Lower Body Power: VRT vs Plyometrics vs Olympic Lifts
Variable resistance training (VRT), plyometrics, and the Olympic lifts are three popular means of developing power in athletes. All strategies are proven to be effective, but are there periods when one is more appropriate than the others? These are the essential differences:
- VRT places low demand on technical proficiency, but lacks triple extension.
- Plyometrics develop triple extension power under light loads, and are highly specific to most sports.
- The Olympic lifts offer triple extension power development under heavy loads, along with a holistic means of monitoring overall training status of the athlete, but require adequate skill from both the coach and athlete.
VRT for Time Efficiency
I underwent a 600-hour strength and conditioning internship with a Division 1 university as a coach in their Olympic sports department. Coaching in the university athletics setting, I learned that time, or lack thereof, was an important consideration for the training of these athletes. That being the case, finding “bang for your buck” in exercise selection was absolutely paramount. The Olympic lifts were often coached; however, not nearly enough time could be allocated to their development for the full benefits to come to fruition. Other means to develop power such as VRT and plyometrics were more commonly used, and proven effective.
A recent study1 showed that adding band resistance of 30% 1RM to the back squat during one training session per week in NCAA Division II collegiate basketball players increased rate of power development more so than the control group, which did not use VRT. Vertical jump measurements also showed greater improvements than the control, and the researchers cited previous studies showing the same results within their write up.
VRT shines in training environments that have time contstraints or high athlete-to-coach ratios. [Photo credit: Thomas Showers]
Variable resistance training is time efficient because of its ease of execution and implementation. Take a high-bar back squat for example: a simple movement that involves removing a barbell from a rack, setting the feet at proper width, and maintaining a tight back and midsection throughout a full range of motion squat. Attaching a band to both sides of the barbell and instructing the athlete to squat can take less than a minute.
Adding resistance that increases as the lifter becomes more erect in posture requires more effort during the range of motion that should be the easiest in a squat (the top end). This forces the lifter to accelerate toward the top of a squat, a trait also present in the Olympic lifts. The top of the squat inherently places more stress on the quadriceps, which are involved in knee extension. Thus, the acceleratory factor during this stage of movement assists in developing power in the quadriceps (knee extensors). The ankles and hips are not brought to complete extension during the exercise.
The apparatus for this exercise is quick to set up and can be reproduced on multiple squat racks if the training session involves a large group of athletes. The relatively simplistic technical nature of a high-bar back squat allows the coach to issue quick technique corrections, making them efficient in monitoring multiple athletes at once. This strategy is therefore effective for a coach who must deal with with high volumes of athletes during a session, and who aims to develop powerful knee extension in their athletes.
Olympic Lifts for Triple Extension Intensity
I now coach for a weightlifting and strength and conditioning facility, in which coaching the Olympic lifts are the primary focus. All athletes start practicing these movements on day one, no matter their background, because of how universally effective the lifts can be. The snatch, clean, and jerk all involve rapid extension of the ankles, knees, and hips at the top of the pull, and dip and drive. The simultaneous extension of these three joints is commonly known as “triple extension.”
Triple extension is also present in a jump or a sprint, arguably the two most common movements in athletics. The Olympic lifts are essentially a loaded jump while holding a heavy barbell, although rather than propelling one’s body into the air (which can still happen slightly) the lifter propels the barbell into the air and subsequently catches it. The catch of a snatch, clean, or jerk requires immense stability of the entire body. If any muscle (or group of muscles) is significantly asymmetrically developed, it will show. This is where a sharp coach’s eye becomes important.
Proficiency in the execution of the snatch, clean, and jerk can be judged by the “coach’s eye,” or the coach’s ability to notice errors and inefficiencies in the lifter’s technique. A keen eye can discover imbalances in a lifter’s musculoskeletal development simply by watching them move on a rep-to-rep basis. Sharpening one’s eye requires time and experience. It is a skill that is constantly improving or worsening, so it must be used frequently to maintain. An eye for movement is not exclusive to the Olympic lifts, and should be developed for all movements as a means to monitor an athlete’s progress. The Olympic lifts provide a unique medium to critique an athlete’s movement because of the extreme circumstances they provide. For the adept coach, a heavily loaded barbell pulled from the floor, launched into the air, and subsequently stabilized overhead or on the shoulders reveals weak links in the chain of movement.
