Is Undertraining the Secret to Success?

In 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.

 

Is There a Viable Alternative to the NCAA for Weightlifting?

I recently wrote an article entitled: “Is Weightlifting Losing Its Best Athletes to NCAA Sports?”  The article exposes a problem facing the sport of weightlifting in the U.S. today: Thousands of youth weightlifters enter the sport of weightlifting, but the majority of these weightlifters leave the sport before they reach maturity, making it difficult for the U.S. to produce elite, world-class weightlifters.

One explanation for the loss is that college weightlifting programs—and scholarships—are not as readily available as those in other sports.  Plus, plenty of other sports offer scholarships to weightlifters, reducing the pool of athletes from which the U.S. could generate mature athletes.  While it is wonderful to have child superstars within a sport, the true measure of a country’s dominance in a sport is its ability to produce world-class athletes in their prime.

One solution to this problem would be to petition the NCAA for membership and continue working with the organization until it adopts weightlifting as one of its regulated sports. The NCAA and its member colleges and universities together award $2.7 billion in athletic scholarships every year to more than 150,000 student-athletes.  Membership in the NCAA could open doors to more college weightlifters, encourage youth athletes to remain in the sport, and bridge the gap between the developmental years and maturity within the sport.

According to Phil Andrews, CEO of USA Weightlifting, however, membership in the NCAA is not likely to happen in the near future.  Andrews explains: “USA Weightlifting has been working on establishing a relationship with the NCAA for a number of years.  However, the NCAA has zero interest in adding men’s weightlifting and only a small amount of interest in adding women’s weightlifting.”

NCAA membership also would come with a cost.  Vance Newgard, head coach of the Olympic Training Site at Northern Michigan University points out:

  • The NCAA imposes numerous requirements on the schools, athletes and coaches that receive funding from the organization.
  • The NCAA regulates financial aid, eligibility, recruiting, athletics personnel, playing and practice seasons.
  • Under NCAA regulation, coaches are limited as to when and how much they can train their athletes.
  • Athletes are limited as to how much they can train.  An athlete desiring to reach the Olympic level can not simultaneously receive NCAA funding and train as much as needed to achieve success.
  • Coaches are limited as to program promotion and recruitment of younger athletes.
  • In short, the benefits of NCAA membership—namely scholarship money for student athletes—may not be worth the costs.

Given that NCAA membership may not be desirable—or even available—for the sport of weightlifting at this time, there may be other solutions for retaining youth weightlifters through their college years including the following:

A Private Scholarship Fund

USA Weightlifting could create a scholarship fund to help collegiate weightlifters continue with the sport while simultaneously getting a college degree.  This is, in fact, something that USA Weightlifting is currently considering.

PROS:

  • USA Weightlifting has the right membership demographics to support a college fund.  Of the 27,000 members registered with USA Weightlifting, the majority are Masters lifters.  Masters lifters (age 35+) presumably have some disposable income—otherwise they wouldn’t have the luxury of participating in the sport.  These members may be convinced to support talented weightlifters in their college years.
  • Giving specifically to a college weightlifters has “donation appeal.” People are more likely to give money to individuals to achieve specific goals than to blindly hand money over to an organization.  If donors know they are helping certain weightlifters with college expenses, it would personalize the process and encourage larger donations.
  • Giving to education charities is popular.  According to Giving USA, 15% of charitable donations made in 2016 were used to fund education.  This made education second only to religion in receiving charitable funding.
  • Control of the sport could be maintained by USA Weightlifting.  Without accountability to the NCAA, coaches and athletes could train to maximize athletic success.  Presumably, athletes would be required to meet some academic standards to continue receiving their scholarships.  However, both coaches and the athletes would have more flexibility in their training.

CONS:

  • Not as many athletes could be funded by a private scholarship fund.  A private scholarship fund might be able to assist a dozen athletes with college expenses, but an NCAA affiliation could assist hundreds of athletes.
  • Scholarship amounts may not be as large.  A private scholarship fund could not match the resources of the NCAA and its member schools.  Coach Newgard, however, points out that most college athletes receive only partial scholarships anyway.  So, athletes may be equally benefited by private scholarship funding—especially since it would not bind them to NCAA compliance.

