Saturday, March 16, 2013

How Powerlifting can Benefit From Weightlifting and Vice Versa


This post has been developing around in my head for some time now. I guess I never knew how to formulate these ideas into anything that resembles a conscious thought- no guarantees that this will either.

With that short preface allow me to move on to the beginnings of how this concept of being a powerlifter yet training like a weightlifter came to mind. Within their two respective sports powerlifters and weightlifters are incredibly strong, especially when considering those at the pinnacle of the sport. At the top level of powerlifting you’ll see lightweight guys deadlifting close to or in excess of four times their bodyweight while in weightlifting the guys in similar weight classes are performing the clean and jerk in excess of twice their bodyweight with some even doing the incredible feat of three times bodyweight; such as the case this last summer with North Korean Om Yun Chol. In the heavier classes you have leviathans of men benching over 600 pounds and a select few over 700. Some of these men are then squatting over 800 pounds and deadlifting in the 800-900+ range- absolutely incredible weights by any measure! The same sized men in weightlifting are regularly putting up 400-500+ pounds above their heads in the snatch and clean and jerk- no small feat.

Weak.

Contemplating these kinds of performances and the men who achieve such strength raised a few questions within me. Some of these questions are: Why do they train the way they do? And, how can they? Which way is better? Is one absolute way better? Can the flow of methodology go both ways? And the question everyone loves to ask, who is stronger?

Before I answer these questions, and possibly a few others that may arise in the paragraphs to follow, I have to be honest with all of you. I’m not Glenn Pendlay nor am I Louie Simmons. I’m not John Broz or Brandon Lilly. I know it might hard to tell, but I’m definitely not Vasily Alekseyev or Tommy Kono. The reality is the amount of knowledge, accolades, and experience I have in both powerlifting and/or weightlifting is pocket lint in comparison to that of these men. Take this post for what it’s worth- a look at both sports from a man who is essentially a hobbyist; which I’m sure to many will mean absolutely nothing. I may be totally wrong in my conclusions or nail them with the precision of Apollo. Either way, I do not hold onto these ideas as if they were precious gems. My conclusions, thoughts, and opinions on these matters can be melded like Play-Doh by others with their informed opinions and arguments against mine.

Why do weightlifters train the way they do while powerlifters train the way they do? The short answer is because they’re two different sports. End blog post. Well that wouldn’t be too fun now would it?

I’m going to generalize the hell out of weightlifting programming here, so many of you weightlifters will be pissed- but I don’t care. Weightlifting, as a sport by and large in America trains through focusing on the competition lifts each day followed up with some squatting and work from blocks as assistance. This style of training and school of thought were developed by Abadjiev who basically broke it down to the bare bones fundamentals: Snatch, C&J, front squat, power snatch, and the power clean. Thus, all of their movements are not too far removed from the competition movement. This by no means is a knock against weightlifting; quite the contrary- this I love about the sport. Most coaches will have their lifters work up to a percentage of their max well above 80-85%, and some even reaching for daily maxes, with the competition lifts or their slight variations. After that they may move onto some additional squatting, rows, cleans, or other supplemental movement to assist in the development of their strength in the two lifts. Another school of thought, more popular in countries like Russia comes from Medvedyev and his “Mult-Year Program.” Jaques_Chester from reddit succinctly described it as, “Dreschler discusses Medvedyev's "Multi-Year Program" in terms of time spent doing the Oly lifts. In Medvedyev's scheme, time spent Oly lifting as a fraction of all work done steadily falls until it bottoms out after 6 years at around 20%. By that time, goes the thinking, the athletes who are suitable to progress to an Olympic standard have already basically perfected their technique or they haven't. What's left is developing strength and power.” That school of thought is, in my observation, the one which appears to be more sound.

Shane Hamman. Definitively American strength and power. 

Conversely powerlifting here in the United States has a near vomit-inducing litany of programs, methods, and dare I say, theology? Here I will generalize again. Everything from Westside to a basic 5x5 routine is proselytized as being the true gospel of powerlifting. Higher volume vs. high intensity, high frequency vs. low frequency, bands, four lengths of chain, three kinds of partials, two variations, and a custom bar in the weight tree. Those of you reading this probably know all too well the varying kinds of cycles, periodization, and techniques used to get powerlifters stronger so I won’t go too much further describing the finer nuances of the special snowflake that is the sport of powerlifting. This however, is a knock against powerlifting- as this is what I hate about the sport.

