Keep it simple, an approach to training Olympic and field sports Part 2: It all starts with strength (A Case Study)

Continuing from my previous article (Part 1) I’ve decided to take my own advice and keep it simple here in part 2. I want to talk about a few of the metrics I’m using to track player progress as well as how I’m attacking some unique parts of our situation.

Firstly, this has been a unique year for my Men’s Soccer team. We had a head coaching change prior to the start of fall semester. With a large number of players and a new head coach just weeks away from our first game, it was very important that they get a head start on feeling each other out. Much of their preparation therefore took place on the field and I built in some strength and speed sessions that I could execute before practice. Most of this training had been low impact strength movements with variable tempos etc. and basic speed/reactivity training. We didn’t have the consistency in the weight room (since it was our competitive season) to really progress anything major.

Fast forward seven months, we have been training consistently three days per week since the boys got back from a startlingly successful season, and winter break. This weekend marks the end of our seventh training week, and I am very optimistic about the rest of this year.

Problem 1: This is our off-season and we had not exactly laid an ideal (weight room) foundation in the fall.

Solution: First and foremost, these guys needed to learn (or be reminded) how to train. We needed to get far stronger, and quickly. Any player or coach will tell you, the biggest difference between levels (high school to college, college to pro) is the speed of the game. The talent is less diluted, the players are more experienced, and the coaching is much better. Don’t get me wrong, we have talent on this team, and the fitness is there. Where there was/is much to be desired was/is in our speed, power, and reactivity.

Typically where we might want to look is for explosive olympic movements that we can start to capitalize on and make strides based off of the strength foundation laid in the fall. As I mentioned however, we didn’t lay much of a strength foundation as far as barbell training is concerned. With less strength, there is less velocity, with less velocity, there is less strength. Both of these are constituents of power. Of course, you can train velocity without strength to increase power, but it wouldn’t make much sense. You will make far more progress training strength to improve subsequent velocity and power, and that’s the route we took.

After a few weeks of basic movements in high volumes where I could take visual appraisal of our movement quality and competency, I decided on the exercises that would comprise what I call “Barbell 101.” My big 5 exercises were:

  • Press/Push Press
  • Front Squat
  • RDL
  • Deadlift
  • Row/Vertical Bodyweight Pulls.

We spent about a week getting tons of reps on 2 or 3 movements per day, and the guys picked up quickly. A special emphasis was placed on breathing correctly and learning to brace the core with a neutral spine/neck to make proper reflexive use of glutes and abdominals. No matter the emphasis on each day, we still do two sets of bar complex consisting of Press/F.S./RDL/Row in that order. The confidence and competency levels with these movements now are astounding. Herein lies the value of simplicity. I’d far rather watch a room full of my guys doing these movements with great technique, than wonder who is going to get hurt catching an ugly clean, we just didn’t have the time to implement it.

Problem 2: Without olympic movements, how can we expect to gain speed or power?

Solution: Right off the bat, we chose power outputs as one of our measurables for determining progress. I knew that initially, we would increase our power due to #1 improving jump technique (one of the criteria for scoring on power output.) #2 Improving body composition, and #3 increasing our foundational strength through the big 5. If we achieve these three things without using olympic movements, we will have effectively gained power via strength. I felt good enough about my needs analysis (who wouldn’t,) and the results are speaking for themselves.

As anticipated, we saw some great progress early on for many guys. We had 11 guys over 5000 watts in our first week. I told our head coach that my initial goal would be to shoot for the entire team to hit 5000w each, and then to have at least half the guys over 5500w for phase 2. So far, our team average has increased by about 400w and we now have 19/23 guys over 5000w, with 10/23 over 5500 (5 of them scoring 5900w+.) These might have been modest goals, but we are reaching them. We have also lost over 20 pounds of fat as a group and gained over 40 pounds of lean mass. This is based on body comp (BIA Analysis) data collected 6 weeks apart, and remember, we’re dealing with soccer players. They don’t have a ton of fat to lose to begin with, and they put on good weight fairly easily.

Statistical Analysis and Research Round-Up: What are the mechanisms at work behind increasing power via strength?

For our seventh week leading into spring break, we had two sessions. One in which we looked to achieve close to a 5RM on Deadlifts, and one where we looked to achieve close to a 5RM on Front Squats.

I looked through the numbers and ran a few rudimentary tests on SPSS to find a trend in our progress. Here’s what I’ve got:msoccorrelations




So basically, what the correlations from the SPSS trial tell us are the following.

  1. Our Lean Mass values had the greatest correlation to our power outputs (PO2) at .829.
  2. Our Front Squat values had a correlation to power output of .760.
  3. Our deadlift values had a correlation to our power outputs of .727.
  4. The significance of each relationship was greater than 99.9% in all cases (due to sample size primarily,) but these weren’t all DEFINITE 5RMs either in my opinion.




