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Box Squat vs. Power Clean Debate Part I

April 10, 2007 03:38 PM

Like oil and water, Power-lifters and Olympic lifters are two groups that don't usually play well with one another. But due to a discussion on the forum we have forced a Power-lifter (PL), Olympic lifter (OL) and a Renegade PL/OL'er together to try to shed some light on a debate as which exercise is "best" for improving "power" production. So ? after strapping on every bit of protective gear I could gather about me I began with an opening series of questions. {My safety is most important to me!}

In this first part of the debate I asked those involved to define power and give their choice of exercise for improving this skill/quality and to provide alternatives other than their first choice. So with out further delay ? let's meet our participants and get started?

Our Participants:

Jack Reape:    Our Power-lifter

Powerlifter ? Jack has extensive Local, State, and National Level Experience. Played HS Football, High-level Rugby at the Junior National Level and has coached young kids to HS kids in Football, baseball, and in the weight room. Jack's education is extensive in Math and Statistics with a BS in Operations Analysis from US Naval Academy. In Jack's own words: "(I) refuse to get certified by NCSA and I refuse to get certified by USAWL.

Geoff Neupert:    Our Renegade PL/OL'er

Geoff is currently a Personal Trainer in Durham, NC. Formerly a Division 1 Strength and Conditioning Coach with a background in Wrestling, Olympic-style weightlifting: State Champion, National Qualifier and Powerlifting. Geoff holds a BA in History, with a Philosophy minor. A Perpetual Student, Geoff's current/previous certifications include: NSCA-CSCS, RKC, Z-Health R-Phase, USAW, NASM-CPT, and the RKC certification. Geoff has over 15,000+ hours one-on-one personal training experience behind him.

Randy Hauer:    Our Olympic Lifter

Randy's education includes a BA in Studio Art (1979 Knox College Galesburg IL) and an MFA in Painting (1994 New York Academy of Art). He holds the USAW Club Coach certification and is a USAW Sports Performance Coach and LWC Referee. Randy also holds the RKC certification.

Lifting and Coaching Experience: Powerlifting 1977-1979 (participated in several local AAU meets in Illinois, including the 1979 Illinois Collegiate Championship. As an Olympic Weightlifter, Randy started in 1996 for fun and fitness. He began competing as a Master in 2003. (Qualified and competed in Master's Pan Am Games 2004, Qualified for World Master Games, 2006) Ranked #8 in the country in my age and weight class. Since beginning to train with kettlebells, Randy entered Girevoy Sport competition in 2005-6 and has achieved CMS rank Long Cycle in +90, 90 and 80 Kg classes 24kg Long Cycle event. Currently a Strength Coach for Downingtown West High School, 2006 (independent contractor), he has coached at numerous weightlifting meets and the Gettysburg Weightlifting Camp. Randy has alsoCoached Jen Morey to NAKF GS National Championships 2005 and is currently coaching and assistant coaching 3 weightlifters and 1 GS competitor.

The Debate!

The nature of this debate centers around which exercise is thought to be best for improving the skill/quality of power in athletes, typically Power-lifters choose the Box Squat and Olympic lifters choose the Power Clean. So let the games begin?

Define Power

Since the debate hinges on how we define power, let's see how our participants define power:

Jack Reape:

Power can be defined as: the ability to accelerate a heavy load. In mechanics, the work done on an object is related to the forces acting on it where F is force s is the displacement of the object. This is often summarized by saying that work is equal to the force acting on an object times its displacement (how far the object moves while the force acts on it). Note that only motion that is along the same axis as the force "counts", however; motion in the same direction as force gives positive work, and motion in the opposite direction gives negative work, while motion perpendicular to the force yields zero work. Differentiating by time gives that the instantaneous power is equal to the force times the object's velocity v(t). This formula is important in characterizing engines?the power put out by an engine is equal to the force it exerts times its velocity.

Geoff Neupert:

Power = Force * Velocity (P=fv); Where Force = Mass * Acceleration (F = ma) And Velocity = Distance / Time (V= d/t): Therefore, Power is the ability to generate as much force in as little time, or as quickly as possible.

Randy Hauer:

For purposes of this discussion I will be defining Power as the rate at which work is performed. So for example if two lifters are performing squats of equal weight and lifter A can perform a rep in 2 seconds and lifter B can perform a rep in 4 seconds then lifter A is performing his squats at twice the power of lifter B. Since "Strength", generally speaking is the ability to generate force against resistance, I think of "Power" as a measure of speed and strength.

