Today’s my Birthday, I just turned 33. And as we are all wont to do, it got me thinkin’ on things. In my case, those things that are related to lifting and coaching. (I really could have split this into two parts, easily … but what the hell!)
One of the best things about our sport of weightlifting is that it is a relative sport. It has sex, weight, AND age classes so that you only compete against people who are basically just like you. While the super heavy men in the open weight class will always lift the most absolute amount of weight, what matters is how much you lift relative to those who have the same 3 characteristics that you do: same weight, same sex, and same age.
This system works great for everyone, except for one small group. I call this group the “pre-masters” class. If you’re someone who didn’t start Olympic weightlifting until your late 20’s or early 30’s, and you aren’t already massively strong and explosive, then you are in a no-mans land as far as the sport is concerned. Below you are those who started when they were in their teens or early twenties and got a good chunk of training years while their hormones were still at their peak. Above you are folks who started in their mid thirties and are already in the first maters age group, the 35 to 39 year olds.
There are 5 of us here at PDX Weightlifting who are in the Pre-Masters class: Me, Chris, Beth, Peter, and Arron.
All four of us guys are lifting right around the same weights, give or take. Beth, as the lone female in this group, is actually one of the better lifters of all of us (great technique, tenacity, and is very explosive). If she stays with it, I have no doubt that when she hits the 35 age class, she’ll be world class.
As of now, however, we’re all still technically in the Open class. That means that among people who have the same training age (the amount of years you’ve been Olympic lifting specifically), we’re up against kids who are a decade or more younger than we are! And the folks that are our age are way beyond us because they began as teenagers and had a good chunk of years lifting while on the God’s all-natural steroid: youth.
In most of the classes, within about a year or two of training, you can head off to a big national meet. If your 19, you can do Jr. Nationals (My lifter Brandon qualified for Jr. Nationals after only 4 months of training!). If you’re in the open class, but you’re young, then you can make amazingly fast progress and be there in 2 to 5 years. And if you’re a Master, then you’re set, because there are NO qualifiers for the Nationals.
But, if your a pre-masters lifter, your rate of progress is going to be about HALF of what it would be for your decade younger competitors. But, you still have the same totals to qualify for, meaning it will take you twice as long to get to the same place.
Don’t fret, however, if this is you!
There is still some relativity to be relied on! It may take you a good 4 or 5 years (or more) to hit the qualifying total for Open Nationals, and if you go, you’ll get your butt kicked by much younger lifters, you’ll have also AGED 4 or 5 years in the process, making you close to, or at, the 35 year Masters mark. If you are strong enough to qualify for open nationals as a 35 year old lifter, then you’ll be in the top 5 to 10 strongest people in your age class in the country!
My friend Mike Cook is a good example of this. He is in the 40-44 age class, and totals enough in the 62k class to qualify for some big national meets in the Open Class. Sure, the kids whip him good, but he WON Masters Nationals last year.
Most people just don’t have what it takes to stick with hard training after the age of 30. They start to wimp out, and make excuses, and cry about what they “used” to be able to do … that’s a waste of air. You can do amazing things if you work hard and are consistent.
Case in point – My Bulgarian Experiment (a la John Broz)
Brandon Tovey is a promising young 69k (19 year old) lifter of mine. He’s very hard working and is determined to be the best. At 19, he’s got a work ethic that you just don’t see often. He’s the kind of kid who makes me look good as a coach without me even trying.
10 weeks ago, we decided it was time for him to start really ramping up his training to a higher level Bulgarian model. But, the problem was that most of my lifters can’t realistically be in the gym 7 days a week maxing out all the time! They have jobs, school, a life, etc.
But, Brandon couldn’t do it on his own. He had to have a training partner to keep him motivated and training at his fullest. He’d been training with Peter most of the time up until then, which was going great, but Peter is finishing up his graduate work to be a Dietician, so he’s one busy busy dude right now.
That left me. I was the only person who was going to be in the gym at every session of his anyway. So, I sucked it up, and I started training right along side him, set for set, lift for lift to keep him motivated.
We maxed on the full lifts and squats on Monday/Wednesday/Friday, and maxed on the Power versions and front squats on Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday, then maxed on squats on Sunday.
No days off for 8 weeks!
During this period we started doing back off sets on the M/W/F workouts dropping down to 80% and doing doubles or triples and trying to slowly work back up in weight. We’d do that on all three lifts. We also ended up doing full lifts on 2 of the original power days sometimes going heavier than we were able to the day before. Lot’s of lifting, all the time. Finally, we tapered down for 2 weeks leading into the contest that we had this last Saturday.
