Articles  >  Weightlifting Program Design
Controlling the Tornado: Planning Your Weightlifting Training
Matt Foreman
October 28 2009

This article will be focused on planning out your training program. And you’re out of your mind if you think I’m going to start with a slogan that you’ve already heard a million times like "Failing to plan is planning to fail." This slogan is a proven truth, but it should be painfully obvious. I shouldn’t have to remind you that planning is important any more than I should have to remind you not to eat yellow snow.

However, there is obviously a good reason why slogans like this are used so often. Most people understand that having a solid plan of attack before beginning any endeavor is going to put you in a much better position to be successful. When we listen to interviews with people who have been highly accomplished in their fields, whether the field is athletics or business, one of the most common aspects of their achievements is precise planning. I can’t remember ever reading an article about an Olympic gold medalist where the athlete said, "For my workouts, I just kinda come to the gym and do whatever I feel like doing that day." Bill Gates never told the world, "I just hired some people to help me make computers. I don’t know how the hell my company grew so much." Nope, sorry. Elite personalities usually approach things from the opposite direction.

Take Lance Armstrong, for example. This guy won seven Tour de France races while pedaling with only one testicle. I once read that one of Armstrong’s nicknames is "Mr. Millimeter." People started calling Lance by this name because of his obsessive, fanatical attention to proper preparation. In all aspects of his training and performance, Armstrong analyzes and refines every single detail down to razor-sharp perfection. In a sport like Olympic weightlifting, these personalities are just as prevalent. I once saw a documentary on the Bulgarian weightlifting program of the 1980s where coach Ivan Abadjiev was in a shouting match with superheavyweight world champion Antonio Krastev. Krastev wanted to snatch 200 kilos in a particular workout, and Abadjiev’s training plan had dictated that Krastev would only be able to snatch 195 that day. The film showed Krastev taking multiple attempts at 200 and barking at Abadjiev, "I can do 200!" Abadjiev watched and continued to admonish Antonio with, "No, you will not do a gram more than 195 today." Like Lance Armstrong, Abadjiev put amazing amounts of time and concentration into his training plans.

Because of all these examples and because of the importance of this topic, this article will be the first in a three-part series. This month, we will examine the planning of yearly training. Next month, we will focus on the preparation of individual training cycles within a given year. And then the series will conclude with a third article about the planning of individual workouts within those training cycles. Sounds organized, huh? Hey, you get high quality here at the Performance Menu.

365 days. What to do?

Although these articles are obviously focused on Olympic Weightlifting, there are plenty of valuable concepts to be discussed that are equally applicable to generalized Crossfit training, fighting, cycling, bodybuilding, or any other discipline where progress is expected.

When looking at a year of competition and training, the first step on the road is goal analysis. Ask yourself what you want to accomplish in 2010 or any other year you’re approaching. Weightlifting is a very easy sport to set goals in because the sport is centered on numbers. If your best competition lifts are a 100 kilo snatch and 130 kilo clean and jerk, you might decide that 10 kilos of progress in each lift during a full year is reasonable. However, there are several variables to factor into this phase of your goal setting. For example, let’s say that your best competition lifts are 100/130, but you are a 120 kilo man who only trained two months to achieve those lifts, your technique is improving, and your base strength level is through the roof (legitimate 500 pound squat, 550 deadlift, etc.) In this case, ten kilos of improvement on each lift in one year might be too conservative. For this hypothetical athlete, I would not hesitate to expect around 120/150 or more after a full year of concentrated training.

