Friday, 13 January 2012

Weightlifting for Strength and Conditioning - A critical analysis

So anybody who has previously read my Evidence-Based Resistance Training Recommendations and/or follows this blog regularly might have the idea that I am not supportive of weight-lifting movements (a.k.a. 'Olympic Lifting). But I recently read an article "Weighlifting Movements: Do the Benefits Outweigh the Risks?" (Hendrick, 2008) that , in my mind was supposed to do what this blog has done and provide a reasonable review of the pros and cons. It doesn't seem to, so I have laid out my own critique of that article herein. I know that I have discussed all of this relatively extensively in a previous blog, but the details are different, I promise.

Yeah this looks less dangerous than Badminton!!?
Firstly the author clarifies that weightlifting (e.g. the snatch, or clean, or derivatives of these exercises) should not be referred to as 'Olympic Lifts' because 'Olympic' lifts only occur in the Olympic games. This seems more than a little pedantic, and a complete waste of time in a peer-reviewed journal article. And potentially incorrect; is a 26.2 miles, only a marathon when it is performed under competitive conditions (e.g. an organised event). What about competition with oneself??

Anyway, to the point at hand....the article published in the Strength and Conditioning Journal, a product of the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) - a group notoriously supportive of weightlifting exercises - suggests that 'Yes, it is worth it'

The argument for Olympic Lifting is based around the following ideals:
  1. Sports seldom require maximal strength, but rather maximal power. Since power is a product of velocity and mass, you (apparently) need to move a weight quickly to enhance power, rather than move a heavy weight slower which only enhances strength (there is no evidence to support this). Hendrick says: "....maximal strength is required  in only a few athletic activities such as powerlifting..." but Hendrick fails to provide a reference for this argument. What about a rugby scrum? What about wrestling, or locks/holds in mixed martial arts? I would suggest that these are slow or isometric contractions that require maximal strength as opposed to maximal power. This is not considered anywhere within the article.
  2. Skill element is similar. I've heard this a lot and it's a common argument that the triple-extension (forceful extension of the ankle, knee and hips) in O-lifting is used in most sports. This seems a fair argument, and whilst this extension might occur in both settings, it doesn't occur in the same sense. Hendrick seems to agree with this stating "...empirical evidence suggests that there is a relationship between the weightlifting movements and improving athletic performance". The articles cited to support this are either opinion or tenuous links between things like ground reaction forces between athletic movements and O-lifting movements. Of course in reality even if there was a strong relationship it would be near impossible to prove based on the sheer number of sporting variables, however, there is a plethora of evidence that suggests that skilled movements are specific, apparent similarities are exactly that - similar. Not the same. If things aren't the same they're different. Motor control research has suggested that even skills which appear the same show no relationship in performance, and worse skilled movements that appear similar might negatively effect each other. See Fisher et al, (2011) for a review of this area. Interestingly Hendrick makes an interesting comment regarding skill of weighlifting movements in regard to the length of time it takes to teach these movements: "The greater skill complexity required for the weightlifting exercises facilitates the development of a broader physical abilities spectrum, which seems to be better transferred to performance". Wow, now let me translate this just to be clear; the more complex the movement (or better the skill performance) the more this is transferred to physical abilities. For this statement they provide 8 references. Of these 8 references 2 consider the relationship between jumping with a weight and....well, jumping without a weight. 1 considers ground reaction forces between, well jumping with a weight, and jumping. The others are opinion. Oh dear.
  3. Testosterone increase and muscle fibre type recruitment is optimised by this kind of training. Once again this is a common argument; that moving quickly means you recruit fast twitch muscle fibres. Hendrick says "emphasis on speed of movement may stimulate greater motor unit synchronization and increase power generation capabilities" both the references for this are review articles which are lacking evidence to support this statement (which makes sense, otherwise Hendrick would have simply stated the evidence himself rather than leave a puzzling trail). With regard to testosterone increase Hendrick says: "the authors of previous studies have demonstrated the potential to increase testosterone levels during a 2-year period of training in weightlifters". This would seem pretty conclusive; if compared to normal RT which is shown to increase testosterone levels, or....well, if compared to anyone. Instead Hendrick cites a single reference; an article which is an observational study which found that elite junior weightlifters had higher T levels than normal. There's no evidence to suggest this is solely due to weightlifting, or that this difference wouldn't have occurred with traditional resistance training.
  4. The risk of injury is minimal. This is by far and away my favourite part of the article because there is a plethora of evidence that shows that fast movements and especially the risky 'catch' elements of this kind of training are dangerous, Hendrick seems to brush this all off as soft tissue injuries, as if it's OK, and whilst I agree that there are risks in everything, there are greater risks in throwing and catching heavy weights. Instead he provides a little sleight of hand....Hendrick says: "the risk of injury is as low or lower than most sports". I like this, he says there's less risk than sports. As a trainer there had better be lower risk of injury in training than in competing in a sport. In fact the main aim of training is to prevent injury in the sport. Imagine having to explain to a coach how their top athlete is a little broken through training!!! He even provides a table showing the risk of injury for: highest for soccer, and decreasing through rugby, basketball, track and field, squash, badminton, powerlifting, tennis and then weightlifting at the bottom of the lift with least risk. Well compared to the likes of tennis and badminton, yes, but once again these are sports. We are talking about weightlifting as a training method. It is the equivalent to saying that as a basketball player you should train using badminton because your risk of injury is low. In fact, you might as well do that based on the evidence above.
If this is your sport then perhaps this is OK.
If this is your training for your sport, perhaps
think again!
I know that this article is heavily critical of weightlifting or O-lifting, but ultimately I'm not against it in the slightest for any reason other than it seems a little useless for sports persons and athletes to use as a training tool. Any vendetta is against the organisations that promote the use of this training method using the arguments highlighted herein.

