Beginner and early intermediate weightlifters obsess about their programming. They constantly question if they have the right plan to bring steady and continuing progress. Selling programming has emerged as an important source of revenue for weightlifting coaches. I know what it is to struggle for enough income to be a full-time coach, and I can appreciate the time and work involved in writing a good program.
That said, given it is competently written, here are some of the things I consider more important to progress than any specific program.
This is an aspect of culture in a weightlifting club. A supportive team can change the character of a training session from an unpleasant slog to tolerable hard work. A supportive training atmosphere can prop you up when training is rough and progress is slow or stalled. When you hit a wave of PRs, having teammates who can appreciate how hard they are to come by makes them more gratifying. Great teammates hold you accountable. They won’t let you claim a lifetime PR Snatch if you wore straps to hit it. They help soften the blow of a bomb-out in a big meet and get you back to work. The atmosphere is serious when it needs to be serious, and lighthearted when bringing some humor to a rough day is required. No one succeeds alone. If they tell you they did, they are deluded or lying.
That long, impossibly hard work is required to be a good weightlifter is no secret. Thousands of Youtube videos document that fact. What you don’t see on Youtube is 9 hours of sleep, naps, trips to the massage therapist, chiropractor, and PT. You don’t see the ice baths, epsom salt baths, cryotherapy, recovery boot sessions, stretching, cupping, flushing cool-downs, nature walks, meditation, dry needling, and all the other possible recovery modalities undertaken by elite level athletes. It doesn’t make for good video, but it does make you ready for the 6x6 Back Squats at 80% you have tomorrow. An advanced weightlifter spends perhaps 15 to 20 hours each week in the gym. That means at least 148 hours outside the gym ensuring that the hard work pays off.
Time in the Sport
The importance of time in the sport is dramatically underestimated by virtually every beginning and intermediate lifter. Knowing how long it takes to accomplish something is a good start. No one without a 190 IQ enters college and thinks they’ll have their degree in a year. It takes four years. For some, five or six. So why would anyone think they can make the A session at Nationals in a year or two?
Every beginner starts the sport with a string of PRs that makes it feel like they will go on forever. Because they have no technique at all, every technical improvement leads to a PR. The beginner effect is REAL. Because they have never done any strength training, they add weight to the bar every workout. But the beginner gains play out within a few months. Then the PRs come once a month. Then once a macrocycle. Eventually, you hit a PR once or twice a year. This can be frustrating, but it’s part of the game. After five or six years, you might be sitting in 5th place at Nationals, probably 5-7kg off the podium. If you told a lifter with two years of training that they’d only add 5-7kg to their total this year, they would probably quit. But after five or six years, that 5-7kg means a medal at the biggest meet of the year. You pay for that medal in hard work, yes, but also with seniority. It takes TIME to get strong enough, TIME to gain enough competition experience, TIME to develop elite level technique. If you know how much time it’s going to take, and you are willing to persist, you have a chance to discover just how good you can be. And you’ll discover a lot about who you are and who you want to be on the way.
Call it buy-in, or a positive mental attitude, but belief is a powerful driver of progress. If you believe a program will work and go all-in implementing the plan, most competently written programs will result in progress. If you don’t believe in the plan, or the coach who wrote it, it will not work. You won’t put in the effort required. You’ll skip sets or reps. Your resolve will ebb. Under those psychological conditions, no program will work. As the old saying puts it so concisely, “The one who thinks they can and the one who thinks they can’t are both right.”
This is by far the most important item on the list. A coach can’t give it to you. You can’t buy it on the internet. There is no “hack” for it. No inspirational video or poster can impart it to you. It is a simple and ongoing act: this is what must be done; I will do it. I will do it now. I will execute it with as much energy and commitment as possible. I will do it, however I feel. I will do it despite temptation not to do it. I will do it even if I have a legitimate reason not to do it.
