Strength and Flexibility within Olympic Lifting
What is Olympic Lifting?
Olympic lifting (also known as weightlifting), consists of three movements which are; the Clean, the Jerk and the Snatch. These are explosive and powerful movements in which the athlete will have three attempts to lift the heaviest that they can.
The difficulty in comparing these biomechanical characteristics together is that the answer can vary with regards to specific goals or sports in mind, but as we're looking specifically into weightlifting, there should be a clear comparison. So can there be only one right answer? Let's look into a few areas where Strength and Flexibility is used in these movements, and to see what is proven to be most beneficial.
So how does flexibility have an impact on Olympic Lifting? Along with flexibility comes mobility, and these components work hand in hand. Mobility is having a full range of motion (ROM) within functional movements, this is how a joint moves. Whereas flexibility is to do with the muscles around a joint - if the connected muscles don't stretch far enough, then there will be a lack of ROM.
Olympic Lifting can be a very dangerous sport, especially if using the wrong technique with heavy weight. The counterpart movements of Olympic Lifting contain the low/high pull, the shrug, the push press and the squat.
First, let's take a look at how flexibility impacts the squat technique within Olympic Lifting. When squatting, the feet must be just outside the hips with knees over toes. The feet must be flat on the floor and the back must be as straight as possible.
Squatting flexibly is due to the strength and elasticity of the hamstrings, which consist of the three muscles; the semimembranosus, semitendinosus and bicep femoris. These three muscles connect to the hip which is why, if your hamstrings are weak then your posture is also effected. Many people with weak hamstrings have problems straightening their back when squatting, due to the muscles elasticity.
It is vital that you have a strong squatting position as this is will be your holding position, and poor technique will result in muscle injury of the back, and could also lead to an uneven balance which is unsafe for the athlete whilst holding the weight.
During these lifts, the shoulder mobility/flexibility is key, due to the rotational and quick movement (see image below). The bar must be kept as close to the body as possible and must rest just below the collar bone, before going into the jerk position. Being unable to have full ROM of the shoulders will consist of the bar not being close enough to the body, which will result in the bar pulling you forward and the weight being so much heavier. Take the snatch for example, the aim is to snatch and catch the bar whilst being underneath it, rather than lifting the bar up.
Now, the aim of Olympic Lifting is to lift the heaviest weight possible, so surely this is the most important characteristic?
When training for Olympic Lifting, many athletes will carry out a strength training program. At first this will consist of bodyweight exercises, because if you can't perform the exercise with accurate technique without weight, then how can you with added weight? Many of these bodyweight exercises are carried out with a wooden pole, for example squatting with the pole overhead is key for the squat during the snatch and ROM in the shoulders.
When technique is spot on, that's when exercises can start to be carried out with just the barbell. Working your way up with weight will build up strength and resistance week by week, your muscles will adapt and what was heavy one week prior, will feel less heavier as weeks go by.
What strength exercises are used? Programs usually consist of exercises that will be used in Olympic Lifting, such as the front squat, back squat, power clean, power jerk, and the snatch. Without these programs, your muscles wont build up resistance to these weights. Unlike power lifting, you won't be carrying out a 1RM, and as stated previously, you will carry out each exercise three times. With regards to training, you will perform 1/2 sets of 10 reps for each exercise, so the weight will need to be slightly lower than your standard 1RM.
What's the verdict?
In my opinion, not one is more important than the other. The whole idea of Olympic Lifting is to lift the heaviest that you can, which is why strength is a huge part of training. But technique is the foundation to the perfect Olympic lift. If you're a beginner starting out, my recommendations would be to start working on your flexibility and mobility first without weight. Once this is something you've mastered, you can then start to build up your strength as weeks go by.