How They Train In St. Louis With Mike Wittmer
5 June 2005
When thinking about a weightlifting “philosophy” in specific terms such as a “Bulgarian,” “Russian,” high volume, low volume, etc. approach, it becomes apparent to me that there is no one size fits all approach. As there is no one best offense for every football team, there is no “best” program for all weightlifters. A good football coach will tailor his offense around the various strengths and weaknesses of his players. While he can replace a player that doesn’t fit his scheme, a weightlifter is stuck with whatever strengths and weakness that were naturally inherited. A good lifter or coach will recognize those and deal with them accordingly.
As such, I would say that my weightlifting philosophy, or training philosophy, is geared to the individual lifter and the constant, continual search for what works best for that particular individual. Having said that, there are a few general tenets that I believe pertain to our sport and I will mention those. But, I feel it is important to emphasize that individual weaknesses need to be addressed specifically and an open minded approach should be kept. If whatever you are doing is working, if you are satisfied with the results, then by all means stick with it until that changes. If you are not happy with your level of progress, or lack thereof, then try something else. Just make sure you stick with it long enough to give it a fair chance to work. Now, a few general thoughts:
Whatever training philosophy you use, if the lifter isn’t sold on it, it probably won’t work. Sometimes, a little bit of latitude is in order, within reason, to give them a chance to come around on their own. They must have confidence in whatever it is they are doing.
I believe in a SAID approach to weightlifting, specific adaptation to imposed demands. As weightlifters, the object of the game is lifting as much weight as possible, for one rep, in the two lifts. Training must be focused on that goal. That does not mean that all other exercises are excluded, like the so called “Bulgarian” system of snatch, clean and jerk and front squat. Interestingly, at the 2004 junior worlds in Minsk, I witnessed the two Bulgarian supers training two days out for the competition. They both did three sets of three in the snatch pull with 175, and three sets of three in the clean pull with 215. Heavy pulls? Triples? Two days out? Who does that? Were they just training through the junior worlds? I thought they didn’t do pulls? I don’t have the answers to those questions, however I did not see any other Bulgarians pulling that week.
Since Mike asked me to discuss Jeff’s training, I’ll proceed with what he does and how and why we got to where he is now. He does the lifts two or three days a week, singles and heavy. That does not mean that he will max out every day but I would say the intensity is always in the 90%+ range, usually higher. I don’t like reps for the actual lifts. Form tends to break down with fatigue and since we don’t do triples on the platform I don’t see a need to practice them. When training the lifts the intent is to do them exactly like they are done in competition.
I should mention that I have been influenced by many coaches and lifters over the years. I take parts of what they have done and apply what seems appropriate at the time. For example, Steve Gough was influential in adding more of the actual lifts and increasing the intensity. This made a major difference in his progress. I remember talking with Marty Schnorf about opening attempts, relative to training lifts and maximum lifts. He mentioned that two of his best lifters, Curt White and Stewart Thornburg, rarely missed openers, yet they were usually pretty heavy for opening attempts. Then, in the next breath, he conceded that they did that all of the time in training and were used to it..
We use pulls, but not a lot of volume. Snatch and clean pulls are done for doubles or triples, usually three sets. They must be done with good form and reasonable speed. If they are slow, or there is a position break down, we stop. They are used on a day when the other lift is not done, for example a Tuesday workout might look like this:
Snatch – up to 140-145
Snatch pull – 3 sets of 3, up to 150-160
On another day where the C&J is the emphasis, the clean pulls are used. On the day following the heavy day for both lifts, snatch and clean pulls from the blocks are used. They are heavy, 2-3 reps and usually six sets in the snatch and four in the clean are used. I like these for Jeff because they emphasize the finish part of the pull and they fit in well on a day after doing both lifts heavy. His squat is one of his strong suits and as such he comes off the floor well. I don’t see the need for dead lifts or RDLs for him. That is not to say there is no place for these exercises and no one should use them. However, my experience is that the use of heavy dead lifts will make one good at pulling heavy weights……..slowly.
There is a power snatch/power clean day. It is sandwiched between heavy days. I look at that day as a day to loosen up or warm up and stress speed and explosiveness. There are usually four sets of three for each and the top weight is around 70% of the full lift max. I don’t consider the power movements to be that important in his program.
Probably the most important part of any lifting program or coaching philosophy is the identification of weaknesses and devising a means of correcting them. For example, in the C&J the lift will fail in one of three ways, failure to rack or shoulder the bar, failure to stand (squat), or fail in the jerk. I acknowledge there is some overlap here, such as failing to stand because the bar was racked out of position or missing the jerk because there is no energy left after grinding out of a difficult clean. For Jeff, it has always been the overhead portion. He would invariably get the jerk to arms length and fail to recover. Here is where a good coach comes in handy. We are all the way we are as a result of life’s experiences. I have said that my contribution to Jeff’s success and progress has been the lessons I have learned from my mistakes. I know exactly what NOT to do. Here is where I had trouble helping. The jerk was my strong suit. I don’t know why, it just was. My weakness was racking the bar. I could stand and jerk whatever I could pull in. Nothing I tried helped that part of the lift. Interesting that the rack portion is his strength, while it was my weakness. The jerk was his nemesis for years.