Results? I made PR’s in every single one of the 6 major lifts (snatch, clean and jerk, power snatch, power clean, front squats, and back squats), and I hit that PR snatch in the contest which gave me a new PR total! (Actually, when I weighed 15 pounds heavier ,my squats were a bit higher – not much. But, now that I’m back down at 85k, I’m stronger than I was at 94k on the Oly lifts. Give me a few months and the squats will be back there too!) Brandon’s results were even better, given his youth.
Conventional wisdom states that a 33 year old just can’t possibly keep up with a kid who is 14 years younger than he is. And while it was harder for me, and I had to be more diligent about diet, foam rolling, sleep, stretching, etc. The fact is, I did it! And I’m still doing it right now.
We’re about to start doing twice a day training on two days, then work up to more by March. I LOVE training like this. It is hard as living hell sometimes. But, it is the most fun I’ve had in a long time! For a gym-rat like me who likes to lift heavy, this is heaven.
Now … let’s be clear. I’ve done twice a day training before, and I’ve done a lot of Bulgarian influenced training as well. But, I was always more timid about it. Three days truly heavy in a classic Bulgarian fashion (work up to a heavy single, then do back off sets), and then all of the other workouts during the week were “light” or “technique” days, where you do the power versions up to about 80% of what you did the day before and maybe some light front squats.
In other words, I’d gotten up to a certain level of progression toward a “Full” Bulgarian-esque program, but never pushed it any farther. Why? Well, some of it is simply logistic. I’ve spent the last 7 years working on my undergrad degree in Math and then my Masters. So, I was busy. Often, 3 days a week was all I could swing. But, the other part was the natural defeatist attitude that you can acquire as you get older. There’s a tendency to believe that because something is hard, it is impossible. Not true.
I don’t advise anyone to go with this level of frequency unless:
You can, and will, make amazing strides lifting only 3 days a week. And I do believe that a 3-day per week Bulgarian inspired program is great stuff, even ideal for some. Especially for Masters lifters who have a life!
But, it’s important to realize that it is possible to train like a maniac and survive! I feel like I can be an example to all the other average joe/jane lifters out there. Most of the limits you believe exist are all in your head.
I’ll keep you updated on the Bulgarian Shenagans that Brandon and I are up to as we keep progressing forward. I have a goal of hitting a 250 total by the time I’m 35, and then to break the 85k/35y-age-class American snatch record of 131k sometime before I turn 40. I think I can do it. But, it’s gonna take a bunch of hard training to get there. I’ll have to add 40k to my snatch in the next 5 years. But, I’ve done that already (I really did do about 50k in my first contest … at that time, a 90k snatch seemed an impossibility).
Little by little you improve, and if you stick with it, you’re patient, and you work your tail off, you can do amazing things.
Here are a few things I’ve learned over the last 5 years. I’ll do this part in a list format, ‘cause who doesn’t like lists?
1. The devil is in the details.
When I started, I wasn’t finicky enough about the stuff that mattered most. Part of the reason for that is because I didn’t KNOW what mattered most! The other part was because it’s not my natural personality to be a “nag” about every little thing: I’m not a micro-manager. But … sometimes you need to micro-manage.
There are some key things that have to be dealt with early, or they will plague a lifter for years to come (I know, it happened to me!). Fix the big problems right from the get go, and it makes your future life a lot easier.
2. Don’t over-coach.
This one is the converse of the above.
Some athletes need you to tell them every little thing in every moment, to call all their weights, and to basically do all the thinking for them. But, I find that to be rare – especially for older lifters!
Most athletes do better if they are able to be their own “assistant” coach. Once we’ve gotten past the initial few-month technique learning phase I don’t harp on them on every lift. I only make suggestions here and there where it seems like they need it. The reason is that at this point, they KNOW where they fucked up, and me jumping on their backs isn’t going to help the situation. What they need is encouragement to keep trying until they fix what they are trying to fix.
When it appears there’s a problem that keeps happening, that isn’t being fixed, then I step in since in those cases they don’t know what the problem is. And, of course, if they ask me what I think, I tell them. But, if they usually do something right, but for some reason today they do it wrong, there is no reason to tell them about it … they know. I work hard to create smart lifters, not drones.
3. One thing at a time.
The Olympic lifts are hard … too hard. And for each problem you are fixing, you are sometimes creating another. What is imperative in the learning process is a systematic approach to learning and error correction that focuses on only ONE thing at a time. The lifter likely has many things wrong going on, but a coach has to be able to know which one (and only one!) of those to attack first.
