Started from the Bottom. A Year in Weightlifting…

Everyone bombs. In this blog article I will go through a year of training and competitions for one of the more talented girls that I coach. Going from bombing out in record time at the Scottish Seniors in 2015 to the winning the British U23s with a clutch Clean and Jerk on the final lift.

Scottish Seniors 2015

this-is-fine-memeLeading up to the Scottish seniors the training had been pretty standard with a 2 week taper and hitting every opener on the Saturday session going 5/5 Snatch and 3/3 in the Clean and Jerk and opening at her PR double or ~90%. Consistent errors were jumping forward on the Snatch, the bar was drifting away from the center line and an aggressive early extension of the hip.  At the seniors Zoë bombed on the snatch. Some of the lessons learned from this competition were to lower the energy level for the snatch, (2 scoops and shouting is simply not needed. A lot of lifters go through this phase, it doesn’t really help and bleeds you of so much energy come lifting time.) better clock management and it was time to start addressing technical issues if she wanted to progress. The great thing about competing is that it forces you to lift under a microscope. Once the pressure is on, it is more likely you try to muscle the barbell and abandon everything.

Looking at the video you can see most of the problems listed above in action. She was still pretty new to lifting so mistakes were to be expected. The bar drifts around the knee, the vertical speed decreases above the hip (a common problem with an early extension of the hip. This is due to you losing drive from the legs) and an excessive horizontal force is being introduced to the barbell. Bad day at the office for sure.

Training post Seniors

This was the last competition that Zoë lifted as a 63kg/light 69kg, I maintain the goal is being a jacked 120kg with no neck but for now @Shovelhands_69kgs lives in the 69kg class. The next competition she was going to compete in was the BUCS (British University and Colleges Sport) Championships and a lot needed to be worked on before then.

  • Strength
  • Improve speed qualities as a lifter
  • Improve technical mastery

Between the Seniors and BUCS there were 4 months + change to improve these aspects. Using a 3:1 (3 weeks active // 1 Week deload/rest) rotation; her training was broken up into 4 blocks. Hypertrophy / General Strength / Specific Strength / Peak.

During the Hypertrophy block the aim is to add muscle mass. Training involves a wide exercise selection and larger repetition schemes. It is the horrible period of training where you go to the squat rack hating life. It can be harder to motivate the athlete in this phase, the classical lifts might decrease due to the high volume of strength work. Some athletes panic and quickly change program. Motivation is maintained through the exercise selection and the ability to get “default PRs” on random stuff.

zoe-hypertrophy-blockIntensity for exercises was in the 60-70% range with an accumulation of intensity over time. (A total increase of about 7% in intensity from week 1 to week 3). The third week was a hard overreach microcycle. A days training (over 2 sessions) would look similar to:

The exercise selection has her technical flaws in mind and over the 3 week period the stimulus is constantly increasing. I started incorporating the option to do more work if lifters had the energy (before it was implied). The green boxes are there so the lifter has the option to do more work if they feel the energy level is still high. (Technical failure is not acceptable.) Whenever people get to make choices they tend to be more accepting of an outcome. I found this to be a useful change throughout my programming. A potential problem could occur here if an athlete does so much work that the risk of injury increases. For now this risk is acceptable if this moves the lifter closer to her/his maximum recoverable volume.

During the general strength block the main goal is to improve the force production capabilities whilst addressing the individual lifters’ weaker areas. For female lifters it is common to have a weaker upper body compared to male athletes. For Zoë; she has a longer femur compared to total leg length so positional strength when the lever arm is at it’s longest is a concern. (Other sessions included pause squats, stalling lifts or lifts from challenging block heights. A days training (over 2 sessions) looked something like:zoe-str-block

The intensity in this block was within the 70-80% range and increased roughly 6-7% comparing the first and third week.

The sport specific strength block is similar in intensity to the previous but the exercise election is reduced and a greater focus is placed on technical outcomes. This is when technical adjustments are a major factor in performance. You should have an increase in horse power to work with and need to start putting it to use. Video sessions were a greater priority in this block, important for the lifter to get immediate feedback. An average training day looked something like:


The intensity in this block was within the 70-85% range and increased roughly 5-10% over the 3 weeks. Snatch variants went slightly higher.
The peaking blocks goal is an increase in competition performance. The volume of the lifts were low and the intensity building towards 90%. Deadlift variations are often removed at this point. An average training days would look something like:zoe-peak

A week before the competition there was a large drop in volume to prepare the lifter for weigh-in, travel and competition.

BUCS Championship

Competition preparation went well, openers were stable. Going into the meet Zoë was working on warming up quicker (to preserve energy) and lifting at a lower arousal level (having been a problem during the seniors). This competition went very well. Going 5/6 and winning the 69kg class.

