The Special Needs of Powerlifters and Other Strength Athletes Who Convert to Weightlifting (Excerpted from Chapter 6 - Putting It All Together: Developing a Training Plan)

Athletes who have been engaged in strength training for a significant period of time (e.g., powerlifters and weight throwers) must employ a very special approach to training when they become weightlifters.

First, they must recognize that learning to be a skilled weightlifter will take years of work. There are no shortcuts to learning the skills of weightlifting–no matter how strong one is. The athlete who intends to convert to weightlifting must swallow his or her ego and accept the lot of a beginner (a very strong beginner with major advantages over the typical beginner, but a beginner in a number of important respects nonetheless).

Second, strong beginners face a challenge that normal beginners do not. They may actually be able to lift enough early on to injure themselves. A high strength level and lack of skill are a dangerous combination. It is not unlike teaching someone to drive in a Corvette, or skiing for the first time on an expert slope–accidents are likely to happen. Consequently, emphasizing the development of sound technique is even more critical for the strong beginner than the weak one.

Third, strong beginners are not in condition to lift heavy weights in the classic lifts. They would be making a mistake to attempt it–even if they had the technique and flexibility to carry it off. As was noted in earlier chapters, training is very specific. Only when the body is conditioned to accept a particular load (the speed, mechanics, intensity and volume of the loading must be prepared for) can it effectively handle that load without being overwhelmed.

The good news is that by training technique with light weights the athlete can both learn to lift properly and condition the body to accept the loads that the very strong athlete will ultimately be able to lift.

The smart strength athlete who is planning a conversion to weightlifting will do several things. He or she will find a good technical coach. The athlete will have his or her weightlifting flexibility assessed and will begin to work on any areas of deficiency immediately. The athlete will continue to train on the exercises that made him or her strong if they are related to the strength required for weightlifting. But those exercises will be modified as needed to be more specific to the classic lift.

For instance, if the athlete has been performing power squats (squats to a depth where the thighs are just below parallel to the floor, the bar is held on the upper back and a wide foot stance is generally employed), he or she will begin to do more squats with the bar high on the shoulders and the feet closer together than powerlifters do. This should be a gradual process where the athlete does only lighter sets in this manner for a time, gradually performing with heavier and heavier weights in the new style.

As the training weights on the classic lifts and related exercises increases, the other exercises should be gradually reduced, and, in some cases, be phased out altogether (e.g., wide stance squats and round back deadlifts can eliminated in favor of heavy close stance squats with the bar placed high on the shoulders and the lifter squatting as far down as possible).

Similarly, deadlifts, particularly round back and Sumo style deadlifts, would be phased out in favor of deadlifts in a position identical to that of the first three stages in the pull.

Muscles that have may not been trained in the past but that are important for weightlifting performance (e.g., overhead pressing) will need to be gradually added to the program. The athlete should begin with a small number of sets and moderate loads (perhaps threes sets, including warm-ups and finishing with a weight that is relatively comfortable in the last rep of the last set).

It will take several months for a strength athlete’s skills and conditioning to prepare him or her for serious training on the classic lifts and related exercises. Even at that point, the athlete is advised to train like a beginner or novice. That is, training should only occur three or four times per week. Over time the training can be increased, but the lifter must not rush into daily heavy training because his or her body will simply not be up to the task. It will take years (at least 2-3) before the athlete is mentally and physically ready to demonstrate anything near his or her true maximum abilities in the snatch and C&J. This is not to say that they can’t lift heavy weights even earlier but any such lifts will not be near their ultimate potential (remember it takes a typical beginner 5-7 years to reach anything close to his or her potential, so the background that a strength athlete from another sport has can cut that time by as much as half).

I have heard a number of powerlifters and other strength athletes say that they "tried" weightlifting and it hurt their joints and I have witnessed it myself. But in every case I am aware of this has occurred because the athlete has not learned proper technique and allowed for proper conditioning.

It is only natural for the powerlifter or other strength athlete to want to "try himself or herself out" to see if he or she "has it". The truth is that no one "has it" and the only way to get "it" is to train for it. The athlete who wants to see if he or she is really strong should be content to perform some squats to a fairly low position with a fairly close stance, with the bar high on the shoulders and with no supporting gear. Such an athlete will learn respect for weightlifters who can take a squat with 600, 700, 800 or more pounds to the bottom. In some cases these relatively new athletes may demonstrate truly extraordinary strength. Even in that event, the new weightlifter will need to be content with that form of strength expression (and improving upon it) until he or she develops the skill and conditioning necessary to express his or her strength through the classic lifts.

Strength athletes should not be discouraged by the advice that has been provided above. If they prepare properly they will ultimately be able to demonstrate their abilities in the most competitive strength sport in the world. The strength training that they have done will make the road to the top shorter than it will be for most others. In addition, other skills that they may have developed while training for competing in other strength events (concentration, poise under pressure, good training habits) will all give them and advantage as they make the transition.

There is nothing I would like to see more than the best powerlifters and other strength athletes of the world develop the strength and skills needed to compete with the best in the world in weightlifting. This influx of new athletes into the sport of weightlifting will no doubt raise the competitive "bar" for everyone. But only the intelligent, dedicated and patient athlete making the transition from another weight sport to weightlifting will get the job done.

Copyright 1998 A is A Communications. All rights reserved.
Revised: February 15, 1998