Can I Train Both Powerlifting and Olympic Weightlifting?

Learn a little history about competitive strength sports while pondering the question. Can you be competitive at both?

In the early days of the iron game, the boundary lines between weightlifting, bodybuilding, pure strength lifting, wrestling, and weight throwing were much less defined than they are now. Athletes would try many different aspects of heavy athletics, master some of them and in the process would come to rub shoulders with those from the other disciplines and in the process learn a lot about the other man’s sport. In this modern day of extreme specialization we now often know little of the athletes or the sports culture of those allied sports. It is now entirely possible that one can spend an entire career and never meet anyone from another discipline.

Pre-1960 there was little specialization since Olympic lifting was the only competitive aspect of the game. Then weightlifters often, but not always, did what we now call the power lifts in the hopes of increasing their absolute strength. It was just assumed that absolute strength could carry you to victory. Doug Hepburn, Paul Anderson, and Dave Ashman were good examples of this thinking. They were all-around strong men who are now as revered in power circles as they are in Olympic ones. It worked very well for then. But only for a while.

After the 1964 birth of powerlifting as a separate sport many of its champions were moonlighting Olympic lifters. This would not prevail for long. As time went on and both sports developed it was discovered they were quite incompatible at elite levels. Absolute strength and speed-strength training taken to their extremes produced very different physical adaptations. Big benchers seldom made good snatchers. It was becoming apparent that in order to be a future champion one would have to specialize as soon as one entered the game. As a result, during the 1960s, the two sports drifted ever further apart. Today there are virtually no competitors competing in both sports at an elite level. At non-elite levels though there are a lot of athletes who may switch back and forth because they enjoy both.

Occasionally a lifter may decide that his career must undergo a transition, or at least a greater emphasis, from one discipline to the other. Most such transitions occur early in an athlete’s weight career. This is usually a result of a young person trying several different sports at the same time and then finally specializing on the one that appeals the most. Often, however, such choices are made due more to situational socialization factors than any rational choice on the part of those concerned. The athlete finds a mentor who specializes in one sport or the other who then influences his charge to take up the same sport. If a different mentor was available, personal choices and ultimate histories might have played out differently.

Late transitions can occur but are less likely to be successful. They may occur when an injury prevents continued practice of one or the other. But some have switched when persuaded that their chances of success would be better in a different sport. This happened with Shane Hammon and Mark Henry, but they are exceptions.

Powerlifting to weightlifting transitions are difficult after the lifter has reached elite level after a number of years training at lower tempos. In addition, the powerlifting muscles can interfere with Olympic technique if they are relied on too much. Flexibility can also be a big hurdle. The transition period can also be dangerous when already super strong powerlifters try to advance in their new sport too quickly. Unlike beginners or lesser lifters, they are strong enough to do some damage to themselves when things go wrong. Hammon’s experience was quite unusual; being only 5’7” and weighing 160 kg or so would have seemed an unlikely candidate for such a feat. But as a powerlifter, he was famous for his super fast 1000lb squats. His quickness reminded many of Paul Anderson whose speed surprised all the experts who assumed he would be slow.

Weightlifting to powerlifting transitions is a lot easier to make since it is easier to slow down, tighten up and gain weight than to do their opposites. Former world champion Antonio Krastev was probably the most successful crossover weight man in history. He earned this when he added his IPF World powerlifting silver in the 1980s. At the non-elite level, masters age lifters often make this switch when their ligaments can no longer take the shock of the Olympic movements, or the required flexibility or speed. The Olympic lifts also start to regress at an earlier age than the power lifts so the ego will suffer less if a timely transition is made in one’s 40s.

But, since absolute strength is still a requirement in Olympic lifting, many wonder “Does powerlifting have any value for an Olympic lifter?” The answer is – yes and no. If one is serious about hitting an elite level it is not a good idea to combine the two. The closest an Olympic lifter will come is high-bar squatting and perhaps some deadlifts. Leave the bench alone. Do some militaries for more specific overhead strength.

But, if one is a recreational lifter I believe there is some value in mixing the two. In the 1960s many did the O-lifts during the winter lifting season and switched to power lifts during the summer. This was a nice change of pace that also allowed nagging injuries to heal while some basic absolute strength could be added. In the fall the O-lifts were attacked with renewed vigor and enthusiasm, especially if the squat had improved thirty pounds or so and overhead strength was upped. In addition, this athletic cross-fertilization may be of great hidden value if one eventually does some coaching or personal training since it will increase one’s experience and allow some instructional diversity.

In summing up, it is possible to combine the two weight disciplines at the sub-elite level if one does not have lofty ambitions. Do not attempt if you want to someday lift in the Olympic Trials.

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