Sometimes coaches, athletes, and fans will debate whether strength or technique is the most important part of improving as an Olympic weightlifter.
Most great coaches would agree both are important. Eventually, technique and strength will match. What does this mean?
The Golden Ratio?
Eventually, you will develop a ratio between your squats and your competition lifts. Some people will try to tell you there is a ‘golden ratio’ between strength movements and the competition lifts something like:
- Snatch should be 66% of your back squat.
- Clean and jerk should be 75% of your back squat.
- Front squat should be 90% of your back squat.
These ratios are perfectly fine, and they are great markers to shoot for. However, these ratios do not hold true for all athletes.
Athletes like Nathan Damron are built to squat with short femurs and strong torsos. He has back squatted 320kg/705lb, but I don’t see him clean and jerking 240kg/528lb (10kg over the current world record in the 96kg weight class) anytime soon. Nathan has clean and jerked 205kg, which is 64%. He has cleaned 220kg, which is about 69%.
These ratios tell me a couple of things. First, we need to continue working on his jerk. Second, to get a competition PR we don’t have to get stronger in the squat. Currently his best competition PR clean and jerk is 201kg, so we need to work on consistency and conditioning for him to hit the 205kg in competition. If we want to hit a lifetime PR clean and jerk, we might consider pushing the back squat to 325kg or 330kg.
Then let’s look at Ryan Grimsland, the number one ranked youth lifter in America. He has a PR back squat of 195kg/429lb and a PR clean and jerk of 150kg/330lb. That puts his clean and jerk at 76% of his back squat, which would be considered by most to be a perfect ratio.
Does this ratio mean Ryan is a better weightlifter than Nathan? Absolutely not! They are both incredible athletes. They are simply designed slightly differently. Ryan will probably improve on his ratio because he’s only been in the sport for about three years. For most athletes, it takes 5-10 years to truly master the movements, and then you will have your ratio locked in stone.
Increasing Squats and Lifts
Now comes the infamous question, “How does one increase the squat and the competition lifts in the same program?” When athletes are young, this is an easy problem to answer. However, when athletes are seasoned like Nathan Damron, this becomes a more difficult question to answer.
First, it’s all about planning your training appropriately. This information will hold true for strength and conditioning, CrossFit, and other strength sports as well. In a perfect world, you can plug in certain periods of your macrocycle just for increasing strength.
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I love getting at least twelve weeks (but preferably twenty) to focus on strength movements like squats, presses, and pulls. During this time, I keep the intensity low and the volume moderate on the Olympic lifts. The main focus for the Olympic lifts is technique, strengthening positions, and conquering weak spots of the overall pull. We focus on the following movement for the Olympic lifts:
- Hangs from different heights (hip/power position, above knee, below knee, and hovering over floor)
- Different block heights (I love these for giving the back a bit of a break, allowing for more emphasis on the strength movements.)
- Three-position snatches and cleans
- Power jerks or squat jerks to emphasize a vertical dip and drive
Another method we use during this phase is undulating periodization. The most common form of periodization in America is linear periodization. Linear periodization is defined as starting with lower intensities and higher volume, and ending with higher intensities and lower volume. There is nothing wrong with linear periodization, and I think it creates acceptable gains. However, undulating has proven to produce slightly better results for our team.
With undulating periodization, high and low intensities can vary within the same week. Volume can still progress in a linear fashion (this is the way we do it), or can wave up and down each block. Let me explain why we changed to undulating periodization before I explain the table below.
We would get our athletes strong with 10RMs, 5RMs, and even 3RMs, but that wasn’t translating to a higher 1RM. The sport of weightlifting is an absolute strength sport. I don’t care how much force my athletes can produce during three or more repetitions. I need to know what they can produce during one massive attempt. This was especially true for female athletes. It’s strange, but in most cases females need a fair amount of volume and absolute strength. The more time they spend with 90% or more resulted in them getting better with those higher percentages. However, if high intensity isn’t coupled with a fair amount of volume, you will notice a drop in overall strength as a result. Whether female of male, we noticed improved squat performance with this undulating approach.
Here’s a look at how we periodize our squat cycle.
