By Carl Valle
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 in articles.
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 two that follow it are summaries of our conversations and include his own words periodically.
While this article series is on the exercises (e.g., 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 of 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 USA Strength and Conditioning Hall of Fame. 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.
Clever Arguments, Modern Problems, and Brutal Answers
I addressed previous debates over Olympic lifting in the past, specifically the issues with coaches who complain about not having the time to train or teach the lifts. Often, I agree with those circumstances, but only when I know the issues are dire and the situation is truly difficult. Most of the time, however, they are just excuses.
Every coach has the right to train the way they need as it’s their program, but their methods (new or old) can’t be seen as superior to those who decide to stay conventional. Some other fair but sometimes overblown arguments against Olympic lifting are that it is only one option and other methods do have value in improving athletic performance. This is not an “Olympic lifting is the path to greatness” article, but more of an example of coaches finding new ways to take a narrative the wrong way instead of evolving the craft of strength and conditioning.
This article covers the following points regarding Olympic lifting and general power development.
- Why movement alternatives are different exercises, not replacements.
- Why you should still catch the bar if you can, regardless of a few studies.
- Why going heavy and hard works best, and not to worry about recovery.
- Why you should respect the force-velocity spectrum, but not fear it.
- Why bar path matters for all athletes and lifts more than ever.
These are common questions, starting with the very fair discussion about other exercises first. Later, we get into the weeds, with straightforward debates on catching the clean, proper loading of the exercises, options with derivatives, and athlete differences with bar path. It’s a lot of information, so it’s one of SimpliFaster’s few “giant-sized” articles.
A key, and unfortunate, inspiration for this article is the increased usage of sport science and the increasing role responsibilities of a modern strength and conditioning coach. We are seeing smarter young coaches with less of an ability to coach athletes. I don’t fault anyone—it’s just what happens when a weight coach turns into a performance coach and has to do everything. Something’s got to give.
Young coaches may pass a practical on the lifting technique to be certified, but typically development barely changes as follow-up education usually maintains competence and no certification can demand actual coaching improvement. As long as the coach is not challenged to refine their craft with technique, they will climb the ranks based on more attractive areas like program design and periodization.The ability to teach lifts is essential, and coaches should be able to teach all exercises correctly and demonstrate them properly. Coaches should coach what they know and learn what they don’t, says Al Vermeil. Click To Tweet
At multiple times during my phone calls with Al Vermeil, he was adamant that the ability to teach the lifts is essential. For that matter, coaches should also be able to teach all the exercises correctly and demonstrate them properly. He made the point that coaches should coach what they know and learn what they don’t know. I see a lot of coaches making excuses for what they can’t do, instead of learning from other coaches. It is fair to ask whether, as a profession, we are better teachers of exercise and movement today than 20 years ago. I don’t think so.
I am a fan of sport science and look up to many experts and researchers. The issue today is that a research project often looks good on paper, but fails to deliver as effectively when implemented in the real world. Sometimes science corrects itself later, leading some coaches to give up on listening to the research and just trust their own observations. Additionally, good training is sometimes just a product of hard work, belief, and talented athletes—not the coach, the training program, or even the science behind it.
Another problem with sport science isn’t really the research, but that the practice requires coaches to actually be proficient in the lifts, not just read about them. If you are a competitor in Olympic weightlifting and choose not to use the exercises, I respect that, but many coaches can’t do the lifts themselves, thus biasing the process of teaching future athletes. Over and over again, Coach Vermeil mentioned the importance of training yourself, so you understand the value of what goes on firsthand.
If you love or hate the Olympic lifts and need a rationale to back up what you feel is working, this article will support the needs of both sides of the common debates. If you want to get back to classic concepts and refresh your program with a renaissance in training, this article covers those points too. Instead of going into the lazy “it depends” answer, let’s cut to the chase and dive right in.
Is Jumping with Loads a Replacement or a Dead-End?
The first Olympic lifting topic is more about its actual inclusion than best ways to teach or train the movements. Coaches who don’t like “Olympic-style” weightlifting usually bring up loaded jumps as a replacement. Those coaches usually include the point that if an athlete can squat, then jumping with a load is a great power exercise alternative. An athlete jumping with a barbell on their back or in their hands is not the same as cleaning, snatching, or jerking! Yes, some similarities exist in practice and in the research. General training effects can even be seen when comparing straight barbell squats and the weight lifts.If you want to develop posterior and upper back thickness, then cleaning more than your body weight does far more than jumping with a barbell, says @spikesonly. #olympiclifts Click To Tweet
When a coach brings up that they do medicine ball throws and jump squats instead of Olympic lifting as evidence of wisdom, I shake my head because it’s not the same. While you can develop leg power in different ways, the exercises are different, and those details deserve a full discussion. As I mentioned earlier, if you want to develop posterior and upper back thickness, then cleaning more than your body weight does far more than jumping with a barbell. I am a huge fan of medicine ball throws, but they are for teaching rather than raising the platform of strength and power.
