The rest interval between sets

The time interval between sets in Weightlifting training and what happens during that interval is a source of great interest to me personally and perhaps to others as well. Initially, my thoughts centred around the quest for productivity in training and the need to get as much training done in the time available. For many years I have operated on the premise that an average of 2 minutes between sets in training is optimal, and I am still of that opinion. It’s not rocket science to work out that, in any fixed period of training, an average of 2 minutes between sets accomplishes 50% more training than an average of 3 minutes.

However, in more recent years, my thoughts about the time interval between sets have expanded beyond the mere need for productivity. What has also become an interest to me is the mental process of the athlete in that time period. Furthermore, through observation and study, I have begun to formulate ideas about environmental factors that beneficially or detrimentally affect that mental process as the athlete prepares for their next effort.

It is probable that we have all experienced or witnessed the situation where an athlete in training, having completed the previous set with comparative ease, fails unexpectedly with the next set. This might happen even if there is no increase in the weight on the bar. The situation is similar in the competition environment. An athlete might succeed well with their first attempt, and be momentarily confident of the next lift, and then to seemingly suffer a loss of confidence as the wait prolongs.

While it seems clear that the time duration of the rest interval is a major factor that impacts on the performance of the Weightlifter, an explanation is needed why this is so. Furthermore, it is important to consider whether factors other than the passage of time are at work.

This article proposes that:

  • the underlying cause of performance reduction due to the passage of time is the weakening of the neural imprint or memory of the previous performance
  • during the rest period, a range of environment factors may disrupt or degrade the neural imprint of the previous performance.
  • the possible environmental disruptors include sights and sounds in the gym, conversations with other athletes, the mobile phone, and interestingly the intervention of the coach.

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A comparison of different training scenarios on rate of improvement

The purpose of this article is to illustrate how differences in the athlete’s commitment to training will effect their ultimate performance capability in the years ahead. In this illustration, let’s assume that a physically talented individual walked into your gym one year ago and began training in Olympic Weightlifting. Let’s also assume that this individual has enjoyed participating in some competitions during their first year, weighs around 70Kg and has achieved a creditable 180Kg Total. What is the future in store for this athlete?

There are of course many factors that will effect the rate of progress of an athlete, some of which the coach can influence, and some not. One critical factor is the athlete’s commitment to training, and this in turn will be dependent on their self-confidence and belief in their own abilities. This is a factor that the coach can influence through the quality of the athlete-coach relationship, by their efforts to educate the athlete in training methodology and by enabling the athlete to consider higher levels of training.

To this end, three different scenarios are presented for our talented 70Kg individual who has one year of training experience. Chart 1 below provides an indication of the rate of improvement and ultimate performance potential of the athlete, dependent on which level of commitment scenario they pursue. The characteristics of the three scenarios are described in Table 1 below.

improvement_scenarios

Chart 1: Rate of improvement dependency on training commitment

The difference between scenarios 1 and 3 is perhaps the difference between achieving national team status or remaining as an averagely good athlete by virtue of their natural talent. It is very conceivable that our 70Kg athlete, under the right conditions (scenario 3), could progress into the 85Kg category and achieve a 320 total in their 5th year. At this level, they would be a strong prospect, in many nations, to participate in World Championships and be a possible contender for Olympic Games selection. Furthermore, as Chart 1 indicates, the athlete’s improvement has not reached a plateau and further increases in performance are probably likely in years 6-10 of their career.

Table 1: Commitment to Training Scenarios
Scenario 1 Scenario 2 Scenario 3
Commencing at 2 sessions per week rising to 3 sessions per week after 1 year, maintaining this level of commitment for next 3 years. Commencing at 2 sessions per week, rising to 3 sessions per week after 1 year and 4 sessions per week after 2 years Commencing at 3 sessions per week, rising to 4 sessions per week after 1 year, 5 sessions per week after 2 years, reaching 8 sessions per week (“double day” training) in their 5th year
Some attention to improvement of technique, relatively little effort to learn about training methodology. Significant attention to technique, developing good training habits, learning principles of training methodology Maximum attention to technical development, achieving a high level of organisation and discipline in training, immersion in the principles of high performance training methodology. To all intents and purposes, a “professional” approach to sport participation.
No particular goals for Weightlifting, enjoying the sport for fitness Setting goals to compete at National Championships. Setting goals for National Team selection to compete in World Championships, and Commonwealth and Olympic Games
No particular effort on increasing bodyweight, not employing specific measures for recovery from training Some attention to diet and increasing bodyweight, some effort to employ measures for recovery from training. Planning the bodyweight category that is optimal for the lifter, significant attention/effort to reaching and maintaining the required bodyweight. Including regular recovery measures as part of the training process.

If you are an Olympic Weightlifting coach and you have been coaching a few years, you are bound to come across just such individuals as in our illustration above. Your task as a coach is to find away to keep the athlete training, expand their perception of what is possible and help them achieve their potential. While there is always initial excitement about possibilities, there is soon a realization that the coach’s task is anything but simple. Your best efforts as a coach can be easily thwarted by many factors that constrain the athlete’s willingness to pursue training with increasing commitment. In such circumstances, the coach may well ask the question “why does the athlete not have the motivation to strive for important goals?”

It is probable that one chief reason why an individual will not strive for important goals is their lack of confidence in their own abilities. Although the athlete might state a desire to be a national team member, they do not really believe that they can rise to this level. The coach’s task is therefore to instill confidence that if the athlete pursues a proper process, it is probable that their efforts will be well rewarded. It helps if the coach has a good reputation and track record of success and has other athletes in their charge pursuing the same goal. But for the upcoming coach it is quite a hard proposition to achieve their first high status athlete, and sometimes some luck is involved. But in both cases, for the experienced and the upcoming coach, a great deal of time and effort has to be invested into gently “nudging” forwards the athlete’s self-confidence and belief in their own abilities.

Do you train hard?

It was my original attention to write a page on the principles and practise of how to undertake serious training for the sport of Olympic Weightlifting. I mean the sort of training that a person would need to do to compete at the very highest level i.e. the World Championships. My motivation to write such an article stems partly from meeting and wanting to help so many talented people in Weightlifting clubs and Crossfit boxes who, despite their love of lifting, seem to have doubts about their own abilities and what they could achieve. Furthermore, my motivation arises from wanting to see the standard of Olympic Weightlifting in Australia go forwards.

So instead of writing a laborious article on the principles of training for high performance, I have decided that what is first needed is a more "straight from the heart" appeal to members of the Weightlifting and Crossfit communities. If you have a real love for lifting heavy weights read on. Read More

Developing leg strength for Weightlifting

Following a predetermined “squat program” for a number of weeks has always been a popular methodology for developing leg strength and over the decades there have been numerous examples promoted as “Russian Squat Programs” as a means to gain leg strength fast. But such leg strength programs work and they safe? What is the risk of injury? This article aims to provide the advantages and disadvantages of Russian Squat programs and in particular to warn enthusiasts of possible issues that are likely to occur. 10 Principles for developing leg strength is offered at the end of this article.

Russian Squat Program

Here is the infamous “Russian Squat Program” devised in the 1970’s.

Wk1 Wk2 Wk3 Wk4 Wk5 Wk6
Session1 80%/2*6 80%/4*6 80%/2*6 85%/5*5 80%/2*6 100%/2*2
Session2 80%/3*6 80%/2*6 80%/6*6 80%/2*6 95%/3*3 80%/2*6
Session3 80%/2*6 80%/5*6 80%/2*6 90%/4*4 80%/2*6 105%/1*1

In the above program, the approach taken is to use 6 sets of 2 reps at 80% of maximum squat as the base training intensity. There are 9 sessions (half of all sessions) where this intensity applies. Following each of these base intensity sessions, the program user is challenged to push very hard to higher levels of stress. The aim of the program is to increase leg strength by 5% after 18 sessions (6 weeks).

In short, the program is incredibly hard – don’t try it! To survive this program, just about every factor would have to working in favour of the athlete. In reality, striking out to achieve a 5% improvement in just 6 weeks is very inadvisable, crazy even.

