Strength and Weightlifting

Even disregarding the “internet experts” who are usually individuals either not involved in weightlifting or only pheripherally involved still leaves some disagreement among actual coaches as to the relationship between the strength exercises and the competitive lifts.

One of the concepts that I have heard that I disagree with is the idea of “reserve strength”. I have heard respected people pose the rhetorical question “what is wrong with pushing the squat and pull up to the point that the athlete has a little bit of reserve strength?”. The idea behind this is that with a little strength in reserve, the athlete can hold onto weights that are not lifted with perfect technique, don’t “land” in exactly the right spot, or make their expected lifts even if they are slightly tired or “off” that day. On the surface this sounds reasonable, but I dont think the concept holds up under scrutiny.

The first part of this concept to fall apart is the assumption that “pushing the squat up” or increasing back strength is both not already being done as vigorously as possible and is easy to do if the effort is put in. I don’t personally know of any weightlifters who do not already put great effort into pushing up their squat numbers. If pushing up the squat was both easy and a foregone conclusion if one simply tried to do it, then everyone would have a huge squat. We all know that everyone does not have a huge squat. Those that have the weakest squats generally work the hardest to bring them up, and know that wishing a thing to happen is not the same as seeing it happen.

Another assumption buried within the “reserve strength” argument is that extra effort put towards increasing squat strength will have no effect on other parts of training. Weightlifters are training primarily to do more on the snatch and clean and jerk, and time in training must be devoted to that. A person only has so much recovery ability. I would assume that many or even most lifters could increase their squat numbers if they ceased to train the snatch and clean, but that would not result in a better weightlifter, just a better squatter. Steve Gough told me that a few years back he was working with a very good lifter who was convinced that he would be even better with significantly more leg strength. They cut way back on the snatch and clean and jerk training and trained the back squat frequently and hard for a time period, and in that time period the lifter put over 100lbs on his back squat. His snatch and clean and jerk didnt go up at all, and did not even go up when the lifter had reverted to more “normal” training prioritizing the snatch and clean and jerk. The lifter became a better squatter, but not a better weightlifter. We must all remember that we are training to become weightlifters and extra points are not given for a big squat or pull or deadlift.

Let us play devils advocate for a moment, and assume that an athlete HAS decided to develope some “reserve strength”, has been successfull in doing so with no detrimental effect to his skill in the competition lifts. Let us say that this athlete has numbers similar to James Moser on the front squat and the clean and jerk. Let us say that he had front squatted 190kilos, and clean and jerked 182kilos. He has now added 20kg to his front squat, and front squats 210kilos and retains the same skill in the clean and jerk that he had before. He used to have to catch the bounce perfectly with 182kg to stand up. Now it is true that even with a sloppier catch or a pull that doesnt put the bar in exactly the right place, he can still stand and he couldnt have before. However, if he still has the same skill he used to have, what is to prevent him from pulling perfectly and catching the bounce just right with a 200kilo clean?

Adding “reserve strength” therefore assumes that the athlete either subsequently lifts only submaximal weights or loses effeciency and skill as a weightlifter. Without one of these two things happening, there can never be any “reserve strength”.

Another variation of the “reserve strength” argument applies to developing lifters. Weightlifting coaches (invariably stupid American coaches, not the European idols) are accused of basing squat numbers off of snatch or more often clean numbers thus “holding back” strength development and the overall development of the lifter. Supposedly progress would happen much more quickly if the coach just put weight on the squat bar, fostering the quick development of strength and higher snatch and clean numbers would quickly follow.

Again the assumption is that as a group coaches are intentionally holding back squatting numbers. This could be so in some cases but it is not so simple as it sounds. Take a developing lifter who squats 100k but only clean and jerks 50k. Obviously the technique is inneffecient enough that the leg strength is not being used anyway. You only have so much time and recovery ability to apply to training, the quickest way to increase results is obviously to improve technique and not to build more strength when what is already there is not being used anyway. So even if cases exist where squats are de-emphasized, it is not simply to “hold back” the strength levels, it is to prioritize the components of training that will yield the fastest progress.

