Pulling, Pushing, and Thinking: Extended connections between
Olympic Lifting and Powerlifting 

My earliest workout routines are very clear in my memory. I started lifting weights at the high school weight room when I was thirteen with some of the kids I played football with. We developed our own training program, based on some advanced scientific principles and theories. Here is a rough skeleton of our normal training week:

Monday

bench press

Curls

Wrestle

Tuesday

bench press

Curls

Go home

Wednesday

bench press

Curls

Hit each other

Thursday

bench press

Curls

Wrestle

Friday

bench press

Curls

Go Shoplifting


For better or for worse, thousands of young athletes in this country become enthusiastic about weight training because they are obsessed with the bench press. If the athletes are young and have no guidance from any coaches (which we didn’t), it is an easy trap to fall into. However, I was lucky enough to learn squatting and deadlifting shortly after I started working out. It didn’t take long for these lifts to replace my obsession with bench pressing. I did not learn the Olympic Lifts until the summer after my high school graduation.

This article will revisit the subject of connecting the power lifts (squat, bench press, deadlift) with the Olympic lifts (snatch, clean and jerk). There are millions of athletes who use a combination of these two disciplines to gain strength and overall athleticism. Likewise, there are millions of athletes who completely specialize in powerlifting or Olympic Weightlifting for competitive purposes. Converting from one sport to another has already been examined in a previous Performance Menu issue. However, there are many other nuggets of information lying in the dirt. My own personal experience and the experiences of other athletes will dust these nuggets off and give us a better look at them.

Pull for Your Freedom!

One of the simplest commonalities between Olympic lifting and powerlifting is the pull from the floor. The technique used in deadlifting and cleaning/snatching has several similarities and, admittedly, several differences. However, every athlete wants to improve his or her pulling strength regardless of the particular movement. Here is where we find an interesting truth: training the pull as an Olympic lifter can dramatically improve the powerlifting deadlift.

There are two personal examples that will better illustrate this idea. When I was seventeen, I had trained the deadlift specifically for four years. I had never done any Olympic movements. At this time, my best deadlift was an absolute gut-busting 535 pounds. Then, after I graduated high school, a coach taught me the Olympic lifts and how to train as a full-time Olympic lifter. I was hooked, so I completely abandoned powerlifting and concentrated on Olympic lifting. My training program was very basic. I practiced the competition lifts every day, did front/back squats, and did clean/snatch pulls three times every week. The heaviest pulling I ever did was around 150 kilos (330 pounds) in the clean pulls and 120 kilos (264 pounds) in the snatch pulls. And these weights were the absolute heaviest I would ever pull; my pulling weights were often lighter than these. My top squat workout weights during this time were usually around 400-420 pounds.

I had trained this way for ten months. I had not done a single deadlift during this time. Then one day I decided to do some deadlifts, just for the hell of it. I deadlifted 555 pounds easily that day, which was a 20 pound improvement over my old personal best from when I was focusing on the deadlift. I simply could not believe that my pulling strength had increased so much because I had not been pulling heavy weights for almost a full year. However, that was not the only time I saw this happen in my career.

After the day when I deadlifted 555 pounds, I went back to full-time Olympic lifting and did not deadlift again for ten years. During this decade, my Olympic lifting career moved forward steadily as I fought to climb up in the national rankings. I eventually achieved a 155 kilo snatch and a 185 kilo clean and jerk. My top back squat during this time was 245 kilos (540 pounds), and I continued to utilize clean/snatch pulls three times per week in training. The heaviest weights I ever used in the clean pulls were around 205 kilos (451 pounds) and around 165 kilos (363 pounds) in the snatch pulls. And again, my weights in these exercises were usually lighter than the ones I just mentioned. Then, just as I had done ten years earlier, I decided to pull a few deadlifts one day. I deadlifted 617 pounds that day (285 kilos), and then tried it again three weeks later and pulled 650 pounds (295 kilos). This was almost a one hundred pound increase over my previous best of 555 pounds.

Now, a one hundred pound increase in the deadlift over a span of ten years is not amazing. That increase is only an average of ten pounds improvement per year. But the interesting point is that I had not pulled anything, in any manner, over 450 pounds during that time. Added to that, I had only squatted with weights around 530-540 pounds at the most. All of a sudden, a 650 pound pull was possible. Therefore, the question that arises is, “How can an athlete develop the strength to pull heavy weights without pulling heavy weights in training?” The answer, although complex, mainly lies in repetition. Most powerlifters deadlift once a week, with some additional auxiliary pulling exercises possibly thrown in after the deadlifts are finished. However, Olympic lifters perform a pulling movement every time they snatch, clean, RDL, snatch pull, or clean pull. Knowing that a typical Olympic lifter’s training program will include several of these exercises on a daily basis, the Olympic lifter simply does many more reps of some sort of pulling exercises than the powerlifter does. Even if the Olympic lifter does not pull maximum deadlift weights every week, the pulling muscles are still being strengthened through a daily, weekly, and yearly accumulation of thousands of repetitions. This accumulated strengthening effect is what makes improved deadlift maxes possible without specializing in the deadlift.

How much ya bench?

