Written by Bo Sandoval
Weightlifting is both a competitive international sport as well as a recreational means to train for strength, power, and general athleticism. Weightlifting is an attractive sport to a variety of competitive-natured, adrenaline junkies who are searching for their next mountain to conquer. Meanwhile, weightlifting coaches are constantly introducing interested prospects to the sport and its relentless but necessary training culture. As a coach I must always do a bit of investigating upon meeting my next potential athlete. What is their motive? What is their training/athletics history? How much time are they willing to invest in weightlifting? Knowing some of these details can help me with one of the biggest struggles in weightlifting…retention. Once some or all-relevant questions like these are answered, I can begin developing a plan of instruction and training. Now, one thing to understand is that I do not discriminate when it comes to teaching athletes and enthusiasts how to lift. I believe in the mass spread of the gospel of weightlifting for the greater good. There are some coaches who only work with those who have some noticeable talent or great physical traits. If someone wants to learn how to lift, then you bet I’ll teach him or her. As strength & conditioning professional, I use the competitive lifts and all of their derivatives when appropriate and with appropriate loading & volume prescription in order to enhance performance characteristics specific to an athletes’ sport. This article is aimed at giving the reader a snap shot of how I get the lifting process started when dealing with an athlete eager to compete as a weightlifter. Hopefully this insight will spark some thought as to how you are approaching your next beginner.
The 1st Meeting
Upon introduction, there are a few expectations that I must lay out for the lifter.
The participant must be a current member with United States Weightlifting (USAW) to be eligible to compete in USAW sanctioned meets. Obtaining a membership shows me they are serious enough to get started. Along with this any waivers of liability that I may have need to be filled out.
They must communicate with me effectively and honestly if I am to accurately tailor a program for them. Effective communication will help me with foreseeable program needs. It’s an easy way to get information pertaining to fatigue and mental status. Communication is not an overnight process and should be established during the coaching/athlete relationship building process. During initial meetings other info that is helpful for a coach is a recall of the athletes’ training/sport history. Training age and experience can help a coach prescribe volume and intensity more appropriately, not to mention get a better understanding of the athletes motor control and ability to concentrate.
They must be organized and keep a lifting log. Any tablet or notebook will do. This log is for recording workouts, and for them to give set-by-set, or day-by-day feedback. This log will be a place to record personal records and meet results. “Organized,” means keeping your training area tidy, and keeping legible records in your log with accurate dates and time of day for training sessions. My lifters are known for being organized, sharp, and their training area is always organized and clean.
The last bit of Intel that I like to get out of the lifter includes goals, aspirations, and motives. This kind of info can give me an idea of how competitive and focused they can be. It can also lead me to what pushes them or what may turn them off.
Overall, a better understanding of whom you are dealing with can lead to greater lifter retention. This is a huge benefit to the coach as the longer they stay with it, the better the chance for success. I have some new lifters who have dates in mind already as to when they want to compete, while I have others whom are cross training for something else and targeting more long term results. Its important to program for these two different athletes appropriately for their situation.
Where to begin with Training?
A key term in your vocabulary throughout the development of a weight lifter should be progression. It is important that the lifter progresses in 2 areas throughout the life of their lifting career…technique and strength.
Will be a career long journey. Even if a lifter is fortunate enough to become a high caliber international competitor, their technique will need to be critiqued and appropriately reinforced from time to time. In the beginning I start with a top-down, part-whole approach to teaching technique. The lifts can be broken down in to multiple positions that can be rehearsed and coupled with other segments of the movement and eventually they will morph into the full competition lift. Lifts can be manipulated by their starting position, and/or their receiving position. The lifter can start a lift from the floor, block, or a hang position (meaning the barbell is unsupported other than the lifters hands). Receiving position refers to catching a lift either in a power stance (above a parallel squat), or the bottom of a squat. At first I try to teach with as few positions as possible. With the beginner, we will practice positioning and full lifts throughout 3-5 sessions per week. More advanced lifters will complete as many as 9 sessions per week…yes that means some days they will complete multiple sessions. During these beginner sessions, we will develop positions within the movements, full movements, and assistive strength work with the most important assistive strength work being squats (both front and back). With these beginners I try to limit them to 2-4 exercises per session. This number may increase as they become more “lifter-fit” and I recognize “necessity-lifts” for them to become better. This way I can really keep them focused on a couple of key concepts in one day and get plenty of repetition/rehearsal/practice. They say to master a skill you need 10,000 hours of quality practice…there for I try not to dilute this rehearsal with the over saturation of exercises. At a certain point in a lifters development, variation is going to become very important for refining their movement. Other methods to enhance or manipulate technique are to dictate the tempo of the skill you are training. Tempo can be held to a pause, or sped up to a more rhythmic repeated effort or can fall into the spectrum somewhere in between. There are many tricks of the trade to get a lifter to make an adjustment, and I think they all have their place. It’s just up to the coach to decide when they are appropriate and effective, especially for beginners.
Will be a long-term developmental factor as well. Relative strength is most important for the sport of weightlifting. Meaning how much weight can you lift in comparison to your body weight? Other than super-heavy-weights, a lifters job is to progressively lift heavier weights without increasing their overall mass outside of the scope of their weight class. The coach should assist in selecting an appropriate weight class as well as understand how to strategically/progressively overload an athlete to achieve relative strength increases. For all beginners I believe proper positioning should come first. Can you get into a great position to maximize your strength potential? Before overloading someone with poor movement mechanics, you may need to address deficiencies in ankle, knee, hip, and shoulder mobility/stability. Once biomechanically efficient movement patterns are established, I begin to appropriately overload basic strength exercises such as squats, pulls, and presses, as well as the competitive lifts and their derivatives. There must me a “give and take” since of balance within a block of training to allow athletes to recover from session to session in order to make strength gains, and to also peak them in the right exercises at the right time. This is up to the coach to manipulate and there are dozens of systems (Bulgarian, Russian, etc.) on how to do this, and contrary to popular belief in one instance or another, they have all worked. Its up to the coach to develop their philosophy behind program design and ultimately get it to yield results.
Development by knowing your athlete
Knowing the origins of the athletes’ athleticism can reveal potential strengths, or weakness. It can also help identify potential overuse and or soft tissue injuries related to their competitive history. This info may also point you in the right direction for selecting a competitive weight class. As an example, I’ve had two female national level lifters who began weightlifting within months of each other. Their knowledge of the lifts was little to none. One came from a figure skating/dance background while the other was a state champion gymnast turned collegiate rower. Both lifters displayed incredible mobility, overall body control and unbreakable focus. On the other hand, I’ve had a male national champion who came from a wrestling/judo/American football background who displayed exceptional mobility and strength. Additionally he has an uncanny ability to cut weight and is extremely mentally tough. This kind of understanding is important in the United States as most of the weightlifting talent comes from other sporting backgrounds. Occasionally coaches are able to get themselves in a position to create a pipeline of youth lifters in which they truly get to start from scratch. Either way, knowing your lifter and where they come from can unveil strengths to exploit and weaknesses to conquer.
Everyone has a process to starting beginner weightlifters, whether it is subconscious or deliberate.
In the end, coach with passion, develop a plan, evaluate that plan often, and if you get one more lifter to get on the platform…you’ve done a great thing for the sport of weightlifting.