Op-Ed: Why Soccer Players Need Olympic Weightlifting

With the soccer World Cup in full swing, you can’t help but be impressed by the athleticism that the world’s best soccer players possess.

They are the human equivalent of Formula One race cars with an uncanny ability to accelerate, decelerate, and change direction in an instant, yet they can also display those explosive bursts of activity over a long, 90-minute match. It is rare for any athlete to possess blistering speed and power along with an aerobic capacity that rivals a distance runner or cyclist, but soccer players have figured out how to pull it off.

A soccer player’s endurance is built on the field through practice, small-sided games, and training repeat sprint ability; but their speed, power, and change of direction ability can’t be optimized without a good dose of Olympic Weightlifting in the gym.

Editors’ note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

Training Economy

With so many fitness aspects to develop, a soccer player must be extremely economical with their time and energy. It is not uncommon for soccer players of all ages and skill levels to play soccer year-round as a part of various club, travel, and Olympic development programs. With the high frequency of soccer play and intensive endurance demands, there isn’t always a lot of time or energy left to use in the weight room. When a soccer player does make it to the weight room, they must perform workouts that are efficient and precise for their sporting needs.

Olympic weightlifting exercises and their derivatives are the best and most time efficient movements for a soccer player to perform in the gym to optimally improve their speed and power characteristics above and beyond what can be developed on the field. Speed, change of direction ability, hip and leg power, and a potential reduction in injury risk can all be enhanced by Olympic weightlifting exercises (Hackett et al. 2015; Hoffman et al. 2004; Tricoli et al. 2005, Young 2006).

Since soccer teams may not make it to the gym as frequently as other sports like American football, an argument is often made by coaches that Olympic weightlifting exercises are too time intensive to teach when gym time is already so limited. However researchers out of Australia have debunked this argument (Haug et al. 2015). Their study used a small sample of elite athletes with no background in Olympic weightlifting and demonstrated that in as little as 4 weeks their athletes significantly improved vertical force production in the hang power clean which is critical to jumping and speed development. The team of researchers concluded that these improvements justify the associated time cost in teaching Olympic weightlifting.

[Check out a full training program for athletes, designed by the author, here.]

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Olympic Weightlifting Improves What Aspects of Soccer Performance?

In the world of exercise, Olympic weightlifting holds the throne on lower extremity power production (Garhammer 1980). While this fact can’t be argued, some may struggle to understand how any type of weightlifting can benefit a soccer athlete who runs up and down a field kicking a ball for 90 minutes.

For starters, it must be accepted that there is sufficient evidence that strength and power training does enhance sports performance in team sports (McGuigan et al. 2012). More specifically when the sporting demands of soccer are more closely examined, it’s easy to see that many key physical demands of the sport are significantly improved through Olympic weightlifting.

A game is won by the team who scores the most goals, and linear sprinting speed and acceleration has been shown to be the most frequent physical action in goal situations in professional soccer (Faude et al. 2012). It has long been known that Olympic weightlifting enhances these characteristics (Hoffman et al. 2004). The best soccer players also demonstrate a mastery to change direction on a dime, which requires great strength and a stellar rate of force development that Olympic weightlifting improves as well (Hackett et al. 2015).

GPS tracking has shown that in games, professional soccer players can run approximately 6 miles (Andrzejewski et al. 2012). When having to cover that much ground it is imperative to be as energy efficient as possible since the best performers need to be able to manage their fatigue late in a game. Running economy, a measure of the energy cost of running at a given pace, is improved with strength and power gains that can result from Olympic weightlifting (Ronnestad et. al 2014). The less energy an athlete needs to expend while running a great distance in a game, the more energy reserve an athlete will have to use late in a match.

Improvements in physical performance markers are not the only aspects Olympic weightlifting may improve. The health status of an athlete is equally important as any performance measure, because if an injury sidelines a player then they can’t be on the field to help the team win. Lower extremity injuries are the most common injuries seen in soccer match play (Turner and Stewart 2014). Strengthening muscles that surround susceptible joints is one of the best safeguards against injury, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find exercises that are as dynamic and effective at building hip and leg power as the snatch, clean, and jerk (Hedrick 2008).

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Olympic Weightlifting vs. Traditional Resistance Training for Soccer Development

Olympic weightlifting clearly has benefits to a soccer player’s physical preparation, but surely other types of resistance training like circuit training for muscular endurance or strength training adopted from powerlifting do too. So why is Olympic weightlifting still the better the choice for a soccer player?

Olympic weightlifting exercises are truly total-body and holistic exercises. They concurrently train so many aspects of physical fitness that it makes all other types of training non-essential. Being technical lifts, inter and intramuscular coordination, proprioception, and kinesthetic sense is all enhanced by executing the lifts. The working ranges of motion encountered in all of the major joints of the body during the lifts helps to improve flexibility (Hedrick 2008). Heavy RDLs, clean pulls, and squatting up huge weights from the bottom of a deeply caught snatch or clean will build your strength as much as anything else you can choose to do in the gym.