Mash Squat Periodization
Day 1 (moderate volume): 5 x 5 (70-80%)
Day 2: off
Day 3 (low volume): 3RM with one drop set (9 RPE or less)
Day 4: off
Day 5: off
Day 6 (high volume): waves 3, 10 (80-85%+, 60-65%+)
Day 7: off
Day 1 (moderate volume): 5 x 3 (80-90%)
Day 2: off
Day 3 (low volume): 1RM with one drop set of 3-5 reps (9 RPE or less)
Day 4: off
Day 5: off
Day 6 (high volume): waves 2, 6 (85-90%+, 70-75%+)
Day 7: off
Day 1 (moderate volume): 5, 3, 1 for two waves (70-80%, 83-88%, 90-95%)
Day 2: off
Day 3 (low volume): 3-5RM with no drop sets (9 RPE or less)
Day 4: off
Day 5: off
Day 6 (high volume): waves 1, 4 (90-95%+, 80-85%+)
Day 7: off
Now let me explain my chart above.
Day 1, which for us is normally Monday, is our moderate volume day. We use either back squats or front squats on this day depending on what the athlete needs to work on, or whichever is tolerated better by the athlete. By this I mean some athletes tolerate back squats better, and some athletes tolerate front squats better. One option is to start out with whichever lift is better tolerated, and then only substitute in the less tolerated movement for only one block. If the athlete tolerates both movements equally, then you might look at which movement is best for the athlete. If the athlete needs to work on the specific positions required in the Clean, then the front squat is a great option. The front squat is also great for strengthening the spinal erectors, since the weight is in front of the body lengthening all spinal flexor moments. The back squat is a bit better for quads and hips simply because a bigger load is being handled. Overall the back squat will yield a bit more hypertrophy due to the bigger load. Otherwise, the front squat and the back squat are great options.
During the first block, we stay somewhere between 70-80% with intensity. Repetitions and sets stay around 5 x 5 for strength building and hypertrophy. We might do something like this with intensity: week 1 at 73%, week 2 at 75%, week 3 is a deload at 70%, and week 4 at 78%.
During the second block, we stay somewhere around 5 x 3 as we start to focus closer on that absolute strength number. With the load we might do: week 1 at 85%, week 2 at 88%, week 3 as a deload at 83%, and week 4 at 90%. As you can see, at this point we are using this day to inch closer to that absolute strength phase. I have found if you want to get stronger with higher intensities, you need to lift higher intensities.
The final block is a wave, encouraging neurological gains and hypertrophy. The repetitions start at five, move to three, then singles, and then start all over again with fives. You will also get a bit of post-activation potentiation, allowing the second wave to be even easier and possibly more efficient. We might handle the intensity and volume like this: week 1 75% x 5, 83% x 3, and 90% x 1, week 2 78% x 5, 85% x 3, and 93% x 1, and week 3 80% x 5, 88% x 3, and 95% x 1. On week 12 we normally taper down throughout the week, and then max out on Saturday (Day 6).
We take day 2 off, and then on day 3 we hit our low volume day. We go with low volume on this day to allow for optimal recovery leading into the final day on day 6. We normally stick with the Front Squat on this day because it is a bit easier to recover from due to the smaller load. During all three blocks, we are staying below a 9 on the rate of perceived exertion scale. That means we are going to stop (or have our athletes stop) a set before they might possibly tap out. It means absolutely no misses.
You might consider waving things like this for all three blocks: week 1 is 8 RPE, week 2 is 9 RPE, week 3 is a deload at 7 RPE, and week 4 is 9 RPE again. The percentages are going to be somewhere between 85%-93% in the first block (give or take a couple of percentages for most people). The second block gets really heavy – probably 93-100% depending on the person. For the final block, we are going to start at a 5RM with percentages somewhere between 80-88% to give the joints a bit of a break with a lower intensity and to encourage some hypertrophy for that final march toward peaking. Then during the final week we will move to a 3RM with percentages probably falling somewhere between 88-93%. On the down sets, for the first block subtract 10% and hit another set of 3, second block starts by subtracting 25% for one set of five and ends with subtracting 15% for three. For the final block, there are no drop sets in order to allow for even more recovering during the final day 6 of the week.
