Most Strength and conditioning programs will utilize an exercise which develops the triple extension. The triple extension is comprised of the ankle, knee and hip joints extending in unison. This movement is common in the vast majority of sports and athletic movements. For that reason it is obviously a good idea to try and develop it. Possessing a powerful triple extension will allow an athlete to run faster, jump higher and hit harder. There are many exercises that can develop a powerful triple extension. The clean and snatch are two very popular choices along with most forms of jumping exercises. One exercise which is perhaps less popular but just, or even more effective is the clean pull. (See Below)
The clean pull is the first and second pull portion of the clean. It can also be performed with a snatch grip to create the snatch pull. We like the clean pull because it possesses all the beneficial aspects of both the clean and snatch while significantly reducing technical demands. The first and second pull movement can take quite some time to teach and become proficient at. Often athletes don’t have time in their schedule to focus on technical skills or a lift which is not their chosen sport. For that reason we want to get the benefit from an explosive triple extension movement but do not always have the time to teach it up to a level where it contributes to performance. In addition to time constraints Olympic lifts such as the clean and snatch require mobility and strength in some joints which some athletes do not possess.
Athletes can build massive amounts of power and force generating capacity while reducing injury risk. Many programs will incorporate cleans and power cleans as the benefits of these are well established. The issue is that unless the athlete has reasonable technical skill and mobility, there is a tendency to cheat the exercise. This is especially true where load is seen as a priority. Its benefits can be significantly reduced when this occurs. The clean pull allows athletes to move high loads in a relatively safe fashion. It eliminates a portion of the clean which many athletes have difficulties with.
Recommending an exercise because it is easier or less technical is not something that I’d normally recommend. The reality is that in many scenarios athletes can waste time on things which in the grand scheme of their training are unproductive. The clean pull is a fast and efficient way to develop power in an athlete. It can be used in many circumstances where the clean cannot. One such example is during season in contact sports where athletes regularly pick up minor sprains and strains. The wrist and shoulders are extremely common areas to suffer. This often eliminates many lifts which require athletes to catch overhead or even in front rack position.
In addition to them being a good alternative they can also be a great supplemental exercise. Athletes can often handle heavier loads when performing the clean pull vs. the clean. Building good strength in this portion of the lift can contribute significantly when cleans are then performed in full.
While we don’t suggest avoiding Olympic lifts they are not always necessary or suitable. They should be performed for an established reason and not because they are popular. Many athletes struggle with them and see little benefit. Clean pulls provide an excellent alternative in many scenarios. We firmly believe that the components that make up every program should have purpose. Clean pulls build a very powerful triple extension easily, safely and effectively. This is why we like them.
Olympic lifting has long been a popular component of team sports’ strength and conditioning programs. There are great benefits to gain from it. It trains the triple extension movement effectively, which is the basis for many athletic actions. It also teaches an athlete to produce and increase their ability to produce power. Additionally it can help athletes build muscle, become more agile, and improve functional mobility.
So what’s the problem? In short these lifts are sometimes too technical for a team setting. For an athlete to really benefit from them they must be reasonable proficient in executing them. In a team environment there is usually a big spread in technical ability and experience. There are also a lot of individual needs and scenarios which make technical lifts problematic. These lifts require significant time to be focused on them in order to teach and learn the movement. Additionally, mobility can often be an issue that needs to be addressed first before an athlete can attempt new lifts.
There is a theory referred to as “Physical Literacy” it relates to how we learn to move in our early years and how coordinated we become. Some of us are more physically literate than others. It is usually the product of having more practice or experience. Children who played a wider variety of sports tend to be more well rounded in terms of movement and adapt to new skills quickly. We cannot assume all players are at a similar level, so constructing a team-based program there must be compromise. In some cases we have the time to develop players and teach them new skills, other times we only have a few weeks to prepare them for a coming season.
Time and experience must be considered when building Olympic lifts into a team program. Getting the best “bang for your buck” is the preferred approach when choosing exercises. Often when we have a short time frame and sticking to the basics is a more effective approach. Jump training covers achieves most benefits, and with a fraction of the skill requirements. It can be quite easy to spot a “muscle clean” over a fast and technically sound clean. This is what we try to avoid as there is no benefit to performing inefficient lifts.
As with any type of training, a logical progression must be in place. The mistake is when people try to rush things. We would rather have athletes do ten minutes of skill practice with just a bar and then some jump exercises, than a full session of sloppy Olympic lifts. There is a time and place for every exercise. The key is to narrow a program down to what’s effective, then look at adding things in the offseason when there is more time to give direct attention to weaknesses.
