Raise your hand if you’re a weightlifting coach. Ok, now raise your hand if you’re not a weightlifting coach, but are a strong advocate of the barbell. Finally, keep them up if you’ve found yourself bitching and moaning whenever you hear another “performance” coach bad mouth the weightlifting movements and their validity when it comes to the development and training of athletes? I can raise my hand for this on a number of occasions without a doubt.
At the same time, however, why do we sometimes do the same thing for other effective training tools that aren’t the barbell?
I think we can all agree that speed and athleticism are crucial components to success in sport and on the platform. Speed is KING, and better athletes make better weightlifters. So, I have to ask you this - how can we develop and foster these coveted performance traits with weightlifters, outside of just using the barbell?
SPRINTING AND AGILITY WORK!
If you’re a weightlifting coach and are reading this, you may be skeptic about including any sprint or agility work in the training of your athletes - in fact, as I mentioned above, this might be something that you even go as far as badmouthing as it pertains to the training of weightlifters. When it comes to the development of an athlete, specifically a weightlifter, we need to take a step back, take off our blinders, and realize that there is more than just the barbell that goes into making the next gold medalist.
BUT WHY? - THE PHYSIOLOGICAL AND PHYSICAL COMPONENT
When it comes to structuring training, we look at things from a physiological standpoint. What kind of adaptations am I trying to drive within the body/nervous system? We create a foundation of performance through driving structural adaptations that affect muscle endurance and size. From that foundation, we can build upon and improve non-structural adaptations that develop and improve Central Nervous System (CNS) efficiency, e.g. our ability to USE and MAXIMIZE our structural adaptations.
Speed is ultimately a neural quality, and must be developed, refined, and improved upon by increasing the athlete’s neuromuscular efficiency. And what do I mean by neuromuscular efficiency? I mean the skill, efficiency, and intensity with which one uses fibers in the muscle accurately and powerfully!
This is especially important in a weight class sport where you can’t just gain weight to get stronger. Strength gains are made over time through improving the athletes CNS. What we’re trying to accomplish with these neural adaptations is to improve the athlete’s ability to contract as many muscle fibers as possible; this is called motor unit recruitment or involvement. Improving the athletes motor unit recruitment is of vital importance in strength sports like weightlifting. The more muscles you’re able to get to contract, the more force you’ll be able to produce!
The late, great Charlie Francis outlined a hierarchy of exercises that have shown to improve motor unit recruitment and involvement the most. According to that hierarchy, the four best exercises you can use to drive neural adaptations are: the snatch, clean & jerk, explosive med ball throws, and SPRINTING.
“But the Snatch and clean & jerk are already at the high end of the spectrum and we do those everyday. Why should I do anything else?”
Well, for one, you add variety to your training while still training the specific physiological adaptations. You’re holding true to the SPECIFICITY, while breaking out of the repetitive nature of just working on the platform. Remember - the SPECIFICITY deals with adaptations, not exercises.
Improving an athlete’s motor unit recruitment abilities through a different, yet just as effective means, will put the athlete in a better position to express those qualities with the barbell over time. It also will help the athlete develop better general athleticism.
Next, when you drive specific structural and non-structural physiological adaptations, you are then in a position to improve and maximize specific performance traits. With sprinting, one of those performance traits is deceleration. Have you ever tried slowing down when sprinting? Your ability to decelerate, or REDUCE force, is an important factor in injury prevention; this is another avenue outside of the barbell we have to train and develop.
Most of what we’ve talked about so far deals specifically with sprinting, but what about change of direction (COD) and agility work? These drills and exercises incorporate everything we discussed above, while providing an opportunity for athletes to master body control at max speed in other planes of movement, like the frontal (side to side) and transverse (rotational) planes. In other words, you’re developing GENERAL ATHLETICISM. All things being equal, a more athletic weightlifter is a better weightlifter.
Again, when weightlifters snatch and clean & jerk, they are without a doubt mastering body control at max speeds, but COD and agility work compliments what we’re doing on the platform, and provides another opportunity to challenge the athlete’s posture and position in a well-rounded manner.