If your conditioning is subpar and you believe that you need better muscular endurance, try doing a barbell complex comprised of many Olympic weightlifting exercise derivatives like the Javorek Complex (Clean High Pull x 6, Muscle Snatch x 6, Back Squat to Push Press x 6, Goodmorning x 6, Bent Over Row x 6). It won’t take many sets or much weight before you are smoked.

[See more: 4 weightlifting complexes to increase technique, performance, and confidence.]

Yes, other types of resistance training can be performed to gain similar physical improvements, but why shop around and waste time and energy when Olympic weightlifting is undoubtedly a one-stop-shop for many of your physical needs.

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Implementation Strategies

Due to their busy schedules and breadth of physical needs, soccer players may never be gym rats. However the beauty of strength and power training using Olympic weightlifting movements is that they don’t need to be performed with a high weekly frequency to elicit a benefit.

While in-season, a soccer player can benefit from Olympic weightlifting just once per week. In the off-season when the training workload can be higher, a twice per week frequency is more than sufficient. The volume of work typically performed using Olympic weightlifting exercises is low relative to other types of training, so training sessions do not need to be lengthy in duration either.

If you are an aspiring soccer athlete or are serving as a fitness coach to a soccer team, the best way to initially implement the Olympic lifts is to begin with pulling variations for the snatch and clean. Performing a snatch or clean pull allows an athlete to develop essential pulling technique while improving vertical force and power production in a less technical manner than executing the full lifts. Using a start position at the mid-thigh or above the knee is easily coached and most athletes will be proficient quickly.

[Read more: 10 things every beginner weightlifter should learn.]

Once proficient, the next steps will be to execute the full lifts from the mid-thigh or above knee position, and then ultimately the full lifts from the ground. No athlete or coach should ever feel rushed to master the full lifts, because the positive benefits of Olympic weightlifting are present with all variations of the lifts (Suchomel et al 2015).

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Kick Off

Everyone already knows that soccer players can run, but now we know how and why soccer players should lift. Olympic weightlifting can help soccer players add the explosive characteristics to their game such as enhanced speed and change of direction ability, while also keeping their often injured lower extremities free from injury.

Investing the time and effort to learn how to perform Olympic weightlifting exercises pays dividends quickly, and there are no weight room exercises that have a greater transfer to sports performance (Young 2006).

Featured image via @soccerdotcom on Instagram.

References

Andrzejewski M., Chmura J., Pluta B., Kasprzak A. (2012). Analysis of motor activities of professional soccer players. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 26(6) 1481-1488

Faude O., Koch T., Meyer T. (2012). Straight sprinting is the most frequent action in goal scoring situations in professional football. Journal of Sports Sciences, 30(7) 625-631

Garhammer, J. (1980). Power production by Olympic weightlifters. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 12(1), 54.

Hackett, D., Davies, T., Soomro, N., & Halaki, M. (2015). Olympic weightlifting training improves vertical jump height in sportspeople: a systematic review with meta-analysis. British Journal of Sports Medicine, bjsports-2015

Haug, William., Drinkwater, Eric J., Chapman, Dale W. (2015) Learning the Hang Power Clean: Kinetic, Kinematic, and Technical Changes in Four Weightlifting Naive Athletes. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 29(7), 1766-1779

Hedrick, A., Wada, H. (2008). Weightlifting Movements: Do the Benefits Outweigh the Risks? Strength & Conditioning Journal. Dec. Volume 30 – Issue 6 – p 26-35

Hoffman, J. R., Cooper, J., Wendell, M., & Kang, J. (2004). Comparison of Olympic vs. traditional power lifting training programs in football players. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 18(1), 129-135

McGuigan MR., Wright GA., Fleck SJ. (2012) Strength Training for Athletes: Does it really help sports performance? International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 7(1) 2-5
Rønnestad BR., Mujika I. (2014). Optimizing strength training for running and cycling endurance performance: A review. The Scandanavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports, 24(4) 603-612

Suchomel, T. J., Comfort, P., & Stone, M. H. (2015). Weightlifting pulling derivatives: Rationale for implementation and application. Sports Medicine, 45(6), 823-839

Turner A., Stewart P., (2014). Strength and conditioning for soccer players. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 36(4) 1-13

Tricoli, V., Lamas, L., Carnevale, R., & Ugrinowitsch, C. (2005). Short-term effects on lower-body functional power development: weightlifting vs. vertical jump training programs. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 19(2), 433-437

Young, Warren B. (2006) Transfer of Strength and Power Training to Sports Performance. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 1(2), 74-83

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