Centralized Training Sites

Centralized training of college-age weightlifters could also solve the problem of athlete retention.  Coach Newgard is a proponent of this solution and offers the following points in support of the idea:

PROS:

  • Optimal Coaching: If a handful of experienced coaches could devote themselves full-time to grooming and developing a group of elite athletes, they could maximize the athletes’ performance.
  • Competitive Environment: When elite athletes work together, they push each other to work harder.  So, bringing elite athletes together for training would also enhance athletic performance.
  • Economies: Paying for a single facility and group of coaches could be more cost effective for USA Weightlifting than awarding stipends to individuals.

CONS: 

  • Money.  Let’s be honest, if USA Weightlifting had the money to fund a central facility, pay the salaries of a team of elite coaches, and pay the living expenses of the athletes, they would probably do it.  USA Weightlifting was afforded this luxury with a resident training program at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs until September 2016.  However, the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) has since stopped offering a resident program for the sport of weightlifting at the Olympic Training Center.  Procuring another central training location may not be feasible for USA Weightlifting.
  • Finding the right location may be difficult.  For most individuals in their early twenties, their first priority is getting an education or job training.  Weightlifting is fun, but athletes know that it likely will not support them in later years.  So, any central training facility should be located in an area with numerous job/education options for these athletes.
  • Coach Resistance.  Coaches who have developed elite weightlifters from a young age may not want to turn these athletes over to another team of coaches.  After all, these coaches have invested much energy and time into the athletes and want to continue building upon their success.  Similarly, elite athletes who have developed good relationships with their coaches may not want to terminate these relationships.

In conclusion, youth weightlifters should not feel discouraged about the NCAA’s disinterest in our sport.  Weightlifting is a rapidly growing sport, so future inclusion is always a possibility.  In the meantime, lifters and coaches can enjoy the sport free from the demands of NCAA compliance.

For more information on opportunities for developing athletes, see:

Understanding USA Weightlifting’s Stipend System

Youth Weightlifting Scholarship Opportunities

Photography by Matthew Bjerre of Lifting.Life at 2017 USAW National Junior Championship.

 

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Finding Youth Weightlifters: 8 Sources of New Athletes

One of the biggest challenges of running a youth weightlifting program is . . . finding youth weightlifters!  While competitive weightlifting is growing in popularity, many parents still regard weightlifting as conditioning for another sport.  Generally, these parents will sacrifice weightlifting training in favor of the other sport or activity.  And too often, coaches of the other sport will pressure athletes to give up weightlifting so they can focus solely on their sport.  So, how can a coach find serious, dedicated young athletes to mold into the next generation of weightlifters?!

Here are 8 possible sources of youth weightlifters:

1. Children of Adult Weightlifters:  If you currently train adult weightlifters, ask those weightlifters if they have kids!  This is, in fact, how my son entered the sport.  I began weightlifting with Coach Boris Urman in Kansas.  Boris knew that I had a 9 year-old son, and he asked me EVERY day for a month to bring my son to the gym.  My son was a competitive gymnast, and he had no interest in weightlifting.  However, because of Boris’s persistence, I brought Hutch to the gym.  Hutch enjoyed weightlifting, and Boris had a new lifter.

ADVANTAGE:  When you train the children of adult weightlifters, you won’t have to convince the parents that weightlifting is a real sport.  Plus, children are more likely to make it to practice when their parents are training alongside them.

2.  Gymnastics Clubs:  It is no secret that gymnasts make fantastic weightlifters.  Gymnasts have great flexibility and body awareness, which transfers well into the Olympic lifts.  Coach Kevin Simons, of Alpha Strength and Conditioning in Washington, offers strength and conditioning training for a gymnastics center.  Some of the gymnasts enjoy weightlifting so much that they begin to lift competitively on his team.

ADVANTAGE: Gymnasts are disciplined, fearless, and accustomed to long hours in the gym.  Getting them to train hard will be no problem!

3. Parks & Recreation Programs:  Consider partnering with your city’s Parks & Rec department to offer a strength and conditioning program for kids.  Coach Dennis Espinosa of Reps & Sets Weightlifting finds his many of his youth weightlifters this way.

