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 FirstPull.net (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:

  • low intensity group (12 participants)
  • the moderate intensity group (9 participants)
  • high intensity group (8 participants)

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:

  • low intensity group did a total of 46 repetitions
  • the moderate intensity group did a total of 93 repetitions
  • high intensity group did 184 repetitions

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 FirstPull.net 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.

References:

  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

  • Donald

    Very interesting article – I’ll be taking it into account for my programming.
    I wonder where it’s best to put the high intensity lifts. Working up to them straight away while still fresh and then backing off for work sets, or work sets first even if you will be somewhat tired. I’m thinking the work sets could maybe interfere with learning process if done after, pushing the experience of the heavy lifts out so to speak.

    The full text for the Gonzalez-Badillo study is available here: http://www2.unavarra.es/gesadj/depCSalud/mikel_izquierdo/BadiilloIzquiedoGorostiagaInten2006.pdf

    • Jean-Patrick Millette

      The way I am coached, we go from work set to higher intensity (always going up) to mimic competitions. But really, explore it for yourself and see what you like. Everybody is different and people do well either way.

  • Turku

    As an empirical researcher in other sciences, I can’t help but be cynical of the references to and utilization of empirical methods for strength training research. Hell, to most research.

    Here, it verges on misinformation without presenting the caveats of the reseach approaches. Then again, it has to be better than the anecdotal motivation of many people’s training…. so it’s better than useless ;). But I want to make some remarks.

    in these studies for example:

    sample sizes are very small, this decreases the power of the study and increases the rate of false positives (i.e. method A is better than B, when actually there is no difference)

    the duration of the studies are very limited and the end is censored – how do the athletes fare after the final test? perhaps a longer delay would favour the higher intensity trainees?

    and in such research the effect of counfounding variables (individual biological characteristics, nutrition, recovery methods, pre-study physiological state etc etc) is considerable, especially under the aforementioned limitations. Are the samples blocked to account for these types of factors?

    Furthermore, how does one apply this? Well, as a coach, if the statistics are robust, apply what these studies suggest and the result will be more or less similar, with a large group of athletes of similar physiological characteristics and lifestyles.

    But as an individual? The models have no predictive power without some covariates or explanatory variables.

    So I would suggest individuals who are planning their own training to try many things, be systematic, and apply develop and apply their experience without putting much faith in such tenuous empirical evidence for certain training approaches (which usually amount to common practice anyway! i.e. don’t train with too much or too little intensity).

    Coaches on the other hand can apply this type of stuff to many athletes and have an idea of how it will go, on average – but a good coach pays attention to individuals anyway. Of course, the empirical optimum is a good baseline from which to make individual adjustments in this case.

    I would urge the author to be more critical of the limitations of the methodologies applied to give people a realistic assessment of how applicable and meaningful is such information.

    But this type of diversity and thought approaches are good for the sport and I hope will develop better athletes in the future. So I hope to see similar contributions and discussion here on ATG in the future!

    • Jean-Patrick Millette

      Hi,

      thanks for your comment. Allow me to reply to some of your concerns.

      1. Misinformation

      I am not sure how you could qualify this article as misinformation. I do not make any decisive claims or state that the finding of the research are the absolute truth. It just happens that this is the ONLY paper on the subject. You do with what you have, and build from there. Many people are willing to listen to an individual athlete or coach. Their claim could be bogus, but they just state what they know and what seemed to have been working. My goal is just the same : There is literally no effort from my weightlifting federation to promote weightlifting and there seem to be nobody out there that is discussing studies. I thought I would do that.

      2. the duration of the studies are very limited

      The spanish study lasted 10 weeks. The idea behind this is that a typical block (Mesocycle) is 4 weeks. some last up to 8-10 weeks. Anyhow, in a competitive season, weightlifters often have a maximum of 10-12 weeks inbetween competition. A mesocycle is, by definition , short term.

      This bring me back to your claim of ”borderline misinformation”. In the text, I said, and I quote myself, : ”It appears, at least for short term strength gains, that moderate amount of high intensity repetitions produces greater gains in the technical lifts.” I chose my words carefully : ”Appears” ”short term strength gains”.

