How to Train Like an Olympic Weightlifter in 3 Easy Steps

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Mike Burgener has said, “I don’t believe in over training, just under recovery.”  And he is not alone.  We Olympic lifting coaches have all said similar things over the years (myself included).  But, these types of statements are highly misleading and tend to give off the wrong impression.  A better statement would be,

“Train as hard as you can, as often as you can, and spend the rest of your time working your ass off on recovery.”

Managing your fatigue is the key to your success in this sport.  Generally, your ability to come in as often as possible to practice the snatch, the clean, and the jerk will determine your success. 

Terminology

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I’ve talked about this before, but I think it’s valuable to go over it again.  In strength and conditioning circles, we use a couple of variables to manage the fatigue of our athletes.  The most important of which are Volume, Intensity, and Frequency.

Volume is simply the number you get when you multiply sets times reps when you’re doing an exercise, in a workout, or even in a week, etc.  So, if you are doing snatches for 5 sets of 3 reps, your volume on the snatch today is … 5 x 3 = 15. (See, that math degree counts for something!). NOTE that we use the “times” symbol, “x”, to denote sets “times” reps when we write up our programs for a reason.

Now, if you want to have a total squat volume of 30 for the day, you can do 10 sets of 3 (10 x 3), or 3 x 10.  As you can see, while volume is important to keep in mind, it doesn’t tell you the whole story.  We need to know something about how hard things are for you.

Intensity is the amount of “work” you are putting in.  If you can do 20 chin ups as a max, but only do 10 in a set, that is NOT intense.  If you do 17, 18, more … then it is.  It is a subjective variable.  And it is good to keep it that way. 

There is another term, Load, that describes the Volume x weight used.  Load was designed to be more “accurate” at describing the intensity of workouts.  But, I find it problematic.  For instance, some athletes with a lot of slow twitch muscle fibers in their legs will find doing 8 reps at 90% of maximum in the squat taxing as hell, but doable.  Other, more fast-twitch, athletes will barely be able to do 3 reps at 90% without nearly falling over.  If they have the same 1 rep max, then the LOAD will appear different for both, in fact, higher for the first athlete, even though they found it relatively the same in terms of intensity.

NOTE:  If I’m a “Bulgarian” in any way, it’s in my belief that we should always go off of how an athlete feels for the day, not what we think the numbers are telling us.  (For this reason, I avoid percentages in the routines I write as much as I can.  If I write 5 sets of 2 reps, I mean hard and heavy for 2 reps on each set – I don’t know if that’s 80% of your 1 rep max, more, less … just lift hard)

Frequency is what it sounds like.  It’s the number of times you come in to do something.  So, if athlete #1 does 20 snatches all in one workout, but athlete #2 does 20 snatches spread out over 2 workouts in the same day, then #2 has a higher frequency, even though they are both doing the same volume for the day.  The bonus of a higher frequency – when volume is held constant – is that you can usually work harder in each session than you could have if you did it all at once. 

3 Easy Steps

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As promised (and after my standard round-about way of getting here), these are the 3 easy steps you can take to start training like an Olympic weightlifter today!  (This is NOT for beginners.  You must have a decent level of technical proficiency and overall athletic capacity before this makes any sense.  And it helps greatly to have a coach or good training partner to watch you and keep you from overdoing it.)

  1. Keep your Frequency and your Intensity HIGH, and your Volume LOW.  This can be accomplished in a myriad of ways.  One of my favorites is a classic “Bulgarian” variation.  Like to hear it?  Here it go:  Do 1 to 3 heavy workouts per week (depending on age, recovery capacity, etc) and as many light workouts as you can.  Stick with singles ONLY on the classic lifts; and singles, doubles, and the occasional triple on squats.  On your heavy days, go to a true max for the day on all three lifts (snatch, clean and jerk, and front squat), and do some back off sets (1 to 4) at 85% or even 90% of that max if you can handle it.  The light days, do technique work with nothing heavier than 80% of the previous days max, do some prehab stuff, chins/push ups/dips, etc.  Keep it mellow.  It’s about practice.  Do the Oly lifts at least 5 days a week, if you can. 
  2. Stick with the classical lifts and their variations to avoid eccentrics and nervous system burnout.  The eccentric portion of the lift is the “down” part.  It’s the part that tends to cause the most fatigue and soreness.  If you only do the “up” part, and then drop the weight (as is done with snatches and clean and jerks) then you avoid a whole lot of soreness and CNS fatique, and are able to train more often.  I like 70%+ of your work to be on the Olympic lifts themselves (or very close variations like power snatches, hang cleans, etc).  Now, obviously you can’t avoid the “down” portion of a front squat!  But, by sticking to low reps, you will keep yourself fresher.
  3. Avoid the power lifts most of the time.  Deadlifts and back squats are great.  But, they become quite problematic for the Oly lifter.  Squats done in the method of the powerlifter – wide stance, bent over – are very taxing on the low back which is a prime stabilizer in the oly lifts.  Deadlifts are just brutal!  They take so much out of you that you can end up spending an entire week trying to recover.  This is BAD.  I strongly believe that you need to be lifting singles on the Olympic lifts in the 80%+ range OFTEN if you are going to be able to lift at 100% in a contest.  It’s as much psychological as physiological, but either way, if you can’t keep in the groove of lifting heavy snatches and jerks because you are too zonked from your deadlift workout, you are not doing yourself a favor. Technical proficiency and confidence with heavy weights are far more important than your brute strength in this sport. 

NOTE:  I’m experimenting with ways to incorporate deads into a Bulgarian-like program more aggressively, because deads ARE so good at making you brute-strong.  I’d like to be able to do them more often (they’re fun! Check me out doing 17 reps in 1 minute with 315 pounds at a local strongman show).  But, I’m not in a position to make any conclusions yet.  Stay tuned!

 

Disclaimer! 

The fact is, this is only ONE way to approach training like a weightlifter.  There are plenty of high volume approaches out there (the Russians and Chinese national teams are famous for such craziness).  But, when the volume goes up, something else has to come down, or you are heading toward burn-out street!  These high volume programs tend to keep intensity low to medium – they run like gymnastics programs. 

Gymnasts aren’t doing 1 rep maxes on the pummel horse!  They instead do a ton of attempts all throughout the day (high volume, high frequency).  But, any single attempt isn’t all that taxing. (For them, of course. It would kill most of us!)

I personally have found it easier to manage athletes fatigue with the above lower volume approach (especially when heading into contests).  But, there are plenty of highly successful systems that use lots and lots and lots of volume.  Just keep in mind the idea of balance, and that you can’t have your cake and eat it too.

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