On the topic of training methodologies and principles

Credit Rob Macklem
Credit Rob Macklem

Training methodologies have evolved since the sport was developed. We could probably say that without any doub training methodologies were first refined as a result of different decisions made by sport authorities in regard to competition. For instance, weightlifting used to have single arm events and abolishing those events must have had an impact on how people trained after it was removed from competition. Hence, dumbbell and one handed snatches have pretty much disappeared from most programs around the world.

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The use of the squat stance versus the split stance over time is another great example. Catching lifts in a split stance was part of the older technique, in which the bar did not touch the body and in which the bar was often caught very high to do a press a few milisecond later. Even the order of exercises have changed in competition, the time between lifts has been reduced, the weight classes have changed and drug testing policies have made or destroyed countries.

In recent years, a competitive event, the press, was also removed. This has definitely changed training methodologies and programming. The press used to be an exercise of first priority and was moved down the list to a GPP exercise. Laputin discussed that issue at length in his book ”Managing the training of weightlifter”. That is, if the press is not a competitive lift anymore, then how much pressing tonnage does an athlete need in the biathlon era? They concluded that they could reduce the pressing tonnage by quite a bit without hurting jerk results and recommended 10% of the total monthly tonnage to be various kind of presses.

Credit Nowness
Credit Nowness

So, there it is, understanding the rules of competition leads to the creation of philosophies about what an athlete needs or should need to succeed. We see lots of variation in philosophies across the world. The sensation of the moment, China, seems to advocate the usage of lots of accessory movements and seems to be using lots of pulls variations and bodybuilding/gymnastics. Russia seems to use lots of complexes at times and seem to do more high repetition work (2-4) at lower intensity around the year. Bulgarian elite lifters supposedly went to max on a daily basis. Supposedly, Bulgarian liked backing off to do doubles or waves loading. Recently, an American coach said he only programs full lifts with no variations.

The list of what is different can go on and on. Everybody has a different idea of what is required to build top level athletes and judging by the results of said countries, all of those philosophies can work as long as it is included in the right system and targeting the right kind of athlete. Rather than discussing the variance – or may be peculiarities – perhaps the best thing to do is to illustrate what is similar between the training methodologies used around the world. Through that observation, we may be able to illustrate training principles that – if respected – will lead to success.

Here are 8 principles that I have noticed. Keep in mind that this is my own vision and interpretation of the available data. They are listed in not particular order of importance.

Principle 1 : To be effective, training programs have to be progressive.

Whether you work in stages/classes like the Soviet Union used to do, or used a LTAD model like some of the North American countries or auto-regulate your training, to benefit from your program you need to have a progressive approach. In the grand scheme of things, the point is to do your best bars on the competition plateform which means that intensity (weights) has to increase over time. You need to go from point A to point B which has to be accounted in how you program. Volume and Intensity have to increase over time.

Credit : Rob Macklem
Credit : Rob Macklem

Principle 2 : Training programs need to include exercise variations

Although weightlifters compete in the snatch and clean and jerk, it is common to see a large variety of assistance exercises being included. Many people may be led to believe that elite lifters only train the full snatch, full clean and jerk and some kind of squats. This may have been true of elite Bulgarian lifters in the 80’s although their prior formation did include variety. In other words, these lifters’ training plan removed variations/assistance exercises as they progressed. The Russians were known to include a large variety of exercises and drills in their programs as well. Russian researchers even suggested an even split of 50/50 between full lifts and variations. Word of mouth has it that Chinese lifters’ workload if comprised of 60%+ assistance exercises and 40% of full lifts.

Principle 3 : Different Sets and reps schemes should be included

It seems like many people think all we do is singles all the time. Most top countries include a lot of singles in their programming but they also include doubles, triples and even 6+ reps. For instance, Bulgarian weightlifters were known to go up to a heavy single and back off to hit doubles. Russians lifters often did lots of reps and sets far from competition and reduced the reps work as they got closer to the competition. Different sets and reps schemes stress the body differently which forces the body to adapt to the new structural stress. Moreover, while singles are probably the best tool to get comfortable and accustomed to bigger weights, they don’t develop muscle mass and arguably muscle strength the same way sets of 3-5 reps do.

Principle 4 : Heavy weights should be lifted frequently

Muscle Snatches by Lu Xiaojun. Credit Rob Macklem.
Muscle Snatches by Lu Xiaojun. Credit Rob Macklem.

It is well known that strength is best increased when the intensity is high (i.e when you lift heavy weights). It is also known that strength increase are bigger when following an hypertrophy phase (see principle 3). Lifting heavy weights is different than maxing out. You need tonnage of heavy weights (made lifts) to get stronger and not just a single at 95%. Countries have toyed around with this principle pretty much differently. Whether it is back off sets or wave loading or working with % (ie : 5×3 @ 85%) or using the Pireplin’s chart, the principle is the same. You need to gradually lift bigger weights to keep getting strong.

Principle 5 : Technical refinement comes before strength training

In most countries where the lifter’s career starts early on, the focus is not on results but on technical refinement and athletic development (coordination, flexibility, body awareness, etc). By the time the kid is hitting puberty, serious strength training starts and the lifter benefits from the change in hormones and from his ability to recover faster. I know of 12 or 13 years old kids that are trained on singles (max snatch, max clean and jerk and heavy – but low volume – squats) 3 times a week. This type of philosophy differs from what is being done by the best countries and will not lead to big results in the long term. That is, the work capacity and athletic development will be very low in comparison to other lifters around the world (See principle 6).

Principle 6 : Work load increases drastically with every year of training. 

Workload has to increase to keep progressing. Russians calculated tonnage and K-values. Apparently, Chinese lifters calculate the tonnage they do above 80% as well. Data shows that with every year of training, the work loads increases. It means more sets, more weights, and higher average intensity (the higher the average intensity, the better you strength gain). If a kid specialize too fast in weightlifting -as in Principle 5’s example (ie : heavy singles and no accessory movements) – the kid won’t be able to increase his work load as much as others over the years mostly because his work capacity will be low (and so will be his muscle mass). The years of technical refinement serve to build a great foundation of athleticism to prepare the body for what is coming at the next level. Russians called that GPP.

Elite weightlifters sport lots of muscle mass. Such muscle mass usually does not come from singles work but from GPP work. Credit : Rob Macklem
Elite weightlifters sport lots of muscle mass. Such muscle mass usually does not come from singles work but from GPP work. Credit : Rob Macklem

Principle 7 : It is encouraged to do non weightlifting activities that may transfer to weightlifting results (in a moderate way).

In most training camps around the world, a date – every week- is reserved to play a different sport whether it is volleyball or basketball. Lifters play that sport re creatively as a way to keep developing their athleticism.

Principle 8 : Plans have to be goal oriented

Whether it is a periodized approach or a ”bulgarian-ish” just winging it out approach, you need to be doing things that will make you better on the plateform. Most people work in phases as in – strength phase and then technical phases (precompetition phase). However you are doing it, you need to plan and create a plan that fits your goals and where you want to be. The approach has to be specific.

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