Olympic Lifts

Endurance Athletes – You Need Strength and Power!!

by Matt Jordan on June 7, 2012 No comments

I have been working with the elite endurance athletes for over 15 years.  My client list includes several Olympic gold medalists and World Championship medalists in long distance speed skating and cross country skiing.

When I first started working with the Canadian Cross Country Ski Team in 2004, I brought my experience working with elite long distance speed skaters to the table.

What was my approach with a long distance speed skater? It was simple: I focused on technical acquisition in key exercises like squatting, Olympic lifting, and various types of jumps.  Once the athletes were technically proficient I emphasized maximal muscular strength, and maximal muscular power or explosive strength.

When I started working with the cross country ski team, the previous approach had been pretty typical of what I see from a lot of trainers who simplistically analyze a sport and attempt to build a “sport specific” strength program:

  1. They attempted to mimic movements in cross country skiing with seemingly similar looking weight room exercises
  2. They used high repetition schemes to build strength endurance because skiing is an endurance sport
  3. They emphasized stability exercises because skiers are often hurt and skiing requires balance.

On all accounts I could not have disagreed more wholeheartedly.

First of all, if you were to measure the muscle activity in the SAME movement done over multiple repetitions, no two movements would be the same!  The logic that because an exercise “looks” like a movement in a sport it is inherently more specific and a better way to improve function is ludicrous and unfounded.  Apparent similarity between a sport skill and an exercise has nothing to do with specificity in 99% of circumstances.

Second, high repetitions schemes result in considerable metabolic stress, long-term fatigue, and even have the potential to INCREASE muscle hypertrophy! A lot of skiers were baffled that their 8-12 RM approach to resistance training actually had a better chance of increasing muscle mass than 2-3 sets of 2-4 RM.

Third, there is a HUGE difference between training balance and using exercises that require balance.  If you want to train balance your environment or connection with the ground needs to be continually unpredictable and random.  Once you’ve mastered standing on a balance board, guess what?? This exercise now requires balance it does not train balance!

With that said, I rarely see exercises requiring balance as a suitable way to prevent the overuse injuries that are typically sustained by a cross country skier.  A skier typically requires a good soft tissue therapist to keep restricted muscle groups and fascial connections free so that joints can move properly, and balanced muscular strength around joints.

So how do you change a sports philosophy?  The short answer: you use science.

I went to the scientific literature and found some great research done out of Norway by a guy named Jan Hoff.  Dr. Hoff has published extensively on the effects of resistance training on elite cross country skiers and runners.

Here’s the Cole’s Notes of his research.

Three things go into elite endurance performance:

  1. Maximal oxygen consumption (VO2Max), which is best trained with intervals done in the range of 2-4 minutes.
  2. Lactate threshold.
  3. Efficiency – you measure efficiency by the amount of oxygen consumed at a given workload.

Dr. Hoff took elite skiers and put them through a training program reminiscent of what a shot putter or sprinter would do.  Heavy squats, heavy pull ups, and an adapted pull-down movement with a pulley.  The loading was anywhere from 4×4 to 3×5 RM with the athletes being encouraged to maximally accelerate the load on each and every repetition (this trains explosive strength).

Here were the findings:

  • The athletes who replaced normal training volume with the above mentioned resistance training got stronger and did not increase lean body mass
  • The resistance trained athletes improved their time to exhaustion at a given workload by significantly more than the athletes who did conventional high repetition resistance training
  • The conclusion: the development of maximal muscular strength improved efficiency and economy of movement for the skiers, which positively affected one of the key determinants of endurance performance!!

Here is a short summary of my philosophy:

  • Train what’s on the inside.
  • Train what you can’t see (i.e. the neuromuscular system and the connection from the Brain to the Muscle).  
  • Always design a strength and power program around the physiology of the neuromuscular system and let the sport take care of the specificity!

Now back to my story.  I have presented this data at coaching symposiums several times, and the reality is the sale’s job was tough.

Many scoffed at what I was saying and decided to stick with their conventional approach and ignored the science.

A few jumped on board with what I was saying…. one of these athletes, Chandra Crawford, went on to win an Olympic gold medal in 2006.

After 2010, a coaching change brought a very experienced and knowledgeable American coach to Canada.

The coach essentially re-interviewed me for my position.

He wanted to know my philosophy on strength training for elite cross country skiers.

I reluctantly went back over my experience, the science, and my philosophy that elite endurance athletes ABSOLUTELY need to focus on maximal muscular strength and maximal muscular power.

I told him that I envisioned a program that first of all developed technical proficiency in key lifts, structural tolerance, and balanced inter-muscular strength around key joints.

I then told him that I believed in focusing on developing maximal muscular strength and maximal muscular power with jumps, Olympic lifts, variants of the squat, variants of the pull up, and some form of press.  I know it’s boring – but it’s what I believe!

I told him I believed the sessions needed to be kept short and focused, and in order to minimize the potential negative interaction with his first priority of training the energy systems, that we should use careful monitoring to track neuromuscular fatigue.

The conclusion of our meeting was music to my ears – he completely agreed with me and told me that if I had answered the question any other way, he would have been searching for another strength and conditioning coach.

