In the Zone

The sport of weightlifting is not simply about strength.  Anyone who has wrestled with the movements has come to appreciate the level of coordination, flexibility, and balance required to perform the competition lifts. 

However, what clearly sets weightlifting apart from other barbell sports, like powerlifting, is the need for speed.  Strong athletes that do not recruit muscle fibers quickly, will not perform well in weightlifting.  You need to be able to perform feats of strength that take less than a second.  This means your strength needs to be fast.


When you call into contraction your muscles it is not an immediate process.  The electronic signal has to travel down to your motor neuron, which is responsible for innervating a group of your skeletal muscle fibers, called the motor unit.  Depending on the muscle we are speaking of, there may be 10 to 1,000 muscle fibers within that motor unit.  And when your body calls into contraction that motor unit all the fibers connected to the nerve contract. 

Now we can control the ‘strength’ of our muscle contraction via two mechanisms, 1) the number of motor units called into contraction, 2) the frequency of activation of the motor unit, i.e. you keep sending the signal to the muscle to contract and the signals fuse together causing a much larger contraction of the muscle. 

In weightlifting we want to be able to send a large signal AT THE RIGHT TIME, TO ALL THE RIGHT motor units to quickly and forcefully contract.  Those motor units should hold our fastest and strongest muscle fibers to give us the quickest and strongest display of strength.  This means we need to train the coordination of our muscles, we need to train speed of contraction, and we need to train the absolute strength of those muscles.        

Coordination we will refer to as recruiting the right motor units at the right time (the development of recruiting MORE motor units at one time is a different issue and is more accurately reflected in strength development).  It just so happens that coordination is best achieved at 50% to 70% of our 1 rep max.  This is actually pretty intuitive.  We naturally work on technique in a low intensity zone.  For newer athletes, and for athletes trying to adjust technique, they should spend most of their time in this zone to improve their coordination of the movement. However, for new athletes it is difficult to estimate the 1 RM because of technique problems and because that 1 RM is moving upward at an accelerated rate.  That is one of the many reasons why working with a coach is very important. 

Coordination is only part of the problem.  We also need to increase the speed of contraction.  The best improvements of speed is seen with training in the 60% to 80% range.  At roughly 70% we see maximum speed of movement, with a drop off in the low 80% range.  Training at these high speeds have a positive impact on the competition lifts. 

Finally, we need to train strength.  We make the best headway in the 80% to < 90% range.  Higher than 90% often does not provide enough of a training stimulus for strength gains because of the lack of ability to perform multiple sets or reps at that weight.  At about 80% we can provide enough of a training stimulus to force our body to make stronger muscles and to develop the ability to contract more of our muscles at one time.    

If we look at these Zones of Intensity (special thanks to Bob Takano for that phrase), we can see there are some overlap at about the 70% range for speed and coordination.  At about 80% we have some gains in speed and strength, but not as much on coordination.  This can help us a lot in programming out what percentage to concentrate the bulk of our reps at. 

With movements like the snatch we need high coordination and high speed.  The weight used in the snatch is relatively light (compared to the absolute strength of our muscles).  We can say that our average intensity of our training weights should be at the low 70% range.  This does not mean we don’t train above 80% or 90%, but that the vast majority of our reps should be at 70% to 75%.    

With the clean, the coordination of the movement is slightly less complex compared to the snatch and the speed is slightly slower.  However, the strength needs are much higher.  We can, therefore, creep that average intensity up to 75% to 80% range.  With more training reps in the 80%s. 

Now, how about a movement like the clean pull?  The coordination of the movement is rather simple compared to a full clean or snatch.  Speed is important for this movement, but not as important as if we needed to turn the bar over.  We can safely prescribe most of our work in the 80% to 90% range.

The same applies to our back and front squat.  These movements lack the difficulty in coordination as the competition lifts, and lack the need for speed gains.  Strength is primarily what we are trying to create here.  The average intensity of the squats should be in the 80% for the bulk of our reps. 

This is important to keep in mind, not only for the coach writing programming, but for the athlete who is training.  At different percentages you need to focus on different things.  Is the weight 60%?  Work on that coordination and speed.  Is the weight 80%? We need to build that strength.  You should never say to yourself, oh the weight is light.  Instead we should say, the weight is light let me perform the movement with perfect coordination and blazing speed.   

Coach Kurt Roderick