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Which is better: Olympic or Power Lifting? The Answer is “Yes”…

May 23, 2012 02:30 PM

JeffoConnor article
Which is better for you? Well, are you an Olympic or Power Lifter?
What if the answer is "neither"? What if you’re one of the thousands of regular people, operators, or athletes that isn’t a platform athlete? You know that powerlifting stands alone in developing the ability to generate absolute strength.
You’re also aware that Olympic lifting develops power and explosiveness like nothing else. There are hardcore proponents of each that claim it is the best way to train for sports. Really? If so, why are the best lifters not the ones making millions in professional sports? Now that may ruffle some feathers, but it’s fact. "Mastering" any lift or style of lifting is its own sport. It takes complete focus on that particular skill. This focus develops the attributes necessary for that sport, to the detriment of others.
"But Jeff, Pavel told us that deadlifts make us stronger and being stronger makes us run faster and jump higher", you exclaim in disbelief. I agree wholeheartedly. I absolutely believe that you should be doing both deadlifts and cleans. But the way you do them is far more important than the weight you lift. Why would I, an admitted "strength guy", make such an outlandish statement? Because I’ve trained enough athletes for enough consecutive years to have to take responsibility for their movement. When you watch an athlete start moving with adaptations you cause it forces you to stop and think. When you do that, you should be proud. Early in my life as a trainer, I had to admit that I wasn’t always. Watching a kid’s stride change for the worse because of the way you train them should cause anyone to reconsider.
Please don’t take that to mean that the weight doesn’t matter. What it means is that it is preferable to develop and strengthen an efficient general movement pattern for carryover to sports. Playing soccer will make you a better basketball player. Mastering soccer will make you a better soccer player and a worse basketball player. Olympic and powerlifting are sports.
So why do so many strength coaches insist on trying to teach high level lifting sport skills to their field and court athletes? Or worse, implementing exercises without having a clue of how or why they should be done? Why are they so much more concerned with how much they squat and not how much they squat well? Mostly because they haven’t been put into a position to really think about it.
In different high school or college weight rooms you might witness different "styles" of power cleans. In the first you may see the dreaded U-Tube continental clean. The caption reads "Studly Buffwell power cleans 405!" But what you actually see is a 2 or 3 step continental clean complete with one knee in valgus collapse and spinal contortions that would make a circus performer jealous. The "coach" is calling him names for inspiration. All of this is entertaining, but has very little to do with "power". At least in the sense that it relates to performing on the field.
Enter the second weight room. In this one you see neatly laid out platforms with expensive bumper plates and bars. The coach watches attentively and gives terrific tips and cues. The athletes exhibit exceptionally good technique in their power cleans and squat snatches. Their coach is obviously well schooled in the Olympic lifts and the teaching of them. Depending on whether he is Old School or New School, the players demonstrate beautiful "second" pulls or "catapults". The board on the wall is full of record lifts. The trophy case remains empty because the basketball players mastered soccer.
A trip to a third might see players doing box squats with bands rather than cleans. The powerlifting coach doesn’t bother with cleans because nobody should ever lift weights overhead. There are lots of 500 lb squatters and 350 lb benchers. Unfortunately, their championship dreams are always derailed by shoulder, knee, or ankle injuries.
Now that I’ve alienated everyone from every school of lifting, let me admit that I’ve made all of those mistakes. I’ve made them with myself and with athletes I’ve trained. I’ve been sold on Olympic, Power, and odd (or strongman) lifting for athletes. After a lifetime of this stuff I am convinced that all have something to offer, and none are best. Best, that is, for training people to get stronger for anything other than strength sports.
This is why so many athletes receive such a "What the Hell" effect from the RKC School of Strength. It’s because we take the positives from both styles of platform sports and apply them in a system for generalists. The learning curve for a safe and effective "Hardstyle" kettlebell snatch is much shorter than an Olympic snatch. There is a broader development of physical attributes in the RKC system than any specific lifting sport. It doesn’t make Olympic or powerlifting "bad". The RKC system just has a greater carryover to more things related to sports and real life.
But, as Dan John, Rif, Geoff Neupert, Pavel, and others have pointed out… Barbells are good. They allow you to lift more weight. Unfortunately, the different barbell lifting schools are so fractured that they make boxing look unified. The process of learning how to lift them can be dangerous and ineffective. Wouldn’t it be great if someone could just develop an RKC for barbells? How great would it be if we could learn to safely and effectively deadlift, clean, and snatch with the same commonality of techniques that we learned at the RKC? What if all the sport specific confusion was taken away and we were left with safe and effective progressions to use and teach barbell lifts?
A couple of years ago, I was asked by our beloved Mark Toomey to develop a barbell course for a group of special operators. They both wanted and needed to safely and effectively perform basic power and Olympic lifts. Unfortunately, those lifts take most people quite a while to perform both safely and effectively. We had a weekend. There was not even the luxury of having a baseline of movement or lifting experience to build a course around. There needed to be a starting point with ever increasing skill levels that they could move to as they earned them. They didn’t have the luxury or desire to explore the intricacies and differences between the American and European styles of deadlifting. They needed to learn how to pick stuff up off of the ground and get stronger at it. There wasn’t time for developing elite skills for cleaning and snatching weights. But they needed to be able to train explosively with these lifts. Or at least the precursors to them: i.e. power cleans, snatches, and jerks.