If you haven’t seen the documentary Westside vs the World, do yourself the favor of watching it. Louie Simmons Westside Method is all the rage with strength coaches. It works. But a lot of methods work. Bulgarian. Russian. Chinese. 5/3/1. Starting Strength. High volume. High intensity. High speed. No accessories. ALL the accessories. What successful users of all of these methods have in common is that they refuse to fail. They will keep trying harder, keep working harder, keep exploring new levels of effort, find a way. If you watch the lifters who stuck at Westside Barbell, you will see a level of will in Chuck Vogelpohl, in Matt Dimmell, in Mark Bell, and many others, that does not allow for half measures. They would risk crippling injury to make gains. Some of them lived in their cars to train at Westside until they could find a job that fit their training. That level of WILL can make virtually any program work. If you’d like an example of this, listen to Dave Tate talk about trying to beat a rehabbing Chuck Volgelpohl on a Dynamic Day.
Read Glenn Pendlay’s posts about training or listen to his podcasts. Hard, HARD work is a recurring theme. Same at Cal Strength. Or Mash Elite. Many, maybe most champions willed themselves to the top. However they felt, whatever injuries they had to overcome, whatever life threw at them, they decided to keep going, learning, working, striving. Where motivation fails, will succeeds. When artificially amped arousal fades on rep 6 of a set of 10 Back Squats, will carries the set to fruition. When you think you can’t get out of the chair for the eighth Clean double at 85%, will separates you from the people who say everyone great is on drugs. Will wakes you up at 5:30 am for training session one. Will makes you pass on that new microbrew IPA during a cut. Will has you in the gym on Christmas because that’s a training day.
I’m not the only coach trying to give you a reality check. Stan Efferding has a few things to say about what really makes programs work.
Don’t get me wrong, a good program is important. A plan that stays flexible for the condition of the athlete at any given time is better. But the best program in the world cannot account for these missing elements in a serious weightlifter’s training and life.
If you discovered weightlifting through CrossFit, the idea of a training partner is probably new to you. It may even sound weird, but it used to be the norm. I started in powerlifting, and I always had a training partner. A number of articles have been written about the advantages of a training partner, but most are from the perspective of bodybuilding and Powerlifting, the two barbell sports who seem to have retained the tradition. Weightlifting clubs usually have a coach, so hooking up with a training partner doesn't seem necessary to most athletes. The CrossFit model obviates the idea of training partners with coaches and classes.
Or you could be 18 or 25. This letter is still to you. That picture above? That is who you want to be. It burns in you so hot you can hardly sleep at night. You think about it obsessively. (When you're not thinking about sex) How to get there? How to be that guy?
You have an athletic background. You were one of the better athletes in your high school. You wrestled or played football or soccer or maybe basketball and track, perhaps several sports. But you were pretty good. Maybe very good. You grew confident in what you could do as an athlete, and with good reason.
You lifted weights as part of your training for those sports. You liked it. You liked how it made you look and feel and, more so, how it led to physical prowess on and off the field. Maybe you were too short for college ball, or you played DIII ball, or you got a DII or even a DI scholarship that didn't work out after a year or two. Still, you liked training in the weight room. It had become part of your life. You grew up with the internet, so it was natural to research strength training. You learned about Smolov and 5/3/1 and The Bulgarian Method and Starting Strength and the Russian Squat Program. Because you are a smart guy, you even decided to maybe start an exercise science major in college and make it your life. You went deep into the weeds with Seyle's General Adaptation Syndrome and the SAID principle, anatomy and physiology, Tudor Bompa on Periodization and Medvedyev and Roman on training principles for weightlifters.
Yes, you had stumbled upon Weightlifting as a sport. The speed, power, and athleticism quickly hooked you. And luck of all luck! There was an established coach and weightlifting club nearby ready to take you on.
That first year of training went so well you thought you might make the Olympics. Your technique improved rapidly and your strength grew and your lifts went up and up. Your coach knew so much and was so helpful. With all your research and reading you knew what he was talking about and you could have intelligent discussions about it. That was an exhilarating time.
Then you tweaked your shoulder. Or your knee. Or a wrist. Or the last squat cycle beat you down and you didn't hit a new PR. It set back your training for weeks or a couple months. Your coach had some ideas how to adjust, how to work around the trouble. Sounded good, but perhaps there were other things you could try. So you went back to the internet and did some research. You talked to another coach at a local meet and asked his opinion. You listened to a podcast in which Famous Coach X said the kind of squat program you were on didn't work. Or he expressed wildly different views on technique. You started to compare what you knew and what others knew with what your coach knew and your coach started to look not so smart after all. You talked about it with your lifting friends in the gym, or talked to other club's lifters about their program and their coach.
