Friday, December 30, 2011

Olympic Lifting and Cycling Training: My Experience Thus Far

If I could think of one sport, offhand, which is exactly the opposite of cycling, I'd probably chose archery. Not too far behind would be Olympic lifting. Olympic lifting is a kind of lifting that requires explosive athleticism expressed in a movement that rarely lasts more than five seconds. One cynic called it "gymnastics with a bar."

Olympic lifting is two sexually suggestively named lifts:

(1) the clean and jerk

This women is under 125 pounds, but that's around 250 pounds on the bar. This is a two-part lift: the clean brings the bar up to the shoulders; the jerk brings the bar to full extension above the head. The world record clean and jerk is around 560 pounds.

(2) the snatch

This clip is from an American Open meet for lifters at 187 pounds. Kendrick Farris, the last lifter, snatches 351 pounds even. The World Record in his weight class for the snatch is 412 pounds. The superheavyweight snatch world record, achieved just this year by an Iranian lifter is 471 pounds.

Although the lifts--clean/jerk and snatch--are similar, in that both move the bar from the floor to overhead, the clean and jerk tests the limits of a lifter's power, while the snatch tests a lifters coordination, grace, and balance.

Until the 1960s, America dominated Olympic lifting, but since then we've achieved less than five medals. The Soviets, then the Bulgarians, and now the Chinese have dominated the sport. Most Americans don't even know what Olympic lifting is; even fewer appreciate the skill and power it requires.

Americans, instead, have focused on powerlifting. Powerlifting is a sport of three lifts, all comparatively small ranges of motion: floor to waist (deadlift), chest to arms' length (bench), squat to standing (squat).

The demands of powerlifting and Olympic lifting are different. Powerlifting requires power (without speed, necessarily), and usually punishes, flexibility. It encourages the development of a partial range of motion. It does not require speed, coordination and balance, as Olympic lifting requires.

Powerlifting caters to the American obsession with big pecs and biceps, the bro standard of strength: HOW MUCH CAN YOU BENCH, BRO? Most people who lift in America follow a bodybuilding or a powerlifting routine. This is unfortunate, since our obsession with power may be hampering our athletic development. A recent New York Times article described some of the problems that result from the assumption that simply pressing weights in limited ranges of motion makes an athlete better on the football field.

The numbers powerlifters put up are extraordinary, no doubt. Years ago I edited a book about Ed Coan, whose squat and deadlift were both around thousand pounds.

He lived in his parents' basement, listened to a lot of metal, and took the odd injection every now and then. He's still doing doing amazing things, and is probably pound for pound the world's best mover of heavy things over a very short distance.

Olympic lifters usually have superhuman vertical leaps; powerlifters can lift a car six inches off the ground, but may find it hard to leap over a curb. Oly lifters in the lower classes, as you may notice in the above video, look very much like track cyclists:

All fine and good, you say, but does this have anything whatsoever to do with cycling?

A lot of cyclists lift in the off season. I hear, "I'm lacking strength on climbs."

So we hit the gym, but most of us have no idea what we're doing. We have heard that leg presses, squats, and maybe plyometrics are good. As is core work.

We've also learned about sets, repetitions, and rest between sets.

Some of us think we should do tons of repetitions, reasoning that we need to build our muscular endurance.

Others of us think we should do a small number of repetitions, reasoning that we need to build muscular strength.

We lean toward the training of track cyclists such as 2010 World Champion Robert Forster, here shown doing two (kind of poor) reps with 550 pound:

There's evidence that plyometrics and maximal strength training (as Forster does), in very specific areas, may help. There's evidence that strength training generally helps track cyclists--the Australians and British have been at the fore in this development.

What about Olympic lifting? There's the similarity in build between Oly lifters and cyclists. Cyclists--particularly sprinters--and Oly lifters have huge quads and relatively small torsos. Beyond that, and the theoretical argument that cycling requires speed and power in the same way Oly lifting does, there's no concrete connection between the two. There have been no studies, as far as I'm aware, on Olympic lifting and whether it benefits cyclists.

Despite this, I've now done Olympic lifting for three months. I did this partly because I wanted to try something different. This decision had little to do with cycling; I've just always admired Olympic lifters, and I've wanted to see what I could do if I applied myself to the discipline.

I can say, fairly definitively, that Olympic lifting has a negative short-term effect on cycling performance. My on-the-bike power has declined, since my legs are always recovering from an Oly session. I would certainly be stronger, at the moment, if I had ridden rather than snatched and cleaned (I'm not a fan of jerking). Yeah, yeah.

My program, which I usually do three times a week, consists of front squats, power cleans, snatch, full cleans, stiff-legged deadlift, and core work. I usually vary the emphasis from posterior chain (glutes, hammies) to anterior chain (quads).

I still can't snatch my bodyweight, but my clean is up to about 1.5 x my bodyweight. That is, I can almost clean what the 125 pound girl (shown in the video above) cleans. These are piss poor numbers in the world of Olympic lifting, but not bad for a chicken chested cyclist. My squat isn't much better than when I started, but I now go ass to ankles, and I'm hitting about 100 pounds more than when I started working the full squat.

Unfortunately, I've gained twenty pounds in body weight since I started lifting (and rode the bike less). I'm pretty sure most of it is useless. I did manage to lay down a decent sprint the other day on the bike, but my critical power intervals over 30 seconds are all way down.

Still, Olympic lifting has proven a helluva lot of fun. And if, in five months, I retain some of this strength, it'll have proven a worthwhile diversion. And if not, well, at least I'll have tried something new and interesting.

Isn't that what every new year should be about?


Anonymous said...

I would guess that you would notice a difference (measured and percieved) once you stop that routine and have gotten back into your regular routine. The power phase renders you more "weak" short term, but when you have fully recovered you could see an increase in your sprint as well as nominal power output.

Nick said...

i really want to get into kettle bells - all the explosivity of olympic lifting combined with an unarguable simplicity combined with a history of soul-crushing russian winters.

back in the football days, i never had much bro strength, but i could hang clean like mad. coaches never had us do the full jerk. something about "safety."

Calvini said...

The problem with kettle bells, at least for me, is that they don't release that "whoa, this is a ton of weight" feeling. On the other hand, they may not cause as many injuries as Oly lifting--something I've been struggling to minimize.

Bart said...

I've been Olympic lifting for about a year now and love it. However I'm now a mediocre cyclist and a mediocre lifter, since I'm always recovering from one sport while doing the other. I'm going to try to balance the two a little better this cycling season. We'll see what happens

Pål said...

How did this turn out in the long run? I am starting to combine this the other way around. I am Oly lifting, 240 lbs body weight - big guy :) Bought a Ridley racing bike, have been racing just this summer, slowly increasing lengths of trips and amount of training. Starting to love Road Racing, needs to by winter clothes now and ride abit during winter. Havent noticed strength decling yet, but my longest trips now are 30 miles and I ride three times aweek only, but im looking to expand next season, loose weight and get edurance. (been heavy and strong for a long time) But im abit scared it will hurt my squatting, Ill just see and try, curious how your results continued? Did you step down oly eventually?