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Article Review and Afterthoughts: “Olympic weightlifting training improves vertical jump height in sportspeople: a systematic review with meta-analysis”

By: Brandon Ellis

Last week, our Performance Lab team analyzed a peer-reviewed study titled “Olympic weightlifting training improves vertical jump height in sportspeople: a systematic review with meta-analysis” (Hackett et. al., 2016) as part of our continuing education curriculum. This article compared the effects of three popular vertical jump training modalities among athletes: Olympic Weightlifting, Plyometric Training, and Traditional Resistance Training for their effects on improvement in vertical jump height through a meta-analysis of data from seven qualified peer-reviewed research articles. This article led to an incredible discussion between our team that I will get to in a moment, but first let’s go over the basics of this study.

The aim of the study was to illuminate precise effects of Olympic Weightlifting on vertical jump height and compare them to a control,Traditional Resistance Training, and Plyometric Training. To define what each of these training modalities are, in this study, Olympic Weightlifting refers to training involving The Push Jerk, Deadlift, Hang Clean, Squat Jump, Squat, Snatch, High Pull, Power Clean, Clean and Jerk, Half Squat, and auxiliary exercises. (Outside of this study in a more practical sense, we define Olympic Weightlifting as any high velocity barbell exercises that include, or contribute to progress in the Snatch, Clean, or Jerk) Traditional Resistance Training referred specifically to training involving the upright row, lat pulldown, shoulder press, leg press, leg curl, leg extension, bench press, half squat, squat, deadlift, and single joint auxiliary exercises. (We refer to this style of training as any exercise that has a “normal” velocity, with the goal of an increase in hypertrophy or strength) In the study, plyometric training was defined as “performing activities that engage the stretch-shortening cycle (ie, active eccentric contraction followed by an immediate concentric contraction of the same muscle) to enhance the ability of muscles to generate power (eg, jumping)” (Hackett et. al., 2016). We interpret this definition to be more along the lines of power training, which differentiates from true plyometric training. From our perspective, a true plyometric must include an overload of eccentric forces greater than the athlete’s own body weight. Whether that is accomplished through holding dumbbells, wearing a weight vest, dropping off of a box, or even connecting bands to the athlete that pull them down towards the ground, is completely up to their coach, but some form of eccentric overload must be applied to elicit the proper training stimulus. This is a concept derived from Dr. Verkhoshansky of the old Soviet Union, who is widely regarded to as the father of plyometrics throughout the strength and conditioning world. He developed something called the “shock method”, which would later become identified as plyometrics and become one of the most important sports training modalities ever created. Some common examples of plyometric training that follow the correct definition are drop jumps, depth jumps, weighted jumps, and banded jumps, just to name a few.

To highlight the most important finding from this study, what was found is that Olympic Weightlifting significantly improves vertical jump height by 7.7% when compared to a control group, and by 5.1% when compared to Traditional Resistance Training. When Olympic Weightlifting was compared to Plyometric Training, an insignificant difference of only 1.2% was found (Hackett et. al., 2016). This indicates that Olympic Weightlifting and Plyometric Training are similarly effective at improving vertical jump performance. Although similar improvements were discovered, the reasons for these improvements are very different. Let me tell you why:

First let’s talk about Olympic Weightlifting. Olympic lifting is a very effective training modality to improve jumping ability due to the training and improvement of performance characteristics such as peak force output and rate of force development, or power, specifically in the musculature that controls the triple extension of the knees, hips, and ankles; a biomechanics pattern that overlaps near-perfectly with jumping. Performance in the vertical jump is largely dependent on factors such as maximal force capacity, rate of force development, muscular coordination, and stretch-shortening cycle usage (Hackett et. al., 2016). Olympic weightlifting has proven to be a superior means of jump performance training than Traditional Resistance Training by as much as a 5.1% difference. For context, if you jump 30 inches, 5.1% is an extra 1.53 inches, which in many recruiting and in-play contexts can be a massive difference. Olympic Weightlifting provides a much better stimulus for the development of power on the neuromuscular system, as research has shown quantifiably higher power outputs during Olympic Weightlifting exercises than Traditional Resistance Training. Although Traditional Resistance Training exercises, like a squat, can very effectively improve peak force output, there is still a very low correlation between this exercise and vertical jump performance (Carlock et. al., 2004). This indicates that training must be more velocity-specific to that of a vertical jump in order to elicit the proper adaptations and consequent increase in performance (Kale et. al., 2008).

Additionally, Olympic Weightlifting provides greater adaptations in motor learning areas like coordination and motor unit recruitment of prime movers, which may also explain larger improvements in vertical jump performance than that of Traditional Resistance Training (Hackett et. al., 2016). We are not in any way saying that traditional strength and hypertrophy targeted resistance training should not be included in athletic training programs. In fact, we even recommend that these things are included in the vast majority of athletic training programs. We are simply highlighting that there is no direct correspondence between this style of training and improvements in vertical jump height.

