Monthly Archives: November 2012

As timely now as when I wrote it…

Glenn Pendlay

There is a notion that is gaining popularity among the general strength training crowd, the notion that Olympic lifters in the United States do not care about strength training. That we put a low priority on getting strong. Now, it is so patently ridiculous to think that those in a sport where success is based on how heavy a barbell you can pick up and put over your head don’t believe strength is important that I did not think the idea would ever gain all that much traction. In fact, it is so ridiculous that I thought it would probably come back and bite the folks saying it in the ass once people just thought about it a little.

I was wrong.

This argument is a classic straw man argument. Falsely claim another is supporting position “A”, then win the argument by pointing out that position “A” is incorrect, and…

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Strength vs. Technique?

Bill Kazmaier called him the strongest man who has ever lived. He will NOT win a gold medal in Olympic weightlifting.

Although within the sport of weightlifting this “debate” is ridiculous and has been recognized as such from the start, it still persists on various message boards around the internet. Wherever a shortage of experience and common sense exist, it rears it’s ugly head. This will be yet another attempt to slay this beast, and it will no doubt fail. Nevertheless, let us continue.

Let us imagine that the level of a lifters strength and technique are both illustrated by having a certain number of pebbles. Let us suppose that one could have between 0 and 100 “strength pebbles”. Zero indicates an inability to do a squat with your own body weight, no bar or weight added. 100 indicates a complete and total realization of any and all strength you could possibly have given your genetic potential. The technique pebbles operate along the same lines, and it is the person WITH THE MOST TOTAL PEBBLES THAT WILL LIFT THE MOST WEIGHT!

Now to make this realistic, let’s add a couple more conditions. First of all, let us assume that as you accumulate pebbles, whether they are strength pebbles or technique pebbles, each pebble of that particular variety becomes harder and harder to pick up and hold on to. So it is relatively easy to pick up the first 20 strength pebbles, and even easier to retain them. This might represent going from not being able to squat your own body down and up unassisted to being able to squat with a 150lb bar. Very easy to achieve that, and given any level of activity or training whatsoever, easy to maintain. But with each pebble you accumulate, picking it up becomes harder, as well as retaining it. So much so that picking up the last 10 is more difficult than the first 90. After all, isn’t going from a 500lb squat to a 600lb squat harder, and more time consuming, than getting up to 500lbs in the first place? It is for most people.

Second, let us suppose that once either strength or technique get a certain amount ahead of the other, further increases are useless and don’t count. After all, you might have the most beautiful pull in the world, and a transition to going under the bar that is poetry in motion, but if you are not strong enough to stand up with the weight, it is wasted. And if you are pulling the bar in a manner that makes bicep strength the limiting factor, is increasing the squat going to help you? Are your biceps ever going to be strong enough to break a world record? No, there is after all a reason why Zydrunas Savickas is not the Olympic gold medalist in weightlifting.

Think about these conditions and what they mean. If your imagination is lacking, let me help you out!

1.) To lift the largest weights, it takes a high level of strength AND a high level of technique.

2.) A relative lack of either quality makes subsequent focus on the other quality inefficient and self-limiting.

3.) Achieving a balance of both qualities is always the easiest and quickest way to a given level of performance.

4.) We should all be trying to increase both qualities, with a focus on whichever is lacking the most.

5.) There is no reasonable argument to be made that either quality should be prioritized to the point of letting the other fall behind.

So there it is, simple and logical. And it will make no difference whatsoever to those engaged in this silly debate.

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.

How to write an Olympic weightlifting program, Part II

Ok, so you have read Part I, and you are snatching, clean and jerking, and squatting. Easy enough. Common sense should eventually allow you to fill in most of the details yourself, but a few hints might help things along.

1. Choosing the number of reps.

For the snatch and clean and jerk, trying anything above 3 reps should be self-correcting eventually. Most who try sets of 5 on the clean and jerk with any decent load quickly abandon the notion that the competitive lifts can be trained with high reps. Most (maybe all?) accomplished lifters use sets of 1-3 almost exclusively for a reason. And singles or doubles are probably far more popular than triples.

But is there a magic rep scheme? No. Some people train very productively using doubles and triples mostly. Some use nothing but singles. I like to mix it up a little, and I even include sets of 5 on the hang snatch every once in a while for a change of pace. There really is no right or wrong answer.

2. Choosing the structure of workouts.

Doing the snatch first, then clean and jerk, then squat is the most popular way to structure a workout. And any time one particular way of doing things is the most popular by lifters from all over the world over many decades you should pay attention, because there is probably a reason it is popular. In this case, snatches don’t seem to interfere with what you can accomplish in the clean and jerk or squat if those things are done after snatch, but heavier exercises (like clean and jerk or squats) do seem to interfere with snatchiing if they are done before the snatch. And, once you are in decent shape, the competitive exercises interfere much less with squats if squats are at the end of the workout than squats interfere with the competitive exercises if squats are done first.

One exception to this is to do front squats with a very low volume prior to the competitive lifts, some do this and it seems to work just fine. If your leg strength is a serious weakness you might experiment with this. But if there are no special considerations, snatch, clean and jerk, then squat will probably work fine for you.

