HOW TO MAINTAIN YOUR OLYMPIC LIFTS WHILE YOUR GYM IS CLOSED

Over the last few weeks, we’ve seen people putting in work with whatever they’ve got and prioritizing movement in every way possible.  

If you’ve been following the tag #keeplifting promoted by USA Weightlifting, there’s been great stuff.  Everything from this washer squat to technique work with a simple broomstick.  Despite the enthusiasm, many weightlifters are dealing with a concern that the lifts they’ve worked so hard to build will fade without some barbell work.  

To help level off the paranoia, if you sit around and do nothing, after about 2-weeks you’ll have some reductions in fast-twitch muscle fiber, but strength will likely remain unchanged (ref).  Push that out to 8-12 weeks and you’re probably going to drop 10-12% off your max lifts (ref).  It’s not the end of the world, but definitely not desirable.

What’s unclear is how the standard dose of boot camp-style home exercise—like burpees and dumbbell work for max reps— will keep your lifts in top form.  The problem is strength adaptations are very specific to the type of training that’s applied.  

Home programs are mostly optimized for maximal sweat along with portability and convenience.  So you’ll likely to get a lot “stronger” with your bodyweight movements, but that’s not the same type of strength needed for 1-rep max weightlifting. 

It’s better than nothing, but without squats, snatches, cleans and jerks, we’re faced with the fact that these numbers will go down without some intervention.  If you’re a recreational lifter, who does it for fun and to stay in shape, it’s nothing to sweat over. Get after it any way you can and keep yourself from gaining ten pounds.  

But for the competitive type, or to mix-up your home program, there are ways to provide a closer stimulus to the kind of strength that the sport demands.  This downtime may even be the opportunity to work some weaknesses, leaving you even stronger when you’re back under the bar.

In this article, we’ll examine some strategies to keep your weightlifting in top form, even without a full gym set up at your disposal.

Strength Training at Home for Bigger Lifts

The underlying constraint is getting enough stimulus with limited equipment to truly tap into strength gains.  

There are many changes that occur to make you stronger. Beyond the most well-known factor of muscle growth (hypertrophy), neuromuscular adaptations, tendon and connective tissue changes, and muscle fiber typing all play a major role as well. The problem is high-rep light-load training doesn’t hit the many aspects of strength development like weights where five reps is super tough.  Here’s a quick infographic if you want learn more about an important part of strength gains.

For the Olympic lifter, the squat and press are the key lifts to be concerned about.  Just replace your weekly strength work with these variations to help you stay strong when you don’t have much weight.  

Squat Strength

One way to increase your squat intensity with limited equipment is to move to a single leg variation. My personal preference is the Bulgarian Split Squat. It’s not a perfect replacement for the squat because total force output drops with less stability in the single-leg variation.  But the trade-off is you target the hip stabilizers (glute medius and minimus more), which is often a weakness even for strong lifters. It also provides a high degree of muscle activation for the legs. In fact, the data shows similar EMG responses for the quads when comparing the Bulgarian split squat and back squats when training with a 10-rep max weight (ref).  

To further this, slower tempos on the eccentric (lowering) and a short pause at the bottom, can add to the strength development by promoting greater muscle growth and neuromuscular adaptations despite lower forces compared to the barbell squat (ref, ref).

While under quarantine, replace your squats with 5-sets of 5-Bulgarian split squats.  Challenge it even more with a 4-second tempo down and a 2-second pause at the bottom. But continue to work on a fast drive to the top.   Load it up with dumbbells or any other load you can gather, which you can hold at your sides or in the front rack position.

 

Press Strength

Staying strong overhead isn’t as big of an issue, as I’m confident that you’ve got enough resistance to make for a challenging workout. I’m talking about your body weight.

While you can probably rep out air squats without much challenge, flipping upside down and pressing your bodyweight is a whole different story. If you find that just a handstand press is too easy for your set of five, try adding a deficit to your press with a set of books or bricks. You’ll assuredly get stronger.

For inspiration, here’s a classic video of Dmitry Klokov blasting out reps.

[Disclaimer- This move should be avoided if you’ve got neck issues or trouble lowering yourself under control.  Our medical team also made a good point, that the deficit handstand push-up is a risky proposition for a weightlifter who hasn’t done many handstand presses before.  Especially with most clinics closed right now, it’s better to be wise with your training than trying to embrace your inner Klokov. So be smart about things. You can still do quite a bit for your shoulders with Crossover Symmetry bands and dumbbell presses using slower tempos.]

