Intern Blog: The Argument for Olympic Lifting
This article was written by Ben Harris, a Garage Strength intern for Summer 2018. Ben is a rising Senior at Temple University, and is a candidate for a Bachelor's in Kinesiology with a concentration in Exercise and Sport Science.
When a general person walks into a gym and pays a personal trainer to improve their body, they often begin a workout with bench, squat, or deadlift. These three movements are the competition lifts used for Powerlifting, and they are beloved by coaches, bodybuilders, and trainers. This is not without good reason as they are compound movements. This means that they involve not just one muscle, but a group or chain of muscles to move the weight. This results in a greater stimulus to the nervous system which causes greater increases in size and strength.
At Garage Strength, we use these movements as well, but we do not revolve our training around them for general population. At the beginning of a typical leg workout and even some arm workouts, our clients can expect to grab an Olympic lifting bar and go to a platform. This is very unorthodox outside of athletes partially due to the fact that the Olympic movements are more difficult to teach. Why do we do this? Because the Olympic movements address more of a person’s health than powerlifting movements.
To give some background, I began strength training in 2010 when I was 13 years old, 110 pounds, and weak by all standards. From then until now, the majority of my training revolved around bench press and squat. Only after 6 years did it evolve to include deadlift beginning my powerlifting career at the start of college, and just a few months ago I began true Olympic lifting. The reason for this was the start of my strength and conditioning internship at Garage Strength. My first week at Garage Strength, I could not complete a complete a proper overhead squat with a PVC pipe. I could not even press a bar from my shoulders without bumping the back of my head.
To my powerlifting colleagues at Temple, my mobility was good because I consistently got below parallel on my squats, and I was considered strong because my bench, squat, and deadlift numbers are all above the majority of people my age. Compare this to Garage where my mobility was originally the worst in the gym, and my clean was on pace with a few of the high school freshman that we train. In a powerlifting environment I neglected aspects of my health and performance while thinking my progress was optimal. When I came to Garage I learned to address T-Spine, lat, hip, and shoulder mobility issues that I would have never addressed in my previous environment. I have gotten rid of chronic hip pain that had plagued me for nearly 2 years.
This example of myself is anecdotal and may not apply to mass population, but there is science backing my logic as well. When powerlifting, the goal is to move as much weight as possible through maximal force production. Weightlifting requires greater “power” meaning the goal is force in as little time as possible. For reference, Power = Force X Velocity. This is due to a weightlifter’s need to get the bar overhead. These physics variables might seem strange to bring up, but they actually apply to the health factors of the lifts.
When looking at moment arms, such as the length of the shoulder to the hip, we see a force advantage with a shorter length, and a speed advantage with a longer length. So, when we compare the deadlift to a snatch or clean, the length of this moment arm plays a great role in how and if the weight moves.
When a powerlifter is unable to move the weight, they may be able to shorten the moment arm to create more force to move the weight. This would be accomplished by rounding the back to decrease the distance from shoulder to hip. This results in poor posture, back problems, and could lead to kyphosis (rounded shoulders) later in life. We can see this in elite lifters such as Ben Pollack whose T-spine is visibly rounded from years of deadlifts and low bar squats using these mechanics. If an Olympic lifter exhibited this same spinal flexion, their speed velocity and power would suffer and they would not move the weight high enough to catch it properly. Due to this, Olympic lifting coaches correct these posture issues more often than powerlifting coaches.
With this said, my intention is not to attack powerlifters or their coaches. I am competing in powerlifting in 4 months and am still in love with the sport. I just believe that the general population should not limit themselves to practicing the powerlifts for their health, and that people can benefit greatly from the Olympic movements. The Olympic Lifting coach can be a practitioner to their athlete/client by addressing performance issues, and this is something the fitness and exercise science community could grow from by recognizing.