Pushing training intensity in Olympic Weightlifting
In the context of Olympic Weightlifting, a well-designed training program will provide the athlete with guidance on how to structure training across the week and make suitable changes to this structure on a weekly basis in the lead up to a competition. A really neatly prepared and well thought out training program can have a positive effect on the athlete. It reduces the likelihood of common issues that occur when athletes follow very loose training guidelines or none at all. Here are a few of the issues that a well-designed training program should minimise:
- Spending far too much time on exercises preferred by the athlete, and little or no time on exercises not preferred but often most needed.
- Going too heavy too often, which results in loss of form and well-being, and the occurrence of injuries.
- Failing to vary the training load sufficiently from day to day
- Performing exercises in an unhelpful order
- Using time poorly during training sessions
But training programs also have significant limitations and without sufficient understanding of these limitations athletes can be disadvantaged.
Pushing training intensity is an absolute necessity in the training process but it must be done with a great deal of care and control. The training program, no matter how thoughtfully designed, can never predict the state of well-being of the athlete on any given day. For this reason, the work prescribed by the training program has to be subdued, respectful of the athlete’s physical and emotional health and not too ambitious in its goals. The written training program with its specification of exercises, sets, reps and intensities can never be regarded as anything more than a broad framework for guiding the athlete.
The necessity for pushing training intensity is based on a principle of paramount importance in the training process – The Principle of Progressive Overload. This principle, credited to Thomas Delorme, M.D. who was involved in rehabilitating soldiers after World War II, sets out the need for gradual increase (over time) in the volume, intensity, frequency of training to improve the physical strength and conditioning of the athlete. The gradual increase in physical stressors as a result of training creates a stimulus for the body to compensate and to reach high levels of fitness.
But in Weightlifting, the need to push is also very much about the development of the athlete’s mental skills including courage, composure under stress, resilience and will-power. Such mental skills are equally, if not more important than physical skills, and cannot be developed without a preparedness to battle beyond the comfort zone that the training program often represents.
There are of course risks in pushing training intensity and I have personally witnessed athletes fall into disrepair as a result. Such disrepair takes three forms. Firstly, when an athlete is pushing very hard on a frequent basis, the tell-tale signs of technique breakdown begin to occur. Loss of confidence is a significant factor that causes abnormal technical issues to appear. Secondly, the athlete begins to suffer significant soreness and injury because they are unable to recover sufficiently between sessions. The appearance of injury is another underlying cause of a loss of confidence. Thirdly, as a result of issues with technique, injuries and loss of confidence, the athlete’s satisfaction with training and their mental health begins to slip away.
How does an athlete avoid these risks? Well, they are very difficult to avoid but a coach who can view the athlete in training on a regular basis and offer advice is the best form of protection.
But it is helpful for the athlete and the coach to develop some overarching principles about when to push, and how to push.
It is okay to push to a higher weight when:
- The target intensity is achieved with confidence
- The risk of injury to the athlete appears to be minimal if a heavier set is taken
- There is no specific need to keep intensity down i.e. when tapering for any event or recovering from injury
- The athlete is eager or confident to take another set with a weight higher than the planned intensity
- Taking another set with a higher weight has a good probability of success e.g. 70% or above.
- When pushing forward on the exercise is important to the athlete e.g. an example when there may not be a benefit if the athlete is pushing on the Clean when it is already 20kg in front of their Jerk.
It is also okay to perform greater work volume than the training prescribed, and this often goes hand in hand with pushing to heavier weights.
Here’s a methodology using a very typical but demanding training prescription – Snatch 80%/3×3. First question, is the training prescription of 80%/3×3 feasible today, or is the athlete sore, fatigued and constrained by injury and other factors from this tough target? If in reasonable state of repair, the athlete has many options to push training intensity. Here are just a few.