And that is when you put the first foot on the path that leads your career into a blind alley. Or a brick wall. You start thinking there is a straight, scientific, and predicable path to success. That there is something your coach doesn't know that other coaches or lifters do know. With the right change in program or emphasis or some other coach, you'll get unstuck.
You are wrong. I'd like to sugar-coat it for you, or tell you that you are half-right, but you are not. You have enough knowledge and experience to stop yourself dead in your tracks. A coach is more than programs and technique teaching. A coach is outside perspective impossible to have about your own training and career. A coach is someone who has watched you closely for a long time, who is constantley learning and adjusting to how you respond to any particular cue or program or improvement in diet and recovery. A coach constantly assesses and adjusts. Coaching is a long series of judgment calls and refinement of knowledge of a particular lifter. No coach knows everything, but given time and your attention, they can know YOU, probably better than you know yourself.
I've watched many more of you than not hit this place in their careers and fail to overcome their own egos. Self knowledge comes in too-small doses and the requisite humility is probably years down the road. You'll stall. Your progress will stop and I'll watch you flail in your attempts to find your own answers. You'll lower your goals or change them. You may well fall out of the sport altogether. It deeply saddens me, but it is an experience so common to me and other coaches that we've become hardened to it. We often like you as people, but we know the next talented athlete is probably minutes from walking in the door. We'll try again with someone else, see if we can get through to them better than we got through to you.
In any case, I'll likely be at Nationals and the American Open Finals with lifters again this year, as I have been every year for more than a decade. But I doubt I will see you, because your best thinking will not get you there.
Reorienting to Your Legs in the Pull
Weightlifting is a leg sport. If you've been Snatching and Clean & Jerking for a couple years or more that may seem obvious, given how often and how heavy weightlifters squat. However, the way many lifters move you'd think them unaware of the importance of their legs in a lift.
Setting up the legs to explosively drive the barbell away from the platform is not a natural movement. Learning to do it effectively takes time and a downward reorientation from the default habit of arms being the primary interface with the the environment. Early on new lifters are taught to take their arms out of the pull so their back, and especially their legs do the work. But it may take thousands of reps to start feeling their legs at work in a full-speed lift.
There are some drills that can help speed the process of learning to feel the legs in the lift. One of the first drills I use is the Shift & Stand Drill. This drill teaches slowly what you will do much faster in the actual lift. Many physical skills in other sports are first taught slowly and gradually sped up. It is a time-tested way to acquire new motor skills, but for some reason we in weightlifting have accepted the orthodoxy that "you can't teach the double knee bend," as if gospel. The "double knee bend" or "scoop" can be taught. I do it every day. This transition is left to luck or fate or innate athletic ability by far too many coaches. It should be worked and understood, as this can speed up the process of feeling the legs working in the lift.
The Shift & Stand drill teaches what I believe to be the most difficult part of the pull to master: the transition from bar at the knees with torso angled forward over the bar, to the power position with torso just behind the bar, to vertical drive with the legs. It also teaches the proper mid-foot, heels-down balance point from which to drive up on the bar.
After the Shift & Stand Drill, I sometimes use a jumping drill I learned from Sean Waxman of Waxman's Gym. (My good friend coach Don McCauley may blanch at using the word jump, but every now and then, understanding the context and correct application of the concept, even stubborn old coaches like me can make use of heresies that can help our lifters) Using the Shift & Stand Drill before this jumping drill makes learning the jumping drill much easier to perform and master. Between the two drills, most lifters will start to feel the "quad punch" from the thighs that drives the bar up. They will begin to feel the correct direction of the drive and the power of the legs to accelerate the bar. The way I teach this drill, the lifter will land flat-footed no more than one-and-a-half inches behind a line drawn on the platform. Too far back is bad, forward over the line is worse.
Something to note about these drills or any drill; they are solutions to problems that have the potential to produce new problems if not applied judiciously. Every drill can introduce new technique shortcomings if overused or used too long. The Shift & Stand Drill can cause the top of the second pull to be too mechanical and slow. I use it only as long as necessary to get basic mechanics down, then try to get away from it. The Jumping Drill can cause the athlete to dramatically overemphasize the top of the pull, causing them to linger at the top of the pull and ruin the timing of movement under the bar. This can be corrected with lifts from high blocks or No-Feet Snatches and Cleans, but the more ingrained the problem, the longer and harder the effort to fix it. That said, the Shift & Stand Drill and the Jumping Drill can go a long way toward getting the athlete to really feel their legs at work at the top of the pull.
