Your attitude, mindset and mental game are an important element to your training. The athletes with the most impressive gifts will fail if their attitude doesn’t rival their athleticism. Conversely there are athletes that lack key physical attributes in their respective sport, yet they succeed at a high level because of their work ethic and attitude. The science and education in the arena of the mental training is expanding as athletes are looking for each and every possible edge, but most of the material is focused on competition. Weightlifters typically train 10-20 hours a week, and compete only 3-4 times a year. Being mentally prepared for competition is extremely important, but since the bulk of a Weightlifter’s career is spent practicing and not competing it would be foolish to not consider the specific requirements for your attitude and behaviors in the practice environment.
Yuri Vardanyan is a great example of a Weightlifter who was extremely successful despite not being “built” for the sport. Long legs, long arms, and a short torso aren’t exactly Weightlifting archetypes. It shows in his peculiar technique, but that didn’t stop him from winning 7 world championships, an Olympic gold medal, and setting countless world records. While a “perfect storm” of factors goes into making a world champion, could Yuri’s mindset towards training be a key component of his success?
Practice vs. Training
Weightlifting, like other strength sports, is unique in that the lines between workouts and practice are blurred. For example during soccer practice, a player may work on footwork drills, shooting technique, game strategy, etc…Later on that athlete would (or at least should) hit the gym for a “workout” where he develops his physical attributes; things like strength, speed, agility and endurance are all important to a soccer player and would be curated in the gym. For athletes like Weightlifters and Powerlifters, the same things that develop your athleticism are also part of your practice. While certain sessions will have more of a focus on technique or developing physical attributes, neither can be ignored.
Early on in a Weightlifter’s career more of the sessions will be “practice sessions” where the emphasis is highly focused on technique, movement quality, and precision, with little regard to developing strength or speed. As an athlete becomes more consistent with their technique, the focus then shifts to developing the physical attributes necessary to succeed in the sport. Even after the focus shifts to getting stronger and faster, quality of movement remains paramount because successful Weightlifting is all about having habitual technique. If you constantly allow for poor quality lifts, they will become habit. If you constantly allow misses, missing will become a habit.
Despite movement quality being of the utmost importance, it’s also important not to disrupt a training session designed to make an athlete stronger to nitpick a Weightlifter’s technique. At the intermediate level, where most Weightlifters are, and where they will be for a long time, it can be useful to add in technique only sessions to refine the details of their lifting without adding in extra volume to recover from, or disrupting their training sessions designed to develop specific physical attributes. If an athlete is struggling with a particular exercise, reduce the weight until they can do it correctly. It may seem ironic, but you don’t need to lift the most weight possible to get stronger, even in strength sports. The famous Soviet Weightlifting system shows average relative intensities in the 80% range, a weight few Weightlifters consider “heavy.” World renowned Powerlifting coach Boris Sheiko has built a career on high volume programs that prescribe weights as light as 50%. Highly sought after strength & conditioning coach Eric Cressey claims you can make strength gains with as little as 40% of your 1RM.
If an athlete is working at an intensity where they cannot control their movements, it’s too heavy. The athlete should be able to dictate where the barbell goes, not the other way around. Being able to generate massive amounts of force but not being able to control where that force goes, and when it happens is of no use to the Weightlifter.
The Approach to Training
Before each workout begins, you should look over your program for the day, and think about what the purpose of the training session is, and set “mini-goals” for that session are. If you have a coach, it can be a good idea to go over it with them. If you train yourself, this step becomes even more important. If you don’t have a program to follow or at least a rough outline of what your workout will consist of…you’re doing it wrong.
Setting mini-goals for each session is important, but can also dangerous if your mindset towards training is flawed. Hitting personal bests in training can remind us that our training is working, give additional confidence, and help keep us motivated, but they are not at all necessary for a training session to be effective. Remember: training is designed to make us better, not demonstrate that we are better (that’s what competition is for). Let’s say that a program calls for a 3RM in the snatch, followed by 4 drop down sets at 90% after the highest weight was achieved. Last week an athlete was able to do 120kg in the snatch triple, and this week has a mini-goal of 123kg in the same workout. This time the athlete is only able to do 118kg, falling 5kg short of their mini goal, and 2kg short of their personal best in the triple. The difference between last week and this week is 2kg in both the highest weight achieved and the drop sets, with the total volume being the same. Do you think that the athlete’s workout was any less effective? Arguably no.
Let’s modify the scenario and say that the athlete did make the 123kg, but only on the third attempt at it, missing at least one of the 3 reps in the set on the first two sets. Now the athlete will have drop sets at 110kg, will that then be more effective than 108kg? Again, likely not, but what will have probably happened is now the athlete has accumulated more fatigue from the multiple attempts at the 123kg, and will possibly miss a few reps of the drop down sets as well. In these scenarios we have two workouts: one with minimal misses and an effective workout but no personal best set, and the other with many misses, questionably effective workout, extra accumulated fatigue, less quality practice, and a personal best. These problems become even more exacerbated when applied to non competition lifts, variations and complexes.
