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Programming Training Intensity for Weightlifters

Om Yun Chol Best Korea Tripple Bodyweight Clean Jerk Face Weightlifting Intensity

Here is a guest post from Jean-Patrick Millette, who runs (like it on Facebook).

He takes a look at 3 different studies about training intensity for weightlifters shows how this information can be useful for your training. Hope you enjoy it.
Since it is a longer read I made it available for your ereader of choice.

Download: mobi (for kindle), epub

The training of weightlifters has evolved through the years. Factors that have influenced the way weightlifters train are diverse: competition rules change (i.e. allowance of thigh contact with the bar), the removal of a competition lift (clean and press), exercise science advancement as well as geographical location of the athletes (Cultural aspect). This gave birth to a large number of training systems and methodologies.

The variables included in these training systems – such as movements used, order of movements in a given training plan, frequency of training, volume and intensity of training, length of training, pre or post competition training – tend to vary greatly amongst the approach. There have been very simple systems (i.e: Bulgarian’s system) and there have been very well planned systems (ie: Soviet’s system).

Interestingly enough, both of these systems have produced a large number of champions even though the approach is very different.

However, I think it is important to investigate how training intensity can be manipulated to generate the most gain on the competitive lifts. This investigation is important because high training intensity, by nature, is fatiguing (neural and muscular fatigue) and ups the risk of training injuries. It is important that a coach doses training intensity perfectly so that it creates consistency in the lifts,to avoid overtraining (not recuperating enough) as the gains are made over time.

Because of this, I would argue that the dosage of high intensity training sessions is one the most –if not the most- important criteria when creating a training plan for weightlifters.

This goal of this article is not to provide a recipe for creating a training plan but to provide thought-provoking information that can help you create your own.

Training Intensities of Different Systems

Let’s review some of the known system’s average intensity of training.

Zatsiorsky (1992) investigated this matter [Link to the paper].

Zatsiorsky, in his review, states that the average training intensity for elite Russian athletes was 75 +/- 2% of their competition max.

Of interest to the weightlifter: “the main portion of weight lifted (25%) is 70 to 80% of competition max” and only 7% of all lifts were done above 90%”.

This is particularly low in comparison to other countries. Zatsiorsky states that Finnish weightlifting champions, in 1987, was at an average intensity of 80 +/- 2.5%.

Allow me to quote him again: “The numbers of repetitions with maximal resistance are relatively low. During the 1984-1988 Olympic Training Cycle, elite Russian athletes lifted a barbell of maximal weight in main exercises (Snatch and Clean & Jerk) 300 to 600 times a year. This amount comprised 1.5 – 3.0% of all their lifts”.

Most of those lifts (65%) were done between 90 and 92.5%.

I would like to point out that Russia might have changed the way they train their athletes as they have been changing their coaches often. The data is still relevant, though.

On the other hand, some systems, such as the Bulgarian system, advocate frequent max out training sessions (working out to a daily max every session).

Zastiorsky states that Bulgarians lifted up to 4000 times a year their daily training (Not competition max) max. This is the equivalent of 10 max training lifts, everyday for a whole year.

Both systems, the soviet and Bulgarian system, allowed these nations to dominate the sport during the 1980’s. However, the Bulgarian system has been critiqued as “more” dangerous (up the risk on injuries). I do not have data on the difference of injuries rate, so I will not comment on this. Consequently, I will look at what the scientific literature has to say about optimal training intensity.

Optimal Training Intensity

While not many studies have been done on the subject of the effect of different training intensity on weightlifting performance, I would like to present two papers that are very relevant.

In their fantastic review on the development of maximal neuromuscular power, Cormier et al. (2011) [Link to Paper] mention that training with heavy loads (80+%) is suggested in order to improve maximal power output. The idea being that an increase in strength has to increase power output. 80+% of 1RM is said to do just that.

Nonetheless, I would like you to consider that Olympic weightlifting is a very high skilled sport where gains in the competition lifts depend on many other aspects than strength, or power for all that matters. This is especially true for the beginner and intermediate lifters, who, I suspect are the readers of this article. What we are after is consistency and efficiency of the lifts and it should never be forgotten.

This brings me to my next point. Much like what the Soviet were doing, Cormier et al states that the optimal load for weightlifting is 70 to 80%.

