This is an article I’m regretting writing before I even start. One, because I know it will spur a bunch of time-consuming argument on the internet; two, because no matter what it will sound emotional; and three, because it feels a bit like trying to convince people that it makes more sense to eat with your hands than with your feet. I expect that the people who agree with what I’m going to say already agree with it, and those who disagree will keep on disagreeing, and probably like me even less than they do now—but I suppose I don’t particularly care. At the very least, it will serve as a personal catharsis and unburden me of these thoughts so I can get back to more important work.
Every so often, someone from the powerlifting or strength training world pops his head up and fires off a few shots into the weightlifting world (note right now that “weightlifting” refers specifically to the Olympic sport of the snatch and clean & jerk). These shots ricochet around the internet for a while, sparking little fires, and then eat up whatever short supply of fuel they have and die out. While they’re smoldering, however, they manage to excite a few people. This particular article was sparked by a recent interview with Louie Simmons that has been floating around the ether getting people worked into a lather either denouncing him or falling madly in love with him.
I’m warning you in advance that this article will be unfocused, incohesive and possibly offensive to a few individuals. My intention is not to insult anyone personally, but I also am not in any kind of mood to strain my capacity for diplomacy. To be clear, this article is not by any means meant to be disparaging of the sport of powerlifting or of powerlifters or powerlifting coaches. If powerlifting is your sport, that’s fantastic. I respect your hard work and your commitment to a sport. It’s not my sport and it’s well outside my wheelhouse, which is exactly why I don’t opine on powerlifting training methodology—I know what I don’t know. But to avoid confusion and preempt the results of the ubiquitous hypersensitivity of everyone on the internet, consider this the explicit disclaimer.
Deadlift & Clean Speed
In the interview in question, Simmons launches right away into this one: “If you look at Benni Magnussen deadlift 1014, the time from when he starts the bar until he stands erect, if you take the time of the largest clean, all right, in the world, take that time, the time he cleans and stands up, and you’ll be surprised that Benni stands up erect faster than he does.”
Right off the bat, this doesn’t even pass the laugh test. First, if we take this quote literally, he’s comparing the time of execution of one lifter standing erect in a deadlift, to another lifter standing erect, then pulling under the bar, then standing erect again. This is like saying a 50 meter sprinter ran 50 meters faster than a 100 meter sprinter ran 100 meters: No shit.
So let’s be generous and assume that he was making a comparison that’s actually logical and looking only at the time it took each lifter to lift the bar from the floor to an extended, standing position. Below are videos of Benedikt Magnusson deadlifting 1015 lbs and Leonid Taranenko clean & jerking 266 kg (586 lbs), the heaviest clean & jerk in weightlifting competition history, so presumably the one to which Simmons is referring.
Using my laboratory (YouTube and a stopwatch), I timed these two lifts to make sure I wasn’t insane before I proceeded with this part of the article. Taranenko catches the clean poorly and has to bounce a couple times in the bottom before he stands up. Obviously this increases the time of the lift dramatically. However, even with this struggle, he completes the clean, from the time he pulls the bar off the floor to the time he stands from the squat, in about 3.3 seconds. Magnusson’s deadlift from the time he pulls the bar from the floor to the time he locks it out? About 3.1 seconds. Forgive me if these times are not perfectly accurate. If you time them and get a couple fractions of a second difference, I’m not interested—it’s close enough for the purpose of this article.
So if we take Simmon’s quote literally, yes, Magnusson deadlifts faster than Taranenko cleans. But again, this comparison is nonsensical, and even with that illogical disparity in the two lifts, AND the error in Taranenko’s clean, the difference is pretty insignificant. If we time only Taranenko’s clean pull, we’re looking at 0.8 seconds—almost 4 times faster than Magnusson’s deadlift. Take a similarly heavy clean with an immediate recovery, and it would be faster than the deadlift. And more importantly, it doesn’t matter, because a comparison of a deadlift to a clean is meaningless.
If you want to continue arguing about the speeds of those two lifts, I forfeit, because there’s nothing else to be said.
We Don’t Have Qualified Coaches & We Believe in Only Technique and Speed Instead of Strength
Simmons explains that the reason the US doesn’t have any international elite weightlifters is because we don’t have any qualified coaches. He continues to say that where we go wrong is believing weightlifting is more about speed than strength, that US weightlifting coaches will tell you that strength doesn’t matter, just speed and technique.