After discussing the previous paragraph with a friend of mine Matt, a very accomplished, experienced, and educated powerlifter, he told me, “Nuh-huh! Dan Green don’t need no bands and no chains. He’s a strong, long haired man, who don’t need none of dat shiz.” Just kidding. Matt didn’t phrase it in such a way; I just like to make fun of him. He did however rightly point out that some very accomplished American powerlifters are using less and less variety when it comes to specialty equipment, lift variants, and programming. Guys like him are an exception to the rule of American powerlifting. They’re way ahead of the curve when it comes to considering the sport in its entirety as practiced in the United States.

How is it that American weightlifters can get strong basically doing the same stuff over and over while their powerlifter strength-compatriots also get strong doing what seems to the un-indoctrinated as throwing crap at a wall and seeing what sticks? Short answer- there is no one way to get strong, but there are ways to get better at your sport.

This however isn't one of them.

And that’s where what I like about weightlifting and what I hate about powerlifting collide. Weightlifters treat their sport as what it is- a sport. While powerlifters treat their sport as- “just get fucking strong.” That however is more about developing an attitude rather than athletic skill. In my modest opinion, it’s not always that easy. The former focuses on sport specific training; meaning technique honing on the competition lifts, building familiarity, and motor patterning. This is when the typical powerlifter argument comes along and some knucklehead says, “Weightlifters aren’t strong! They focus too much on technique!” Bullshit. Put 500 pounds over your head and tell me that’s not strong. Contrariwise, powerlifters focus on getting brutally strong- period. They’ll use all sorts of methods to strengthen the range of motion where they’re weakest. Triceps weak? Close grip bench, floor press, board press, chains-and-reverse band-three-board-close grip-floor press; to give an extreme example. This is when weightlifters complain that powerlifters “focus too little on technique” and just try to “muscle the weight up.” Well Mr. Snatch, go bench 600 pounds and tell me technique is ignored.

My observation on this is that weightlifters have the right idea in the general sense that repetitions of the competition movement, in higher frequency and volumes (across very many sets), are needed to better familiarize the lifter so that their technique is perfect. Powerlifting could greatly benefit from adopting this training mentality. Powerlifters have the right idea with hammering the weakest parts in the range of motion of a particular lift. However, unfortunately for weightlifters you cannot train the catch of a snatch the same way powerlifters can train the last 2-3” of lockout for the bench press. On the other hand, powerlifters ought to look at competition lift frequency in their programming first before they start to scrutinize what other assistance lifts to add, modify, or replace. Is your bench sucking? Well, instead of adding in another triceps isolation exercise, or another pressing variation, how about you just bench more frequently? We powerlifters sure do love to obsess about our assistance lifts, don’t we?

But there is the “stipulation” that weightlifters can hammer their competition lifts more frequently because they’re eccentric-less and thereby can recover quicker from them. This is a false justification coming from the powerlifting camp which is quickly defeated by pointing to the frequent squatting weightlifters perform in their training. So what, if anything, can weightlifting as a community learn from these clunky technique retarded powerlifters? In a word, variety.

Yes, an over abundance of variety is what I hate about my sport; it is done with gluttonous overkill. Yet with a small addition of selected variety I believe that weightlifters, the angelic purist strength saints that they are, would benefit greatly. Specifically these variant additions would be specialty bar types for squatting; namely safety squat bars and cambered bars. Another addition would be that of resistance bands to lift variants. Now, I understand the stupidity of banding to the floor a full range of motion snatch - but what about reverse bands for overhead squats, the jerk, and even regular old squatting? Yes, this may require some “specialized contraption” in weightlifter speak (i.e., a power rack) to rig the reverse bands for the snatch and jerk in order to test the idea out, but it might be worth it. Yes, it may require some creative band rigging. But why not try? That’s the question I’m asking weightlifters. With the limited amount of experience I have using bands it has always been reverse bands that seem to allow the most optimal and natural bar path; withstanding banded deadlifts, which are just plain awesome and more brutal than Jason Voorhees rampaging through the crowd at a Lady Gaga concert. Regardless of how they’re utilized, which is ultimately the decision of the coach and lifter; bands can be implemented into weightlifting training with predicted success. That is if proper implementation of this specialized equipment is understood. 