An example of this is a lifter who rotates to one side during the catch of a snatch. This inefficiency indicates that there is a group of muscles contracting in an asymmetrical pattern to the other side, somewhere along the kinetic chains (which run from the toes up to the wrists on both sides of the body). Let’s say the left hip is externally rotating slightly and the right is internally rotating slightly during a catch in the snatch. Depending on which leg is dominant and how capable the athlete is, this may manifest as an imbalance of force application to the barbell, resulting in a rotation to either side. Imbalanced hips are often the source of this symptom, but it can also be caused by something as small as gripping the floor more with one foot than the other. Fixing a problem such as this is a topic for another article.
The primary reason the Olympic lifts are irreplaceable in an athlete’s preparation for competition is because of the potential for absolute intensity, or load on the bar, during triple extension. The most powerful moment in all of sports is the second pull of the clean (the phase of the pull where the knees re-bend and aggressively drive the bar upward to the shoulders). The second pull mimics the postures present in a maximal effort jump, so heavily loading it will stimulate a unique adaptation. The same can be said of snatches and jerks, during the second pull and amortization of the dip and drive, respectively. No other exercise involving triple extension offers the same potential for absolute intensity.
Loaded Plyometrics and Risk
Plyometrics do not offer the same stimulus to the body as the Olympic lifts because they lack the same absolute intensity. The closest plyometric exercises in intensity may be depth jumps from great height, or the back squat jump. Back squat jumps provide a loaded means for triple extension, but hip extension is generally incomplete because the implement is placed upon the upper back. Securing the bar to the upper back requires a slight forward tilt of the torso.
Theoretically, an athlete’s back squat jump could be the same absolute intensity as their Olympic lifts, if the back squat 1RM was high enough. Typically, back squat jumps are loaded between 40% and 50% of the 1RM back squat. Anything more than 50% introduces too much risk of injury. VRT back squat jumps may require even lighter loading. The risk for horizontal movement of the athlete relative to the anchor point of the bands creates potential for non-perpendicular forces to the ground. Chains would be more appropriate for this exercise.
The snatch, clean, and jerk are typically loaded from 60%-100% 1RM, allowing for a variety of speed and force combinations to perform the movements with. The pull of the snatch or clean places the implement in front of the body, and held with the hands. This bar placement allows for slight backward lean at the end of the second pull, which should be achieved by complete hip extension. Risk of injury is very low with these movements, as long as the coach progresses the athlete appropriately.
Variable resistance training and plyometrics are undoubtedly effective tools to make athletes more powerful. They are typically suited for periods of training where specificity is important. The two methods are also effective in environments where multiple athletes are training simultaneously. To learn more about VRT, examine literature on the Westside Barbell method, and visit local strength andconditioning or powerlifting gyms. For plyometrics, read the works of Yuri Verkhoshansky, and talk to strength and conditioning or track and field coaches.
Ultimately, the Olympic lifts require a fair amount of skill to execute and coach, and provide a unique means for loading triple extension with high absolute intensity. They also offer the opportunity to monitor an athlete’s movement efficiency. Developing a keen eye for these efficiencies or inefficiencies takes experience. If you want to gain experience in coaching these lifts, find a weightlifting club near you on the USA Weightlifting website; preferably one with a highly experienced coach that’s developed national level lifters. Be humble and let them teach you a thing or two. Take the USAW coaching courses, read the literature, and immerse yourself in a training environment. Strength coaching is a trade. Trades involve apprentices and masters, and no one gets to skip their apprenticeship.
Weightlifters: What should your training focus be?
Guide your athletes:
1. Joy, Jordan M., Ryan P. Lowery, E. Oliveira de Souza, and Jacob M. Wilson. "Elastic bands as a component of periodized resistance training." Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research (2013).