Rarely have we come across a subject as thorny in sport as the application of Olympic weightlifting (OL) training to other sports. In light of the rise in popularity of OL among fitness enthusiasts in the past few years, and the mixed positions of various coaches on the issue, I thought I’d pen this post having thought about it for quite a while now. Here’s what sums OL for me: most sports aren’t good for weightlifting, but weightlifting is good for most sports!
OL as a transferable motor-skill
If a soccer coach looks at OL as simply lifting something heavy off the ground and pushing it overhead, they’d be correct in asserting that OL has no specificity as it relates to the game. On the other hand, if a coach views OL as a complex motor-skill, or the execution of a co-ordinated movement pattern that maximally recruits motor-units explosively, then it is easier to accept OL as a training tool in soccer. This is because soccer is a game of skill, and explosiveness is essential to the locomotor demands of match play and outcomes (as I’ll show below). In this context, OL is the training modality that demonstrates, by far, the highest rates of explosiveness among others including jump squats and counter-movement jumps (Mackenzie et al. 2014).
In terms of motor-skill development, a study by Chaouachi et al. (2014) demonstrated OL as a superior training modality than plyometrics or resistance training for a range of locomotor and skill performance measures. The conclusion is that correctly coached OL training elicited transferable training effects to jumping, sprinting, balance and power. What young soccer player wouldn’t want to improve these skills?
Studies like these strengthen the argument in favour of multi-lateral development in which OL can contribute, that we wrote about here. OL is about skill acquisition!
Specificity of soccer training and application of OL
As advocates of soccer-specific training, we wrote a couple of years back that the most specific way to train for soccer is to play the game in any format 1 v 1 up to 11 v 11 depending on the technico-tactical and/or physical performance quality that needs work. Small-sided games (SSG’s) are the obvious way to target physical performance qualities in a tactical context. SSG’s and on-field training should be the dominant training mode throughout the week! However, at one point it becomes difficult to progressively overload physical performance through SSG’s alone, especially as it relates to sprinting, change of direction, (COD), agility, and jumping. Chiu et al. (2005) have demonstrated that OL training significantly enhances these qualities to a greater extent that other modalities. So OL can support the training process by developing the locomotor qualities required to play the game.
The tactical analysis of goal-scoring situations in German professional footballers by Faude et al. (2012) tells us that 83% of goals are preceded by an explosive action including straight-line sprints (45%), jumps (16%), rotations and COD sprints (6%). Each of these actions in the goal-scoring situation occurred without the ball. So explosive muscular actions are essential to the most important moment in soccer: goal-scoring! While this doesn’t mean that players need to hit the gym 4-5 times per week, it does speak to the importance of explosiveness as essential to soccer performance.
OL & injury prevention
In terms of health and injury prevention, we have been strong advocates for strength training in children as you can read about here. Hamill (1994) showed that rates of injury occurrence in OL were lower than in contact sports including soccer. Byrd et al. (2003) recorded no injuries, and no loss of training days over a period of two years in adolescent competitive weightlifters in the USA. There are probably many reasons that this comes down to including acquired motor-skills through OL training, good coaching, positive anthropometric adaptations associated with OL training, and limited training and competition exposure. Any soccer player that adds OL twice per week to their training schedule might enjoy these benefits also, and see a more robust athlete at the other end.
Why not just squat?
To which we say, why not do OL and squat? We love squats for soccer, like we mentioned here. Squats are great for strength development, and if implemented correctly for lactate tolerance training that may assist in the 2 v 2 to 4 v 4 training paradigm where lactate tolerance is needed. The limitation though, is that the squat is a fairly simple motor task with limited motor-skill transferability, whereas OL lifts are a more complex motor task, and gives the athlete both strength and power in the one lift. Why not aim for more bang for your buck? (The exception to this is the beginner to resistance training who will do well with squats in terms of both improved strength and power). The other problem with squats is that eventually through progressive overload, the barbell gets heavier and the movement becomes quite slow in the concentric phase of ankle, knee and hip extension. This is a training adaptation that needs to be avoided, because the soccer player needs explosiveness at all times. OL training emphasize explosive lower limb extension in every lift which is where the advantage lies in its application.
Some bad arguments against OL
Some coaches have never picked up a barbell in their life and don’t believe in serious strength training, so this post just isn’t for them. Their athletes usually don’t achieve their physical performance potential, and often times their athletes are injured. Some coaches just say that OL isn’t specific to their sport. This is usually where the challenge for an S&C coach lies, because learning a new skill takes time and it can seem like OL becomes time not well invested. But I don’t get these arguments for a couple of reasons: 1) specificity becomes defined in such narrow terms that all strength & conditioning essentially mimics the sport, and when you look closely there’s really no quality S&C work going on 2) if S&C is about supporting the training process to develop the qualities of speed, strength & power, then OL really has to be something the coach tests and tries. Does a coach have to OL? No. And we’re fine with that! But some coaches prefer to do stuff they’ve always done just because … and that really sucks! Some others have a particularly philosophy of athletic development that works for them. That’s fine on one level. But avoiding the subject, or arguing behind a position having never tried OL is weak and is a questionable philosophy of athletic development.
Where to start with OL in soccer?
Start early if possible, around 12-13 years of age with a certified coach. In this context, your young soccer player is still in the phase of not specialising in one particular sport and this is a great opportunity to pick up a new skill. For academy and senior players, start in the off-season a couple of times per week and try maintain throughout the season with a couple of S&C sessions per week. Always work with a certified coach! For power, rate of force development and explosiveness, go for the hip power snatch, hang power snatch, and power clean.