On Assistance Exercises
by Jim DeCoste (2008)
Note: You might be able to look at some of the views here in a way that could be applicable to non-Olympic forms of lifting as well.
A short time ago there was a discussion on the merits or lack thereof of such exercises as the Romanian Deadlift and various movements from the hang. The thought seems to be that these exercises may be counterproductive to the learning of optimal timing and position in the contest lifts.
The discussion mentioned above:
(Denis Reno) I've praised Bigger-Faster-Stronger magazine before. An article titled "A New Look at Squatting" highlights the principles of Dr. Guy Voyer.
An article published in Bigger-Faster-Stronger, January/February 2008 called "The Case Against the Romanian Deadlift" gives a little background on how the Romanian Deadlift, now used by a lot of athletes in the USA, came to be.
The case against the RDL seems to revolve around the stated opinion of Bud Charniga, a former top USA lifter and the seller of Elieko barbells in the USA, and also the translator of a number of Russian articles used with great success by many USA coaches. I'll indicate some of Charniga's complaints against the Romanian Deadlift with quotes of Charniga from the BFS article.
"First, it teaches you to move your trunk in isolation to your legs - to use your back too much."
"The Romanian Deadlift is trying to simulate Olympic lifting, but the fact is it's only a fraction of a second that your hip extensors are on their own during a pull," says Charniga.
Denis Reno's comments: Well, I like to use the RDL as a strength builder to help a lifter "stay over the bar" during the beginning of the pulls, not to simulate the Olympic lifts. Like Charniga mentions in the article, I also like the snatch- or clean-grip deadlift from the floor to the knee. I agree to some extent with Charniga's opinion that there are problems with exercises such as power cleans from the hang - Charniga discourages them; and I think that coaches include too many "from the hang" lifts.
These two articles and others are well worth reading and thinking about. Too many USA coaches just prescribe the same old exercises that their coaches gave them, and not much thought or study has really been given to what is being performed and what muscles and habits are being developed because of various exercises.
(Jim Decoste) Such scrutiny of assistance exercises as these provokes renewed discussions on both the value and applicability of all assistance exercises. Can any assistance exercise be incorporated without disturbing the finer motor patterns of the contest lifts? Are there "neutral" exercises that address physiological weakness without interfering with muscle memory pertaining to the performance of Snatches and Clean & Jerks? It might be interesting to take an historical view of the philosophy of assistance exercises with these questions in mind.
Assistance exercises have been around as long as the sport of modern weightlifting itself. Bob Hoffman, writing in the late 1930's, describes lifts such as hang cleans and snatches, good morning exercises, full squats, and half squats. Russian literature in the 1950's indicates that various pulls and snatches and cleans from boxes were employed in most training programs. As squat cleaners became more prevalent front squats began to appear as a regular staple of most workout plans. [Note: see also the writings of Charles A. Smith in the 1950's on assistance exercises.]
What are some of the purposes of assistance exercises? Let's discuss a few. A primary use of assistance movements is to address particular individual weaknesses. For example, when the Russian team visited Mexico in 1967, Tommy Kono observed world champion Victor Kurentzov doing clean pulls while standing on a couple of 20-kg. plates. Assumedly this was to strengthen his initial pull. Around the same time the Japanese world record holder in the Snatch, Ohuchi, spent time doing snatch grip shrugs in order to work the top of his pull. In 1974 American champion Phil Grippaldi spent several weeks training in Russia. His hosts recommended several exercises designed to address weakness in his pull. It was expected that a coach or trainer would introduce a new lifter to various modifications of standard assistance exercises with the goal of strengthening that individual's weak points. The use of such exercises seemed indispensable since a lifter would have trouble learning correct technique if his strength was unbalanced.
Assistance exercises are also used to inject variety into training. In the early sixties, as we read the training routines of that era's top lifters, this concept of changing one's training program to prevent staleness was a common theme. The belief was that effective programs eventually became monotonous and had to be modified. Enthusiasm was the key to progress as Tommy Kono noted in an interview with "Strength & Health" in 1964. And enthusiasm was best maintained by introducing change and variety into our workouts. Naturally the more exercises used the greater the possibility of change and variety. Working only with the contest lifts and squats leaves much less room for rearrangement and modification. But the inclusion of a variety of assistance movements makes room for almost endless changes.