There were technical improvements across the board and lifted well under pressure. Overall pretty happy with the result of the competition with a result of +17kg in 4 months of training. This is somewhat skewed since the bomb out at the Seniors.

Training Leading up to the Easterns and British U23s

The training followed the same phasic structure with alterations based off of experience working with Zoe. Some minor injuries and holidays slowed down progress. This is to be expected and must be taken into account with program design / workout volume. The summer training was largely uninterrupted only missing about 1 month in total. As mastery level increases speed factors become a more important part of weightlifting. Block work is one of the ways to improve speed under the bar and maintain high volume, this started to take up a larger section of her programming. Accessory work and hypertrophy was important to filling her out as a 69kg lifter.

Easterns and British U23s

Going into the the Eastern districts a two week taper was used and the openers went fairly well, although some sad news had an impact on the energy levels in training.

For some reason I have a nasty habit of not filming the first lift. Zoë went 5/6 and had an increase in competition total of +4kg. On the whole I was satisfied with the competition. The clean and jerk being the weaker of the two lifts. Errors include; the bar crashing down when transitioning under the barbell and the Jerk getting pushed forward a little.

The British U23 Championships followed in three weeks time so there was not much that could be done training wise. Openers were redone and front squats were used to stall out any decline in leg strength / minimize the injury risk of a high average intensity for such a long period of time.

The competition was neck and neck all the way in the British, the stage made for an intimidating experience for a first time lifter. Kudos to British Weightlifting for making the stage similar to international venues. The MC putting the hype levels over 9000.

Zoë was opening the highest on the snatch so she had an opportunity to set the pace of the competition and only lift what she needed to. Going out for her first lift her hands were visibly shaking when going to grip the bar. Deciding to abandon everything she worked on over the past couple of months she did her own thing. It did not go well. An early hip extension and a large horizontal force on the barbell caused it to loop behind. In this situation with a more experienced lifter I would have moved the bar to 71kg. In her current state it would be a dangerous gamble to take. Missing the second lift would put her under enormous pressure and could lead to a bomb out. The lift was repeated and was an easy make. Explaining that a larger jump was needed on her third snatch to remain competitive. I wanted to move the bar to 72kg framing it with carrot of winning, she countered with 73kg (1kg less than the Eastern districts but still a 5kg jump in the snatch which can be a lot for female lifters). The third snatch was spot on and put her 3kg behind going into the Clean and Jerk.

The clean and jerk warm up was a little more jumbled with quite a few misses of other athletes forcing the clock to run long. This meant the timings had to be slowed down and some pulls used to stay warm and conserve energy. To keep her mind off of proceedings I didn’t pay that much attention to her lifting so she wouldn’t be stressing out. After every lift she was asking “what happened / was it good?” Quite funny considering how much lifting she has done. Knowing that she was 3kg behind on the snatch yet the lightest of the girls I wanted to move the bar to 84kg to take first place and force other lifters to “make lifts”. Zoë panicked a little and didn’t want to move the barbell past 83kg. (I cri errytime) This meant the first lift was somewhat of a waste, only securing second (although it meant we used none of our changes). After making the first Clean and Jerk we moved the bar 1kg over the other lifters (to 86kg) to see how they would do. The girl in first place missed her second clean and the lifter in third place moved up into second having made 85kg. Zoë had the chance to move into a large lead with one lift remaining by making the second clean and jerk. She missed. Explaining to her that we want to take the chance to win it on the last lift regardless of the others I moved the bar to 88kg (1kg above the others, knowing that the lifter in second was out of changes). They both missed their last lifts of 87/88 (meaning Zoë would have won with 86kg). She had the opportunity to win it on the final lift, so hype. Luckily she made the lift, (I was feeling the heart flutters) it was an exciting competition performance and luckily it went our way on the day. That made sense to me but no doubt read horribly.

TLDR : Knees weak, arms heavy, mom’s spaghetti. #Anothaone

Going forward,hopefully she learns from the competition. I know I will be altering some parts of training. For example: openers being a higher intensity wave series so people getting less fixated on a number. It was a great return on a years training and I look forward to competition season being over. Next year the goals are to compete at the British and move her total up in the region of 175-180.

Initial total 53/72=125

Final total 73/88= 161

Improvement over 1 year = 36kg.

With training; staying the course and waiting on your body adapting is very difficult. You think micro adjustments are required after one bad session, as long as the work is getting more difficult over time and you are improving your technical mastery you will have a good time. Put your trust in delayed transformation.

Regarding the blog: I find writing super taxing (I am the sort of writer that goes back to the start and constantly frets) but will be trying to write on a more consistent basis, even if it is just to work on finding more dank memes.


