I coach weightlifting. The object of weightlifting is to pick up a barbell from the floor and put it above your head. This is done in either one movement (snatch) or two (clean and jerk) movements. Rarely does a person walk into the club able to perform this movement smoothly, even with our lightest barbell? Outsiders often perceive incompetence as a strength deficit, but coaches know that the athletes need to develop mobility, coordination, speed, and confidence first. Strength develops with time and practice.
The weaker the foundation, the weaker the building. Engineers talk about structural integrity, which is the principle we use at our club. Rather than reverse engineer the very technical lifts using the barbell, we build up a series of bodyweight, medicine ball, and dumbbell exercises from the ground up. We build the foundation underpinning the skill before teaching the skill itself. This principle applies to many other sports, too as this article shall explain.
Beginners get tired and bored easily. I use a variety of exercises to induce a training stimulus rather than a lot of just one or two exercises. This reduces the monotony of training and also the risk of overuse. The athletes get tired even though they do not lift heavy weights or do many sets or repetitions. The novelty of the exercises and the range of movement are the reasons why they often feel stiff the next day rather than lifting too much weight.
Here is an example of the first two sessions in detail that we used with 13-year-old boys entering the gym for the first time last month.
- Lunges forward, side, and back. Add an opposite hand toe touch. Lawnmowers (in a press-up position, lift one hand off the floor, point to the opposite hand, and then up to the ceiling)
- Stick: hinge, press, and overhead squat
- Attempts at the snatch with the stick
- Squat matrix
- Medicine ball walks
- Dumbbell complex 1 (5kg dumbbells)
These exercises were new to the boys, except for the basic lunge and squat. Despite both playing rugby and participating in school p.e., their exposure to movement principles has been limited.
You will notice that after performing some basic movements with the stick, I let them attempt the snatch exercise (if they turned up to baseball practice for the first time they would expect to pitch, hit and catch) several times. The movement rarely looks good, but I avoid over-coaching them: they are unlikely to hurt themselves with just the stick, and so I let them do four or five sets of five repetitions and praise them at the end for having started their journey.
I then introduce simpler exercises that use an external load to get used to lifting weights safely and feel like they have trained.
- Squat Matrix
- Prone series
- Hinge, press and overhead squat (stick)
- Snatch from hang (stick) 3 x 3.
- Snatch from hang (10kg bar). 3 x 3
- Snatch pulls from the floor (10kg bar) 3 x3
- Lunge and reach sequence
- Core Pillar 1
- Dumbbell complex 2
- Attempts at clean and jerk with a stick
In the second session, I start with something that I did in the first session and then add a new sequence. There is a fine line balancing new exercises with familiar exercises. I try to alternate them so that the athletes get a mental respite while enjoying a physically demanding section.
Because the athletes had safely lifted the 5kg dumbbells in Session 1 and showed more competence when performing the snatch with the stick in the warm-up of session 2, I decided to let them try with the 10kg bar. This is half the weight of the adult male 20kg bar. It is important to have smaller, lighter weights that the beginner athlete can use to learn technique rather than try to manhandle the heavier bar with bad technique. I broke the snatch into two parts: the hang snatch that starts with the bar at the top of the kneecap and then the snatch pull that goes from the floor to the chest. Both are easier to perform than the whole lift.
Breaking complex skills into component parts helps beginners feel competent and builds their confidence. If they are confident then they will keep trying to improve. If they feel incompetent early, they are more likely to get frustrated and stop.
We then did three more blocks of exercises: another lunge variation, a core sequence on the floor, and more dumbbell exercises. We spent about five minutes on the first two and then 10 minutes on the dumbbells.
Finally, I showed them the clean and jerk, and they tried this out with the stick. This acted as a cool down and also introduced the technique so that they are already familiar with it when they try again in session 3. The act of introducing a new skill at the end of the session is not always a good idea. It can leave the athletes frustrated and walk out with that frustration in their minds. But, if done well and with encouragement, it can allow their subconscious to work whilst they are away and give them something to look forward to next week.
I have shown the beginning steps of a long journey into weightlifting in some detail. My goal is to encourage and support and introduce the sport and help the athletes get fit. Getting fit and strong is a long-term process and one that we wish them to continue throughout their lives. By showing patience when introducing the skills and giving them some short-term wins with the foundation exercises, I hope that they can continue for months and years to come.