This article is long overdue, but I’ve had a hard time putting in to words my experience from Senior Nationals.
I do not pretend to be a subject matter expert, even in my own field, as I am still very much a student of the sport. I have been blessed with amazing mentors and opportunities. I began coaching CrossFit in 2012 and found that as much as I liked coaching it, I LOVED weightlifting. I started seeking out people to learn from in 2013. I was privileged enough to learn from Don McCauley while he was at MDUSA. He is a man who has always been willing to teach anyone who is willing to learn. I took what I learned from him back to a small barbell group I had in my CrossFit gym. Then something happened that I didn’t see coming.
Most of you don’t know the story behind how Morgan and I became associated with Mash Elite.
I knew of Mash Elite Performance and Travis on social media. If you knew anything about weightlifting, you pretty much knew who he was. We had even been to a couple of events, including the first Strength Spectacular in 2015, but we had never met him. In November of 2015, Travis posted a video of Matt Wininger – and I commented. I honestly don’t remember what I said, but it prompted Travis to send me a direct message and the rest is history. I won’t bore you with details of the next two years, so fast forward to now.
I know I kind of fell into my current coaching position. I feel 100% I deserve it – however, the circumstances that I came into it are horrible. We found out right after Youth Nationals last year that Don had brain cancer. Within a month or so, he had moved back to Florida with his family to fight the cancer. Although I have been coaching with Mash Elite for over almost three years, my role expanded in that capacity greatly with Don’s absence. Don has some huge shoes to fill, and I’ve been working my butt off to be worthy.
I am so grateful to Travis for every opportunity he has given me thus far in this sport. To say he is my mentor is an understatement. He has taken me under his wing and taught me so much over these last three years. He took a gamble with me last year as his co-coach and I cannot thank him enough.
Before we get into the details of the meet, I want to go over a few points I have learned so far in my career. Our goal at Mash Elite is to inform the rest of you coaches, so that the entire sport of weightlifting is moving forward – not just our team. USA Weightlifting should be a family working toward making America – as a whole – better at our beautiful sport. Here are some points that will help all of you become better at coaching our sport:
Never allow yourself to get to a place where you think you know it all. Continue to seek out others to learn from. Once you get to a point you don’t think anyone else can teach you anything, you might as well hang up your coaching hat. There is always something to be learned from others – either how to or how not to do something. Coaches who are so set in their ways and close-minded aren’t helping their athletes by any means, and they are doing their athletes a disservice. Be the coach who continues to seek out knowledge no matter where you are at in your career!
Networking is a big part of this game and it is important to ‘know people’ – but being fake or befriending others for the sake of what they can do for you is not the way to do it. When you see me smiling and laughing with other coaches and athletes, that’s just me. I love my job and I love connecting with others. It isn’t calculated to get an edge or pry out information. If I am talking to you and laughing with you, I like you. Unfortunately, not everyone is genuine. I even hate to say it, but I’ve experienced it firsthand. I can’t stand people who are fake! People will see through the fakeness eventually. Just be genuine and make relationships, not contacts!
Keep your challenge card for the session on you at all times! I witnessed a seasoned coach lose a challenge due to not having their card on them. You have a very small window to challenge a lift. Once the weight on the bar has been changed, the clock has started, or the next lifter is on the stage, you have lost your window. That card better be on your person and you better be ready to throw it when needed.
Regardless if it is a one-minute or two-minute clock, you only have the first 30 seconds to make the first attempt declaration. I messed up on a third attempt and let the clock run past the 30 seconds and we were stuck at the same weight. In the end it didn’t matter because we were only going to go up a kilo and we would have still stayed on our two-minute clock anyway. I’m thankful I learned my lesson in the scenario I did, because it would have been horrible if it was a situation where a medal or team was on the line!
