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3 Things You Need to Look For In Programming

With the New Year coming around, you may be looking at a new program to follow if your last program was not what you expected, or you may be looking to improve your own program design if you can't afford a coach and programming option.  If these are the cases, there are three major aspects of programming you should look for....

3. Patterns and Consistency

The biggest mistake I see beginners do with programming is too much variation.  Variation can be defined as "The manipulation of training variables to prevent staleness and injury and to magnify the long-term adaptive response to training." (Scientific Principles of Strength training).  We can manipulate Variation through volume, intensity, exercise selection, frequency, to name a few variables.  By manipulating these variables, we can change the goals of training.  For example, during a work capacity/hypertrophy phase, we will have the highest amount of variation, usually in the form of exercise selection and frequency of training or interacting with these exercises.

The general drawbacks to Variation is that people either A) do too much variation and B) moving outside the requirements of your sport and C) not falling within the goals of the cycle (or having a goal).  Sticking with our Hypertrophy/Work Capacity phase example, the variation of exercise selection will be the highest compared to a Strength or Peaking Phase of training.  This doesn't mean that we want to use ever exercise in the book; too much variation in exercises, such as picking a new exercise each week, or using a new exercise for every day of the week, you won't create any kind of adaptation.  Even if our goal is very general, such as improving leg conditioning, and we only have 3 days per week to train, sticking with the same weekly pattern of exercises will ensure that we are keeping the stimulus the same via movement patterns.  So utilizing say Back Squat, then Front Squat, then Overhead Squats for each day of our 3 day per week training week, we keep one aspect of stimulus the same for our greater goal.  From here we can manipulate a few other aspects of training, specifically auxiliary work, to help train leg conditioning, with more exercise variation, while maintaining a set amount of exercises for our foundation of training.

If you're training for a specific sport, your training should be able to reflect that, to a certain degree.  Too many times, strength coaches or programmers mistake the weight room as an opportunity to do "sports specific" tasks with a dumbbell or barbell.  Strength and conditioning apparatus are not meant to mimic the sport movements themselves.  Unless you're in Powerlifting, Weightlifting, or CrossFit, exercises are not your sport, they are meant to increase certain aspects of fitness or athleticism to improve sports specific tasks.  Whipping dumbbells in your hands while doing a box step up to mimic a tackle will not improve your ability to bring a running back down (yes, I've seen this done), and your time, your very limited time working with athletes, should be focused on making them stronger, more powerful, or last longer during workouts.

Probably the most common mistake after too much variation in exercise is too much variation in reps, sets, and intensities to where you're falling out of the goal of the phase of training.  If you're in a hypertrophy phase of training, you'll typically stick between 3-5 sets of 8-12 reps between 60-75% 1RM; strength phases usually 3-6 set of 3-6 reps 75-85% 1RM; peaking 5-10 sets of 1-3 85-100% 1RM.  This gets into a grey area of what kind of sets and reps and intensities work for sports like Weightlifting and CrossFit, where they are relatively new to the west and anecdotal evidence still reigns, but I've found that typically the intensity ranges for traditional strength ranges works for the same goals in Weightlifting (hypertrophy: 60-75%, strength 75-85%, peaking 85-100%) with higher volume strategies, like triples doubles and complexes, work for hypertrophy phases, while singles work for either strength or peaking phases, depending on the rest period.

Concurrent training and CrossFit training is a newer principle to me, as I was always taught it was impossible to get stronger while being able to do work, while some of the fittest individuals in the world are able to lift competitive numbers in their own weight classes.  I could crudely describe the methods, but that would be a whole separate article in and of itself, so for further reading I would recommend The Hybrid Athlete and Fitness as Sport .  For more reading of Variation, and other principles of Strength Training, refer to Scientific Principles of Strength Training .


