies pointed out that the eccentric portion of the clean lift wasn’t super-exciting, and an intriguing investigation of short-term adaptations with catching has also poked a hole in the idea of the catch having great value over time.
We should discuss all lifts though, not just the clean, as you technically need to talk about the snatch and jerk exercises as well. Based on a few articles over the years, especially in 2018, it would be fair to conclude that the catch may be on life support. But is it? Let’s bring up the hard discussion points early so we can get the bottom of this debate.
- The force and time data don’t support the clean catch.
- Short-term training shows no major transfer to common performance tests.
- EMG studies of athletes don’t demonstrate a clear value yet.
New research from Paul Comfort is excellent, but it won’t tell us everything. A 10-week study will share 10 weeks, not 10 months or 10 years. I completely agree with the study’s design and conclusions, but we can’t extrapolate an acute study that only uses force analysis and one short training study as conclusive evidence. The information certainly leads me to agree that catching isn’t everything or even magical, but it’s hardly nothing. These two studies from Comfort and his colleagues were interesting, but we need to slow down before we start making changes. Let’s step back and see how much will alter what we do today.
The biggest blemish on strength training philosophy is the absence of a middle ground. In a group setting of more than a dozen athletes, do we ever see a full range of exercises and variations across the board? What I mean is if everyone is so interested in individualized training, why don’t we see more mixed environments of catching, pull derivatives, and alternative exercises rather than an all-or-none approach? Is catching the clean a binary decision with everyone?While the catch isn’t everything, or even magical, it’s hardly nothing, says @SpikesOnly. Click To Tweet
I believe we are too tribal with exercises, and coaches find individual programming too cumbersome. I don’t fault the strength and conditioning software companies, but they need to show us a way to program even faster.
The research does demonstrate that a power clean catch has less peak eccentric force due to the bar being caught or intercepted earlier. Depending on the technique, an athlete is likely to have very little bar freefall with catching. You don’t need a force plate to see that the more advanced the athlete, the lower they catch the bar and they catch it with less speed on the way down. Even athletes with different techniques tend to catch high and drop with enough time to decelerate it rather slowly compared to eccentric contractions of rebound jumps.
Score one for the “pulls only” crowd? Not really, as the studies should have included a video overlay. My biggest gripe with force and barbell displacement charts is that they should use a strobe effect from video analysis software. The motor skill value was something I thought was nice to have, but Al Vermeil reinforced the notion that bracing dynamically in an athletic position matters. He goes into detail here:
“With Olympic lifting you not only get triple extension, but you get triple flexion with the catch. The position you catch the bar in is very similar to basketball after shooting or rebounding. The catch position is the same position that you must be in to receive a blow or deliver a blow in impact sports like football. The other benefit of catching the bar is it’s a great leader for plyometrics. Because the position you land in in many jumps is like the catch, the body must brace and tighten up. Don Chu, the outstanding jump coach and plyometric expert, has a test he calls the ‘Drop and Freeze’ test. The athlete steps off a box at a prescribed height. The athlete must overcome downward movement by using eccentric and isometric contractions to stop the body from buckling and maintain the proper position.The position you catch the bar in is very similar to basketball after shooting or rebounding… (and) to receive a blow or deliver a blow in impact sports like football, says Al Vermeil. Click To Tweet
If the athlete cannot do this off the prescribed height, they are not ready for high-level plyometrics. By eliminating the catch (with a high rack position), you have omitted this training adaptation that is a prerequisite to the above-mentioned test and plyometric training. The late Mel Siff stated the same thing in his book, ‘Supertraining.’ In many sports, the arms are extended beyond the head—we see examples in basketball when rebounding and in the paint when putting the ball up on the glass or in the basket. In football, we see it trying to intercept a pass or catch a pass.”
Force plates are important instruments, but they still require interpretation. The bar decelerating after a pull, especially a high pull, will likely have more momentum coming down. I don’t like the way that looks kinematically for athletic development, though. You can fall off a roof on your back and see a kinetic spike in forces, but how does that make you better?
The most honest way to look at catching is that while it may not be superior to other forms of eccentric training, including derivatives on paper, it’s more than a single number or set of metrics on a force plate. Catching the clean and bracing for the jerk are pulses of contraction and they add up over time. Does the catch transfer to the field with running or cutting? I don’t know, but it will help you prepare to brace for impact quickly.