Back to what I wrote early on, one must be open minded and willing to try new ideas, especially if you are not getting anywhere with what you are currently doing. So, I turned to other coaches and Jeff turned to other lifters for ideas. The internet is a great thing as it allowed me to send questions to many coaches at the same time. I’d be negligent if I didn’t mention Marty Schnorf, Dennis Snethen, Mike Burgener, Artie Dreschler (read the book, everyone), Don McCauley, Ken Leistner (of HIT fame), Nick Curry, Paul Fleschler, John Thrush and others that I might be forgetting (my apologies). I already mentioned Steve Gough. My point is that we all have our own ideas regarding what works best. That’s fine, just don’t get stuck in the box.
We identified two areas that needed to be addressed regarding technique. One, he has a tendency to dip too low. Second, after hitting the split with the bar locked out, he tends to sink deeper into the split and the momentum of the bar would continue downward until his arms would unlock. The drive was addressed and emphasis was placed on pushing up on the bar immediately after hitting the lockout and split. He did pauses in the split position and held it for a count to strengthen that part of the movement.
Next, we had to rethink the jerk part of the program. In the past, C&Js, jerks off the rack and off blocks, push presses and push jerks were the bulk of the overhead work. Drives, _ front squats, overhead supports and lockouts were used with seemingly little benefit. It was time for drastic measures. Some of the coaches use bench presses and mentioned them. Matt Bruce and Mike Butler (two guys with strong jerks) told him to bench press. Steve Gough scoffed at the idea and I could not argue with him. I never benched and have always thought it to be relatively useless and the most over rated weight training exercise. But, nothing we were doing was working and something different was in order.
Against my principles (no bodybuilding) the bench was added. What follows is where we are at present:
C&Js are done two or three times a week, heavy.
Push jerks are done once, heavy 3s, 2s, and singles. Usually on a Tuesday.
Push presses are done once, heavy 3s, 2s and singles. Usually on a Saturday.
Presses are done once, as above. Usually on Thursday.
The three above are usually done to failure. By that I mean that he’ll miss the third rep of a triple, or second rep of a double.
There is nothing earth shattering there, right? The press was not really emphasized before. Triples in the jerk were removed because he was getting plenty of actual jerk work. The major change was the addition of the bench press on Wednesday and the incline press on Sunday. These are generally done for three to five reps but singles are thrown in from time to time.
Whatever the reason, the jerks have been starting to move. He says the weight feels lighter on his chest and he feels stronger overall in the shoulders and arms. Sometimes, the jerk will actually look easier than the clean. We’ll keep doing what we’re doing, until that changes.
Leg strength has always been Jeff’s strong suit. He used to squat four times a week, using eights and tens at times, as well as threes and fives. I stayed away from max singles, figuring there was not much point since it isn’t a platform lift. That has changed over the years. Currently, squats are done three times a week, twice back and once front. The rep scheme is singles, doubles and triples without a lot of volume. Jeff has had episodic patellar tendonitis and we have found that the higher volume routines and higher rep sets seemed to be the cause. He gets plenty of leg work with the actual lifts as well. Plus, when we started stressing heavy singles and doubles, his lifts seemed to derive more benefit.
That is it. I hope it all makes some sense. I should add that he uses hyperextensions, various gripping exercises, abdominal work and curls. I have a story pertinent to the curls. The curls were like the bench press for me, of little value. I was at an American Open watching the lifting and happened to be sitting a few rows in front of Nick Curry. He was talking about injuries in general and elbow injuries in particular and how weightlifters do not use curls. One lifter had dislocated an elbow earlier and Nick pointed out how everything in weightlifting works the back of the arm while nothing works the front. He thought curls would help prevent a lot of elbow injuries. In fact, Jeff had “tweaked” an elbow the day previously and it prevented him from jerking what he was capable of making. To make a long story short, the addition of curls has helped in that regard and he also insists that his jerk lockout feels stronger as a result of doing them. Funny what one can learn hanging around watching a weightlifting meet. I suppose if you already know everything you do not need to do that. I had thought I was pretty smart when it came to lifting but just overhearing a conversation by chance gave me an idea that has reaped benefit.
That brings me back to my original point. Keep an open mind. If progress is being made, great. If not, be willing to try something different. No one has all the answers, all of the time.