Intensity in Olympic Weightlifting: How to prescribe

In Olympic Weightlifting, the term “Intensity” is a parameter of training that describes the relative heaviness of the barbell. In training programs or workout plans, intensity is very often specified in the form of a percentage of the athlete’s personal best performance for a particular exercise. The percentage value given is a recommended limit or ceiling of how heavy the athlete should go on the given day, or session. For example, if an athlete with a personal best Snatch of 100Kg is prescribed 80% intensity, then 80Kg is the endorsed limit of their training on that exercise for that day.

Intensity specified as a percentage of best lift is a method that works reasonably well for athletes with significant training experience. However, for beginner athletes (experience 0-6 months) the method is completely inadequate. This is because beginners have no established personal bests and are usually rapidly evolving in ability. The use of percentages in these circumstances is meaningless.

The use of percentages of best performance is a very inexact science even for experienced athletes. It is generally well understood that many factors can intervene to cause a given intensity to be inappropriate. For example, a medium intensity of 80% can feel extremely easy on some days but exceptionally hard when the athlete is suffering from fatigue, soreness, or has simply had a bad day. Such factors provide a reason why many coaches dislike using percentages in training programs that they write.

This article discusses two alternative ways to prescribe intensity in Olympic Weightlifting:

  • Percentage of bodyweight
  • Perceived exertion rating

Percentage of Bodyweight

For athletes with less than 12 months experience, the presence of a well-credentialed coach to oversee training is especially vital. This is far more effective than any training program. However, it is increasingly more common for athletes to train without an experienced coach by their side. Growth in participation, increasing commercialisation of the sport, and a lag in coach education are factors that contribute to this problem. In such circumstances, beginners need workout plans that provide some guidance on appropriate bar heaviness. This can be achieved by stipulating intensity as a percentage of bodyweight. It’s not perfect but it gives a measure that the beginner can use and understand. The main limitation of this method is that the writer of the workout plan needs considerable knowledge of how beginners typically perform at various levels of experience. For example, what would be a reasonable percentage of bodyweight for a beginner to perform partial depth Overhead Squats to a bench (see figure 1 below)? You will rightly say it depends on several factors such as how many sessions the beginner has had, their physical literacy, the limits of their flexibility, their fitness, and so on. But if a coach does have the experience, this method is possible and effective. It is the method used in The Beginner Olympic Weightlifting Program eBook series available on this website.

Example exercise description in a beginner Olympic Weightlifting Program.
Figure 1: An illustration from The Beginner Olympic Weightlifting Program eBook series.

Perceived Exertion Rating

Perceived exertion rating (PER) [or Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE)] is a method that relies on the athlete to subjectively assess their own performance of a training activity. Typically, the athlete must judge whether the training task is very light, light, moderate, vigorous, very hard or in other words similar. Applied to an activity such as running, such subjective assessment is doable even by beginners. However, when applied to a more complex activity such as performing weightlifting movements, the assessment process is complicated by factors such technical skill, limitations of flexibility and heaviness of the bar. Assessing intensity by this method is problematic for beginner athletes as they lack sufficient knowledge to reliably self-measure. For example, if the training plan states “easy” for an exercise, that might not prevent them from going beyond the effective range for good skill development. For experienced athletes, this method is commonly used although not in such an elaborate form as Figure 2. It is a reasonable supposition that many coaches who do not use percentages would use a simple 3-level scale in their training programs such as: H, M, L (heavy, medium, light).

The issue with such a method is that athletes will often interpret the given intensity rating too freely, and over time, a bias towards training consistently heavy emerges. Without coaching oversight, this bias can have damaging consequences for the athlete. In Figure 2, an 8-level scale is proposed by Lionel Isaac that attempts to assist judgement of intensity in Olympic Weightlifting. Furthermore, there is also some explanation of how sets to be performed on an exercise are distributed across a range of intensities. It is still a very inexact science and relies on the athlete to read, think about, and learn the chart. As always, there is no substitute for a good coach.

Example chart of Perceived Exertion Rating using 8 levels.
Figure 2: An 8-level Perceived Exertion Rating Scale for use in Olympic Weightlifting.

Final Comment

It is always important to prescribe intensity in Olympic Weightlifting in some form or another to reduce the risk that athletes will attempt weights beyond their capability level. For beginner athletes this can have a dramatic effect on their skill development and personal safety.

However, due to the individuality of athletes, there will be circumstances where it is advisable to steer away or modify the intensity given in a training program. Every time an athlete walks through the door of the gym, a variety of factors will impact on their ability to train. Although it is an inexact science, there is a need to provide the athlete with some guidance on heaviness or intensity. The following is recommended for athletes at different levels of experience:

  • Beginners (0-6 months) – Stipulate the intensity using a percentage of bodyweight. Coaches with sufficient experience of beginners can devise their own percentage limits. Coaches who lack experience should use programs devised by experienced coaches.
  • Novices (6-12 months) – Stipulate the intensity using perceived exertion rating. If the athlete has participated in 3 competitions and now has established personal bests, it is useful to introduce the percentage of personal best method and run both measures side by side. This dual method is used in programs 1065 and 1085 available on this website.
  • Early intermediates (12-24 months) – Stipulate the intensity using percentage of personal best provided intensity prescription is cautious to avoid stressing the athlete and causing a breakdown of technical form, wellbeing, and confidence. Encourage the athlete to keep a training log at this stage (or sooner). It is especially important for athletes to start building records of personal bests. It may be useful to still include some guidance on perceived exertion rating if you feel athletes are likely to pursue percentages too strictly.
  • Late intermediates (24-36 months) – Stipulate the intensity using percentage of personal best but educate athletes on self-monitoring of wellness. Do not permit the athlete to work from “inflated” personal bests which some athletes are inclined to do. This is a recipe for overtraining.
  • Advanced (more than 36 months) – Stipulate the intensity using percentage of personal best but be sure the training plan is sufficient in the frequency of light sessions. The occurrence of overtraining and injury at this stage is the main reason why people leave the sport. For this reason, it is reasonable to reintroduce measures of intensity using perceived exertion rating.

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