Weightlifters suffer through so much squatting in training that you'd think THAT was the sport. It isn't, but you can't be a great weightlifter without powerful legs. Nor can you be a great weightlifter if you don't know how to get that leg strength into your pull. So if you want huge weights to go up, you have to start thinking down.
Rubber City Weightlifting shares training space with the powerlifters at Unrivaled Strength. I was talking to a young powerlifter recently and asked him why he was doing a light squat variant I had not seen him do before. He offered some half-hearted explanation, then confessed that he did it because he was bored with his training. I've heard this many times before, but mostly from fitness types who are "working out" rather than training to a specific goal, such as winning a weightlifting or powerlifting competition. However, I read more and more articles aimed at serious athletes that offer up alternative approaches to "relieve the boredom of their usual training routine."
I can think of no worse reason to change your training than boredom.
There are valid reasons to change your training--progress has stalled, working around injury, focus on weak links, unloading by exercise--but boredom doesn't make the list. Training is not meant to entertain you or distract you, its purpose is to drive physiological changes that will enhance performance in your chosen sport. Training makes demands on your energy reserves for work inside the gym and recovery outside the gym. That energy should not be wasted on poorly conceived and inefficient exercises or haphazard methods chosen by your mood. Planning training is difficult and precise work, even at the intermediate level, and it should not be subject to whim or it's failure to hold your attention.
Only a handful of exercises have the power to drive the stress/adaptation cycle consistently. They are those that move the most weight over the greatest range of motion and involve the most muscle mass: squats, deadlifts, cleans, snatches, jerks, presses, bench presses, and perhaps their major variants. They are time-tested ways to build real strength and, as confirmed by a hundred or more years of experience, not debatable They are used as sporting tests of strength because they build the most strength.
Given that these are the best exercises to build muscle mass and strength, why would you change your training away from them out of boredom? Load can vary, frequency can vary, exercise order can vary, but for most lifters, the exercises will be the same, over and over and over again. Weightlifters cannot say they have really dialed in their technique in the snatch, clean, or jerk until they have tens of thousands of lifts under their belts. Ask any powerlifter how they got to 700 pound back squat and they will tell you they spent years under the bar, not months, to get there. A high tolerance for monotony is a bedrock requirement of progress in the strength sports.
If squats, cleans, snatches, bench presses, and deadlifts, week after week, month after month, year after year, bore you, succeeding in weightlifting or powerlifting will be difficult indeed. Maybe you can get away from them for a short time, but to become truly strong, you'll have to do them until you find yourself dreaming of doing them, hook gripping your steering wheel, and reflexively setting your back just to pick up a package. "Bored" will only exist in your lexicon as a way to describe the uncommitted.
Had a great interview with Pete Hitzeman, editor of Breaking Muscle, and a truly skilled interviewer. Here's a link:
If you spend enough time on the internet, you can find something new in the field of strength training nearly every month. A seemingly endless number of people stake their continued progress or their careers on being the next genius to figure out a better or faster way to get strong. Why? Mostly impatience. It is natural to want to get as strong as possible as quickly as possible. However, the process of getting strong really cannot be rushed. Understand that time under the bar matters. Without the use of performance enhancing drugs, it takes many years to get to a 400 pound bench press, a 500 pound squat, a 400 pound clean.
Those numbers are much more likely to be hit with big, basic exercises we've known and used almost since the invention of the plate loaded barbell. But once the beginner gains are over, and weight doesn't go on the bar as often or in large chunks, a lot of people start thinking there must be better exercises or assistance exercises that can speed the process. Some think they have a weakness or some imbalance to address. Trying to turn every form of human movement into some fashion of resistance exercise produces something new, but almost never useful. Do these "new" or "more advanced" methods of weighted movement--stability training, kettlebell training, core training, core stability, unilateral training--solve real problems in strength training? Usually not. As Mark Rippetoe has said, the reason we use the heavy, multi-joint, basic exercises--back squats, deadlifts, cleans, presses, bench press--is because they involve the most muscle and have proven over a long period of trial and error to be the best exercises for developing great strength.
