There are two types of weightlifting athletes, Stage 1 and Stage 2.
As a coach, if you can determine your athlete’s stage, you can better structure training and help your athlete maintain a proper focus.
Many coaches don’t properly program or focus their athletes for the stage they are in. This is a mistake. It can hinder the athlete’s development and permanently lower the ceiling on their potential.
Here’s a way to determine your athlete’s stage and what to do with it:
You have a Stage 1 athlete if they execute the snatch or clean & jerk inconsistently. Their movement patterns may vary from day to day, set to set, or even rep to rep.
Whether their technical errors vary randomly (i.e. they are inconsistently inconsistent) or they’ve honed in on a few common ones (i.e. they are consistently inconsistent), the errors in Stage 1 derive from problems of concept or coordination, not from weight. Either your athlete doesn’t yet have a proper concept of what’s supposed to happen in the lifts, or their coordination doesn’t yet let them execute properly every time.
If your athlete’s technique gradually declines as the weight on the bar increases, or if they are snatching or clean & jerking well-below what their strength should support, you have a Stage 1 athlete.
With an athlete in Stage 1, efficiency and consistency should be your main focus. For long-term progress, you must help them establish an efficient technique that doesn’t vary rep to rep or day to day. This should be as close to the textbook – the biomechanical ideal – as feasible, while leaving room for minor personal variation. Without efficient and consistent technique, the way your athlete moves will prevent them from reaching their full potential.
Your athlete’s task in Stage 1 is to make their reps more correct and more alike. Their movements should trend toward the biomechanical ideal with less variation from rep to rep, day to day. Plotted as a curve on a graph, you are seeking to shift the curve upwards and flatten it.
To establish these qualities, Stage 1 athletes require programming that includes a wide variety of exercises, targets a broad range of athletic qualities, and the weights should be moderate most of the time. As your athlete develops efficient and consistent patterns, you should increase their weights.
Be careful, however. It’s a mistake to push increasingly heavier weights at the expense of technique. The programming and the weights are just tools for improving the athlete’s concept and coordination. By adding more weight than the athlete’s technique can support, you run the risk of embedding bad habits and limiting their potential.
Should you avoid challenging weights or testing 1RMs in Stage 1? Certainly not. For proper development, your athlete must establish good patterns as the weights increase. The only way to do this is to practice weights that present a challenge. However if the weight is too challenging, too early or often, or if the weight itself causes a change in the the quality of the lift, then it’s too much weight.
To test Stage 1 athletes, 1RM tests can be worthwhile provided your standard for success includes technique. If your athlete abandons their prior patterns of efficiency and just convulses the weight up, that’s not exactly a win.
Further, consider doubles and triples in training as ongoing progress tests. Performing these well at each new increment of weight is just as valuable as any 1RM test in Stage 1.
Once your athlete develops efficient technique that doesn’t vary rep to rep, set to set, or day to day, they will have established what we call their rational technique. And you will then be coaching a Stage 2 athlete.
Stage 2 athletes have already developed rational technique. Their movement patterns don’t vary from lift to lift or day to day, and their deviations from textbook technique are few and efficient enough to support their long-term progress.
A Stage 2 athlete’s technique doesn’t degrade gradually in relation to the weight on the bar. As they go up in weight during training, there’s an assumption that their technique will remain sound, at least until a certain threshold. Then they start to fail.
Errors in Stage 2 aren’t caused by concept or coordination, they are caused by weakness. Your athlete isn’t yet strong enough to hold the position(s) or generate the energy required to perform properly at the weights they target. They know what to do and how to do it, but they’re not yet strong enough to make it happen.
Your mission with a Stage 2 athlete is to help them get stronger while maintaining their technique. In doing so, you are striving to change the threshold at which their technique fails. On a graph, you are trying to shift the curve to the right.
The programming should target specific weaknesses that hold your athlete back. The overall volumes and intensities should be slightly higher compared to Stage 1 with periods of even higher intensities in certain exercises at certain times. Stage 2 programming may also contain blocks of monostructural training focused on developing one motor quality and one strength quality in tandem.
Testing for the Stage 2 athlete will typically occur in competition or as 1RM tests at the end of a training period. Again, all the Stage 1 rules about striving for consistent technique apply to progress tests in Stage 2.
Where Stage 1 training is mostly general, Stage 2 training is specific. Where weight is just a means to an end in Stage 1, more weight is the end in Stage 2.
As a coach, it’s up to you to manage your athlete’s development and help them focus on the right things. By knowing their stage, and coaching accordingly, you’ll improve their chance of achieving their goals.
p.s. If you’re an athlete who trains without a coach, the same concepts hold true for you. You should train first to improve your concept and coordination until you have established your rational technique. Then you should rigorously target weaknesses and get very strong in the context of the lifts. But don’t make the mistake of rushing out of Stage 1. And make sure your training is properly targeted once you reach Stage 2. How you deal with these stages can affect the trajectory of your career.
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