by Charles Poliquin
A look at three great lifts to accurately assess an athlete’s strength and power. “Not testing again!” is a phrase commonly exclaimed by athletes when they are told they will be tested on various aspects of strength and conditioning. As a strength coach, how can you get the information you need from your athletes while minimizing their anxiety? Try streamlining the process with a few predictor lifts, which provide estimates on what an athlete can do in several other lifts. For example, if an athlete can lift 300 pounds in an incline bench press, it’s highly likely the prone bench max of this athlete will be considerably higher. The question is, what are the best predictor lifts for athletes?”
A simple solution would be to test the three power lifts (bench press, squat, deadlift) and the two Olympic lifts (snatch, clean and jerk). Consider first that if you have them perform all the lifts, they are duplicating certain performance aspects. The clean portion of the clean and jerk tests the strength of the lower back similarly to a deadlift. As such, if you have them perform a max deadlift or squat, it would be difficult to follow that with a max snatch or max clean and jerk, and likewise, performing a max snatch and max clean and jerk would make it difficult to hit a max on the squat or deadlift.
Also, full snatches and clean and jerks are extremely technical lifts, and this aspect often makes it difficult to assess the athlete’s true potential. A great example is Paul Anderson, considered to be the strongest man in his era. Due to his size, he could not achieve a low squat position, so he was limited in how well he could perform the snatch and the clean and jerk. In 1956 Anderson’s winning lifts included a 319-pound snatch and a 413-pound clean and jerk; compare his records to the current world records for women in these lifts, which are a 332 snatch and a 418 clean and jerk.
Another issue is that there are countless exercises you could test. For leg strength there are exercises performed with barbells (back squat, front squat, overhead squat), dumbbells (split squat, step-up, lunge), machines (incline leg press, horizontal leg press, leg curl), and – if you want to test for repetitions – strongman equipment (super yoke, sled). Then, what about exercises for lower body power, such as the power clean and power snatch? And after you narrow down that selection, you have to look at upper body strength exercises. It’s quite a challenge.
Canadian weightlifter Terry Hadlow and Coach Charles Poliquin stepped up to that challenge. Hadlow is a top competitor who made two Olympic teams and competed in his country’s senior nationals in five different decades. At a symposium on strength training hosted by the International Coaching School in Victoria, British Columbia, Hadlow and Poliquin came up with a “top three” list of predictor exercises for athletes, as follows:
1. Power snatch
2. Front squat
3. Incline bench press
Let’s take a closer look at each.
Power snatch. The basic difference between a power clean and a power snatch is that rather than bringing the barbell to rest on the shoulders, with the power snatch the athlete pulls the bar overhead in one motion. The power snatch will measure the power production capabilities of the posterior chain muscles of an athlete. Also, because a lighter weight is used in the power snatch compared to a power clean, enabling the barbell to move faster, the exercise will provide a better assessment of the velocity side of a force-velocity curve.
Athletes will use a wider grip with the power snatch; many athletes prefer this lift because such a grip places less stress on their wrists and elbows. Also, athletes who have relatively long lower arms compared to their upper arms may find that racking the barbell during the power clean is extremely uncomfortable.
In comparison to the power clean, the power snatch calls for more involvement of the hamstrings than the quadriceps calls for. The hamstrings help produce a powerful hip extension, such as occurs in the vertical jump and in short sprints. As a bonus, the wider grip used with the power snatch forces lifters to bend their knees more, thereby working the hamstrings through a greater range of motion.
The power snatch should be performed as a single rep in one continuous, explosive movement, from floor to extended arms overhead. At no point should there be a deceleration of the bar followed by a “press out” of the bar. Upon reception of the bar at arm’s length, the knee should not bend down more than one third of the way. Because the power snatch is performed for only a single maximal effort, isometric strength-endurance in the grip should not be a limiting factor in achieving a high score. Lifting belts are also not permitted; the lower back should be sufficiently conditioned so it doesn’t require such a crutch.
