Getting faster and jumping higher are two highly-sought goals for athletes in training programs—and for good reason. Fast athletes leave opponents in the dust, recover the ball to make a play, and help win games. Athletes who jump high finish at the rim, spike home a kill, and, again, help win games. Improving speed and jumping ability is not just important—it’s essential to get to the next level.
Speed and agility drills help athletes move faster, and plyometrics can enable them jump higher. Both activities are primarily about skill development, particularly learning how to run faster, change direction better, and take off and land more efficiently. But improvements in jumping and speed come more quickly, often dramatically, when an athlete develops explosive strength and power. So what’s the best way to improve strength and power? The simple answer: Olympic lifting.
The Clean and the Snatch, both of which are contested at the summer Olympics [hence the name Olympic lifts], are the ultimate measure of power and the best way to improve an athlete’s explosive strength and power.
An athlete creates power first in the Clean, through the pull off the floor, in which he or she moves the weight from a complete stop [similar to a start in track]. In the Snatch, power is generated through the pull, which starts just above the knees while the bar is already moving [like accelerating from a slower speed or moving into a jump position].
When moving the bar during both exercises, the athlete must use the hip and gluteal muscles to move it at high speeds. This action is similar to what athletes encounter while jumping. It is also similar to the hip extension, which propels each step during acceleration and high-speed running—great for athletes who want to gain speed.
Jumping ability is also developed. Athletes doing Olympic lifts must “rack” or catch the bar either at the chest or overhead [depending on the exercise] to complete the lift. This final phase is often overlooked, but it’s an extremely important part of the lifts.
Catching or racking requires the athlete to receive the bar in a position similar to landing on the ground after a jump or decelerating before a cut. By doing this exercise, athletes are preparing for the forces that act on their joints when they make such rapid deceleration moves during games. The finish position of these Olympic lifts requires athletes to receive the additional force of the bar and thus preps their bodies for game conditions—while helping to prevent knee and ankle injuries [a common problem in the deceleration phase].
Olympic lifts are obviously important, and many athletes perform them in their training programs every day or every week. But if you are an athlete who has not yet learned to Olympic lift, please seek proper instruction, because they are very technical lifts.
To properly perform Olympic lifts, an athlete must be prepared to take off and land with an external load. First perfect your technique for jumping and landing. By simply jumping and then landing, athletes learn to produce force into, and receive force from, the ground.
The athlete should produce force primarily by using a hip hinge [moving the hips backward and the chest forward], and not a knee bend [moving the knees forward and keeping the chest straight up]. Extend the hips forcefully to propel upward.
The Next Level
Once their jumping form is perfected, athletes can try these movements with a bar in their hands. Do not concern yourself with arm movement; instead, just keep the arms in a straight and extended position on the side of the body.
Simply get into position with the bar above the kneecaps, then jump. This motion adds part of the external load that will be used in the full lifts, and starts to develop the power and landing mechanics necessary for improved speed and jumping ability.
To dramatically improve power—and therefore speed and jumping—athletes need to do Olympic lifts. Spend time learning the basic skills first and watch improvement go through the roof as power increases.