Then, let’s look at another example. In this situation, the athlete has best competition lifts of 100/130 but the lifter is an elite female national champion in the 75 kilo class who has been training full-time for ten years and holds all the American records. With this lifter, planning for 110/140 in one year might be a bit of a stretch. The point is that all of these details factor into the setting of goals. And to complicate things even more, it must be acknowledged that most people will have to work around several "distraction factors" when they plan out their competition year. What are distraction factors? Here are two of the biggest ones:

Work: Do you have a job that will make training or competing difficult/impossible at certain times during the year? Military, traveling salesman, etc. These professions can alter your competitive year. For a personal example, I’m a masters weightlifter and my current totals are good enough to qualify for the masters world championships. However, I’m also a high school football coach, and the masters world championship is held right smack in the middle of football season every year (October-November). Because of this, I can’t plan to attend the masters worlds unless I’m willing to lose my job. This, my friends, is a distraction factor. Jobs are wonderful at throwing wrenches into your machinery.

Family: No, I’m not classifying your family as a distraction. But if you’re married and have children, there will be certain responsibilities that you have to account for. For example, they will probably want to take a vacation every year; and your vacation time will probably not center around you finding a gym close to Disneyland so you can train while your screaming kids get strapped into Space Mountain... alone... and your spouse thumbs through the Holiday Inn yellow pages for a good divorce lawyer. If you want to take a family vacation in the summer and you also want to compete in weightlifting meets, you will have to coordinate these things in a way that will provide both maximum performance and big family fun.

Your life has its own challenges. The important idea here is that you have to try to cover all the bases when you are planning out your training. Think of everything. All of the real-life obstacles that can potentially surface have to be added into your plan. Do you live in an area where there aren’t many weightlifting meets to compete in during the year? If so, you will have to travel when you want to compete. Where will your finances allow you to travel to, and how often? These elements all matter, and you have a much better shot at being successful if you have all of the land mines located before you start walking through the field.

One more thing… there might be some of you who have no distraction factors in your life. You’re not married yet, you don’t have a real job or you’re still going to school, etc. If this is your situation and the only thing you really have to think about in life is your training, then more power to you. You’re living in that short window of life when you basically get to be a full-time athlete and nothing else matters. That’s a special time, believe me, and you’d better enjoy it while it lasts. But his article is focused more on athletes and coaches who have entered the “real world” stage of life and have to juggle their training with mortgage payments, deadlines, day care, and every other speed bump that gets thrown in the road.

Meets, meets, meets...

Most successful weightlifters have a fairly specific idea of what their competition schedule will look like each year. There are three primary questions to answer when planning out a competitive year:

1) How many meets do you want to compete in during the year?
2) How far apart are these meets and how much training time will you have for each one?
3) Which meets are most important to you?

Now, the considerations that go into each one:

How many? Weightlifting is much different from sports like track and field, soccer, and baseball where the athlete can compete every weekend or twice a week. The average weightlifter will usually compete five or six times per year. If the athlete plans to compete more often than this, most of the competitions will likely be "training meets." A training meet is where the athlete lifts in a competition but deliberately takes conservative attempts with weights that are roughly the same as the athlete’s average workout. This allows the athlete to compete often without the physical demands of "peaking" for each contest. I would not advise a competition schedule where the athlete is planning to lift in eight meets per year and peak for each one. The risk of injury is high with a schedule like this. The exception would be young beginners who are lifting weights that are well within their total body strength level and have lightning-fast recovery time. These athletes can, and should, compete often. But as the athlete ages, the recovery time demands will grow.

How far apart? More important meets will generally require more preparation time, and training meets require very little. If an athlete is planning to compete in a national championship, 10-12 weeks of uninterrupted training would probably provide a solid base that builds up to a shark peak at the end. Some athletes prefer more time than this, and others can perform well with less. If an athlete is planning to compete in Jethro’s Weightliftin’ Bonanza where the meet will be held in a barn and the awards are shots of Jager, 10-12 weeks of preparation probably won’t be necessary.

