Olympic Lifting for the Master Athlete

Don’t skip this article just because you are not an old geezer. Trust me, the lessons most Master athletes learn usually are lumped into the category “I wish I would have known this before.” There are certain lessons you can learn from the mid-life crisis crowd that will pay for themselves in the long-term.

A couple of points before we look at programs. If you are lazy and don’t feel like reading my ramblings, let me summarize them here:

Focus on speed, speed, speed.
Use your checkbook
Seek and destroy your weaknesses
A little bit goes a long way

Before we get into the meat of this article, I have to agree with the criticisms that many lifters will come up with as they read this: you are right! The Bulgarians and the Greeks don’t do this! But, at age 35 plus, with a full-time job and family responsibilities, hold on Oprah: this might hurt your fragile inner child, you probably aren’t the “cream of the crop” for the Olympic selection committee either. In my humble opinion, the greatest error of the American Olympic effort over the past thirty years is abandoning the things that work for American athletes and adopting “stuff” from other countries. I imagine British athletes, who were a dominate force in track and field, as well as the O lifts and early powerlifting, would look back a few decades ago and agree they made the same mistake.

America’s last dominate lifter, Bob Bednarski, had his training methods studied by the Bulgarians before they adopted his ideas. True, they added and supplemented things, but the USA lifting establishment tossed his ideas out and … , let’s just say we haven’t had a world champ since him and Joe Dube in 1969. Review the lifting successes of the Duncan YMCA team of the late 1960’s and the parade of names that exploded with national and world records, Holbrook, Karchut, Lowe and others, and you will be left wondering why no one follows their simple “Easy week-hard week” training cycle. It works. The basic lessons of Capitalism seem to have been tossed out in the O lifting circles. If it works, do it.

So, yes, you are right, the Greeks don’t do what I am going to recommend. Of course, my five on five flag football team doesn’t train like the Minnesota Vikings. Sure, we could… but, our wives might complain about us quitting our jobs to get ready for Saturday’s games.

As we begin, let’s review one or two “assumptions.” Jim Markosian, the principal at St. John the Baptist in Draper, Utah, reminds me always of the key to leadership in education: “If you “ass-u-me,” you make and ass of you and me.” When discussing the Master O lifter’s training, I assume that you arrive with a basic mastery of technique as well as some experience in competition. If you don’t, the “Beginner’s Program”, in the last issue of the Dino Files should give you a start. And, yes, you should compete. Competition is crucial to the Master O lifter. It simply gives you that rare opportunity to “go for the max.” Also, it’s fun to beat up on the young people. Let’s get started.

Coach Ralph Maughan at Utah State University enjoyed decades of success with a Track and Field program located in the backwaters of Northern Utah, time zones away from the hot spots of athletics. How? Coach Maughan focused on recruiting two things: speed and smarts. “You can’t coach either,” he told me once. But, it sure is possible to ruin both of them. There is one thing that the Master O lifter needs to continually keep in the forefront: speed, speed, speed. Train yourself to go fast and faster.

How? First, avoid the temptation to go slow. I enjoy using the “Paleolithic Hunter” paradigm for training and dieting. I just can’t see me trying to feed my family by slowly throwing a spear or properly warming up before being chased by a saber toothed tiger. Speed equals survival. In O lifting, speed equals success. I know that a whole generation of exercise police have been raised fearing quick movements and the benefits of slowness. After listening to this nonsense for thirty years, all I ask is for proof: show me one superslow trained athlete competing in the O lifts at the Olympics. All that money spent on machines should have left a few bucks left over to support one athlete to prove the point. Just one, I’m not greedy.