There are some newer exercises that can help very advanced lifters who are stuck in their progress, who have mastered and maximized the potential of the basics. Band squats, chain squats, pause lifts, partial movements, etcetera, have their place and have, over time, proven their utility. But until an exercise has been in common use for a decade or more and proven its usefulness, it can be safely ignored.
Strength training progress is not rocket science. In fact, exercise science is mostly useful to theorists in the field and the most advanced strength sport athletes and coaches. While the scientific understanding of what happens pyhsioligically in the process of strength training has advanced, how you actually get strong in the gym, for most people, has not changed much at all. At first you can add weight to the bar every workout. After a few months you have to add weight every week, then every couple of weeks. This process carries most trainees for several months, or for some, over a year. Then you have to adopt a two-steps-up, one-step-back approach--periodization--that involves a greater volume of work. Adding weight to your lifts happens every four, six, eight, weeks or longer. This method can last for years before you exhaust its potential for making you stronger.
Trying to shorten the process with every new method that pops up in your Facebook feed will most often retard progress, not enhance it. The internet produces "geniuses" like mushrooms popping up after a summer rain: plentiful, but ephemeral. Methods like squat every day, the Bulgarian method, The Russian Squat Routine, and German Volume Training have broken many more athletes than they have carried to the next level.
Nor should more advanced periodized programming approach continued strength gains like a problem in theoretical physics. The basics of it have been widely known for a long time, and the basics need only be applied to your situation, which is, I can almost guarantee, not unique.
A genius, to my mind, is anyone who can learn from OTHER people's mistakes. When you have done what many others have done successfully and taken it to the limit of its effectiveness, then, and only then, may some creativity be warranted. Before that, suck it up, get under the bar, and grind. Remember THE SECRET: Show up. Train hard. Repeat for 10 years.
One of the first things a new weightlifter should learn is how to set a rigid back in the start position. It's an old idea: turn the most flexible portion of the human skeleton, the spine, into a rigid conduit through which the upward energy created by back extension and leg drive is transferred to the bar as efficiently as possible. It is vital for a successful lift.
This post is not, however, aimed at newbies. There are plenty of coaches, articles, and videos out there to teach basic back position. ("Bracing" videos and advice seem to be everywhere on the internet right now.) What I want to do is encourage more experienced lifters to focus on it anew.
Over time some things thought to be trained-in habit can slip a little. You've been setting your back the same way for a while now, so you don't think about it much. You've built your setup into a consistent habit. But good habits can erode if you don't pay attention, and before you know it you are leaving kilos off the bar that could have been yours. I've seen experienced lifters let their upper backs get a little soft with warmup weights. The light weights still move quickly and precisely, so the imperfect back position goes unnoticed. But things go awry over 80% and the cause may seem baffling, even to your coach.
That's because your coach can get into a rut, too, their usually good eye slipping a little while paying attention to other things. She's watching for your most common technique flaws to crop up: you get pulled a little forward off the floor; you are impatient and don't wait for a good power position; you let the bar drift away from you as you move under. All of these can be caused by a back set that is a little bit soft. Then one day she thinks to remind you to arch and tighten their back more, engage your lats, and lock your shoulders down to your hips harder, and the jump in bar speed and precision is dramatic.
So when you set your back in the start, be extreme about it. ANY softness between the hips and bar will cost you bar speed. When I say be extreme, I mean EXTREME. I don't want you to get a "flat, neutral spine." Arch the shit out of your back, every pair of spinal erector muscles maxed out. Engage your lats when locking down your shoulders such that they threaten to cramp. Lift your chest and lock down your abs like your favorite crush is walking by. You can't hold this position long, so don't. Get tight and GO. You see world class lifters do that all the time. Even the lifters who seem to sit over the bar until the clock is down to single digits don't tighten up and sit there. They are relaxed until the short moment before they break the bar from the floor. Then they tighten like they are bracing to be hit by a truck and let it fly a half second later.
There is never a reason to half-set your back before a lift. Get in the habit of tightening it to your limit, and check in on that habit regularly. Then watch your bar jump!