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Heavy Ballistic Movements for High Repetitions – Does This Make Sense?

December 01, 2010 by NCSF 3 comments

Nowadays, many personal training businesses are capitalizing on the emergent popularity of small group-based training programs that commonly incorporate a variety of lactate circuits to promote weight loss through high-volume, high-intensity weightlifting. The selection of modalities and training methods implemented in these circuits seem to have no boundaries. Unfortunately, the appropriate metabolic pathway associated with certain exercises is not consistent with the metabolic pathway initiated in a lactate circuit (the glycolytic pathway) and therefore leads to an increased risk for injury. One significant example of this is the use of the Olympic lifts for high repetition schemes as part of a circuit. This methodology can be counterproductive as the Olympic lifts, being heavy ballistic movements, are fundamentally driven by the phosphagen system, explaining why the 3-6 repetition range is used in athletic conditioning. Furthermore, biomechanical considerations for proper joint actions and the linkage system necessary for proper movements make the majority of these lifts unsuitable when completed at high repetitions. Some variations that may be illogical to place in a lactate circuit program include; power cleans and hang cleans, power jerks and split jerks, or power snatches and hang snatches.

The Olympic lifts are a form of ballistic training designed to join rapid hip extension with hip flexion to synchronize vertical drive, develop hip speed, overall power, and dynamic stability. They incorporate triple extension and the manipulation of angular momentum (via precise form) to accelerate a significant load against gravity from the floor to the shoulders or overhead position. As power (the training effect of Olympic lifts) is a time rate of work, using lighter loads with total body force over the limited distance will not have an optimal effect on the desired training goal. This is clearly illustrated by the low repetition schemes and high intensities used in programs at the elite level. As previously stated, competition-based ballistic training usually incorporates multiple sets of 3-6 repetitions at 85%-95% of the 1RM for a given lift. The phosphagen system is obviously the driving force for this type of training as the intensity is near-maximal for each set.

Performing repetition schemes of 10-20 or until volitional failure, as is often observed in lactate circuit programs, does not match the function of these movements and places excessive stress on the kinetic chain. The stability of the spine when moving at maximum velocity (as necessary for proper performance of the Olympic lifts) cannot be maintained for exaggerated repetition schemes, resulting in compromised technique. Likewise, the excessive stress placed on the shoulder joint is likely to present as repetitive trauma (potentially acute and chronic). Maintaining high movement velocity is dependent on neuromuscular recovery and CP-ATP re-synthesis, which cannot be attained while training in the glycolytic pathway and challenging lactate threshold. Re-phosphorylation takes minutes, whereas the glycolytic pathway is based on buffering which can be accomplished in tens of seconds.

Upon fatigue, even participants skilled in the technique of the lifts experience form breakdown and the classic onset of ‘muscling up’ where rounding of the back becomes commonplace. These activities lead to potentially detrimental body positions and joint mechanics from head to toe. Particular problem areas such as the lower back and shoulder joints are commonly placed at a much greater risk of injury with high volume ballistics.

The deceleration demands placed on associated musculature and connective tissue during Olympic lift movement patterns must also be considered. If an individual is challenged with performing a high number of repetitions in the shortest period of time possible, as is commonly promoted in lactate circuit programs, many deceleration-related problems can arise. For example, the lower back and shoulders may be excessively stressed by returning the load directly to the hips during hang variations of the clean or snatch to shed precious seconds off of completion times. In other cases a participant may feel compelled to bounce the weight off of the floor to rebound the load halfway upward for the next rep to save time and energy. Essentially, form, safety and overall effectiveness can be compromised when Olympic lift variations are utilized in the midst of a high-volume, timed, lactate circuit. Of relevant note, injuries associated with these techniques when performed under direction or supervision of a commercial fitness program ultimately fall on the instructor.


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Rodolfo Pineda
December 24, 2010, 02:48 PM
Rodolfo Pineda
December 24, 2010, 02:47 PM
This is article contains great information, that might be considered common sense by a fitness proffesional. I wish more personal trainers actually took this information into consideration when constructing their programs. Articles like this are the reason why I truly appreciate the NCSF.
James Beaumont
December 03, 2010, 01:40 AM
Great article.

In addition to the injuty potential, you just won't get stronger doing O-lifts this way! I guess that point is lost on many.