The debate is as old as the sentence, it seems. I have never understood why these two training styles seem to be mutually exclusive. Why do you have to select between them? It has long been accepted that Olympic lifting developed explosive power, and powerlifting develops absolute strength. Don’t most athletes demand both? Luckily the body has no Olympic or Powerlifting bias. It simply strives to become proficient in whatever the task at hand may be. The problem with trying to do both is that there are only so many training hours in the week. I believe training economy is one of the most important aspects of strength & conditioning for athletes. Even in the off season, athletes spend a substantial amount of time developing specific skills for their sport, or at least they should. At the high school level, they might even participate in multiple sports. So how do we decide which training style to follow? Let’s look at each, shall we?!
One of the main concerns strength coaches have with Olympic lifting is the complexity of the movements. And frankly that reflects some ignorance on their part. If you have seen any of Coach Dan John’s videos or seminars he breaks down the movements and can have you snatching and cleaning in a matter of hours or days. Despite having said that, I consider the Olympic lifts to be somewhat technical. Olympic lifts require a lot more attention to detail than the powerlifts do. Also there is a limiting factor to the loads you can use with the Olympic lifts. The clean is comprised roughly of a deadlift, hang clean and front squat. One of those 3 movements will hold back the other two. How explosive do you think an athlete could be if they limited their deadlift poundage to what they could handle in the front squat, or hang clean? A 500lb deadlifter that could only front squat 300lbs, would develop a hell of a lot of force pulling 300-350lbs for explosiveness. And that’s just IF they could clean 300lbs.
Also if you watch Olympic weightlifters closely, the initial pull is not explosive. The initial pull can’t be explosive because they are building up, and getting into position for the all important second pull. They are slowly stretching the rubber band, otherwise known as the hamstrings. The second pull is where the hip snap and jump occurs; these movements are basically the basis of most sports performance. This is the portion of the movement that Olympic lifting proponents attribute to building explosiveness for sports, and I do not disagree with them.
After reading this you are probably expecting me to say that powerlifting training is definitely the way to go for football. I hate to disappoint you, but since training should be fluid; the answer is yes and no. Powerlifting training allows you to use heavier loads, and develop absolute strength. I personally believe the development of absolute strength should be the basis of any strength and conditioning program for athletes. Strength is the platform that skill is built upon. However, there are significant limitations to powerlifting training as well. First of all they are all single plane movements. Take the deadlift, my favorite lift for training athletes and assessing their progress. It, and the squat, will build sheer strength and overall muscle mass like very few lifts. Yet they are single plane movement, done while holding your breath. And apart from occasionally sitting on the sideline hoping a game winning field goal is made, that’s not how we play sports.
So if neither of these training styles by themselves are optimum then what is the answer?! Well in my opinion there is a dark horse in this race. One that is finally starting to get some mainstream acceptance, though I am not sure if that’s a good thing. Mainstream acceptance usually means a bunch of young coaches bastardizing a perfectly legitimate strength training protocol. From my work with athletes the best hybrid between powerlifting and Olympic lifting is Strongman Training.
Strongman training has many benefits when compared to the other two classic disciplines. The most important of which is that you are taught to be strong in several planes. You learn to be strong while having to breathe. That is HUGE. I recall the first time I used a strongman yoke. I had recently squatted close to 800 lbs, and thought that carrying 600lbs. on my back for a distance would be relatively easy. It was a rude awakening. Balancing the weight while walking was difficult, but what really got me was I had to BREATHE. The moment I let out my initial breath, I started losing tightness, and the weight started to crush me. Learning to be strong while breathing is something that every athlete must do.
Another benefit of strongman training is a forgotten element sometimes. Attitude and aggression are things that should be encouraged during training. Making football players mentally tough should be a goal of any strength and conditioning program, as I addressed in my article about finishers. You have to realize that the amount of aggression that you can apply to a lift is inversely proportional to how technical a lift is. Which movement is more technical, a tire flip or a snatch? Even with a superior coach like Coach John, it takes some time to develop proficiency in a complex move like the snatch. Where as, as long as the tire is the proper weight, you can show a kid how to flip a tire and have them doing it in a matter of minutes. It’s much like teaching a kid to play an instrument. You can give them a drum, and right away they can beat the hell out of it. Give the same kid a French horn and see how they do. We all recognize that the less an athlete has to THINK the better, and that goes for the weight room as well as the field of play.
You also don’t take small jumps in strongman. A larger tire is probably a hundred more pounds at least. If you are doing a barbell exercise, a kid will always want to add weight, even if it’s only 5 lbs. They have to feed their ego. With strongman training they have to become more proficient at the same weight, work on moving it fast and developing more explosiveness. There is no way you could get kid to stand still for that if they had a barbell in their hands. And as far as barbells go, one more advantage of strongman training is that tires and sandbags don’t have handles…. neither do offensive/defensive linemen. Yes I recognize there grabbing them under the armpits will work for a handle, but it is “technically” illegal…wink, wink.
The last point I will make about strongman training is that most of it is done outside in the elements. This is also where the majority of sports are played as well. It is different, and fun. Most young athletes need the training to be fun for them to give their best effort. Not to mention that strongman training lends itself to a healthy competitive atmosphere.
So does that mean that I think that strongman is the end all and be of all strength and conditioning for sports? Not at all. I believe that the best strength programs will take something from all the disciplines. Powerlifting movements such as the squat and deadlift build sheer strength as well as packing on tons of muscle mass. Olympic lifts such as hang cleans, and muscle snatches are great for developing, hip snap, jumping ability, and overall explosiveness. Then there are crossover movements like front squats and push presses. Almost all athletes should do more of each. There is no reason to only use one style of training. There are things to draw from all three. Strongman training helps an athlete take their strength in the weight room to his chosen field of play. And performance on the field is what really matters.