Six Fundamental Weightlifting Program Rules

So…programming. I’ve written about it several times, along with Greg, every other coach in the sport, every other athlete in the sport, every CrossFit coach in every box in the world, and every newbie who’s been in the game for 18 months and competed in three meets and thinks he’s a weightlifting expert who’s qualified to bounce ideas back and forth with people who have been building big track records for 15 years. 

People talk about programming so much because it’s…you know, extremely important. Right? Is it really that important? Is the program you follow in training a major deal breaker in your lifting career? 

There’s definitely plenty of evidence out there to make you think so. I’ll give you a personal example. For my first two years as an Olympic weightlifter, I was being coached by a college strength and conditioning coach with very little experience in competitive lifting. Because of this, the program he had me on looked a lot like a strength program for a collegiate athlete, as opposed to a full-time Olympic lifting program. Was I successful with this program? No. I was injured a lot, stuck at the same weights for a long time, got worse technically, etc. It didn’t work for me. 

Then I made a coaching change when I was 20 years old. My new coach, John Thrush, was an Olympic lifting veteran who had competed in two Olympic Trials himself, along with producing a long list of National Champions and World Team members. Needless to say, he put me on a much different program than the one I had been using with the strength and conditioning coach. What was the result? My total went up 35 kilos in the first year, my technique got better, and I stopped getting hurt. 

In other words, programming definitely makes a huge difference in a lifter’s career, and you can easily make the case that it’s often the X-factor that can send an athlete to the top of the mountain…or to the bottom of the toilet. 

However, I think there’s another thing we can mention about programming that’s important to consider. I’m talking about the idea that people sometimes tend to overcomplicate it. They make mistakes and wind up designing ineffective programs simply because they’re so locked into the idea that it’s a high science that has to be approached with the same level of planning and analysis as a space shuttle launch. This mistake is often made by those gotta-do-something-new-and-different coaches who just refuse to believe the approaches that worked 30 years ago might still work now. They don’t think simple traditional methods can be productive because they’re just so obsessed with trying to be the new innovator on the block who comes up with an idea that nobody else has thought of. Their personal desire for special recognition as a coach overrides their ability to see what’s right for their athletes. 

What I want to do in this article is very, very simple. I’m going to give you a handful of basic programming rules. Consider these fundamental principles that you basically can’t go wrong with. If you follow these guidelines, you’ll come up with a program that will work. I can say that with confidence because I’ve seen lots and lots of weightlifters over the last 30 years who have reached the top of the sport by doing the basic things I’m going to list here. These rules don’t come from theory. They come from experience and proven success. These are the kind of guidelines nobody can look at and say “this won’t work” because…they’ve been working for a long time, with weightlifters who have reached a level of performance that, quite frankly, overrides the opinions of most naysayers. Here they are. 

RULE #1: Snatch twice a week. 

One of your snatch workouts should be the full competition movement from the floor, and you should concentrate on working up to singles in the 80-90% range most of the time. On days when you feel sensational, go heavier than 90%. Don’t be afraid to be aggressive when your body is telling you it’s clearly the right time. And on days when you feel like dirt, stay at the light 80% range. That’s one of your weekly snatch workouts. Your second snatch workout for the week should either be a) another full snatch from the floor workout with lighter weights, kind of like a light day, and probably doing doubles instead of singles, or b) a snatch variant lift, like snatches from the blocks, or possibly snatch complexes. Option B will most likely require you to use lighter weights than your full-snatch-from-the-floor day, which fits in with the “one heavy day/one light day” scheme. 

RULE #2: Clean and Jerk twice a week, but break up the second time. 

Once a week, you need to do the full competition C&J. Then you need to break the movement up into two parts for the second workout. In other words, you need to C&J once a week, clean once a week, and rack jerk once a week. This allows you to get the necessary amount of practice in the full movement once each week, but then since the C&J is a two-part movement (unlike the snatch), it’s productive to break it up into its two parts and really concentrate on improving them by themselves each week as well. Trust me, you’ll make a lot of progress in the “king of lifts” if you train it this way. When you do your C&J and rack jerks, focus on singles in the 80-90% range, like your competition snatch day. When you do cleans only, do doubles instead of singles, and use weights in the 80-85% range. 