A mixed program of sprinting and weightlifting, along with sport practice, does call into question the value of a single exercise, but when making choices, an athlete using heavy loads is not a better road to Rome.
- Can a loaded jump replace power development from jerking, cleaning, and snatching?
- How light or heavy should loaded jumps be to deliver the best results?
- Do hex bars develop better power than conventional bars if loaded jumps are better?
- What about fast band squatting to address theoretical mean propulsive velocity?
Coaches who want to develop power with weight training instead of snatching, cleaning, and jerking will eventually ask these four questions, so I brought up these points. To make this argument useful and relevant, it’s only fair to compare similar loads, otherwise it’s comparing apples to oranges.
A simple summary of the debate is this: If a coach wants to help with overall athletic power from heavy loads, should they have athletes jump with a bar or pull it up explosively?
If the jump load is light, the exercise is more of a plyometric activity than a weight training exercise if they bounce up and down with it. This is a fine point, but then we need to talk about plyometrics versus weight training if we want to go down that path and not compare weightlifting exercises to Olympic weightlifting exercises. Second, we must look at training effects over a very long time, not just look at correlations to performance and make an assumption, as interventions and causation are far superior to short observational studies.A simple summary is this: If coaches want to help with overall athletic power from heavy loads, should they have athletes jump with a bar or pull it up explosively? Says @Spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Another common, bad interpretation of research is to pick a variable or number of choice and assume that the difference matters. For example, if you want to help a new athlete improve performance, a vertical jump without load has higher power numbers on a force plate than a barbell squat. However, doing a few sets of box jumps versus heavy lifting will not be anywhere as successful down the road. As you can see, wondering if jump squats are better than weightlifting exercises isn’t a simple comparison.
A focus on training over time will address the decades-old debate, even if there isn’t much supportive research. It appears that the promise of conventional barbell jump squats in the lab leads coaches to solve the practical limitations and go with a hexagonal barbell for speed. Some coaches prefer athletes to squat lighter, but with more attempts to speed up the barbell. Both strategies have merits, but there are also limitations to those two trains of thought.
Let’s start with the three modalities that come up as replacements to Olympic lifts, mainly the power clean. They are hex bar jumps with light loads, heavy loaded jump squats, and speed or dynamic squatting.
Light Hex Bar Jumps
The use of conventional jump squats with a flat barbell seems to be fading, with weighted vests and hexagonal bars gaining momentum in the training world. The trap bar jump, or hexagonal bar jump, is popular for good reason: it is easy to teach and seems to have benefits over many other options. One coach argued that the peak power of loaded jumps made them better than Olympic-style weight lifts. I don’t like jump squatting with loads that are intermediate to heavy, as an athlete will likely get maximal force benefits from squatting and speed benefits from plyometrics and even sprinting. The snatch and clean is special because of its volume without baggage, and jumps tend to be knee-dominant and tough on the anterior connective tissues.
Video 1. Lifting lighter loads with a hexagonal bar or similar is a different beast than a straight bar and heavy loads. Maximal recruitment and rapid alternations of relaxation and contractions are unique to each exercise.
If you are going to jump as an exercise, perform bounds, hops, and other jumps without load or with a very light load. Jump squats with light loads are great for tapering, but they are hard to progressively overload and hard to prescribe as a main exercise over a year. Most studies fall in the 6- to 12-week period of time, not 6-12 months. Some authors have noted that light hex bar jumps provide a large measure of peak power, but training with that “ideal” range isn’t always the best way to develop maximal power for sport. Power numbers have always been cherry-picked by coaches to promote the clean in sport, and I was writing about it nearly 20 years ago. I still believe it’s important to train with power, but reductionist thinking occurs when we only see wattage.
I am sure most studies will find that swapping out one exercise for another for a short period of time will not result in a big difference in results. Like the unilateral study on the rugby athletes I pointed out in my single leg training article, a fraction of a percent of an athlete’s development life is too short to draw strong conclusions from. Also remember the concept of “what got the athlete there” in the first place is more important than a few weeks with the temporary use of an exercise. Many coaches can keep an athlete going without the exercises that built them in the first place, but it’s not wise to assume that a study lasting barely over a month is the same as developing an athlete over years.