Whether or not an athlete wants to take a lift in the back between attempts due to sitting too long, take control and make them. There was a situation where an athlete I was coaching warmed up perfectly to their openers on both snatch and clean and jerk, but they were having to sit for too many attempts between first and second and second and third attempts. We suggested a lighter power and/or pull to keep the flow going every three attempts and the athlete said no – they were good. In the moment, I was frustrated at the athlete. But, it was my back room and I should have forced the issue and told them they were doing it. In the end, the athlete went 2/6 and I feel like the long waits between attempts played a role in the misses.
Adapt to your athletes and not the other way around. I learned this from Travis a long time ago. No two athletes are the same, and part of your job is to figure out each of your athletes – this goes for training and competition. You have to adapt programs for individuals based on their needs and capabilities. Different athletes require more volume, less volume, longer tapers, shorter tapers, etc. It is a process, and it takes a few training cycles and meet preps to figure athletes out, so don’t get frustrated. In the back room, some athletes want to joke and interact with people while others want to have earbuds and get in their own heads. Learning what the athlete needs in the back room is crucial. I found some athletes want hand signals and body language to get a point across because they don’t want any external stimuli, whereas joking and conversation keeps some others calm and focused. Treat them as individuals!
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“I am capable!” When you are a newer coach, you might have issues with confidence and wonder if you are good enough. As long as you care about your athletes and have their best interest at heart, the rest can be learned. Seeking out mentors is probably one of the most important parts of a coach’s journey. Each athlete you coach and each meet you go to will build your confidence. I think a lot about my own journey, from the beginning to where I am now, and how I have been blessed with amazing mentors. Sometimes, it feels like a dream. Most people don’t know my journey or how I’ve gotten to where I’m at. That is partially my fault, but I don’t want anyone thinking I got here for any other reason than my own merit. I was a coach long before Morgan became a weightlifter and was coaching him before we even came to Mash. But the outside world only sees what we show them. Not that I care what others think, but this weekend put the naysayers to rest. I am in this position on my own merit and I am exactly where I belong – not because I am someone’s mom. This meet put another notch on my confidence belt!
Onto the meet recap –
Senior Nationals was my second solo meet without Travis. My first solo meet was The American Open Finals 2018. That was a mixed weekend with a couple of unfortunate bomb outs and a podium medal. The weekend didn’t sit well with me as I feel like we win together and we lose together. My heart hurt for the ones whose weekend didn’t go as planned. So this time around, I had some nerves going into Senior Nationals, as I wanted that weekend to go better for the athletes! And of course, I didn’t want to mess it up!
We had six athletes competing at Nationals. Four were on-site athletes and two were remote athletes. There were some huge stakes for two of our on-site athletes, which added quite a bit of pressure. Thankfully, I usually work well under pressure!
Alexis King, one of our remote athletes, was first up in the 49A session. She went 2/6 with a 60kg snatch and 78kg clean and jerk. On her clean and jerks, she was called for a soft elbow on her second attempt at 81kg. There is a new rule in national meets that allows a coach to challenge a lift with their challenge card. I decided to challenge her attempt and actually got a 2:1 vote in our favor – but it has to be unanimous in order for the decision to be overturned.
Jacob Wyatt was next in the 73A session. It was quite a stacked session with the current Youth Olympian Jerome Smith and former Olympian Chad Vaughn. Jacob was a 77 prior and this is only his second meet as a 73. He went 2/6 as well, hitting both of his openers of 120 and 145.
Hunter Elam was the talk of the weekend with her cut to 59! I don’t want to go into much detail on the hows and whys of her cut because that is a story for Hunter to tell. What I will say is that it was the right decision! This was probably the most fun I had all weekend in the back room, if I’m being totally honest.
