Four Rookie Mistakes I Made When I Started Writing Weightlifting Programs

By Phillip Siddell

People often refer to the practice of coaching as an art, and in many ways, it is. While there are inarguably fundamentals that must be learned by the prospective coach, there is also much that is to do with stylistic nuance and creativity. But I think this is only half of the picture. Coaches also devise training programs, and as far as I’m concerned, programming is very much a science. Therefore, the successful coach must be both artist and scientist, a kind of sporting Renaissance man or women.

If that all sounds a little highfalutin, so much the better, because I want to impress upon prospective and box-fresh coaches the academic nature of program creation and the studious approach needed to achieve a good grounding in the subject. Don’t be put off. Just know that there is a lot to learn and the process requires a kind of effort and commitment that is different than the kind you needed when learning to pace the platform as a coach.

I know all this because I, too, am an eternal student of weightlifting. My early forays into programming produced mixed results. There were mistakes I made that were avoidable, so I’m going to do you a solid. I’m going to share four of the mistakes I made early on so that you don’t have to make them, too.

Mistake 1: Looking for advice in all the wrong places

The internet is a vast pool of information, curated by an omnipresent digital librarian that can find you whatever you want almost instantly. The net has become immensely important in the dissemination of weightlifting information. However, the internet is like our pet Whippet: she will ingest any edible matter whatsoever with zero regard for the consequences and barely a moment’s close inspection. Do not rely on search engines to supply you with filtered, high-quality information on programming. Just as I am responsible for filtering what goes into the mouth of my dog, you are responsible for assessing the quality of the information you put into your brain.

Do use the internet when you start learning about programming, but use it to order books on the subject. I know books are expensive, but remember that you are paying a relatively small amount of money to access knowledge and experience the author will have spent decades developing. Books are also great because they are usually trustworthy. They are the result of an editorial process. Textbooks about niche areas of niche sports aren’t big money spinners for publishers, and so the author will most likely have had their credentials, authorial ability and trustworthiness assessed before the publisher invested lots of money putting a book into print. Because the publisher has verified the expertise of the author, you don’t have to. In addition, most bookshops publish customer reviews now. Read these; if a book has lots of long-winded positive reviews, it’s an indication that it’s been influential enough in people’s lives that they felt compelled to share it with others.

Anyone can write about programming on the internet, and many times their work will not receive any editorial scrutiny at all; the article may have fallen straight from the authors’ head onto the page. (The articles in this fine publication do go through an editorial process.) I’m not against using the internet altogether, but I recommend you read a couple of books on the subject first so that you are in a better position to judge the quality of online content. Maybe then start by looking at the online content of authors who have had books on the subject published.

Mistake 2: Not understanding the difference between programming for strength and programming for technique development

If you’re new to coaching, it often follows that you’ll be coaching athletes with a lower level of skill. In this case, you will be writing programs that focus more on technique development. It’s easy to make the error of trying to develop strength and technique simultaneously; you’ve got a talented new athlete, the faster they get strong, the more quickly they’ll make qualifying totals, right? Well, while they might make those totals, they may do so at the expense of future progression. Generally, strength can be built at any point (and is usually easier to acquire than skill), but it’s best to embed proper technique from the start. Fear not: Working at lower weights with high reps of drills will not only embed technique but also provide valuable conditioning work that will lay the foundation for focused strength work later.

Of course, strength development is incredibly important in programming. Once you understand the difference between programming for technique and programming for strength, you can learn to combine the two to create a complete system. I would argue that no athlete ever develops beyond the point where they benefit from either facet of programming. However, the way you use these two aspects of programming will evolve. Generally, strength work will synchronize with competition dates and cycles so that athletes peak at preferential moments in the year and recover in between. Technique will also, in turn, become more focused. Once an athlete has established a certain competency, the experienced coach will seek out idiosyncrasies and either eliminate them in a structured way, or (where beneficial) work to exploit them. Given this later specialization, it follows that programming for beginners can be general and widely applied whereas programming for the intermediate/advanced athlete must be tailored to the individual.

Mistake 3: Writing overly complicated programs

I don’t think this is solely the foible of the inexperienced. The downside of having access to the wealth of information we currently do in our sport is the temptation to use all of it, all of the time, in every program we write. In my opinion, it is difficult to justify complex programs when Olympic medals have been won on the back of programs based on little more than the classic lifts and basic strength work.

By all means, add in obscure accessory work and strange close grip overhead squat variations, but at least have a solid explanation for why and a way of measuring the progress or effect of the exercise. Don’t put things in there just to look clever or tire out your athletes; if you want to tire them out, give them more squats! If you take a scientific approach to programming, the beauty of a simple program is that there is less to monitor so it’s easier to chart cause and effect and make alterations accordingly.

Mistake 4: Being too prescriptive

When you’ve spent hours crafting what you feel is a potentially award-winning program for an athlete, it can be demoralizing to watch the whole thing fall apart when the athlete doesn’t make percentages and collapses into a crying, sweaty heap halfway through the strength work. Just remember, you wrote the program and you have the power and permission to change it. Learning to program is about trial and error. You will need to make adjustments, and you will not necessarily be able to take a program that has worked with one athlete and successfully apply it to another without some alteration.

Sometimes you will need to make adjustments on the fly during a session. This is acceptable, too. Athletes have bad days, and it’s sensible to compensate for that. If an athlete has been ill or they’ve missed a week for a holiday (both unacceptable, obviously), then you may need to splice in a section to build the lifter back up to where they were before moving forward.

Try not to get too hung up on the ink on the page. Be prepared for the program to evolve as you go along.

Do no harm

As coaches, we have a responsibility for the physical well-being of our athletes. When we create a program, we are writing a prescription for our lifter that will either make them better, orĀ­–if we get it wrong–hinder their progress in the sport. We’re a bit like weightlifting doctors. You probably know that doctors take the Hippocratic oath where they commit to “first, do no harm.” I think the Hippocratic oath is a great place to start when writing programs. If I can’t explain and justify every part of a program I’ve created, then I simply remove the offending exercise, drill, or stretch. That’s because if I can’t say for sure why it’s in there, then I can’t honestly be certain it won’t do more harm than good. If you’re just starting out writing programs, I wholeheartedly recommend you take the same approach.

Phil Siddell came to Olympic Weightlifting from the dark side (CrossFit), but now spends his training time almost entirely with a barbell for company. He is currently working towards the joint goals of competing at a local level by 2016 and bringing more people to the sport of Olylifting through writing and coaching.

The views expressed in this article may not be that of USA Weightlifting. Publication of all articles is to share different opinions and viewpoints. For instruction on the lifts from USA Weightlifting visit www.usaweightlifting.org

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