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We take two days off, and then the work goes down on Saturday – day 6. This is where we use waves the entire time for two reasons:
- Using the post activation potentiation of doing heavy reps before the higher repetition work sets makes those sets more efficient.
- It neurologically prepares athletes for absolute strength percentages. (This will ensure the gains you or your athletes receive during the 10RMs, 5RMs, and 3RMs will ultimately equal a huge 1RM.)
Unless back squats aren’t tolerable to the athlete, we are going with the back squat on this day. We want the most bang for our buck, and the back squat will always reign supreme. The first four-week block will consist of three waves of 3s and 10s. On week 1, we sometimes start with 80% x 3 and 60% x 10 on the first wave. However, we allow our athletes to add 2-5kg to each repetition scheme on the second and third wave. On week 2, we start with 83% x 3 and 63% x 10 on the first wave. Once again, we allow the athlete to go up on the following waves. On week 3, we do a slight deload by using the same percentages as week one without increasing the load during the waves. On week 4, we crush things by starting with 85% x 3 and 65% x 10, and we once again increase the load a bit on waves two and three.
During the second block, we are starting things out with 85% x 2 and 70% x 6. Now I am going to give you two ways to progress the waves during this block. You can do the same thing as the first block with adding 2-5kg to each rep scheme for waves two and three or you can add the weight to the doubles only and keep the sixes the same. However, on the last wave you would then turn the six-rep scheme into a 6+ and complete as many repetitions as possible. If your main goal is hypertrophy, this progression might suit you best.
I recommend staying with whichever progressions you choose during the first week of block two and apply it to the following weeks. During the second week, we start with 88% x 2 and 73% x 6, and then we progress the ensuing waves according to the preceding week’s progressions. Once again week 3 is a deload, so we stick with 85% x 2 and 70% x 6 for all three waves. In week 4, we start with 90% x 2 and 75% x 6 and then progress accordingly.
During the final block, we are getting heavy. We start things out with 90% x 1 and 80% x 4. You can choose to add a bit to each rep scheme during the ensuing waves, or once again keep the four rep percentages the same, hitting a 4+ on the final wave. At this point of the program, I would recommend stopping a rep or two before failure, so you can start to get your body healed for the final week. During the second week of the final block, we start with 93% x 1 and 83% x 4. If you are fond of the plus sets (as many reps as possible), I recommend this be the final week for that. Remember the goal is to hit a personal record at the end of this block.
During week 3 of this block, you will complete your final waves of the program. You will start with 95% x 1 and 85% x 4. I recommend shooting for the moon on the single-repetition sets and only increasing 2-3kg on the four-repetition sets. We are going to start the healing process. On the final week of the program, if your goal is a one-repetition maximum, then I recommend tapering during the week leading up to the final day 6. On the final day 6, we are going to max you out – and you are going to hit a 30kg PR, or at least some sort of PR. (30 sounds darn good though! Doesn’t it?)
Variables to Consider
Now I have given you a map to increase your squat, but what if the map doesn’t work? Look, everyone is different. Everyone will respond to certain stimuli in different ways. If you are having trouble increasing your leg strength, you need to approach the squat like you would a rock quarry with thousands of rocks scattered on the ground with one million dollars under one of the rocks. What would you do? I know exactly what you would do. You would turn over ever rock until you found the money. With that being said, let’s look at a few variables to consider:
- Volume– Is the overall volume simply too much for you to recover from, leaving you in a constant catabolic state? Are you doing everything you can to recover? The other side of this coin is do you need more volume to stimulate a response? You can try two to three months of lower volume and then two to three months of higher volume and compare notes. First I would ask myself a few questions to get things off on the right foot. Am I struggling to sleep and eat? If so, you might be performing too much volume. If you are constantly feeling recovered from the workouts, you might be performing too little volume. It’s really that simple.
- Frequency– This one is my favorites to use when I need to get someone stronger – especially in the squat. I don’t recommend going from squatting twice per week to jumping right on a squat every day program. I recommend starting by adding one day, performing the workout for four to six weeks, and then reassessing. I would start by adding either a back squat or front squat (depending on your goals) with a simple repetition-maximum set and no down sets. The goal here is simply performing more often the movement that you intend to improve. If one extra day gets things moving in the right direction, stick with it until things slow down. At that point, either add a down set or add another day. The key is adding slowly, and only adding when things slow down.