ADVANTAGE: If you are in need of training space, the Parks & Rec department may offer you a space to train your competitive team in exchange for running a strength and conditioning program.   This is one of the benefits Coach Espinosa receives for running a Parks & Rec program in Salina, Kansas.

4. CrossFit Kids Programs:  With 1793 CrossFit Kids locations in the United States, there is sure to be an affiliate near you.  Make friends with an affiliate owner, and offer to teach a Kids’ Weightlifting class.

ADVANTAGES: The affiliate owner will probably let you use the CrossFit gym to train your youth athletes, which will give you a training space if you don’t have one.  The parents of your athletes are likely to be supportive, since they have seen the benefits of Olympic weightlifting first-hand.

5.  Middle School & High School Sports Teams:  If you know a middle school or high school sports coach, offer supplemental weightlifting training for team members.  Coach Boris Urman discovered some of his best lifters, including Ian Estopare, when he developed a relationship with Estopare’s father, a high school football coach.

ADVANTAGES: Working with a whole sports team will give you a large pool of athletes from which to identify talented, interested weightlifters.

6. Friends of Current Youth Lifters:  Host a “Bring Your Friend to Practice Day.”  Encourage your current youth weightlifters to bring their friends to the gym and introduce them to the sport.

ADVANTAGES:  Youth weightlifters are more likely to stick with the sport if they have friends on the team.

Photos courtesy of Lifting.Life

Is Weightlifting Losing Its Best Athletes to NCAA Sports?

Did you know that Olympians Morghan King and Sarah Robles both received NCAA athletic scholarships to attend college?  Neither, however, received a scholarship for weightlifting.  In fairness, both King and Robles began weightlifting later in life, but they clearly would have excelled as collegiate weightlifters if it had been an option for them.

Youth weightlifting is experiencing an unprecedented boom in popularity.  Between 2012 and 2016, youth membership in USA Weightlifting grew 181%.  There are now more than 2,500 weightlifters under the age of 18 in the United States.  But what will happen when these weightlifters leave for college?

Will weightlifting lose its most promising talent due to a lack of college weightlifting scholarships?

The reality is that college is expensive, and scholarship money is valuable.  A well-groomed youth weightlifter has many athletic scholarship opportunities.  Unfortunately, most of these opportunities are outside the sport of weightlifting.  Sports such as rowing, football, wrestling and track and field welcome weightlifters, with their strong legs, explosive power and lean muscle mass.

Weightlifting scholarships, however, are very limited.  Talented youth weightlifters often are forced to choose between continuing the sport they love and switching to another sport that will pay for their education.  For instance, Coach Dennis Espinosa, of Reps & Sets Weightlifting in Salina, Kansas, admitted that two of his most talented youth weightlifters accepted NCAA college scholarships for rowing and track and field.  Similarly, Omar Cummings, an elite U.S. weightlifter who secured two bronze medals at the 2015 IWF Youth World Weightlifting Championships, exited the sport when he received a college football scholarship.

This phenomenon is especially unfortunate given that weightlifters do not peak until about age 25.  When talented youth weightlifters leave the sport in their college years due to a lack of scholarship opportunities, it depletes the sport of its most promising talent.  Specifically, it reduces the pool of athletes from which the United States could generate an Olympian or World Champion.

It is a tragedy for the sport of weightlifting to develop youth weightlifters until the age of 18 and then lose these athletes to other sports in their college years.  Fortunately, there is a viable solution to this problem . . . become a NCAA sport.

The NCAA is the biggest source of athletic scholarships in the United States, so it just makes sense to partner with them.

What is the NCAA?

The NCAA, or National Collegiate Athletic Association, is a non-profit association that regulates athletes in 1,123 colleges and universities.  It helps govern the athletic programs of these colleges and universities, including organizing competitions and championships.

The NCAA is particularly interested in organizing championship events because these events generate the revenue of the organization.  Each year, the NCAA generates almost $1 billion in revenues.  About 96% of this is redistributed back to student-athletes, largely in the form of scholarships.

About 81% of the NCAA’s revenues are generated by a $10.8 billion, 14-year agreement from CBS Sports and Turner Broadcasting for the media rights to the Division I Men’s Basketball Championship.  Championship tickets and merchandise sales account for the remainder of the revenue.