Fortunately, I had spent a few years training young athletes in these same progressions. They had the same needs and challenges. They needed the benefits of both styles of lifting, but had limited time to get the benefits. The goal was to get stronger and more resistant to injury, not just lift more. Those of you that have been smart enough to invest in Power to the People Professional understand that there is a difference. Lifting more weight is an indicator of greater strength, but not a guarantee of it. The specific techniques of lifting sports play a role. The squat clean came about as a way of getting a heavier weight into the rack position. The split jerk became the way of getting that heavier weight overhead.
Once again, I’ve done lots or reps of each and have no bias against them. They both require the development of more physical attributes than the power clean or power jerk. But they don’t automatically develop more power. They also have a much steeper learning curve. The risk of injury isn’t worth the reward of. So, if the goal is more weight because it’s your sport, you must practice this. If the goal is more power for another sport, the Power Cleans and Jerks are safer.
Let me take this one step further. Nearly every one I’ve ever heard coach these lifts encourages the lifter to "jump" and/or "stomp their feet". Why? Because to split jerk or drop into a squat clean you must lighten and move your feet. But those are Olympic lifting sport moves and the countless numbers of high school and college athletes that are performing "power cleans" with a jump and stomp aren’t Olympic lifters. They’re football and basketball players. For some reason, every one I’ve ever seen taught to "jump" comes to their toes too early. This moves the load from the hip dominant to knee and ankle dominant. Because the glutes have checked out, and the focus has gone to the anterior chain, there is incomplete hip extension and lumbar hyperextension. The move is no longer powerful or athletic. Yet all the coaches have their athletes performing this lift for "power" and "development of the posterior chain". The lift isn’t bad, the coaching just isn’t as effective as it should be.
I prefer to start with a muscle clean and not allow the feet to move. This ensures complete hip extension and a good deadlift pattern. You can’t easily fake hip extension with a muscle clean like you can with a power or squat clean and moving feet. Eventually those things can be taught, however, they must be earned. Personally, I feel that the tension/relaxation relationship of the moving feet can be taught better with drills other than Olympic lifts. But for lifting more weight in a way that can’t be "faked" it’s hard to beat a muscle clean or a power jerk with stationary feet.
Anyhow, after being around long enough to realize that although there were excellent opportunities for learning to be a lifter, there wasn’t a good program to teach someone how to just "lift weights". So, I set about putting together a series of progressions with the barbell that was based on my RKC experience. The progressions are based off of becoming proficient at the most basic move and building off of that. I wanted to makes sure that the athletes I train got the benefits they were supposed to from the chosen exercises. Most importantly, that those techniques were transferrable to the field and not just the platform. You see, I don’t have complete control of the training schedule of every athlete I train. Very seldom are they performing the drills I would prefer them do when they’re at the school weight room. I might want them snatching kettlebells that day, but their coach doesn’t. His schedule is bench press and power clean. So my job is to teach them how to get the most out of whatever lift they’re performing. One thing I learned from Pavel years ago is that the skill of strength trumps program design. This is the system I was asked to share at the course for the previously mentioned Special Operators.
From this course, the RKC Barbell Course was born. Just like Hardstyle kettlebell lifting isn’t GS, the RKC Barbell Course isn’t Olympic or Power Lifting. Also, just like we don’t disparage GS as a sport, we’re not here to discourage people from participation in the platform sports. We’re not saying either is wrong. But, as with our generalist style of kettlebell training, we are saying that we’re right. Right as it applies to training people to perform well in other physical endeavors.
The purpose of this course is not to develop elite level lifters, but to teach safe and effective lifting technique that has the greatest carryover to the athletic requirements of the student. Olympic and power lifting are sports that each require special techniques and adaptations in order to be successful. Although those techniques and adaptations allow the lifting of heavier weights, they often have a less than desirable effect on a trainee who’s physical demands are different from those sports. There are many things that can be taken from each sport to improve physical performance. However, it is important to remember the desired training effect. The very things that allow elite powerlifters to squat tremendous weight stops them from running and jumping well. Therefore, the intent of this course is to take as many positives from the training modalities of each of these sports while avoiding non-desirable adaptations. You will note a commonality of body mechanics and exercise technique that not only shortens the learning curve, but reduces sport specific postural and structural adaptation. This tends to have a more positive effect on "general athleticism".
This should be considered the entry point of barbell training. It lays out the basic techniques that should be mastered before programming is a consideration. The skills that are developed in this course will be very safe and effective for athletes that wish to utilize programs like Power to the People and Easy Strength.
The learning progressions are designed to be effective for an individual, or a large group. It provides valuable information for both the coach and the athlete to know what lifts are appropriate, and how to prepare the trainee for the lifts that require advanced skill.

Jeff O’Connor is a Master RKC. Although he has a deep affection for picking up heavy things in odd ways, his primary focus is the development of young athletes. He can be reached at and see him live at the Summit of Strength in August for details.
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