      3. Sample Sizes

      29 Spanish weightlifters were part of this study. Now, the sample size may look small but it is more than a typical weightlifting club. If a coach had 30 athletes, split them in three groups and did the same thing the researchers did, I’m sure it would have been okay? Being a scientist yourself, I’m sure you understand the trouble of finding participants for a given study. Now imagine finding weightlifters.. in Spain where the sport is ”small” (compared to other countries). I’m sure you would have loved a 10 years long longitudinal study with at least a sample of 500-1000 athletes! I would love that too!! But we deal with what we have.

      4. the effect of counfounding variables

      Of course. But that is the same for ALL studies. Even if you studied a single cell, your experiment would still have some counfounding variables. We live in a deterministic world and we cannot control every factors. Even statistics are not 100%. You must know it yourself, 95%+ = significant. This leaves a 5% chance of error. That is how science is : With acquisition of new data, you refine the model.

      5. Application

      I gave a few example of applications. Moderate sessions most of the time, a high intensity session a week. It limits neural and muscular fatigue and prepare you for competition. Moreover, if you are a coach or an athlete yourself, you must know that as coaches we always have to deal with athletes who want to max out everyday. This article’s goal was to show that there is another way of doing thing that might work just fine. if the athlete see such an article, and add that to the coach’s opinion, he may be temped to respect the program more.

      Also, I will quote myself again : 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.

      I never stated you should follow this just like I said I was not arguing against the Bulgarian approach. My goal was to review some of the existing data on training intensity. Many things have to be taken into account when you create a program (I never argued against that) but information/knowledge still is important. I think I did just fine at the reviewing the only available science on the topic of weightlifting training intensity. It gives a base on which you can explore and change things up yourself…which is what this article was all about.

      • Leon

        Thanks for the clarification.

        But as a question in general, and not specifically to you. Does anyone here train like the Bulgarians? I mean people like to talk about it, but are the people here doing that? Since I think the weightlifters checking this site are mainly amateurs I wonder if someone really thinks that is a good idea?

        • Jean-Patrick Millette

          I know people who do.

          • Leon

            Are these professional lifters?

          • Jean-Patrick Millette

            No they are not. Just people who like to go to a max everyday. To each their own

      • Turku

        Good defense. Thanks for the discussion! If you like I will send you my contact info, I’m also in Canada (ON). Perhaps we can train together or collaborate someday, if you like.

        I should make it clear to everyone that I support the general conclusions of the post by JP and my criticisms aren’t intended to turn anyone away from it. I just want to present, with equal vigour, the reasons not to take the works cited as truth. As he says “…do not make any decisive claims or state that the finding of the research are the absolute truth”
        – but here is why (in my opinion), and I also try to give an idea of how ‘truthful’ we can consider it. I hope that makes sense!

        For now, I will make some final comments in response.

        1. misinformation is false or innacurate information spread unintentionally. I would consider some of your information innacurate by omission (e.g. what is the power of the studies referenced? significant, non-significant, and effect sizes don’t tell the whole story) in this context (presented to non-statisticians, who might take some effect sizes as ‘truths’, especially without a more explicit treatment such as the one I am offering now). Also chose my words carefully and qualified it with ‘borderline’ ;). This is just my characteristic of maximum criticism, not a personal thing against your review, which is very informative overall. I take the same issues with other work; but since weightlifting is close to my heart I wanted to make this remark and just bring it to people’s minds that although there is a quantitative approach to these works, they are not worth much more than anecdotal practices due to methodological limitations. I think it would be really useful in future articles to give more consideration to these factors in order to guide future research. Who knows, maybe someone from this site or your blog reader will try to build on these works (maybe we could crowdsource
        a research project through ATG…). Lets make sure they don’t make the same mistakes as the authors you cite.

        2. OK, but still it should be an element of the discussion – which it was in your other post about twice-daily training sessions. But let me elaborate now on the issue with this that I think should be a part of your articles to inform people who are trying to design training. The effects of a certain method can only be considered stationary if applied for the duration of the studies cited under the same antecedent conditions, unless we assumed otherwise (which you don’t say, and would be hard to justify). So if you refer to a “N” week study preceded by some weightlifting program “A”, someone interested in using that information in their training should understand that applying the method for some “Y” not equal to “N” weeks ater some program “B” not the same as “A” should have different consequences (maybe better totals. maybe worse. we can’t say). Maybe you could reccomend people to apply these strategies with this in mind, keeping the length of the method to what is applied in the cited work, and monitoring with vigilance otherwise. Such a caveat is important if this is to guide people to design their own training programs.

