Basics of weightlifting programming
12 min read
November 27, 2022
Weightlifting programming for dummies, a guide.. written by dummies. Today, we're looking at the basics of weightlifting programming, structuring training programs for Olympic weightlifting, or just helping you understand how they work.
Programming 101: Basics of weightlifting programming
Or, How To Build A Weightlifting Program For Dummies
Today, we're looking at the basics of weightlifting programming, structuring training programs for Olympic weightlifting, or just helping you understand how they work. This can help you develop as a coach, or simply explain what you're up to on a given block.
Here's a quick summary of what you're in for:
- Principles for designing basic weight training programs
- The types of training blocks: micro, meso, macro, and more
- How to periodise?
- Common questions around weight training programs, weightlifting needs, and more.
Disclaimer: this article is a discussion of the absolute basics. You can find the super in-depth stuff through our other resources, or through popular resources like Olympic weightlifting by Greg Everrett, or Weightlifting Programming by Bob Takano.
Basics Of Programming - Weight Training General Principles
Stress-Adaptation - How And Why We Get Stronger
Your body is a machine that turns stress and nutrients into strength and muscle. It's a system that uses stress to signal for the next adaptation - and that's at the base of programming.
The idea is to use select, deliberate, planned stimuli to increase muscle mass, progress strength training, and provide the backdrop for technical performance. The snatch and clean and jerk are technical movements, but the challenge is lifting more weight than the other competitors.
This is a great segue to our next principle...
Goal Balance: Technique Training and Physical Adaptations
Weighltifting training programs have to balance the direct stress of strength training and the demanding speed and power movements of the "classic lifts" (snatch, clean, and jerk).
For example, you want to squat as much weight as humanly possible. The limitation is that you're going to be using the same muscle groups - the legs and hips - to lift your heavy weights in the clean.
There's an opportunity cost to training: whatever effort and time you spend strength training, you're not putting towards technique training. Finding the appropriate time, exercises, and loading for the moment is essential to good programming.
Types Of Adaptations: Muscle Mass, Strength Training, and Technique Training
You get good at the things you train for. Specificity refers to the fact that any program has to use exercise variety and intensity that are relevant to the goal. You're not going to snatch more just benching more weight.
The goal of training is to direct effort towards proper exercise selection and sequence, with the right loads at the right time, to produce a specific result. That is the result of a coach's long-term knowledge and experience.
This is to say that you're going to see a lot of the same things in weightlifting programs because they're the best way to build strength and muscle, and then apply that muscle mass to the classic lifts:
- Squats - back squat and front squat, maybe even overhead squat
- Pulls - snatch and clean pulls, deadlifts, Romanian deadlifts, and other variations
- Presses - overhead press and bench press, as well as varations on both
- Rows, pull ups, and other back exercises for muscle mass and postural strength training
- Core exercises like sit ups, crunches, planks, rotation exercises, and back extensions
- Accessory exercises - like face pulls, curls, tricep extensions, and more
- Power exercise variety - from sled pushes to box jumps to bounding (if you're unlucky)
This is obviously not an exhaustive list. The key thing to remember about exercise variety is that more isn't better, but you're aalways able to use any exercise that makes the lifter (you or someone else) better.
Overload; Developing Over Time
Overload refers to any period where you're doing more than you've done before. It's a period of over-reaching, where you're going to push yourself further to promote more growth and improve on your best results.
Overload is easy to start with, and becomes considerably harder for every year you spend weight training. A beginner can improve their best 5-rep max back squat every session, but the 15-year Olympic weightlifter might need a 3-6-month block to see the same additional weight.
This is an overload event - and the timeline changes based on a lot of factors. Strength training compound exercises like the squat and press can be overloaded more easily and more often, unlike stubborn power movements - like the snatch and clean and jerk.
Shorter overload events are basically improving faster. This is harder as you get more experience. However, there are other factors that can speed up or slow down overload events:
- Quality and quantity of sleep
- Diet - particularly calorie and protein intake
- Regular low-intensity "active recovery" movement
- Lower overall stress levels
- Better technique - i.e. coordination in compound exercises
So a program needs to consider each of these considerations and the relevant "recoverability" of the individual athlete. That's going to be a theme: everything is based around the individual, not just how you'd like to run a program. Coaching isn't about you.
Rest Periods, Recovery, and Cumulative Fatigue
There's a hard limit to what a human can recover from and the long-term positive vs negative implications of training programs. Rest periods, rest days, and training sessions per week are major factors in how well you can recover and progress.
The athletes that make the best progress are those who can strike a good balance between days on and days off.
Good coaches know that most people need more/better rest, not just more weight. Rest periods - between individual exercises and complete time off - are worth their weight in gold. The best athletes are those who have trained for decades at a time - and that's hard when you've got a career-ending injury, or just hate the high volume training sessions back to back.