From examining the pulling connections between power and Olympic lifting, we can move to a look at upper body strength and the bench press. And the first point that must be understood is that many successful Olympic lifters have included bench presses in their training, contrary to the usual Olympic mentality that bench pressing is a tool of Satan. IronMind training videos are available and ready for purchase that clearly show lifters like Simon Kolecki and Evgeny Chigishev bench pressing around 200 kilos. Former Canadian champion Mark Cardinal once told a story where he missed some snatch attempts at a major international competition in the 1970s, after which David Rigert told him that his upper body was not strong enough to hold the weights he was capable of pulling and that he needed to start bench pressing in training. Former Soviet world champion Gennady Ivanchenko has reported that he benched throughout his career, and the physiques of most of the great Soviet lifters of the 60s, 70s, and 80s include impressive pectoral development. My personal coach, John Thrush, benched throughout his entire Olympic lifting career and was able to clean and jerk a collegiate national record of 187.5 kilos in the 110 kilo class in 1977 while also bench pressing 480 pounds. Now, it is obviously true that many of the world’s top Olympic lifters do absolutely no bench pressing at all. Nicu Vlad personally told me that he never did them. But the point here is that bench pressing is a tool of many great Olympic champions and it can be incorporated into an Olympic lifter’s program with success.

Still, there is a caveat to this point. It has also become clear that bench pressing and other power/bodybuilding exercises have the potential to negatively affect upper body flexibility. If bench presses are performed with partial lockouts, as many powerlifters do in training, the range of flexibility in the shoulder and bicep tendons will shorten and overhead lockout can suffer. I once trained a young lifter who competed in both powerlifting and Olympic lifting. With a 140 kilo clean and jerk in the 94 kilo class at eighteen years old, this athlete had obvious potential. However, he was a fanatic about the bench press and trained it much as a bodybuilder would: partial lockouts in the bench and auxiliary exercises that added tremendous upper body mass. He did go on to win a junior national championship in powerlifting, but subsequent attempts to regain his Olympic lifting skill were unsuccessful because he had simply lost his elbow lockout in the snatch and jerk. If bench pressing is going to be incorporated into an Olympic lifter’s program, it must be done in a way that does not inhibit flexibility. Full elbow lockouts in the bench and additional stretching exercises for the upper body would be useful suggestions.

Interestingly, I have also seen examples where Olympic lifting training has improved benching ability. In 1995, I trained regularly with a world powerlifting champion who was interested in Olympic lifting training just for a little variety. This athlete competed in the 165 pound class and had a top official bench press of 425 pounds, a weight he had been stuck at for three years. He dove into Olympic lifting full tilt boogie and stayed with it for around six months, dropping the bench press during this time. A few weeks after he decided to resume his powerlifting training, he informed me that he had bench pressed an easy 450 pounds. He told me that he could feel an obvious strength increase in his triceps and deltoids, which he attributed to the jerks and push presses he had used during his Olympic lifting time.

One other important consideration is that Olympic lifters who decide to begin bench pressing should be very careful with their pectoral tendons. Here is a personal example: I stopped bench pressing for almost eleven years, from the time I graduated high school until around 2001. I did absolutely no benching in this time. When I decided to try bench pressing again, my overall upper body strength was significantly higher. I had only bench pressed around 280 pounds in high school and by the time I decided to try them again in 2001, I had jerked 424 pounds and push pressed 319. When I resumed bench pressing, I started performing sets of five reps at around 250 pounds, which did not feel heavy at all. However, I had a string of small injuries in my pectoral tendons, mostly strains and a few partial tears. These injuries all occurred in exactly the same area, near the shoulder where the pectoral tendon connects with the humerus. They usually took around three weeks to heal with icing and no benching at all. I used bench presses in my training for around two years and I probably had five or six of these injuries. That specific part of my upper body was simply not well developed. Eventually, through gradual progressive resistance, the strength of my connective tissue caught up with the strength of my upper body muscles, the tendon injuries stopped, and I was able to bench press a mediocre 391 pounds. Did this benching improve my Olympic lifting? I would say that I noticed an increased “snappy” feeling in the lockout of my jerks. The weights felt much easier to stabilize and control when they reached arms length; I was also able to push jerk 180 kilos, which I had never done before.

Squatting? Not this time, folks...

The connections and differences between powerlifting squats and Olympic-style squats will not be discussed in this article because this subject is big enough for an article of its own. Suffice to say that a powerlifter’s squats and an Olympic lifter’s squats are apples and oranges in most cases. Attempting to completely analyze this area, along with the ensuing conversation/bloodbath over whether Olympic lifters or powerlifters are stronger squatters, is like watching Chris Farley doing his Chippendale’s dance on Saturday Night Live, with his fat rolls flapping everywhere. In other words, it can get ugly...

The great Tommy Kono once said, “If you want to be a better presser, then press.” This simple statement boils down a great deal of strength training conversation to a basic truth; the best way to improve at a particular skill is to practice that skill. However, it must also be acknowledged that there are many creative variations that can enhance the performance of that skill. Vasily Alexeev used to perform clean and jerks while standing up to his chest in a river. What is the bottom line? Simplicity and specificity are golden rules, but innovative thinking also has a place in the training of the athlete. So before you run out and buy that “I’m an Olympic Weightlifter, so I don’t bench press” t-shirt, remember that David Rigert said it was okay to bench press, and he was better than you. Many ways to skin a cat...

Matt Foreman is the football and track & field coach at Mountain View High School in Phoenix, AZ. A competitive weightliter for twenty years, Foreman is a four-time National Championship bronze medalist, two-time American Open silver medalist, three-time American Open bronze medalist, two-time National Collegiate Champion, 2004 US Olympic Trials competitor, 2000 World University Championship Team USA competitor, and Arizona and Washington state record-holder. He was also First Team All-Region high school football player, lettered in high school wrestling and track, a high school national powerlifting champion, and a Scottish Highland Games competitor. Foreman has coached multiple regional, state, and national champions in track & field, powerlifting, and weightlifting, and was an assistant coach on 5A Arizona state runner-up football and track teams. He is the author of Bones of Iron: Collected Articles on the Life of the Strength Athlete.

This article was originally published in the Performance Menu Journal.  

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