by Charles Poliquin Iron Magazine
“I love it when a plan comes together!” was the favorite catch phrase of Colonel John “Hannibal” Smith, the leader of a group of TV action heroes called the A-Team. Although Smith and his team were fictional characters, the message applies to all levels of athletic performance.
Structural balance is the assessment method that forms the core of the first two levels of the Poliquin International Certification Program. The basic premise is that any training program, whether it’s for optimal physical fitness or for improved athletic performance, needs to address specific ratios of strength imbalances. As a bonus, maintaining structural balance will help prevent injuries.
Here’s an example of the value of restoring structural balance: Several years ago, almost all the players on a Canadian national volleyball team were suffering from patellar tendonitis. Patellar tendonitis is a chronic swelling of the tendon that connects the kneecap to the lower-leg bone. Two months after the team began emphasizing the vastus medialis oblique (VMO) in their workouts, structural balance was restored and the patellar tendonitis went away in all but one of the team members.
Knee injuries are of particular concern for women and girls. The American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine reports that each year more than 20,000 high school girls suffer serious knee injuries, most involving the ACL. Balancing the muscles surrounding the knee, especially the VMO, can be an extremely valuable step in preventing this devastating injury. However, the concept of structural balance extends beyond injury prevention.
Sergey Bubka was a pole-vaulter whose training is discussed in the book Soviet Training and Recovery Methods by Rick Brunner and Ben Tabachnik, PhD. Included in this book is a table of eight strength and conditioning tests correlated to pole vault performance that Bubka regularly performed throughout his career. Two of the strength tests in this table include results in the snatch and the bench press.
Here is the yearly progression of Bubka’s results (in kilos) in the snatch from 1975 (at age 11) to 1984: 25, 35, 40, 45, 50, 60, 70, 80, 85, 90. In that same period, his bench press progressively improved from 20 kilos to 110. Bubka and his coaches believed that by increasing his results in these eight tests he would develop the athletic qualities he needed to be the best in the world. Sure enough, Bubka won the gold in the pole vault at the 1988 Olympics, and during his career he broke 35 world records.
Similarly, you can see how the concept of structural balance applies in weightlifting. The two lifts contested in weightlifting are the snatch and the clean and jerk, but to improve performance in these lifts weightlifters usually perform many assistance exercises, such as squats. For example, one component of the clean and jerk is recovering out of the bottom position when the athlete catches the weight on their shoulders, which equates, basically, to a front squat. As such, the front squat is considered an appropriate assistance exercise for the clean.
One ongoing controversy in weightlifting concerns the relationship between squats and the lifts, as reported by Bud Charniga from many translations of Russian weightlifting textbooks and from personal conversations. Examples include Americans Mark Henry, who could front squat 325 kilos and clean and jerk 220 kilos, and Shane Hamman, who could back squat 457 kilos and clean and jerk 237 kilos. Likewise, Russia’s Aslanbek Yenaldiev reportedly squatted 455 kilos, but at one competition during that time he was unable to rise from a 240 clean. In contrast, Russia’s Olympic champion Yuri Zakharevich could front squat 250 kilos but could clean and jerk 250.5 kilos and clean 265 kilos. And the great Vasily Alexeev, who clean and jerked 256 kilos, claims never to have squatted more than 270 kilos.
In commenting on such ratios, Charniga said, “The strength of the hamstrings (in performing flexion at the knee) in relation to that of the quads is critical to the speed with which the action of shifting the knees under the bar occurs. Likewise, hamstring strength (in stabilizing the hip) is crucial as the shins straighten during the first phase of the pull. So, one needs to be careful not to create a significant imbalance in strength between the quads and hamstrings.” To add punch to his message, Charniga shared a pithy comment he’d heard from former world record holder in weightlifting Alexander Kurlovitch: “A lot of squats adversely affect speed.”
Canadian weightlifting coach Pierre Bergeron has trained numerous Olympians and competitors in the World Championships. One of his success stories is Maryse Turcotte, who placed fourth at the Sydney Olympics and was a three-time medalist at the World Championships. To illustrate how to determine structural imbalances in this sport, Bergeron provided the following optimal ratios of the snatch and assistance exercises for an athlete who can clean and jerk 100 kilos:
Snatch: 80 kg / 82 kg
Power Snatch: 72 kg / 74 kg
Snatch Pulls (sets of 3): 95 kg / 100 kg
Power Clean: 88 kg / 92 kg
Jerks off the Rack: 103 kg / 105 kg
Clean Pull: 115 kg / 120 kg
Front Squat: 115 kg / 120 kg
Back Squat: 128 kg / 132 kg
Deadlift: 138 kg / 145 kg
Shoulder Shrug (sets of 6): 150 kg / 155 kg
Standing Press: 48 kg / 52 kg
The following norms are used by several national teams in Canada:
Olympic Total: 178
Clean and Jerk: 100
Power Snatch: 70
Front Squat: 105
Back Squat: 123
Power Clean: 90
Seated Press: 50-55
Further, tests of power such as the vertical jump and standing long jump have been used to ensure that the training program is not adversely affecting speed. For the purpose of this article, let’s focus on what these ratios represent and how they can affect program design.
The power snatch is considered a strength exercise for the snatch, and its relationship to the full movement should influence how an athlete’s training should be modified. For example, if an athlete’s power snatch is nearly the same as the snatch, this may suggest that the athlete needs to work on speed. To accomplish this, the athlete could perform more snatches and snatch-related lifts at lighter percentages (70-80) and fewer sets in the heavier percentages (90-100), as well as a lower volume of squats to allow for more complete recovery from training.
The original results could also indicate the athlete has poor technique, or that there is a structural imbalance that prevents optimal technique from being executed. For example, because a lighter weight is used in the power snatch compared to the snatch, it is easier to maintain proper back position at the start of the exercise. If a lifter is rounding their back at the start of the snatch due to weakness in the lower back or hamstrings, this technical problem might be resolved by performing assistance exercises such as deadlifts or back extensions.
There are many factors that will affect the percentages used for structural balance. One is the size of the athlete. Heavier weightlifters, especially the super heavyweights, often cannot achieve the extremely low receiving positions in the snatch and clean that lighter lifters can. Further, their larger size also can affect the speed at which they can move under the barbell. The result is that heavier athletes have to pull the barbell to a relatively greater height to catch the barbell during the snatch and clean; this will create differences in the ratios of the power movements compared to the classical lifts.
Another benefit of structural balance that makes a difference in weightlifting is confidence. Let’s say a male weightlifter snatches 100 kilos and his best power snatch is 80 kilos. If during the next training cycle he power snatches 85 kilos, he will go into his next competition knowing he is physically strong enough to break his personal record.
Trainers and coaches must precisely prescribe the programs that will help correct structural imbalances. Keeping this concept foremost among your goals will enable you to create logical workout plans. Not only is structural balance essential for your athletes, it distinguishes a great program from one that is merely good.