Advanced Programming Concepts for Olympic Weightlifting - A Coach's Definitive Guide

Olympic weightlifters must possess strength, mobility, athleticism, and sport-specific skills to successfully progress and unlock new achievements in their sport. When coaching new athletes, many coaches are able to use general training programs and coaching methodologies to develop strength, basic understandings of barbell mechanics, and achieve initial success for weeks, months, and even a few years.

But what happens when a coach, like yourself (or maybe you are the athlete in this scenario) encounters an athlete with great promise and abilities and sets out to succeed at the next level? Maybe that means entering into local competitions and placing, or qualifying for national events. Whatever the event or outcome, standard training practices often fall short when a lifter reaches the intermediate and more advanced stages in their development, often leaving coaches scrambling for information and applicable content to program, teach, and progress their top lifters past the initial 1-2 year mark.

I have dealt with this issue personally as both a coach and athlete, in which I have had to educate myself through advanced training with USA Weightlifting, scouring old Soviet training manuals, and listening/watching/and reading all of the best Olympic weightlifting resources I could find on the internet and/or in my geographic area, with my top resources being (in no specific order):

Throughout my research and applications of various resources, I have been able to progress the lifting abilities of many lifters in our weightlifting club and my own personal performance. 

In this article, I will detail out five steps Olympic weightlifting coaches can take to:

  • Assess problematic issues limiting performance enhancements in their lifters.
  • Address such issues with technical and strength based solutions and exercises
  • Re-evaluate the specific methods above to the optimize performance once technical mastery is assumed.

1. Calculate a Weightlifter's Technical Master

One of the most (if not the most) influential attributes to determine a lifter's long-term success and progress is their technical mastery and/or efficiency as a weightlifter. 

Technical mastery is a term used that encapsulates various components of a lifter's ability during the snatch, clean, and jerk, specifically; (1) pull the barbell to the maximum height necessary to secure a successful lift, (2) the ability to get into a fixed position to reviving the barbell, more specifically the absolute lowest possible position in which this can be attained, and (3) the ability to properly control and propel the barbell on the correct trajectory to ensure minimal horizontal displacement during the pulling, transitional, and receiving phases of the lift

The above video goes into full explanation of this equation, which was developed by Max Aita of Juggernaut Training Systems. Below, I have summarized the key aspects that every coach/athlete should grasp.

 

M = H/F + T

 

  • M = Technical Mastery / Efficiency  
  • H = Height of Barbell
  • F = Lowest Point if Fixation 
  • T = Trajectory (either 1 or 0)
  • *** 0 = Successful Lift
  • *** 1 = Missed Lift, Press Outs, Excessive Jumping (forward or backwards), with further ability to have higher values representing multiple faults.

 

For example: 

If a 85kg male lifter snatches 157kg successfully without any faults (missed lift, pressing out of snatch, didn't jump excessively forward or backwards, etc) he would successfully demonstrate good trajectory, given a score of zero (if unsuccessful of any faults expressed, the trajectory score would be one or more). When measured, the maximal height at which the barbell reached at the apex of the pull (prior to the transition of the barbell) was 44 inches (96.8 centimeters) from the floor. When measured, the lifter's lowest successful receiving position (should be constantly expressed across all lifts) is 40 inches (88 centimeters). Therefore, the technical mastery equation (expressed as a number) for this lifter would look like:

 

M = H/F + T

M = (44 inches / 40 inches) + 0

M = 1.1

 

Technical mastery can be calculated simply by collecting the necessary information for each lift and lifter, with the goal product to be zero, which expresses maximal technical mastery of that lift by a lifter. In order for the lifter to have the smallest "M" value (an "M" value of zero suggest optimal technical mastery), he would have to close the gap between his "H" and "F" values.


2. Address Singular or Dual Faults

Once a specific fault of a lift has been identified (seen below) coaches and athletes can best individualize programming to meet the needs of each athlete to best improve mechanics, power application, and technical mastery of a snatch, clean, or jerk. 

***It is important to note that many lifters may be committing multiple faults at once, and many of the solutions can address various faults simultaneously (dual faults), while others are best performed with the intent of addressing a specific fault (singular fault).

 

  1. Lack of pulling height on the barbell resulting in low "H" values.
  2. Large discrepancies between the "H" value and the "F" value, which suggests lack of efficient pulling power awareness and transitioning during the fixation phase.
  3. Failure to complete a successful lift and/or failure to attain a "T" value of zero, which suggest good trajectory of the lift.