The NCAA and its member colleges and universities together award $2.7 billion in athletic scholarships every year to more than 150,000 student-athletes.

The NCAA currently regulates 23 sports:

Baseball                    Golf                    Softball

Basketball                Gymnastics         Swimming & Diving

Beach Volleyball     Ice Hockey           Tennis

Bowling                    Lacrosse             Track & Field

Cross Country         Rifle                      Volleyball

Fencing                    Rowing                 Water Polo

Field Hockey           Skiing                    Wrestling

Football                   Soccer

Each college or university regulated by the NCAA falls into three membership divisions—Divisions I, II, and III.  Divisions are based on college size, budget for athletic programs and number of scholarships offered.

Each year, the NCAA hosts 89 championships across these 23 sports and three divisions.

If weightlifters can receive NCAA scholarships in other sports, why should weightlifting become a NCAA sport?

College is time intensive.  So are competitive sports.  An athlete can simultaneously attend college and participate on a competitive sports team.  However, adding additional obligations—such as multiple competitive sports—may present too large of a burden, especially when the second sport requires year-round training, such as weightlifting.  At worst, the athlete will drop weightlifting in favor of the scholarship sport; at best, the athlete will not devote an optimal amount of time to developing as a weightlifter.

According to data from the International Weightlifting Federation, in the last five Olympic Games (2000 – 2016), the average age for male weightlifters was 25 years old, and the average age for female weightlifters was 24 years old.  The average years of training to win a medal in weightlifting at the Olympic Games is 10.72 years.  So, the majority of medal-winning weightlifters begin around age 14 for women and 15 for men and train continuously for 10+ years.

If the United States wants to produce medal-winning world-class weightlifters, it should promote programs that create youth weightlifters and then enable these weightlifters to remain in the sport with college scholarship opportunities.

How can weightlifting become a NCAA sport?

Perhaps the best way to enter the NCAA is to examine the most recent sports allowed into the organization and follow in their footsteps.

The most recent sports embraced by the NCAA have entered the organization through the door of the Emerging Sports for Women program.

The Emerging Sports for Women program, created by the NCAA in 1994, provides a way for eligible female sports to develop into NCAA championship sports.  The program is managed by the NCAA Committee on Women’s Athletics and is intended to help schools create more athletic opportunities for women.

Since the Emerging Sports for Women program was established in 1994, five sports have earned full-fledged NCAA championship status: rowing in 1996, ice hockey in 2000, water polo in 2000, bowling in 2003 and beach volleyball in 2015.  Other sports— archery, badminton, synchronized swimming, squash and team handball—fell short of the program requirements and were removed from the emerging sports list.  Finally, three sports are currently striving to gain NCAA championship status: triathlon, rugby, and equestrian.

Triathlon is the most recent sport added to the list of emerging sports.  In 2014, all three divisions voted to add triathlon to the NCAA’s emerging list for women.

In support of its request, USA triathlon presented the following:

  • Twelve letters of support from schools in all three NCAA divisions stating that they already sponsor triathlon as a varsity sport or would consider it if it was approved as an emerging sport.
  • Evidence of 150 club programs that already exist on college campuses.
  • A large national collegiate event, which in 2013 included more than 400 participants from 46 states.
  • 40% female participation in national collegiate events.
  • A large national membership (40,000+ members in USA Triathlon) with a strong base of young athletes (one-third of the membership is under the age of 20).
  • Strong support by USA Triathlon, including extensive certification programs for coaches and a grass-roots program to introduce more participants to the sport.

USA Weightlifting could present a similarly compelling case:

  • Colleges in all three NCAA divisions already offer weightlifting programs.  Of the 10 colleges and universities with programs registered with USA Weightlifting, four are Division I schools, two are Division II schools, and one is a Division III school:

Division I
East Tennessee State University
California State Sacramento
West Virginia University
Texas A&M

Division II
Northern Michigan University: US Olympic Education Center
Lindenwood University

Division III
University of Wisconsin-Whitewater

NAIA (non-NCAA schools)
Louisiana State University at Shreveport
Oklahoma City University