She was on her game, but she was also chill and having fun. Hunter went 3/6 with the gold medal snatch at 94kg and a gold medal total of 206kg. We opened at a successful attempt at 90kg on the snatch and went to 93kg for her second attempt. She had a close miss behind her… and then there was a decision to be made. In the end, we decided to bump a kilo to hit that gold snatch and also set her up for the clean and jerk. She nailed that third attempt! On the clean and jerks, she smoked the 112kg opener. We went up to 114kg to try to take it first for a shot at gold as well as beating the #1 59 female’s current total. The clean slipped in the catch and we had one more attempt at that point. One of the other lifters hit 114kg, so we decided to try our hand at 115kg. Unfortunately, the bar slipped again. Her total at 206kg was good enough to put her on the Pan American Games team. She also left the weekend with Best Female Lifter!
Side note: one of the most entertaining moments of the weekend is when Hunter made her gold medal snatch attempt and jumped off the stage into my arms!
December Garcia competed in the 64A session, going 4/6 with an 84kg snatch and 109kg clean and jerk. She has worked hard to battle back from a shoulder injury. With continued hard work and dedication, she has a bright future!
Nathan Damron started us out on Sunday in the 96A session. It’s been a hot minute since he, Jason Bonnick, and Phil Sabatini have competed on the same platform. It made for a great competition! Nathan had an extraordinary meet, hitting gold across the board with a 157kg snatch and a 200kg clean and jerk. We opened at 153kg – and he smoked it! He was at the end of the session, so we had the ability to see what others hit on their third attempts to see what we needed for gold. In the end we went 157kg – which had been a while for Nathan, so it was a victory in and of itself. On his third attempt we went for 161kg, which would have been a meet PR, but it was just a bit out front. On clean and jerks, his opener of 193kg was child’s play. His second attempt of 198kg was a super easy clean and the jerk locked out, but he got a soft elbow in the recovery and dropped it. We were in the same situation with being able to see what others did first before deciding our final attempt. Bonnick took 200kg first and missed it, so we decided to stick with 200kg and Nathan killed it!
Side Note: I love the camaraderie between the top three guys: Nathan, Jason, and Phil! When it was over, all three shook hands, laughed, and congratulated each other. I can honestly say that women are different. That didn’t happen in Hunter’s session and it makes me sad.
Sam Dowgin, our other remote athlete, closed out the weekend in the 81A session. She competed in a higher weight class previously and is fairly new to the 81s. She went 4/6 hitting an 87kg snatch and 108kg clean and jerk. Both are PRs at this body weight!
Recap and Reminders
To say the weekend went amazing is an understatement! While not everyone met their personal goals, overall the whole team did amazing! I love coaching in general, and I love coaching weightlifting in particular. The back room at a meet is one of the most exciting parts of our jobs. It requires strategy and thinking on your feet. I always learn so much by talking to and observing other coaches.
To recap some lessons learned:
Never stop learning and seeking out knowledge from others!
Keep your challenge card on your person.
Be aware of the 30 second rule on declaring attempts.
Be in charge of your back room.
Adapt to your athletes.
We have been riding the high of this meet for the last couple of weeks. Hunter and Nathan are already hard at work preparing for the Pan American Games. As I have experienced, not every meet is going to be the ultimate meet. Everyone has their ups and downs. I love every single one of our athletes, and I will celebrate with them in their highs and go down with the ship with them in their lows. That is what makes our team so special!
Special thank yous to Morgan ‘Madlifts’ McCullough, Joe Cox of Krypton Barbell, and Sean Rigsby of Heavy Metal Barbell. They helped load and were a second pair of eyes during the weekend when I needed them.
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I returned last night from one of the most incredible trips of my entire life.
Phil, the CEO of Stronger Experts, and I have been talking about a trip to Jamaica from the very moment I joined the platform. For all of you who don’t know what Stronger Experts is, I will give you a brief explanation. Phil gathered some of the world’s top experts in the areas of weightlifting, powerlifting, strength and conditioning, speed training, nutrition, injury prevention, and rehab. The platform is a one-stop shop for young and aspiring coaches to learn from the best in the business.