In the scientific literature, the optimal load refers “to the load that elicits maximal power production in a specific movement”. In his conclusion, the authors state that weightlifting exercises done with 50 to 90% of 1RM seem to be the best training stimulus to improve maximal power.

In other word, they are arguing against the very frequent use of maximal intensities to develop power and that repetition should be done in a large spectrum of intensities (where technique can be drilled at the same time that power production is maximized).

The third study I would like to present was conducted by Gonzalez-Badillo et al (2006) [link to paper]. This is probably one of the only studies available that looked at different training intensities and their impact on Olympic-style weightlifting gains. Most studies available looked mainly at the impact of different training intensities on different strength movements like the bench press which is not that specific to our purpose (or as specific as I would like).

In this case, the three lifts studied were the Snatch, the Clean and Jerk and the Squat.

Basically, Gonzalez-Badillo looked at the effect of “3 different volumes of heavy resistance, average relative training intensity (expressed as a percentage of 1 repetition maximum that represented the absolute kilograms lifted divided by the number of repetition performed) programs on maximal strength (1RM) in Snatch, Clean and Jerk and Squat”.

A heavy resistance repetition was defined as a repetition done above 90% in the best Snatch and Clean & Jerk.

The participants were experienced trained junior weightlifters that were assigned to any of the three tested groups:

Athletes trained 4 to 5 days a week, for 10 weeks, using the same exercises although they were programmed with different loading schemes. Concretely, over the course of the trial, they did the following:

above 90% of their best lifts.

Gonzalez-Badillo et al. found that the moderate intensity group produced greater strength gains than the two other groups.

According to the study, there were no significant difference in the strength gains between the low intensity group and the high intensity group.

More importantly, Gonzalez-Badillo writes that athletes within the high intensity group were unable to accomplish the repetitions programmed above 90+%. Because of the nature of weightlifting, missing lifts should be limited as the last thing a lifter want is the learning of a mistake or bad habit. Also, missing lifts offers limited positive training stimulus.

It appears, at least for short term strength gains, that moderate amount of high intensity repetitions produces greater gains in the technical lifts.

This study finding is very important when coaching beginner and intermediate lifters as most of us train 4 to 5 times a week just like the participants of this study.

Also, when it comes down to it, the moderate intensity group did an average of 9.3 high intensity (above 90%) lifts weekly. In other words, and for our personal purpose, this could represent a single high intensity session a week (3 reps snatch, 3 reps CJ, 3 reps squats).

Conclusion and Final Thoughts

Although the studies presented seems to suggest that a training system where the training intensity is moderate (70-80%) and not maximal all the time (or where the maximal lifts are well planned), I would like to state that I am not arguing against the typical Bulgarian approach.

However, given the review of the scientific literature I did, and given the fact that this article is geared toward the lifter that is of beginner or intermediate level (has a job, and can train 3-5 times a week, and is not a professional weightlifter), it seems that a training plan that looks “Soviet-ish” is better suited for our purpose.

Perhaps, the Bulgarian-type systems are better suited for very experienced lifters who are tough and consistent enough to go through it.

Many readers may be tempted to quote individual elite international lifters as counter example of my argument. I would like to point out that these individuals are not the norm (they are a different animal altogether) and have been training for so long that the body has had the time to adapt to the work load. The training conditions are also much different (often much better). This is not the case for beginner and intermediate lifters.

About the Author

Jean-Patrick is from Canada and recently started the blog with the purpose to promote Olympic Weightlifting. He has a bachelor in Kinesiology and is currently doing a Neuroscience (Research) master. He has experience in personal training and in coaching weightlifting.


  1. Zatsiorsky, V.M. Intensity of strength training facts and theory : Russian and eastern European approach, J Strength Cond. 14:46-57,1992
  2. Cormie P, McGuigan MR, Newton RU. Developing maximal neuromuscular power: part 2 – training considerations for improving maximal power production. Sports Med.2011 Feb 1;41(2):125-46.
  3. González-Badillo JJ, Izquierdo M, Gorostiaga EM. Moderate volume of high relative training intensity produces greater strength gains compared with low and high volumes in competitive weightlifters. J Strength Cond Res. 2006 Feb;20(1):73-81.

Further Reading:

Photo Credit: Om Yun Chol from Best Korea Triple Bodyweight Clean & Jerk

Programming Training Intensity for Weightlifters is a post by Gregor Winter from All Things Gym.

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