A sure sign of someone who doesn’t really understand coaching is someone who just blurts out, every five seconds, the problems with someone’s lifting.
“This is wrong, and that is wrong, and you should really fix that …”
That doesn’t help anybody. You have to hone in on the one thing that is causing the worst problems and fix that … even if, in the short term, it exacerbates one of the lesser problems. You’ll get to that next. Knowing which problem is the one that needs the most attention is something that you can only learn by coaching lots of different people over time.
4. Humble thyself.
This is a BIG one.
Nobody knows everything – especially not me. I live by the principle, “The more I learn, the dumber I get.” Which is a funnier way of describing the Zen principle of “Beginners Mind.” (I think it was Oscar Wilde who said, “I’m not young enough to know everything.”) You should always approach the things you do as though you are still a beginner and have a long way still to go. No one is ever truly an expert.
Every year, I feel like I’m starting from scratch. I bring with me what I think worked before, but I try to check my pride at the door. This is going to be a big year for me and my club. We’re finally at the point where we’re moving into our own facility (rather than working out of the commercial gym we’ve been at for a long long time). This is uncharted territory for me, and so I’m trying to devour as much info as I can from those who know more than I do.
I think where people get themselves into trouble is when they start believing they have all the answers, and aren’t able to simply ask questions for fear of no longer appearing to be the expert, or for fear that they’ll look dumb.
It’s no secret that I’m a big admirer of a lot of big-name Oly coaches around the country. Guys like Glenn Pendlay, Tom Hirtz, Bob Takano, Sean Waxman, John Broz, Mike Hartman, Steve Gough, Don McCauley, Jim Smitz, Tommy Kono, Mike Burgener, and many others who have far more years of experience than I do. I have a long way to go before I’ll reach that level.
There are many different approaches and most of the guys on that list will disagree on A LOT of things, but it is telling to learn what they DO agree on. Even if you find that, over time, you want to do things differently than one of your idols does, it is very helpful to know what they were doing and why because it will improve your own approach.
A great example is that when I first started my club 5 years ago, I was supported a lot by Tom Hirtz. He went out of his way to help me and answer all my questions and make sure that I got off doing things the right way. Over the years, he’s never ceased to be there when I or one of my lifters needed help. And I can honestly say that I’m not sure there would be a PDX Weightlifting if he wasn’t there in the beginning. I will be forever grateful.
But, over that time, I’ve developed a coaching style that is almost the polar opposite of Tom’s! Not in the fundamentals, mind you, but in some of the more obvious details. He’s a very aggressive drill-sergeant-like man, who is detail oriented and hard-driving. The people who respond well to his style do VERY well (Sarah Bertram and Jessica Gee are classic examples).
I, on the other hand, am like a court jester! I’m light hearted, goofy, and try to be rather hands off. My lifters have more freedom under my system than his do. When I started, I basically tried to emulate Tom. But, I found that it just didn’t suit my personality very well.
5. Be Yourself.
No matter what, you got to be yourself. At first it’s easy to try and adopt what someone else is doing outright. At first, this is a good strategy since you don’t know what the hell you are doing! But, over time you’ll be best off if you can develop your own style and approach to coaching. You are who you are. Play up your strengths, and try to improve on your weaknesses. It doesn’t do your lifters any good if you are trying to be someone you aren’t.
Athletes will gravitate eventually to coaches who’s styles fit their needs. Some people need a drill sergeant, some need a friend. Be who you are, and the right athletes will find you.
6. Hard work trumps everything else.
Ever wondered why CrossFit has such a good track record for getting people into shape? Because while they do a lot of things wrong, they do one thing very very right: They work their butts OFF. There is no denying that the CrossFit community is a group of hard training mo-fo’s.
Sometimes it’s easy to get bogged down in the technical side of coaching (technique, programming, diet, etc). But, fundamentally, if you can inspire your athletes to kick their own asses in the gym and to do so consistently, they will improve no matter what else is going on.
7. Make it fun.
One of my biggest goals is to dramatically increase the participation rate in our sport among recreational athletes in this country. At the grass-roots level, that means my own club. Nothing keeps people coming back through the door than the knowledge that when they do it’s gonna be fun. Fun is the most important thing. We work hard, we stay consistent, but in my opinion, you can’t do those things if you are miserable. In my club, we are constantly laughing and joking around. It’s a big part of the atmosphere. Everyone is encouraging of everyone else. And we have a strong family-like vibe. It is my job to see that it stays that way.
OK, that’s enough musing for one Birthday! On to another year of lifting shit above my head!