Strength, power, and size: can you have it all?

Often times I get asked about being able to excel in Olympic lifting and CrossFit while still making improvements in body composition. 

The short answer is yes, it can be done and obviously is being done as we speak, but I think it’s important as a coach to understand the differences and similarities between the 3 Resistance sports of Powerlifting, Olympic Lifting, and Bodybuilding first.

This will help lay the framework for your programming and understanding the specificity of each sport.

Powerlifting

Strength-speed sport that involves the squat, bench press, and deadlift. Strength-speed by definition is maximal work performed a slow-velocity (1RM Deadlift). This work is best for developing intra/inter-muscular coordination and teaching athletes the ability to “strain” with heavier weights.

While the development of the special strength “strength-speed” involves work done at a maximal effort, most successful programs implement a balance of explosive strength work (fast velocity), strength-speed work (moderate velocity) as well as special exercises (assistance work) geared at developing one’s limiting factors.

With that said, development of ones limiting factors typically revolves around the primary movers of the sport. The overall the goal is to improve maximal strength thereby increasing one’s total of the aforementioned lifts while not necessarily increasing bodyweight.

In this case, there is typically less emphasis on traditional hypertrophy work where gains in lean mass are common/time under tension is higher.

Sample Training Plan:

Explosive Strength: 30-40% of 1RM. Typically a variety of Jumps.
Strength-Speed: Max 1-5
Speed-Strength: 10 x 2 @75% of 1RM.
Repetition Work: 3-4 x 8-20.

A few additional considerations of what a powerlifting meet consists of:
– 3 Attempts of each lift in the order of squat, bench, deadlift.
– The goal is to accumulate the highest total of all 3

– An athlete will typically determine their opening lifts before their meet.
– This is a similar format to an Olympic lifting meet

Olympic Lifting

Speed-strength sport that involves the Snatch and Clean & Jerk. Speed-Strength is characterized by moderate/heavy loading (75-85% of 1RM) and moderate velocity.

While most think Olympic Lifts are “fast velocity” that is a common misconception as “explosive strength”(plyometrics) is faster than 1.0 m/s and therefore better for developing explosive capabilities. Strength-speed is typically between .7-.9 m/s.

A study conducted by 780 highly-qualified lifters from Russian revealed that 80% of their training fell between the percentages of 75-85% of 1RM.

Similar to the development of the powerlifts, training all three special strengths is important for the development of force as well as improving imbalance via assistance exercises to improve ones limiting factors that may limit their ability to increase their lifts.

In a weekly plan for an Olympic Lifting, you’ll see a balance of maximal and sub-maximal lifting as well as lifting that is technique driven. 

Additionally, a healthy dose of plyometrics is needed to successfully develop explosive strength. Although assistance work in Olympic Lifters plan certainly could be single-joint work, it’s more common to see variations that help build the lifts ie. A lifter may use a variety of variations to build to certain positions where they are weak.

Sample Training Plan:

Explosive Strength: 30-40% of 1RM. Typically a variety of Jumps.
Strength-Speed: Max 1-5
Speed-Strength: 10 x 2 @75% of 1RM.

Assistance Work: Special Pulls. Loading/Volume varies

A few additional notes of what an Olympic Lifting meet consists of:

  • 3 Attempts of both the Snatch and Clean & Jerk respectively.
  • The goal is to accumulate the highest total between the two lifts
  • An athlete will typically determine their opening lifts before the meet. This needs to be a load they can 100% of the time in training.

Bodybuilding

The sport where athletes are judged on symmetry and muscularity. The overall goal for these athletes is to add lean muscle mass in a balanced manner that will give the athlete the best chance of being competitive on stage.

While maximal power or strength is NOT the goal for bodybuilders, the use of maximal lifting between 1-5RM is still used by high-level bodybuilders and even dates back to the days Arnold and Franco Columbo (if you haven’t seen the documentary “Pumping Iron” I highly recommend watching it!)

A typical bodybuilder uses a “body-part split” where the goal is muscular hypertrophy with a wide array of single-joint exercises, compound exercises, as well as machines. One of the more noteworthy aspects of a bodybuilders regime is their diet.

These athletes follow a very strict regime, in particular leading up to competition where all macronutrients are measured and their plan varies based off of how their body responds on a daily basis.

Additionally, the attention to sleep and recovery is prioritized as well, not to say weightlifters or powerlifters do not prioritize sleep, recovery, and nutrition, they certainly do, but bodybuilders have to dial in their nutrition to an even higher level where even the simple eating at a restaurant does not fit into their plan. 

Sample Training Plan:

Strength-Speed: Max 1-6
Hypertrophy Work: Reps 8-20. The volume may vary but typically 10-12 sets per body part.

A few additional notes of what a bodybuilding competition consists of:

  • While there are various forms of competition (natural/professional) most measure on symmetry and overall muscularity.
  • Routine certainly plays into the judging as well. Routines are more difficult than one may think and require long bouts of repeated isometric contractions (posing.)
  • The day of the meet calories and water-intake are restricted in order to allow athletes skin to look as “paper-thin” as possible. Usually, high-glycemic carbs are taken in to give muscles a “full look.”

Putting it all together

Most coaches that are reading this probably train general population athletes and most athletes at your local box want it all (body composition, strength, gymnastics, endurance, and Oly gains.)

Clearly, there is overlap between the three resistance sports where the three are NOT necessarily separate entities.

This is one of the major reasons we use the Conjugate Method because within our plan we can essentially satisfy all needs/goals rather than only prioritizing one aspect of fitness at a time like a linear model.

The most important thing to remember is that you CANNOT do it all within one day of your programming ie. all 3 special strengths.

This is a mistake I see many coaches make particular in CrossFit where it’s common to see explosive work and aerobic work in the same setting.

This can easily be avoided if the objectives of your plan are clear and you understand the specificity of each resistance sport.

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