Catching keeps you sharp and when the early part of the lift is coached well, it falls into place. While the load dissipates like a wave crashing against a sea wall, it’s a great position and the forces are mechanically sound and valuable. As mentioned, the first real attempt to study catching and whether it creates a sports performance effect was posted last year. The second article from Paul Comfort is often used as a junkyard dog against catching and it’s too far-fetched in my eyes to close the argument. I just don’t think Comfort’s 10-week study with football is long enough, but was surprised to see differences in sprint velocity between the pulling-only and catch groups.
So does this mean that we should absolutely dump the catch like Bob Alejo has recommended? Of course not. What it does mean is that if you think you are getting a great eccentric benefit, then catching is not the solution to the problem. Frankly, when an athlete has an absorption issue with load, specifically fears with tearing ACLs, most coaches teach landings down from a box rather than catching a clean. My philosophy is the catch is something you don’t throw away, but it’s not something you ever force or fight for.
Still, if you work with athletes, catching should be seen as a reflex, not a skill. A coach worth their salt shouldn’t feel that teaching an athlete to catch a bar is a big deal. Really good coaches barely work on it, if at all. If the athlete is anatomically not a good candidate, then it makes sense to drop it all together, both literally and figuratively.
Here is our point with eccentric loading, bracing, and catching. Recently, a young athlete with grit was posted on social media, looking a little shaky with his power clean technique. Videos like this make the entire profession look bad, not just the exercise. Why bother testing absolute extremes and not just use the breadth of data during the season and focus on a little more velocity?Dropping a weight is still a skill and how it’s dropped and let go matters, says @SpikesOnly. Click To Tweet
Now comes the catching and injury side of the argument. I have never seen an injury from catching a clean, but when I shared a training facility with other coaches, I did see more injuries from pulling heavy. Dropping a weight is still a skill and how it’s dropped and let go matters. Just as those who claim catching is a big deal, letting the bar go properly should have some attention paid to it. I am not against pulls—I promote them and use them, and I am agnostic to exercises for the most part. A proficient coach who brags about never having an injury with derivatives that are pull-only will likely have a very similar counterpart: a coach claiming the same thing with catching.
If an athlete can’t catch because of a problem, then just make the adjustment to the individual, not a blanket change with everyone. Strength training is a mature endeavor, but we are still playful creatures and enjoy activities that challenge us, including a game of catch. Many athletes like catching and they take the lifts seriously. When you see athletes do amazing things in games, like diving catches or other feats with a ball, it’s sad that coaches complain about teaching the catch when to me it’s nearly reflexive. I think I have spent two hours teaching the catch or rack in 20 years of working with the movement, and I haven’t had the need to catch in a decade. Talking about the other lifts outside of the clean could make this article another few pages longer, but it’s weird to think of people not catching jerks and snatches!
Do any teaching benefits exist with catching? I have found that some athletes respond better to pulling when they know they just need to get the bar up, while others really respond to catching because it keeps the process honest. We have done electromyography assessments, force analysis, barbell path and speed evaluation, and even motor skill tracking and found that it’s a three-way split. Some athletes are fluid in anything, some need to catch, and some should just dump it like Coach Alejo does with his athletes.
I have made sure to include room for catch-friendly activities such as box jumps with active hands, as the rhythm is very similar in higher jumps, but I don’t sweat it if things don’t work out. Catching is natural and sometimes rewarding, and the small benefits are enriching. Think about kinematics and neurological adaptations beyond kinetic forces eccentrically and focus on isometric bracing quickly.
Optimized Load: A Precious Workhorse or Just a Unicorn?
Weightlifting has always been about single reps or a few reps, but there is a rise in exercises that are similar in movement and radically different with regard to load. The cause of this phenomena is simple—teaching the athlete to be explosive and technically proficient with a universal lift is too revealing. Since many athletes have access to bumper plates and racks now, coaches who are not proficient in teaching the lifts don’t like the concept of heavy loads. Some coaches want a drastically lighter load with insignificant velocity increases to stay out of the comparison limelight. This has to stop.
In addition to speed, coaches are pursuing reactive agility or other very theoretical concepts. Sandbag cleans, log presses, and water-filled tools are difficult for athletes at first, but it’s more about being awkward than necessarily enhancing performance. Those methods may have their time and place, but they are different, not better just because the EMG readings, are favorable. It’s a bad idea and it’s creating a generation of kids who think they are cleaning and snatching because they are “fast” with glorified broomsticks. What they are really doing is just “Air Guitar Hero” strength and power training. Optimal loads need to be heavy and progress to heavier, as the weight lifts are not truly ballistic. Coaches can’t use science-like arguments to escape from the accountability of getting athletes more explosive with heavy loads.When you train the #Olympiclifts, you want to go fast and then incrementally heavier. That’s it, says @SpikesOnly. Click To Tweet
When you train the Olympic lifts, you want to go fast and then incrementally heavier. That’s it. Higher repetition complexes and other choreographed routines are great for warm-ups and maybe an advanced athlete, but singles or doubles are the cornerstone to getting more explosive. An optimal load is just the best weight or demand for the exercise you are doing now, not a lift that expresses only the highest wattage.