A hockey mask might be some specialized equipment worth looking into. 

There you have it, my answers to a few of the questions presented above. In short- Weightlifters train the competition lifts more frequently and this is something powerlifters should adopt over the usual maintain competition lift frequency and add or change assistance exercises philosophy. Weightlifters also amass a great quantity of reps in overall higher percentages; this is also something my kind should adopt. Powerlifters train with a variety of bars which can be used by weightlifters for the squat, their primary assistance exercise. Also, weightlifters should at least give reverse bands a try in selected variants of the competition lifts as it would allow the most natural bar path while also strengthening the top end of the snatch, jerk, and squat.

That is essentially how I developed the method in which I train. The gist of it: Squatting and benching twice per week with deadlifts sandwiched in the middle of both. Do 10-15 reps in the 85-100% range of your Goal Weight (1st Tier), follow that up with 20-30 reps in the 65-85% range with more squatting, benching, or deadlifts and/or other assistance lifts that aren’t too far removed from the competition lift (2nd tier), all rounded up with 40-60+ reps in the 65% or less range with a 3rd Tier exercise; usually rehab and/or isolation movements. Laughably this adds to the problem I lambasted above, that of too much variety in programming or methodologies. This is however the means in which I prefer to train and have become stronger by doing so. Did I add to the problem? Absolutely, yes. Is it also the solution, possibly? Undeniably, I’ve been a bit too much of a purist in my pursuit of strength; leaning too far towards American weightlifters while powerlifting. Focusing on using only the squat, bench, and deadlift to build themselves rather than use the tools I’m advocating in this post- that however, is about to change as my EliteFTS bands are in the mail. I’m also planning on hunting down a cambered bar, or safety squat bar, and using that more frequently rather than from time to time as done in the past. Additionally I’ve been using my Sling Shot, which is an incredible tool, much more often. As a possible result I recently blasted a five pound all-time personal record on my bench press. This new PR flew up compared to my previous grinder of a personal best. Thank you, Mark Bell.

Made my bench that much closer to "respectable."

Admittedly some of these aren’t new ideas, or even unique to me. I know for certain Louie Simmons has advocated training weightlifters with more powerlifting centric styling. Not only that, but he and Mark Rippetoe both agree (from the last I read) that weightlifters “need” strength coaches in conjunction with their sport coaches. Seems silly I know as it insinuates that weightlifters aren’t strong. And who of you haven’t heard the story of a weightlifter and his coach visiting Westside Barbell only to be shown true strength by a powerlifter easily performing the clean and jerk (or snatch, I can’t remember too clearly) with the weightlifter’s demonstrated weight because of his clearly more developed strength. This claim however, of course has never been backed up with evidence. The weightlifter and his coach have never been named and I’m 100% certain it is allegory. What I’m not hearing is high-level powerlifters saying things like, “bench every day to make your bench go up.” More often a powerlifter is told to do more, or other, assistance exercises. Sure, there are some exception programs like Smolov or Shieko which have lifters performing the competition lifts more often- they are however cast aside by the general population as being “too extreme” or “demanding” and are considered well outside the norm for usual training. Will the adoption of higher competition lift frequency work for powerlifters? Just as with weightlifters and banded lifts or specialty bars, we won’t know until some higher level coaches and athletes give the concept a seriously dedicated allotment of time.

That however is unlikely to happen as the saying, “If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it” applies. But then again, that’s the problem. American weightlifting and powerlifting are broke! We currently have no legitimate presence in the World or Olympic Games in weightlifting. Likewise American powerlifters are delusional about how strong we really are as compared to other countries. A small aside- the entirety of this text has been considering “raw” powerlifting which as a sport is fairly new. However, the American presence in the IPF World Championships, which permits single ply supportive gear, is just as shameful. Either geared or raw we American powerlifters and weightlifters, as a group, need to step our game up. But how? By learning from each other.