If we again take Weightlifting and filter it through a metaphor of another sport, we can easily see how it is foolhardy to constantly chase personal bests. Think of American football. Imagine a kicker has a personal best field goal of 55 yards. Now imagine the kicker tries every single day at practice to break that distance. Even with an activity as relatively low stress as kicking a ball full of air, we know that it’s unlikely that the kicker would be able to improve upon that number daily, or even weekly or monthly. Now apply that concept to something like snatching, clean & jerking, or squatting, movements that use every muscle and joint in your body and with hundreds of kilograms. It’s easy to see why it would be difficult to constantly improve in a linear fashion, as well as why it would be hard on your body. The basic principal of training is that the athlete is an organism, the training is a stress, and when you place stress on an organism, it adapts to that stress, but without adequate recovery time and means, the organism cannot adapt.
The approach to training should be incremental, and day by day with the understanding that if you have a bad workout or even a string of bad workouts, that it’s okay. Training has ups and downs, and there is literally nothing riding on your performances in training. While hitting a huge personal best in training is exciting, it doesn’t matter if you can’t replicate it in competition. On the flip side, it doesn’t matter if you’ve failed to improve your training numbers if you’re able to do it on the platform. Athletes sometimes say that hitting PRs in training gives them the confidence they need going into competition. I think this is a flawed mindset. I think a PR can bolster confidence, but it shouldn’t be necessary. If you believe in yourself, and maybe more importantly, if you believe in your program, you should be confident in your ability come competition day. Athletes who constantly need reaffirmation of their abilities (like hitting their openers in training a couple days out from training, or doing pulls with a PR weight to get the “feel” for it) are lacking self confidence, and no amount of training, no matter how good the program, will overcome that.
Over the years I’ve seen athletes and clients get hung up on various things, some of which make sense, and others completely bewildered me. Here’s a list of things that matter, and things that don’t. Ask yourself if they are important to you to see where your ego is at:
Numbers that matter:
-Your best competition snatch and C&J if you’re a Weightlifter. Your best competition squat, bench press and deadlift if you’re a Powerlifter.
-How many hours a night you sleep
-How many calories you eat
-How many misses you (don’t) have in training
-Number of training sessions you (don’t) miss in a training cycle
-Lifting a bigger number in competition this time than last time (local meets)
-Lifting a bigger number than your competitors (national meets)
-Qualifying and ranking totals
-Your body weight
Numbers that don’t matter:
-Lifting more than some random person you saw on Instagram
-91kg, 137kg, 182kg, 227kg. These are arbitrary numbers and are only important to you because you associate them with the non-metric conversions of 2, 3, 4 and 500lbs.
-Your personal best in any lift other than your competition lifts. We may use your squat or military press numbers to identify your areas of weakness for considerations in programming, but grinding out an ugly rep simply in the sake of hitting a personal best in an accessory exercise is both meaningless and potentially dangerous. Training is about minimizing fatigue and thus injury. Injuries occur most often when an athlete is overworked. Going back to Yuri Vardanyan, it has been said that his best clean & jerk was MORE than his best front squat. Why? He never bothered to attempt a one rep max front squat. It’s not a competition lift thus he simply didn’t put that much effort into training it. A common thought in Weightlifting is that if your classic lifts are a high percentage of your strength lifts, then your technique is good and you only need to get stronger. Unfortunately it’s not that simple. Since both the snatch and C&J are strongly dependent on velocity, position and timing, there is a harsh drop-off in returns with strength lifts. In fact, I’ve seen dozens of athletes over the years with sound technique increase their strength and put minimal weight on their total.
-The 3 kilos your coach asked you to take off the bar because your technique was falling apart. The strong adverse reaction many athletes have had to this over the years is strange to me. It’s as if I were questioning their value as a human being.
Pulling out all the stops
The last thing I want to discuss is the effect of over stimulation in training. Strength athletes use all manner of techniques to elevate their sense and amplitude to eek out every last kilo. Loud music, yelling from teammates, smelling salts, slapping the athlete, jumping up an down vigorously, forced hyper-ventilation, can all over stimulate the athlete to extract maximum performance…but should these methods be used in training? Personally, I would say no. Aleksey Medvedev, a famous Soviet Weightlifting coach and Vladamir Zatriosky, one of the world’s preeminent sport scientists agree:
As Zatriosky points out in this quote, over stimulating yourself can lead to burnout. We don’t think of loud music or mentally hyping ourselves up as stress, but it is, and it manifests itself physically. Think of how physically tired you get from a long drive in traffic where you have to concentrate on so many different cars and lanes. Or the physical exhaustion you feel after an emotional break-up, loss of a loved one, or big argument with a friend or family. While none of these things are physically demanding, the stress of them will physically fatigue you. This is true for using emotional exciting means during training or non-major competitions.
Imagine if in training you used smelling salts to hit a 5kg PR in the C&J, that you would not have made without the additional stimulation of the salts. Now in your next training block, you have triples prescribed at 80% of your 1RM. But now without the aid of the salts, you’re effectively lifting at 5kg higher than what you’re really capable of for the prescribed amount of sets and reps. With that it’s easy to see how things could fall apart quickly.