The Training Spectrum

The Training Spectrum

The selection of exercises in a weightlifter’s regimen can be compared to a spectrum; one end of the spectrum contains assistance exercises and remedials with little to no inclusion of the full competition lifts, while the other end contains the competition lifts and front/back squats. Each extreme has its flaws. Most routines rightfully fall in somewhere between these ends, but nonetheless certain individuals choose to advocate their extreme as THE way to train.

In the incipient stages of a lifting career, one should primarily perform the full lifts along with front and back squats. After a month or so, the athlete can incorporate assistance movements based on their needs. This can include: Targeting an identifiable weakness in one phase of the lift, reduce taxation of the muscular and neurological system by only completing partial movements of the full lift, training around injury. As the athlete’s career progresses and they begin to work with heavier poundages, the significance of the aforementioned points become more and more apparent.

Exclusively performing assistance movements can leave the athlete an unfamiliarity of the full lift. The amount of force generated at various phases of the full lift differ from the assistance movements, no matter how much one strives to keep the two the same. For example, when performing a hang snatch, the athlete must lower the barbell to snatch it, in which an amortization (transition) phase occurs. The direction of force on the barbell shifts from downwards to upwards, in contrast to a snatch off the floor which is almost directly upwards throughout the duration of the pull. The athlete may use the oscillation or whip of the bar to generate enough force to complete the lift, but this is different from the full pull from the ground.

The biggest detriment of the assistance movement filled routine is the neglect of the timing component of the full lift. Looking strictly at from the full extension of the pulling phase to when the weight is secured in an overhead or front squat, the athlete must become familiar with their self under the bar in harmony as it rises then lowers. This must be done in such a way that the barbell will not ‘crash’ on the athlete. Pulling under will feel different if the athlete is performing a lift from the hang as opposed to a lift off the floor. Some believe the full lifts are dangerous and may only prescribe the power versions of the lifts, in which no practicing of pulling under and meeting the bar for the full lifts occurs, and as a result the full lift feels foreign.

In contrast, the biggest flaws of exclusively performing the lifts and squats are failing to remedy specific weaknesses and subjecting the athlete to overtraining. There may be a need for the athlete to train a specific muscle, or a particular weak phase of the lift. Either will hinder and limit the athlete, as the cliché goes “you are as strong as your weakest link.” For example, my spinal erectors were so weak that I couldn’t keep a flat/arched back during the pull, which limited how much weight I could pull to my shoulders to clean. It made no difference how much I performed the lifts, and until I addressed the issue with assistance and remedials, I continued having the same problem.The inclusion of some assistance movements will also prevent overuse injuries. Say if an athlete’s just completed a heavy squat workout the day prior, then they could perform power clean & jerks to allow the neuromuscular pathway of standing up out of a squat to recover.

Further out from a contest, more assistance and less full movements can be performed, and as the contest approaches, more of the full lifts should be performed, particularly the last 4 or 5 weeks. For this sport, I am a strong believer in the mantra, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” What yields the greatest training benefit is the full competition lifts, however due to the nature of a complex multi-joint exercise, they can be very taxing and must be performed in controlled doses. Some can handle more of the full lifts than others; it is the mission of the athlete and coach to find the ideal mix of the full and assistance movements.

– Edward Baker

Thoughts on this weekend's local meet

By Edward Baker

There aren’t any videos of our training this weekend because instead, I went up to Nashville to help out my friend, Jordan Pepe at a local competition. I’m not trying to turn this into my personal blog, but I can’t help but want to brag about the performance I saw this weekend.

Jordan went up to this meet with the intent to qualify for this year’s Senior Nationals, and boy did she convincingly do so. She ended up going 6 for 6 and totaling 16 kilos more than she needed to qualify. Each attempt looked routine, each one looking just as easy as the last. The highlight for her was clean and jerking a PR of 96 kg, but it ‘looked like a toy’, as John Coffee would say. 