Which weightlifting coaches is Simmons talking to? Which weightlifting gyms has he trained in or observed? I have literally never met a single weightlifting coach who says or believes that—not one. This “strength doesn’t matter” US weightlifting coach is a mythical creature created by a few specific powerlifters and powerlifting coaches to build their precarious arguments on.
Additionally, the resident coach at the Olympic training center since 2010 is Polish, not American, and trained and competed for Poland (all the way to the Olympics), was educated in Poland, and was the head coach of the Polish national team until he relocated to Colorado Springs in 2010. If the problem lay exclusively with American coaches and their lack of ability, we should be seeing a stunning disparity in athletes coached by Smalcerz compared to the rest—and it’s not there.
Presumably, Simmons and others would cite larger squat numbers by powerlifters than weightlifters to support this claim that weightlifters don’t care about strength. This is an entire article itself, but briefly, we’re talking about completely different animals; it’s akin to the deadlift:clean time comparison earlier. How about we compare the clean & jerk numbers of powerlifters and weightlifters? (I can already hear the fantastic tales of some powerlifter power cleaning some big weight the first time he ever tried it. Like I said, clean & jerk.)
Finally, weightlifting in the US is possibly one of the most stringently drug-tested sports in the country. All lifters are subject to testing at all national-level meets, and can be tested at any time out of competition. Our top ranked lifters are tested so frequently it becomes absurd at times. Residents at the Olympic training center have told me about being tested five times in a single month. We can’t even use many common cold medicines.
Now these athletes and the coaches who train them are being lectured about getting stronger by coaches and athletes who are not only competing in completely untested federations, but some of whom (such as Simmons) are vocal proponents of steroid use and openly admit to using them for their entire careers. I’m not objecting morally or ethically to this; it’s just laughable that this elephant in the room is conveniently ignored by the people riding it.
Until you’re a competitive weightlifter in a USADA-tested federation, or coach weightlifters who are, we can’t even have this conversation. It’s stunning to me how qualified so many people feel to comment on a sport with which they have no experience and consequently, a complete (and glaringly obvious to those who do) lack of understanding of it.
Further, it mystifies me why, when people point out that other countries are better than the US at weightlifting, the suggested solutions are nearly invariably to train in ways these other countries do not (such as using bands or low bar back squats). This again is such a clear example of the lack of understanding and rampant fantasies about what these elite weightlifters do in training.
How is it that powerlifting coaches who have never coached a weightlifter, been a weightlifter (I believe Simmons was a weightlifter when he was 14 years old; another who likes to criticize loudly has best snatch and clean & jerk numbers lower than some of my female lifters), observed the training of weightlifters, or seen the training programs of weightlifters know so much more about weightlifting than the people for whom the sport is their entire life for decades, who travel around the world to foreign weightlifting training centers and interact with the lifters and coaches, and who travel to the highest levels of weightlifting competition in the world, speaking with coaches and lifters from the most dominant countries and talking shop?
Interviewer: “You train any weightlifters ever?”
Louie Simmons: “No one’s ever sent someone qualified to come here to lift weights.”
That’s a convoluted way of saying no. It's also blaming everyone else for not proving him right. It seems to me that the burden of proof is on him, as it is for anyone who makes claims contrary to current thought or practice.
And then what comes next? The power clean tale!
Call me old-fashioned, but I have a hard time understanding anyone being confident in offering advice—and not just advice, but scathing criticism—in an area they admittedly have no experience in. He’s read the old Soviet training manuals? Neat, so have I and every other weightlifting coach in the US; we also coach weightlifters every day.
Weightlifters often snatch, clean and jerk a lot in training, and more so the closer they are to a major competition, and often more so the further along in their careers they are. Because these aren’t pure strength lifts like squats and deadlifts, this apparently leads some to believe we’re just training technique and don’t care about strength. I’ve addressed this in previous articles
so I won’t go into great detail here, but suffice to say, believing that snatching and clean & jerking is only technique work is tantamount to saying you have no idea what you’re talking about.
It seems to be forgotten by many that the snatch and the clean & jerk have to actually be trained, and this is something you cannot genuinely understand without experience in the sport. In powerlifting, maybe you can go entire training cycles without doing the actual competition lift (such as the WSBB example of only box squatting in training; although it seems that more and more powerlifters and coaches recently are getting wise to the benefits of frequently training the competition lifts themselves), but the squat, deadlift and bench aren’t exactly technical lifts in comparison to the snatch and clean & jerk, and the amount of motor learning and reinforcement are minimal when compared to the Olympic lifts (If you’re squirming and yelling at your computer that the powerlifts ARE technically difficult, just stop reading because there is nothing I can say to help you understand—this is an issue of relative complexity, not a judgment of value). The elements of the Olympic lifts are intertwined in a way that demands the competition lifts be trained frequently and with great emphasis. Yes, it’s a strength sport, but not in the same straightforward manner that powerlifting is; to think the two sports should be trained for in the same way is unequivocally silly.