After 2.5 years of close collaboration between all of the experts that surround the team the results have started to speak for themselves.  The team had over 25 medals at international competition last year.

There is no question that my influence is just a very small part of the big picture and I do not want to overstate the amount I contribute.

But even though strength and power training is such a small part of a skier’s program it has the potential to reek an amazing amount of havoc with training.

Finally, by answering the question of “how do I best train an endurance athlete” with a physiological answer, I think you stand the best chance of really improving performance.


Hoff, J. (2006). Muscular Strength Training Effects on Aerobic Endurance Performance. Proceedings for the 6th International Strength Training Conference. Copenhagen, Denmark. 

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Matt JordanEndurance Athletes – You Need Strength and Power!!

Olympic Lifts 101 – Getting Full Extension in the Hang Split Snatch

by Matt Jordan on June 2, 2012 No comments

Performing Olympic lifts from a hang position is an excellent way to work on the mechanics of the transition phase (i.e. when the bar crosses the knee until the bar hits mid-thigh), and the very explosive second phase of the pull (i.e. when the bar passes mid-thigh until the athlete achieves a fully extended hip/knee/ankle position).

However, training Olympic lifts from the hang can sometimes be tricky because athletes often employ a technique for a hang clean or hang snatch that is completely different from the mechanics required to lift the most efficiently and powerfully from the floor.

Nevertheless, performing Olympic lifts from a hang position is great way to develop explosive strength for athletes especially if a strength coach can “coach” the lift properly.

Of all the variants of the hang Olympic lifts, one of my favourites is the hang split snatch.  Here are a few reasons why it is a top pick in my program:

– It is technically demanding and challenging

– It is excellent for teaching an athlete how to “get under” the bar

– Just like the other Olympic lifts it is great for building lower body explosive strength

– Catching and sticking the landing in a split stance is a great progression towards heavier more demanding eccentric training, which is a big part of my Specialization Phase

However, the hang split snatch does have some subtle nuances the most significant of which is getting full extension in the second phase of the pull.

One of the most common causes for this is that the athlete rushes the second phase of the pull to get the lower limbs into the split position.  The athlete’s brain is just 10-20 msec ahead of what is actually happening.  This mistake is easy to pick up on video.

A second reason for failing to reach full extension has to do with the set up of the hang position.  Incidentally, this technical error can occur in any of the hanging Olympic lifts.

Oftentimes, if an athlete is left up to his own devices to solve the motor problem of performing a hanging Olympic lift, he will sit into the start position (Figure 1).

This often feels like a more powerful starting position because there is flexion at the hip and knee joint, which are prime movers for this exercise.

The downside is that once the movement is initiated, a combination of the trunk rotation and poor timing make it nearly impossible for the athlete to hit that triple extended position (green lines in Figure 1).

You can clearly see in Figure 1 that the athlete’s shoulders in the start position (blue lines) are behind the bar and his knees are flexed.  As he moves to the peak acceleration phase (yellow lines) his position is completely wrong, and this leads to incomplete extension at the end of the second phase of the pull.

I often see strength coaches trying to fix this by telling an athlete to “get taller” or to “get your hips through” but  as long as the start position is off this will never happen.

A third reason for failing to reach full extension in the hang split snatch is rushing the transition phase or scoop.  As you can see in Figure 2, the athlete has a decent starting position.  The knees are relatively extended and the shoulders are ahead of the bar.

She begins the scoop correctly by pushing the knees under the bar and transitioning to the start of the second phase of the pull.  However, she rushes the transition and reaches peak acceleration in the second phase of the pull too soon.

As a result she never reaches full extension at the hip joint and the barbell begins to travel away from her centre of mass.  Not only does this technical error really diminish an athlete’s ability to properly train explosive strength (because full hip extension is never reached) but it also leads to a very circular bar path as the athlete attempts to catch the bar.

With that said, what does proper execution of the hang split snatch look like?

Figure 3 provides a pretty good depiction of the starting position, transition (scoop), and the second phase of the pull.

The starting position with the blue lines shows the athlete’s shoulders over the bar and a relatively extended knee position.

The transition is initiated with a combination of extension at the hip and flexion at the knee (yellow lines).

She is now in a very powerful position and can produce a very large vertical ground reaction force.

As the second phase of the pull terminates (green lines) she hits triple extension or full extension at the hip/knee/ankle.

In summary, the hang split snatch is a great exercise for developing lower body explosive strength but just like all the Olympic lifts, it requires a bit of coaching expertise.

Now there are far better Olympic lifting coaches than myself.  I competed in a few weightlifting competitions, and trained for several years at it but I would still consider myself an average Olympic lifting coach.

But you don’t need to be a world class Olympic lifting coach to use these exercises with your athletes.  As shown above, simple technical cues and pointers can go a long way to get the most out of these exercises.

If you have questions or comments, please post them below.

I promise I’ll do a better job this week of responding to questions and posting any comments!

Train hard.

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Matt JordanOlympic Lifts 101 – Getting Full Extension in the Hang Split Snatch