2. Periodization and Planning

Building off of constraints within the goals of a training phase, your program has to have some kind of Periodization to it.  Periodization can be a touchy subject for some people, because then it becomes an argument about who's methodology is better (conjugate vs block, linear vs undulating).  The reality of Periodization is that, on a long enough time frame, your periodization will essentially be linear (high volume low intensity at the start of a training plan, low volume high intensity near competition), and the methods of periodization (conjugate, block, linear, undulating, etc) are all methods of scheduling and time management for a coach.

What you, as the athlete or designer, should be looking for when it comes to periodization are, does the training plan reflect the period of training and the goals laid out by your coach?  If you're 6 months out from a meet, and your coach wants to get your work capacity up, does it make sense to be doing 10x1 Block Snatches at 85% for weightlifting?  If you're 2 months out from the CrossFit Open, and your coach is beginning a peaking program, does it make sense to have your weightlifting and strength work be 4x8 @ 60%?  Are you working up in either volume or intensity, or both, during and accumulation phase and then having a deload period to prepare for the next phase of training, or are you just going all out all the time?

The style of programming is less important than the content of the programming.  If your program doesn't have the basics of Program design, then you won't know how to properly stimulate the body to get the desired physiological outcomes.  If your coach gives you workouts on a day to day or week to week basis, and is unwilling to share the plan in the long term (monthly or more) so that you can plan things around your training (work, diet, etc) then maybe it's time to get a new coach or program.

For more reading on Periodization check out these articles.

There is Only One Kind of Periodization pt. 1 by Greg Nuckols

here is Only One Kind of Periodization pt. 1 by Mike Israetel

Sports Periodization - Wikipedia

The Periodization Bible by Dave Tate

Linear, Undulating, and Non-Linear Programming: Which to Choose? by Jeff McDole Jr.


1. Foundation in Research

Probably the most tedious and irksome quality of the fitness and strength and conditioning industry is the attempt to reinvent the wheel, or to shine up a program with a clever name, or to try and create something entirely new.  Much like Hollywood, there's not a whole lot of original ideas out there, and trying to say you've made the break through discovery in training principles probably means you didn't read Bondarchuk and his 30 something periodization models, or any other Russian programs.  There are very few training plans, programs, or principles out there that haven't been discovered or talked about already, and pretending to do other wise is more about narcissism than it is reality.

There is nothing wrong with trying to reinvent the wheel, that's how humans came up with concepts like the wheel, and the internet, but these principles usually came in relation to principles that preceded them., and some of them ignore the updates in scientific principles since the Russians came up with 30 something training programs, which in reality, may fall into the 4 main Periodization Plans mentioned earlier in the article.  Such things like the Keto-diet for athletes, Squat Everyday, Bulgarian Training, and other fad training styles sit on small batches of information while ignoring the overall science.  Yes too many carbs are bad, but all athletes need carbohydrates to be able to properly recover; squatting every day may be effective in getting people super strong legs, but if their lifts or performance on the field isn't going up, is it really working, and how many people are not getting stronger, but getting hurt from squatting everyday; Bulgarian - really?  You still think maxing out all the time is good?

While these programs may work for some people, there is a literal sea of information out there that shows that there are just as effective programs with less risk, and more benefits from them by taking into account for things like nutrition, recovery, being drug free.   While there may be 10-20 articles out there that support these methods, how many hundreds are out there that show at best it does nothing more than the traditional model, or worse, hurt you?

The final thing to look out for when looking at a program or the reasoning behind it is the proponent's response.  If they respond with "well this is what the X do" or "this is what the best in the world do" then you should immediately leave them.  Since they cannot properly explain why they are using this program, they are at best mimicking what elite level athletes do, which is fine, if you know what is going on in the system.  The only person I would trust to explain and design a Bulgarian training system would be Max Aita, since he is the only person I know of that trained the Bulgarian system, with the progenitor of the system itself, Ivan Abadjiev.  Obviously he is not the only person who knows the system, but he's one of the few who has lived it and studied it long enough to understand the nuances and methodology.