Bands on Cleans
Continuing with his disdain for every weightlifting coach in the US, Simmons proceeds to suggest that weightlifters should be using bands in their clean training. He says that one of the most important parts of the Olympic lifts is the squat under (Never heard any US weightlifting coach talk about that one before…), and that using band resistance will force lifters to pull under faster.
This is great in theory—yes, lifters need to move under the bar aggressively and rapidly. But bands are a terrible way to accomplish training this. I will gladly explain my reasoning in a brief numbered list:
1. Band resistance will change the speed, acceleration and timing of the movement. If you are a weightlifter, you understand how problematic this is. If you’re not, I don’t have the energy to repeat everything I’ve said already about the nature of the Olympic lifts. A deadlift or squat with accommodating resistance is a completely different story—all you do is continue trying to stand up until you can’t stand up anymore. Changes in speed or timing during that effort have no real effect on the movement until the point at which the resistance exceeds the athlete’s ability to move it. Of course if you’re looking for fancy terminology without the gadgets, you can use Dr. Fred Hatfield’s compensatory acceleration method—that is, accelerate as much as possible during the concentric phase of the lift (exactly what weightlifters should be doing and nearly always do in their squats anyway), which means more speed as mechanics improve, which keeps force and power high, as is the purpose of accommodating resistance.
2. Simmons says that in the Olympic lifts, there is a very rapid deceleration of the bar following the lifter’s upward extension, so the movement under the bar must be fast. Of course—this isn’t exactly news. However, in a clean or snatch, the deceleration to zero is not instantaneous, which is exactly what allows a lifter to move under the bar. Learning this timing is critical for successful lifts, and as I said in #1, bands change that timing and feel completely. Additionally, band resistance changes the behavior of the bar with regard to how it moves in the turnover in relation to the body (for example, it will be pulled primarily in the direction of the bands’ origins, which, depending on how the athlete has executed the lift to that point, may not be the direction in which it would naturally be inclined to move), meaning the athlete isn’t learning and perfecting the nuanced skill of controlling the bar and his or her body during this phase.
If you want to force yourself to be faster under a clean, clean from high blocks or the hang, do tall cleans, or… clean heavier weights. If you’re complaining that your cleans float too much at the top so you can’t learn to turn them over properly without band resistance, you have some work to do on the clean generally, and bands are not the solution. You may get a quick sense of improvement initially, but you're opening the door for additional problems. Learn to maintain your grip in the turnover longer, and learn how to meet the bar with your body instead of jumping down indiscriminately.
I don’t object to the use of bands for squats and deadlifts, although I also don’t think it’s particularly helpful for weightlifting. I have even used light bands for jerk drives in order to allow the drive to be completed without the bar leaving the shoulders and crashing back onto the lifter. But these movements are completely different from the Olympic lifts themselves, and band resistance doesn’t interfere with the lift in any meaningful way.
But What Do I Know?
All that said, this is just my opinion and I don't expect it to be shared by everyone. Experiment with whatever you want and with some luck, you'll find new things that work. It doesn't hurt my feelings to see coaches using tricks that I don't; it's my choice to use them or not myself.
Those who criticize US weightlifting coaches often use the tired refrain that we’re hindered by a reliance on tradition—that we do what we do simply because it’s what we've always done. This of course is obviously nonsense to anyone actually in weightlifting, which has evolved greatly in the past few decades, and this is why the remark is constantly dismissed without even being addressed. Every weightlifting coach in the world has the same goal—to make his lifters as good as possible. No coach worth noticing will ignore genuine means to that end. The so-called "traditions" are such because these things have been proven effective repeatedly among many lifters and coaches and no other reason. Non-weightlifting coaches crying about us not listening to them because we’re afraid of diverging from tradition reminds me of a petulant teenager telling his parents that they’re square and scared because they don’t wear black eyeliner and skinny jeans, listen to shitty, whiny music, and get high on cough syrup like they do.
As soon as Mr. Simmons or any other critic actually produces an elite weightlifter subject to USADA drug testing for the entirety of his competitive career, I will pay close attention. Until then, it's just a lot of untested theory and baseless criticism. Coaching weightlifting is such an easy thing to do when you don't have to actually do it.