Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Chinese or Bulgarian?

Which methods? Chinese variety or Eastern European?

Matt Foreman is one of my favorite weightlifting writers and philosophers. I have known Matt since he was a beginning lifter at Northern Arizona University over 20 years ago. He was highly motivated and left to lift under Coach John Thrush in the Seattle area. He later returned to Arizona to pursue his career as a teacher and coach. He is an accomplished lifter and author. We featured a write up of his book, "Bones of Iron" in a past post. It is one of my favorite lifting books. He is an entertaining writer and writes from the point of view of a regular grass roots lifter who, while lifting is very important, has a life beyond lifting.
Below is an article he published recently that I really like. It's smart to watch and learn what the best athletes are doing, but it's not smart to try to copy anyone's training lift for lift, rep for rep. Think in terms of general principles rather than specific programs. Listen to your own body rather than forcing yourself to mimic someone else. As Matt points out, champions have trained in a variety of ways because they have found works for them. Find what works for you.

Ooohhh, this is a good question. Weightlifters and coaches have been debating it for a long time. Let me give you a little more explanation so you know what we’re talking about.

You’ve probably already figured out that there are many different training programs and methods out there. Not all lifters train the same. Hell, not all world champions train the same. A lifter from China wins the Olympics and breaks a world record using a certain type of training program, while another lifter from Russia does the exact same thing in a different weight class and his/her program is vastly different from what the Chinese lifter used. This situation makes it complicated for rookies and intermediate lifters because they’re trying to develop their own training regimen, but they can’t decide who they should listen to and emulate. Everybody wants to learn from the best, but the best don’t always do things the same way.

I’ll focus this on two different approaches:

- Method A- This is where the athlete trains by concentrating almost entirely on the snatch, clean and jerk, front and back squats. The SN and C&J are always done in full competition style, and there aren’t many other exercises in the program. Some people refer to this as “Bulgarian style training” because the Bulgarians dominated the world for many years using this concept as the foundation of their method (there’s a lot more to the Bulgarian program than this, but we’ll just keep it in generalities for this discussion).

- Method B- This is where the athlete trains by using a wide range of lifts and exercises in addition to the full competition lifts. In a program like this, the lifters concentrate on the SN and C&J but you’ll also see a lot of things like snatch balances, lifts from the blocks, push presses, three-position lifts, overhead squats, set/rep variations, different types of pulling exercises, etc. In other words, there’s a lot of variety. The Chinese have become known for this. You see all kinds of freaky stuff when you watch them train.

First, let’s answer the basic questions:

- Which one of these is the best method? Neither. They’ve both produced Olympic champions and world records.

- Which one is used most commonly among the top programs in the world? That’s difficult to answer. Most of the top countries find their own ways to blend both methods together.

Now, let’s look at some positives and negatives:

Method A Positives:

- Simplicity, total focus on skill development in the competition lifts and increasing strength in the squats, little chance of wasting training time on exercises that don’t prove to be valuable

Method A Negatives:

- Monotony, possibility of athletes getting bored and mentally deadened because of the lack of variety, possibility of missing out on an auxiliary exercise that could be helpful

Method B Positives:

- Variety, taking advantage of multiple exercises to develop different parts of the athlete’s body/technique, fun for the athletes to try a lot of new things

Method B Negatives:

- Potential for insufficient focus on the full competition lifts, possibility that assistance exercises could actually create more technical problems with the athlete’s SN and C&J

Universal Laws of Weightlifting:

- If you’re a competitive Olympic weightlifter, the only thing that ultimately matters is that you’re improving your technique and competition results in the SN and C&J. That remains the bottom-line priority, regardless of the strategy used in training.

- If an athlete is talented enough, they can probably be trained using almost any method and they’ll still make progress. They’ll be successful because they have more ability than everybody else, and that ability will override the details of their training program.

General Thoughts:

- One of the risks of Method B is the possibility that the athlete’s program becomes a system of constant experimentation and adding new things. Prolonged, consistent focus on the full competition lifts gets neglected because everybody is so excited to try some new exercise they saw on YouTube. Eventually, you’ve been training for a long time and you’ve tried every new idea known to man…but your competition total hasn’t gone up. That’s not good.

- Method A can get boring for some people. In the United States, it’s possible to lose athletes when they get bored. Americans have so many options available that it’s easy for them to walk away from weightlifting if they’re not enjoying it. In communist countries, the athlete’s boredom and happiness aren’t considered important factors. Training is their government job, and the government doesn’t give a crap if they’re having fun.

- I trained a young lifter who qualified to compete in this year’s Youth World Championship using Method A. For almost two years, her entire training program consisted of these exercises:

o Snatch

o Clean and Jerk

o Front Squat

o Back Squat

o Rack Jerk

o There were a few short time periods where I used some assistance exercises to clear up technique problems she was developing, but nothing extended. Using only the exercises I listed above, she became the #1 under-17 lifter in the US in her weight class. So it definitely is possible to train American lifters with Method A.

Where does this leave you?
This leaves you in exactly the same position as everybody else who decides to pursue this sport. You have to study as much as you can, start your own program (or your own lifting career if you’re an athlete), and develop the method that’s right for you.

NOTE: If you’re an athlete, your best chance of success is being guided by a proven successful coach. Don’t try to go it alone when you’re new or intermediate, unless you don’t have a choice.
You might be in a position where you’ve been an athlete in a highly successful system, and your coaching method becomes largely based on that system. If so, that’s great. If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it.
Regardless of all the details, remember that it takes a long time and a lot of work to master this sport. If you’re still relatively new, you don’t have it all figured out. You might think you do because you've got a lot of self-esteem and confidence, but you’re not an expert yet. You have to pay a lot of dues and build up a big resume before you get to have that distinction.
It’s complicated, and it’s a long way to the top if you wanna rock and roll. But you’ll get there if you do the right things. How do you know what “the right things” are? You don’t…not exactly. You have to work to figure this out, just like the rest of us.

Matt Foreman was a weightlifter for the Calpians team under coach John Thrush. He is a regular contributor to the Performance Menu. Check out his book, Bones of Iron: Collected Articles on the Life of the Strength Athlete.

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