The selection of exercises in a weightlifter’s regimen can be compared to a spectrum; one end of the spectrum contains assistance exercises and remedials with little to no inclusion of the full competition lifts, while the other end contains the competition lifts and front/back squats. Each extreme has its flaws. Most routines rightfully fall in somewhere between these ends, but nonetheless certain individuals choose to advocate their extreme as THE way to train.
In the incipient stages of a lifting career, one should primarily perform the full lifts along with front and back squats. After a month or so, the athlete can incorporate assistance movements based on their needs. This can include: Targeting an identifiable weakness in one phase of the lift, reduce taxation of the muscular and neurological system by only completing partial movements of the full lift, training around injury. As the athlete’s career progresses and they begin to work with heavier poundages, the significance of the aforementioned points become more and more apparent.
Exclusively performing assistance movements can leave the athlete an unfamiliarity of the full lift. The amount of force generated at various phases of the full lift differ from the assistance movements, no matter how much one strives to keep the two the same. For example, when performing a hang snatch, the athlete must lower the barbell to snatch it, in which an amortization (transition) phase occurs. The direction of force on the barbell shifts from downwards to upwards, in contrast to a snatch off the floor which is almost directly upwards throughout the duration of the pull. The athlete may use the oscillation or whip of the bar to generate enough force to complete the lift, but this is different from the full pull from the ground.
The biggest detriment of the assistance movement filled routine is the neglect of the timing component of the full lift. Looking strictly at from the full extension of the pulling phase to when the weight is secured in an overhead or front squat, the athlete must become familiar with their self under the bar in harmony as it rises then lowers. This must be done in such a way that the barbell will not ‘crash’ on the athlete. Pulling under will feel different if the athlete is performing a lift from the hang as opposed to a lift off the floor. Some believe the full lifts are dangerous and may only prescribe the power versions of the lifts, in which no practicing of pulling under and meeting the bar for the full lifts occurs, and as a result the full lift feels foreign.
In contrast, the biggest flaws of exclusively performing the lifts and squats are failing to remedy specific weaknesses and subjecting the athlete to overtraining. There may be a need for the athlete to train a specific muscle, or a particular weak phase of the lift. Either will hinder and limit the athlete, as the cliché goes “you are as strong as your weakest link.” For example, my spinal erectors were so weak that I couldn’t keep a flat/arched back during the pull, which limited how much weight I could pull to my shoulders to clean. It made no difference how much I performed the lifts, and until I addressed the issue with assistance and remedials, I continued having the same problem.The inclusion of some assistance movements will also prevent overuse injuries. Say if an athlete’s just completed a heavy squat workout the day prior, then they could perform power clean & jerks to allow the neuromuscular pathway of standing up out of a squat to recover.
Further out from a contest, more assistance and less full movements can be performed, and as the contest approaches, more of the full lifts should be performed, particularly the last 4 or 5 weeks. For this sport, I am a strong believer in the mantra, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” What yields the greatest training benefit is the full competition lifts, however due to the nature of a complex multi-joint exercise, they can be very taxing and must be performed in controlled doses. Some can handle more of the full lifts than others; it is the mission of the athlete and coach to find the ideal mix of the full and assistance movements.
– Edward Baker