Additionally, while COD provides a multiplanar training opportunity for weightlifters, I’m also using these popular COD skills and drills to correct imbalances for the hips, ankles, and calves. I’ve written about this before, but part of training is creating balance within the athlete.
BUT WHY? - THE PSYCHOLOGICAL COMPONENT
This is an opportunity for the coach assess the psychological aspects of his or her athletes. The barbell can become a thing of comfort for the weightlifter. The athlete knows it, understands it, respect it, and at times sees it as a security blanket that gives them comfort.
How does the athlete handle and react to something new, challenging, and out of their “wheelhouse”? Where does the attitude of the athlete go?
To help manage the psychological component of incorporating sprint and agility work for weightlifters, it’s important for the coach to communicate the “why” - provide context for WHY the athlete is doing it and how it will ultimately aid in their development as a weightlifter and ultimately their performance on the platform.
OK, SO WHEN?
As it pertains to weightlifters, the most effective times of the training year to incorporate sprinting and agility work is during the General Physical Preparedness (GPP) phases of your training. GPP is an essential part of the overall training plan that builds the foundation of strength, work capacity, and general athleticism that will enable the athlete to tolerate the heavier and more specific training loads seen later in a training cycle, as you get closer to a competition. A lot of variety exists in the exercises being used during this phase of training.
We typically incorporate 4 GPP phases throughout the year - two longer 6 week phases that usually follow major meets (for us that’s the American Open Finals and Senior Nationals), followed by two shorter phases lasting 1-2 weeks in length after a minor meet, like an American Open Series or local meet, as a reset and to maintain fitness and work capacity for the remainder of the training cycle. It’s important to note that as you near competitions, fitness and work capacity will decrease due to the reduction of overall volume, so it’s important to maintain high work capacity levels throughout the training cycle. It also helps to break up the monotony of training for the athlete, so there are some psychological benefits as well.
GREAT, NOW HOW?
During these GPP phases of training, the implementation may vary on training time and availability of the athlete. For simplicity purposes, let’s assume you have your weightlifting athletes sprint and do agility work 1 day/week and outline a plan of attack based on that assumption.
On these days, I tend to stay away from any barbell work, to maximize what we’re doing with our sprinting and agility. I start with some footwork drills to teach sound sprint mechanics, then move on to some dynamic med ball work to “wake up the system” while getting some high motor unit involvement work in.
From there, my main focus is INTENSITY SPRINT/AGILITY work. I’m a big WHY guy, so the WHY behind the intensity work is that it will help with speed development, and expand the athlete's alactic, or short duration anaerobic, capacity, which is primarily what the sport of weightlifting is all about. Additionally, intensity sprints create a high CNS demand, increasing motor unit involvement, speed, and creating pressure in the circulatory system, which is important in delivering oxygen and nutrients to the muscles and cells (when muscles have more oxygen, they are able to work harder!).Beyond these immediate benefits, this pressure also supports optimal immune function, and serves as an important waste removal system - all important factors to improving overall performance!
I’ll start with agility and change of direction drills, such as the 5-10-5 Pro-Agility Drill or Angle Cuts. In each, the focus will be acceleration to compliment what we’ll be doing with our sprints, while helping the athlete to master footwork, body control, and deceleration at max speeds.
The rep ranges will be between 4-7 reps.
When we move into our linear speed work, this is something we’ll progress throughout the GPP period - in other words, we’ll start with short 10-20 yd distances, and progress up to 60 yds throughout the training cycle. Just as some of Power Athlete’s programs utilize a linear progression to add weight to the bar and drive adaptation, you can linearly progress sprints through incrementally longer distances.
The range of reps fall between 4-7 total sprints, while having the athlete rest as needed. The important part to remember is that the goal of sprinting is to improve top end speed and, in the context of weightlifting, to improve motor unit involvement. In other words, this is not conditioning, so it’s important for the athlete to recover between each effort, in order to maximize their output during each effort (we’re talking minutes to recover, not seconds).