  • In addition to the 10 colleges that currently have weightlifting programs, an additional 146 U.S. colleges and universities have strength and conditioning programs recognized by the National Strength and Conditioning Association.  Since weightlifting is used as a form of strength and conditioning by many sports, it is likely that some of these universities would be willing to offer weightlifting as a varsity sport if it was placed on the NCAA’s list of emerging sports.
  • Like triathlon, USA Weightlifting also already holds its own National University and National Under 25 Championships.  In 2016, 585 athletes participated in the event.
  • 40% of the athletes who participated in USA Weightlifting’s 2016 National University and National Under 25 Championships were female.
  • USA Weightlifting has a large national membership, with over 27,000 active members.  Of these members, 3600+ athletes are under the age of 20.
  • Female athletes already represent the United States at the top levels of the sport.  Of the four weightlifters who represented the United States in the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, three of them were female (Morghan King, Sarah Robles and Jenny Arthur).
  • Weightlifting is rapidly growing in popularity as a sport.  Between 2012 and 2016, USA Weightlifting membership grew by 168%!
  • USA Weightlifting also offers a number of coach certification programs, including Sports Performance Coach, Advanced Sports Performance, National Coach, International Coach, and Senior International Coach.
  • Also, USA Weightlifting recently partnered with the National Federation of State High School Associations to promote weightlifting at the high school level.
  • Finally, USA Weightlifting has created Athlete Development Camps, designed to identify and recruit new talent into the sport.

In short, weightlifting offers an even more compelling case in favor of inclusion in the NCAA than triathlon.  With the right presentation, there is no reason for it to be denied.

BUT  . . . What about the Men?!

Clearly, securing NCAA status for women collegiate weightlifters is not enough.  Male athletes are just as important to the future of the sport.  However, gaining entrance into the NCAA for women could establish a relationship with the organization that could later be used to admit male weightlifting.

Of the five emerging sports that have successfully gained NCAA championship status, two of the sports were already NCAA sports for men (men’s ice hockey since 1948; men’s water polo since 1969).  Of the five emerging sports that fell short of gaining NCAA championship status, none had male counterparts in the NCAA.  So, it is possible that establishing a link to the NCAA with women’s weightlifting could open the door for men’s weightlifting.

How Would Women’s Weightlifting Move From a Emerging Sport to Full-Fledged Championship Sport Status in the NCAA?

If women’s weightlifting is selected by the NCAA Committee on Women’s Athletics as an emerging sport, it would have 10 years to gain championship status by building 40 or more varsity collegiate teams.

However, given the rate of growth within the sport of weightlifting, it is likely that it could meet this target much earlier.  Beach volleyball ascended from the emerging sport list to championship status in a mere six years.

Interested in starting a weightlifting club at your college?  Consult Barbend’s Ultimate Guide to Starting a Weightlifting Club at College

This post features photos taken by Matthew Bjerre of Lifting Life at the 2017 USA Weightlifting National Junior Championship.

Coaching Harrison Maurus: An Interview with Kevin Simons

USA Weightlifting held a technique training seminar on Friday, June 22, in conjunction with the 2017 National Youth Championships.  The seminar featured youth world record holder, Harrison Maurus, Maurus’s coach, Kevin Simons, Pyrros Dimas, and Tamas Feher.  The big names drew a large crowd of athletes, parents and coaches.  Tamas Feher led the seminar, explaining the correct progression for teaching the Olympic lifts.  Pyrros Dimas offered supporting comments, and Maurus demonstrated the movements.  Simons, however, remained silent in the background.

While the seminar offered nuggets of good information, it was not what the audience expected.  The audience expected to hear Kevin Simons speak about coaching Harrison Maurus.  In six short years, Simons introduced Maurus to the sport of weightlifting and helped him achieve a new youth world record.  This is a phenomenal accomplishment, and the audience wanted to hear the secrets of this success.  I caught up with Simons after the seminar and gathered the information the audience missed:

Q: Kevin, I expected you to speak about training Harrison at this seminar.  What happened?

Simons: I was prepared to speak about training Harrison and my other athletes.  However, the opportunity did not arise.

Q: I think many people would be interested in hearing your thoughts.  What were you prepared to say at the seminar?

