As a National level Olympic Weightlifter myself and BJJ practitioner, I have a love affair with Weightlifting. It is what I train when I’m in the gym because I love the sport, even though I no longer compete. However, are performing the Olympic lifts necessary for MMA performance?
Olympic Weightlifting is not necessary for MMA. Exercises such as the jump squat can elicit similar peak power outputs in the same direction of movement.
However, there aren’t many other exercises that allow such explosiveness against a heavy load making them a potentially viable option for MMA athletes.
What Are The Olympic Lifts?
Olympic Weightlifting consists of two main lifts. The Snatch and the Clean & Jerk. The Snatch is categorized by the bar moving in one motion from the ground to overhead while the Clean & Jerk has the bar moving from the ground to overhead in two separate motions.
When Weightlifters train for these two lifts, they don’t only perform these lifts during training. They break them down further into Weightlifting derivatives.
Weightlifting derivatives are simply the Snatch and Clean & Jerk broken down into their parts. For non-Weightlifting athletes, this can make them more easily digestible while obtaining similar benefits that would normally occur while performing the Snatch and Clean & Jerk.
This graph doesn’t list all of the Weightlifting derivatives. You can also include all the different Jerk variations such as push presses and power jerks. However, this graph does show how each exercise fits on the force-velocity curve (F-V).
Why Are The Olympic Lifts Used For Weight Training?
When strength training, a common mistake is only lifting as heavy as possible. While this develops maximal strength, it doesn’t address faster movements. That is what the F-V curve represents. The F-V represents the inverse relationship between force and velocity. Meaning, as the force produced during a movement increases, the velocity decreases.
As the velocity of a movement increases, the force decreases. That is why the double peak muscle activation is such an intriguing concept with regards to punching harder. It allows simultaneous high forces and velocities which the most elite strikers possess.
The Olympic lifts and their derivatives allow higher forces at higher velocities than traditional strength movements such as squatting or deadlifting essentially maximizing power output. They would be considered strength speed exercises on the F-V curve.
Olympic Weightlifting derivatives can be used to emphasize maximal strength or velocity depending on the exercise and load. These are often included in programs because of the vast number of movement variations that can touch on all parts of the F-V curve.
Weightlifting Research On Velocity & Power
Elite level Weightlifters have been shown to produce the most power while jumping at loads up to 90% of squat 1RM compared to elite powerlifters and sprinters . Another study found Weightlifters produced higher power outputs in the squat at any load compared with powerlifters and wrestlers .
The results from studies like these have led to coaches and athletes extrapolating results to include the Olympic lifts into their training program. But there’s a chicken and egg argument that can be had regarding the superior power output in Weightlifters.
Are Weightlifters the most powerful because of the training they perform or because they are genetically powerful so naturally drift towards a sport that favors their genetic makeup?
Secondly, the optimum percentage for producing peak power for the Snatch and Clean & Jerk is approximately 70-85% of 1RM . If an MMA athlete has no experience with the Olympic lifts, are they going to also see power outputs from the second pull at 70-85% of their 1RM of 3x their squat and deadlift? Or will the lack of sound technique limit the load they can use to develop that power?
Is Olympic Weightlifting Good For MMA?
If we refer to my “What Is Strength Training” article, Olympic Weightlifting would be considered a special preparation exercise under the transfer of training theory and doesn’t meet any of the criteria of dynamic correspondence.
The Olympic lifts are also loaded axially (top to bottom) as part of the force vector theory whereas MMA is often loaded in the torsional (rotational), anteroposterior (front to back), and lateromedial (side to side) force vectors.
Does this make the Olympic lifts useless?
Are they the best and only exercise you can perform to maximise power output?
Should MMA athletes use the Olympic lifts?
It depends. Here are some scenarios that I feel need to be ticked off before using the Olympic lifts for MMA athletes.
- The lifts don’t exacerbate any previous or current injuries.
- The athlete enjoys performing them and learning them.
- Not being in the build-up to a fight when only learning the movements.
- It makes up a very small percentage of the overall training program.
There aren’t many other exercises that allow such high power outputs and velocity with heavier loads. These characteristics of the Olympic lifts can potentially transfer well to grappling with the ability to explode against heavier loads such as an opponent.
There is also something to be said about the coordination aspect of Weightlifting. Jimmy Radcliffe, ex Oregon Football strength and conditioning coach said in one of his seminars that no other exercise provides the need to coordinate from toenails to fingernails to get the bar from the floor to overhead.
He even found performing Olympic lifts before sprinting enhanced sprinting performance to a greater extent than heavy squats or bodyweight jumps.
Whether it’s down to the coordination aspect or the moderate load than can elicit high power outputs, it brings to light an interesting concept.
MMA athletes likely have very little experience with strength training, let alone Olympic Weightlifting. The time needed to teach the lifts potentially outweighs the benefits derived from the exercises.
That is why there are other ways to develop peak power or address the velocity side of the F-V curve.
What Are Olympic Weightlifting Alternatives?
Other than breaking the full lifts down into their derivatives, there are other exercises that can also be loaded relatively heavy that don’t have a large technical component.
For example, the jump squat with the barbell on the back has been shown to elicit similar peak power outputs to the Olympic lifts in professional rugby players at similar bodyweights .
Peak power was reached at a much lighter load of 20% of jump squat 1RM. This makes it an extremely accessible option for developing peak power for MMA athletes of any level and experience. This can also be done with a trap bar but removes the pre-stretch making it more of a starting strength exercise.
Kettlebell scoop throws are another option. They provide immediate feedback through how high or far the kettlebell travels. If force isn’t transferred from the feet through to the hand, then the throw will be short.
To address force vectors outside of the axial force vector, rotational medicine ball throws can be used. Anteroposterior can be performed through explosive kettlebell swings and hip thrusts while lateromedial can be addressed through lateral jumps.
“Strength Training For MMA” puts together a full strength training program without using the Olympic lifts.
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2. Stone, M. H., O’BRYANT, H. S., McCoy, L., Coglianese, R., Lehmkuhl, M. A. R. K., & Schilling, B. (2003). Power and maximum strength relationships during performance of dynamic and static weighted jumps. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 17(1), 140-147.
3. Stone, M. H., Pierce, K. C., Sands, W. A., & Stone, M. E. (2006). Weightlifting: A brief overview. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 28(1), 50.
4. Turner, A. P., Unholz, C. N., Potts, N., & Coleman, S. G. (2012). Peak power, force, and velocity during jump squats in professional rugby players. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 26(6), 1594-1600.