(by Mark Asanovich, Strength & Conditioning Coach, Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
I am not a proponent of "quick-lift" training protocols -- and have publicly gone on record numerous times in an attempt to dissuade coaches/athletes from practicing/prescribing their use. I have gone as far as resigning a job at the I-AA intercollegiate level (The Citadel) because of my refusal to implement these lifts. Although I very much regret this is not a popular stance, I do not regret the position I take with respect to the Olympic lifts. As such, I am writing to further elaborate my position.
Exercise scientists generally do not agree on many training issues; however, relative to the "ballistic" training protocols, they do agree that there is no conclusive data that supports exaggerated claims as to their benefits, when evaluated under the scrutiny of valid, non-partisan, peer-reviewed research. According to the conflicting scientific literature, any alleged gains in "explosiveness" resulting from Olympic lifting and plyometric exercises are PERCEIVED gains, and are therefore no more significant than doing absolutely nothing at all!
The problem with perceived/conflicting results is that it creates differences in opinions. Opinions are merely subjective beliefs that evolve from one's existential experiences. Differences naturally occur in opinions, since one's beliefs are usually influenced by one's personal circumstances/conditions. Such is life! However, human nature generally gravitates toward "comfortable" and/or "familiar" beliefs that have traditionally been consistent with one's past experiences. However, what is considered "familiar" to one may be quite different to another.
Herein lays the problem. Disagreements will exist when emotional/sentimental prejudices, even in the light of impartial data, bias one's objectivity. Furthermore, when preconceived opinions are coupled with the obsessive psyches of athletes, coaches and overzealous parents, it is understandable how such pseudo-scientific hocus-pocus filters into mainstream thinking relative to the training of athletes. Certainly, they are well-intended; however, the problem is that they are not well educated. As a result, it doesn't become a question of who's right and who's wrong, but who's done their homework and who hasn't?
John Adams once said, "Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence." To that I would add..."or the lack of facts and evidence".
In the Journal of Applied Physiology 74(1): 359-368, 1993; Behm and Sale concluded that the principle stimuli for performing high-velocity movement is not one's training protocol, but rather one's intent to perform in a ballistic manner. They also state that "training contractions characterized by rapid force development to relatively high peak force may be more likely to cause muscle injuries such as strains and tears."
Motor Learning experts, on the other hand, would tell you that the mirrors and stage props used in the explosive training protocols violate the most fundamental principle of motor development, that being -- the principle of specificity. The principle of specificity states that training/practice must BE SPECIFIC to an intended skill in order for skill improvement -- or "carryover" to occur. "Specific" means exact or identical, not "similar" or "just like." Therefore, accelerating a bar from the floor or knee-height-position by a forceful rolling of the hips may somewhat assimilate driving off the line of scrimmage -- but the truth of the matter is, Olympic lifting will only improve one's skills at Olympic lifting -- and nothing else.
As a result, for a football player to logically develop higher levels of football skills more effectively/efficaciously, he/she would better spend their time on the gridiron practicing and perfecting the techniques, mechanics and strategies specific to his/her position under the tutelage of a qualified football coach. Likewise, for a football player to develop the strength to perform those skills (and more importantly, protect him/herself from injury), he/she needs to incorporate a progressive resistance exercise program under the guidance of a qualified strength coach. 'Nuff said!
Now, in regards to this business of "explosion" or better yet "power" development: In retrospect, these are oft-used terms in coaching vernacular -- yet oft-abused. And for good reason, I might add! They are abused and misunderstood because of our profession's lack of providing a universal/generic definition. Since we're on the subject of undefined terms in our field -- how about "strength"? As far as I know, there are as many definitions of this term as there are people trying to define it. If we can't begin to agree on this, how in the world are we going to come to some consensus understanding on strength training protocols, or "power" training for that matter?
To develop "explosion," it is not necessary to assimilate explosive speeds of movement into training protocols, but rather to practice the mechanics of sports skills at an explosive speed. Olympic lifts and other "ballistic" exercise protocols are promoted as "proprioceptive and speed-enhancement" activities that are designed to facilitate "the ability to move quickly and explosively." In fact, according to the scientific literature, Olympic lifts are unproven/unproductive at best and orthopedically dangerous at worst. Therefore, even if they were proven effective in developing "power," they would be contraindicated because of the risks involved.
Furthermore; Olympic lifts, like any momentum-assistive movement, violate the most fundamental principle of strength development, that being -- the Overload Principle. The Overload Principle states that muscular development will only occur as a result of the application of a stress that exceeds the muscles volitional contractile capabilities. Therefore, if the application of the stressor is "momentum-assisted," the amount of stress is lessened once the load has been accelerated. As a result, muscular development is compromised. Consequently, performing exercises at maximal speeds will yield minimal muscular results.
To make matters worse, performing exercises at maximal speeds risks maximal soft tissue trauma. Newton's second law of motion definitively states that when a mass is accelerated, the forces produced are directly proportional to the velocity of movement. Therefore, as the acceleration of a mass/load is increased, there is a concomitant increase in forces around the axis of movement.
Relative to an individual performing an Olympic lifting movement, the magnitude of potential internal sheering forces produced is directly proportional to the speed at which the exercise is performed -- particularly at the initial/terminal points of the lift where the load is either being accelerated/decelerated. Injuries are sustained when these forces exceed the structural integrity of the involved joint(s) connective tissue. If acute injuries are averted, repeated bio-loading trauma from such ballistic movements can predispose the muscles, bones and connective tissue to chronic injuries that are often realized once the athlete enters competition. For this reason, Dr. Fred Allman, former American College of Sports Medicine president has warned: "It is even possible that many injuries may be the result of weakened connective tissue caused by explosive training in the weight room."
Unfortunately, a joint's structural limits are unknown until the damage has already been done -- and then is too late. As ludicrous as it is, many proponents of ballistic training protocols contest that athletes who are exposed to potentially high injurious forces in competition should also be exposed to those same potentially injurious forces in training! Given such logic, it would therefore follow that one would best prepare for a concussion by banging one's head against the wall!
Obviously, risk of injury is inherent (and accepted) in sports competition. To suggest that there be inherent (and acceptable) risk of injury in training for sports competition is in my belief UNACCEPTABLE, UNPROFESSIONAL and UNETHICAL. The objective of any training protocol for athletes should be a means to enhance one's physical potential -- not endanger it! As a result, one should be encouraged to perform strength-training protocols in a controlled, deliberate manner. To do otherwise, is to invite musculoskeletal injury.
Certainly, many controversies exist relative to training methodologies, "ballistic" or "explosive" training being a major one. It is my contention that, as with anything in life, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Olympic lifting and its related training styles are no exception to the rule.