Recently, the pursuit of finding a happy medium between a very fast but light load and a slow but heavy exercise has become popular in the community. Sled sprints, jumping exercises, and even, yes, weightlifting. I don’t hate any pursuit of what could be better, but progressive overload always seems to be forgotten with resistance training. One example is a bench press optimal load study in soccer—I am not saying it isn’t necessary, but I would rather see more effort on a lower body study. My biggest gripe is that many coaches use the term “optimal” as an excuse to stop pursuing more strength, and just go lighter and claim they focus on the velocity end of the spectrum. Maybe they do, but I need to see numbers or a good video.
Peak or maximum power with weightlifting exercises (clean, jerk, snatch) all appear to favor loads near one’s maximal training, especially when they are more skilled and established with a motor program. An explosive jump has a simple release, while pulling exercises that are near ballistic tend to have temporal constraints that keep the speed of the lift rather uniform. In other words, they maintain the same timing and rhythm, so stronger and more powerful athletes need to load heavier.
It sounds primitive and biased, but the differences in lower percentages of 1-repetition maxes are not truly optimal, mainly because they are movement-constrained. Any research focused on a singular value is not an excuse to chase one number like it’s the holy grail or fountain of youth, but those studies are helpful for coaches to better understand how load, velocity, technique, and sport may benefit specifically. I would rather do more sets than reps, and this is why Olympic lifting takes longer to groove: you simply can’t do 6-8 reps in a row and get the same feel.
The main difference in the assumption that an optimal load is an optimal stimulus is that it’s comparing a single exercise response with an athlete in a vacuum. Any isolated variable may be a good decision in a research study, but it’s unlikely that even a time-hungry program will still do one exercise even in-season. Even if the strength training is simple and low-volume, you need to consider the other variables, including rest rhythms and density.
A deeper look at bar path and how pulling and catching technique interacts with the way a load is expressed and even transferred into sports performance will be outlined later, but it’s vital to know that RFD (rate of force development) may not be a fair comparison with entire portions of the lift. Thus, we need a big picture analysis. Some research on RFD and the early pulling phase has been investigated in the past, but not much is available now. It is currently fair to argue that the research comparing power exercises (jumping, cleaning, and loaded jump squats) does point to cleans having an advantage with RFD at key positions.
We can learn about optimal load from the research on how different qualities create an optimized balance of competing qualities. There are a few great research studies on concurrent endurance and power training, as the combination of the two distinct modalities creates various responses depending on the training program. The lesson is that there is a big difference in optimizing for a number acutely and optimizing for an outcome or response later.
A similar but less-pronounced response in training comes from the composition of the same mode of training, as the concept of the optimal load and outcome is misleading to those that do more than one intervention. In isolation, a modality can show favorable changes to any population if that’s all that is going on in training. The stark reality is that nearly all training programs are a composition of similar modalities, so one optimal session is going to mix with other protocols of training.There is a big difference in optimizing for a number acutely and optimizing for an outcome or response later, says @SpikesOnly. Click To Tweet
The clean and jerk, along with the snatch, have near optimal loads and optimal speeds at heavy loads. However, they are not similar to loaded jumps, even heavy ones. A few coaches noted that, with jumps, force-velocity profiling can calculate a specific load that will likely improve performance with vertical jumps. The same method has not been established for horizontal jumps and maximal loads are what the weight lifts are designed to manage. Therefore, optimal loads will likely be less effective as more non-optimized loads are added to a program. Simply put, more modalities or variables will likely dilute the optimized loading, as several training techniques previously researched or new ones that are “in the mix” are polarized or maximized options. A few researchers are seeing benefits from adding optimized loads, but their research interventions don’t seem to replicate what a lot of modern and progressive coaches are doing when integrated into actual team environments.
We agree that some athletes are likely to respond well to optimized loads in other forms of exercise from time to time. Since elite team sport athletes, especially in soccer and basketball, are skilled, they just need more “supportive” programs than maximal development. Therefore, a good program can deliver an improvement to basic power expressions like jump testing, but does it help with performance such as agility? More importantly to the specific discussion of weightlifting, where are the optimal loads when most of the training is confined to a very narrow upper limit with load and speed? We go further into this discussion with part three of this article series, but instead of thinking how an optimal load works in a training program, thing about having an optimal program instead of one great ingredient.