Within one movement, how do you structure your lifts? Well any way you want to, really. Or at least any way that leads to gradually increasing the weights over time. One popular way is to do a series of singles, doubles or triples within a workout all at the same weight, and try to increase this working weight over time. Another way is to just work up to a daily max, then add volume to the workout be either taking weight off and working back to another max a time or two, or by adding in a few doubles or triples or even more singles a few kilos lighter than your best for the day. Either works. Something in between would work. Anything where you are challenging yourself and gradually increasing weight over time works.

3. Choosing the weekly or monthly plan

The simplest weekly program is to snatch, clean and jerk, and squat 3 non-consecutive days per week. As was discussed in part I snatch or clean and jerk variations can be substituted for the competition exercises if there is a good reason. Keeping in mind that one should endeavor to never get too far away from doing heavy competition lifts on a regular basis, setting aside Friday or your third workout of the week for going as heavy as possible for singles on the competition lifts is a worthwhile strategy. The first two training days of the week can be used for doubles or triples (if you do them) or variations of the lifts (if you do them). Setting aside at least one workout per week as a “test” day for the competitive lifts can keep you grounded in what is really important, namely snatching and clean and jerking more for 1 rep at a time.

Planning over a month, or even several months, can be as simple or complicated as you want it. People (especially beginners) have been plenty successful with virtually NO planning at all. Just continually challenging themselves to beat PR’s in the various training lifts.

But many cannot deal with the mental and physical boredom of doing the exact same thing all the time, so a bit of variation over time is valuable for a lot of people. There is nothing wrong with paying extra attention to pushing the squat up at certain times of the year, and limiting the volume of training on the snatch and clean and jerk to help accomplish this. Focusing more on variations of the lifts and doubles and triples for a while further out from a contest, and gradually concentrating more and more on the competition lifts for singles as a contest approaches is a very viable plan. Just be sure that if you do opt for variety, you don’t stray to far or for to long away from the basics.

4. Final thoughts

Remember that success in weightlifting is defined by snatching and clean and jerking more. It is not defined by having a huge squat or carrying an impressive workload in training. To be sure, those things can certainly contribute to increasing the competitive lifts, but don’t let them become an end unto themselves.

If you follow these basic recommendations (Part I and Part II) and use a bit of common sense, you have plenty of tools to design a good beginners program. This is far from an exhaustive treatise on programming, but as your need for more advanced strategies and fine-tuning grows, so will your experience and knowledge.

Keep a workout log, and take good notes. When you change your program, try to change one thing at a time, and give the change a reasonable amount of time to work before you abandon it. Approach things in a systematic way, and with every week and every success and failure you will add to your knowledge of how your body reacts to training and what you need to do to snatch more and clean and jerk more.

And finally, I would like to leave you with two quotes. Both come from men who have had a significant impact on American weightlifting, and both become more and more meaningful as your knowledge and experience in the sport grow.

“The worst program in the world, if you believe in it 100%, is better than a great program that you don’t believe in.” – Lynn Jones

“I can tell you everything I know about weightlifting in 15 minutes. But it will take you 15 years to understand what I am talking about.” – Joe Mills

How to write an Olympic weightlifting program, Part I.

Nothing generates controversy in the world of weightlifting more than programming. Well, except for proper technique, who coached who, and drugs. But all that aside, there are plenty of arguments about how to program, and I would like to present some simple steps to follow that should allow just about anyone to write a decent program, no controversy needed.

Step 1 – Do enough snatching to make progress on the snatch.

Seems simple enough, doesn’t it? Well it is simple, but there are some qualifications to help you along. Beginners can usually become steadily better at the snatch with only 2-3 sessions of snatches a week. As you progress, you will usually find that adding sessions helps keep the progress coming. But don’t dismiss snatching 3 times a week as only for rank beginners, plenty of people have snatched big weights training the lift 3 times a week. So start with 2-3 snatch sessions a week, and use common sense as a guide.

When you do snatch, what exactly do you do? There are of course many snatch variations to choose from. I recommend using the competition style lift as your default position, if there are no special considerations, do full snatches from the floor. But, there are many reasons why you might want to do something else for one or more of your snatch sessions. If your technique is bad or you are just learning the lift, you might want to include partial lifts, such as the snatch from the hip. Variations like this are simpler, make it easier to do at least part of the lift correctly, and help reinforce good technique. There are a million variations, educate yourself on the possibilities, and include those you think will help. But keep in mind that the default should always be the actual competition lift, and barring a good reason, those should make up the bulk of your training.

Step 2 – Do enough clean and jerks to make progress on the clean and jerk.

All the advice for the snatch applies. The one further consideration is that the clean and jerk is two movements that can be separated. As with the snatch, if there are no special considerations, do the whole lift as it is done in competition. But if technique is bad or you are just learning, you can simplify it to make it easier to learn good technique on part of the lift at a time. You can do cleans by themselves, or jerk from a rack or block without cleaning the weight first. Separating the lifts this way often makes it easier to work on one particular deficiency. But even if you find this useful, try to do the clean and jerk in competition style at least once a week.

Step 3 – Get stronger.

Squats are the most important strength exercise for weightlifters. Others that are valuable include front squats, push presses and presses, RDL’s and pulls with a snatch or clean grip. But the most important is squats, and squats can be sufficient by themselves.

There are a million strength programs available. Most will work if you put the work in, but squatting 2-3 times a week for multiple sets at a medium rep ange (4-6) is popular in weightlifting and general strength training circles for a reason. Let that form the basis of your default strength program unless there is a good reason to do something different.

So there you go. The backbone of a weightlifting program.

In Part II I will talk about some of the details.