Most important? This is based on your performance level. The top of your mountain might be the state, national, or world championship. If you are a national champion, the state championship will likely be a training meet. If you have no realistic chance of qualifying for a national contest, the state championship could be your big peak of the year. Regardless of your skill and competitive ranking, it is imperative that you decide which competition you want to achieve your maximum results at. I have seen several athletes over the years who hit their biggest numbers at the wrong time. For example, world team members should clearly register their biggest totals of the year at the world championship. If the athlete lifts fantastic weights at the national championship and then goes on to perform a 10-15 kilo decrease at the world championship three months later, something was wrong with the athlete’s preparation plan (unless he/she was battling other setbacks such as injury or illness).

Here is a basic outline of what many of our top Calpian weightlifters did on a yearly basis during the 1990s in Washington:

- February- Oregon Cup Championship (training meet)
- April/May- Senior National Championship (peak meet)
- June- Oregon Classic (training meet)
- August- The Bad Mother Open (training meet, and I should write an article about this one some day)
- October- Washington Open (training meet)
- December- American Open (peak meet)

This was a common plan for our club lifters, but there were obviously some variations. In the 90s, we usually had two or three lifters in our gym who were world team members. They would often skip some of the training meets, such as the Washington Open in October, to get more preparation time for the world championship. We also had lifters who competed in other national meets such as the junior or collegiate nationals. These types of meets would obviously add another peak performance into the competition year and probably require the dropping of a training meet somewhere. However, it is worth adding that our Calpian athletes trained at a very high level throughout the year. Most of the lifters in our club were capable of lifting weights that were within a few kilos of their personal records on a regular basis, and this made peaking three or four times a year much easier. We trained very hard and we were ready to load up the bar at the drop of a hat.

DOWN time...

I can make this one quick and easy. Plan some light recovery time into your training year, preferably immediately after peak competitions. Your results will be much better and your body will last longer if you back off the heavy training for a while after major contests. What is "down time" exactly?

Down time might involve staying away from the barbell for a short time. Older lifters would be especially wise to consider this. Training hard and peaking for a big contest when you’re 30-40-50+ years old is extremely taxing on the body. After a major contest, there is nothing wrong with a week of stretching, core work, and some other non-barbell activity such as swimming. That week can be followed by another week or two of "transition lifting," where you head back to the gym but you spend time doing variety exercises that are different from your normal routine. Kettlebells are excellent at this point. After this week, it will be time to go back to the barbell and start working the competition movements again as you begin the new cycle for your next competition.

For you twenty-four year-olds, you don’t get off as easy. "Down time" for a younger lifter after a major peak competition will usually be shorter (three or four days) and the return to the competition lifts will be quick, although the percentages will obviously be lighter as the athlete’s physiology recovers from the strain of the contest. Some coaches choose to have their athletes do nothing but pulls and squats for two weeks following a major contest. This type of work keeps the athlete from losing strength but also gives the joints (and the brain) a rest from the heavy snatches and jerks.

And once you’ve taken a look at all of these elements and also attempted to plan out every other aspect of your life, you’re ready to put together some training cycles that will get you started on the journey towards your first big total of the year. It’s nice to have everything accounted for. Once the plan is in place, the only thing you have to do is find a way to improvise and adapt your plan when you encounter injuries… job changes… swine flu… unexpected pregnancies… gym closures… vehicle breakdowns… flash floods… earthquakes… family dramas… semester finals… Thanksgiving… and global terrorism. Maybe there are some things we can’t plan for. Maybe we have to think on our feet and find quick ways to overcome disasters sometimes. Aye, there’s the rub.

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Mark Gleason
October 28 2009

I find your articles very educational and inspirational. Keep up the great work! You too Greg...of course.
Josh Jacobsen
November 20 2009
Please write an article about the BMO! That would make my day!
paul dew
November 26 2009
great article- when's part 2 out?
Greg Everett
November 27 2009
Paul -

In a few days - Issue 59/December.
Paul Dew
December 4 2009
Ah, Thanks alot, Greg- will that be able to view for free also?
Anthony Trang
January 11 2016
when does part 2 and 3 post? and if so, what dates and titles were they listed under. Thank you matt
Part 2 can be found here.

Part 3 is found here.

Steve Pan