Lessons from Pyrros

At the World Championships, I had the chance to sit down with Pyrros Dimas and talk weightlifting.

Once again, I’m never going to get past the fact that I get to hang out with one of my favorite athletes of all time. That’s right, I didn’t say favorite weightlifter. I said favorite athlete.

I’m not a weightlifting purist like a lot of you are. I absolutely love the sport, but I also love football and basketball. I would still consider myself more of a strength and conditioning coach because I love coaching athletes from multiple sports. It’s simply more challenging, and it keeps me from getting bored. I simply love coaching athletes. I love the great athletes move through space and the way they compete with such confidence.

WINNING

I remember reading about (and sometimes watching) Pyrros battle with such greats as Siemion and Huster. Pyrros had the unique ability to win. Only a select few athletes have the ability to raise their performance level when victory is on the line. Michael Jordan comes to mind when talking about this ability. Michael Jordan had the ability to take over a game when victory meant the most – like the NBA playoffs. I remember watching Jordan play game five against the Utah Jazz in 1997. Jordan had flu-like symptoms, and he still rose to the occasion with 38 points for at two-point win.

Pyrros had that same ability. If a world record were needed for the win, then Pyrros would hit a world record. This ability to rise above the competition is what drew me to Pyrros – not to mention he’s jacked. I’d say the reason I like Pyrros and Lu Xiaojun is because they are both amazing and jacked athletes. I mean is there a male athlete on earth who doesn’t want to be jacked? Maybe, but I sure loved being muscular when I was a competitive athlete.

HIS CURRENT WORK

Anyway I guess that’s enough of me being a fan boy of Pyrros, but I definitely wanted to give a little context before getting into the rest of the article. Most of you reading this know that Pyrros is now the Technical Director for USA Weightlifting. That really means he is one of our national coaches along with Mike Gattone. At the international meets, these two help guide the decisions made during the competition – such as attempt selection, warm-ups, and training during the final weeks. They do a lot more than this (such as helping coaches like me decide strategies for my athletes), but at least you have the watered down version of what Pyrros does for USA Weightlifting.

In my opinion, there is something more important that he does. That’s what this article is all about. It’s my way of passing on the information to all of you, so that you can turn around and use the information with your own athletes. After all, this is Team USA – not Team Mash. I want USA to field the best team possible. Yes, I want my team to crush. But at the end of the day when I am in my deathbed, I want to look back and see that I did everything in my power to improve the sport within the United States.

Here are the two takeaways from my talk with Pyrros:

  1. Eccentrics from the hang to improve positions
  2. Laying a foundation for high intensity and high frequency blocks

The Positions

While we were sitting there, we started discussing a common theme amongst US lifters that Dimas had noticed. Yes, it was a surreal moment to sit down and have a discussion with my childhood hero. He noticed most lifters were not staying over the bar long enough. Instead of driving with their legs for as long as possible, they were moving to hip extension too soon and pushing their hips into the bar. This causes the bar to be in front or to loop behind.

This type of movement creates an inconsistent snatch, and it causes a clean to be in front. You will notice a lot of American lifters catching a clean and collapsing forward. Their elbows will drop, and their thoracic spine will round. Most people try to address the problem as a weakness in their torso. However, a lot of the time they are simply catching the clean forward a bit. This creates three problems for the athlete:

  1. Almost impossible to catch a bounce out of the hole.
  2. Makes it harder to stand up from the catch phase of a clean.
  3. Takes energy away from the Jerk.

So are we all doomed to lift like this forever? I for one hope not. There are two things that you can do to rectify this flaw. First, you can simply use verbal cues to try and correct such as:

  • Stay over the bar
  • Feet through the floor
  • More legs
  • Pretend you have longer legs than you do
  • Knees back and chest up

I should say to only try one at a time with these. Less is definitely more in the sport of weightlifting. If these don’t work, you can try the suggestion from Pyrros. He said to use eccentrics from the hang to strengthen the positions. We know that eccentrics are a great way to get stronger, and the best part is that eccentrics are a great way to get stronger specifically.

Benefits

Chris Beardsley is an exercise scientist who I have been following for a few years now, and so should you. In his book, Strength is Specific, there are three basic biological mechanisms that determine how much force we produce: the length-tension relationship, the force-velocity relationship, and force enhancement during lengthening. These three factors determine why we are stronger at certain muscle lengths, at certain contraction speeds, and in eccentric versus concentric.

When we train, adaptations happen specifically around these three factors. That means the way we train is very important to the type of adaptation we gain from training. By spending more time in the correct position during the eccentrics, we are teaching the body to be stronger in the specific joint angles that we want the body to be in during the clean or snatch.

Plus it’s easier to maintain proper positions during the eccentric contractions. We are around 125-130% stronger during the eccentric contraction of a lift versus the concentric. To summarize, we are spending more time in the correct positions during the eccentric contraction, and it’s easier for the athlete to stay in the correct position. This type of training leads to specific adaptations strengthening the body in the correct joint angles – not to mention improving the movement neurologically as well from the practice and improved pathways. Just like any other sport, the more one practices yields improved performance.

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Putting This into Practice

We’ve been doing hang snatches and hang cleans with a five-second eccentric on each repetition. We’ve been using eccentrics in the main session of the day and in our morning technique sessions as well. We’ve also been adding in five-second eccentric hangs followed by slow concentric pull snatches and cleans – only speeding up at the last second to finish the lift. We are dialing in that perfect position.