Gamification and the Little Things

People who read this may or may not be aware that I am a massive gamer at heart. Like a lot of kids in my days I went through the fun of Unreal Tournament 2003, Warcraft 3, Counter Strike 1.6 and Street Fighter (various). My main passion in games was RPGs (role playing games), it harks back to the days as a kid playing Warhammer 40k or DnD (Dungeons and Dragons). There was something badass about taking a character that started out as a scrub through to being able to take down huge dragons or powerful Liches many hours/days later.189559_4106547994509_1024487809_n

Naturally this leads me to “gamify” aspects of my life wherever I can so that I get on that Dopamine gravy train and start enjoying the process of improving,

Gamification is the use of game thinking and game mechanics in non-game contexts to engage users in solving problems and increase users’ self contributions.¹

Gamification is everywhere these days, lots of websites get you to register and award you some form of points system or badges based on activity. You have computer games to thank for this.

Applying it in the sporting world is a great fit. When you start out you tend to be pretty useless at most things in the gym or in the sport. Once your mastery level improves you can take on bigger and bigger challenges that on the outset would have been mind-blowing. It is up to coaches to set the right challenge level for the athlete so their skill level improves at the same rate as the challenge, this will trigger that juicy flow state.

Flow, also known as Zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.²

One of the things I find in Weightlifting is that people get too hung up on the long term goals of a big Snatch, Clean and Jerk or Back Squat. Sometimes setting unreasonable goals without breaking it down and looking what it takes to get there. Using the gaming analogy:

You have to kill a shitload of boars before you can kill a dragon.

This can be referred to short term goals, daily goals or process goals. It can be something as simple as making sure you get adequate sleep. (Much more important than I wish it was). Making sure you eat right for the day/week or if you have a nasty vice that you know holds you back, like spending too much time on websites that do nothing (Facebook) taking steps to limit your use for a couple of days and reading a book or working towards something else instead.

With a mind to Weightlifting once the noob gains stop it can sometime be a very long time in between a Snatch / CnJ PR. You can use things like complexes to add variety and get a boost. Also keeping track of your 2rm / 3rm Snatch / CnJ PR’s can also help give that small boost in the longer preparation cycles. I use good old Google Drive and then set up a couple of graphs to get easy visual feedback that reassures me everything is moving in the right direction. With a background in CS, I fucking love graphs.Graph bicture

The boar quote can also be used to think about weaknesses in your body. To hit those tasty lifts that you want sometimes you have to do some exercises that you really don’t enjoy. You know they are good for you but somehow you find ways to convince yourself that if you keep trying to Max out or stick with what you have been doing something might fall into place and you will get lucky. Denial is powerful. The dreaded assistant exercises are the boars of this equation. Things like good mornings, overhead pressing or single leg squatting if your knees are wobbly. I have had the good fortune to have trained with / been coached by high level athletes / coaches and more often than not the successful people are the ones that take care of the little things and farm that easy xp.

As a Weightlifter you should have no trouble working towards a 2-2.5 times body weight back squat as a male, it should be one of the milestones you aim for early on. Breaking that lift down you will need sufficient Flexibility/mobility/stability to safely assume the position, more often than not people skip this first part and just start racking up the weight. To maintain the active back in the lifts your upper back, lats and erectors must be beastly to progress to the heavy weights without increasing your risk of injury. Back squatting alone is not always the fastest way to progress.

This video is pretty much squat porn, even though all squats are beautiful – fantastic positions. During the dream team seminars the first thing that Zygmunt Smalcerz (gold medal in the 52kg class at the 1972 Olympics now USA head coach) said about the godly Ilya Ilyin: (undefeated weightlifter who has won two Olympic championships and four world championships) one of the reasons he is the best in the world is that he works tirelessly on positioning. He can hit positions that makes other weightlifters envious.

1294590_668820536565018_5083556538838401441_oThis is one of my new favorite pictures of a back squat (thanks to Allthingsgym), I know the lifter has a fantastic body structure for squatting, but the motor control in the upper back is great to see. The arms are pretty loose and the big movers like the quads/glutes/hamstrings are doing the work. A far cry from people who have to get so tight with their arms on the back squat then lead with the hips so the lower back is doing a disproportionate amount of the lift. For Weightlifting this is not useful, legs do the work. It is not chance that took these lifters to the World Championships, taking care of the little things plays a big role for anyone.

When these little things improve, your skill level rises and you are able to assume more difficult tasks. That dopamine release from improving will also increase motivation for the times when things get really difficult. (And they will). The next time you are hitting a plateau and feel like your lifting world is crumbling, try stepping back and think to yourself.

Have you killed your boars today?

¹ Huotari, K., & Hamari, J. (2012). “Defining Gamification – A Service Marketing Perspective”
² Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience