Training Twice a Day in Olympic Weightlifting

Athletes in Weightlifting at the elite level have engaged in 2 sessions of training per day since the 1970s and perhaps earlier. Most famously, it was the Bulgarian weightlifting coach, Ivan Abadjiev, who made this phenomenon well known by implementing a regime of high-intensity morning and evening training sessions that were lengthy and contained rest breaks between exercises. Since the 1970s, it has become increasingly the norm for Weightlifters at elite levels to undertake as many as 8-11 sessions per week. Under these circumstances, training requires more than 20 hours per week in the training hall with additional time for travelling, physio, flexibility, recovery measures and nutrition. Training becomes virtually a full-time occupation.

Therefore, any athlete contemplating entering into a twice-a-day training regime must ask themselves several questions. Firstly, has the athlete demonstrated consistent application and adaptation to a 5 days per week program. Any lack of consistency in attending and completing training sessions suggests that the athlete is not ready for 2 sessions per day. Secondly, the athlete must truly believe in their long-term performance potential and their capacity to endure the hardships and sacrifice of the lifestyle that is to come. Thirdly, the athlete must be in a position where they are well-coached and managed and have security in their place of abode and their money supply. For this reason, many national governments provide a stipend for elite athletes, but such funding is generally not available for emerging athletes, only for those who have already reached the pinnacle. Therefore, an athlete entering into almost full-time training must be financially self-sufficient or have supporting benefactors.

The limits of human potential in any endeavour are only reached with extraordinary effort. In general, people appreciate the commitment and single-mindedness required to complete endless hours of training but there is less understanding of the impact of such training on the well­being of the athlete. The frequency of training reduces the recovery time between sessions to hours not days and without proper management of training, signs of maladaptation can appear. These signs include prolonged stiffness and soreness, injury and pain, lethargy and chronic fatigue, loss of bodyweight, a depressed immune system, and staleness or lack of motivation for training. Maladaptation means failing to adapt and, in this situation, the athlete’s performance tends to go backwards rather than forwards. It is quite easy for the motivated athlete to fall into this trap and to expend large amounts of training effort without reward.

Therefore, at higher levels of commitment to training, it becomes entirely necessary to implement proper management of training. These measures include longer warm-ups, variation of training load through the week, stricter control of sleep and diet, additional time spent on flexibility, and the implementation of massage, hydrotherapy and other recovery measures. Furthermore, as a part of the raft of measures needed to cope with high frequency and intense training sessions, athletes should engage in low impact aerobic activities for recovery. In an ideal world, such aerobic activities for recovery would also be under the guidance of a coach to ensure that athletes do not overstep the mark. Otherwise, the additional cardiovascular work may contribute to training overload, produce high levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) and cause prolonged catabolism.

It is most definitely a complicated and involved process to manage the training of athletes engaged in twice-daily training. The extra training time must be put to good use and should promote improvement in all motive qualities (speed, range of movement, stability, balance, coordination and strength). There is no exact formula as to how the additional training time should be spent as each athlete will have a different set of strengths and weaknesses. However, it is possible to formulate a set of principles to guide athletes and coaches in the management of the training content. The following 10 principles should be considered:

Principle 1. Increase the variety of exercises.

For any athlete who is already training five sessions per week in the evening, the addition of extra morning training sessions should not be simply more of the same. The extra training time should allow the athlete to increase the range of exercises and this may have important benefits for skill enhancement, improving weaknesses and injury prevention. An athlete engaging in training 8-11 sessions per week will spend a lot of time looking at the same dimly lit walls and a greater variety of exercises will also add very much needed fun, enjoyment and relief. However, in selecting exercises for the expanded amount of training time, there needs to be a consideration of the ‘specificity principle’. For example, the inclusion of light and fast snatches from waist height in a morning session is more in agreement with the specificity principle than bicep curls.

Principle 2. Vary the training load.

Training load is a product of intensity and volume and, by constantly manipulating these two variables, there can be substantial differences in the training effect. However, if there is a great similarity between training load from one day to the next, the athlete may reach a performance plateau sooner than if there is greater diversity. It is relatively easy to understand that heavy training loads induce significant fatigue, and this necessitates the implementation of recovery strategies. However, if an athlete is training 8-11 sessions per week, complete rest is not possible. Instead, lighter training loads and easier sessions must be mandated and therefore the training of an elite athlete will resemble peaks and troughs through the week.

Principle 3. Work to maintain and improve flexibility.

All athletes in Weightlifting need to attend to their mobility and flexibility daily. This not only means performing stretching activities but also exercises that maintain or enhance receiving positions. For example, the excessive workload of the elite Weightlifter tends to induce tightness, soreness and loss of flexibility over time.  As a result receiving positions can deteriorate. In exercises such as Overhead Squats, athletes must work to maintain the perfection of foot positioning, hip flexibility, control of spinal curvature, body positioning and shoulder flexibility. This can be achieved with light and medium intensity work regularly in morning sessions.

Principle 4. Develop speed and fluency of movement under the bar.

The extra training time affords the opportunity for athletes to work on developing speed and fluency of movement utilising a range of technical exercises and skill drills performed at relatively light to medium intensity. Skill drills can be innovative, targeted towards athletes’ needs, and challenging to perform even when light. “Snatch with No Pull” is an example and skill drills of this nature when performed with light weights for speed provide the athlete with psychological relief from the constancy of high-intensity training.

Principle 5. Work to develop stability.

In addition to flexibility, Weightlifters need to develop and maintain stability and control. Successful lifts require not only sufficient force to elevate the bar, but also an ability to stabilise the whole body underneath. This is an aspect of Weightlifting performance that is not well understood at lower levels of lifting. At limit weights at the high-performance level, any instability in the body results in loss of balance, lost lifts and occasionally injuries to the elbow or other weaker parts of the body. In a training regime of 8-11 sessions per week, morning sessions can be used to practise exercises for stability and control. For example:

  1. Snatch Balances and Overhead Squats with motionless long sits in full depth
  2. Jerk Balances and Split Squats to develop pelvic control, appropriate back knee bend and back foot control
  3. Jerk Recovery (using a rack or jerk blocks) – with care to avoid instability in the shoulders
  4. Abdominal exercises to increase core stability
  5. Front Squats with isometric holds at half depth to encourage torso stability
  6. Front Squats with a 1-2 second stop at the bottom to encourage torso stability

Principle 6. Work to maintain appropriate cardiovascular functioning.

This does not mean intensive endurance training. Short and sharp bouts of cardiovascular activity of 15 – 20 minutes, 3 times per week would likely be sufficient to ensure that the Weightlifter has adequate cardiovascular functioning to meet the demands of training, competition, and recovery. The bouts of cardiovascular training can be done outside the gym but if there are sufficient athletes undertaking morning training together, it is more fun for athletes to work together.

Principle 7. Work to optimise nutrition.

At the higher levels of sport involvement, nutrition becomes ever more important. It is not just a case of macronutrient manipulation (the proportion of protein, carbohydrate and fat) but also the timing of dietary intake. Athletes in Weightlifting MUST consume high levels of carbohydrates to restore the body after training. A meal of steak and salad will not suffice. This is a complex nutritional argument that has been researched and which cannot be explained to the depth it deserves here. The content of the diet is important but so too is the timing. Athletes at higher levels must pay close attention to the regularity of food intake and make sure that the cessation of training is followed by a meal within 1-2 hours.

Principle 8. Work to minimise injury.

Athletes readily appreciate the detrimental impact of an injury on performance. However, athletes fail to understand the causes of injury which, in Weightlifting, result from (a) the cumulative effect of high-intensity training with inadequate recovery and (b) the athlete overreaching in training. Overreaching occurs when an athlete attempts training that exceeds their capability and state of readiness. It is, of course, necessary for athletes to push themselves but there must be a high degree of thought and control. Occasionally athletes fall into a mindset of invincibility and become a victim of irrational behaviour and attempt weights beyond safe limits. This is often prevalent when athletes perform limit or over-limit back squats reaching a breaking point.

Principle 9. Work on self-monitoring.

If an athlete has reached the level where training twice daily is considered, then they have also reached the point where it would be neglectful to not engage in self-monitoring. The purpose of self-monitoring is to collect data that may be useful to both the coach and athlete to manage the training process. The athlete’s self-monitoring process includes keeping a comprehensive list of personal bests on all exercises, a record of daily bodyweight measurements, a training log in which all training is recorded, and a written record of general comments about health, sleep, mood, state of injuries and other information that the coach would find pertinent. This information helps both the athlete and the coach to gauge what is happening in training, and how the athlete is adapting. For example, months of hard training and an unplanned fall in bodyweight is a probable indicator of over-training.

Principle 10. Maximise the value of training.

If athletes choose to submit themselves to 8-11 sessions per week of training, and in effect behave as professional athletes, then they should ensure that the maximum value of time spent training is achieved. The attitude must be that if you choose to enter into this elite level of training, you should do so with the intention of becoming an elite athlete. This means that every hour of your training is used productively. It is the case that many athletes make it to the top of the recreational strata of sport and there they stay, not because of any lack of physical ability, but because they are unable to modify their behaviour to adapt to the requirements of high-performance sport.