RULE #3: Do pulls 2-4 times per week

Basic snatch and clean pulls (from the floor, no arm pull, just toes-and-shrug movement) should be mandatory once per week, doing 4-5 sets of 3 reps with weights around the 105-110% range of your best result in the corresponding lift (105-110% of your best snatch or clean). You should also do 1-2 alternate pulling exercises each week, like snatch high pulls, RDLs, clean-grip deadlift, deficit pulls, or a wide range of others (see the Catalyst Athletics exercise library for a battery of options). The weights on these will depend on the movement. An RDL will likely be performed with weights somewhere around your clean max lift, while snatch high pulls will be performed with lighter weights because the bar has to be pulled to the bottom of the sternum. For sets and reps, it’s hard to go wrong with 4-5 sets of 3-5 reps. 

RULE #4: Squat 2-3 times per week.

Back squat once a week. Front squat once a week. If you’ve got the recovery capability for another one, either a) do another workout of the movement you’re weaker at, or b) do stop squats (back squat with a one-second pause in the bottom). Keep the reps in the 2-5 range, rarely doing heavy singles and or high-rep sets (8-10 or beyond). A good squat workout, if it’s added into a complete workout with one of the competition lifts and a pulling exercise, should probably include around 6-8 sets of the squats. The weights should be heavy enough to make you push like hell, but not heavy enough to make you miss any reps. And make sure you ignore all this “squat every day” stuff you’re hearing on the internet. If you’re squatting with the appropriate level of intensity and physical exertion that’s required to make you a better weightlifter, you won’t be able to do it every day. You’ll wind up in the hospital. The only way you can squat every day (for any sustained period of time) is if you make the workouts light/moderate, which isn’t doing you any good. In 29 years of being around some of the strongest squatters in the world, in both Olympic lifting and powerlifting, I’ve never heard of anybody who’s any good squatting every day. 

RULE #5: Spread everything evenly throughout the week. 

When you’re organizing your training into a weekly routine, just use the kind of basic common sense you would use if you were organizing the furniture in your living room. If you had two huge couches, would you put them right next to each other in the same room? No. You would put them on opposite sides of the room to have some balance. The same idea applies to training. If you’re going to squat three times per week, don’t do those workouts on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. Spread them out. Do them on Monday, Thursday, and Saturday…something like that. Don’t do the same things two days in a row. If you snatch on Monday, don’t do your second snatch workout on…Tuesday. It’s not that hard to set up a sensible program if you just have a basic sense of balance and organization. Do 4-5 workouts per week, with 2-3 rest days, and make sure the rest days always follow the toughest work days. Can you train six days per week? Sure, if you can handle it. Some people can, and some can’t. 

RULE #6: Do the lifts first, then pulls, then squats, and finish with accessory work. 

Some people like to experiment with the order of exercises they do in their workouts, which is fine…sometimes. But if you’re just looking for an “old reliable” way to set up a training session, do it like this: Do the lift of the day first (SN, C&J, Rack Jerk, etc.), pulls second, squats third, and then finish with any accessory stuff you want to do, like core exercises or bodybuilding work. I like doing pulls before squats for two reasons.

1) The pull comes before the squat in a snatch or clean.

2) Putting squats at the end of the workout makes the squats more difficult, and I like the idea of making training as hard as possible, simply to toughen up the lifter. 

Is there more to it than this? 

Hopefully you understand that I’m not claiming to have covered every programming issue in the sport with these six rules. There are plenty of other considerations that need to be addressed when it comes to the preparation of a successful weightlifter, and this article isn’t a blanket that covers all of them. The suggestions I gave you on weight selection (singles in the 80-90% range) are just “basic training” suggestions. If you’re planning to train for a competition, you’ll obviously need to be a lot more structured with your planning. This article is intended to give you a can’t-really-go-wrong list of guidelines to follow if you’re wanting a reliable method of setting up a weightlifter’s training. Of course you can make it more scientific and sophisticated than this. That should go without saying. But I know who the readers of this magazine are. Many of you are still trying to figure out the best way to navigate this sport, and you don’t have 25 years of experience in it. In situations like this, basic fundamental guidelines that have been proven through the test of time are always helpful. 

Plus, it’s worth mentioning that I’ve personally seen a weightlifter go from the first workout of her life to breaking a world record in five years…following these exact principles. I’ve also seen multiple other athletes who won national championships and medaled internationally with nothing more than these basic steps and a hell of a lot of work ethic. At the end of the day, there are multiple kinds of training programs that can potentially be successful if the lifters who are using them are willing to bust their asses for a long time. It’s not just about what the lifters have on their programs. It’s about what they have in their hearts and minds.