Simons: I was going to speak about my history with Harrison and how I train my athletes.  I take coaching very seriously, and I am always happy to share my methods with other athletes and coaches.  I feel that my methods are working—Harrison currently holds a youth world record as well as multiple American records.  Also, three of my eight athletes took first place medals here at the 2017 Youth Nationals.

Q: What is your history with Harrison?

Simons: I started out as Harrison’s gymnastics coach.  Harrison was a good gymnast, but he was not a perfect fit for the sport.  I knew that Harrison had great potential as an athlete, though, and I wanted to help him develop this potential.  I am a competitive CrossFit athlete, and I started teaching Harrison weightlifting.  First, we experimented with powerlifting.  Then, we decided to try the Olympic lifts. In fact, Harrison was the first athlete I ever taught to do a snatch or clean and jerk.  Harrison was a natural, and we have been together ever since.  It has been amazing to grow with him as a coach and to travel the world together.

At the 2017 Youth World Championships in Bangkok in April 2017, 17 year-old Maurus (77kg) claimed a new youth world record with a 192kg clean and jerk.  Maurus finished 2nd overall in the snatch, 1st in the clean and jerk, and 1st in the total.

Q: What makes your coaching different than other weightlifting coaches?

Simons: I want my kids to be well-rounded, healthy athletes, not just good weightlifters.  In addition to teaching weightlifting movements, I teach my athletes how to eat properly and rest to maximize their performance.  I also teach them exercises that will benefit their overall athleticism, and not just their weightlifting abilities.

Q: What do you tell your athletes about eating?

Simons: I begin with the basics.  I teach my athletes what a balanced meal should look like.  Each meal should include some protein, carbohydrates, and fat.  A portion of protein should be about the size of the palm of your hand.  A portion of carbohydrates should fit within a cupped hand.  A portion of fat should be about the size of your thumb.  If an athlete needs to cut weight, about 50% of the diet should be vegetables.  If an athlete does not need to cut weight, only about 25% of the diet needs to be vegetables.  I try to keep things simple so that my athletes can easily implement healthy eating into their lives.  Good nutrition is very important to athletic performance, but it doesn’t have to be complicated.

In specific situations, I work with my athletes to develop tailored meal plans.  Also, I encourage my new athletes to weigh and measure their foods for a couple of weeks until they understand the proper portion sizes for their bodies.

Simons competed in the 2012 and 2015 CrossFit Games.

Q: You mentioned using non-weightlifting exercises in your training.  Why do you do this?

Simons:  I am a big advocate of GPP (general physical preparedness).  I want my weightlifters, especially the younger ones, to be exposed to a variety of movements.  Until about age 12, kids should be involved in a variety of sports and doing a variety of movements.  They should be running, jumping, lifting, pulling, climbing, throwing, tumbling—doing things to develop their bodies generally.  Of course they can also be learning the competitive lifts, but this should not be the primary focus.  Around age 12 or 13, those kids who decide to lift competitively can begin a more structured weightlifting program.  However, GPP is still important for competitive weightlifters.

Q: What GPP exercises do you use?

Simons:  I use a variety of movements.  I especially like pulling exercises like rope climbs, sled pulls, strict muscle ups, and peg boards to develop the shoulders.  Some of my female athletes can perform 6+ consecutive legless rope climbs.  I feel that this accessory work gives my athletes an edge when it comes to overhead movements.  Their shoulders are very strong.

Q: What does your weightlifting training look like?

Simons: My beginner lifters do a lot of drills emphasizing position and movement.  I reinforce movement patterns through a large number of reps and sets.  I require lifters to consistently perform the movements properly before I allow them to move on to higher weights.  I also include a lot of jumping exercises and plenty of GPP.

Q: What about your advanced lifters?

Simons: When a lifter has developed the muscle memory to consistently perform the snatch and clean and jerk well, I allow them to add more weight.  I don’t limit the weight as long as the lifter can demonstrate good form.  However, I do limit the number of attempts my lifters make above 90%.  My lifters are youth lifters, which means that they should have long weightlifting careers in front of them if they don’t get injured.  I do not allow my athletes to train through an injury, so the best course of action for everyone is to prevent injuries from happening.  We save singles and max out attempts for competitions and the weeks leading up to a competition.  We work mostly in sets of 2 or 3 reps, which allows the lifters to build strength without over-stressing the joints.