Jaques_Chester was quick to point out to me Lyle McDonald’s opinion on why American weightlifters aren’t winning medals internationally- money. This argument I’ve heard before and agree with, as money is the main driving factor behind American sports. Yes our talent pool is drained by the NFL and other professional sports, but is every genetically gifted and athletically talented American male going to the NFL? The answer to that is absolutely not. Most of the players in the NFL weigh more than 200 pounds. In fact only a select few are less than 185 pounds; the numbers dwindle to insignificance once you get below 185. So why are we not dominating the lower weight classes? What high paying professional sport is stealing away our lightweights? American professional athletics are dominated by men greater than 5’9’’ and, more often than not, those over six feet tall.  If you’re interested in these numbers go get lost in data over at www.sportingcharts.com. This issue is a combination of talent pool, sport popularity, sport funding, and training.

"My talent pool is all dried up!"

One slightly off topic comment- both powerlifters and weightlifters can learn from strongmen how to just manhandle an object. They’re easily the most confident bunch of men when it comes to being under a load. Mikhail Koklyaev somehow manages to smile while loading stones, log pressing and damn near ballet dances during medleys. Similarly, Bill Kazmaier would approach an object whether it a log in strongman or a bar in powerlifting and move it with so much ease and confidence that his opponents, and even the World Strongest Man organizers, by comparison felt ashamed of their pitiful strength and attitude. 

Even iron felt molested by this face. 

Now to the most important question of all, in the colloquial sense who is stronger?  Powerlifters or weightlifters? Of course there are mathematical formulas that dictate maximal force development which powerlifters train for and rate of force development, which weightlifters train for. But that’s not the emotion of the question “who is stronger?” as discussed between friends in bars over a few pints. In order to answer this question we must first pit the two against each other in a level playing field- except there isn’t one. Some would say we should compare squats, as both camps squat. Well of course weightlifters will out-squat their weight class brothers over in powerlifting. Why? Because they squat more often- that at least should be expected of them. Again, are there exceptions? Of course, but for the most part when considering the two sports in their entirety weightlifters will have a stronger squat, on the whole, than powerlifters within the same weight class; or at least they ought to. Some would say we should compare deadlifts as powerlifters deadlift and weightlifters perform a “similar” movement in both the snatch and clean and jerk… well, that is a retarded idea and is usually a comparison recommended by someone who is as familiar with the two sports as I am with Curling. Thus proving my statement that there isn’t a level playing field to pit powerlifters versus weightlifters. Why don’t we just compare whom benches most and call it a day- because as lifters we all know that’s the only thing that matters anyways.

Comparing the two different athletes is akin to comparing a tennis player to a Ping-Pong player. Sure, they’re similar but they’re not that damn similar. The next person or peoples who I hear bickering about this nonsense will have levied against them a “dumbass tax” wherein their punishment is soy GOMAD and Zumba classes for a month. Both types of athletes, at the pinnacle of their sports, are strong. A 900-pound deadlift is strong just the same as putting half that above your head.  Compare an apple to an orange and you’ll likely end up with idiospermum.

 Also known as the "idiot fruit." 

In conclusion, both powerlifters and weightlifters approach the pursuit of strength too dogmatically. Sure there are practices of each sport that can only be applied within that community; nevertheless both groups are made of strong athletes who each have valuable lessons to share with the other. The quagmire we are in now is that both sports are so divided we must shout at each other to span our knowledge across the gap we have created- but then the message is indiscernible and it seems we’re only yelling at each other.

8 comments:

  1. thank you. you just convinced me to add another squat day to my powerlifting routine (I was being a wuss.) good read.

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    Replies
    1. Kick ass! Everyone needs to squat more often. Thanks for reading!

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  2. Holy SHIT!! I just found a gold and diamond mine! Your blog, sir, is absolutely out-freakin-standing!

    And I just realized that even Caleb ^^ found your site.. Awesome.

    Back to this article.. I love it!! Great read! You are one hell of a writer.. I will be subbing for sure..

    I am a late-comer master (meaning old) weightlifter, who discovered the sport at 38. I have attended two WL meets so far, and I plan to enter my first PL meet in 2014 (if my joints can hold it).

    At any rate, thank you for this enlightening article!


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