How To Structure A Training Program For Weightlifters

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Sep 18

Introduction

The coach has two real jobs in day-to-day training: technical coaching and programming.

Technical coaching is about facilitating improvements in the athlete’s technique through the proper use of cues, drills and guidance. Programming refers to the way that we plan, organise and execute training sessions over the course of time.

Among bodybuilders and physique-focused individuals this might simply mean designing workouts, but for the ambitious weightlifter, it is far more complicated. Weightlifting training programmes are structured over the course of months and, in the case of Olympians, possibly years.

These programmes contain very deliberate and meticulously-planned phases, to ensure that athletes progress consistently, improve physical characteristics and demonstrate peak performance at competition time.

The structure of a training programme can make or break an athlete’s success, altering the way that their body and technique develop over time. Whilst there are many other variables, programming can make or break an athlete’s chances in competition.

If we are not adequately prepared for competition, or we have peaked too early, the differences between peak performance and actual performance can be in the 10s of kilograms depending on the athlete and their experience in the sport.

 

Training programmes for weightlifters: the basics

A macrocycle refers to a fairly long-term period in an athlete’s training program. The programme that we provide to the athlete will generally be one macrocycle at a time – this can cover anything from 8 weeks to 16 weeks depending on the experience level of the athlete and the duration between “now” and the competition that we are training towards.

These are composed of shorter mesocycles that generally run from 3-6 weeks and have their own internal focuses, plans and structures. These are made up of individual weeks that are classified in a variety of ways. For example, progression weeks focus on improving work capacity either in terms of intensity (the % of our best weights) or the volume (the number of repetitions performed at given weights).

Weightlifting programmes, as with other sports, work from more general training to more specific training over the course of a training cycle. We don’t want to begin a training program by maxing out our snatch every day, as much as we don’t want to spend the last few weeks of a program working on high repetitions or slow strength based training such as pulls or deadlifts.

There is an appropriate time for each exercise and prescription, depending on the context of the program, the lifter’s weaknesses and the intended effect of the exercise. The first few weeks should focus on the development of very general, complementary qualities such as sport specific fitness, work capacity and power.

These characteristics will serve to improve the results of the training plan as we move to more classical lifts from the floor, as well as competitive performance in case we get into a tight spot and are rushed out to the platform. Additionally, it is hard to consider yourself an effective athlete if you’re out of shape: being an athlete means putting in the time on the conditioning work to make sure that you’re prepared for anything when the time comes!

The start of a training programme should also reflect the relative preparedness of the athlete, based on how far from competition they are. When we are at the beginning of a program and are focusing on building the foundation, we need to perform a variety of exercises at lower weights – up to 80% intensity.

This intensity should be relatively challenging to the athlete because the number of repetitions per sets are fairly high in the early weeks but there should be zero missed lifts.  If an athlete misses lifts in the intensity range then their coach should be reviewing techniques and positioning.

During this phase, we have the opportunity to “re-learn” technical cues and patterns that we have struggled with during previous competitions or training programs. The important part is developing movement patterns that we can continue to load as we progress through the training plan. I often remind my athletes that a pyramid can only be as tall as its base is wide. What this means, for weightlifters, is that you can only lift as much as your technique and strength will allow. Developing technique and strength through these lighter, higher-rep movements at the start of a program can have a huge effect on the results that you lift in competition.  It’s not rocket science but consistency in training equals consistency on the platform.

Structuring microcycles

Developing an effective training program begins with structuring effective training weeks. This involves proper exercise selection, intensity planning and the selection of volume distributions for the various days of the week. We can’t expect an athlete to do all of the hard work on one day of the week and spend the rest recovering: weightlifting is far too technical and we need to get as much technical practice as possible without excessively fatiguing the athlete. We see, in powerlifting, athletes who may train so hard on Monday that they have to schedule Wednesday as a light session and return to heavy training on Friday. This makes sense for that sport, but in Weightlifting we have to remember that more practice with the movements has to be achieved as well as development of strength and power more generally.