Our goal is for all of our athletes to make at least 85% of their snatches. Obviously that means they are constantly hitting at least two snatches – and most of the time all three. When an already strong athlete is hitting at least two snatches, they become very hard to beat. When an athlete drives with their legs, stays over the bar, and squeezes the bar in, they create a tighter bar path leading to more made lifts.

Preparing the body for high intensity and frequency

Some of you might know Pyrros was born in Albania. He started lifting in Albania with a Russian influenced program. He was able to form a base filled with general physical preparedness. When he moved to Greece, he entered into a Bulgarian influenced program and trained two to three times per day everyday. His workouts were filled with daily maxes in the snatch, clean and jerk, and front squat.

I asked him his thoughts about the Bulgarian program. He told me that his time training in Albania with a Russian style program prepared him for the demanding Bulgarian program. By accident he stumbled upon a program that I consider to be the optimal way of training. You have to spend quality time preparing the body for the extreme demands of high intensity and high frequency.

When we were discussing Hunter’s training program, he wanted me to focus on the eccentric hangs. He told me to pile the volume on her. His exact words were to kill her. Most of my athletes are training towards a February/March competition, and these competitions are very important for all of them. All of them will have endured an 8-10 week training block of hypertrophy and strength work. After that, each block and each week will become more and more high intensity and high frequency. Variance in exercises will decrease and specificity will increase as we start to express the newly built strength.

We can all agree that absolute strength is best expressed with intensities of 90% and above. The only debate is how much, and that answer is very specific to the individual. Accessory work will be less during these high intensity and high frequency blocks, but we will always keep accessory work in the program to target specific weaknesses and asymmetries.

A look inside

Here’s a sample of what we are doing right now:

Day 1 – AM Session
Three-Position Snatch from Mac Board – 55% for a three-position snatch, 60% for a three-position snatch, 65% for a three-position snatch, 55% for a three-position snatch, 60% for a three-position snatch, 65% for a three-position snatch

Day 1 – PM Session
Low Hang Snatch with 5 sec eccentric from Mac Board – 75% for 9 x 2 (60-90 sec rest between sets)
Front Squat – 10 x 3 at 80%
Safety Squat Bar Goodmornings – stay at a 7-8RPE for 3 x 8

Day 2
Push Press- 5 x 5
DB Bench Press – 5 x 10
Dips – 4 x submaximal reps (use weight if getting more than 10 reps)
Hang Snatch Grip High Pulls – 60% for 3 x 10

Day 3 – AM Session
Tempo Eccentric and Concentric Snatches – 55% for a tempo eccentric and concentric snatch, 60% for a tempo eccentric and concentric snatch, 65% for a tempo eccentric and concentric snatch, 55% for a tempo eccentric and concentric snatch, 60% for a tempo eccentric and concentric snatch, 65% for a tempo eccentric and concentric snatch

Day 3 – PM Session
Low Hang Clean w 5 sec eccentric from Mac Board – 75% for 9 x 2 (60-90 sec rest between sets)
Snatch Grip Deadlift w 5 second eccentric – 5RM (8 RPE), then -10% for 2 x 5
Rear Leg Elevated Split Squats with DBs – stay at a 7RPE for 3 x 10 ea leg

Day 4
Unilateral Farmer’s Walk – 3 x 20 yd ea arm
Strict Bear Crawls – 4 x 20 yd
Stability Ball Stir the Pot – 3 x 20 sec ea way

Day 5 – AM Session
Slow Pull Snatches (focus on staying over & squeezing, Pause in Catch 2 sec) – 60% for 2, 65% for 2, 70% for 1, 60% for 2, 65% for 2, 70% for 1
Behind the Neck Jerk Steps – 40% for 3, 50% for 3, 60% for 2 x 3

Day 5 – PM Session
Snatch Complex: Snatch + Low Hang with 5 Sec eccentric from Mac Board: 2RM (9 RPE)
Clean and Jerk Complex: Clean + Low Hang with 5 sec eccentric + Jerk: 2RM (9 RPE)
Strict Press – 10 x 3 at 80%
Bent-over Rows Paused on Chest 1-2 seconds – 5 x 10 at 60%

Day 6
Back Squat with Belt – 10 x 10 at 65%
TRX Leg Curls – 4 x 10

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Blessed to have Pyrros

I hope this helps all of you. A lot of coaches in America have mixed feelings when foreign coaches are hired in America. I can assure you that hiring Pyrros was a great decision. He brings so much wisdom to the table. I mean, think about it for just a second. Yes, he’s a three-time gold medalist (along with one bronze), but that’s only the beginning. How many people do you know who trained in the ‘real’ Russian system and in the ‘real’ Bulgarian system? Not to mention, he received his Master of Sports from the Albanian government. That’s a lot of experience and education he brings to the table. I for one have learned something new from him each and every time we’ve talked.

Some might expect him to be overbearing with all of those accolades, but quite the contrary. He is very receptive and open to discussion. We are very blessed to have him and the rest of the members of USA Weightlifting. They have worked very hard so far this quad to get the athletes ready to make this Olympic run. It seems like they are coming up with something new every month to help our top athletes. We finally have a group focused on medals and international performance versus having a group just happy to have an easy job. There’s nothing easy about what any of them are doing. They are focused and committed, making it easy for coaches and athletes to also be focused and committed.

It’s their commitment to all of us that makes me want to open up to all of you. For once I feel like that Team USA is one big team and not some segmented group of individual teams. If you’ve ever been to a big international competition, you will see an atmosphere that is very different from just a couple of years ago. The coaches are sitting around helping each other and coming up with strategies that will help everyone. It seems that all the coaches have their own strengths and weaknesses. It’s nice to see us coming together.

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