One of the coaches on the platform is Coach Jae Edwards. Jae is a big part of the reason why I joined this platform. He works with some of the top sprinters in Jamaica – including Yohan Blake. I’ve been fascinated by the Jamaican sprinters for quite some time now. I have been dying to understand their training and their mindset. Phil gave all of us that chance.
I was able to arrange for Doug Larson and Anders Varner, my friends from Barbell Shrugged, to come along to document the journey. This guaranteed we would come away with some moments that would encourage and inspire all of you. It also allowed me to co-host one of the most amazing podcasts of my life with Yohan Blake, which brings me to the point of this story.
No Other Option
Yohan explained to us life growing up on the island. Yes, it is one of the most beautiful places in the world. However, life on the island for the locals can be one of the hardest existences in the world. Yohan grew up in a one-room house with seven siblings and his parents. Food was hard to come by, which made athletic endeavors much harder for him than the athletes here in the United States.
He didn’t even start out as a sprinter. When he was 16 years old, he was playing cricket and decided to try his hand at sprinting. Luckily he was really good right out of the gate. It’s actually hard to imagine how good he would be if he had started earlier like most of the children in Jamaica – talking to the other track coaches, they start them between four to six years old.
Once Yohan realized he had a gift, he knew he had found a way to change the lives of his entire family. He worked harder than everyone else on the island, to the point Usain Bolt gave him the nickname Beast. He still trains with the same tenacity, and is currently the world’s fastest man after winning the world championships. Yohan also holds the second-fastest time ever recorded for the 100-meter dash – 9.69 seconds. After talking to him over the last few days, there is no way I would vote against him. If you want to hear the entire story, just wait for the episode of Barbell Shrugged to drop.
Here’s my point in telling you this story. Yohan approached sprinting with no other alternative. There was no fall-back plan and no other options. Back at home there was only a one-room house and several disappointed family members awaiting him if he failed. He told us about praying multiple times God would grant him speed. He told us about his mother telling him he was their only hope.
As an athlete growing up in America, I can’t imagine having that kind of pressure on me. He felt the weight of the entire world on his shoulders, and he didn’t let the weight crush him. It’s that pressure that made him unbeatable. Yes they have good coaching in Jamaica, but so do we in America. It’s the fact they don’t have any other option that drives them to succeed at such high levels.
The problem with options
In America, our athletes have so many options. If their sport doesn’t work out, then they will go on with their lives. Heck, most of them realize they will be more financially stable when their sport is over. That really makes it tough for them when training gets hard, and training gets hard for everyone no matter the sport. ‘Options’ are the very reason why athletes fail more often than not in America. Let me explain a little more.
Every year, I have an athlete who reaches out to me about wanting to be an Olympian. I often wonder how they get to that goal. I mean did they watch some old Cal Strength videos, or did they stumble upon some old videos of Pyrros Dimas? Who knows? Yet here they are reaching out to me, saying the exact same things as so many before them. It used to be, if they had a little bit of talent, I would get all excited and have them visit the gym. After my trip to Jamaica, I have a new plan for all the people who reach out to me.
Now I am going to rant a bit, so get ready. Athletes tell me all the time they are willing to do anything to become the best, but their actions don’t match their mouths. Don’t tell me you want to be the best, and then proceed to go out drinking and partying every week. You’re lying to me and to yourself. Don’t tell me you will do whatever it takes, and then quit when training gets hard. If you really want to be the best, keep reading.
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If you really want to be one of the best athletes in the world, you are going to have to give up all partying. You are going to have to take responsibility for your own nutrition. You are going to need ten hours of sleep every night. Recovery is your responsibility. You will need to find the best chiropractor, physical therapist, and massage therapist. You will need to buy Marc Pro for the inflammation. If you aren’t getting something in practice, you will need to do whatever it takes to understand the deficiency. Maybe you need some extra practice. Maybe you need two-a-days until you get it. Maybe you need to do a little extra homework.