Exercises to Correct Poor Trajectory (T Value)

Below are exercises that address a lifter's lack of proper barbell trajectory, which often results in missed lifts, press outs, and/or excessive jumping forwards or backwards in the receiving positions.

  • Full Lifts with Moderate Intensity: Performing the full snatch, clean, and jerk lifts using moderate loading (generally 60-75% RM) can be very useful for teaching and re-patterning proper mechanics during all phases of the lift.
  • Snatch and Clean Pulls with Moderate Intensity: By performing pulling variations with moderate loading (snatch pulls are often done at lighter relative percentages than clean pulls) can help to increase force development and height of the barbell at the cessation of the pulling phase. Snatch pulls are often done between 70-90% RM with emphasis on positioning and power output, while clean pulls can often be done at slightly higher intensities, such as 80-100% RM for similar purposes.

  • No Foot and No Hook Grip Lifts: By not allowing the lifter to move their feet and/or assume a hook grip, you force them to stay balanced over the barbell and finish in the proper trajectory path. Failure to do so will often resulting in the lifter either having the move to chase the barbell due to poor trajectory, and/or failed lifts.

  • Push Perks and Behind the Neck (BTN) Jerks/Presses: All of these jerking and pressing movements teach lifters how to properly stay balance in the dip and drive phases of the jerk to increase vertical force application onto the barbell. By performing push jerks, the lifter places feet in squat jerk receiving position throughout, not moving the feet after the dip and drive phases to ensure proper vertical moments. Behind the neck jerk variations can increase a lifter's proprioception of how to guide and place the barbell properly overhead in the correct trajectory pattern.

Exercises to Correct Low Terminal Height on Pulls (H Value)

Below are exercises that address a lifter's lack of proper barbell trajectory, which often results in missed lifts, press outs, and/or excessive jumping forwards or backwards in the receiving positions.

  • Snatch and Clean Pulls with Moderate to Heavy Intensity: By performing pulling variations with moderate to heavy loading (snatch pulls are often done at lighter relative percentages than clean pulls) can help to increase force development and height of the barbell at the cessation of the pulling phase. Snatch pulls are often done between 80-100% RM with emphasis on positioning and power output, while clean pulls can often be done at slightly higher intensities, such as 85-110% RM for similar purposes.
  • Power Snatches, Power Cleans, and Power Jerks: The power variations are good movements to force lifters to meet the barbell at higher heights, forcing them to stay active and pull through the entire range to successfully rack a weight. Many coaches agree that the power clean is a highly effective movement to help increase the barbell height in the clean to allow for better transitioning underneath. Power snatches and power jerks also help a lifter powerfully move the bar height to it's maximum apex to ensure optimal performance.
  • Squats: Squatting strength and leg drive are critical to the first pull in both the clean and snatch. Lack of squat strength often results in a lifter allowing the hips to drive up faster than the shoulders are the onset of the lift, resulting in a slew of various faults to follow. Increasing leg drive can most certainly increase barbell height at the top of the pull, while also ensuring sound barbell trajectory and balance.
  • Push Presses: Similar to the reasoning behind squat strength and leg drive during the first pull of the snatch and clean, push presses are a critical strength and power movement to ensure (1) sound dip mechanics in jerks, (2) proper dip depth in jerks, and (3) proper finishing of driving the barbell vertically to have the barbell reach maximal height to allow for smooth transitioning into the split or squat stance in the jerk.

Exercises to Improve Fixation Under the Barbell (F Value)

Below are exercises that address a lifter's inability to properly (1) meet the barbell in strong, rigid, and fixed position, (2) increase the depth at which a lifter can assume a strong, rigid, and fixed position under the barbell, and/or (3), increase the timing during the transitional period under the barbell to ensure proper elasticity out of the squat to recover from the lift.

