How to Build a Successful Olympic Weightlifting Club: The Beginning Steps

Since I began in this industry nearly 10 years ago, the USA Weightlifting organization has grown greatly, with large increases in the amount of USAW Level 1 and 2 coaches, registered members, and local competitions.

The Olympic weightlifting component of CrossFit and other fitness competitions has illuminated weightlifting as a premiere training system to create more powerful, stronger, and explosive athletes.

When I came into the formal Olympic weightlifting scene back in 2014, I had little actual coaching expertise in the subject. I had always done power cleans, push presses, and variations of squatting and pulling as an athlete in football and baseball, however I did not fully grasp the complexity of the sport until I hit the collegiate strength coaching scene.

After months and even years of training and learning from top strength coaches, athletes, and weightlifting influencers, I was provided the opportunity to establish the first formal weightlifting club at CrossFit Union Square in New York City. My business partner/strength coach and I sat down to develop what we imagined to be the perfect program to help our athletes/members: not only to become more fluent trainees of weightlifting, but also prepare them for the peaks and events the throughout the training year.

I split this series into five sections, each going step by step on how to establish a successful weightlifting club in your gym or community. I was fortunate enough to have a facility to operate out of, and members who were at least curious in our methods to give us a try.

The methods below are the exact steps (in no specific order) I took to develop our club, based on my personal experiences both as an athlete and coach at various colleges, private clubs, and my own business, J2FIT. It is the ultimate, 100% best way? No! Is it the worst? No, at least I hope not. The beauty of this is that every club is different, and learning how to understand the needs of your athletes is critical to your ongoing success.

Determine the Objectives

When we began our barbell club in November 2015, the large majority of our athletes were preparing for the CrossFit Open. We faced a challenge of balancing sound Olympic weightlifting programming and athletes who participate in strenuous and varied WODs daily. The first step when we developed our program was to determine how we can help our athletes become better given their circumstances and individuals training needs.

We set out to put all athletes through a 12-week jumpstart program (2 days/week) to refine their technique, and to help them cycle barbells faster and more efficiently. Additionally, by adding weightlifting volume into their regimens, we were able to build a strong foundation to build upon in the coming months. As we grew, we then were able to mold and shape our club into weightlifters and advancing fitness athletes that understand the importance of weightlifting.

Collaborate with ALL Coaches

A team based approach has been highly valuable to the growth of our club. Support from not only the weightlifting coaches, but also coaches teaching CrossFit classes and movement coaches who understand the integrated approach to optimal fitness will help your athletes understand how all aspects of their training are correlated. Additionally, when collaborating with one another, we were able to properly balance out the training programs and schedules, minimizing conflicts that could have surfaced if we were not on the same page with our exercise programming.

Olympic Lifting Competition

Understanding Periodization

You can split the training year into three main segments:

(1) Preparatory Phase: Usually divided into three sub phases, the objective of this phase is to build an athlete’s general fitness, as well as weightlifting specific foundations. Volume can be increased, strength and hypertrophy work included, with complete specialization not being entirely vital to overall development. Often, we would provide athletes with a GPP training program to do outside of our weightlifting class schedules to maximize their preparedness.

About four weeks after the 2016 CrossFit Open, we began our preparatory cycle for the upcoming Fall/Winter competition season. From April-July, our athletes entered a 16-week program that entailed strength work, weightlifting variations, and overall training volume increases.

(2) Competitive Phase: Within this phase, you would have sub-phases that incorporate competitions and competition periods. During this phase, sport specialization is key, often taking more emphasis from other general programming variables.

With some of our athletes actively competing in October-December in weightlifting events, we entered into our competitive phase in late summer/September. Within the 12-week period, we took three 4-week periods to introduce peaking, wave cycles, and deloads regularly to help athletes who are competing in multiple events.

In addition, many of our athletes compete in the CrossFit Open, some with hopes of Regionals, so preparing a competitor cycle for them that starts 3-4 weeks out of the Open, with programming throughout the 5 weeks of the Open, is critical to their performance and recovery.