Box Squat or Power Clean?

Now the heart of the matter: Which exercise do you feel is best for training the skill/quality of power: the box squat or the power clean and why?

Jack Reape:    Box Squat

The power clean is moving a very sub-maximal weight through a period of brief acceleration than a ballistic catch. Better than a Bowflex by far, but no research except gym legend that this usually poorly done exercise provides 'hip snap". Box squat uses much heavier relative and real load through similar range of motion (ROM) and the bar moves faster the whole way under load.

Geoff Neupert:    Box Squat

There are two ways to improve power: Increase force production or increase the speed at which you lift something (move heavy objects or move yourself or light objects quickly). I love the Olympic lifts, but I recognize their downside. I think the box squat has more "potential" to improve power production than the power clean. Why? Because it's easier to learn and it's quicker to see improvement (get stronger), especially for the novice to intermediate athlete/lifter, which is, for the most part, who we interact with on a daily basis.

Randy Hauer:    Power Clean

Setting aside the fact that athletes will vary in their genetic potential to express strength and power, we have to either agree or disagree on some basic assumptions.

Assumption One: It is possible to improve all forms of strength via training and the results of any strength training are governed in large measure by the SAID principle (Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands).

Assumption Two: Increasing only absolute strength over time will eventually result in diminishing returns on power production.

Assumption Three: Rate of Force production, the time it takes to recruit motor units is a determining factor in expressing power.

To elaborate on the above assumptions:

"One of the fundamental methods of developing the muscular strength of weightlifters is to employ weights in excess of the weights one can lift in the competition exercises in pulls (clean and snatch) and squats. However, these exercises contribute to the effective development of absolute strength, but they have little effect on the ability to generate explosive force" Deniskin, V. N "Speed - Strength Preparation of Highly - Qualified Weightlifters in the Pre - Competition Stage", Teoriya I Metodika Fizicheskovo Vospitanya I Sportivnoi Fizkultury, #130004, 1981 from Bud Charniga's article The Relative Value of the Back Squat in the Training of Weightlifters.

So is the Box Squat or the Power Clean better at developing Power? Well, let's first take a look at the two movements and what they were "invented" for. The Power Clean, whether from the floor or various hang positions is an Olympic weightlifting assistance exercise. It is intended as a "variety" movement designed to give the weightlifter a break from full squat cleans while still providing SAID carryover. It is supposed to be a lighter and faster movement than the full squat clean and as such it is a "power enhancing" movement in a sport that already is a power/speed-strength sport.

Similarly, Powerlifters (especially WSB adherents) have adapted the box squat as a lighter "power enhancing movement" to compliment and enhance performance in the competition squat. Louie Simmons is certainly correct that lighter higher velocity movements and heavy maximum efforts are complimentary ways to train an athlete to develop and recruit more motor units, but it remains a fact that power in the sport of powerlifting is not the main component of success in the sport; absolute strength is. One has to only look at the records in powerlifting to see that there are many extremely successful athletes who do not subscribe to Louie's "conjugal training" philosophy. The sport's name "Powerlifting", as has been pointed out many times by many others, is really a misnomer. Powerlifting is really "absolute strength lifting" and not a power sport at all; it is, rather, a high force, low power, absolute strength sport.

Although not an example of the specific exercises under discussion, but still an example of the concepts we are discussing, Stone, 2005 (Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research) cites the example of a 100Kg lifter under maximum load generating 1,100 Watts power in the squat and 3,000 watts in the snatch. I do not think that it is a far stretch to extrapolate that when it comes to power expression, one would find similar disparities in power output measurements when comparing the power clean and the box squat head to head. So here we have two exercises, the Box Squat and the Power Clean that in the context of their respective sports are "power enhancing movements". The Power Clean is designed to enhance power and speed in a sport already characterized by high power outputs. The box squat on the other hand, is used by some power-lifters as a power developing exercise in a sport characterized by slow, high force, low power movements. Taken outside their respective sport training contexts, how does one decide in a side-by- side comparison which movement is more conducive to training and developing power? Or perhaps another way to ask the question is: If you were looking to train power specifically for a sport that wasn't WL or PL, which would you choose?