Second, in your stable of lifts, you have to be willing to go fast. In 1982, at the Olympic Training Center, Curt White told me to stop doing “anything” slow in the weightroom. “Snap up 20 kilos as fast as you can, explode out of every snatch and clean bottom position.” He “destroyed” every warm up and told me to think  “fast, fast, fast” every lift, every time. Practically, though, how do you do it? A couple of ideas:

* I took a hint from Phil Holbrook: when I do pulls, I try to bring snatch pulls up to my forehead and clean pulls to my chin. Even with light, light weights, I really have to use good speed to make this happen. As the weights get heavier, it becomes a real chore. True, many O lifters have abandoned pulls in their training, but the Master lifter will find these to be real Godsend to their training. It is one of the most important lifts a Master can use as it trains the whole lift without the need to take the lift into the deep positions nor use nervous energy.
* In squatting, use the mantra “Down slow-up fast.” Always explode out of the bottom position and, taking a hint from Fred Hatfield, keep accelerating all the way up.
* Power snatches and power cleans need to be reconsidered for many. I see lots of guys leaping their feet apart three feet or more in the “catch” position. Instead, try pulling higher and faster and catching the bar with a minimal knee bend. Be sure to catch with some knee bend, but don’t let it go to extremes. Really, what does a personal record power clean mean to an O lifter, unless you jerk it overhead? Most guys who become power clean experts learn to cheat the bar up in various ways, none designed to improve the classic lift.
* One of the great coaches of yesteryear, Larry Barnholth who coached the George brothers, used to tell his athletes to explode out of everything. Rather than pulling yourself off of your easy chair, leap out of it. Try to find little places in your work and home routine where you can “explode.” I take the stairs at work two and three at a time. When I play backyard games with my kids, I find a place for an occasional “over the top” movement. It also has the added benefit of making my girls and their friends laugh.

Speed, speed, speed, but with a caution. One piece of advice that a Master lifter should listen to was a common warning among O lifters in the 1960’s and early 1970’s: don’t lift on “nerve” very often. I argue two points that every lifter should at least consider, if not actually genuflect before: first, never, never, never fail in training. Make every lift. Don’t miss lifts. Stay within yourself. Perfect practice makes perfect. Missing lifts can damage you, true, but more important is that missing lifts costs you a lot of energy. Simply dealing with the miss is energy consuming, but worse is the mental effort in psyching yourself up for the lift. Keep within yourself in training! Second, focusing on speed and keeping the weights in a manageable range will also save your nervous energy for meets. True, there is no “nervous energy” research, but anyone who has “gone to the well too often” can tell you the downside of overtraining. The Master lifter can afford very little error in the direction of overtraining. Sure, you can do it, but you will never reach your potential in meets. Trust me, this is experience talking.

The great advantage that the Master O lifter usually has is a job, a career, a profession, or, at least, access to money. When I first learned the O lifts from Dick Notmeyer, I had a hard time coming up with the one dollar a month training dues. So, how does one “use the wallet” for athletic success? Ask any athlete who doesn’t have money!

First, use your wallet to travel to meets. Get around! O lifting meets, both Open and Masters, are a wealth of coaching and training information. There are people at these meets who will give you, for free, decades of information for the cost of asking a question. Sure, some of it is suspect (unless it is me giving you the advice) but the vast majority of O lifting people are more than happy to help.

Second, use your wallet to help with equipment. True, the bar I train on is terrible, but it is a rotating Olympic bar with bumpers. I also have a hot tub as well as a great variety of training equipment. During the summer, I cool off with my outdoor shower then jump in the hot tub to recover from training. I couldn’t have done this in my twenties.

Third, use your wallet to put together a support team. I have a doctor I visit for blood tests (my number one health recommendation: yearly thorough blood tests), I have an old college teammate who I visit at his chiropractic office, and I am good friends with a manager at a local nutrition store. I put little stock in most supplements, but I take my Fish oil, magnesium, potassium and Vitamin E with great regularity.

Finally, use your wallet to purchase information. Subscribe. Buy books. Buy videos. Rent a coach for a couple of hours. Spend some money on your bar habit! (Barbell, that is)

The third point, work your weaknesses, is easy to ignore, at your peril. The Master athlete has to reconsider the notion of “tomorrow” when weaknesses are concerned. As a teen, or even in your twenties, there is always the next day to deal with skipping dreaded squat workouts or boring “technique” work, but you are at your peril as a master ignoring your weaknesses. Today is the day to, first, discover your weaknesses, and second, deal with them.