Since all of these correlations are significant at the .01 level (actually even smaller than .01) there is defense for  what I said. Improving body composition and basic strength WILL increase power outputs. That isn’t the confusing (or interesting) part really. Although, the correlations aren’t exactly “1,” they are very unlikely to be different on  a larger scale (more on this later.)

So what is interesting?

Firstly, the discrepancy between the deadlifts and the front squat in terms of their relationship to increasing power outputs. Obviously both of them will have a positive effect on the power outputs, but why specifically?

Firstly, the front squat is more biomechanically similar to the countermovement jump and the countermovement jump is one of only two variables determining power output. That said, this training program isn’t designed exclusively to increase “vertical jump” it’s designed to increase power. Ability to accelerate your own mass (same or more mass faster, less mass faster depending on specific needs) is power.

THIS STUDY makes several interesting points. Although their sample size was also small (n=20, but far more heterogeneous) the analysis is far more interesting than mine.

Point 1: in the pictures below, there is comparison in change in joint angles comparitively speaking between the jump squat, vertical jump, and power clean. Obviously, we would expect the jump squat to have greater similarity to the vertical jump (duh) but the first pull in the clean vs. the vertical jump (Circles on 1st and 3rd pictures) was interesting. In a proper clean, the knees have far greater angular displacement than the hips in the first pull. This lends credit to my results naturally in that the front squat had a higher relationship to our power output results. It also got me thinking, is true “triple extension” actually a term better applied to squat and vertical jumps? The “triple extension” we see in the clean (if done properly) is actually asynchronous, and not to a modest degree.


So obviously the jump squat and vertical jump are more biomechanically related, and that substantiates the relationship between the two by itself. However, this only covers the fact that the movements are the same and that overloading the movement should produce better results once tested only with bodyweight. I also believe that bracing and core stiffness strategies play a significant role in being able to jump higher after performing the same movement with external load.

Here are also the EMG’s from all three movements (in case you’re interested.) These images show more synchronous activation of extensors around 50% of progress through the upward phases of the movement. Also note how much closer the activation curves are for the jump and the jump squat compared to the clean.


**As an aside, the rec fem and VM were both active to a greater extent and remained active (vs. two distinct phases of activity – thanks double knee bend) during the jumping movements. In my opinion this could very well lend a hand in training proper saggital and frontal plane knee mechanics and control.

Special variables for the clean:

As I’ve said before, I love olympic weightlifting exercises, and I think they are absolutely fantastic for creating better all around athletes. Based on  this research though, what is/are the “X” variables that make this possible?

As we could’ve guessed, and based on the images below, we can credit trainable neuromuscular attributes for the unique ability of the (upward phase of the) clean to develop power. Specifically peak force and rate of force development are greater in the clean than in the vertical jump and jump squat.


Here also are the force and power data from each exercise for one trial by one participant. 


The article also brings attention to the above instance of 3C (Force/Time) and specifically to the rapid redirection of force demonstrated in the loading and accelerative phase of the vertical jump and jump squat. Since we are only looking at the “upward” phase of the movements, these demonstrate similar training of the stretch reflex that the clean only trains during the catch and recovery phase (shown to a lesser degree in the latter part of it’s respective curve in the same chart.)

So where do I go from here?

Although I’ve only reviewed one article for the purpose of this writing, it’s worth noting that it was very thorough (it was also done by researchers at a Canadian university.) With the limited time I have with this group to pack a whole year’s worth of training stimuli into one semester, it’s greatly helpful in providing insight for future direction.

If I’ve already got my guys front squatting and deadlifting to a degree that is technically sound, and they have experience with these movements, it reasons that I should be able to have them clean no problem right?

Well, maybe. However, if they’ve demonstrated the requisite mobility and postural integrity to execute front squats, I should have a far easier time having them transition into a power phase with jump squats. Additionally, if all I was really missing (shortsighted maybe) from the cleans was the rate of force development off the floor, why wouldn’t I have them clean pull? After all like I said, we deadlift pretty well.

So that’s what we’ll do. We’ve gained a lot of experience with a few movements and we’re going to keep it simple. I see absolutely no reason to introduce an entirely new exercise when I can reproduce nearly all of the training effects in the aggregate. Technical mastery trumps all in my opinion.

Happy Sunday.

Research Source:

A biomechanical comparison of the vertical jump, power clean, and jump squat

Mackenzie, Sasho James ; Lavers, Robert J. ; Wallace, Brendan B.

Journal of Sports Sciences, 2014, Vol.32(16), p.1576-1585 [Peer Reviewed Journal]


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