In Olympic Weightlifting, there is a 4-step priority list that should be followed: Positions, Movement, Speed, and then Load. Each step must be mastered before progressing to the next. How quickly you progress depends on the abilities you possess before stepping foot on the platform. A beginner who has never touched a barbell may spend weeks or months on steps 1 & 2, Positions and Movement respectively. A natural athlete may quickly graduate to step 4, Load, within days or weeks.
Stages to Learning Olympic Weightlifting:
- Positions: Includes your posture, grip, back angle, etc.
- Movements: Connecting the Positions to perform the actual lift
- Speed: Turning the Movements into quick, explosive, controlled technique
- Load: Once technique is mastered, load it up and go heavy
More than likely your Olympic Weightlifting program will use percentages (%) of a max weight, aka 1RM (1 rep max), to determine the weight for each set. Most great programs are set on working towards a personal best by way of using percentages of a maximal weight. For instance, if an athlete’s best C+J is 185lbs, more than likely 195lbs or 200lbs will be the goal and their program would have percentages of the goal weight for the prescribed work sets.
What if the 1RM is not known? Assuming you’ve just been taught how to Snatch and/or C+J, you do not, under any circumstances, want to max out. You’d be far too new for that. Moreover, at the beginner stage, testing for a max can not only injure someone but really isn’t an effective way to determine what goal weight to use for the program. Rather, start with a low weight, and allow a gradual weight increase while watching for technique to breakdown. It’s that simple. Increase the weight in small increments. Once you begin to lose form, stop, and use that weight as your 1RM. Is it possible that you can lift more weight? Yes, but not correctly, so don’t even try! It’s clear you’ve have reached a point where you can no longer perform the lift appropriately. Chances are this strategy will result in a relatively low max weight compared to your strength. Don’t worry, you won’t be there long. It might be only a few weeks or months at most before you are clearly able to see the yourself improve and learn to control the movements.
Strength Training Only Programming
Once you determine your 1RM, you’re ready to move into real programming. Here are important considerations when writing workouts in Olympic weightlifting programs.
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Considerations: (Strength Only Programming)
- Complex movements come first
- Alternate between pulling and pushing exercises
- Always include a Snatch and/or C+J (or their “power” variations)
- New athletes should incorporate a variety of exercises
- Experienced lifters (over a year) should focus on fewer exercises
- Squat 3-4 times a week (any less isn’t enough)
- Always consider your program as a guideline that can be modified and is flexible
Complex comes first
Every workout must begin with the most complex movement, followed by a less complex movement, and so on. For example, snatches then deadlifts, then on to squats and presses, and lastly weighted sit-ups.
Why should you start with the most complex movement first? It’s simple, you’re fresh, ready to train, and recovered from the previous workout (let’s hope). Why do we want to be fresh when executing a complex movement? Because of how much the Snatch or C+J movements affect the nervous system. It’s best if you’re in an optimal state to train to feel the correct movement of the Snatch and/or C+J. You shouldn’t be fatigued when working on the Snatch and/or C+J. This is why 30 Snatches for time, for example, is completely out of the realm of efficient and effective training to improve the strength of your Snatch. True, it’s a killer workout. I’ve done it, a few times, but it serves a far different purpose than our aim. 30 Snatches for time kills your technique and taxes your nervous system, not allowing you to effectively convey the movements.
Alternate between pulling and pushing
Working next on a pulling movement, i.e. High Pulls, Deadlift, Pull, Row, etc. will prevent overuse or early fatigue. Would you do burpees, followed by push ups? Would you do air squats followed by lunges? Well, maybe there are those who would, but it wouldn’t be a good idea if you wanted to maximize your intensity. You need different exercises to break up muscle groups and avoid complete collapse (Example: Fran 21-15-9 of Thrusters [pushing] and Pull Up [pulling]). Same is true in Olympic Weightlifting. Alternating pushing and pulling allows for a better stimulus and allow you to work on different elements of “the lifts.” After all, the purpose of pulls, squats, and presses are all to increase one’s Snatch and/or C+J.
Include a Snatch and/or C+J (Or their “power” variations)
Next on the checklist is making sure each workout includes the Power Snatch, Snatch, Power Clean or C+J. Why? Because that is the sole purpose of Olympic Weightlifting! Get better at the Snatch and C+J. In order to get good at the lifts you have to practice the lifts. Simple enough. All the extra stuff, pulls, deadlifts, and squats, etc. are utilized to develop technique and strength for the Snatch and C+J. Neurologically speaking, the more you Snatch and C+J the better your timing, skill, and comfort level in the lifts is. How awkward was it the first time you did Overhead Squats? What changed the awkwardness into comfort was your nervous system, and perhaps flexibility, not your strength.
New Athlete = More Exercises
New athletes should have multiple exercises in every workout. For example, they may Snatch, Power Snatch, Overhead Squat, Pull, and Back/Front Squat, then some core routine that is a bit of a cool down. The rationale is to provide you with as many movements as possible to assist your Snatch and/or C+J development.
Experienced Athlete = Less Exercises
In contrast, someone who has significant experience in Olympic Weightlifting, say over a year, may not need so many exercises in each workout. Great progress can be seen in these lifters when they have for example, Snatch, Pulls, and Squat only. Experienced lifted should be proficient enough to focus on purely loading and strength.
Squat 3-4 times a week (Any less isn’t enough)
Squatting is arguably the single most important exercise to strengthen an your Snatch and/or C+J. (Front Squats specifically have a huge core stability element). When lifting off the ground you’re practically in a squatting position. When you receive the bar in Snatch or Clean, you’re squatting, when you’re standing up you’re squatting. Catch my drift? In order to maximize strength you need to squat 3-4 times a week, no less. Squatting 2 times a week is not stimulating enough to gain any significant increase. There are too many muscle groups being utilized for 2 days of work. The bench press or curls are examples of exercises you can do 2 times a week and see significant increases in strength because they isolate few muscles and any more than twice a week could burn you out. However, squatting is far different. You can load up on squats often and see amazing results. Make sure the squats are towards the end of a routine since they aren’t as technical as the Snatch and/or C+J, or even pulling movements for that matter.
Modify as Needed
Your response to workouts is a huge factor in determining the cycle of training. If you’re clearly not getting enough work or stimulus, increase the weight. If you’re struggling with it, lower it. If your main issue is overhead strength, add more of it into the training. If your legs are weak, add more squats. Modify accordingly. Never assume the workout must be completed as written. Changing the game plan is not to be considered the program’s failure but rather an adjustment to better maximize your potential.
Frequency of 1RM Days
The frequency you test your Olympic Lift 1RM is the cause of much debate. Some will say each month, others will say each week, others may say 6-8 weeks. The true answer lies in how long you’ve been training. Beginners who’ve shown the proficiency to test 1RM may find great results if they “max out” every 4-6 weeks. However, this is far too frequent for the experienced athlete. Taking it further, the elite level Weightlifters only max, or “peak”, twice a year….National Championships and the World Championships (Yes, only twice every 12 months). They spend the majority of their time at high percentages (85%-95%) and recovery. This is the far extreme of course and these competitors are world class lifters who undoubtedly have been weightlifting for 5 or more years, in some cases decades. For the rest of us, keep max days around 4-6 weeks for the novice and 8-10 weeks for the experienced, perhaps more.