Training and Exercise has moved beyond just the stereotypical imagery that movies like Rocky and Remember the Titans portrays, of just working the athletes to death day in and day out.  You have to be equal parts mad scientist and researcher as well as strength coach to get optimal results out of an individual.  It's no longer enough to say "this is how what the best are doing" since 99% of the time, you aren't working with the best, or you yourself aren't the best.  What the best are doing, and what you are doing are two different things separated by worlds of training.

Much like buying a new car, you're not just going to go get the fanciest looking car on the lot, you're going to do your research, learn about the engine and system, look up reviews of the model, see what the pros and cons are.  Getting into a physical training program is very similar, since there are hundreds (if not thousands) of programmers and coaches out there, and you have the right to get information before you buy.  If the programming has no pattern or consistency to it, overall plan to it, or the coach is just hopping from fad to fad or unwilling to explain themselves, you might as well save your money and move on to the next plan.

The New Quad: Start Over, Take a Break, Competition Strategy

Last weekend was my best performance on the National Stage, finishing 10th in the 94kg Class at the 2016 USAW American Open.  Although I finished 8th in the 85kg Class at the 2015 USAW Nationals, I consider this one better for a multitude of reasons:

  1. I didn't finish top 10 due to massive bomb outs
  2. I finished 3/3 in the Snatch and had an 11kg Competition Snatch PR while getting an 8kg Total PR and 5kg Life Time PR
  3. I had more fun than I ever had competing, even before I stepped on the platform.

After the 2016 Nationals, when I had to withdraw from the meet due to hyperextending my elbow, I had to sit down and really think about my goals, and what I wanted to do in this sport.  The end goal is obviously the Olympics, and yes it's a big goal and maybe a pipe dream, but I don't want to sell myself short, so I had to sit back and think, "Ok, how do I make this happen?"  Looking at the qualifying procedure, it's obvious that the first 2 years of the quad don't mean anything in terms of impact on your ability to get on the Olympic Team.  You can make all the teams you want in the first 2 years following Rio, but until the 2 years leading up to the games, none of that matters.  In addition to that, and reading an article from Renaissance Periodization, written by Dr. Melissa Davis, about chronic dieting and reduced performance, it really sunk in that if I wanted to achieve any international standings, I would have to take a break from the 85kg class, and move back up to 94s.

A silly thing in this sport is trying to hide your intentions - like not letting people know what your body weight is, or if you're going to this meet or that meet, so on and so forth.  This isn't a sport like Football where your playbook is secret and you don't want the other team to know your calls and lineup, once that final start sheet comes up, you know and everyone else knows what you'll have to hit to win.  It's especially funny in this day and age of posting PRs on Instagram, that you think people don't have a general idea about what you can do.  So this is my plan, and the plan I recommend a lot of you out there getting in the Sport of Weightlifting should do if you're looking to improve performance.

Stop Cutting Weight

If you've been chronically cutting weight over the last few years to stay in a weight class, and you're seeing yourself peak, maybe you should just stop cutting weight.  Moving up a weight class after the 2016 Nationals progressively made a huge impact in my training, and recovery.  I was getting stronger, lifting more weight, hitting constant training PRs in the strength movements like the Squat and Deadlifts, which haven't budged in almost 2 years.

Besides pure weight lifted, my lifts started going up as well, getting PRs in the Clean and Jerk, but also being able to lift that weight successfully over and over and over.  I cleaned 171 about 10 times before the American Open, and finally put it together to get a PR Clean and Jerk at 170 the week before my taper began.

Mentally and physically, I just felt better as well.  Aches and pains dissipated, my emotions were more stable, and I just had more fun not feeling broken all the time, and not having to cut weight after 3 months of weight gain.  Now is the time to train and put on muscle and size so that you can improve in the sport, and not have any repercussions on the long run.  Unless you're an athlete who's receiving a stipend from USAW for your ranking based on your weight class, then you don't need to worry about hitting a total at every national meet to keep the money coming in.  Go eat some non-paleo grains and ice cream and get strong.