Front squat. Whereas the power snatch assesses the velocity side of a force-velocity curve, the front squat assesses the force side of the force-velocity curve.
The front squat provides a more objective interpretation of what a good lift is because it’s easier to cheat in the back squat. In fact, if an athlete tries to cheat on the front squat by shooting their hips back as they drive up out of the bottom position, they will most likely drop the bar.
Another advantage of the front squat is that it will immediately assess flexibility because athletes will not be able to perform the front squat unless their flexibility is superior in all the major joints. As a coach, when you administer strength tests that require flexibility, your athletes have a strong incentive to train for flexibility. This is obviously not the case with the back squat, but it is particularly true for those bench press specialists who have problems supporting the bar in the right position on the clavicles. If an athlete has very tight forearms and external rotators of the shoulder, it will be very hard to hold the bar. This is another lift where an experienced weightlifting coach can help with the proper technique.
To test a 1-rep max on the exercise, have your athletes use a pronated (palms down) grip as they would for a power clean. Have them squat down until their hamstrings completely cover the gastrocnemius (upper calf) muscles. Have them keep their trunk upright, and push their elbows up and in. Use a 40X0 tempo to control the lowering for the eccentric range.
In this lift, probably two spotters are required, but an experienced coach can spot that lift without a second spotter. Athletes with tight shoulder girdles may find straps useful to hold up the bar; have them place their shoulders under the bar and grasp the straps with their palms facing each other (i.e., semisupinated or neutral). You’ll find that using straps in this manner enables athletes to keep their elbows high without discomfort.
Incline bench press. Although a strong case can be made for the overhead press, if you are going to select only one test to measure shoulder flexion and elbow extension strength, the top choice is the incline bench press performed with a barbell. The pressing angle of an incline bench press is more specific to sporting movements than the angle of a bench press due to the shoulder joint angle in relation to the trunk. Whether it is a punch delivered in boxing, the release of a shot put, or the push-off position in the short-track speedskating relay, you will notice that the upper arm is at a 45-degree angle upward in relation to the trunk. There are also many sporting movements in which the athlete pushes with the upper arm directly at 90 degrees to the trunk.
To test the incline bench press, adjust the bench to a 45-degree incline. Be certain that the testing bench incline is always constant, since even minor variations in bench angle can greatly affect strength performance, and thus lead to either disappointment or false elation. The hands should be biacromial width apart, which is the distance between the two acromions of the shoulder blades. A spotter should be there to help the athlete unrack the bar at arms’ length and to assist in case of a failed attempt. Use a 40X0 tempo to control the lowering for the eccentric range.
A thumbless grip positions the barbell more in line with the lower arm bone, and many powerlifters believe this grip enables them to lift more weight, but the problem is that the bar can easily slip off the hands. Also, the lower back should not be excessively arched, the feet should be flat on the floor, the hips should remain in contact with the bench at all times, and at least one spotter should be used.
The Structural Balance Factor
Assuming the sport in question is not an upper-body-dominated sport such as whitewater kayaking or wheelchair basketball, athletes should strive to develop a good ratio of maximal strength performance on the power snatch, front squat and incline bench press. For example, if an athlete is bench pressing more than they are front squatting, this indicates a structural imbalance and the need to modify the strength training program.
The following percentages apply to lower-body-dominated sports such as speedskating, alpine skiing, sprinting, jumping, volleyball and basketball. Using data accumulated from more than 22 different Olympic sports, Coach Poliquin developed the following relative percentage scale for the following three lifts:
Front squat: 100 percent
Incline bench press: 73 percent
Power snatch: 65 percent
As you can see, the lifts are ranked by percentage, using the front squat as the absolute reference value. For example, if a male athlete can do a 300-pound front squat, his incline bench press should be roughly 220 pounds and his power snatch about 195 pounds.
While strength testing may not be the most enjoyable activity for athletes, coaches can make testing fast, simple and relevant by just focusing on the power snatch, front squat and incline bench press. These three exercises provide great information for the purposes of evaluating your athletes and designing workout programs.