Another argument in defense of assistance exercises was that they are generally less stressful physically and mentally then the contest lifts and thereby reduce the chances of encountering both acute and overuse injuries. In 1973 Fred Lowe published a training program in "Strength & Health" that contained mostly pulls and squats but no contest lifts. His plan was to work the contest lifts in as an important contest was approached. He hoped that by using exercises that had maximum transfer to the contest lifts he would build strength and also save his knees. A few months later he broke his own American record in the Clean & Jerk and nearly racked a world record. Eight years later at the age of 33 he added 2.5 kg. on to this American record Clean & Jerk with a lift of 182.5 kg. It would be difficult to argue with the merits of his approach.
Perhaps the strongest argument for employing assistance exercises is the overload principle. Here, the belief was that strength could be increased more rapidly by using weights in simulated exercises that were greater than one's best contest lifts. For example, one could always use a weight greater than one's best clean by doing heavy pulls and front squats. This practice was around for a long time but was given much currency in the mid-fifties by the training of Paul Anderson. This lifter, widely recognized as the strongest man in the world, developed innovative methods for doing partial lifts with very heavy weights. Because of his rapid rise and unbelievable lifts, his training methods were widely initiated both nationally and internationally.
A few years later York Barbell, with much hype and fanfare, launched the isometric craze, but kept secret the concurrent experimentation with steroids. As a result the vast majority of uninformed lifters thought that isometrics were the road to phenomenal strength. The phase of isometrics that used limited movement in a variety of positions with very heavy weights was really a more controlled, sophisticated version of earlier overload systems Anderson's. These very heavy weights were indeed heavy, sometimes more than 100% higher than one's best contest lifts. Bill March, one of the first practitioners of these methods, once remarked that jerking 405 pounds is easy when you are using over 700 in the overhead support lift.
In the meanwhile Russian systems were evolving in a similar manner but with a couple of important differences. First, isometrics never seemed to really take hold there and secondly, the poundages in their overload systems were kept only a few percent above the lifter's best contest lifts. The use of ever heavier weights was thought to be a proposition of diminishing returns because of the possibility of injuries and the certainty of minimum transfer because those heavy movements could not be performed fast enough to simulate contest lifts. After 1970 with the sudden emergence of superstars such as Ivanshenko, Kolotov, Rigert, and Alexeev, students began to pay more attention to Russian systems. They must be doing something right. But from what could be gathered from the available Russian literature on training practices, no new paradigms were emerging. The main course for assistance exercises still consisted of power snatches, power cleans, snatches and cleans from boxes at varying heights, clean and snatch pulls, front and back squats and to a lesser extent good mornings, hyperextensions and various jumping exercises. For novices the training loads favored the contest lifts. For advanced lifters the loads shifted towards assistance exercises.
While lifters like Rigert and Alexeev were provoking wide ranging discussion of Russian systems, the Bulgarian, Ivan Abadajayev, was developing a radically different approach to training. He maintained that some athletes could benefit from extremely arduous volumes and intensities - the theory of adaptability. The second hallmark of his training philosophy based on research by Hiden and Meerson, pointed to the necessity of devoting most of the training sessions to practicing the skills that were needed in the contest - the theory of specificity. As Norb Schemansky would advise, "If you want to improve your Snatch, Snatch." Many forms of assistance exercises were thought to interfere with the more subtle aspects of timing and force application needed for both correct performances of the contest lifts and the increased possibilities of progressing to heavier results. In order to teach the muscles to lift heavier and heavier poundages, it was necessary to employ limit poundages in the contest lifts on a very frequent basis. In order to compensate for this increased stress, volume was reduced by eliminating most assistance exercises which were being increasingly viewed as detrimental anyway. Most routines consisted of Snatches, Clean & Jerks, power snatches, power cleans, and front squats. Naim Suleymanoglu's biographer, Enver Turkileri, included a 1986 training program of Suleymanoglu's that consisted of heavy contest lifts, front and back squat - no other pulling movements. Interesting enough, Suleymanoglu's very early programs showed a much greater variety of exercises. This approach is diametrically opposite to Russian practices which as noted above spend most of their volume on the contest lifts when training beginners only to shift more emphasis on assistance exercises as the lifter advances.