I also had the pleasure of helping out Zan Hamilton and Sara Beth Phillips; this was Zan’s first meet and she did great considering that! No matter how hard the cleans, she jerked everything with ease. If you read this Zan, I would recommend front squatting at least once a week once you finish the squat program you’re on; it’ll help you stand out of those cleans with ease! =D

Of course I have to brag about Sara Beth too; she started off by missing her opening snatch at 70 kg. As most weightlifters will agree, this is probably one of the hardest situations to overcome. She overcame it alright, snatching it on her 2nd and then making a much more convincing snatch on her 3rd at 73 kg. In the clean and jerk, she hit 90 on her opener, then went to 94 on her 2nd attempt, gutting out the clean and then missing the jerk. Most people (including myself) would have contemplated just giving up and giving the bar no more than a tug, but she went back out on her 3rd and again gutted the clean, and nailed the jerk. Having that level of tenacity is a great quality to have, a quality that every coach wishes their athlete has.

I really felt compelled to just brag on each of these girls that I helped out this weekend. They each are more involved in CrossFit, but they each could become great weightlifters if they ever decided to dabble in the sport more one day. I look forward to seeing you all at the Senior Nationals next month!

The Low Bar Squat is Not an Exercise

– 1992, 1996, and 2000 Olympic champion Kakhi Kakhiasvilis performing a squat the way it should be done.

     I know that what I am about to write will piss some people off, but I’m an old man, 66, and don’t have anything to lose. I also know that many people will disagree with what I am about to say and it is certainly their right to disagree. What I have to say is only one man’s opinion, but it’s the opinion of a man who’s been around the block a few times with this iron game.
     Lately, from several sources, I have noticed that the so called ‘low bar’ squat is being taught as a legitimate way to perform an exercise that many people (myself included) consider to be the best and most productive exercise that can be performed with a barbell. This ‘low bar’ squat style seems to be particularly prevalent in some CrossFit circles. I have also had people show up at my gym performing squats in this style after reading about it in a certain book.
     I will start my argument by stating that after well over 50 years as a competitive lifter, coach, and gym owner, I have never seen a top-ranked bodybuilder, Olympic lifter, or serious track or football athlete doing low bar squats.
     The squat movement, whether it be high bar full back squats, front squats, half or quarter squats, or Hatfield bar squats, to my mind, should be about developing and strengthening the quadriceps, as well as the glutes. The high bar squat, when done properly, should not involve the hamstrings much at all. These muscles should be developed with straight legged deadlifts and Good Mornings (always with the knees slightly unlocked) as well as the various leg curling and glute ham gastroc movements. The hamstrings are also strongly involved in Olympic lifting movements such as snatches, cleans, and pulls.
     I can remember the first powerlifting meet held in Georgia at the old Butler Street YMCA in Atlanta in December 1965. It drew a diverse crew of bodybuilders, Olympic lifters, and men who already considered themselves powerlifters. As one can imagine, all kinds of squat styles were used. A few years later virtually everyone at powerlifting meets were setting up with the bar half way down their deltoids, using a relatively wide foot stance and barely breaking parallel; and this is as it should have been. Squatting in this style allows one to lift the most weight while staying within the parameters of the rules for the squat movement in competition.
     In the old days at Coffee’s Gym in the 1980’s, the powerlifters would do high bar squats until about a month out from the competition, at which time they would put on their super suits, widen their foot stance, and set up with the bar half way down their shoulders. Immediately they would squat 100-200 pounds more than they’d been doing on the high bar squat. After the competition they’d go back to their high bar squat routine. Not only did these men become very strong in the squat movement, they also possessed very good quadricep development.
     In closing, I would like to say that most trainers should stick to high bar squats, front squats, or squats with the Hatfield bar if it’s strong legs and good quadricep development you seek. If it’s the posterior chain you want to strengthen and develop, stick with Romanian deadlifts, Good Mornings, Olympic lift movements, as well as hyperextensions and various leg curls.
      The low bar squat is not an exercise for leg development; it’s a way of doing a strength feat that allows a man or woman to lift the most weight while staying within the rules for the lift, but it’s not a movement that those who wish to develop leg strength for sports or to improve the shape and appearance of their legs has any business doing.
     If one wishes to develop real leg strength, every effort should be made to keep the torso upright when squatting. When the torso is inclined forward, much of the effort is transferred to the butt, lower back, and hamstrings. This is not what we want. I would also like to add that all squatting and pulling movements should be performed with the back strongly and rigidly arched. In my opinion the very best test and developer of real leg strength is the full front squat with the back strongly arched. The full high bar squat is not far behind. The low bar back squat is not even on the list.

John B. Coffee
USA Weightlifting Senior International Coach