        3. I know how hard it is to find participants. That’s not part of my argument. My argument is that you must provide a quantitative assessment of the quality of the studies (this should have
        been done by the original authors, but if not the onus falls on the reviewer/presenter of these works to an audience for application), especially while presenting quantitative results that may give an impression of accuracy/truth to non-scientists. You don’t present these results as fact. But you don’t (imo) account for their innacuracy in a responsible and transparent way. Again, significance is not necessarily significant, as rediculous as that sounds.

        Let me elaborate. Take for example, the medium intensity group clean an jerk from the gonzalez and bardillo study.

        n=9, mean(before “treatment”)=105kg, mean(after treatment)=115kg, significance level=95%

        if they used a paired or independent t-tests (for example, they use the hedges’ G which is similar to the independent-t) the require sample sizes of 19 or 28 respectively for 0.8 power (chance of correctly finding an effect which exists). With only 9 samples, the power of the latter is 0.4. As the power decreases, so does the chance of rejecting the null hypothesis when this is true. And this is to some extend dependent on the a-priori (population) probability of the null hypothesis, which in this case we can’t estimate without more research (i.e. a very large sample).

        In other words, it is quite possible that these effects found are a result of the sample, not elements of the population, in which case they couldn’t be meaninfully applied in training design to other individuals or groups of people! This is the critical caveat that you should include. It would be a detriment to the authority of your report, but it is fact. And if by accidental or intentional omission at your work or in the work of the cited papers, the statements are misrepresentative of the applicability of the results of the studies to the general population.

        4) yes, all studies have confounding variables. But the variables are not the same in all studies. And their possible influences also differ. A context for confounders should be presented in the referenced works or in your work to highlight the lack thereof.

        Yes, “95%+ = significant”, but significant is not straight forward as I demonstrated with the power analysis in (2). We’re getting into semantics here, let’s avoid that. My point was to that we can account for some confounders with careful planning of studies, and a more rigorous treatment of counfounding variables is an important direction for empirical weightlifting science,
        rather than relying on more data better planning can make accurate use of the limited data that can be collected on weightlifting training.

        For example, these athletes in the gonzalez and bardillo study did the same number of reps in the 90% intensity repitions. For this reason, I would suggest that the total volume (weights x reps) is kept constant, and therefore that high intensity group should have had fewer reps in the <90% or 80-90% range. The overtraining effect might have been avoided, and then what would have been the result?

        5) Good reccomendations. I agree it could be used as evidence for athletes who want to max all the time. As an alternate I would suggest that if one wants to max often, try doing fewer reps in the <90% range, e.g. only as many as it takes for the body to warm up to the movements.

        A good review has to be critical – I think you could be more critical about the results of the studies. But I understand the necessity to present them in a simple and positive way in order for them to be accepted and utilized by the community. It's not easy to put these perspectives next to 'Klokov's routine for record jerks' etc.

        other reading on power and small samples and why results of many weightlifting papers should be treated with a good measure of skepticism:
        http://jpepsy.oxfordjournals.org/content/34/9/917.full.pdf+html
        http://www.benthamscience.com/open/toepij/articles/V003/16TOEPIJ.pdf
        http://www.uccs.edu/lbecker/effect-size.html

        • Jean-Patrick Millette

          ”But I understand the necessity to present them in a simple and positive
          way in order for them to be accepted and utilized by the community. It’s
          not easy to put these perspectives next to ‘Klokov’s routine for record
          jerks’ etc.”

          This was exactly my goal with this article.

          Yes, feel free to send me your contact info. i was planning to go in Ontario during the year for a week end or more, to train.

          thanks for the discussion and I am glad you understand the reason why it was presented the way it was.

          • sav

            Turku – something tells me you have never lifted before and yes your comments may turn people off. Your criticism is more from a academia and or philosophical perspective in which the information was presented and makes me wonder if you understand the article was written for the general audience without trying to create greater confusion

  • SRWG

    Really interesting article, thanks!