Is there such a thing as Being Too Strong?

Over the last few weeks a video of Joe Kovacs back squatting 770 pounds has gone viral. My first thoughts were, “How mad is (Kovacs’ coach] Art [Venegas] going to be that this was posted on the internet?” and “That’s normal for a world class shot putter at that size.”

See discussion of Vern Gambetta's post here.

Then a firestorm of opinions about the squat were posted, many in a slightly negative manner–questioning if moving 770 lbs was useful. In some ways that really surprised me, in other way I could see it coming. Over the past ten years I have seen this trend with university strength coaches. This trend has taken us to where we are losing the ability to know what strong is, or even know what it takes to be world class in many track and field disciplines (and many other sports). The weight room is slowly turning into a rehab’ center instead of what it was meant for, to make people physically strong. The two big questions that have to be answered are:
1.) How you use the weight room for your specific endeavor?
2.) How you recover from what you lift?

After years of talking to elite coaches and coaching world class throwers I’ve come to the opinion that there is no such thing as being too strong.

Many strength gurus will speak about how the weight room should be all about speed–that moving a bar faster at a submaximal weight is what’s it's all about. So my question to the critics is what would you rather have:
a.) A man that can move 50-60% quickly of a 770 pound squat max.
b.) 50-60% of a 600 pound squat max.
       *assuming bar speed is achieved at somewhere between 50-60% of someone’s 1 rep’ max.

I'll take the 770 lb squatter any day of the week.  Absolute strength and speed strength are married and by shorting either end you’re hurting the other; and hurting your athlete.

While getting hurt lifting heavy is always a risk–in my experience, if the training is planned out correctly throwers become injured far more throwing than they do lifting. A strong athlete is just simply harder to hurt while doing ballistics events such as the throws.

Also, if being too strong was real in track and field then simply speaking there would be no need for drug testing.

Think about it:

  • Where did the 70’+ male and female shot put standing throws go?

  • Where did the 220’+ female discus standing throws go?

  • Where did the 250’ female discus throws go?

  • Why do hammer throwers take sudden 35’ distance drops?

  • What happen to all the 80m hammer guys that the world had years ago?

  • Where did all the 22m male gliders go and was this simply tied to the huge standing throws?

  • American male discus throwing ?

The answer is simple–it was banned drugs that built huge strength levels that in-turn built huge throws. The truth is that those kind of throws happened when world class throwers lifted world class numbers.


[caption id="attachment_15501" align="alignright" width="319"] Powerful major muscle groups make big throws[/caption]

  • squatted 750 lb to 900 lb

  • power cleaned 450 lb to 510 lb

  • pad bench pressed 600lb to 800lb

  • snatched 375 lb to 400 lb


  • squatted 550 lb to 660 lb

  • power cleaned 350 lb to 400 lb

  • bench pressed 365 lb to 465 lb

  • snatched 265 lb to 310 lb

I’ve seen a 138 lb female javelin thrower snatch 240 lb for an easy double. The weight room numbers were huge.

So, my wife [Olympic head coach Connie Price-Smith] and I, after seeing all of this in person, can say without a doubt that big horsepower is important and should be a main training staple–along with learning how to move big weight quickly. This however, requires even a bigger number; which results in a slower speed during that lift, but is part of the process.

[caption id="attachment_15504" align="alignleft" width="171"] Explosive fitness to the Nth degree[/caption]

Our competition loves to “criticize” the Americans by saying we “just care about strength,” as if they don’t get strong. Believe me, those same people are very strong and love to hide it. But, you’re not going to see any of their coaches talking about it (unless you pay them) or posting videos of big lifts on Facebook. Most of our competition know the path to throwing far is mapped out by the training system–not just by spending hours on screens watching film of world class performers. While technical models are part of the puzzle–it’s only one piece of the puzzle and without the other pieces you cannot figure out how they make big throws or how to build the power requirements of the technique that bring home medals.

They don’t care if you see their technique as long as you don’t see their training schedule or lifting numbers. In the end it just creates a mess watching hours of something you can’t do without their day-to-day methods and horsepower. In the old days their support staff at the major championships would usually rent out entire weight training facilities and have private lifting sessions away from prying eyes, especially western ones.

I’m not saying that certain athletes can’t be world class without having great strength levels in the weight room because there are some freaks of nature out there–and some of them will be in Rio. Still, we don’t coach a squad full of those freaks. I believe strength has become even more important in today's environment, not less important. Achieving great strength has to be turned back into a badge of honor and not a four-letter word in the USA.

John Smith

Replies 8

  • i am doing some personal research in the goblet squat.If when doing the squat one goes as far down as the Indian squat. the goblet squat seriously strengthens the inner thigh muscles and stretches and strengthens the hip flexors. if one does a forward lunge cupping the weight like the goblet squat it seriously stretches and strengthen the groin area and hip flexor in the other direction. These two moves will result in an increase in the throwers rotational speed therefore distance.

  • Sprint coaches have known for a long time that lifting heavy develops the fast-twitch muscle fibers. Allyson Felix's high school coach had her lifting heavy, and it certainly didn't stall her career.

