Transitioning to Olympic weightlifting from a general strength background.

It seems that with the recent increase in popularity of weightlifting in the USA, I have seen a lot more questions about the best way for an experienced weight trainer to transition into the sport. You know, the guy or gal who has done bench presses and squats for a while, who already has a reasonable amount of basic strength and and a bit of muscle to go with it.

Such folks are often frustrated by normal beginner routines. Why? They are used to training hard, and because they often start off with the ability to snatch or clean and jerk only very low percentages of their squat, deadlift, or bench press, they often don’t feel like they are getting much of a workout. This can become very frustrating for a person used to pushing themselves to the limit several times a week on general strength exercises. And their strength and size, especially in the upper body, often temporarily regresses because the majority of the work they are doing, while challenging technically, is not really challenging from a muscular perspective.

This isn’t a problem for your typical beginner with little or no weight training experience. For such a person, snatches and clean and jerks, even with weights limited more by technique than strength, along with a bit of pressing and squatting adds strength and muscle. But for the guy with a 300lb bench, a 450lb squat, and 2-3 years of hard training under his belt, it is unlikely this will be the case.

These people might be well served by an introduction into the sport that is a little different, something that lets them transition from their old style of training a bit slower, and allows them to maintain and hopefully even improve their level of basic strength and muscle size as they learn to do the snatch and clean and jerk. I have used a program several times that I believe accomplishes this fairly well.

The basis for this program is in the programs written by Dr. Mike Stone in the 1980’s, and the basic template is still in use today at various places with a few minor changes. Maybe the most notable is LSUS, where it is used by Kendrick Farris and his teammates training under Kyle Pierce. Justin Lascek recommends a similar program to the “70’s big” community, a very weightlifting friendly bunch of folks who’s main goal is getting, well, 70’s big, as well as growing facial hair and wearing flannel. I have used the program here and there from the late 1990’s till today with various lifters ranging from those transitioning from powerlifting to weightlifting, to competitive lifters who want a “rest” cycle after a major contest, and want to back off a bit on the competitive lifts temporarily but still maintain progress when it comes to overall strength.

This is a 4 day a week program, and the premise is very simple, as is usually the case with good programming. Two days a week you practice the snatch and clean and jerk, and 2 days a week you squat and press.

And honestly, that is the only sentence in this whole blog that is really important. Sure, I started out by explaining the need for this program, then building some credibility by explaining where it comes from and who has used it. And I will finish by supplying some details because no one would pay much attention to a blog containing two sentences.

But the reality is people who are in the position to use this program, experienced weight trainers who have built a decent amount of muscle and strength, already have the experience necessary to fill in the details themselves. In spite of this, here are the details.

I think the best way to set this up is to do your snatches and clean and jerks on Monday and Thursday, and your squatting and strength exercises on Tuesday and Saturday. This does not mean that you have to do it on those days, but those days have worked for me.

Practice on the Olympic lifts means just that, there is no magical rep scheme. If you normally work out for 90 minutes, aim to practice for 90 minutes, split up between the two lifts. If you lack mobility then much of this time, at least initially, might be taken up by work on mobility. In some circumstances, your time working on snatch might initially be taken up just trying to attain an overhead squat position. It is possible that initially the bulk of your time in the gym on these days you might just have an empty bar in your hands. But as is always the case, you will get better as time goes on and at some point you will gradually start to handle more and more challenging weights. Use your common sense when doing these workouts, challenge you yourself but don’t do so much as to interfere with your strength training.

When it comes to your squatting and pressing, if you can’t figure this out for yourself, then you are not really in the population that I am aiming at with this blog. If you are in the target population, you have already raised your squat at least a hundred pounds and probably more, use your head and do what you have to in order to keep gaining. Experiment with including front squats. Most people who do general strength routines bench press, whatever has been working, keep it up. But consider adding an emphasis to overhead stuff like presses and push presses, and de-emphasising the bench press.

When do you advance beyond such a routine? Well, my experience tells me that the need for such a “hybrid” program fades when a lifter is snatching 50% or more of his or her backsquat, or clean and jerking 65% of more of his or her back squat. But let common sense be your guide. At some point the weights on the snatch and clean and jerk will be heavy enough that it will no longer simply be “practice”, it will be real live strength training! And if you had 2-3 years of strength training behind you before you started Olympic lifting, and then have taken enough time to achieve decent form and decent weights on the competitive lifts using this routine, you should be equipped with enough experience and knowledge to know where to go from here.

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26 responses to “Transitioning to Olympic weightlifting from a general strength background.

  • Mike

    Very informative article Glenn-my own experience has been powerlifting, and when I first transitioned to OL I lost a good deal of strength. With zero form I could PS 80x3reps and push press 110-after months of training on ‘form’ I could barely do 70/90 and my form was not that much better.
    I think a program such as you describe would have made the switch from PL to OL much easier to accomplish.

  • Adam

    Hi Glen,

    I was wandering if it is imperative to stick to a 4 day split? Being a university student,from the UK, I’m quite hard pressed for time, and only work out 3 days a week.

    Your article has reassured me that I’m not the only one frustrated, as I find myself in exactly the same predicament; strength training background trying to transition into Olympic style weightlifting.

    At the moment 3 day my split looks something like this.

    Monday: Deadlift, snatch, clean and jerk, bent over row

    Wednesday: Bench Press, weighted chins, snatch clean and jerk

    Friday: Squat, Press, Snatch, Clean and Jerk, Front Squat.

    Bodyweight: 73kg/160lbs
    (all bellow 5 rep maxes)
    Squat: 145kg/320lbs
    Bench: 95kg/ 209lbs
    Deadlift: 165kg/365lbs
    Press: 55kg/ 121lbs

    I apologise for the rant above, but with time on my side, I’m only 18, I think If I make a start now I can realise my ambitions of competing one day.

    Many thanks,

    Adam

  • tc-cat

    Do you have any suggestions on mobility exercises, especially for someone coming from a PL background? I just started an Olympic class, and I’m finding that getting my elbows up high enough when I catch is really difficult, but if I lower the weight too much, it doesn’t feel like the same movement. I’m used to doing front squats off the rack, where it’s easier to just put my elbows in the right position from the beginning.

  • Dan

    well, at least i am a little less alone in my awkward stage watching guys squatting 10kg less than me demolish my oly lifts. It was weird at first but as my form improved the numbers are slowly converging, so Ive got that going for me

  • Bhg

    Excellent article as per usual, coach. How is your book progressing?

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