Giving rest the right priority positioning is key to writing great programs for Olympic weightlifters.
Time-Bound Training Programs
Consider how much time you have for each thing. You need to focus on the proper application of an athletes' time since it's one of the main commodities that is in short supply. You can always do more reps, and more weeks, but you may need to get peaked for a competition.
This is key; what are you training for. Programs - as a series of training sessions - should be built around a reasonable, concrete goal. For most lifters, this is an Olympic weightlifting competition - which provides a clear sense of what you need to get good at.
We'll be discussing the programs in this context. Every weightlifting program should end with some sort of reasonably-heavy weights, even if there's no competition on the books.
Principles Of Program Design for Olympic Weightlifting
Here's the basic stuff:
Simplicity to complexity
You start with simple weight training, and then you become increasingly specific to Olympic lifting as you go. In a typical training program, you're going to spend those first few weeks, at least, rebuilding technique and focusing on general strength training.
This is because the adaptations of strength training are slow to build and slow to lose. You're going to keep that strength with less effort than it took to build it.
Conversely, technique relies on strength training but can easily be built later on. The goal early on is to get stronger and drill technical errors that you saw in the last program or competition, but didn't have time to fix.
Generality to specificity
You want to start with weight training, as mentioned above, but the goal is to build muscle and then apply it to increasingly snatch-, clean-, and jerk-specific postural exercises.
Here's a quick example:
- You start with weight training, classic compound exercises like deadlift, back squat, and overhead press.
- Then, you apply them to a new set of exercises: snatch deadlift, front squat, and push press.
- Finally, you incorporate these with more of the classic lifts: snatch pulls and snatches, clean + front squat + jerk, and heavy weights on the jerk from block or rack.
This is a bit of an artificial and oversimplified example, but it's an important journey. You use strength training to empower your later, demanding positions.
If you can't move properly through a slow snatch pull, how are you expecting to move through a good snatch at full speed?
This is where we refer to Greg Everett's timeless sequence of training priorities - great for any training program: strength, position, speed, weight.
Volume to intensity
You typically want to go from more reps to more weight. To some extent, you can increase one, the other, or both. The problem is that overall training volume is the main thing that limits your recovery and gets your athletes fatigued.
This is why we emphasised recovery before.
The athlete needs to work from many lighter reps towards fewer reps near maximal weight. This is a little more nuanced than in general strength training because weightlifting movements are not pure strength training - they include things like speed and technique.
This means you can do a little more around the 80% range, but you'll have a lot of other "plates to spin" while you're doing it. You want to generally trend upwards with weight and down with volume - but that won't always happen. It's like waves:
Changes in intensity and volume are going to be key, and they typically take this pattern of increasing one or the other. You don't need to hit a one rep max every week, especially early on in the program.
We want to build strength and muscle mass, not just push it to the limit every time. Remember the distinction between getting stronger and showing off how strong you are. Important.
Slow to fast
Typically, your overall training volume is going to be made up of slow compound exercises in the early days of a program. You'll train and develop speed and power over the course of a training program so that you're at your most powerful when you need it - in competition.
You can see that in some of the 'specificity' changes mentioned above. Overhead press becomes push press. Snatch deadlifts become snatch pulls, with more ballistic effort at the top of the movement.
However, most athletes want to stay strong and powerful the entire time they train. This is often going to mean less demanding power work early on: low loading, high velocity stuff like box jumps.
Crucially, you're going to want to think of this as a sliding scale from top priority to bottom priority. Speed develops on a foundation of strength, and far faster, so it's an important thing to build through the course of a full training program - and not just blast from day one.
From parts to a coherent whole
This is my favourite way of thinking about programming and number one priority when I build a program for Olympic weightlifting.
A lifter progresses from compartmentalised change to a coherent whole. For example, we want to step back from the complete movement into a specific area where they're weak, and then we're going to integrate that as we start to move back towards the full movement.
Here's an example:
You've got a weak first pull. Your snatch falls apart because you're looping around the knees, and it caused you to miss your opener on the last competition, and almost gave you a heart attack. So how do we program for this kind of technique training?
We isolate the problem: the first pull in the snatch. We use partials and pulls to emphasise the right positions, and build better technique in this bottom-half section of the pull. Maybe we use deficit pulls, paused snatch pulls, and "floating" snatch deadlifts initially.
Then we start building this new strength and positional awareness into the coherent whole. After 3-4 weeks of this focus, we might practice paused snatches or low hang snatches, focusing on discipline from the floor.
As we start getting closer to competition, our main snatch variations are more specific but still cue discipline from the floor: deficit snatches, deadlift+snatch, and pull+snatch variations.
