“I love it when a plan comes together!” was the favorite catch phrase of Colonel John “Hannibal” Smith, the leader of a group of TV action heroes called The A-Team. Although Smith and his team were fictional characters, the message applies to all levels of athletic performance.
When I evaluate various strength training programs for athletes, I see a variety of training variables address – many even address tempo – but I almost never see evidence of structural balance. What I see are strength coaches’ attempts to find the ideal workout program for a sport by putting together a bunch of components. An entire football team would perform (A) sets of power cleans, (B) sets of squats, (C) sets of bench presses, and so on for the rest of the alphabet. It’s good, but not great.
About two decades ago I came up with the concept of structural balance, which forms the core of the first two levels of the Poliquin International Certification Program. The basic idea is that any training program, whether it’s for optimal physical fitness or for improved athletic performance, needs to address specific ratios of strength imbalances. And as a bonus, maintaining structural balance will help prevent injuries. Let me give you an example.
When I was hired to strength-train the Canadian National Women’s Volleyball Team, every single athlete had patellar tendonitis, which is a chronic swelling of the tendon that connects the kneecap to the lower-leg bone. Within two months of performing a workout that emphasized the vastus medialis oblique (VMO), the team had only one athlete who still suffered from this condition (note: she was not very faithful to the workout).
Knee injuries are of particular concern for women and girls: The American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine reports that each year more than 20,000 high school girls suffer serious knee injuries, most involving the ACL. Balancing the muscles surrounding the knee, especially the VMO, can be an extremely valuable step in preventing this devastating injury. However, the concept of structural balance extends beyond just injury prevention.
Higher Levels of Structural Balance
Sergey Bubka was a pole-vaulter whose training is discussed in the book Soviet Training and Recovery Methods
by Rick Brunner and Ben Tabachnik, PhD. Included in this book is a table of eight strength and conditioning tests correlated to pole vault performance that Bubka regularly performed throughout his career. Two of the strength tests in this table include results in the snatch and the bench press.
Here is the yearly progression of Bubka’s results (in kilos) in the snatch from 1975 (at age 11) to 1984: 25, 35, 40, 45, 50, 60, 70, 80, 85, 90. In that same period, his bench press progressively improved from 20 kilos to 110. Bubka and his coaches believed that by increasing his results in these eight tests he would develop the athletic qualities needed to be the best in the world. Sure enough, Bubka won the gold in the pole vault at the 1988 Olympics, and during his career he broke 35 world records.
Similarly, you can see how the concept of structural balance applies in weightlifting. The two lifts contested in weightlifting are the snatch and the clean and jerk, but to improve performance in these lifts weightlifters usually perform many assistance exercises, such as squats. For example, one component of the clean and jerk is recovering out of the bottom position when the athlete catches the weight on their shoulders, basically a front squat. As such, the front squat is considered an appropriate assistance exercise for the clean.
One ongoing controversy in weightlifting concerns the relationship between squats and the lifts, as reported by Bud Charniga from many translations of Russian weightlifting textbooks and from personal conversations. Examples include Americans Mark Henry, who could front squat 325 kilos and clean and jerk 220 kilos, and Shane Hamman, who could back squat 457 kilos and clean and jerk 237 kilos. Likewise, Russia’s Aslanbek Yenaldiev reportedly squatted 455 kilos, but at one competition during that time he was unable to rise from a 240 clean. In contrast, Russia’s Olympic champion Yuri Zakharevich could front squat 250 kilos but could clean and jerk 250.5 kilos and clean 265 kilos. And the great Vasily Alexeev clean and jerked 256 kilos, and claims never to have squatted more than 270 kilos.
In commenting on such ratios, Charniga said, “The strength of the hamstrings (in performing flexion at the knee) in relation to that of the quads is critical to the speed with which the action of shifting the knees under the bar occurs. Likewise, hamstring strength (in stabilizing the hip) is crucial as the shins straighten during the first phase of the pull. So, one needs to be careful not to create a significant imbalance in strength between the quads and hamstrings.” To add punch to his message, Charniga shared a pithy comment he’d heard from former world record holder in weightlifting Alexander Kurlovitch: “A lot of squats adversely affect speed.”
Canadian weightlifting coach Pierre Bergeron has trained numerous Olympians and competitors in the World Championships. One of his success stories is Maryse Turcotte, who placed fourth at the Sydney Olympics and was a 3-time medalist at the World Championships. To illustrate how to determine structural imbalances in this sport, Bergeron provided the following optimal ratios of the snatch and assistance exercises for an athlete who can clean and jerk 100 kilos:
Snatch: 80 kg / 82 kg
Power Snatch: 72 kg / 74 kg
Snatch Pulls (sets of 3): 95 kg / 100 kg
Power Clean: 88 kg / 92 kg
Jerks off the Rack: 103 kg / 105 kg
Clean Pull: 115 kg / 120 kg
Front Squat: 115 kg / 120 kg
Back Squat: 128 kg / 132 kg
Deadlift: 138 kg / 145 kg
Shoulder Shrug (sets of 6): 150 kg / 155 kg
Standing Press: 48 kg / 52 kg
And the following represent the norms I’ve found that are being used by several national teams:
Olympic Total: 178
Clean & Jerk: 100
Power Snatch: 70
Front Squat: 105
Back Squat: 123
Power Clean: 90
Seated Press: 50-55
Further, tests of power such as the vertical jump and standing long jump have been used to ensure that the training program is not adversely affecting speed. But the this article, let’s focus on what these ratios represent and how they can affect program design.
Working the Numbers
The power snatch is considered a strength exercise for the snatch, and its relationship to the full movement should influence how one’s training should be modified. For example, if an athlete’s power snatch is nearly the same as the snatch, that may suggest this athlete needs to work on speed. To accomplish this, the athlete could perform more snatches and snatch-related lifts at lighter percentages (70-80) and fewer sets in the heavier percentages (90-100), and a lower volume of squats to allow for more complete recovery from training.
The original results could also indicate the athlete has poor technique, or that there is a structural imbalance that prevents optimal technique from being executed. For example, because a lighter weight is used in the power snatch compared to the snatch, it is easier to maintain proper back position at the start of the exercise. If the lifters is rounding their back at the start of the snatch due to weakness in the lower back or hamstrings, this technical problem might be resolved by performing assistance exercises such as deadlift or back extensions.
I should also mention that there are many factors that will affect the percentages used for structural balance. One is the size of the athlete. Heavier weightlifters, especially the super heavyweights, often cannot achieve the extremely low receiving positions in the snatch and clean that lighter lifters can. Further, their larger size also can affect the speed at which they can move under the barbell. The result is that heavier athletes have to pull the barbell to a relatively greater height to catch the barbell during the snatch and clean; as a result, their ratios of the power movements to the classical lifts will be different.
Another benefit of structural balance that makes a difference in weightlifting is confidence. Let’s say a weightlifter snatches 100 kilos and their best power snatch is 80 kilos. If during the next training cycle that weightlifter power snatches 85 kilos, they will go into their next competition knowing they are physically strong enough to break their personal record.
The importance of structural balance is one reason I developed the iStrength Pro software, as it enables trainers and coaches to precisely prescribe the programs that will help correct structural imbalances. Keeping this concept foremost among your goals will enable you to create logical workout plans. Not only is structural balance essential for your athletes, it distinguishes a great program from one that is merely good.