(3) Transition Phase: Following the end of cycles, primarily the competitive cycle, athletes are given 3-4 weeks to physiologically and psychologically repair their bodies and minds. Light to moderate intensity training, usually varied across general fitness (swimming, jogging, rowing, lifting, cross training, active recovery, etc) are highly encouraged.

Following the competitive seasons, we encourage our athletes to listen to their bodies, and to have fun. Typically that means more body part splits, hypertrophy, conditioning, and light-moderate weightlifting workouts.

Constructing the Training Session

Most of our training session are 60-70 minutes in length, and the goal is to highlight all of the components necessary to develop an athlete:

We chose to have 7 training blocks per day;

(1) Dynamic Warm-Up

(2) Plyometrics

(3) Skill/Technique Primers

(4) Main Lifts (Snatch, Clean, and Jerk variations)

(5) Strength (Squatting / Pulling)

(6) Accessory and GPP Exercises

(7) Mobility/Recovery

Creating a Standard of Excellence

If you ask many of my colleagues and athletes, they will certainly say I hold high expectations. I am a firm believer that everyone should be held at a higher expectation than they set for themselves. As a coach, it is your job to not only foster and build a trusting and symbiotic environment, but also to progress all individuals within your pack.

I have held myself, my fellow coaches, and my athletes to these simple and straight-forward standards;

(1) I will give me best effort, every day: That doesn’t mean I will lift the heaviest, feel the fastest, or mentally be my best. It does mean, however, I will commit to the process, and be an integral part to my team and my own success.

(2) I will respect the time, hard work, and individual perspectives of my teammates, coaches, and club: My athletes hold me accountable to lead them to more personal records, protect them from injury, and be a part of their training and life. In return, I look to my athletes and club to provide me with minds and bodies willingness to learn, eagerness to help one another, and readiness to train together. Mutual respect for one’s crafts, time commitments, and views allow your club to minimize conflict and wasted energies.

(3) Enjoy the process: Weightlifting is just that, a process. Much like life, we can get too caught up in what could have been, the mistakes we made, and the pain of those failures. Instead, I urge my athletes to give their all, but realize that this weightlifting and fitness journey is so much larger than a barbell. It is about a sense of belonging, attaining goals, and always striving to become better. I urge them and others to find the brightspots in every training session, recognize the shortcomings, and more forward with your training and life.

Refining Your Program

Like anything in life, growth occurs when you reflect upon the successes and failures that you have accomplished and overcome. Recognizing the needs of your club, programming, and athletes is key to on-going success. Whether that means reevaluating training programs after the majority of your athletes fail to get stronger and improve technique, or maybe it is taking a deeper look at yourself as a coach so that you can learn to communicate better with new lifters. Whatever you are doing to this point should always be looked at under an objective eye, so that you can start to determine the trends (both good and bad) that your members and club are demonstrating to you daily.

In Closure

My methods have worked to build a successful weightlifting club at CrossFit Union Square, with attendance averaging 15-20 lifters per class. Our program has been running strong for over 8 months (started in Dec 2015), and we have played an integral role in the overall physical development of our members. The best thing about running a barbell club is seeing the growth in confidence in your new lifters, illustrated back in the Winter of 2016, when we had 50+ new lifters participate in a mock weightlifting meet at our gym. The roar of the crowd, the tension in the room, and the tenacity seen in the new lifters to come up on the platform and hit personal records was something else.

Featured image: J2Fit on Instagram (@j2fit)

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

About the author

Mike Dewar

Mike holds a Masters in Exercise Physiology from Columbia University in NYC, USA. Mike is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), USA Weightlifting Club Coach (USAW2), and Performance Nutrition Coach. Mike is a sponsored ReebokONE Ambassador specializing in weightlifting, barbell and powerlifting training, and sport-specific strength and conditioning. Additionally, Mike is an Assistant Coach of Strength and Conditioning at NYU and the Co-Founder at J2FIT Human Performance in NYC, USA. Mike is the Founder of The Barbell CEO, a lifestyle brand devoted to the strongest coaches, entrepreneurs, and minds. Additionally, Mike is a co-host on The Fittest League Podcast.