In an ideal world, every beginner in Olympic weightlifting would find themselves with a good coach to hand, ready to guide them through their first steps in the sport. As well as teaching them the fundamentals of the Olympic lifts, their coach will build a program around their needs, adjusting as necessary to help them tackle technique issues and adjust to factors specific to that lifter. In the safe hands of an experienced coach, volume, intensity and exercise selection can be modified to ensure optimal progress for the trainee.
Unfortunately, many beginners find themselves without access to a coach for any one of a wide variety of reasons, geography and finances often foremost among them. Olympic weightlifting is still very much a minority sport and even if you live in a large town or city, there may not be a qualified coach in your area. Although working with a coach is greatly preferred, some novice lifters have managed to make excellent progress coaching themselves using one of a number of popular online beginner programs.
Self-coaching is rife with potential pitfalls, and we’ll talk about how to avoid some of them in a future article but a patient trainee with a good eye can do well. Below we detail five of the most popular beginner programs available online, some of them from leading weightlifting coaches. We don’t offer any advice on which is best – you’ll have to work out which most suits your needs – but regardless of which you opt for, you can be sure you’ll do better by choosing one and sticking with it rather than doing a random selection of exercises or hopping from program to program.
Glenn Pendlay’s Training System for Beginning Weightlifters
Days Per Week: 3
Cycle Duration: 2 weeks (repeating)
Core Exercises: Snatch, Clean & Jerk, hang variants, Back Squat, Front Squat, Power Jerk/Push Press
Coach Glenn Pendlay’s beginner routine is less of a prescribed program and more of a training framework that can be customised to meet individual needs. The underlying principle behind this three-day a week setup is pretty simple; every training day, the athlete should perform a snatch movement, a clean movement, an overhead lift and some form of squat. In the sample program Glenn lays out the full lifts for the snatch and clean from the floor are alternate with pulls and hang variations each day so that in any given two week block, the lifter will perform the full lift three days and hangs the remaining three . On days where the full clean & jerk isn’t performed, other overhead exercises like power jerks, jerks from behind the neck, push presses and military presses are done.
Sets and reps are left more or less to the athlete/coach’s discretion but a mixture of mainly doubles and singles is recommended. Weight progression isn’t prescribed, with the lifter advised to add a little weight to the bar if seven or eight out of ten reps for an exercise are performed with good technique.
Pendlay Beginner Template Sample Week 1
Squats can be programmed independently of the Olympic lifts so the trainee or coach is essentially free to plug in their preferred squat routine. Glenn’s recommended approach is essentially the Texas Method with back squats on Day 1 and 3 and Front Squats on Day 2 but squat programs like the Russian Squat Routine, Smolov Junior or beginner linear progress programs could be slotted in instead. The program also assumes that beginner’s will perform a number of loosely defined “complexes” which should be used to build basic strength and/or for conditioning. Examples include pull-up/push-up combinations, sled work, plyometric drills, kettlebell swings, ab work etc.
The Pendlay training system for beginners runs in two week blocks, which are then repeated, with some exercises alternated if necessary. Glenn suggests that this program can be continued for a period of 3-6 months or longer if the trainee continues to make gains on it. In some of his recent Weightlifting Scoop podcasts he has advocated new lifters sticking to three or four days a week for as long as possible until training more days a week becomes absolutely necessary. When the lifter exhausts the potential of this program, Pendlay recommends moving to intermediate training by adding a fourth day that incorporates the power variants of the lifts.
Link to Program
Catalyst Athletics Starter Program by Greg Everett
Days Per Week: 4-5
Cycle Duration: 4 weeks
Core Exercises: Snatch, Clean & Jerk, Back Squat, Front Squat, Overhead Squat, Pulls
The Catalyst Athletics Starter Program, designed by Coach Greg Everett, is a four-week introductory program designed to get the beginner more familiar with the lifts and prepare them for either the intermediate program laid out in Greg’s book Olympic Weightlifting: A Complete Guide For Athletes and Coaches or the programming posted each day on the Catalyst Athletics website. The first two weeks of the program see the novice train four days a week while the last two involve five training days. In the first two-week block, Day 1 focuses on the Clean and Jerk, Day 2 on the Snatch and Day 3 on the power variations of the two main lifts while the final day (Saturday) is a max out day on the snatch and Clean & Jerk. The second two-week block splits the power lifts on to separate days and supplements with work from the hang.
Sets and reps are prescribed, with volume on each of the main lift days gradually tapering off as more training days are introduced. In the early weeks, five sets of doubles or triples are the norm, by the final week this is down to singles. Weight progression is a little more specific than on the Pendlay program, though much is left to feeling out what is most suitable for the lifter each week.
Week 1 of the Catalyst Athletics Beginner Program
In the first two weeks, squats of some form or another are performed every day – back squats once, front squats twice and overhead squats once. In the last two weeks, the trainee still squats four times a week but there is one light session per week with no squat performed. Sets and reps are prescribed for squatting exercises, with volume increasing in the first two weeks and then dropping to allow for more intensity in the back two. Ab work is recommended each training day and some supplementary strength and conditioning exercises can be worked in at the lifter/coach’s discretion.
At the end of this four week beginner’s program, the trainee should be ready to move on to regular Catalyst Athletics programming which is a 5-day-a-week routine, with each day’s exercises posted on the Catalyst Athletics website the previous day. Alternatively, the trainee can use the two-week cycle detailed on Page 89 of Greg’s book, with periodic Unloading weeks if fatigue builds up. Everett also details a more demanding 10 week intermediate macrocycle designed to taper an athlete for competition.