Smolov Squat Routine

The Smolov Squat Program is presently in vogue within the Crossfit community. If you Google the phrase “Smolov Squat Routine” you will find any number of websites promising substantial increases in leg strength and warning you that the program is very hard and only for experienced athletes.

The total duration of the Smolov routine is more reasonable at 13 weeks, although there are shorter variations. It is highly structured and includes 5 phases:

  • Introductory Microcycle (2 weeks)
  • Base Mesocycle (4 weeks)
  • Switching (2 weeks)
  • Intense Mesocycle (4 weeks)
  • Taper (1 week)

One of the good aspects of this program is that it recognises the need to include a 2 week period of recovery (the Switching cycle). Even better, that this middle phase focusses on speed and explosive movement. All too often, athletes do not make much effort to accelerate out of squats and are just happy to get past the sticking point and complete the rep.

It is interesting though that many advocates of the Smolov program advise that you start off by subtracting 5-10 kilos below your personal best, so that you can survive the program. If this sounds like the program could be excessively hard to you, it certainly does to me! This seems to fit the Crossfit ethos, where “destroying yourself” is a phrase I regularly hear. But for most athletes, destroying yourself is not an option. Instead training is about careful consistent effort over long periods of time to gradually adapt to increasing levels of stress, and always to be mindful of the need for recovery to avoid injury.

Nevertheless there is something to be said for a highly structured program such as the Smolov routine  The first-time user will likely be very motivated and will expect the program to work, that is they will successfully complete the program. This psychological aspect of the program is very important.

However, the disadvantages significantly outweigh the advantages. The main disadvantage in following squat programs, in general, is that there is no inbuilt flexibility to cater for individual difference. For example, there will differences among athletes in regard to flexibility, control of body position, fitness and experience.

Smolov: Introductory Microcycle (2 weeks)

In all likelihood, the Introductory Microcycle will be relatively easy to accomplish. If you are coming in from a lay off, you might be a bit sore (delayed onset muscle soreness), after 1st two days and if so, it would be inadvisable to push to 90%/1 on Day 3.

Week 1

Day 1: 65%/8*3 70%/5*1 75%/2*2 80%/1*1
Day 2: 65%/8*3 70%/5*1 75%/2*2 80%/1*1
Day 3: 70%/5*4 75%/3*1 80%/2*2 90%/1*1
Day 4-6:   “Scissor” Barbell Squats or Lunges

Week 2

This week is marginally challenging and consists of working up in sets of 5 reps to one set at the stated intensity. Possibly Day 3, performing 85% for 5 reps, may be a little difficult after your efforts on Day 1 and Day 2, but you will probably get through this week.

Day

Sets

Rep

Percentage of 1RM

Day 1 1 5 80%
Day 2 1 5 82.5%
Day 3 1 5 85%

Smolov: Base Mesocycle (4 weeks)

In the 4 week Base Mesocycle, the Smolov routine requires squatting four days a week, except in the final week in which there are only two ultra heavy sessions.

Week

Monday

Wednesday

Friday

Saturday

1 70%/9×4 75%/7×5 80%/5×7 85%/3×10
2 (70%+10Kg)/9×4 (75%+10Kg)/7×5 (80%+10Kg)/5×7 (85%+10Kg)/3×10
3 (70%+15Kg)/9×4 (75%+15Kg)/7×5 (80%+15Kg)/5×7 (85%+15Kg)/3×10
4 Rest Rest work up to a max single work up to a near max single

In each of the first 3 weeks of the Base Mesocyle, there is significant variation in intensity and reps per set on daily basis. Variation of intensity is generally considered to be a useful factor that provides a good stimulus for strength development on heaviest days and an opportunity for recovery on lighter days. The Base Mesocycle is also about high rep sets in the majority of sessions. In principle, high rep sets (Mon -9 reps, Wed – 7 reps, Fri -5 reps) is a recognised way to promote muscle hypertrophy, and as a long-term aim, hypertrophy is a necessary part of developing leg strength.

What is worrying about the Base Mesocycle is the expectation that all intensities can be raised in week 2 and then again in week 3. It is fair enough to aim for a high intensity on the heaviest day of the week but not every day. An important principle to bear in mind is that as one pushes on to higher intensity, greater fatigue will result. Therefore, it becomes increasingly important not to raise the intensity of the lightest days of the week so as to allow for recovery.

Smolov: Switching Phase (2 weeks)

This phase, in which intensity is reduced to 60%, is worthy of merit. The phase serves as a 2 week recovery cycle and the routine encourages the athlete to focus on dynamic, fast, explosive movement out of the bottom of the squat. Furthermore, the program also recommends doing other dynamic leg exercises such as box jumps and other plyometric exercises. Most of the commentary on the internet about the Smolov program does not quantify any volume of work for each session. Therefore, readers might consider that 30 lifts (6 sets of 5 reps) is a sufficient critical mass. This number of sets also includes all warm-up sets i.e. 6 sets in total.

This phase raises two important questions:

  1. What about performing squats with a dynamic/fast movement out of the squat in other weeks of the program when performing warm-up sets up to 60%? Particularly for athletes engaging in Olympic Weightlifting training, it would be useful to work on speed of the concentric (movement up) phase in most sessions. One of my constant worries about the majority of Weightlifters is that they really don’t think about speed of movement often enough.
  2. Would it be beneficial to include box jumps and/or other explosive plyometric exercises into the training regimen during other weeks of the program? In fact, is it beneficial to include plyometric exercises in training most of the year round? For athletes engaging in Olympic Weightlifting, this is certainly worthy of consideration.

Smolov: Intense Mesocycle

The Intense Mesocycle is a 3-days per week hard slog schedule with 10 out of 12 sessions requiring an intensity of 90% or greater. If you bear in mind that 85% for 5 reps is a very hard set, then the ridiculousness of this phase and this routine may become apparent. Possibly this routine was devised in the expectation that users would also be doping with anabolic steroids or other anabolic agents and this is, of course, totally out of the question. The consequences to the individual of being caught are devastating and life long.

So take a look a close look at this “Intense Mesocyle” and realise that 90%/5*5 or 95%/3×4 is really fantasy land and just like the Russian Squat program above – don’t try it! Instead read the advice below on what it takes to develop stronger legs.

Week

Day

1 Day 1 65%/3 75%/4 85%/4×3 85%/5
Day 2 60%/3 70%/3 80%/4 90%/3 85%/5×2
Day 3 65%/4 70%/4 80%/4×5
2 Day 1 60%/4 70%/4 80%/4 90%/4×2
Day 2 65%/3 75%/3 85%/3 90%/3×3 95%/3
Day 3 65%/3 75%/3 85%/4 90%/5×4
3 Day 1 60%/3 70%/3 80%/3 90%/5×5
Day 2 60%/3 70%/3 80%/3 95%/3×2
Day 3 65%/3 75%/3 85%/3 95%/3×4
4 Day 1 70%/3 80%/4 90%/5×5
Day 2 70%/3 80%/3 95%/3×4
Day 3 75%/3 90%/4 80%/4×3

Smolov: Taper Cycle

The taper cycle is really a period or rest before the day on which you attempt to reap all the rewards of the Smolov routine and max out on your squat. At least the Smolov routine does recognise the need for periods of recovery (Switching Cycle and Taper Cycle)!

Leg Strength Development in the Real World

Hopefully you now have some understanding that predetermined squat programs are just figures on a piece of paper and more dangerous than you can imagine.

What athletes need instead of a “secret formula for success” is a set of principles by which they can make sensible decisions about their training whenever needed. So here goes!

  1. Accept that excellence is only achieved after many years of training with high levels of motivation and constant learning. There are no shortcuts, no secret formulas.
  2. Improvement requires consistent training to be achieved. Consistency will be lost if you suffer injury. Learn why injuries occur and learn to listen to what your body is telling you. Don’t try to ignore the tell-tale signs of injury.
  3. Injuries will occur far more frequently if your technique and form is poor. Work constantly to improve flexibility, control and body position at all stages of the movement. When athletes crash at the bottom of their squats or persist with a heavy bounce style, the likelihood of patella tendonitis increases significantly.
  4. If you think you may just have injured yourself -STOP! Don’t do a few more sets to confirm your suspicions. If you stop straightaway and the next day it proves to be a false alarm, you have lost only one session. If your suspicions were correct, by stopping straight away you may save days/weeks of lost training time with improved injury recovery.
  5. Recovery is a key aspect of training. Think of strength training as including two processes – a breakdown and a build-up. Heavy training causes a breakdown of protein in muscle tissue, and rebuilding occurs during sleep and periods of rest. Frequent heavy training with inadequate rest and recovery may cause your form to go backwards.
  6. Learn about good nutrition as this will assist your recovery from training.
  7. Your training program should include a variety of intensities. You need high intensity work as a stimulus to provoke adaptation but you also need light intensity (70% or lighter) work to help the recovery process. Training programs that pile on pressure such as the Smolov Squat Routine with successive 90% intensity sessions, will take a major toll on recovery.
  8. Keep a log and monitor you training. The more you can learn about yourself, your strengths and weaknesses, the further you will go. From the observations of yourself, as recorded in your training log, try to piece together knowledge about your own training processes.
  9. Try to find ways to push the boundaries of what you can achieve in training but don’t think just about the weight on the bar. Can you be more productive in your training sessions? Can you learn to focus on your training instead of the environment around you? Can you slowly increment the volume of work done in a session? Can you improve your technique?
  10. If you can, find an experienced coach who can provide you with feedback. As much as it is important to develop self-knowledge, it is also good to obtain objective feedback. Athletes need to be imbued with optimism about what they can achieve, but an experienced coach will help you set realistic goals.

Exercises for Improving the Snatch

This article examines how to build a training program for improving the Snatch beyond the initial technique learning stage. Making continued progress requires an understanding that it is fundamentally necessary that an athlete develop all the physical and mental abilities required in the snatch – technique, speed, power, timing, stability, balance, flexibility, will-power and confidence. It is a gross over-simplification to think all that is necessary is to just get stronger.

Relative proportions of volume and intensity spent on Snatch exercises

Figure 1: Relative proportions of volume and intensity spent on Snatch exercises

In Figure 1 above, the relative size of circles depicts the distribution of training volume and effort between various groups of exercises for improving the snatch. The small circles indicate the training intensity (effort) while the larger circles depict the training volume. Thus, figure 1 depicts the dominance of two exercise groups for improving the Snatch – the Power Snatch group and Snatch Pull group (see Figure 2 below for examples of exercises in these groups). There are a number of reasons why variations of the power snatch tend to predominate over variations within the full snatch group for most of the year round. Firstly, as a lifter progresses beyond their first year of training experience, technique tends to stabilise and more time can be spent developing power and strength. Secondly, all Weightlifters must focus on developing the “finish” of the pull. Exercises in the power snatch group and snatch pull group will be more effective in developing power in the finish of the pull. Thirdly, if an athlete overly concentrates on full movements all the year around, chronic knee soreness may arise.

Exercise groupings for Power Snatch and Snatch Pull

Figure 2: Exercise groupings for Power Snatch and Snatch Pull

Furthermore, Figure 1 also provides an indication of the useful intensities in each exercise group. Thus, for example, the most prevalent intensity in the Snatch Pull group is likely to be 110%, then there should also be significant volume at the 105% and 115% intensity, and then smaller training load at the 100% and 120% level.

Other Exercises for Improving the Snatch

Figure 3: The exercise group that includes overhead squat and snatch balance can very beneficial for improving the Snatch by developing overhead confidence.

However it should not be construed that the other two exercise groups (Snatch group and Other Exercises group) are not important. Quite the contrary, it is fundamentally important to spend a great deal of time on these exercises to perfect technique, timing, speed and confidence in movement under the bar while securing weights overhead in deep squat positions. While there may be conjecture amongst coaches about the usefulness of exercises in the “Other” group (see figure 3) for improving the Snatch, these exercises can be greatly beneficial for many lifters in developing overhead confidence and positional correctness, and in the case of Snatch Balance, speed under the bar. The “No Heave” Snatch Balance is performed by simply dropping into the receiving position without any push of the bar upwards up.

Figure 4 below aims to portray the volume of training across the whole spectrum of intensity. In terms of improving the Snatch, it is important to use the full range of intensities  between 60% and 125%. As the following illustration depicts, the lightest end of the intensity range (60-70%) is important for developing speed and the heaviest end (115-125%) is for developing force (strength). The range (80%-110%) is where most training occurs. This intensity range is much needed to develop power (a combination of speed and strength).

Intensity spectrum for pull exercises for improving the Snatch

Figure 4: Pulls with weights more than 100% of personal bests on Olympic Lifts are an important part of the training program for experienced weightlifters

The really important principle is that proper attention and effort should be paid to training over the whole of the intensity spectrum. By proper attention, it is meant that the quantity, proportion and frequency of training done at the various intensities from 60-125% must be closely managed. By proper effort, it is meant that athletes need to know and understand the purpose of training at all of the intensity spectrum so that they will be consistent in their application of effort.

So often, athletes fall into a number of traps:

Trap 1: “Lighter intensities are just warm-ups!” It is common to see athletes perform lighter intensities very poorly in terms of technique and speed as if these sets do not matter. They absolutely do!

Trap 2: “Power snatches are just an exercise you do when you give full snatch a rest!” No, power snatches are a critically important exercise that enables the athlete to really focus on speed, power and technique of the pull. The exercise is also saving of knee soreness for those who are sufferers. Improving the snatch really requires the athlete to really get a move on with the power snatch. New personal bests in the power snatch are an indicator that improvement in the snatch may be in the pipeline.

Trap 3: “Pulls are not that important, 5-6 sets should be enough!” Since pulls (all variations) should in total be about 20% of all training, an athlete should be performing a minimum of 8 sets in a session (intermediate experience) and 10-12 sets (advanced athletes). There is no rule that says an athlete cannot perform two variations of pulls in a single session.

Trap 4: “I like to train on the snatch more than the clean & jerk (because the clean & jerk is too hard)!” You have to be good at both lifts, its completely unavoidable. It is common to see lifters spending 30-35% of their entire session on the full Snatch, and more in some cases. Such a strategy tends to cause the lifter to “plateau” and if they are in a habit of lifting to maximum on a regular basis, with frequent failures, then they may even go backwards. The problem for many lifters is that too much time is spent in the 85-95% part of the intensity spectrum results in damage done to confidence and technique and a failure to take opportunities to develop speed, power and strength.

Trap 5: “I don’t bother much with snatch balance or snatch squats (overhead squats)!” This is a very common error. It is critically important to develop a stable and CONFIDENT receiving position. Take a good look at experienced elite-level athletes and notice that they all have excellent receiving positions. No-one is going to have any confidence moving under a heavy bar if they have inadequate strength overhead and a poor receiving position.

Apart from the need for constant attention to technical perfection in all movements, Weightlifting is obviously a sport where the accumulation of great strength and power over time is completely important. To this end, the weightlifter must spend much effort and time developing “the pull”  by using to best advantage the whole intensity spectrum from 60-125%. The Weightlifter should endeavour to realise that all lifts in this intensity spectrum play an important role in developing the expert performer. Great attention should be paid to correct body positions and movement irrespective of the exercise and the intensity.

Training Intensity for Pulls

“Pulls” is collective name for a range of exercises that, depending on experience and ability, enable the athlete to focus on strength development or technique improvement, or both. The range of exercises include pulls from hang, pulls from blocks, pull starts, pull to the knee, pulls with a halt at knee, mid-range pulls, jumping pulls, pulls standing on a block, high pulls, shrugs and of course the typical full pull from starting position to full extension.

The fact that pulls can be broken down into small segments has great value to the coach in teaching skill development. However in this article, the focus is mainly on the use of “Pulls” for strength development.

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