Structuring the days of a training week will allow us to train both strength and technique at reasonable proportions and achieve good results in both. For example, programming back to back high volume days at the start of the weeks training is likely to be detrimental to the quality that is required in weightlifting. If we vary the volume throughout the week then the athlete should have time to recover in between the most challenging training days of the week ensuring an extremely high level of quality is maintained every session. If we fatigue the athlete so much that they cannot continue to improve their strength numbers throughout a program, or they begin to fail the technical lifts due to fatigue, we have either structured the days wrong or given the athlete too much to do.

Volume and intensity vary from day to day and week to week, depending on the context of the program. During the early stages of the program, a week’s intensity is generally constant at weights that allow us to challenge the athlete and improve technique, without excessively fatiguing them or causing too many missed lifts. As intensity increases, volume must decrease (at least in the long term) or we threaten damaging the athlete – increasing both variables at once is very difficult and will cause more harm than good in many cases. That said, there are elements of increasing both volume and intensity during the most challenging weeks of a program but these normally only occur in 2 weeks of a 10 –  12 week program.  By which time, the lifter should be well conditioned and have progressively loaded over the first 5-6 weeks to be able to cope with such increased training demands.

 

Mesocycles: how training programs change over time

When we structure the program, the different weeks should be timed such as to focus on different aspects of training and different bodily affects. In the same way that several consecutive days of hard training will negatively affect the athlete’s performance, several weeks of hard training will do the same thing in a more lasting and long-term way. When I structure my programs, I like to give athletes a ratio of 2:1. This means that for every 2 weeks of hard training, I allocate a week to “back off” and allow some recovery processes to catch up to the work we have been doing. This doesn’t mean backing off on weights lifted in the sessions, but a reduction in volume will allow them to continue to handle heavy weights whilst allowing for some systematic recovery. This should allow us to make more consistent progress and reduce the chance of injury or excessive fatigue.

As we pass the first 3-6 weeks of training, we begin to introduce more classical lifts and focus on the way that the athlete moves with increased weights. During this time, we begin to apply the strength and fitness developments experienced in the first few weeks of the program to the classical lifts.

Increased performance in these areas should show in the way that we perform the lifts. Before this time, athletes are likely to feel tired, sluggish and sore from initial volume. As we begin this transition to the classical lifts – reduce the amount of hang movements, presses and power lifts – the athlete will begin to feel sharper and this should show through in the way that they perform these newly-introduced full lifts.

As the classical lifts are re-introduced, they will be performed at around 80% for triples, 85% for doubles and 90%+ solely for singles. We see athletes who can perform huge percentages of their 1RM for several reps and in this situation, it tends to be the case that these athletes simply don’t have a high enough 1RM.

If we are able to perform these movements for doubles, we are likely not working at peak efficiency – a technically efficient athlete should be working at the top end of what their strength allows and should not be able to perform doubles above 90%.

Whilst this is far easier for those who come from countries with extensive “sport pharmacology” programs, natural athletes would benefit more from more sets of effective, competition-specific singles than 2 sets of 2 where the second rep is slower, less sharp, rougher and fatigued. Performing the second rep slowly, out of position and without the kind of focus that we see in competition will not have the same positive effects as performing 4 sets of 1 where each rep is consistent and technically accurate.

Programming should strive to empower lifters to be technically efficient and consistent – every rep should be a positive change towards the technical and speed performances that will be necessary to lift top weights. Any movement away from that is a bad thing and does the athlete more harm than good.

This is especially important in the last 3-4 weeks of a program, which ought to be tailored towards performing the snatch and clean and jerk for very low reps at higher weights. We see athletes attempting larger numbers during this period and we should really approach every rep with 100% focus and attention to detail, trying to hit technical perfection with maximum speed.

These are the demands that we make of ourselves when we step onto the competition platform and the way that we train during this period should reflect this: every rep should be performed in the way that we want our competition lifts to look!

The best lifters in the world are what I call 95% lifters.  This means they will succeed with 95%+ of any weights they attempt above 80% intensity.