An Introduction to Strength and Conditioning Science, by Mike Brooks
So, after a VERY long time being too busy to contribute to this site, I decided to get out of the gym / Personal training / class teaching lifestyle. As much as I loved my time in the fitness industry, I felt too busy to progress or develop as a fitness professional. This led me University – St Mary’s in Twickenham – to study a BSc in Strength and Conditioning Science. A relatively new degree programme, the course has so far covered elements of human science such as anatomy and biomechanics, training philosophy and, until December, a HUGE amount of training. The aim of this is to immerse us in the training modalities used for competitive athletes in sport. This element of the degree culminates in a practical examination – in short, an Olympic Weightlifting Competition between the entire first year S&C Class, roughly comprised of 4-5 groups of 6-8 students.
There are very few elements of strength and conditioning (S&C) that receive more praise than the Olympic Lifts; the Snatch and the Clean and Jerk. Olympic lifting is a dynamic, challenging and incredibly time effective way of getting lean, strong, and fast. It trains the whole body in a very short amount of time and incorporates many other training movements including shoulder presses, squats, lunges, deadlifts, upright pulling and dynamic hip extension (jumping-type exercises).
The relevance of these lifts to other sporting movements, the debate concerning Olympic Weightlifting and children, and the correct application of these lifts into training programmes, are just a few of the topics outside the scope of this article. What follows is an account of my first few weeks of training at St Mary’s University alongside fellow students and under the guidance of Olympic-level coaches, course tutors and experts in the field. This is not a guide to the Olympic lifts; you can find many of these online (although be careful not to trust everything you see on Youtube!). This will hopefully serve to prove how far you can come along in your sessions with dedication and the desire to try something new.
My first week as a Strength and Conditioning Science student
This week, all lessons are introductions – lectures lay down the foundation of each module, and the practical sessions concern one main priority – flexibility. Olympic lifting requires a great range of motion through the ankle, hip, lower back and shoulder. It encourages people to improve posture by opening the hip whilst maintaining a neutral spine, and keeping the chest up and shoulders back. Groin and calf flexibility are highly prioritised too. These are all key injury areas, not just for athletes in sport, but for the everyday person. Do you slouch at your desk? Do you wear heeled shoes? Do you drive all day? Olympic lifting makes you literally spring out of these bad postures.
We spent most of the week developing our range of motion, not via long, static stretches held at a mild point of discomfort, but through movement. For example, those that needed to squat deeper (a key facet of the “First Pull” and “Catch” in the lifts), spent a great deal of time squatting, or holding onto a fixed surface and pulling themselves down lower and lower into the squat. On the occasions where static stretching WAS used, it was used with intent – instead of counting to thirty, we were required to continuously challenge this flexibility to go further. Without going into the theoretical reasoning behind this approach, I can simply say I have never squatted so deep and so comfortably (not to mention safely) as I have since prioritising this type of flexibility training. All I can say for anyone trying to develop flexibility like this is: work on it every day. Be sensible, and don’t go beyond tolerable pain, but make your flexibility training count.
Week 2 – Let the lifting begin
This week, I am allocated to a group that is allowed to start practising the lifts at the next level. The other half of our group is still working on flexibility and quality of movement – these elements really cannot be overstated, and a desire to make an athlete (or yourself) stronger or more powerful must always be secondary to the importance of solid technique.
My group starts training using adapted weightlifting moves. These variants are exercises in their own right that usually comprise of one or two sequences from the complete lift, i.e starting with the bar at hip level rather than on the floor. We also include assistance exercises – less complex lifts that allow us to develop strength through similar movements to the lifts, i.e. shoulder presses, pulling exercises, squats and deadlifts. This creates a clear divide in the session – certain exercises developing flexibility, technique, and muscle memory, certain others training us to produce more force.
Many of the group are using minimal weight for the technique and considerably more for the assistance exercises. Not being such a strong guy, they are generally one and the same to me, although after a few weeks of technique and flexibility it feels good to load up a relatively heavy deadlift.
Also this week, as well as starting MMA, the Weightlifting club starts. This is pretty similar to the practical sessions except we are observed by Kazem Panjavi, a former Olympic weightlifter and national coach (Barcelona Games, 1992), and several of its members compete at national level. His attention to detail is astounding and it is incredibly beneficial to get another coach’s opinion on technique. Those who attend this club discover a multitude of refinements that need to be made – for me, my back wasn’t locked enough in the First Pull (a flexibility and strength issue – great!) and the bar travelled too far from my body during the Second Pull. The beauty of this level of detail is that, like other sports, there is always something that could be improved. In fact, at this point in training, I would say this was the key message for all of us.
Week 3 – first Hallelujah moments (and new shoes)
We follow the same programme as last week. In some cases, our load on the bar increases. In most cases, technique improves greatly. Every now and again, someone completes a rep of a complex technique – a hip snatch, for example – and everyone knows intrinsically; we are making progress. That was “good tekkers!”. Refinements still have to be made, but these major breakthroughs make it a rewarding process. It still amazes me to think a weightlifting exercise can be so enjoyable, but after so many repetitions and practice runs, a good set (or even just one good rep) is always a Hallelujah moment.
