These days, classic olympic lifts are coming back as a regular training component for athletes looking for functional strength, including improvements in jumping ability and explosive strength in general. It isn’t totally clear if Olympic lifting is in fact superior to other forms of training for improving jumping ability, but some studies and anecdotal evidence suggest that it is.
I was in high school in the dark ages of weight training, when Universal machines and then Nautilus machines reigned. It was better than nothing, but machines have a serious drawback: they force you to lift along a defined path of motion. Contrast this to a free-weight
lift, where you have full range of motion. This requires you to strengthen all the muscles you need to stabilize as well as to lift the weight.
Knowing that, athletes began moving to free weights, but using them primarily like bodybuilders or power lifters. Bodybuilders tend to do relatively high numbers of sets and high numbers of repetitions. Of course, that builds strength and size, but if you don’t do some training at near maximal loads, you don’t train the neural pathways for maximum muscle recruitment as well. For the fastest improvement in jumping ability, you want to work both muscle mass and recruitment. So the next evolution was to move to power lifting workouts, doing exercises like squats and deadlifts at high percentages of single-rep maximums.
That’s moving in the right direction, but Olympic lifting adds a new dimension: speed. Power lifting is typically done with huge weights, but relatively slowly. Like vertical jumping, Olympic lifting requires complex movements involving strength, speed and coordination. The evidence is not overwhelming, but studies suggest that there are definite advantages to Olympic lifting if you’re goal is to increase jump ability or sprint acceleration. A recent study compared high school football players who trained with Olympic lifts (power cleans and the like) against a group who trained with power lifts (squats and the like), and a control group who did no special training. Though the Olympic lifters had slightly greater improvement in jumping ability as compared to the power lifting group, it was not enough to be statistically significant. In contrast, a study of college football players found that the Olympic lifting group gained 6.8cm on their vertical jump performance, whereas the power lifting group only gained 0.5cm. Channell and Barfield conclude that "Olympic lifts offer a stimulus that is uniquely different from power lifts, and they should be included in a resistance training program for high school athletes who require quick, powerful movements." In fact, Olympic lifters typically have excellent vertical jump ability, despite having relatively high body weights for their height.
What is a Power Clean Anyway?
Power clean performance is highly correlated with jumping ability, so that should be your focus. In the Olympic clean and jerk, the lifter pulls the weight quickly from the floor and flips the weight up to rest at shoulder level by sinking into a deep squat, with the glutes touching the calves. That’s the classic clean (normally followed by a jerk in which the lifter lifts the weight straight overhead).
The power clean is also an explosive movement, but usually with lighter weight so that the lifter is able to clean the weight, that is get it up to the shoulders, with only a slight squat when flipping the weight up to the shoulders.
- Warm up well. A few minutes of jogging or on the treadmill until you break a sweat and then maybe some warm up lifts with very light weights, such as just the bar or, if you’re lifting light, just a broom handle even.
- Squat down grab the bar with a grip a bit wider than the legs, with the bar up against the shins.
- Keeping the head up and the back flat or even a bit hyperextended (not curved), pull the weight by straightening at the hips, knees and ankles.
- When you’ve gotten the weight as high as you can with the legs, you shrug the shoulders, flip the weight toward the shoulders and sink into as much of a squat as needed to get the bar into a restfull position against the shoulder blades. Then stand up from your squat.
- When you’re exploding up, it’s normal for the feet or at least the heels to pop off the ground before you sink down to bring the bar up to the shoulders.
- Brian T. Channell and J.P. Barfield, "Effect of Olympic and traditional resistance training on vertical jump improvement in high school boys", Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2008, vol. 22(5), p. 1522–27.