“I think the Olympic lifts develop power in much the same way that playing basketball develops height” — Charles Staley
In this post I’d like to entertain a discussion around the “best” exercises to use for power and strength development, and it will also serve to help you appreciate the distinction between demonstrating an athletic attribute versus developing that same attribute. Let’s dispense with the standard introductory chit-chat and dig right in if that’s OK with you
First, What Is The Difference Between Power And Strength?
I won’t spend much time on this so please bear with me for just a moment…
Strength is the ability to overcome a resistance (this could be external, such as bench pressing a barbell, internal, such as when you do a pullup, or a combination of the two, which as when you perform a squat with a barbell on your back).
Maximum strength refers to the greatest amount of resistance you can overcome for a single, maximal effort (think a maximal deadlift attempt, where you barely get the rep, and if you’d attempted 5 pound more, you would have
Power refers to how fast you can overcome a relatively heavy (but not necessarily maximal) load. So basically, power is strength x speed: If you and your buddy both have a front squat max of 275 pounds, but you can lift it a bit faster that he can, you have equal maximal strength but you are more powerful. Unlike maximal strength, power exists along a force-velocity spectrum: when you overcome a relatively lighter load with a lot of speed, you are demonstrating speed-strength. On the other hand, if you overcome a heavier load with less speed, it’s called strength-speed. One way to understand the difference between these two qualities is to compare the discus throw with the shot put event in the sport of athletics: the men’s discus weighs 4.4 pounds, and consequently, it can be thrown with great speed (and hence, travels a great distance). The men’s shot, in comparison, weighs 16 pounds, and as such, cannot be propelled with as much speed as the discus. So, relatively speaking, the discus is a speed-strength event, and the shot is a strength-speed event.
Next Topic: The Clean
Many athletes are taught to perform different versions of the barbell clean as a strength and power development exercise. Although some versions of the clean are better than others for these purposes, I think both are highly overrated, as I discussed in THIS article ).
(For the uninitiated, a clean is the act of lifting a barbell from floor to shoulders in one continuous movement. Completive weightlifters are the most skilled at this movement, as it comprises 1/2 of their sport (more on that in just a bit). Now needless to say, when a barbell is light enough that you can pull it from the floor to your shoulders in a single continuous movement, this means it has at least some potential to help you develop power, since it can be lifted fairly quickly (compared to a heavy deadlift for example). Problems arise, however, when your skill, orthopedic status, and/or mobility are significantly limited — when this is the case, you won’t be able to lift a heavy-enough weight to significantly benefit you. More on this later as well.
The Squat Clean Versus Power Clean
These are fundamentally two different types of barbell cleans: the full, or “squat” clean, and the less-technical “power” clean. Here’s the difference between the two: in a power clean, the bar is light enough to pull fairly high — in fact, if it’s light enough, you can pull it all the way to your shoulders without needing to catch it in a semi-squat. Here’s what a power clean looks like, and in particular, notice the depth of the squat as he recovers the bar on his shoulders:
Next, the squat clean. Here, the weight is much heavier — so heavy in fact, that the bar can only be pulled the waist-level or maybe slightly higher. In order to catch this barbell on your shoulders, you’ll need to quickly squat under the bar before it starts to fall back to the floor. Here’s what that looks like:
Next, consider that for any skilled weightlifter (and “skilled” being the operative word here), he or she will be able to squat clean more than he to she can power clean. So as an example, if you can pull a 198-pound barbell fast enough to catch it on your shoulders without needing to do much in the way of a squat when you catch it, you could (assuming you have the necessary skill and mobility) clean a much heavier barbell — perhaps 242 pounds — by immediately falling into a deep squat after pulling it as high as you can. So going back to our basic definitions for a moment, a power clean is more like a “speed-strength” exercises, whereas the squat clean is closer to “strength-speed” in terms of the adaptations it will develop.
How Cleans Are Like Box Jumps
OK so let’s talk box jumps for a moment, because we’ll learn something about cleans in the process. When you jump onto a box from the floor, there are fundamentally two different ways you can go:
First, and this is how the VAST majority of box jumps are performed, you simply try to jump on top of the highest box you possibly can. To do this, it’ll be necessary to tuck your hips, and land in a deep squat — the deeper you can squat in fact, the taller the box you’ll be able to jump on. Does this type of box jump develop power? Sure — after all, it requires you to overcome a fairly heavy resistance (i.e., your body) with a considerably mount of speed.
The second type of box jump is one you may have not ever seen, even though it’s safer and more useful: sintered of jumping on the highest box you can barely manage, you elect a lower box and attempt to land on straight legs. This jump still requires maximal jumping effort (and hence, benefits), but sadly, it’s relatively less impressive, which means it won’t make for a jaw-dropping Instagram post 🙁
Now here’s the important takeaway: The straight-leg box jump is not only safer (because if you “miss” the worst that can happen is landing in a deeper squat than you intended, rather than scraping your shins on the edge of the box or worse), it also does not depend on your hip mobility. Nothing against hip mobility mind you, I just think there are better ways to achieve that. Now look, I get it — high box jumps are fun, and I’m all for making your training fun when you can. The point I’m simply making is that the “deep squat/hips tucked” box jump is better for demonstrating power than it is for developing it. Same goes for the squat clean, which requires much more skill and mobility (and carries a much higher level of risk) than power cleans.
Let’s Take A Stroll Down The Force-Velocity Spectrum, Shall We?
Different exercises obviously fall along different points on the above-named spectrum. Assuming this spectrum looks like this:
Speed —> Speed-Strength —> Strength-Speed —> Strength
An unweighted vertical jump would be placed first, all the way to the left. Moving one step to the right, we have power cleans — more load, and commensurately less speed. Another step to the right, well, should we place squat clean there? After all, they involve even more load, right? Problem, is, the “more load” isn’t rally achieved by producing more power, it’s accomplished by having the skill, timing, mobility, and let’s face it — balls, to quickly jump under that bar in a deep squat position. So given these complications, and understanding that it is certainly possible to improve athletic power with squats cleans, I’m going to omit it from this continuum of useful exercises.
However, there is a clean derivative that I’m happy to substitute in it place — the clean pull. This exercise (see video below) (LINK) involves acceleratively pulling the barbell from the floor, without attempting to catch it on the shoulders. This removes the mobility demands, and also greatly reduces the injury potential and skill requirement that hamper the effectiveness of both squat and power cleans for the same purpose. So using that logic, the clean pull would be the next exercise on the force-velocity spectrum: it’s a bit slower, but allows for more load, then the squat clean or power clean.
And finally, all the way to the right (force) side of the continuum, we have the deadlift, which is the heaviest and slowest of these exercises. So here’s what that continuum looks like:
Velocity <—————————————————————> Force
Vertical Jump —— Power Clean —— Clean Pull —— Deadlift
But Hey, It’s Only My Opinion…
If you enjoy or otherwise take pride in your ability to do cleans and high box jumps, I have no particular issue with that — I like doing them too by the way. What’s important is to be objective and dispassionate about your goals, and the most efficient route toward them. And as a parting note, be wary of becoming too emotional invested in any particular exercise, approach, or method, because when you are, you won’t be open to new forms of evidence that have the potential to take you to an even better place.