Programming 101 : Basic short term programming for weightlifting (beginner template)

983679_669494079772086_1542651560896234124_nWhen it comes to programming, a coach’s job is all about the dosage of intensity and volume so that the athlete reaches the goal both of you have selected. The coach has to predict how the athlete will respond to a given stimulus and take into account various aspect of the athlete’s life and background. Aspects that should be considered are current or previous injuries, school/work, training experience, technical weaknesses, strength weaknesses, the amount of training time you have before an upcoming competition, and recovery. Programming is best defined as a mix of science and art. Indeed, predicting the adaptation of a biological system to a given stress is not an easy task. Nevertheless, the following is a 3 months long very basic programming guide. All the key elements are considered.

Don’t miss out on Updates : Make sure you follow First Pull on Facebook and Instagram for daily pictures and advice.

In his book ”The training of weightlifter”, Roman A. Roman states that a beginner should be competing at most 5 times a year. On those days, the athlete will be going for real maximal weights whereas during training, submaximal weights are used almost exclusively. While this would be really different for very experienced lifters who really need the intensity, I believe that he is right about the training of beginners. The following guide will respect this statement, but such statement should be ignored if you are an experienced lifter.

Let’s ignore 1 competition for the sake of this article. If a beginner is competing 4 times a year, he potentially has four 3-months long training cycles per year. That is true as long as said competitions are spaced evenly. Thus, the following guide is based on a 3 month cycle that ends with a competition/PR day. This guide is based on three phases that may last 3 weeks to 6 weeks long. For our purpose here and for clarity, each phase is 1 month long. The first phase is usually longer than the 2nd or 3rd phase, though. I would like to state that this is just one way, out of many ways, to program. Lifters with more experience will need to adapt this template to fit their own need. This adaptation is done through changing the length of the first two phases and through playing with the intensity.


Current PRs and Goal Setting 

If you know that you have 3 months to train for a competition and that you are a beginner, then you know that you could conservatively increase by 5% your current PRs on competition day (more can be expected in some cases). Obviously, the more experienced you are, the lesser you will improve your total on competition day – or the harder it will be to keep improving.

Lets use a theoretical lifter as an example. His best snatch is 60kg and best clean and jerk is 75kg (80% Sn : CJ ratio), his best back squat is 98kg (130% of his CJ). On competition day, according to the 5% rule, he wants to hit a  63kg snatch and 79kg clean and jerk, at minimum. To meet the 130% rule for back squats, he will need a 102-103kg backsquat to do so.

Our 3 main goals are as follow : add 3kg to the snatch, 4kg to the clean and jerk and 4 to 5kg to the squats. A side goal is to stay injury free and healthy. Our time frame is 3 months. 

The next step is to ask the most important question there is when programming : How can we accomplish this?


The 3 phase programming template 

To increase his bars by 5% he will need to improve technique as well increase his strength in the squat (other movements as well…but the squat is the most important assistance exercise here). The 3 phase programming template takes all of that into account. The 3 phases are the preparatory, specific and competition phases.

The preparatory phase is best defined as a rather high volume and low/med phase. It correspond to the first month of the 3 month cycle. This phase can last for longer if strength or hypertrophy is an issue. Our goal in this phase is to improve technique, increase strength and improve work capacity. In comparison to the competition phase, it isn’t rare to program twice as many reps (total, not per set) here. This is where most of the variations of movements are done. We often consider that full lifts should be done about 1/3 to 1/2 of the time here.

Our goal here is to do a lot of reps to fix technique and improve the strength of the lifter so that we can apply it in following phases (converting strength into power) There are many ways to programs the workouts of each week here. I will give you two examples. Some people will do a basic week template and add a set every week for each week without changing the weights used (eg : week 1 : 3×3, week 2: 4×3, week 3: 5×3 week 4 : either 3×3 or 6×3).

Some people will break it into two 2 weeks cycles to use more weights in the last two weeks (eg: week 1 : 3×3 week 2: 5×3, week 3: increase the weights 3×3, week 4 : 5×3). Sets are work sets here and don’t include warm up. These sets scheme are for a given movement on a given day rather than reflective of every movements of the day or every workout of the week. These are examples.

Exercise selection should be very wide, but fix the technical weaknesses of the lifter (eg : weak turn over = more muscle snatch and hangs). Pulls of the target PR bars can be included to build strength and confidence, squatting is frequent either through complexes (cleans + fsquat) or squat sessions. Max outs are not really recommended here, but, personally, I like to keep one heavy day per week or two weeks (defined as 90%).


The specific phase is best defined as an increase in intensity and a reduction in volume. More often than not, full lifts are done about 2/3 of the time, and done with higher intensity on average. We are looking to transfer the strength gains into the lifts and stabilize the technique of the lifter. Many lifts should be done around 80-90% here whereas the average intensity in the previous phase was around 75%. Squats are done a bit heavier and for less reps as well. It wouldn’t be surprising for a beginner lifter to hit 90% for doubles towards week 2-3.

There are many ways to programs the workouts of each week here as well. I will give you two examples. One could increase the weights used while decreasing the sets done (e.g week 1 4×2 @ 80%, week 2 3×2 @ 85%, week 3 2×2 @90%, week 4 3×2 @ 70-75%) or one could program week 1 and 3 to be heavy (thus less sets), and week 2 and 4 to be medium (week 1 : 3×1 @ 85%, week 2 : 4×2 @ 75-78%, week 3 3×1 @ 90% week 4 3×2 @ 70-75%). Since the competition is one month away and the intensity is about to rise a lot, it can be a good idea to use week 4 here for recovery to start the next cycle fresh. Intermediate lifters may max out a few times during this month, but not as much as in the following month.


The competition phase is best defined as 3 weeks of high intensity training followed by a week of tapering that leads to the competition. The intensity will rise very high here while the volume will be minimal – or lowered massively. In the first two weeks, many people will go for very heavy bars around the 90-98% range, for a few sets (2-3). Some could even match their PRs here as well. Squats are maintained but variations are long gone by now. Powers would be the exceptions. These can be maintained on ligther days to make lighter bars feel heavy. While 75-80% of a snatch is not that heavy, powering it feels quite heavy. This allow the athlete to mentally prepare to the task at hand. In the third week, on the last day (say Saturday), the athlete will try to do 3 sets of 1 at his openers which are decided based on his progress.

Strategies and openers are selected according to the progress and readiness of the athlete. If everything has been going ok, we could choose to have our lifter  do 57-60-63 at the competition. If all has been doing extremely well, he could  do 58-61-64 for instance. If he is having a great day on competition day, after hitting his opener, we could move up a bit more aggressively depending on his training experience and physical condition. We will have to consider that he is a beginner and stay focused on our plan. A more experienced lifter could go a bit more crazy here.


This article is more suggestive and flexible than it is rigid. I believe that all programs should have such flexibility since we are dealing with biological systems rather than machines. That being said, as a wrap up and hopefully to make it clearer, I included a table that sums up everything, but sets and reps. Sets and reps should be selected according to the phase you are in, but variance exist. For instance, 10 sets of 1 @ 70% would fit the goals of the preparatory phase as much as 5 sets of 3 @ 75%. It really depends on the athlete and on how he reacts to different training stimulus.


Don’t miss out on Updates : Make sure you follow First Pull on Facebook and Instagram for daily pictures and advice.

Leave a Reply