In America it is well known that Bob Bednarski practiced only the contest lifts and back squats. In the fall of 1965 I spent every Sunday training with him at Central Falls. He would usually do two lifts a session and work quickly up to limit poundages. If he did not reach 95% of his limit he was either sick or tired. Of all the Central Falls lifters, Bednarski most closely followed Joe Mills' principle of devoting training session exclusively to the contest lifts with squats as only an afterthought. In the era of isometrics and assistance exercise overloading, this approach was very unorthodox. When Bednarski became pound for pound the best lifter in the world his training was examined more closely but was never widely imitated. Most seem to believe that he was a unique case, that his methods were not suited for the majority. Interestingly, Bednarski's best squat was never far above his Clean & Jerk. In the summer of 1966 he visited Central Falls (he was then living in York) and worked up to a 500 pound squat that didn't look easy. A few weeks earlier he Clean & Jerked 446 at the Nationals. Even if we gave him a limit 525 squat, the Clean & Jerk is about 85% of that squat, a relatively high ratio.
A superficial treatise such as this cannot provide any definitive answers on the value of assistance exercises. It can only provide some generalizations which I'll offer as concluding thoughts. I would first of all question the reliance on assistance exercises as the main vehicle for the improvement of contest lifts. The danger here is that with an over-reliance on say, snatch pulls or power snatches for improving one's Snatch. The temptation is to develop a too passive approach to the snatch itself. It becomes too easy to not worry about the Snatch. All you have to do is add poundage to the snatch pull or increase the power snatch and the Snatch will take care of itself. To a degree this may be true if there is a transfer in performance of these movements to the actual Snatch. But in too many cases the transfer is minimal because way too much focus is transferred onto the assistance exercise. We train to get good in the assistance exercise. Joe Mills once told a story bout a guy who failed with a 325 lb. clean. He vowed to transcend this by embarking on a program of clean pulls. As the weeks passed he could pull that 325 higher and higher but still could not clean it. All he accomplished was an increased proficiency in the clean pull.
The real training task at all stages of Olympic weightlifting is to teach our muscles to Snatch and Clean & Jerk. [the real training task at all stages of Powerlifting is to . . . the real training task at all stages of Bodybuilding is to . . . the real training task at all stages of weight training for football is?] This is the key to reaching one's own potential. Simply put, progress is realized by teaching one's muscles to lift a new personal record. Each time we add a kilo to our limit a new variable is added. The bodyweight to barbell weight ratio has changed. A learning process is needed. The body has to learn to provide an appropriately stronger force during the lift. How this is best achieved is the ongoing debate. I'll use a quote from Tommy Kono made in the early Sixties for a concluding thought.
Kono said that the great lifter is a product of a constant striving to lift more and more weight. As an un-reflective 17-year old I thought this simply meant that we should try to lift personal records each training session. Now, especially in view of the above material, I see this more as a philosophy of training than a license to go to limit poundages all the time. The real objective of training is to develop a focus that is oriented toward lifting heavier weights and having that focus permeate the entire training regimen. All the lifts and all the sets should be focused on the personal record. Lighter weights should not be approached in states of distraction or without full concentration. If assistance exercises are used, they too must be performed with maximum focus in order to get the most out of them. It may seem like a subtle distinction but even when doing a snatch pull we must always see it as a teaching device to make a record Snatch. Its essence lies not in itself but in the essence of the record Snatch one aspires to. Such sharp goal oriented focus teaches the body to lift heavier weights. How successful one is in these endeavors will determine one's future in lifting.