A movement that was:

a) designed to increase power and speed in a sport already characterized by high power and speed ?

b) designed to increase motor unit recruitment for success in a slow, high force, low power sport?

The obvious, intuitive answer would be "a". But, the discussions we have had on the Dragon Door forum go beyond simple "power production" concerns: carryover to other sports, pedagogical complications, learning curves, supervision etc. In any case I will reserve for the comments phase of this project a more nuanced description of why I feel the PC is superior (on many different levels) for teaching an athlete to "explode" (teaching them to "disinhibit" and "take all the brakes off") and why, by virtue of it being an entirely more athletic movement than the box squat (requiring timing, intermuscular-intramuscular coordination, creating and establishing a new base of support, overall development of the posterior chain and a movement pattern useful to many ground based sporting activities) that athletes will actually enjoy and benefit more from power cleans than from box squats.

To supplement further my basic assertions: Bud Charniga in his article Key Muscles for Weightlifting has articulated the importance of choosing exercises that train the athlete to not only use the stored elasticity and stretch reflex capacities of the body but to take advantage of the neurological phenomenon that dis-inhibit the agonist's (quads in this case) explosive expression via strengthening the antagonist's (hamstrings) explosive expression. The power clean is but one example of just such an exercise. The box squat exercise, on the other hand, because it is performed by breaking up the kinetic chain (eccentric/concentric) not only doesn't resemble athletic movements found in most sports, it doesn't make use of any of the qualities Charniga (and his cited sources) find important in optimizing power production. However, I do not subscribe (nor do I know of any coaches who do subscribe) to performing the power clean (or any power movement) at the exclusion of exercises designed to increase absolute strength. I can understand some of the pedagogical reasons for why some coaches would incorporate the box squat, however my first choice for developing absolute leg and hip strength with healthy athletes would be full back squats (either Olympic style or the modified "athletic squat" as discussed by Mark Rippetoe and Lon Kilgore in their book Starting Strength) and front squats. However I can still hear my first PL coach Terry Unger scolding me when, in 1977, he caught me squatting to a box, "That's not squatting, that's a bad accident waiting to happen."

Alternative Methods

Provide at least one alternative method for improving power:

Jack Reape:

Plyometrics or ballistic keg/bumper plate on barbell throws

Geoff Neupert:

There has been research within the last 10 years or so that shows that power is achieved with percentages between 30-50% of a 1RM of non-ballistic lifts (squat, bench press, etc.). Therefore, any exercise that elicits a rapid response of the stretch-shortening cycle is a great example of an exercise that increases power. Specific examples in no particular order are: the "shock method" (depth jumps), jumps, weighted jumps, medicine ball/sandbag/keg throws, and ballistic upper body exercises like clapping push-ups

Randy Hauer:

What other exercise would I use for Power besides the two under discussion? It depends. But if we are restricting the choice to off season training when sport specific skills are in the "background", I love the barbell hang power snatch from either below the knee or the upper thigh position. I also like heavier, low rep (2-3 reps) unilateral KB hard style swing snatches. Of course, these presuppose a foundation of higher rep kettlebell swings and snatches and perfect technique but if the effort is above 2-3 reps and not explosive, it is to my way of thinking not power training anymore. Higher explosive reps could be described as a variant of power training (power-endurance perhaps) and for which I find KBs very useful.
Plyometrics (or yielding strength exercises) as generally thought of: box jumps and quick reversal depth jumps, bounding etc are not really plyo, are they? (At least not as Zatsiorsky defines the term) I tend to think (and I know of at least one article that also supports this view) the amortizing catch phase of the power clean is really plyo in the pure sense of the word (yielding) and while the loading effect is very similar, the PC catch is much easier on the ankles, knees and hips than 2 meter depth jumps.
To conclude I want to say that it is interesting (and at turns ironic and frustrating) to me that the arguments I've been hearing against the power clean for training athletes are almost exactly the same arguments against KBs that I get from the current USAW coaches: KBs are too hard to learn, don't train the same strength systems, utilizes different metabolic pathways, dangerous and injurious, better use of time to practice the sport specific skill than trying to learn to use a new implement, not sport specific enough, teaches incorrect movement patterns, doesn't carry over, etc, etc, etc.

End ? Part I?

In Part II the participants get the chance to expand on these preliminary questions and get specific.