I was lucky enough to meet and talk to not only the coaches at the Olympic Education Center, but also the resident athletes. The OEC provides education and coaching for two Olympic sports:
Weightlifting and Wrestling. One of the things that I came to appreciate through my conversations and observation was the variation in volume of the athletes’ training.
Some athletes were brand new to the sport of weightlifting and some had been at it for a lot longer than I. There were a few major differences that I saw between the more experienced athletes and the newer ones, one of which was the amount of volume that an athlete has in their program.
Typically, when one thinks about volume when comparing a beginner to an advanced athlete, you would assume that someone who has been at it longer will be able to handle more volume than the beginner. While this holds true, it’s a bit more complicated than that. You need to take into consideration the types of exercises that the athlete does and the intensity at which they train, which varies based on the stage in the weightlifter’s career.
At the OEC, beginners are usually doing a very diverse set of exercises (see Training at the OEC: The Importance of Drills). These are to develop the different aspects of the Snatch and Clean and
Jerk, to improve strength in positions and to just get stronger, among many other things.
The volume of these exercises (in terms of sets and reps) is usually very high. For example, one of our two training sessions in a day might have included:
Dynamic Warm-up ~10 min
Muscle Snatch-5 sets of 5
Power Snatch from High Hang-5 sets of 5
Power Snatch from Mid Thigh-5 sets of 5
Power Snatch from Knee-5 sets of 5
Power Snatch from Below Knee-5 sets of 5
Back Squat-5 sets of 5
For a beginner who is needing a lot of time with the bar, this higher volume is very valuable. Of course, with all of these drills, proper positioning and improvement of technique is the goal. A beginner shouldn’t and wouldn’t load up the bar, even if they do have the strength to ‘’make’’ the lift.
Compare this to a more advanced lifter. They have been through the high volume phase in their career. They have strength in positions (although there is always going to be room for improvement). Their motor pattern is well developed. Would having them do a program similar to this be as effective for them? Probably not.
A more advanced lifter would most likely have a much lower volume in terms of sets and reps, but of course the weight they use would be much higher.
An advanced lifter’s session might look like this:
(Insert individual technical drill here)
Clean and Jerk-3 sets of 2 at 82%
Clean and Jerk-4 sets of 1 at 90%
Front Squat+Jerk-5 sets of 1+2
The advanced lifter doesn’t do nearly as many reps, but the intensity is obviously much higher than the beginner’s would be. An advanced lifter will do more of the full lifts because that is what he will be doing in competition.
Some other points that come to mind that weren’t necessarily discussed at the OEC: when you have an athlete go from choosing their own weights to having a percentage based system and if higher (or lower) rep technical drills have any place in an advanced lifter’s program (this one might have been discussed).
From my point of view, to move from a ‘’choose your weight’’ program to a percentage based program, the lifter has to be efficient at the Snatch and Clean and Jerk. This doesn’t mean that they need to achieve perfect technique before doing so, but they need to be proficient and consistent. The coach will need to decide when this time comes. As a side note, I have found that some athlete’s respond better to being told what to do and some are better off self-monitoring their own weights. Finding what works best for your athlete will have to come through trial and error.
Although an advanced lifter’s program will primarily center around the Snatch and Clean and Jerk, we need to remember that there is no such thing as perfect technique. Especially with lower-than-elite athletes, there will always be big areas for improvement, even if they are considered to be ‘’advanced.’’ This is where using technical drills for advanced lifters comes into play. While they won’t be as diverse or as high of volume as they will be with beginners, drills are very valuable to fix lifters’ problems in their lifts.
The timing and volume of these drills will primarily be determined based on an athlete’s focus on competition. As a general rule of thumb, it isn’t a good idea to try to fix an athlete’s technique problems two weeks before a big competition. Two weeks really isn’t enough time to make much of a difference in technique along with the fact that we don’t want to confuse the athlete.
However, if we just got done with a big competition and have plenty of time before the next one, it’s a good idea to start addressing any technical issues that the lifter might have.
Prescribing volume and intensity in weightlifting isn’t as straight forward as it might seem at first. There’s a lot that goes into doing it correctly. If you just remember that having a beginner spend a lot of time with light weights is much more important than packing on the slabs of meat, which eventually give way to a heavier, higher volume of the full lifts for a more advanced athlete, you’ll be well on your way to great programming!