Q: Do your elite level lifters receive extra training or advice?

Simons: Of course.  As lifters approach the senior level, different issues arise, such as overtraining.  It becomes necessary to fine tune nutrition, recovery, and training.  Periodization in training becomes more important.

Q: You mentioned that you don’t allow your lifters to go over 90% very often.  At what percentage do you normally train?

Simons: I don’t specify percentages in daily training.  Youth weightlifters are developing strength so quickly that percentages are not generally helpful.  What could be a weightlifter’s max one month could be their 75% the next.  I find it more helpful to specify a starting weight for each lifter.  I allow the lifter to add weight with each subsequent set, as their technique allows.  If a lifter’s technique breaks down, the lifter is not allowed to go up in weight.

This approach sets my weightlifters up for success in competition.  Since my lifters are always required to lift with good technique, they do not make many misses in training.  In fact, Harrison went three years without missing a clean. Because my lifters practice making their lifts—not missing their lifts—they go into each competition lift expecting success.  And usually, they are successful.

Q: How often do your lifters compete?

Simons: I limit the number of competitions we attend.  All of my lifters love to compete, but competitions break up the training schedule.  Each competition requires a ramp-up period and a recovery period, which takes away from building strength.  My athletes perform better—physically and mentally—when we take on a smaller number of competitions.

Q: What advice would you give to other coaches who are trying to develop youth weightlifting programs?

Simons: Seek out “feeder” opportunities.  For instance, I work with a gymnastics center, offering strength and conditioning training to competitive gymnasts.  Some of these gymnasts fall in love with weightlifting and become members of my team.  It is also good if you can create training partnerships—a pair of athletes that can push each other.  Harrison works with a 105+ lifter who pushes him to lift heavier weights.  Also, it is great if you can create a positive competitive atmosphere.  Create opportunities for kids to compete against each other daily in the gym.

Q: What are your personal goals as a coach?

Simons: I want to become the best weightlifting coach in America.

With his attention to detail and dedication to his athletes, Simons is well on his way to achieving his goal.

 

The Gift of Coaching: An Interview with Dennis Espinosa

Coach Dennis Espinosa, of Salina, Kansas is a well-known name in U.S. weightlifting.  Espinosa has been a weightlifting coach for over 20 years, is an International Weightlifting Federation Category I Referee and has coached numerous athletes to the national and international levels.  In this interview, Espinosa talks about the benefits of youth weightlifting, the challenges of coaching and the transformation of the sport over the past 20 years.

Q: When did you first become involved in weightlifting?

A: My mother was a fan of weightlifting in the Olympic Games.  I remember watching the 1976 Games with her on TV and sharing her excitement for the sport.  There were no Olympic weightlifting opportunities available to me at the time, but I was very interested in the sport.  In my late teens, I got involved in powerlifting and bodybuilding.  I continued these sports when I opened my own gym in 1988.  In 1997, I turned my attention to Olympic weightlifting and became a sanctioned club with USA weightlifting.

Q: Tell me about your weightlifting program.

A: I currently coach 16 youth athletes in two separate programs.  My competitive program is called Reps and Sets Team Salina.  Right now, I train eight competitive weightlifters in this program.  I also run a strength and conditioning program through the Parks & Rec department.  The athletes in this program receive general strength training.  I use the strength and conditioning program as a feeder program for my competitive team.  It helps me identify athletes with the interest and talent to succeed in competitive weightlifting.  Also, involvement with the Parks and Rec department gives me a free place to train my competitive team!

Q: What does your typical training session look like?

A: I begin with Coaching Corner, where I gather all of my athletes together and give them an overview of what we will be doing that day.  Then, we perform a General Warm Up and a Specific Warm Up, which includes core and stability exercises as well as skill transfer drills. Finally, we proceed into the Olympic lifts.

Q: What benefits does weightlifting offer to youth?

A: Weightlifting requires a tremendous amount of discipline.  Kids who stick with the sport learn to organize themselves, become self-reliant, and control their minds and bodies.

Q: Why do you like working with youth athletes?