At this point, many of us start to wear weightlifting shoes; shoes with a high heel which provide slightly easier and deeper movement into the various squats and floor positions. Weightlifting shoes and chalk are two essential pieces of kit for anyone taking their lifting seriously,
Again, Weightlifting Club maintains a similar pace; perfecting, tweaking, and analysing the lifts. This is the week where I personally start to struggle with the combined volume or MMA, practical lessons and Weightlifting Club, as well as the occasional student night. My food intake has increased dramatically by this point; protein shakes, two dinners, Large pizza orders, extra fruit and veg, and so on. Stir fry becomes a staple of my diet due to its variability, quick availability, and large quantities of vegetables and protein. After a particularly challenging Monday to Wednesday routine coincided with a heavy night out, I decided to start focussing on sleep and recovery. The parties can wait a few more weeks.
Week 4 – Knowing the weight that breaks you
As our familiarity with the lifts and their variants increases, we start to increase the loading of our sessions. By now we are attempting large chunks of the lift, starting with the bar at floor or knee level the majority of the time. This allows us to incorporate more of the technique. It should be noted that flexibility is still a major issue – several of us have days where things would have been easier if we had just been a little straighter, a little deeper under the bar, or a little bit stricter.
By mid-week, every session includes Olympic lift variations followed by either front or back squats, and pulling/pushing supersets. We aren’t presented with any magic set/rep formulas, nor any instant-strength exercises. Once again, the basics are law: give it 100 per cent, rest and recover sensibly, maintain quality of movement, and EAT. It would be near-suicidal to try squatting for 5 days in a row without observing these key points.
For me, my approach started to change this week. MMA is dropped so that I don’t burn out; I’d like to say this was based on my own intuition and sense as a trainer but really, my body knew what my body needed (rest!) and all I did was listen. I also realised I had to start challenging myself more, and indeed as a group we all started to attempt weights that, in many cases, we failed to perform perfectly. In Weightlifting Club, we usually finish the session by attempting whatever exercise we had been working on with a maximal effort – the most weight we think we can lift safely. The philosophy behind this was that, once you know your limitations (“the weight that breaks you”), you know where you need to start in order to work towards it.
We all find ourselves “dumping the bar” (the safe way of ending a failed attempt and a crucial part of lifting safety) a great deal more, but once again we all leave our sessions having experienced minor breakthroughs, and out-performing ourselves on certain exercises. I have always trained alone as a rule (I am easily distracted) but I started to see how a group of dedicated individuals can support each other as a team even in such an individualistic sport as Olympic Weightlifting.
Week 5 – Loading up the bar!
I found myself coming into my own as a lifter this week – indeed we all do. A new programme starts that divides us all into pairs or threes. The theme of the sessions now is simple – start getting weight on the bar! It seems that at this stage we were all starting to coach each other more – identifying things that need to be tweaked slightly, and also finding those things in our techniques. I am always keen for feedback in everything I do and ask lots of questions. This proves to be a disadvantage as much as an advantage. On the one hand, a deeper understanding will help your lifts, but on the other, when you’re shifting a significant amount of weight from the floor to above your head in less than a second, the last thing you want to do is to over-think things.
This was a pivotal week. In some cases I was butting my head against a brick wall – making the same mistakes several times, refusing to reduce the weight when I believed I was capable of more. I will admit, the result of this was that I performed less repetitions, and thus received less technical practice than usual, but I was having a stubborn week! I added my own session over the weekend in an attempt to refine the problem areas, focussing on being able to squat deep with a weight overhead (the catch position of the Olympic Snatch). The session worked wonders, and key progress was made. Once again, the determination and desire to succeed is the factor that ends the week on a high.
Conclusion / Cliffhanger / ’Till next time….
So this is where I am now. Roughly half way through the most intensive training period of my life – in its own way, even more demanding than my kickboxing fight camps (see my previous articles) – and roughly 5 weeks to go until my first competition and coincidentally, part of my final grade for the first year of my degree, let’s not forget that.
I have definitely never been stronger or more flexible, nor have my lifts looked as good as they look now. My upper body strength still isn’t really where I’d like it to be, and my MMA / Kickboxing training is temporarily on hold, but I can say with confidence that after December Olympic Lifting will still be a core facet of my training. It’s effective, it’s challenging, and let’s face it – the lifts are just too much fun to learn.
If you are serious about your training, no matter what the goal, check out these Olympic Lifts and their derivatives. Find a Strength Coach in your area, or a PT that has a relevant qualification (UKSCA – UK Strength and Conditioning Association – is the key one to look out for in the UK), or try and learn for yourself. Bear in mind if you try this last option that you must be cautious, sensible and, above all, open minded.
For those of you already lifting, I hope this has inspired you to give that training an extra boost, and shown you what you can achieve with the right amount of recovery, fuel, and determination. Happy lifting!