Take a Break

You don't need be so concerned about performance now, so you shouldn't be ridiculously focused on meets.  If you're already at the National level, you know you can get there and shouldn't have to freak out about qualifying.  If you're trying to get to the National level, and find you're stuck, follow the aforementioned weight class change, and just train and have fun.  Don't be so focused on "I HAVE to be a National athlete" that you take the fun out of the meet.  I could've been in the A Session at the AO, but I realized that if I was there, I would be the mess of it, and having to deal with a bunch of egos and games that would have ruined the meet for me, so I purposely lowered my total to put me in the B session, where I would be at the end of the lifting, being able to follow myself or at least have an more steady waiting time between attempts.

People were shocked and appalled that I was having fun in the back at some points, running up to people I hadn't seen in months, giving them hugs, letting people stand in front of me while I was lifting rather than shooing them away, carrying conversations with people while I was warming up.  It was almost like I didn't care I was there, and in truth, I didn't really.  I was there to lift and have fun, and turns out, I beat out a lot of people in the A session, some of which were big name CrossFitters with large strength levels people expected to blow up on their first meet.  If you can't get over your own ego when stepping into a new arena, then you're not going to do well.  And I had a lot of events in the last few months hit me where I had to put my pride aside, and just train.  It's ok if your peaking training isn't going well, or you're not hitting numbers you calculated to hit, or half your sponsors stopped responding to your emails and stopped paying you for no reason - none of that matters.  Life goes on, and you can only worry about you.

There's no point in doing something if it makes you miserable, and if weightlifting and competing makes you feel like you wasted your time, then you should find something else to put your energy towards.

Get A New Competition Strategy

Going in to this, I started looking at some of the bigger names blowing up on the scene in recent years, specifically Mattie Rogers, CJ Cummings, and Harrison Maurus.  Yes they're all very young and strong, but they all have one very common thread between them and their competition success: they curb their egos when it comes to attempts from meet to meet.  Most people I've noticed, will start relatively close to either their competition max or their training max, and they may get out with a total, and at best 4/6.  If you look at these three over the course of their career, they have (or more likely their coaches) have done the following:

  1. Open them well within their capabilities, but within recent history of their 1st and 2nd attempts
  2. 2nd attempts are still within competition history, but perhaps are within 1kg above or below their previous competition best
  3. 3rd attempts, if previous are makes, are for increasing competition lift and totals by maybe 1-2kg

While this seems majorly conservative, I will use Mattie Rogers as an example for this. I've followed her since she first got into Weightlifting thanks to the shared cheerleading background, and she's made what some would call a meteoric rise to the top, but she has been consistently adding a kilo here and there to her total, and when the time was right, making larger jumps to increase that total significantly.  Usually her 2nd attempts are there to increase her total, and the thirds are there to solidify the increase and winning.  Now she is at the level where her openers instantly claim victory, but this was a long and steady process of consistency and patience.

Harrison and CJ are no different, both have been around for a while, CJ longer than Harrison, and both have a similar approach to competition, of hitting numbers they know they are capable of on the first, and second attempts are to increase the total or solidify placement, and third attempts are there to increase the total indefinitely.  CJ's Snatch and Clean and Jerk are prime examples of this, adding 1kg to his Snatch and Clean and Jerk, with the exception of a few stabs at the Youth World Record and missing, he's constantly increased his totals, and subsequently, the American Records. 

This meet American Open is going to be my starting point for the next several years, and while it may not shoot my record up, I'm going to try and increase my total kilo by kilo over time.  It may not be glamorous, but it's a method that's employed by some of our best and brightest starts, and if you want to improve your ranking, and the competition for the fans, consistency is needed.  You can't just max out everyday and expect to see progress on the platform, similar to having fun, you need to curb your ego for a minute and ask yourself about your goal.  Are you more interested in getting like on Instagram from your random PR that took you 4 hours to get on a Friday, or do you want to be on top of the Podium some time in your life?  That's for you to decide.