Think of it another way, if I prescribed a medicine saying that it did certain things, and it didn't you'd be pissed at me, right??? I'm aware of the complications in trying to prove exactly what can enhance sports performance due to the considerable list of variables. But if you can't prove it, then you can't just go making it up!!

I'm always interested in new evidence so if you have any good articles surrounding this then please contact me and I'll send my email address. I'm also very happy for people for or against O-lifting to comment on this blog.

Be Well



  1. Thank you for this article. What kind of training regimen would you recommend for martial arts competition athletes (sparring competition)?

  2. Thanks for your comment, as you might read from my other blogs and published research articles I believe in evidence-based resistance training. In my opinion this supports building strength in muscles by maintaining muscular tension through smooth and controlled movements, to a point of muscular failure (until you can perform no more repetitions). There appears no difference between free-weights, resistance machines, cables, or other modes of applying resistance, and indeed no difference in the number of repetitions performed so long as they follow said guidelines. Obviously such a dynamic and challenging sport requires a multi-faceted approach to fitness that would incorporate strength, endurance, flexibility and much more.

    I would spend most time training for the sport and maintain other components of fitness with simple resistance training through full range of motion for flexibility.

    Please check out the link to the publication for further reading.



  3. A colleague of mine from Finland wrote to me...

    ....I almost weep everyday in the gym here, seeing young endurance athletes (cross country skiers etc) and team players being drilled to do hours and hours of dead lifts, cleans, snatches etc., Crazy stuff. And as you allude to here, strength and conditioning training should be complimentary to, and specific to sporting performance (breaking down the sub-routines of sporting movements and prescribing resistance training to target the specific muscular contractions and joint actions etc.), BUT should not try to mimic whole sporting performance with the addition of some resistance. This is a classic recipe for some serious negative transfer of training to take place and detraining to occur. How anyone can argue that an Olympic lift can be seen as a training method for improved muscular strength (or power) over the performance of a good, controlled concentric/eccentric contraction through a specified range of motion against prescribed force is beyond me, and should be beyond anyone who takes a second or two to think about these things logically, and if appropriate, monitor what their own body is telling them. Horses for courses, if you’re a “powerlifter” ok, practice your technique by doing some powerlifts, but you’ll gain for more from applying some good, solid principles of training and stepping away from the Olympic bar every now and again. If you’re not a “powerlifter” don’t waste your precious time and energy with power lifts in the name of training.

  4. I'm a little the opinion presented in this blog and these comments that athletes who are not power/O-lifters should never perform dead lifts, cleans, snatches, squats, jerks, and bench presses in training?

  5. tomsonite

    The opinion presented in this blog is that the article which is supposed to objectively evaluate the merits of weight lifting is not objective and has flaws in the argument. Weighlifting movements are simply referring to cleans and snatches, not squats, deadlifts, bench presses, etc.


  6. A ray of light. This sadly mostly falls on deaf ears as it is not pretty or flashy. Control, hard work and pain are not easy to sell. Well done the great write up.

  7. I've been browsing online more than 3 hours today, yet I never found any interesting article like yours. It’s pretty worth enough for me. In my opinion, if all site owners and bloggers made good content as you did, the web will be a lot more useful than ever before.
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  8. Thanks, shame you didn't leave a name.