n the past month, I have had the opportunity to speak to the coaches of two of the most accomplished youth weightlifters in the United States—Kevin Simons (Harrison Maurus’s coach) and Ray Jones (C.J. Cumming’s coach). When asked about their athletes’ training, I listened in eager anticipation: I expected to hear tales of grueling training sessions, intensely heavy loads, and long hours spent in training. I was surprised by what I heard instead.
Coach Simons reported that he limits his athletes’ attempts above 90% and that Maurus went three years without missing a clean in training. Three YEARS without missing a clean?! A weightlifter who goes three years without missing a clean is clearly undertraining.
In a separate conversation, Ray Jones, coach of four-time World Champion C.J. Cummings, made a disturbing observation about a recent national competition. Jones remarked that of the 14 athletes in the warm-up room with C.J., all 14 of the other athletes were working through injuries.
Coach Jones expounded, “Injuries are a big problem with what is going on in the U.S. A lot of that stems from athletes trying to follow programming that is too rigorous for them. It is important for athletes to follow individualized plans, listen to their bodies, and not necessarily pound the lifts all of the time.”
Jones continued, “I want my kids to be undertrained. I want them to be able to continue in the sport for as long as they would like—and even return to the sport in their older years. To do this, I need to train them so that they don’t get injured. I want my athletes to have longevity in the sport both physically and mentally.”
Given that both Simons and Jones undertrain their athletes, perhaps this is something the rest of the community should consider.
What is undertraining?
Undertraining occurs when a weightlifter:
- Trains at below maximal loads
- Stops training before muscles, tendons and joints are overworked
- Takes time off from training to allow muscles recover
Undertraining is NOT:
- Working with weights that are not challenging
- Abandoning an exercise because it is hard to do
- Blowing off training because you just don’t feel like it
These are all examples of lazy training, which is not the same as under training!
Why is undertraining so effective?
Injuries stop progress. Overtraining leads to overuse injuries, which are microtraumatic damage to a bone, muscle, or tendon that has been exposed to repetitive stress without sufficient time to heal or repair. When an athlete is injured, he must take time off to recover or train with lighter loads until the injury has healed. During the healing process, the athlete is not making strength gains. Undertraining reduces the likelihood of injury; this allows an athlete to make strength gains while his overworked peers are sitting on the bench nursing injuries.
Up to 50% of all injuries seen in pediatric sports medicine are related to overuse.
Overtraining leads to burnout. Burnout happens when an athlete is not allowed sufficient time to rest or participate in other activities. Burnout, also referred to as overtraining syndrome, manifests as lack of enthusiasm, personality changes, fatigue, chronic or nonspecific muscle or joint pain, and even difficulty performing normal routines.
Performance plateaus without rest. To improve as an athlete, you must work hard. However, training hard breaks down muscle and makes you weaker. To become stronger, your body must rest. During rest periods, the body rebuilds its cardiovascular and muscular systems by increasing capillaries in the muscles, improving the efficiency of the heart, and increasing glycogen stores and mitochondrial enzyme systems within the muscle cells. The result is a higher level of athletic performance. If an athlete does not get sufficient rest after training hard, however, the body cannot rebuild itself, and performance plateaus. If this imbalance persists, performance will actually decline!
More productive training. A well-rested, recovered athlete will be able to train harder than an exhausted, overworked athlete. Weightlifting is a sport that emphasizes technical proficiency in compound movements that are performed over milliseconds. Without adequate rest, these movements cannot be performed properly.
Longevity. The ultimate goal in training a youth athlete is to produce a disciplined, well-adjusted adult who appreciates the importance of fitness and can handle competitive pressures. Some sports, such as weightlifting, offer the additional bonus of lifelong participation. If a weightlifter does not hurt himself, he can continue to enjoy competitive weightlifting well into his retirement years. In fact, in the U.S. alone, there are over 3,600 athletes over the age of 35 who are competitive weightlifters.
What is the best way to undertrain?
Prepare an Individualized Plan. Coach Jones is a big fan of individualized training plans. According to Jones, athletes who try to follow cookie-cutter plans often get injured because these plans are designed for athletes at a higher level of athletic ability. Jones says, “I’m not going to be arrogant and say that my way is the only way. Several ways work. The important thing is to examine each athlete’s strengths and weaknesses and do what works for that person.”
Listen to your body. As an athlete, it takes self-discipline to stick to a training plan when you don’t feel like training. It takes even more discipline, however, to stop training when your body is injured. Training with an injury doesn’t lead to big gains; it just sets you up for even bigger injuries. Coach Jones advises: “Don’t be so intent on following the programming to the detriment of your body. If you’re hurting, don’t do the exercise!”
Focus on Quality over Quantity. Every time a weightlifter performs a lift, he creates muscle memory in the lift. Over time, the weightlifter no longer thinks about how he will perform the lift; it just happens. And the lift “happens” the same way in competition as in training. So, it is far better to perform a small number of quality repetitions in a training session than a large volume of haphazard lifts.
Step Away from the Barbell. After big competitions, Coach Jones gives his athletes a week off from training. When they return to the gym, the athletes ease back into training with exercises that do not involve the Olympic lifts. Coach Jones is particularly fond of core exercises. Taking time off from traditional barbell work brings variety into training, reduces boredom and fatigue, and allows the body time to recover before the next training cycle.
Take Time to Recover. Coach Jones trains his athletes five days per week, allowing them to rest for two full days each week. The American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness similarly recommends limiting 1 sporting activity to a maximum of 5 days per week with at least 1 day off from any organized physical activity. Interestingly, elite CrossFit coach, Ben Bergeron, who coaches CrossFit Games winners, Katrin Davidsdottir and Matt Fraser, subscribes to the same philosophy. Bergeron programs Thursdays and Sundays as rest days for his athletes.
Still concerned that you won’t make gains if you undertrain?
Don’t worry! As a youth weightlifter, time is on your side. You have years before you reach your potential, which means you have plenty of time to figure out exactly what works for you. In the meantime, always err on the side of undertraining to ward off aches and pains and keep yourself injury-free.