Weightlifting is a sport where your best performance has to happen on a very specific date – the competition day. On that day, the lifter has three attempts in each movement (The snatch and the Clean and jerk). This make it similar to other event-type sports, like boxing, where proper strategies have to be used so that the sportmen is in top shape on that given date. Simply put, the lifter cannot/should not put in a bad performance because competitions dates are limited. A specific approach has to be used to peak at the right moment. However, specific training comes with drawback – such as increased risks of injuries.
In the late 80’s and most of the 90’s, Bulgarian lifters under Coach Abadjiev were reputed to dedicate pretty much all of their training time towards the classic lifts (Snatch & Clean and Jerk) and in the Front squat. They did so with high training intensity often calculated as the daily max (not absolute max) and, supposedly, yearly. This struck the Americas very hard and it left a coaching principle that is still in vogue : You have to be as specific as possible (all the time) and train with high intensity.
It is easy to forget that Vanev, Boevksi, Botev, Ivanov, Markov or Varbanov all had lots of experience. They had so much experience – defined as years spent in this sport- that they could survive such a regime. It is also easy to forget that most Bulgarians lifters spent many years learning technique as well as doing general work such as light gymnastics, ”fun” sports, and calisthenics before joining the regime of supreme weightlifting specificity. In other words, before they went to camp with Abadjiev, they all had years of basic strength and conditioning they acquired at the same time they developed their own technique. In the 1970’s, it seems that Polish weightlifters were doing something similar too (Link to 1970’s Polish weightlifting methods).
Also consider this : Injuries can be predicted according to three principles (These principles are also used when evaluating work situations to ensure safety). 1) The repetitiveness of the movement alters joint function. This explains why tendinitis happens, for instance. 2) A stimulus too intense tears or break something. 3) Lack of structures recovery weaken the body to cope with the usual load, and the result is injury. Ever heard the injured say : ”But…It was light?”. Consequently, proper planning has to respect these principles so that an healthy lifter can put in a great performance on the competition date.
This is where you have to consider that, in weightlifting, training specificity is not, by nature, the most respectful of those principles. On one side, most training injuries in weightlifting actually happens in the specific preparation phase for instance as evidenced by the number of injured lifters who could not attend the Olympic Games in 2012. For clarity purpose, this phase is characterized by high intensity (bigger weights) and the programming consists almost entirely of the classic lifts and the squats. On the other side, the specificity is necessary for high results because this is where gains – defined by more KGs on the bar for a single rep- tend to be made. This is where the lighter weight technique work has to pay in the form of PRs. That specific phase might as well be called the ”PR chasing phase”.
Soviets were aware of the necessity to peak and they knew that training intensity and specificity come with a price. In 1977, sport scientist Lenonid Matveyev introduced his book ”fundamentals of sport training”. This was novel and revolutionary. It introduced the idea of training phases and what they are, what to include in them and offered a guideline for volume and intensity for a each given phases. These phases covered all the training variables such as strength development, technical development, hypertrophy, etc. His model was acclaimed and it was also quite criticized.
It also offered a long term view of the sportmen’s training because training was now seen as an annual – or semi-annual- cycle where the aim was to peak in the competition phase. The first two phases were dedicated to general training where volume was relatively high and intensity was relatively low. The closer you got to the competition phase, the higher the intensity was and the lower the volume was. Thus this model respect the principles for preventing injuries outlined earlier : general physical adaptations were first made with smaller weights so that a base was developed which allowed to lift more later on. A general phase included more variables thus prevented (if well thought) muscular imbalances that would later on cause injuries or slow progress. In my opinion, the decrease in volume during the specific-competition phase and the cycling of the uses of maximal weight were instrumental in lowering risk of injuries.
This is evidenced by Zatsiorsky’s review of training intensity of Russians lifters. The average training intensity of Russians lifters in 1084-1988 was 73 to 77% where only 7% of the lifts were done above 90% of their competition maxes. This means that only 300 to 600 times a year did they ever lift a maximal weight in the Snatch and Clean and Jerk, which is little in comparison to other nations. Also, when it comes to general training, the Russians were superstars with their encyclopedia of over 100’s of weightlifting exercises. It seems to still be the case in Armenia today, where ”non-conventional” versions of the lifts are used such as ”no-hook grip no jump snatches”, ”Close grip snatches” or ”Snatches without touching the legs”. These versions are harder which means less weight is being used, which means the chance of injury is lessen and different qualities are being worked in (Link to the Armenian training camp video).
In this new era of weightlifting, the dominant nation in weightlifting – being China – seems to take general training very seriously (Too seriously?). It is quite hard at the moment to investigate their methods and most of what we know are based on hear-say. However, Chinese lifters have been seen doing a large variety of exercise from lat raises to reverse donkey kicks to pull ups or gymnastics (handstand pushups and the like). Moreover, they have been seen doing this in the training hall of large scale competition, a few days before the competition. This means that it is likely that general training is carried on throughout the year by these lifters.
This leads us to the conclusions that 1) Specificity is absolutely needed for optimal results but it tends to produce greater gains after it follows a general phase, 2) For us at least, Specificity is more important than general training for high results because of the technical demands of the sport, 3) Every new trainee should include general movements in their programs 4) Injuries or imbalances can be largely prevented through the use of correct dosage of intensity and volume and 5) General movements should not prevent you from refining your technique, thus you have to make sure you are not doing too much.