And if you’re not quite to this level yet, here’s a video from TeamRICHEY to help you through it.

Build Stronger Positions

It’s not enough to just move big weights, you’ve also got to have strong positions to hit your lifts.

For many weightlifters, especially ones newer to the sport, the ability to sit into an upright squat, an overhead squat, and to lock out a jerk are the biggest factors holding them back.

Yet, it takes time and frustrating work to improve the mobility and stability of these end-range positions—making it a constant crux that never gets worked.  

But now is the perfect time to perfect it.

The goal of building more robust positions is to optimize mechanics and to feel more confident as you catch the weight.  Blasting out light reps for time won’t help you get there. Here is my better position quarantine challenge for you…

  1. Daily Squat Hold– You’re stuck in the comfort of your home, drop down into a squat for 1-minute every hour of your workday. Do it in your underwear if you like. But don’t just hang out there, work on staying rock solid. Additionally, work on getting your chest up and heels down, holding a weight to counterbalance can help you here, or grab onto something stable to get more upright.
  2. Change your Workouts– In a few of your workout sessions, force yourself to control your squats.  Rather than flailing through reps, do a 5-second descent, 3-second hold, and 5-second ascent. As a sub, 1 of these reps, will equal 5 fast reps in your workout.  
  3. Accessory Work– Now is the time to increase your accessory work for better mobility and stability. I’m biased on this one, but there is no better way than adding the Crossover Symmetry programs to your warm-up and post-workout pump.  There’s also cool stuff you can add with the bands like this overhead squat drill.

 

Shoulder Strength

Muscular Power

Critical to the Olympic lifts is to move the weight with speed. Specifically, the power that comes from the triple extension of the second pull and the drive to start the jerk is where the magic happens.

Another way we train triple extension is the vertical jump. The Olympic lifts are often cited as a way to build a vertical jump, but it can very well work in reverse with the right stimulus.

With a pair of dumbbells at the side, jumping for max vertical height is a potent stimulus for training powerful hip extension (ref).  Or if you don’t have dumbbells, broad jumps require triple extension too.

Additionally, plyometric training is an effective tool that requires limited equipment which can enhance power output (ref).  Plyometrics can also build elastic components and train the body to receive the loads that occur when catching a heavy barbell. 

We’ve also designed a Hip & Core Plyometric program that can develop the speed needed to ramp right back into lifting heavy when this Covid thing comes to an end.

Hip and Core

Build Your Lifting Skills

This time away from the gym is also an opportunity to improve your weightlifting skills. I often describe the lifts to beginners as dancing rather than weightlifting.  Just like practicing dance steps with a partner, you learn to move with your barbell with a bit of practice.

A dowel rod, or broom handle, or any other six-foot stick will help you do some work, but to be most effective, try to track down a barbell.

The problem with broomstick practice is that it’s just too light.  It’s my opinion that the dowel is a good teaching tool to introduce beginners to the concept of the lifts. Beyond that, there is too little feedback to develop motor patterns effectively.

If you’re stuck with a 6-oz dowel, you’ll be more productive with the skill transfer exercises laid out by Mike Burgner than trying to perfect your weightlifting technique.

Here’s a video resource to follow

Additionally, as I wrote this article, I caught this self-correction video from Catalyst Athletics. These are great ideas to provide some feedback when you’re using light loads.

Weightlifting Workouts at Home 

If you break down the lifts into the core components of strength, positioning, muscular power, and skill, they can be worked on independently with limited equipment to help maintain, or even build bigger Olympic lifts.  

Here’s you’re quarantine action plan for sticking your weightlifting numbers:

The Quarantine Weightlifting Plan

Add some strength work to your weekly plan.  Each week do 5-sets of 5-reps of the Bulgarian Split Squat and a variation of the handstand push-up.  Challenge yourself so that 5 reps is hard.

Accumulate 8-minutes in the bottom of your squat during the day.

Sub a 5-second tempo squat with 3-second hold in place of 5 reps for speed in your workouts.

Stay diligent with your Crossover Symmetry.  The Strength program is an adjunct to help you develop that overhead lockout.  

Before your metcons, do 10 sets of 3 vertical jumps with dumbbells, or broad triple jumps for distance.

Work on the skill transfer exercises using a dowel or empty barbell.