Al Vermeil believes that single leg training isn’t a panacea. He wrote the following:
“With everybody doing single leg training, how come the injury rate seems to be higher? If you have a 100-kilo athlete and they can single leg squat 100 kilos, any other athlete can bilateral squat 200 kilos. The athlete that can squat 200 kilos will adapt much faster to the single leg training than the athlete who can single leg squat 100 kilos. If you put 200 kilos on the athlete who single leg squats only, he’ll end up looking at the bar from the floor. We did very little single leg training at the Chicago Bulls, but our injury rate to the lower extremities was low. Coaches must remember, just because someone comes from a foreign country with an accent and presents different training information doesn’t mean that’s what they did or really believe in. Coaches must be careful not to follow like sheep because they see something they don’t know or don’t do. Human bodies haven’t changed for 100 years—they’re just a little bigger and taller than they were. The methods that worked 30 years ago will work today.”With everybody doing #singlelegtraining, how come the injury rate seems to be higher? We did very little single leg training at the Chicago Bulls, but our injury rate to the lower extremities was low, says Al Vermeil. Click To Tweet
The neuromuscular system has an array of adaptations mentioned earlier and you should note that Coach Vermeil recommends single leg exercises such as hops. I think leg training is very context-specific and adding as much single leg training as necessary is wise, but overloading unilateral exercises too much could be problematic.
Heavy Loaded Jumps
A common line of thinking with coaches is that vertical jumping is a good assessment of leg power. Squatting and vertical jumping look similar, so adding load seems like a blend of the two. Since many athletes can barbell squat, jumping with a lighter load is a nice compromise where overload and velocity are added to something familiar. It sounds good on paper, but the speed isn’t fast enough to be exciting and overload doesn’t challenge the athlete on the other side of the force spectrum.
This study looking at heavy and light jump squats is particularly damaging to those that crave speed strength and strength speed. It showed that after training for two months, athletes who used 80% of their maximal squat didn’t get faster in short sprinting, while the lighter load group nearly left them in the dust. It should be noted that the agility test performance did improve with heavy jump squats, but the lighter option (30%) made strides there as well. Strangely, squatting at 85% potentiates unloaded jumps acutely, but we need to be cautious chasing potentiation when sometimes we just need to make athletes better in the long run. A study nearly 10 years later found no potentiation benefits at 80%, making me rethink how much impact heavy loads have on squatting fast in sports training.
Speed Squats or Accommodating Squatting
My issue with loaded jumps is that many coaches swap out Olympic lifts and bring up dynamic exercises such as band squats like it’s a perfect exchange. I am not experienced enough to know if we should be apprehensive of methods that change the natural rhythm, coordination, or pattern of acceleration with athletes if it’s detrimental to long-term performance, but Coach Vermeil is cautious with such approaches. He doesn’t see elite Olympic weightlifting using bands and chains as a way to improve their results.
Squatting with speed and jumping with a heavy load are different as well. Therefore, if a coach works with velocity during squats or using bands and chains, they are more likely developing power via the means of mechanical overload than reaping benefits from the neuromuscular adaptations of the weightlifting exercises. It’s a similar result, but again the first pull in the snatch or clean is lost, while accelerating the bar naturally is removed from the exercise.Squatting fast and power cleaning are not interchangeable when all of the characteristics are factored into the equation. You can lift similar loads with similar speeds, but the contraction is much different, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
If athletes jump with a heavy load or squat it fast, the exercises are different even if the loads are the same. The barbell tempo article covered why barbell tracking is more complex than concentric summaries of an exercise, but should have talked more about accommodating resistance. Coaches have looked at barbell velocity of the snatch or clean and tried to replicate the loads with speed squats or jump squats and it’s been ugly. I repeat, squatting fast and power cleaning are not interchangeable when all of the characteristics are factored into the equation. You can lift similar loads with similar speeds, but the contraction is much different. Don’t use speed zones, whether average or peak, as that is a tiny sliver of the activity during one part of the contraction phase, especially with bands and chains.
Jumping up and down is a loaded pattern that is different than #weightlifting, but because it’s similar enough, people simply swap them and hope that the result is the same, says @Spikesonly #Olympiclifting. Click To Tweet
A major difference when the barbell is stationary on a back versus traveling vertical from a clean or snatch is that total muscle contribution is far higher; thus, the body is more stimulated with motor units. Derek Hansen created an excellent chart on motor unit recruitment and exercise, and while it has some very small issues, the point of his infographic is right. Jumping up and down is a loaded pattern that is different than weightlifting, but because it’s similar enough, people simply swap them and hope that the result is the same.
All being equal, leg power may be the same with all the ingredients in programming, but the tradeoffs are not worth giving up on a lift that really isn’t that hard to teach. Everyone seems to demand more physical education from kids, but when a high school athlete comes in, the teaching professional seems to run scared. You can still lift with dynamic effort with squats, or use jumping with loads, but accept that they are different animals.