In strength coaching there is continual discussion and debate about which weight training exercises are the most appropriate to evaluate the physical preparedness of athletes. One thing we can agree on is that there are many great exercises to choose among that should be in the training toolboxes of every strength coach.
For leg strength you have exercises performed with barbells (back squat, front squat, overhead squat), dumbbells (split squats, step-ups, lunges) and machines (incline leg press, horizontal leg press, leg curls). Then, what about exercises for lower body power, such as the power clean and power snatch? And after you narrow down that section, you have to look at upper body strength exercises. It’s quite a challenge.
A few years ago, at a symposium on strength training hosted by the International Coaching School in Victoria, British Columbia, I discussed this issue of exercise selection with Canada’s Terry Hadlow.
In the ’80s Hadlow was ranked in the top eight in the world in weightlifting, and three decades later he went on to win the 2010 World Masters Weightlifting Championship in Poland. With his impressive strength background, I value his opinion. In our discussion at the symposium, we agreed that the following lifts are probably the best determinants of overall strength for athletes:
1. Power Snatch
2. Front Squat
3. Incline Bench Press
Why the Power Snatch?
The power snatch will measure the power production capabilities of the posterior chain muscles of an athlete. And because a lighter weight is used in the exercise compared to a power clean, enabling the barbell to move faster, the power snatch will provide a better assessment of the velocity side of a force-velocity curve.
The basic difference between a power clean and a power snatch is that rather than bringing the barbell to rest on the shoulders, with the power snatch the athlete pulls the bar overhead in one motion. A wider grip is also used with the power snatch; many athletes prefer this lift because such a grip places less stress on their wrists and elbows. Also, if an athlete has relatively long lower arms compared to the upper arms, they may find that racking the barbell during the power clean is extremely uncomfortable.
In comparison to the power clean, the power snatch calls for more involvement of the hamstrings than the quadriceps. The hamstrings help produce a powerful hip extension, such as occur in the vertical jump and in short sprints. As a bonus, the wider grip used with the power snatch forces the lifter to bend their knees more and as such works these muscles through a greater range of motion.
Testing the Power Snatch. The power snatch should be performed as a single rep in one continuous, explosive movement, from floor to extended arms overhead. At no point should there be a deceleration of the bar followed by a “press out” of the bar. Upon reception of the bar at arm’s length the knee should not bend down more than one third of the way.
Do not use lifting straps! Because this is performed for only a single maximal effort, isometric strength-endurance in the grip should not be a limiting factor in achieving a high score. Lifting belts are also not permitted; the lower back should be well conditioned enough not to necessitate such a crutch.
The importance of knowing how to perform Olympic lifting exercises such as the power snatch properly is one reason I often invite my mentor Pierre Roy to teach seminars on Olympic lifting at the Poliquin Strength Institute in Rhode Island. In addition to Roy’s seminars, you can contact USA Weightlifting at usaweightlifting.org to find a weightlifting coach in your area.
Why the Front Squat?
As the power snatch evaluates the velocity side of a force-velocity curve, the front squat evaluates the force side of the force-velocity curve.
Because it is easier to cheat in the back squat than in the front squat, the front squat provides a more objective interpretation of what a good lift is. If you cheat in the front squat, such as shooting the hips back upon the concentric contraction, you will likely drop the bar. This increases the odds of a serious injury; thus the incentive to be honest is very high in the front squat.
Another advantage of the front squat is that it will immediately assess flexibility because you will not be able to perform the front squat unless your flexibility is superior in all the major joints. When you have a strength test that requires flexibility, your athletes have a strong incentive to train for flexibility. This is obviously not the case with the back squat, but it is particularly true for the bench press addicts who have problems supporting the bar in the right position on the clavicles. If an athlete has very tight forearms and external rotators of the shoulder, it will be very hard to hold the bar. This is another lift where an experienced weightlifting coach can help with the proper technique.
Testing the Front Squat. To perform the exercise, use a pronated (palms down) grip as you would for a power clean. Squat down until the hamstrings cover completely the gastrocnemius (upper calf) muscles. Keep the trunk upright, and push the elbows up and in. Use a 40X0 tempo to control the lowering for the eccentric range.
In this lift, probably two spotters are required, but an experienced coach can spot that lift by him/herself. For athletes with a tight shoulder girdle, they may want to try using straps to hold up the bar. What you do is place your shoulders under the bar and grasp the straps with your palms facing each other (i.e., semi-supinated or neutral). You’ll find that using straps in this manner enables you to keep your elbows high without discomfort. There is also a front squat device called the Sting Ray (front the same company that manufactures the Manta Ray) that makes it easier for athletes with flexibility issues to hold the bar.
Why the Incline Bench Press?
If you are going to choose only one test to measure shoulder flexion and elbow extension strength, an excellent choice is the incline bench press performed with a barbell.
Although the bench press is one of the basic tests used in the NFL combine, it is overrated as an upper body maximal strength test. The pressing angle of an incline bench press is more specific in terms of sporting movement due to the shoulder joint angle in relation to the trunk. Whether it is a punch delivered in boxing, the release of a shot put, or the push-off position in the short-track speed skating relay, you will notice that the upper arm is at a 45-degree angle upward in relation to the trunk. There are also many sporting movements where one pushes with the upper arm directly at 90 degrees to the trunk.
Beyond sport specificity, it’s important to use a variety of bench presses: incline, flat and decline. These variations ensure optimal progress in strength development, and stressing the joints at different angles may help avoid overuse injuries.
Testing the Incline Press. The position of the hands is the biacromial width, which is distance between the two acromions of the shoulder blades. A spotter should be there to help the athlete unrack the bar at arms’ length and to assist in case of a failed attempt.
The bench should be adjusted to a 45-degree incline. Be certain that the testing bench incline is always constant, since even minor variations in bench angle can greatly affect strength performance, and thus lead to either disappointment or false elation. Use a 40X0 tempo to control the lowering for the eccentric range.
A thumbless grip positions the barbell more in line with the lower arm bone, and many powerlifters believe it enables them to lift more weight, but the problem with this method is that the bar can easily slip off the hands. Also, the lower back should not be excessively arched, the feet should be flat on the floor, the hips should remain in contact with the bench at all times, and at least one spotter should be used.
Interpreting the Results
Assuming the sport in question is not an upper-body-dominated sport like white-water kayaking or wheelchair basketball, athletes should strive to develop a good ratio of maximal strength performance on the power snatch, front squat and incline bench press. For example, if an athlete is bench pressing more than they are front squatting, this indicates a structural imbalance and a need to modify the strength training program.
The following percentages apply to lower-body-dominated sports such as speed skating, alpine skiing, sprinting, jumping, volleyball and basketball. Using data gathered over the last 19 years with 22 different Olympic sports, I have developed the following relative percentage scale for these three lifts.
Front Squat: 100 percent
Incline Bench Press: 73 percent
Power Snatch: 65 percent
As you see, the lifts are ranked by percentage, based on the front squat being the absolute reference value. If a male athlete can do a 300-pound front squat, his incline bench press should be roughly 220 pounds and his power snatch about 195 pounds.
Strength testing may not be the most enjoyable activity for athletes, but testing can be fast, simple and relevant by just focusing on the power snatch, front squat, and incline bench press. These three exercises provide great information for the purposes of evaluating your athletes and designing workout programs.