“When am I maxing out next?”
“Why am do I have so many programmed reps and sets?”
“What are the point of complexes if I compete in a sport of one-rep maxes?”
“I don’t feel like I’m training heavy enough.”
“I’m going to lose my legs if I don’t keep squatting.”
Volume and intensity are two words sometimes used interchangeably that mean very different things in regards to a weightlifting training protocol. Simply put, volume is how much work you do (sets and reps) and intensity is how hard it is (the load lifted, or the load lifted relative to your maximum capability). As we near the final block of training and begin to peak for a meet (the last four to five weeks of programming), the programs we write reflect a decrease in overall volume and a steady increase in intensity, building up to two to three weeks of maximal snatch and clean and jerk work. For our athletes training for the Arnold, the max out sessions these past two weeks were as intense as the athlete wanted them to be: Volume was minimized on Max Day and the amount of missed lifts was limited to two misses per lift so that theoretically, the athlete could hit personal bests or at the very least establish new maximums for the training block without taking a dozen attempts and killing themselves and their confidence in the process.
One common statement I heard from athletes training this block was that their squats did not feel as strong one week out as they did four weeks and five weeks out: Good! I do not peak an athlete’s squats at the same time I peak their competition lifts because I have found it leads both to injury and fatigue related to over-training. Squats peak three weeks to a month before the competition lifts. If your squats aren’t going down slightly as you head into a meet, it indicates to me that the athlete has either been sandbagging their maxes or they’re on some sort of drug to aid in recovery, the exception to this being athletes who are coming back from an injury that limited prior progress or a newer athlete who made huge increases in strength and technique that we refer to as “newbie gains.”
Banned substance use in competitive CrossFit had allowed many individuals to train high volume and maximal intensity simultaneously over the course of long training blocks. These pharmacological practices, in combination with a hard work ethic, a good diet, recovery practices such as massage, and good coaching will create the “invincible” athlete. The sales of anabolic agents, SARMS, and other legal and illegal substances, some that are even prescribed by physicians, are common practice in some fitness communities. The IWF and USAW have done a tremendous job cleaning up banned substance use over the past few years, but the weightlifting community also has a long history riddled with drug use. As a former competitive CrossFitter, I can attest that while many athletes are drug-tested in CrossFit at the Regionals and Games level, many local competitors and coaches take banned substances not only to enhance their aesthetics and drive performance, but to sell their training protocols. Again, this is not every CrossFit athlete or every CrossFit coach: There are some very reputable programs out there, to be sure, that forbid drug use and have athletes tested out of competition.
Weightlifting is a sport of maximal intensity under strict time constraints. To create a successful environment for a drug-free athlete to perform at this intensity for a period of two to three weeks, the athlete has to lift with 100% consistency at 80 to 90% of their competition maxes prior to entering the final training block. Consistency means zero misses or nearly zero misses in this range in order to lift 95%+ consistently in the next training block. In my experience, athletes who miss more lifts than they make teaches these athletes how to miss, not how to make lifts. There are a couple of reasons as to why an athlete will miss routine weights and then will go on to make their next attempt at the same weight; Often, this is related to lack of mental focus and a lack of consistency in technique.
Multiple triples at 75 to 80% are great to refine technique and build a base while your squat and pull volume is high in he first block of training; However, this volume alone will not get you to snatch 90% to 95% of your max consistently. It is a common myth that you will forget how to “max out” if you do not max your competition lifts every week. As a coach, I plan at least two opportunities leading up to the meet we are preparing for to lift maximally. Since I believe in periodization and I believe in the window of super-compensation, I limit the testing of maxes to a “dipstick” meet halfway through our block to measure progress and the two sessions prior to our meet. Our athletes do not have unlimited opportunities to max out because it is understood and agreed upon that the athlete only has so much energy to lift those weights well if I’m peaking and tapering them properly within a 16 week period. If any athlete, barring beginners, is consistently hitting 95% to 100% of their max competition lifts for months at a time with no misses, again, I would either say that they sandbagged their tested max or they are on drugs to aid in recovery between sessions.
So, what do you do if you have an athlete who consistently fails to perform in the final weeks leading up to the meet? When I watch an athlete train during our team practices, I pay attention particularly to the lifters who miss weights every session- This is not normal if they are past the early beginner phases of learning. It is often these same athletes who repeat training days, repeat sets, add in extra volume and do not report all of the misses they made in training, simply stating they got all the work in. By doing this, the athlete is adding in way more volume than they should be doing, especially in the final block of training. A work horse is a wonderful athlete to have, but this athlete needs the extra support and guidance from their coach to feel comfortable stepping back and addressing the issues contributing to their inconsistencies in training in order to move forward in the next training block.
Maybe the athlete isn’t completing extra work or missing routinely: If this isn’t this issue and the athlete is making all warm ups and working sets, it may be that the athlete’s maxes are not their maxes anymore and they are working well above their current capacity. Working off smaller numbers so the athlete has limited misses in training will help you to build their consistency on the platform and their confidence to get them to a place where they can PR again. Allowing an athlete to take many attempts, or repeating missed attempts will only get them in the mindset that they have unlimited chances to perform: They don’t. They don’t get to take as many reps on a platform as they want, nor do they have the luxury of warming up at their own pace in the backroom at national events, unlike many local meets where they can take as many warm ups as they’d like.
The last few weeks of any pre-competition cycle mimic the meet warm up. Some athletes are convinced that they do better with higher volume and lower intensity leading into a meet, never touching a heavy weight until the day of the event (like we do for our “dipstick” meet, to test where the athlete is mid-cycle). The athletes who perform better at the dipstick meet than the actual meet we are preparing for are the ones who have inefficient or poor technique, change their technique when thinking about lifting heavy, and/or experience mental distress when there is pressure to perform and lift heavy- A combination of these factors is likely the primary contributor to a poor performance, not the training program itself.
If you, the athlete, find yourself in a position where you fail to perform on a platform after many hours spent in the gym, it may be time to evaluate the quality of your technique, your mental game, and at the end of the day, your willingness to take weight off the bar or time away from competing in order to achieve the results you sought out your coach for. The best program for the athlete is the one they believe in the most. As you enter meet week, trust that the work you have done reflects your best efforts and let the results from the meet be the platform from which you and your coach build your next block of training.