Programming Considerations for Beginner Weightlifters

Jason Li, Exercise Science BS, USAW LVL2, Catalyst Athletics LVL1, NSCA-CPT 

Initial Considerations

For newer coaches working with beginners, the challenge is making sure to present programs that are easy enough for the athlete to perform but challenging enough to be stimulating. Before even beginning with the barbell coaches need to assess the overall preparation of the potential athlete. The level of preparedness will help determine the amount of general versus specific work that the athlete will need to start off and build from. To help coaches establish a starting point ask the following questions: 

Has the person ever trained with a barbell? Powerlifting/For other sports/ or recreationally? If the answer is yes, then for how long? 

A person with some experience handling a barbell would be considered slightly more prepared than one who has never touched one. In the case of someone who has some experience using a barbell, the technique of things like squatting, deadlifting, pressing, and overhead squat must be examined. The movement quality may be rather low where the whole pattern has to be worked, thus any experience they may have had would be considered null. Along the same lines, lifters that were very successful using a very hip dominant squat in powerlifting would be considered on the less prepared side as the change in the squat/deadlift position for Olympic lifting would take time to develop. Changing the angles and depth alone (even if the weight is not significantly different for a squat or deadlift into more of an Olympic style) can stress the body in much the same way when a new lifter lifts a new personal best.

Those that have played sports and come from powerlifting background can generally handle slightly more volume than a complete beginner as their bodies have some level of general preparation that allows it to not breakdown as easily to weight training. Keep in mind all this doesn’t mean anything if the athlete has only been training with a barbell for less than a year even if it’s Olympic Weightlifting specific. This is not enough preparation in joints, strength, or movement competency to be considered anything more than a beginner. 

Does the lifter have any experience playing other sports?

As mentioned previously, athletes coming from other sports backgrounds can be considered having higher general preparation compared to the person that has no history of physical activity. With normal athletic training it can be assumed the athlete will have a basic sense of body awareness, aerobic capacity to support lifting performance, and at least a basic understanding of weight training exercises.

The only thing that is needed generally for these kinds of athletes is technique work while preserving whatever highly developed sports qualities they present with. One thing to keep in mind when answering this question is whether the sport is an endurance or strength/power sport. If the athlete is coming from a long distance running background, then their preparation would be considered low as the sport develops qualities that are almost the polar opposite of what is needed in Olympic Weightlifting. For asymmetrical power sports like golf, baseball, and any throwing their physical preparation would be considered high with some larger considerations for bilateral/unilateral deficits. More accessory work to decrease deficits might be needed as Olympic lifting can be considered a bilateral symmetrical sport. For long term progression and injury prevention more single-leg and single arm training might have to be included. 

What is the Biological age of the potential athlete? Over 30 years old? Under 15 years old? 

The biological age of the athlete will largely determine the rate of progression through a program. It’s pretty common sense but older athletes over 30 years and younger athletes under 15 will need to progress slowly.

Older athletes take longer for their physiology to orient and adapt to new stimulus as their adaptive processes are not as robust as their younger counterparts. Flexibility can also be an issue as older athletes tend of be a lot “stiffer”. The first few months to year may just be focused on being able to attain the correct positions to lift safely and efficiently. Athletes that are much older than 30 years old should also consider doing power variations, split variations, and preferential loading of the squat/pulls. Power and split variations are not as demanding on flexibility as the full squat versions allowing older adults to reap most, if not all the benefits of Olympic Weightlifting. Training the squat and pull is preferred for older adults as tremendous progress can be made regardless of age whereas training for speed can be very difficult if not trained early on (age 9-12). Training for strength in this case will offer greater transfer over to the Olympic lifts compared to speed training, where a lot of effort will yield very little in the lifts. Heavy strength training offers a way to stimulate more of the fast twitch fibers when speed training is not as potent of an option for weightlifting.

For younger athletes below 15 years old, progression can also be slow, with a focus on movement competency/variability, as their bodies are not yet fully formed and under the influence of hormones during puberty. Coaches should direct their attention in proper execution of the movement, maintaining balance, body control, and overall development of general athletic qualities. For such young athletes training can’t really push absolute intensity. Speed can be emphasized as this is the age where children are the most sensitive to this type of training. Partial movements with isometric holds and controlled lowering of barbells is recommended to help children develop a good sense of control over the movement. Good lifting habits and gym etiquette is ideally taught at this age for eventual progression to more serious training. 

What is the intended purpose of learning the Olympic Lifts? To use in other sports training? To eventually compete? Recreationally? 

The intended purpose of learning Olympic Weightlifting largely dictates the general trajectory that the program will take once the athlete progresses past the initial learning stages. For use in other sports training and recreationally it may not be necessary to ever spend time teaching the Snatch. The snatch has such a steep learning curve and flexibility demand that mastery of it to demonstrate any power or strength would take too long. In sports that already require extreme movement in the shoulders like baseball pitching, swimming, or volleyball the snatch can actually be too stressful on the body. Trying to learn the snatch would actually be a detriment to training rather than a bonus. For similar reasons learning to snatch for recreational reasons is probably not recommended either. There’s really no need to expose the body to such risk if it’s not training any athletic qualities until you get to a high enough level (i.e. snatch a lot of weight) which paradoxically needs to be practiced to get better. Most of the benefits of Olympic lifting for either sports or recreational purposes can be captured through clean and jerk variations. 

Does the lifter have any injuries that could be aggravated doing any of the Olympic Movements ? 

This should be a part of any initial questionnaire or screening process that the coach conducts for new athletes whether they’re a beginner or advanced lifter. Old traumatic injuries that severely impact the mobility of certain joints will obviously impact the programming. While these injuries may not cause any symptoms at the moment, the architectural changes in something like a previously broken bone or dislocated joint can impact how safely a lifter can assume some of the positions needed for lifting. If the old injury is serious enough it may be smart to actually recommend other forms of explosive training in place of olympic lifting. For acute injuries the best thing a coach can do is not aggravate it further and refer the athlete to an expert. Pushing in the presence of any pain that is not pain of exertion can either lead to prolonging the recovery time or development into a more serious issue. For beginners, it’s important that training starts without any pain as this can cultivate compensation movement patterns and poor intermuscular coordination. The skill will not mature in the right way, leading to more work in the future to correct it. It is best to consult with a trusted medical professional for all injuries that the coach is unsure about. Sometimes this means starting with a more general training plan rather than something that is Olympic Lifting specific. Small injuries are bound to pop up over the course of hard training, but training doesn’t have to stop. It just means avoiding pain triggers for the moment.   

With these questions the coach now has a clearly defined starting point and goal to program off of.