How do you discover your weaknesses? Honest feedback from a coach or a training partner is a start. Usually, though, everyone knows their weaknesses. For the competitive lifter, it is what makes you miss in meets. Getting buried by cleans? It could be your front squat strength. Dave Turner recommends that you front squat 108 percent of your clean and jerk. Dick Notmeyer recommended being able to do a triple in the front squat with your best clean and jerk.

Missing jerks? First, check your clean and recovery. Then, honestly determine exactly which part of the jerk is the problem: the drive, the lockout, the recovery? Spend a session each week focusing on the problem area. I would suggest one session a week be dedicated to the weak point of your lift utilizing a couple of different assistance exercises.

To deal with my problem recovering from cleans, I dedicated six weeks to the front squat. I front squatted three days a week, varying the weights, but rarely went over 80 percent. In addition, I did “Barski Cleans,” a simple variation of the clean where the athlete straps onto the bar, stands up, dips the bar below the knees, and squat cleans the weight. The Barski Cleans teach the athlete the timing of the recovery. Following a few weeks of recovery, I didn’t miss a clean for two years. The jerk, however, was another story.

As I have noted in other articles, the American throwers and lifters in the 1960’s were diligent in dealing with their weaknesses. Often, in articles in Strength and Health magazine, these athletes would note that “I’m really not that strong/good/technical… and I’m really working on this or that.” The writer would comment on the “modesty” of the athlete, yet, I believe the real reason for the modesty was an honesty appraisal of weaknesses. Work your weaknesses until they become strengths.

Finally, the fourth point: “A little bit goes a long ways.” Fifteen minutes a day, yes, only fifteen minutes a day of Olympic lifting may be enough to keep you going. Sure, thirty minutes might be better and an hour might be better, but if the hours at work and raising a family are piling up “a little bit goes a long way.” I have been able to win open lifting meets by lifting for a TOTAL of one hour a week.

To be able to do this abbreviated approach, you do need a reasonable in your approach to each week’s training. If I can offer the time conscious lifter any advice, it would be three basic themes:

* Monitor your rest periods
* Focus on one aspect of training in each session
* Redefine your concept of weight selection

One of the best things that ever happened to my training was the closure of my two favorite gyms and the need to train at home. Once I started training in my garage, I discovered that the bar gets extremely cold in winter in Utah. Rest periods, which had traditionally been a time for me to socialize and play tricks on my friends, now were periods of getting colder and colder. As I thought through my training, I followed my own advice from dozens of programs I had written: monitor rest periods. The research about rest periods points to increases in natural growth hormone and testosterone production. For the master lifter focusing on speed, monitored rest periods keep you focused on the lifting and not the garden, yard, housework, engine drippings or whatever can grab your attention.

On the list of “I wish I would have known this earlier,” the highest insight on the list is “focusing on one aspect of training in each session.”  Really, I like two simple approaches: either do just one lift a day (variations, too) or break your training week into a push day, a pull day and a squat day. One lift a day training works surprisingly well; I added almost thirty pounds to my snatch by devoting one day a week to nothing but power snatches and another day a week devoted to full snatches. Focusing on one aspect of your total training works by keeping you fresh with your full powers of concentration.

Tied into one lift a day is the fact that you will need to reconsider reps and sets. When I first pieced together the “Transformation Program,” a very popular program designed originally for high school throwers, we kept the reps at eight so the athletes could focus on speed on each lift. The idea of having the athlete do eight allowed for a lousy rep or two with the hope that the other six reps would teach speed. Yet as we developed the program into a pull day, a push day and a squat day, some athletes wanted to keep this “one a day” training program.

How do you snatch for a whole workout? We quickly stole an idea from the Olympic Training Center: wave training. Rather than doing a single pyramid of increasing weight while decreasing reps, we soon turned to double and triple pyramids. It was here we discovered that athletes really felt like they were going faster each successive pyramid.

For example:
Power Snatch

135 for 3

155 for 3

175 for 2

185 for 1

195 for 1 (rough lift)

155 for 1

175 for 1

185 for 1

195 for 1 (nice and fast)

155 for 1

185 for 1

205 for 1

This is a “triple pyramid:” Three successive waves of up and down and up with the weights on the bar. I now use my two and a half pound plates, a five and a ten to vary even triples. I might take 155 for a single, add the two and a half pound plates, take that 160, pull the small plates off and add the fives, 165, for my third “rep.” An Old Schooler, Daryl Jarman, watched me train squat cleans doing this method and he was shocked to see how quickly this kind of workout can finish. Moreover, the feeling of speed seems to be added by constantly changing the weight on the bar. Never go slow as a master, they might throw dirt on you.

So, how can we put this together? I competed in a meet in my mid-thirties and snatched 275 and clean and jerked 330. “So?,” you may well ask. Well, I only had a bar, two 25 pound plates and two 35 pound plates to train. That is 165 pounds total. But, for once, I listened to my own advice. We had developed the transformation program and I followed it!
Day One: (Perhaps Monday)

# Power Clean & Press: One power clean and eight presses.

3 sets of 8 with one minute rest between sets. If there is a single key to the program, it is the one minute rest period. By strictly monitoring the rest period, and obviously keeping track of the weight, one can track progress.

# Power Curls: 3 sets of 8 with one minute rest between sets. Using a curl grip, slide the weight to just above the knees and “curl-clean” the bar. Let it come down under control. Again, get all eight reps in, don’t change the weights, and monitor the rest period.

Some kind of ab work. We used side bends, but any kind of crunch is fine, too. Today, I might recommend One Arm Lifts.

Day Two: (a day or so later, perhaps Wednesday)

# Power Clean and Front Squats. One power clean and eight front squats.

Once again, 3 sets of 8 with one minute rest. Stay “tall” in the front squats and keep your elbows high. We usually use this as more of a warm up for the next exercise.

# Overhead Squats: 3 sets of 8 with one minute rest. Using the wide snatch grip, lock the elbows with the weight overhead and squat down. Athletes who do this exercise well not only develop flexibility, balance and leg strength, but an incredibly strong lower back. Also, this exercise builds what we used to call “Dad strength.” Growing up, a lot of us used to lift weights all the time but still could not torque a wrench or open a jar like dad, who never did any lifting. Overhead squats make you very strong.

Again, finish with some kind of ab work.

Day Three ( perhaps Friday or Saturday)

# Whip Snatches: 3 sets of 8 with one minute rest. With a wide snatch grip, stand up and hold the bar at crotch level. Dip and snatch the bar over head. Continue for 8 reps. You will be surprised how quickly this exercise can get into your blood. If you want big traps and explosion, this is the king.

# Clean grip snatches: 3 sets of 8 with one minute rest. With a clean grip, stand up and dip the bar to your knees. Then, explode up driving the bar, in one basic movement, over head. It is like a clean and press, well, without the clean.

Ab work if you wish.

Yes, that was it! I overhead squatted with 115 and front squatted 165, power curls 165, press 115, whip snatches 115, clean grip snatches 95. I was very fresh for the meet. Some days, I would even go lighter. True, I also totaled either at a friends house or the Hercules Barbell Club almost monthly, so I had a handle on my conditioning, but the bulk of my training was this simple weekly workout. True, I could go much, much heavier on all these lifts, but I didn’t need to until the meet day.

One lift a day programs work well, too. A nice training regime that I have used off and on for a few years is simply:

Snatch Pull

Clean Pull (True, this is “two” but they blend right together)

Squat (Front, back, overhead)

Power Jerk (I also like Power Clean and Power Jerk, too)

Power Snatch or light total on the two lifts

You can easily combine Thursday and Saturday’s workouts by doing Power Snatches, Power Cleans and Power Jerks. I would really recommend varying the weights on every set, or even every rep to keep the bar and the mind moving.

Next time, we will discuss the key concept in all levels of O lifting: dealing with weak points!

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