- Intensity– This is another big key. Let me give you an example: I personally respond well to high frequency, high intensity, and moderate volume. I’ve discovered several of my female athletes respond to moderate intensity for the majority of the week and only going heavy once per week. The real key is keeping data on your athletes that will help you make these determinations. Coach Spencer Arnold recently released an excellent series of articles referring to the data he keeps on his athletes. I recommend tracking such things as relative intensity and average intensity so you can graph the points at which you or your athlete is responding favorably.
- Conjugate Method– No one will ever convince me using small variations is a bad idea. The entire goal to training is to avoid accommodation at all costs. By that I mean you don’t want the human body to completely adapt to your training stimulus to the point it doesn’t have to improve to perform the program. However, I don’t recommend making massive changes right away. There are so many ways you can change things up just enough to keep thing moving – like pauses and different rep schemes – before you move into different types of bars like safety squat bars and cambered bars. Here’s one thing for sure. If you have been doing the same program for years without any progress, change it up.
- Tempo or Triphasic Training– Just recently I read Triphasic Training by Coach Cal Dietz. Also I had him on my podcast, and we are both members of the group Stronger Experts (a group of the elite coaches, nutrition experts, and practitioners of the world). After talking with him and getting to know the science behind the program, I decided to try it out on two of my hard gainer females. It worked on both of them, and the extra squat strength has turned into extra numbers in the snatch and clean and jerk. Basically, you focus two to three weeks on each of the different contractions of muscles: eccentric, isometric, and concentric. It really worked well on my super elastic athletes. An example is December Garcia, one of my top females. Her back squat had been stuck for a year, and she just hit a 5kg PR last week.
The key here is not accepting defeat. If a program isn’t working, then make changes. You don’t have to completely change the program – just make subtle changes until something sparks a positive response. I have given you a few ways to spark such a response. (However, these aren’t the only ways to change things up. I just wanted to give you a few.)
One thing to always consider is staying below your athlete’s biological tipping point. Dr. Stuart McGill is the one who explained this term to me. What works for one athlete might be the very thing that destroys another. This is where the art of coaching comes into play. I recommend listening to your athletes. Are they in pain? Are they struggling to sleep at night? Are they struggling to eat? Are they losing the love for the sport? These are all signs things aren’t going well. Don’t ignore any of these.
What About Squat Strength During a Competition Cycle?
I’ve given you multiple ways to strengthen the squat in the off-season, but what about when it counts during competition season? Using velocity-based training is a great way to ensure your newfound squat strength will continue to improve (or at least stay the same). Velocity ensures you are working the intended strength quality, while taking into consideration the impact on the body of the increased volume with the competition lifts.
All of us know the beatdown the body endures when preparing for a big competition. It means our 1RM will vary from day to day based on biorhythms and overall training effect. Studies have shown an athlete’s 1RM can vary as much as 15% up or down from day to day. The last thing a weightlifter wants to do is crush their bodies even more by performing 5 x 5 at 78% of a 1RM that might be 15% less at the moment. That would mean 78% is more like 91%, and that just won’t do when you are trying to peak for a major competition.
I still recommend leaving one day per week to get after it. For us, it’s Saturday because we always take Sunday off. This gives us a day to recover before Monday arrives once again. Instead of waves, you might consider a simple repetition-maximum with down sets. You can still get creative with paused repetitions and tempos. Six weeks out, I recommend staying away from triphasic training to allow the body to fully recover.
One last piece of advice – more is not better. Someone told me the other day her coach had her performing waves of 10, 5, and 3 up to three times per week. They couldn’t figure out why her squat and her competition lifts were going down. Come on guys, just because you read something or hear of someone doing something that works doesn’t mean you can just prescribe more of it for even better results. I recommend picking up a textbook or two, and then on top of that use your common sense just a bit.
I hope this article helps all of you to strengthen your leg strength in a way that leads to massive personal records in the competition lifts. We have been able to constantly get our athletes stronger, but some take a bit more work than others. The key is continuing to turn over those rocks until you find the money.