We can use this kind of compartmentalised training to isolate weaknesses and improve them (note: this is obviously not the same as isolation exercises from general weight training, but we do love those, too).
This is how we tackle a weightlifter's weaknesses and ensure a lifter progresses at the best possible rate.
How Should You Periodise For Olympic Weightlifting?
If you look back at the program example above, you'll see that it breaks down into microcycles, mesocycles, and macrocycles. What are these? They're important weightlifting jargon, so it's best to get into them now:
Microcycles: small units of a few training sessions - typically 7-10 days in length.
Mesocycles: the mid-term blocks that typically have directed focus (e.g. pulling strength block)
Macrocycle: the largest block that is currently in-plan, which is typically 6-16 weeks.
With this structure, a coach can plan for a year, up to 4 years, to get the best from an athlete's training program. You'll typically find that the longer macrocycles are used in athletes with Olympic cycles to keep in mind, and the qualification cycle that makes them possible.
Beginner athletes typically don't need a complex program, and these categories are typically used in intermediate athletes and beyond. As a lifter matures and develops - and has proper technique - they become more important as physiological limitations like strength and power become more important (since they approach strength training genetic limitations).
Weightlifting Training Programs: Frequently Asked Questions
Should I Ask a Personal Trainer for a Program?
Absolutely not - personal trainer certifications have nothing to do with Olympic weightlifting.
Ask any good personal trainer and you'll learn that the industry is full of cowboys and - like driving - you get good after you get licensed. Personal trainers are not a repository of Olympic weightlifting wisdom - they're rarely even passable with conventional weight training.
Ask a weightlifting coach for weightlifting training programs.
This is a specialist, niche sport that you're not going to learn properly from a CrossFit coach or personal trainer. You have to seek out and engage with real experts if you want to get the best results.
Can You Use A Muscle Group Split in Weightlifting?
It's not impossible to use a muscle group or body part split in weightlifting. It's just less than optimal for most athletes most of the time. Weightlifting likes full-body sessions since the neuromuscular fatigue of high power movements isn't the same as local muscular fatigue from bodybulding for example.
You can use muscle group splits in the early stages of a program, for example, to organise your isolation exercises and bodybuilding work. I like to use a simple push and pull split for accessory exercises like presses, rows, and pull ups.
This kind of organisation is a great way to give each exercise appropriate focus and prioritise the low level weight training that will build muscle mass and support your future performance.
Can you Build Muscle Mass With Weightlifting?
Weightlifting will not cause serious muscle growth compared to lighter weight training for more reps.
The muscular endurance training of bodybuilding is missing, and most weight lifting produces muscle mass in the legs, hips, and back - but not more visible muscle groups like the shoulders and chest.
A normal weight training program is typically better for building these muscle groups - due to slower resistance training, more focus on muscle endurance, and higher overall training volume at lower speeds. Muscle mass depends on this kind of weight training program for the best size gains.
Which Major Muscle Groups Does Weightlifting Train?
Weightlifting won't seriously build muscle size by itself. It trains the legs, hips, and back muscles through back squats and pulls. It has some isometric training for the shoulders, triceps, and upper back, too.
The strength training and accessory exercises are the main way you’ll build muscle. These typically occur early in the training program. Strength training is a huge part of the “off season” at the start of a 10-16-week Olympic weightlifting training program.
Resistance training like this should combine compound exercises (like pull ups) and isolation exercises like tricep extensions and curls. Because big arms are fun.
Strength training workouts are a part of the sport. While you may not get direct benefits from things like a dumbbell bench press, you will find that additional tricep and shoulder strength carries over to full body training and the more-specific exercises like push press and power jerks.
Basically, muscle gain serves weightlifting but you won’t build muscle rapidly on a weightlifting program. Except massive quads.
What Training Frequency Is Best For Strength Gains?
The beginner should train 3 times per week. Intermediates should train 4-5 times per week. Advanced athletes will train 5+ times per week, but this may change depending on the training programs' focus.
We've already discussed training frequency before, but the simple idea is this:
For strength gains, train less often (3 times per week is ideal for most people)
For technique training, train more often. Advanced athletes will train 5-10 times per week.
Weight training frequency can vary a lot and still produce great results. For muscle growth and strength gains, the focus is simply on effective rest periods and only using enough overall training volume to produce strength and muscle.
The priority is recoverable overall training volume and training frequency. The specific number doesn't matter - your body doesn't have a strength training "counter" for muscle growth or strength gains.
Also, remember that you're going to change dynamically. What causes strength gains now isn't going to be enough in future - and what causes fatigue now will not be a huge stress eventually as you become an advanced athlete.
