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.