In this post I will discuss the physiological components that make up physical strength. In general the strength of a muscle is determined by its cross sectional mass. When we assess the improvement of strength in a muscular contraction, we see a significant increase in force output in a short space of time with no change in mass. This shows us that there is also a neural component that plays a significant role in strength. In order for a muscle fiber to hit a peak contraction it must be stimulated fully. A beginner to strength training will be unable to reach his true max because he will be neurally untrained. This means he is not capable of using all his muscle fibers or even capable of using the select few to their full potential.
When we want to move, we send a chemo-electrical signal from brain to the muscle which results in a contraction. The more signals we send the more forceful the contraction. In order to achieve maximum contraction we must have a constant and rapid train of impulses coming from our brain. The route the impulse takes down the nerves must be capable of sustaining and transmitting these signals. Early in our training it is these nerves which improve at delivering stimulus, that results in strength improvements.
There are several factors which can prevent us achieving maximum contractile forces. We have safety mechanisms which prevent us reaching our limits in order to prevent damage to our muscle tissue. These mechanisms are largely involuntary and are not simply a case of pushing harder. When we train the thresholds for these “safety switches” raise, allowing us to lift more. This is partly because our muscles become more conditioned and less susceptible to damage but also because our overriding mechanisms improve. We can prove this theory by using a simple maximum voluntary contraction test on a muscle. An athlete produces their strongest contraction and when it peaks we add extra stimulus externally with an electric impulse. The peak will increase significantly higher than voluntary stimulus could achieve, proving there is more force possible.
So how do we increase strength? There a couple of areas which can be improved. First we need to train the movement. Becoming more accustomed to the movement helps us learn the pattern of muscle activation required to perform the action effectively. Second we must improve stimulation and muscle activation. The obvious method is working closer to our maxes which in theory requires a “close to max muscle contraction”. Become accustomed to producing maximum force will improve the mechanisms involved over time. This can be taxing on both the central nervous system (CNS) and the muscle structure itself. It will require structural recovery which takes time. Speed training is an excellent variation as it allows us to improve the rate of impulses coming from the brain. More ballistic type exercises such as jumping are a good way to improve rate of neural transmission. Adding bands or chains to sub-maximal weights for particular lifts can also be another variation to include. The increased resistance over the range of the movement requires an accelerated contraction.
Adding chains can be very effective at improving neural components involved in strength. Photo source: www.clintdarden.com
These types of training are excellent ways to improve the neural component of strength without needing any structural recovery. They are demanding on the CNS and as always adequate recovery is necessary. The next area to work on is increasing muscle mass. This involves hypertrophy of the muscle fibers which occurs over a much longer period of time.
Becoming strong is important to all athletes but understanding what makes them strong can be just as important. The body adapts quickly and so a multidirectional approach can help progress in terms of consistency. Often athletes employ the maximal lifting approach exclusively and plateau quickly. Combining different methods over a periodised training plan can make sure that an athlete continues to improve in the long term and achieve full potential.
Also referred to as a PAP response, Post Activation Potentiation has been a tool in an athletes training arsenal for decades. The basic theory is that if you lift a heavy weight you can perform a more explosive contraction soon after. So for example you might do a heavy double on back squat. Immediately after you may do box jumps or something similar and exceed expected performance. The underlying mechanism explaining this is actually quite simple. When you perform a heavy lift or contraction you must activate larger motor units to produce a more forceful contraction. These larger motor units are often referred to as type 2 muscle fibers. These fibers are generally larger and have greater capacity to produce force than smaller fibers. When activated they become slightly more sensitive to further activation for a short period of time after. When you go to perform the next contraction it will be relatively easier to produce force as these motor units are “excited”. Due to changes in sensitivity, the rate of contraction may also be significantly improved. This allows for a better power production overall.
Not a bad example to show. Big lift allows for a big jump! Photo: Hookgrip at www.hookgrip.com
Not only can this PAP response be useful for improving power, it can also help improve strength endurance. I use the term endurance loosely there. It may allow you to perform more reps at sub-maximal loads without directly influencing fatiguing factors. For example, max repetition bench press is a common test used by many contact sport teams used during team physical testing. One or two singles close to max effort prior to the test can in fact improve the result. This is provided that the athlete does not go overboard and induce fatigue prior to the test. Often the athletes state that the weight initially feels lighter in comparison to a standard work up, warm up protocol. The PAP response can also be used in a hypertrophy program where back off or drop sets are being utilised. This is quite simply due to larger motor units being pre-activated, making a more effective use of available motor units, resulting in an improved performance. Larger volume in terms of weight lifted per session translates well into these types of programs.
While this is not a new concept or theory, the underlying mechanism is often overlooked and therefore under utilised. It is quite an effective tool and one which I have seen positive results from. Having an understanding of this concept allows a coach to be a little more creative in finding ways to help an athlete reach their potential.