Link to Program
70’s Big Transitioning to Olympic Weightlifting Program
Days Per Week: 4
Cycle Duration: 1 week (repeating)
Core Exercises: Snatch, Clean & Jerk, Back Squat, Front Squat, Press, Bench Press, Rows, Romanian Deadlift
The 70’s Big Transitioning to Olympic Weightlifting program, designed by Justin Lascek, assumes that the athlete is coming from a powerlifting, Crossfit or general strength training background and already has good levels of strength that they would like to at least maintain while also training the Olympic lifts. This program is fairly similar to Glenn Pendlay’s ‘Training for the Supertotal‘ program though there are a few notable differences in lift selection. The 70’s Big program sees two day of four given over to the Olympic lifts and two days focused on strength lifts. The Snatch and Clean & Jerk are performed on Days 1 and 3. Heavy back squats (high bar), overhead press and barbell rows fall on Day 2 and Day 4 consists of front squats, bench press and Romanian deadlifts.
Sets and reps for the Olympic lifts in the first few weeks involve working up to five singles for each lift, after which progression continues with singles but the weight varies from day to day. During this phase, each day one lift is pushed up by 2.5-5kg while the other is done at around 80% of 1RM. The next Olympic lifting day, the other lift is maxed while the other is first at medium intensity.
70’s Big Transition to Olympic Weightlifting Program
A 3×5 or 3×6 setup is recommended for squats, though given the way the program is set up there would be very little stopping the lifter from running a 5/3/1 style program with two main lifts on each strength training/powerlifting day. 3×5 is also recommended for the other strength lifts, though 3×8-10 is suggested for RDLs for those who need to do more hamstring work in the first few weeks. Mobility work is heavily emphasised at the beginning of each training session with a focus on hips, ankles, thoracic spine and shoulder rotation using bands and lacrosse ball rolling.
The 70’s Big program is a weekly cycle that can be repeated until such time as the lifter is unable to continue to make progress on it. Laseck recommends a minimum of four weeks with about three months being ideal. After this initial period of training, if the trainee wishes to continue to progress the Olympic lifts, it is suggested they switch to a three-day-a-week program.
Mike Burgener’s Generic Beginner Program
Days Per Week: 4
Cycle Duration: 1 week (repeating)
Core Exercises: 3 Position Snatch and Clean & Jerk, Push Press, Pulls, Front Squat, Back Squat, Rack Jerk, Power variations, shrugs, SL Deadlift
Coach Mike Burgener’s generic beginner program is the starting point for most of Mike’s programming for his own lifters. The layout detailed below but exercises will change on a daily basis to fit what the lifter most needs to work on and to take into account individual variation. The program is split out over four days, with Day 1 largely devoted to the Snatch and derivative exercises, Day 2 to the Clean & Jerk, Day 3 to power snatch and assistance exercises and the final day as a max out for the competition lifts. One aspect of Burgener’s program that sets it apart from other beginner programs featured in this article is that it makes use of 3-position snatch and cleans. It also includes assistance exercises like snatch-grip shrugs. Coach Burgener heavily emphasises the “jump and shrug” in his preferred technique so those who lift with a style that involves more body contact (named the ‘catapult method’ in some circles) may find certain exercises in this example layout of limited use.
Mike Burgener Beginner Program Sample Week
Sets and reps are prescribed and generally involve five sets of triples for the main lifts and power variants and five sets of five for most of the strength lifts. Weights used are left to the lifter/coach though in the comments, Coach Burgener says that he often increases the load one week and drops it back a bit the following week before increasing again.
Front Squats are performed on Day 1 at 3×5 and back squats on Day 2 at 5×5. Overhead squats are done as part of a complex with snatch-grip push presses on Day 3. Max back squats may also be performed on Day 4. Burgener recommends using his periodisation chart to work out the most appropriate loading for different types of trainees.
Coach Burgener’s template is very much a jumping off point for individualisation and exercises will generally vary from week to week depending on the trainee’s needs. However, he notes that many lifters and coaches have seen impressive gains just sticking to the generic program as laid out.
Dan John’s Solid Neophyte Program
Days Per Week: 3
Cycle Duration: 1 week (repeating)
Core Exercises: Snatch, Clean & Jerk, Front Squat, Press
Dan John’s beginner program is about as simple at they come, reflecting John’s reductive approach to training. Dan describes his methodology as essentially ‘Bulgarian’ meaning that the lifter focuses on the competition lifts and squatting to max. First the back squat is mastered at which point the clean is introduced, followed by the snatch. Once the lifts are learned, the athlete performs the snatch, clean & jerk, military press and front squat every day three days a week. It’s as straightforward as that.
The rep scheme is equally non-complicated – eight sets of doubles for the snatch and 8 sets of doubles for the clean & jerk. Weights used should be as much as the lifter can handle and maintain good technique, with small increases each session so long as form remains consistently good.
Dan John Beginner Program
The program emphasises front squatting but assumes the ability to perform a near-perfect ass-to-grass back squat (the first exercise learned). Front squats are done for five sets of five and loading follows the same progression scheme as the Olympic lifts, though could be modified to a volume/intensity model depending on the lifter’s level. Presses are performed for five sets of three.
Dan John’s template lacks the complexity of many other beginner routines but features a great deal of exposure to the full competition lifts and strength exercises seem to be chosen for maximum cross over to the Olympic lifts. The program can be done for as long as the lifter continues to make progress, though it is possible that some beginners may crave more variety sooner rather than later.
These five programs represent just a few of the many variants available online. If you have a favourite that hasn’t been covered here, please leave a comment below with the details and we will compile them into another article at some point in the future.