Thoughts about programming and developing eliteness

Apti-Aukhadov-85kg-Russia-pulling-under-a-173kg-snatch-at-the-2013-Europeans-last-April-in-Albania.
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Programming is often considered an art and a science at the same time. Different countries have different ways of planning the year of their lifters – in terms of exercise selection, volume/tonnage, intensity/%, frequency of training and focus of training (some are more strength oriented and some are more technique oriented). As anything sports oriented, coaches like to argue over which program is better and/or which country’s influence makes more sense and/or what works/does not work for them in their practice. On the other hand, for better or worse, athletes live and die by that program as if their whole success depends on completing every sets and reps written down.

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Here is a simple question :

What is the single most important thing responsible for making elite athletes….elite?

Many people argue that its the program that matters the most or that it is some parameters within the program such as tonnage or intensity. Ilya Ilyn is seen as one of the best athlete at the moment. Is Ilya Ilyn so good because he lifts about 64 tons in a day or is he good because he was taught right & built the right foundation to support such tonnage? He started his training at around 6 years old and he did lots of accessory work such as calisthenics and core work. Did the tonnage or the intensity matter at that time?

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I believe that it is faulty to assume that a program is better over another one – or that certain parameters have to be standardized amongst athlete. People tend to be attracted to Bulgarian, or Russian or Chinese influenced programs. Because their favorite athlete is being successful on the competitive stage, it is thought right to mimic what said athlete is supposedly doing in training.

What we are seeing is a lot of older athletes (18-30 years old) that are trying to do a lot of tonnage or a lot of intensity or both – yet they don’t have the proper foundation to support such training. They are not flexible enough, they have too many muscle imbalances, not enough muscle mass, huge weaknesses in some parts of their movement/body or they just have not spent enough time practising the skill of weightlifting. Pushing the squat up is easy in comparison to pushing the snatch up – and transferring that strength into the competitive lifts is equally complex and it just won’t happen if you have not practised the skill.

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If this is you, then no elite Bulgarian, Russian, Kazakh or Chinese program will help you get better – You are just not there yet. You need to put in the time. Just like you don’t read a book by starting with the final chapter, you don’t start your weightlifting career by following a peaking program that was written for very special lifters who have 10+ years of experience.

For instance, it is said that Ilya Ilyn maxes out every Friday to find out where he is at and picks appropriate weights for the following week. It was said that Akkaev was trained on heavy singles. Maligov does not seem to like high intensity training and prefers to do volume and reps. Apparently, some Chinese lifters always do two jerk reps every time they clean and jerk. Oleksiy Torokhtiy apparently does not press that often or that much. At national level, some Bulgarian lifters dropped all pulls from their training. Chinese lifters pull heavy all the time. Some lifters train the squat 2-3 times a week and others every day. Some Bulgarians trained all day long – 30 minutes at a time followed by a break. Russians tend to train twice a day – workouts lasting about 2-4 hours each. So what gives? Is one way better than the other?

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It is a myth to assume that these extraordinary differences in training that work for them will necessarily work for you. As these examples show, people can get good following about any kind of programs out there as long as it is tailored to their individual differences such as their respective ability to recover, stay motivated and how they see their programs (If you believe in your program, you will make more gains than if you think you are wasting your time).

I would speculate that the reason they are so good is not the results of peculiar training differences and programming, but the result of the coach’s eye and how smart that coach is. The coach has to be able to notice the technical errors and adjust the plan accordingly. Tonnage for the sake of tonnage is useless. We want productive and well targeted tonnage.

The coach has to be able to understand how his/her athlete is, how to push his/her athlete and get the best of the athlete. The coach has to understand when to push and when to pull back. The methodology has to allow for the development of key psychological traits so that your lifters are tough as nails – rather than afraid, stressed out and fragile.

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Credit Hookgrip

Also, any kind of system that favours results and hard work will lead to higher results than the programming itself (ease of lifestyle, number of competitors in the room, salary – thus no work, access to restoratives tools such as sauna, access to medical support to treat injuries and what not, and access to massage therapists). A program out if it’s context (System) cannot make up for the lack of coaching or lack of good coaching. In other words, no program can replace the coach and the decisions of the coach.

All things considered programming is so easy and so simple.

Programs are all similar no matter the country it is originating from. They are all snatch and clean and jerk – centric . They all include squats and pulls. They all include variations of exercises. Some include more accessory work than others. Put simply, the goal of any program is to be able to handle bigger workload and bigger weights over time. Whether you do that by using a linear progression (ie : W1 75%, W2 80%, W3 85%, etc) or by doing training phases or by autoregulating or by doing waves loading or by doing 1 heavy set and backing off for doubles/triples – is almost irrelevant if it is not tailored to your needs (non specific to your weaknesses) or if its is not tailored to your trainability and recuperative ability.

Trainability is how capable of being trained you are. For example, some people can train twice a day everyday and recover well from that. Some people can’t train 3 days in a row without feeling burnt out. Some can handle a lot of tonnage and some people tolerate higher intensity with lower tonnage better.

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In my practice and my coaching, I write workouts by the week and by phases. What I write down are guidelines. There is not a single day that I don’t change a thing in the programs of my athletes. I either add more sets, more weights, more exercises or remove sets, weights or exercises. Sometimes, to mess with their head, I will write down something different than what I want them to do. For instance, I will write down medium snatch doubles with the intent of going for heavy single.

Sometimes, I have made athletes back off and do a set of 5-7 repetitions in the snatch just to teach them to stop thinking and to get them out of their comfort zone. Sometimes, I tell them we will add a set and I don’t say the number of reps I want (say they were doing 1 heavy rep, we back off for a triple, but I don’t mention the triple part). They don’t know it’s coming, nor should they know. Competitions are full of surprises and so should be your training. These type of training changes gets the best of the athlete every single session and this is what produce eliteness and results as well as less injuries. This is why the coach matters more than the program and this is why looking for a miracle program and trying every single program out there is counter intuitive and counter productive.

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Jean-Patrick Millette

Jean-Patrick Millette is a full time weightlifting coach located in Montreal, Canada. He has a bachelor in kinesiology. He coaches dedicated weightlifters of all ages (Youth to senior) as well as running the well respected First Pull website. He has been very active at promoting the sport of weightlifting.

2 comments

  • It’s great to hear you share an un-dogmatic approach to lifting and programming. Many people who are newer to the sport seem to coach with blinders on. Perhaps they feel that this narrow view helps add clarity to the process but in my view it limits what options are available.

    Thanks for the great writing!

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