Weight training places a demand on the body, and you need to balance this out with high-quality recovery. Food, sleep, rest days, and other tonics which help you cycle from one training session to the next.
What's The Difference Between Weight Training and Weightlifting
Weightlifting is a sport, weight training is a form of resistance training that uses external weight as resistance.
Weightlifters can be found with serious leg muscle growth and baby pecs because they don't bench press enough weight. They'll also be found in the squat rack using sets of 5, or hitting another one rep max clean and jerk.
Advanced lifters are a bit smarter, but we know a lot of people who don't fall into that category.
Do Olympic Lifters Bench Press?
Yes - most Olympic lifters will bench press and perform other non-specific strength training at least once per week. Some advanced athletes, like Artem Okulov, can bench press significant weight (180kg at a bodyweight of 85kg) despite not prioritising the bench press in training.
A weightlifter's training program may include all kinds of muscle endurance and muscle mass exercises. The goal is a mixture of general strength, balanc in the body, and extra upper body strength.
You may find that some weightlifters are capable of the same weight as their powerlifting counterparts in exercises like the back squat, overhead press, and even some pulls.
What Are The Best Muscle Groups To Use Isolation Exercises For, In Weightlifting?
The muscle groups that are most neglected are the pushing and pulling muscles of the upper body. This means the shoulders, triceps, upper back, and the scapular muscle group.
These muscle groups are not directly trained with the Olympic lifts, but are used to stabilise the bar and prevent injury in long-term training program design. They should be represented as a form of restorative and protective strength training using lighter weight, higher rep schemes, and lower training frequency.
You can use this kind of low intensity, muscle endurance strength training a few times per week to maintain body composition and prevent weaknesses developing.
Do Weightlifters Do Strength Training?
Yes - strength training is an integral part of the sport, as key muscle groups like the legs, hips, back, and shoulders all have significant work to do. This also requires anti-injury training with neglected muscle groups, like the calves, core, and rear delts.
Lighter weight strength training is "maintenance" compared to the big compound exercises with heavy weights. During the off season, this may go even further to muscle mass, muscle endurance, and conditioning.
Typically, however, Weightlifting uses lower reps than other types of strength training and has more focus on power exercise. You can't just rely on strength training - you need to be strong and fast.
Example Weightlifting Training Program
So, how do we put it all together? Get ready for some pretty pictures, because we're going to quickly sketch out a step-by-step weightlifting training program to see the work in action.
Let's build a pretend athlete, first, so we can be specific with our adaptations and plans.
Joe Mama is a 96kg intermediate weightlifter, lifting 100kg in the snatch and 132kg in the clean and jerk. He's got 3 years of experience, with a history in low-level rugby, so there's a lot of athleticism without much "polish". In his last competition, he missed lifts:
Snatch: poor turnover and inconsistent placement overhead
Clean and Jerk: pushes the bar forward in the clean, leading to a difficult jerk, left out front despite plenty of height
Familiar? They should be, they're common issues for a lot of relatively inexperienced weightlifters.
So we start with an 11-week timeline to the next competition. We split this into - for example - mesocycles of 4, 4,and 3 weeks. 4 weeks dedicated to strength training, 4 weeks of positional strength, and 3 weeks of peaking for comp.
This is a super simple version - and you can imagine that it can be as complicated as you'd like to be. The principles set out above are in action here: you're building towards waves of snatches and clean and jerks at heavier weights, based on the strength training workouts of the first weeks.
Within each mesocycle, you're also increasing intensity in exchange for volume. De-loads provide a chance to bridge the gap - all you need to do is use the same weight, but use fewer sets and reps. For example, you might go from 3 sets of 5 reps (on squats) to 2-3 sets of 3 reps, instead.
Refer back to the principles of weightlifting programming above, and you’ll see them at work here. For anything more detailed, you’re going to have to get in touch, or wait for us to dive into more advanced weightlifting programming in future!
Final Thoughts: Weight Training, Weightlifting, and Training Plans
Weightlifting programming requires a fine and considered balance of conventional weight training with the specific technique of the snatch, clean, and jerk. The balance is hard to strike -but defines your whole experience.
The programming process isn't that complex, it just requires putting things in the right order and being conservative with yourself. You can't just do everything all the time - it's about selecting what's most important and doing that until it's better, then repeating this analyse-practice-adapt process!
Weight training is a key part of what you're doing, but the added layers of technique come with some specific needs that most people don't appreciate.
Take Weightlifting slowly and remember that technique won't make up for neglecting key muscle groups. You can't out-technique a weak rig!
If you found this article useful and would like to learn more, or simply need some help with your own programming. Drop us a message on email@example.com or even better, slide into our Instagram DM's - to learn more about our upcoming mentorship programme.