  • There's some elements of this article that are contradicting and while I respect John Smith, I feel like he's way off about some things. First, let me say that I do whole heartedly agree that strength is absolutely a means to success in ANY throwing event. Obviously refining technique is equally important as well as development of specific strength relative to the event i.e. Heavy hammers, light shot puts, puds, discus tools, etc. When developing strength, 90% of a 1RM is mandatory and many times you must reach 100% or exceed it to create new levels of performance. To say that athletes don't do it out of fear of getting hurt means that they are either executing the lift incorrectly or their supervision (coaches) are teaching it incorrectly. This is especially apparent watching various NCAA athletes lift above 90%, including Johns athletes from SIU and Ole Miss. Watching them drop weight on themselves and struggle to push it back up with their legs flailing and elbows untucking, with no rear scapular stabilization is a pecoral tear or rotator tear waiting to happen. I believe Joe's video surfacing is great, because it finally shows him, a world champion and owner of a 74ft toss, that to throw (a shot put) far you must be capable of squatting weights like that. Joe had one of the cleanest raw 770lb squats out of any athlete or world class power lifter I have ever seen.

    Next, different events are going to require a different athlete, therefore strength levels will vary. In other words, while absolute strength is pivitol, one can't expect a javelin thrower to bench 500lbs to throw 80-90m. But for shot putting, you better damn well be the most powerful MF'er on the track. What John does address is the comparisons to drugs and he does so often when I read his writing. Yes, guys were pad pressing 800 lbs and girls pressed 465, and Brian Oldfield threw 94 feet once at Mt. Sac. Whenever drugs are brought up, it's irrelevant and stagnant to getting today's athletes better. These numbers are insane and if guys were actually as strong as you say they are, then throws would've / should've been farther. There are two things that are being done incorrectly today: 1., throwers are not as strong as they possibly can be. 2. They have coaches that are afraid to break them down and build them up regarding their technique because they need them to score conference and NCAA points, so if they can get a good result now, rather than develop them and get a brilliant result later, they take the easy road to protect their team and job. Most of them have horrible habits and it's incredibly difficult to watch them, knowing their ability, knowing their poor weight room habits, and knowing how little they perfect the fundamentals of any throw.
    Last, John has a list of mysterious disappearances in the throwing world. While most have to do with drugs, a few bother me because of how aloof we are. Hammer throwers have taken a sudden drop because their technique is awful and they aren't as physically strong (USA). The big standing throws you desperately desire...strength. USA discus throwing? Well here is your contradiction. Jared Rome and Ian Waltz had arguably the most horsepower out of ANY American discus thrower in decades and they never saw 70m, or close to without a hurricane. Romes bench was close to 550 and squatted in the 7's while Waltz was not too far away and yet, a stadium prelim would rear its ugly head, and suddenly we could not muscle a 2k into the tornado, and our discus would fall at 58-62m. Gerd Kanter would routinely show his lifting videos - he was a mid 400 bencher and squatted maybe 575-600. Do you think Alekna had hulking strength or was it because he was a technician and utilized his 6-7'ness? Our discus throwers are in the NFL and NBA, our Javelin throwers are playing baseball, and we get away in the shot put, because we can develop serious strength in little time, to mask the fact that years of technical work is missed. So in conclusion, learn your event and perfect your technique and get seriously, brutally, dangerously STRONG.

  • Wolf,

    Would you be interested in turning your thoughts into an article to be published on Throwholics? A point-and-counterpoint?

  • I would love to.

  • @Wolf could you please use the contact form and get in contact with us?
    So we can let you turn your thoughts into an article.

  • I'm going to put my ignorance on display here, as it appears to be tolerated practice (from some of the replies I've read). I'm not a throws coach. I was formerly the head strength & conditioning coach at Southern Illinois and had the distinct pleasure of working with Coach Smith for around 4 years. If anyone was going to criticize the man's strategies, it would certainly be me. For those who are not familiar with me, I will start by saying I believe in excellent execution of the clean, snatch and jerk and all associated/complimentary barbell lifts in order to maximize transfer of the weight room to the competitive environment. Some people would argue I drill perfection of these lifts to a fault with my athletes. I would argue "technique, technique, technique", John would argue "physics, physics, physics". I'm not here to beleaguer that point. He put it to rest a long time ago.
    What I am here to argue is the absolute, easily recognizable validity of the statements John made in his article above. While working with him, he completely redefined what my idea of "strong" was, and how appropriately and safely challenging the physical limits of your athletes, one can redefine your paradigm of training, durability, and ultimately accomplishment.
    John has some of the heartiest, most robust, and healthy athletes I have ever been around. I never once saw an injury occur in the weight room, even after watching what I (previously) would have considered "cringe-worthy" execution of olympic-influenced lifts. The important point here is that he had a SYSTEM of training that used "olympic-influenced lifts" at appropriate times to maximize the mammoth amounts of weight his athletes could safely and effectively move, in order to compliment the physics (forces) that his athletes where trying to manipulate out in the ring. His training sessions where better thought out than most strength & conditioning professionals I have been exposed to, implemented in a masterfully productive training environment, FUN, CHALLENGING, and executed in a manner that complimented his throwers strengths and shortcomings.
    The man is a master throws coach (doing more with less than any coach I have ever met), and one hell of a performance coach. He taught this old dog (who thought he had seen it all) some new, career altering tricks, and his athletes (as well as mine) will owe him a debt of gratitude for his influences. "Strong" is such a relative term, and it really depends on what you have been exposed to. I have a completely different definition than most coaches based on my time with John and Connie at SIU, as redefined by their athletes.

  • I should have mentioned in closing..that if you don't think you or your athletes should be lifting it, well then, you probably shouldn't. But if John taught me anything, "don't put your limitations on me or my athletes".

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