While the premise of this article may at first strike readers as odd, considering that weightlifting, despite considerable elements of skill and speed, is very clearly a strength sport, there exist quite a few perspectives regarding the role of strength in the training of weightlifters; or, more accurately, regarding the appropriate degree of emphasis of what might be considered non-specific strength work.
The spectrum is represented on one end by Bulgarian-style training, involving little other, if anything at all, than the classic lifts and squats; the other end is represented by more of a powerlifting influence, involving a relatively large volume of general strength development with exercises like squatting, deadlift and pressing variations.
With weightlifting, as is the case with all physical training, we are possessed of few irrefutable facts, and constantly inundated with ideas, theories and anecdotes. And as with just about everything involving opinions, arguments and full-scale warfare continue to rage unabated (thanks in large part to the wondrous liberty and absence of consequence provided by the internet).
Also like with most similar endeavors, success is being achieved with a variety of methods, proving that no perfect approach exists—or at least that it has yet to be discovered.
Strength is a physical quality that is manifested in many different forms, some of which, it turns out, have little or nothing to do with each other in a practical sense. The most pertinent example in this case is the transfer of slow strength to explosiveness, or, more accurately, the lack thereof. Both anecdote and research have demonstrated that the ability to move very heavy weights slowly does not transfer well to the ability to move weights explosively; however, training explosively can improve an athlete’s ability to move very heavy weights at any speed .
This is the basis for many weightlifting coaches’ aversion to exercises like deadlifts—they want to avoid slow, grinding movements for fear of limiting the athlete’s ability to perform a similar movement explosively.
On the other hand, it’s often argued that developing and maintaining a greater base of less than perfectly specific strength will provide more potential for classic lift performance. For example, if an athlete is able to clean 70% of his best deadlift, it seems logical that a heavier deadlift will result in a heavier potential clean.
Considering various weightlifters, the truth appears to be far less simplistic. It’s not uncommon for weightlifters who never train the deadlift to out-deadlift their deadlifting counterparts. Of course, there are also plenty of examples of successful weightlifters who do employ the deadlift regularly.
Kendrick Farris is currently the best weightlifter in the US (he has cleaned and very nearly jerked the current world record as an 85 kg (187 lb) lifter—218 kg (480 lbs)), and accordingly, is often used for examples of effective training methodology. His coach, Dr. Kyle Pierce of LSU Shreveport, employs a system of classic periodization and a considerable volume of basic strength lifts such as deadlifts. Farris is extraordinarily strong; for example, he recently back squatted 235 kg (518 lbs) for 10 reps.
On the other end of the spectrum is Pat Mendes, who trains with coach John Broz in Las Vegas. At 130 kg (286 lbs), Pat has snatched 200 kg (441 lbs) and cleaned 230 kg (507 lbs)—2.5 kg more in the snatch and just 7.5 kg less in the clean & jerk than Shane Hammon’s American record lifts—at the age of 19. Pat trains with Bulgarian-type methods, relying on the snatch, clean & jerk and front and back squats for the overwhelming majority of his training.
Would either be better having trained the other way? It’s impossible to know. What we do know is that both ways can work. The Bulgarians have their stripped system of heavy classic lifts; the Chinese have a system of huge variety and a great deal of strength work. Other countries have systems using elements of both. All are producing extraordinary weightlifters.
Us Against The World
The US’s performance on the international weightlifting stage has been less than impressive for the last few decades. Opinions vary on the reasons for this, but no one denies the fact that Americans are lagging behind.
The trite phrase being tossed around the internet is, “American weightlifters just aren’t strong enough.” Such a statement is as useful and insightful as telling a sprinter he isn’t fast enough. The question is how this can be changed, and this is where the arguments begin.
The idea that the US’s poor international performance can be attributed to a single reason is silly at best. There are myriad factors contributing to the current state of weightlifting, and to neglect some to focus on a few that seem easier to correct is securing failure.
The more dominant countries in the sport have extensive infrastructure that provides for the recruiting and development of appropriate talent for the sport. They have cultures that recognize and appreciate weightlifting and weightlifters. They have fewer alternate sports to divert weightlifting talent. They have a greater number of lifters. And always looms the fact that drug testing in many of these countries is questionable, and drug use is commonplace.
In the US, weightlifting is an extremely obscure sport. Even if potential athletes happen to be exposed to it, there is little motivation to become involved. Sports like football, baseball, track and field, and gymnastics offer far more potential for financial and social success; additionally, these sports are ubiquitous, and coaches, facilities and related programs are easy to find. In contrast, weightlifters often must go to great lengths to even find a gym in which they can perform the lifts, let alone a qualified coach.
Considering the disparities in the circumstances, it’s little surprise the US is not a leader in the sport. To chalk it up simply to inferior training methods is nonsense.
Making the Decision
If it’s true, as it appears to be, that no single approach is best and that multiple methods can be effective, how does a weightlifting coach or weightlifter decide how to train? This is a decision that will hinge on multiple factors, but in all cases, it must be made in accordance to the needs of the lifter and his or her response to any given method. The biggest mistake any coach or athlete can make is to remain rigidly committed to a single approach when it becomes apparent that it no longer works or never worked in the first place. Experimentation carries some degree of risk, but it also provides the opportunity for discovery.
In a system that starts lifters at a young age with no previous athletic experience, and that doesn't need every single athlete it has access to, a more consistent plan among athletes is possible. That is, these athletes can be collectively developed according to common need—the instruction and development of classic lift technique, the development of general and specific strength, and the development of work capacity. This is more likely to be effective, but also remains the fact that it doesn't matter if it doesn't work well for a given athlete, because that athlete is easily replaced.
In the US, there is essentially an absence of a system. Weightlifters often arrive at the sport at later ages following other athletic careers. As a result, there is far more variation in the abilities, capacities and needs of US weightlifters, and consequently no simple prescription can be applied across the board. If a lifter is extremely strong, but technically unsound or inconsistent, it makes little sense to emphasize strength work over classic lift work; if a lifter is technically sound but simply doesn’t have enough strength, strength work can be prioritized and classic lift work reduced. This kind of individualization can be difficult to implement with large groups of weightlifters, but fortunately, such groups really don’t exist in the US.
The bottom line is that without a huge pool of athletes appropriate for the training, training must be made entirely appropriate for the athletes in order for any reasonable level of success to be achieved.
The goal for any weightlifter in essence is to continue gaining as much strength as possible for as long as possible. However, the pursuit of basic strength (most easily measured by squat numbers) needs to be balanced with the pursuit of the ability to put it to use in the snatch and clean & jerk. If, for example, a lifter squats 250kg and clean & jerks 160kg, it should be obvious that there is a relative lack of weightlifting-specific ability that needs to be prioritized. Clearly working hard to increase his strength is not going to have much of an effect on his clean & jerk in his current state. If, on the other hand, a lifter clean & jerks 180kg and has a best front squat of 190kg, it should be equally obvious that an increase in strength is going to have a significant effect on his clean & jerk - he is demonstrating a high level of ability to apply what strength he has into the competition lifts.