  • Full Lifts with Moderate to Heavy Intensity: Performing the full snatch, clean, and jerk lifts using moderate to heavy loading (generally 70-90% RM) can be very useful for forcing the lifter to transition quickly and confidently to assume a low, stable, and fixed receiving position. 
  • Block and/or Hang Snatches and Cleans: Using blocks or hang variations places the barbell closer towards the hips, resulting in the lifter needing to fully maximize the pulling mechanics while simultaneously increase the speed and depth at which they can assume a low, stable, and fixed receiving position. Failure to move the feet and/or get the elbows set in the front squat and/or overhead squat positioning are key indicators of poor fixation abilities.
  • Drop Snatches, Drop Jerks, and Footwork Drills: All three of these movements promote rapid movement into a fixed reviving positioning. Inability to confidently assume a balanced, rigid, and fixed position while receiving snatches and jerks overhead or cleans in the front rack will decrease the speed at which a lifter moves under the barbell. In addition, failure to do so can result in lack of depth in the fixation period (point at which the lifter gets under the barbell). Implementing drop snatches and drop jerks are critical movements for all lifters. Lastly, mastering proper jerk footwork can drastically impact speed and stability under the barbell in heavier lifts.

3. Re-Calculate and Address Further Faults

As with any aspect of one's training and progression, coaches must adequately assess and reassess a lifter's limitations and abilities in order to properly progress training in the long-term. It is generally recommended to retest the above equation a few weeks following the initial treatment (exercises above) to determine which have worked and how to address other faults (if any). 

***The above video demonstrates a sample training day, with continual reassessment and documentation of lift performance. By recording lifts, taking notes, and maintaining a written or typed training journal athletes and coaches can objectively and subjectively determine the validity of their training programs and adjustments. 

***I recommend focusing on one to two faults every assessment period, as addressing all of a lot of them can increase lifter anxiety and impair focus on key issues. Remember, allowing the lifter to master a new skill and/or correct one or two faults weeks at a time will allow for proper development and leave the lifter feeling confident and a sense of skill acquisition.


4. Increase Strength and Power Application

Once a lifter has demonstrated technical mastery, or very close to it, he/she must then progress by getting stronger and more powerful. Often seen in Olympic weightlifters who have been training for multiple years, the limiting factor and biggest predictor of performance enhancements is increased squat, pulling, and pressing strength, as well as then apply force with greater velocities (power).

Therefore, lifters must focus on squat strength and pulling performance to maximize their lifts, while maintaining technical mastery. If an athlete lifts heavier loads yet fails to maintain technical mastery (their "M" value increases, suggesting less technical mastery), he/she will then once again be limited by technical mastery first, then strength.

As you can see, the process often repeats itself, with the most advanced lifters honing in on technical mastery, often working primarily on maintain of mastery and improvements in maximal strength and power production.


5. Maximize Bodyweight for Athlete's Anthropometrics

Often under looked when determining why a lifter is not progressing after successful mastery and progression is simply because the coach and/or athlete is not maximizing their body's muscular and skeletal structures. Many lifters may limit weight gain (this includes gaining lean muscle) for fear of the scale and/or simply in that  they do not want to compete in heavier weight classes.. 

It is important to note that this increased body mass is warranted if the lifter focuses on gaining lean muscle mass, not simply indulging and copious amounts of calories for the simple outcome of increasing the numbers on the scale. Generally speaking, the lifter with the most amount of lean muscle (assuming all other technical mastery abilities are equivalent across competitors) per weight class often has a better opportunity to success.

***Note; in the heaviest, uncapped classes, this may actually not be entirely accurate, single body mass moves mass in those uncapped classes, regardless of muscle or fat composition.

Many of these teachings and charts can be found in, "A System of Multi-Year Training in Weightlifting" by Alexey Medvedez, (USSR Heavyweight Weightlifter, Soviet National Head Coach and International Weightlifting Federation Vice-President 1956-1980). In Medvedez's training journals and manuals he shared blueprints for the complete training of an athlete, from day one.

One particular section details out how coaches and athletes can determine optimal bodyweight based upon the stage of development and height of a lifter to ensure most optimal performance. A key limitation however is that these models were mostly likely drawn from data a homogeneous population, one that included a very specific demographic and genetic make-up of lifters (Soviet Block Lifters). In today's modern lifting environment, homogeneous populations are sparse, as American weightlifters often come from vast genetic make-ups, nationalities, and physical backgrounds.   


Final Words

Assessing the individual needs of your athletes based upon technical mastery, strength, and/or mobility is needed to best individualize long-term training programs and ensure optimal progress and results.

The above methodology is based upon the various resources outlined above, however coaches and athletes can use their previous experiences and intuition to further manipulate training regimens.