3 Phases of Building Successful Weightlifting Athletes

In the last article I did for BarBend, I mentioned I am a bit of a science geek. And in my tenure as a coach, I’ve read a few books that I would highly recommend to any coach. The most impactful on my program writing for weightlifting, in no particular order are the following:

  • The Science and Practice of Strength and Conditioning
  • Transfer of Training in Sports
  • Principles of Block Periodization 1
  • Principles of Block Periodization 2

And for a healthy measure, I would also suggest reading the old Russian manuals that are floating around out there, as their research was more retrospective.

With this as the foundation for all of our programs at Lift Lab Co., we have developed what we feel to be the best methodologies for training athletes. We have simplified the phases for our athletes and have chosen to stick with the time tested principles with excellent results.

Basic physiology gets you pretty far as a coach, so this is where I suggest you read the Science and Principles of Strength and Conditioning. If you understand the simple principles of how adaptation occurs, programming for your athletes becomes easier. It is no coincidence that the more experienced you get as a coach, then the simpler your programs become, because you truly understand what is moving the athlete forward, or dragging them back.

Phase 1 – General Physical Preparation

General Physical Preparation, or GPP, as it is commonly referred to, is the first phase of training for any athlete. To simplify this, think about your athlete. What are the broad characteristics you want to develop? This phase of lifting can last for multiple sequences (blocks) for months on end, and could even last in some form for multiple years depending on when the athlete starts training and the nature of the goals.

For example, an eight year old weightlifter probably doesn’t need to move out of this phase for at least four years. Once they move to the other phases, then they will probably return to the GPP phase quicker. Where as, a world level competitive weightlifter will probably spend more time in phases two and three and only return to phase one for short training cycles. We’ll discuss more on this in a bit.

What does GPP training look like?

For weightlifters, you probably want them to be really strong, powerful, “explosive”, mobile, and stable. You may want to break those characteristics down even further into more measurable outcomes. For example, you may want them to have a really strong back measure by snatch deadlift, and big powerful gluteus measured by back squat as well as a 38 inch vertical jump, along with 180 degrees of shoulder flexion.

The training block or blocks will have exercises that are designed to develop those characteristics and for this reason the first phase of training is arguably the most important for setting the stage for a successful weightlifter.

During this time, you will see athletes do a variety of training exercises, and of course there will be an aspect directed towards the technical development of the lifter. For Lift Lab, this program has a lot of jumping, dead pulling, squatting, and bodybuilding type of work. Depending on where the athlete is, you will choose how long to carry out each sequence and the amount of variety you would like to include. My advice as an experienced coach, take this phase of training for a longer period than you initially think. This builds the quality of foundation for your athlete.

“You want a foundation of granite, not sand.”

Phase 2 – Special Physical Preparation

Special Physical Preparation is the second phase of training. It’s the phase where we really like to think about the transfer from training into sport. Personally, this is my favorite stage because it calls for the art of coaching. You have to have a keen eye to select your special exercises to move the athlete forward, and this opens the opportunity for you to be creative in terms of how you elicit a training response. As the athlete becomes more and more advanced, then the options for improvement begin to shrink. What works in the early days of the athlete’s training may not work, as they have since adapted to multiple stimuli.

For Phase two, I strongly encourage the reading of Transfer of Training in Sports by Dr. Anatoliy Bondarchuck. Be forewarned that he has many blocks, or sequences, so this is where I simplified my approach. I am not saying you can’t follow his programs more stringently but for reasons beyond this article I chose to peel it back a bit.

Phase two is where we begin to introduce the concept of “special exercise selection”. The special exercises will closely mimic the competition exercises, but will not be full competition exercises. In this phase, we are trying to overload certain positions of the classical movements to facilitate the greatest change in the athlete, which are measured by how well they perform in the competition lifts.

For some this is a scary concept. This is because you are essentially waiting for a minimum of eight weeks to reevaluate the success of your coaching and it can be somewhat like a guessing game. But then again, isn’t all programming somewhat of a guessing game? Do we always know what it takes to make the athlete add to their total? Obviously not, and this is why we see even elite athletes bomb out of meets. Sports are complex.

What does Phase 2 training look like?

At Lift Lab Co., we use a lot of block and hang pause variations, as well as wave methods, especially if conditioning is a weakness for an athlete. The clearest example of a special exercise would be the behind the neck jerk from the blocks. This exercise closely mimics the competition lift of the jerk, but because it is taken from the blocks, which saves the athlete from fatigue, and because it is done from behind the neck it’s pretty much inline for the final receiving positions.

For these reasons, the athlete should be able to jerk a heavier load for more reps when doing this exercise. Ideally, this would give the athlete greater strength in the receiving position, as well as greater confidence in a limit lift for the clean and jerk.

Additionally, position work from the low hang would be an example of a special exercise for someone who lacks the trunk strength to properly maintain position and finish the lift. In this scenario, they may take snatch or clean reps from a low hang position, then immediately following that, take pulls from the same position with additional weight. Again, this promotes overloading a position determined to be a limiting factor in the athlete’s success.

It is important to note that when we use special exercises we are coupling them in groups of three. There is always a classical lift portion assigned at the end of the training week that is at a lighter percentage to help them to realize the positional strength they have gained. This also helps them improve on their technique as they move to their final phase before competition.

Phase 3 – Performance Preparation

This phase is all about peaking an athlete for a competition.

“Everyone wants PRs, but we want our PR on the platform on meet day.”

Planning for this phase in terms of exercise selection is really easy. We want to focus solely on the competition lifts and a few basic strength lifts to maintain the strength an athlete has gained. In some instances, the athlete will also make gains in squat and pull strength as the total volume of training drops for this final phase. The biggest issue in Phase 3 will be managing fatigue.

In this phase, we are almost only doing competition lifts at various intensities. For example, most of our competitive lifters train six times a week or more. They will rotate through their sessions with a medium-light-heavy approach to the classical lifts, and all other training subsides. The athletes still perform a normal warm-up for these lifts, but the focus is on lifting consistency, and more importantly, lifting heavy weights consistently.

The volume and intensity for your medium, light, and heavy days are going to be based on your athlete’s level of conditioning and total volume of training. Typically, lighter weight athletes handle more volume at the given intensity. As a general rule at Lift Lab Co., 90+ percent is heavy, 80ish percent is medium, 70 percent and below is light. As the intensity (percentage lifted) goes up, then the volume conversely goes down. For example, on your heavy day you may only do 10 reps, but on your light day you may do 30. Again, this is all dependent on the athlete.

A note of consideration, in this phase I like to tell the athletes to add any additional accessory work that they feel helps them perform well, but with the expressed condition that they not accumulate extra fatigue.

As a coach, you need to keep an eye on how athletes are responding to the high intensity training, and you have to adjust as needed. This means they may take an extra light day in lieu of the moderate work, or even add in more recovery. Please note, this final block of preparation will also include a taper as you approach the competition.

In Conclusion

If done well, then following the three phases laid out for you should be able to set your athletes up for success. Planning and preparation is the name of the game for the coach, as the old adage saying states: “failing to plan is planning to fail”.

I️ strongly suggest you read the books suggested above and take the time to diligently think through how you are planning your cycles for your athletes. In the meantime, follow this guide until you develop your own style.

Editors note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

Feature image from @lift_lab Instagram page.