The biggest knocks on Olympic lifts are that they are highly technical and slightly higher-risk than other exercises that may yield similar results, but there are valid arguments that can be made against those points. If you are gunning to win the Olympics in the sport of weightlifting, then yes, the Olympic lifts are highly technical. But to be executed in a safe manner that still gives you all of the benefit of doing them, they just need to be coached properly by an attentive coach who has the requisite knowledge and ability to progress or regress the exercises and loads correctly for the skill level of the athlete. The olympic lifts do aim to move relatively heavier loads at higher velocities than most exercises into vulnerable positions such as the front rack or an overhead hold, which in fact could lead to a higher risk of injury, but that is all with one caveat: poor coaching. If the coach has the ability to diligently coach these lifts and progress or regress them as needed, there shouldn't be an issue.

Next, let’s compare olympic lifting to plyometrics. Firstly, it is important to note that the goal of Olympic Weightlifting is to vertically displace a barbell, while the goal of plyometric training is to vertically displace one’s own body. Clearly, plyometric training is going to yield more sport specificity to the sports that typically incorporate it into their training. In plyometric training, the ability to use the stretch-shortening cycle and increase motor unit recruitment during the concentric contraction are also enhanced (Hackett et. al., 2016), which positively contributes to jumping ability. Plyometric training also exclusively offers an important, distinct benefit, which is that the increases in vertical jump performance are very likely due to changes in mechanical properties of the musculo-tendon unit, such as higher levels of stiffness in these structures that lead to the storage of more elastic energy (Hackett et. al., 2016). This added elastic energy is transferred directly into the ground from the legs and feet, and propels the athlete upward, resulting in an increased vertical. These adapted properties of muscle and tendon structure not only contribute to a much higher level of athletic performance, but they also correlate with a much lower risk of injury to these commonly plagued areas in jump-heavy sports. In short, a strong, bolstered, dynamic tissue, such as muscle and tendon in this case, is typically also a healthy tissue, as injuries are only a result of forces placed on tissues that they have not developed the capacity to withstand. To further support this point, it is noted that muscle activity patterns do not change after plyometric training, even though vertical jump height increases (Hackett et. al., 2016). This means that the entire coordination and motor learning adaptation of Olympic Weightlifting is absent in plyometric training, and still, plyometric training yields similar results on improvements in jump height to olympic lifting. In summation, it seems that increases in vertical jump height from plyometric training are largely related to structural changes in the musculo-tendon complex that lead to increased mechanical properties, while increases in vertical jump height following Olympic Weightlifting are the result of better muscular activation strategies (Hackett et. al., 2016).

As far as a practical application, we believe it is necessary to include all modalities of exercise mentioned in this article in an athletic training program to produce a well-rounded and dynamically capable athlete. There is most certainly a place for both plyometrics and Olympic Weightlifting in any athletic performance program, as both yield distinct benefits on vertical jump performance and other characteristics, alike. We do recommend undulating the amount of the two modalities that are included in the program, as the benefits will be much greater when accommodation to these modalities over multiple weeks is avoided. A typical, periodized structure of separate “blocks” emphasizing plyometrics, Olympic Weightlifting, and strength and hypertrophy training seems to be the most appropriate recommendation, but it is necessary to note that some amount of all 3 of these should be included at all times, just in varying loads depending on what season the athlete is in. There is no specific recommendation of which “block” coincides with which athletic season (off season, pre season, in season, post season), because the demands of each sport that many employ vertical jump training are vastly different. For instance, it would be detrimental to a college volleyball player to have their plyo-heavy block be during their competitive season, because their on-court jump volume is already very high, which would make the recovery incredibly difficult. The adaptations to a plyo-heavy block are best forged in the pre-season, to give their tissues the capability and durability to train through the rigors of the competitive season, where the adaptations from the previous block will be maintained due to continual, in-season training.

At VERT, we care very deeply about proper training and recovery, as both of these lend heavily to injury risk mitigation, which ultimately will give you the availability to train and perform at your absolute best. To put it classically and plainly, in all sports, the best ability is availability. In the specific case of training, recovery, and performance surrounding jumping, all of this is completely quantifiable and removed from guess-work with recent advancements in sports wearable technology, like those pioneered by VERT. While our technology started as an accurate, automated means of measuring jump heights, it has evolved to track vertical performance over time, landing impact, overall workload and even prescribe training loads for optimal on-court performance. Our various platforms allow you to select the capabilities that are needed for your specific situation, whether you are tracking an individual or a team over multiple years of training and competing, or even looking for an instant, accurate, portable testing solution without all of the setup and clunkiness of something like a traditional slap stick.

To learn more about our individual and team systems, or about how VERT technologies can help you jump healthier and higher, check out our Teams section on our website.

Works Cited

Hackett, Daniel, et al. "Olympic weightlifting training improves vertical jump height in sportspeople: a systematic review with meta-analysis." British journal of sports medicine 50.14 (2016): 865-872.

Kale, Mehmet, et al. "Relationships among jumping performances and sprint parameters during maximum speed phase in sprinters." The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 23.8 (2009): 2272-2279.

Carlock, Jon M., et al. "The relationship between vertical jump power estimates and weightlifting ability: a field-test approach." The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 18.3 (2004): 534-539.

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