You will need to practice harder and smarter than every other person on this planet. Things are going to get hard, really hard. That’s a promise. You are going to regress at times. You are going to plateau at times. Some of that is a planned response by your coach, and some is a dark place where all athletes will venture. It’s in the darkness where you will experience pain and sadness. Your body will hurt like you are a 50-year-old crippled person. You will get depressed. You will think it’s never going to happen. All of these things I promise are going to happen.
It’s in this darkness you will come face to face with the true you. This can be the loneliest place in the world because you are going to be faced with questions some of you don’t really want to answer:
Am I really good enough to be at the top of my chosen sport?
Am I really willing to do what it takes to make it in my chosen sport?
Is my sport worth pushing through this terrible pain?
Am I tough enough to push through this plateau?
Making that decision
For some of you, it’s simply a reality check. You might not be cut out to be the best, and that’s okay. Some of you will learn to simply enjoy the sport. However, for all of you who really have what it takes, you will be faced with the hardest decision of your life. If you quit now, you will probably quit when things get tough for the rest of your life. Nothing great in life ever comes easy, and that’s why athletes who make it to the very top are so darn special. They are special in the same way amazing entrepreneurs are special or incredible inventors.
The rest of this article is especially to the athletes who are about to reach out to me in the future. I want you to contemplate this article and the question above. I know it seems sexy when you see my athletes wearing Team USA on their chests. I know it seems cool traveling around the world lifting weights against the best athletes in the world. However that’s less than 1% of what really goes on. Are you ready for the work that’s really required? Are you willing to stay at home while others go out partying? Are you willing to take control of your nutrition and recovery?
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Here’s the thing. I am no longer willing to coach someone who isn’t willing to match their action with their goals and talents. I have too many great athletes who are willing to put in the work and time. I don’t have the time for trouble cases who aren’t willing to accept the help and coaching. The Jamaicans are willing to do whatever it takes. Are you? I mean are you really?
Yohan Blake didn’t have a choice. That makes it a bit easier to stay focused. For the rest of us who have choices, we must be disciplined. You have to want to succeed more than anything else in the entire world. If there is something else you would rather be doing, then go do that and forget about sport.
I know this article isn’t my normal science based ‘how to’ article, but it’s the truth all of you need to hear. Don’t tell me you were already thinking like this because I watch too many of you come and go. Be honest with yourself! It’s okay to play a sport for fun. However, when you tell a coach like me you want to be the best in the world, then I expect the best work ethic and discipline in the world. If I don’t get just that, you can find another coach.
About the author: Eric Bowman is a Registered Physiotherapist and Strength Coach in Ontario, Canada who works in the areas of chronic musculoskeletal pain, sports rehab, and strength and conditioning. He’s also intermittently involved with the University of Waterloo Kinesiology program and the Western University Physical Therapy program. He also competes as a powerlifter and has completed the CPU Coaching Workshop and Seminar.
After getting pain-free, the next step was to get stronger. Needless to say, my squat was in desperate need of improvement. So I needed a plan to get from Point A to Point B without rushing so aggressively that I re-aggravated my symptoms. This plan came from the use of a tool, originally intended for Olympic lifters, that I have used both for myself and for other clients recovering from weight-training injuries – Prilepin’s Chart.
What is Prilepin’s Chart?
Prilepin’s Chart is a chart designed in the former Soviet Union to manage the training of Olympic weightlifters. It provides recommendations based off of the percentage of your one-rep max, for optimal repetitions per set, and optimal total repetitions per workout.
Who is it for?
It is for people who have no major orthopedic or medical pathology, can do everything in their work and activities of daily living pain-free, and only have pain (or form breakdown) past a certain weight.
If you still have pain with these other activities, and/or you have other orthopedic or medical issues, those need to get dealt with first. Just saying.
How do I apply it?
I use it for the big barbell lifts – squat, bench press, deadlift, and overhead press – as well as Olympic lifts on occasion.
