• Alex Parry

Programming for Olympic Weightlifting: A Complete Guide

Call me crazy, but if the best weightlifting programmes possible are individualised, then I want to know as much as possible about how programming for olympic weightlifting works.


At the end of the day, if you're going to spend the next few years working your ass off in the gym, you want to know that the program you're following is improving your snatch, clean and jerk as much as possible.


So that's exactly what this article is going to do.


We’ll start with the 3 golden rules for weightlifting programming, as well as 3 of the most common ways that I see athletes and newer coaches mess it up. After that, we'll dive into the details of sets, reps, frequencies and intensities, before finishing with some practical examples of 3-day and 6-day olympic weightlifting programs.


Let’s get started, shall we?



Programming for Olympic Weightlifting: 3 Golden Rules


When you cut away all the fluff, a successful weightlifting programme only has to do 3 things...


1) Allow Frequent Practice of the Weightlifting Movements

2) Regularly Include Strength Development Exercises Like Squats and Pulls

3) Schedule Both of the Above in a Way that Allows for Overload and Recovery.


We'll dive into the nitty-gritty details soon, but you'd be surprised just how many programmes fall at the first hurdle.



programming for olympic weightlifting


Weightlifting Programming – 3 Ways to Mess It Up


Over the last few years, I’ve had the opportunity to review A LOT of people’s weightlifting programmes (including newer coaches) and I’ve noticed three big errors seem to come up over and over again…


1) Not Including Enough Strength Work


Newer lifters and coaches tend to forget that weightlifting is fundamentally a strength sport. If you can’t deadlift 180kg (about 400lb) then you’re not going to be able to clean it. Full stop.


Squatting two sets of 3 at 70-75% isn’t going to develop the leg strength necessary to make big lifts. Similarly, if you deadlift 200kg but your weightlifting programme has you doing nothing but pulls at 60-90kg, it isn’t going to increase your pulling strength all that much.



2) Relying Too Much on Strength Work and Not Getting Weightlifting Practice In


On the flip side of the coin, you have coaches and lifters who focus so much on strength work that they don’t actually get enough quality olympic weightlifting practice.


I’ve seen guys who regularly squat over 200kg and deadlift over 240kg, and yet can’t even snatch triple digits. No amount of strength work is going to improve their weightlifting. What they need is more practice of the specific movements.



3) Scheduling Programmes in Ways That Don't Allow for Recovery


The last mistake I see is when coaches have all the right ingredients in terms of strength and technique work but arrange them in such a way that it would absolutely mutilate most athletes. Light days and deload weeks exist for a reason.



How do you program a weightlifting program?


Alright, so we've talked about how NOT to design an Olympic weightlifting programme, but how do you design one.


Time for the nitty-gritty details...



1) Frequent Practice of the Olympic Weightlifting Movements (2-3 Times Per Week)


Put simply, the weightlifting movements must be practised at least twice per week, ideally three times, in order to maximize results. There are two reasons for this, first, research shows (Edwards 2010) that you need regular exposure to a motor pattern in order to master it. Second, you need to build speed strength in a biomechanically specific way in order to see the adaptations you want.


The good news is that because the movements are typically lighter, and have no eccentric component, you can recover from them pretty quickly (especially snatches)



2) Regular Inclusion of Squats, Deadlift Variations and Overhead Exercises


strength exercise (squat and deadlift) programming for weightlifting


Just like we talked about earlier, weightlifting is still a strength sport, and your squatting, pulling and overhead strength need to keep on improving.


A good rule of thumb is to schedule two squatting sessions, two overhead sessions and one heavier pulling session each week.


With the squatting sessions, I would probably have one session focus on back squats, and the other focus on front squats to maximize the carryover of strength to the clean.


With the overhead sessions, I would recommend one session using a push press variation, and the other using a strict press variation. That way you get a good balance between learning to stabilize larger weights overhead, but also getting in some more focused shoulder strength work.


With the deadlift variations, and I say variations because I’m referring to the clean deadlift and snatch deadlift movements, in which you start your pull in the exact same position as your weightlifting movements. In my mind, they offer the best compromise between heavy lifting and positional specificity. (For more on pulls vs deadlifts - see here)



Now, obviously, you can vary the amount of strength work that you do to suit your own needs, but those recommendations should give you a decent place to start.



3) Schedule Both of the Above in a Way that Allows for Recovery (Heavy-Light Patterns)


So now you’ve got snatches, cleans, jerks, back squats, front squats, deadlift variations, push presses and strict presses to fit into your training week. Plus ideally, you’re gonna want some core work and back work in there too. It can get a little overwhelming, and it’s easy to make a mess of it.


The best way to solve this problem is by using a heavy – light – heavy type of structure. On your heavy days you’ll either...


a) go heavier

b) do more volume

c) both of the above.


Then on your lighter days, you’ll back off a bit by doing the opposite.


Later in the article, we’ll jump into some detailed programmes showing what that might look like in practice, but a basic example might be... Day One: 5x2 Snatches @ 80% (Heavy)

Day Two: 3x2 Power Snatches @ 60% (Light)



Sets, Reps and Intensity Recommendations


Strength Work


For your strength work, I've found that there’s no real need to overcomplicate this, just aim for something in the range of 3 to 5 challenging sets of 3 to 5 reps for your squats, pulls and overhead strength movements.


If you like to use RPE, then I recommend most of your strength work be done at around RPE 8, so your sets are all tough, but you've still got a couple of reps in the tank.


Percentage-wise, this can typically be anything from 75-90% depending on the chosen set and rep scheme.


You might also find my simple squat programme useful (It's a free programme)



Snatches, Cleans and Jerks


With your weightlifting movements, you’ll have to think a little more about the distribution of intensity. What I mean by this is that you have three distinct intensity ranges to work with.


• 70-80%, which allows for good technical practice and high training volumes (think 6 sets of 3 reps)