The flip side of the coin of this is VOLUME SPRINT/AGILITY work. I would incorporate this type of work with my field sport athletes, but I tend to leave this aspect out with my weightlifters. Why? Volume sprints/agility work is meant to increase lactic and cardiovascular threshold, while challenging the athlete’s sprinting technique under fatigue. Aka...more on the conditioning side. For me, I’m going to lean on SPECIFICITY to accomplish these main goals of increasing lactic and cardiovascular threshold, and challenging technique under fatigue through specific exercise complexes, volumes and intensities with a barbell.
While I want my weightlifters to SPRINT to improve the quality of speed and benefit from the neural adaptations associated with sprinting, I ultimately am looking to challenge the technique of the snatch and clean & jerk under fatigue, not the technique of sprinting under fatigue.
BADASS, BUT WHERE?
Most of us weightlifting coaches are training athletes in a garage, small warehouse space, or occupying a portion of a larger gym, so I get it, space can be limited to just platforms, plates, and racks. I’ve heard many times before from coaches that “I’d love to incorporate sprints, but I just don’t have the space, so I don’t do them.” If that’s the case, and you can’t find yourself 10-20yds of space inside your gym space, here’s what I would suggest:
Find some space outside or close by the gym where you can safely set the horses free! There are at times where we even have to go off site to get some of our sprint work done if the parking lot is busy and not safe. Surprisingly enough, I’ve found getting some training in “off-site” is a good way to ignite interest and energy, and breaks some of the groundhog day like monotony that going into the gym can create. But what about when the weather is crappy and we can go outside?
CHUNK OUT SPECIFIC SPRINTING COMPONENTS
Obviously for some of you, sprinting outside won’t be an option year round due to weather constraints (snow or rain), so when the weather, not gym space, becomes the biggest limiting factor, break-up components of sprinting in a space efficient way. When you do this, it allows the athlete to improve overall sprint mechanics, just as doing snatch and clean & jerk variations helps to improve overall snatch and clean & jerk mechanics. And as we know, when technique and mechanics are improved, it raises the athlete’s ceiling of potential and allows him or her to maximize their improvement of speed development and CNS efficiency once they’re back outside sprinting.
My three favorite drills I use INSIDE the confines of a small gym are: 1) wall drills, 2) various skips, and 3) trampoline sprints (my favorite!). This all build on your ability to DRIVE your legs into the ground to produce as much force as possible. This also essentially serves as a warm-up and skill transfer to when you get on the platform and really get things firing with your legs!
There are many ways to skin a cat, and it’s important to understand that there are additional ways to improve and enhance the qualities we strive to improve with the barbell, even for weightlifters. Incorporating sprint work is not meant to replace what we’re doing with our weightlifting athletes, but instead enhance and augment what we are already doing.
If you’re a weightlifting coach out there reading this, chime in - are you incorporating sprints? If so, how are you implementing them? If not, why not? Let’s hear what you have to say in the comments below!
EDUCATION: Power Athlete Methodology
BLOG: The Day One Size Up by Don Ricci
BLOG: Speed 101: Patterning by Carl Case
BLOG: Battle The Bullshit - Resistance Sprinting by Tex McQuilkin
Don was a two time National Champion and All-American water polo goalie at the University of Southern California prior to getting involved in coaching strength & conditioning and weightlifting. As the owner and Head Coach of DELTA Weightlifting in Sacramento, CA, the Power Athlete Methodology has been a crucial component in developing better overall athleticism with his competitive weightlifters with international level athletes and national medalists to show for it. In addition to proudly being a Power Athlete Block One Coach, Don is also a USA Weightlifting Level 4 International Coach, a USA Weightlifting Lead Instructor for the Level 1 & 2 Coaching Certification Courses, and a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) through the National Strength & Conditioning Association (NSCA). Don has coached and trained athletes from virtually every sport at levels ranging from youth beginner to National Team level.
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