The key is having a proper 1RM. This requires putting the ego in park and using a max you know you can hit properly and pain-free. Just because you squatted 700 pounds before the meet doesn’t mean you can squat it now. Use a one-rep max (either taking it directly or from a calculator) from the best performance you can do properly and pain free in that exercise.
For instance, if you can squat 300 pain-free but 315 gives you trouble, 300 is your training max.
From there you use the percentages in the chart. A strength-based workout may be 80% of your max (240 pounds in this example) for 2-5 sets of 2-4 reps. A hypertrophy or accumulation-based workout may be 70% of your max (210 pounds in this example) for 3-6 sets of 3-6 reps.
What are the advantages of this approach?
1) Keeps the athlete in check
Most athletes, especially us studly powerlifters, like to push weights and push the envelope to get back to where we were before.
A flaw I see of people who do programs like 5/3/1, Conjugate, or 10/20/Life is that they become “PR happy” and want to break a PR week after week – eventually leading to stagnation or injury. This isn’t a flaw of the programs themselves but rather how they’re used.
A fixed max and percentages keeps us in check.
2) Flexibility with sets and reps
A flaw of fixed percentage based programs, particularly linear periodization models, is they don’t allow for flexibility in sets and reps. This is a problem for two reasons:
Some lifters are more “fast twitch” than others and can’t do as many reps at a given percentage of their 1RM compared to other “slower twitch” lifters. Bret Contreras and Brad Schoenfeld did an experiment where they had subjects perform an all out set at 75% of their 1RM. The top lifter did 21, the bottom lifter did 7. So telling an athlete they must do 3 sets of 10 at 75% of their 1RM might be impossible for the bottom lifter and too easy for the top lifter.
If you’re having a bad day, 3 sets of 10 at 75% may be too hard … or if you’re having a good day it’s too easy.
Having a flexible range of sets and reps helps minimize these issues by enabling you to auto-adjust your sets and reps for the day.
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3) Emphasis on proper form
For technically complex lifts – such as the powerlifts and the Olympic lifts – it’s hard to maintain good form past a few repetitions unless you’re someone who is very technically sound. While singles are optimal for technique, doing lots of singles in a workout can get pretty time consuming and pretty monotonous. As such, I prefer the 1-6 rep ranges used in Prilepin’s Chart.
How do I know when to bump the training max up?
If you can hit (or exceed) the top end of Prilepin’s Chart on a consistent basis without pain or excessive fatigue, then you can recalibrate your training max and begin again. I usually use the following recommendations based on how many repetitions you’re consistently (key word) hitting in your workouts compared to those recommended in the chart:
When in doubt – start light and increase more slowly. The big thing is to keep everything pain-free and use proper form.
What about lifters who are short on time and can’t do that much volume?
The one downside, from a practical standpoint, is Prilepin’s Chart can lead to a fair amount of volume in a workout.
For people who are short on time, I recommend Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 program – which should be used in a similar manner of using a training max that you can hit properly and pain-free.
With Jim Wendler at SWIS 2018
Wendler recommends sticking with your current training max and increasing it by 2.5-5 pounds for upper-body lifts or 5-10 poounds for lower-body lifts every four weeks until you stall and can’t hit the prescribed sets and reps. Wendler is way smarter than I am, so I can’t argue with him. My only suggestion is to start with a super conservative training max.
If you use a methodology that is not percentage-based but involves working to a top set on your main movements, such as the Max Effort component of Conjugate training, I still recommend you only increase your weights at a maximum of 5-10% per month (again – if in doubt, less is better). For some, increasing weights that slowly may not feel like a true “max effort” strain. Some ways to make a max effort exercise more difficult without adding weight:
Adding in some slow eccentrics and/or isometrics to the lift
Doing more warm-up/working-up volume prior to your top sets
Prilepin’s Chart can be applied in many ways outside of Olympic lifting and can be a useful tool, when applied appropriately, in the late rehab stage and post rehab stages of an athlete.