A: Training a new weightlifter is like unwrapping a gift.  You don’t know what talent a child holds until you begin working with him.  I enjoy training all types of weightlifters—high energy ones, quiet ones—it is always an adventure figuring out how to motivate and get the best out of each lifter.

Q: What is the hardest thing about being a coach?

A: When lifters leave.  A good coach invests himself in each of his athletes.  He learns their personalities, what motivates them, and how to develop them into the best versions of themselves.  When athletes leave—for whatever reason—it is heartbreaking.

Q: You’ve spent 20 years coaching Olympic weightlifting.  In this time, the sport has completely transformed.  To what do you attribute this?

A: Olympians always increase awareness and interest for a sport.  So, having weightlifters from the U.S. in the Olympic Games has brought more attention to the sport.  CrossFit has also had a huge influence by introducing athletes to the Olympic lifts.  In fact, CrossFit is probably the best thing that has happened to the sport of weightlifting!

Q: What is different about the sport of weightlifting now than when you started?

A: Young coaches are able to develop their athletes much more successfully now than when I started.  This has put the sport in a better position.  There are now more talented youth weightlifters than ever before in the U.S.

 

Q: Why is this?

A: USA Weightlifting’s coaching curriculum is better developed in recent days.  Coaches better understand how to motivate athletes, program, and deal with the mental aspects of coaching.  Also, information on weightlifting is more readily available and shared.

 

Q: What advice would you give to new weightlifting coaches?

A: Become a referee.  As a coach, it is absolutely essential to know the rules of the sport.  The information you gain in the referee courses will benefit your athletes and give you a better understanding of the sport.  Soon after becoming a weightlifting coach, I became a referee.  The information I gained in the referee courses has made me a better coach.

Also, compliment your lifters regularly.  Don’t tear them down; always build them up.

Laying the Tracks for Success: An Interview with Coach Boris Urman

Youth Weightlifting Boris Urman Interview - Pic 1

Boris Urman, of Miriam, Kansas, has over 50 years of experience coaching weightlifting and athletic conditioning.  Boris trained athletes for the USSR Olympic Team for 14 years.  He moved to the United States 34 years ago, where he has trained numerous athletes in weightlifting.  Boris’s athletes have medaled at the Pan American Games, Junior World Championships, Junior Olympics, Junior & School Age Nationals, and Collegiate Championships.

In this interview, Boris shares some of the secrets of his success, as well as why he loves training youth athletes. 

Q: Why is weightlifting beneficial for young athletes:?

Weightlifting teaches kids discipline and helps improve their focus.  It is especially beneficial for high energy kids.  It gives them a good outlet for their energy and teaches respect for their coach and parents.

Q: What qualities do successful youth weightlifters possess?

A child must love weightlifting; otherwise, he will not succeed.  Also, he must be willing to work hard.  Everything else is teachable.

Q: What is the best background for a youth weightlifter?

Gymnastics.  Definitely gymnastics.  A parent can put their child into gymnastics classes around age 2 or 3.  By age 6, they should be ready for weightlifting.

Q: Is it really necessary to start a child so young in weightlifting?

No.  The beauty of weightlifting is that it can be enjoyed by people of all ages.  However, there is no reason why a child cannot lift weights.  Historically, children have been allowed to do hard labor on farms at early ages.  Weightlifting makes kids strong and useful.

Personally, I prefer teaching young athletes over adults.  Children are more teachable, flexible and coordinated.  They learn the technique faster.

Q: You have built numerous successful weightlifters from scratch.  What is the key to building a good weightlifter?

A weightlifter is like a train.  A coach must spend years laying the railroad tracks, constantly correcting any deviations from perfect technique.  Much time is spent developing muscle memory before heavy weights are added.  Once the tracks are laid and the technique is solid, a coach can add weight to the lifter and a powerful train explodes from the station.

Q: How often do your athletes compete?

I like my athletes to compete about once a month.  Competitions are good for building confidence and composure.  On months that my athletes don’t compete, though, I spend a lot of time on strength and conditioning.

Q: What advice do you have for other coaches of youth weightlifters?

Don’t be afraid to be direct with young athletes.  Children need to know where they stand with you.  Don’t tell them, “Good lift,” when the lift is not good.  Be clear with your expectations, and your lifters will rise to meet them.