As someone who has coached a lot of developing lifters, I can say that this situation rarely exists anyway. Usually after an initial learning of the lifts, a young lifter has to work quite hard on both the lifts and the strength exercises to progress, and there is never any intentional holding back of a certain component of training. Most developing weightlifters do a higher volume of squatting than the average powerlifter, a sport where the squat itself is a competition lift. This does not constitute a “holding back” of strength levels.

Let us again play devils advocate. Let us assume that we have a young weightlifter who is clean and jerking 100k, and squatting 140k. Let us assume he has the genetic ability to increase his squat 60kg in the next year, but because of the mental challenges of the clean and jerk as well as physical components not related to strength (speed, timing, etc.) can not increase his clean by more than 20kg. This is of course the situation the “internet coaches” assume always exists. If it did exist for our imaginary athlete, would it be wise to have an athlete who cold squat 200kg and clean 120kg, and to assume that the clean would eventually catch up, and that it would increase faster in the future and the athlete would reach his top potential sooner?

One of the components of being a “developing” lifter is imperfect technique. A novice can have great technique with light weights, but get awefully sloppy with heavy weights. Often, maximal attemps will be downright ugly. As skill increases and the competitive lifts go up on an absolute basis and also as a percentage of the strength lifts like the squat, better and better technique must be used all the time in order to achieve new personal records. This is one of the driving forces behind improving technique, that smaller and smaller margins of error can be made and still make a maximal or near maximal attempt. Bad habits or mistakes MUST go away over time or bigger weights wont go overhead. One of the things I have discoverd is that if the margins for error do not get smaller, then the errors wont get smaller! If the athlete goes through the first few years of training with the ability to continually lift heavier weights with sloppy pulling, bad timing and slow movement, then these things will NOT go away and will over time become ingrained. At some point they are never going away. You have a lifter who will eventually develop into a strong but sloppy lifter who lifts average weights and looks ugly doing it.

Lifters differ in the relationship between the squat and front squat and the competitive lifts. Some need to back squat 140kg to clean 100kg, some only need to back squat 120kg to clean 100kg. For most lifters these relationships should stay the same for most of the athletes career. It is true that as a novice, the competitive lifts usually progress faster initially and the effeciency improves, and that the very top lifters, the elite champions who are in their prime often continue to develope squat strength even after their lifts cease to go up and effeciency actually decreases. But for the majority of a career, the relationship should be pretty constant, and the coach should take care that the gap between strength exercises and competitive exercises doesnt continually widen. If this should mean decreasing training on the squat in order to put more time in on the competitive lifts, then that is what should be done.


8 responses to “Strength and Weightlifting

  • Lincoln Brigham

    Excellent article.

    “Those that have the weakest squats generally work the hardest to bring them up, and know that wishing a thing to happen is not the same as seeing it happen.”

    Ain’t that the truth!!!

  • Koing Chea

    Good read 🙂

  • glenn


    Dont we all wish it was that easty?


  • Dano

    I was looking at an easy opener of 130 kg in the C&J weighing about 175-180 pounds at my last meet(that I had to bail out of due to injuries). My best front squat at the time: 134 kg. I suck at front squatting but have great elastic rebound. I was aiming for the 300-pound mark and really didn’t see myself missing it. Should I work on my front squat? I don’t think so because the only thing that moves my front squat: heavy cleans, but no vice versa. Thanks, coach!

  • Franklin Herman

    Hi Glenn,

    I just found this gold mine of knowledge and appreciate you sharing these thoughts with the public.

    As for this post, I was under the false impression that a big squat would automatically give me a bigger clean. Fortunately my coaches were also aware of this fallacy .. your analysis really helps me “get it” now .. thanks!

  • Heartburn Home Remedy

    If you ever want to see a reader’s feedback 🙂 , I rate this article for 4/5. Detailed info, but I have to go to that damn google to find the missed parts. Thank you, anyway!

  • Jordan

    Awesome article. I am a new lifter who comes from a strength background and am finding that learning the competitive lifts early on with better technique is what is pushing my snatch and clean and jerks up not the strenthg which I already have. Look at that 53 kilo Asian girl Kisuki I think, who snatches 100kilo. That has got to be technique! Anyway great article. thanks

  • Arturo Gómez

    I think valid, but not necesarily true.
    Different cases, different techniques, different lifes, different objectives.
    May be true for a coach of a team, but probably not for the individual athlete with his particular anatomy, his work, his own safety.

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