Though contested in kilograms, weightlifting is a sport of centimeters and grams. The margin for error is no larger than the lifter’s foot, and becomes smaller as maximal weights are loaded on the bar. With so little margin for error, it’s easy to get caught up chasing perfection. But perfection isn’t realistic. There will be missed lifts, and PRs won’t happen every time they’re called for in the training program. What’s important is progress. Progress is an increase in daily training minimums, and making more lifts this week than last. Perfection is the enemy of progress.
Here’s a scene that any weightlifter who’s ever been in a PR drought will find familiar.
It’s max-out Friday, and the barbell is loaded for a 2kg PR snatch attempt. The weightlifter follows the same routine as she did with each warm-up attempt. Chalk-up, deep breath, grab the bar, set focal point, and lift. The first PR attempt is a miss in front. She throws the stank eye at her coach, but tries to hide her frustration. After a few quick coaching tips, she sits down to gather herself before a second attempt. On the bench, her training partner tries to keep the atmosphere light, and reminds her that it’s just two extra kilos. Her training partner jokes, “Two kilos is nothing. Klokov can hang two kilos on his d—” before she can finish, the rest timer dings and it’s time for a second attempt. She sets up with the same routine. This time, a stronger and more aggressive pull, but she misses behind. She knows exactly what she’s done wrong, and without looking to her coach walks directly out of the gym to gather her thoughts and reset her mind. She knows that when she walks back in, she’s going to approach the barbell with confidence and stick the lift. Third time’s a charm. She pulls on a third attempt, and as the bar spits her out the back, the frustration starts to show. Like word vomit, there’s nothing she can do to stop it. It’s the no-holds-barred ugly-crying, expletive-laced, foot-stomping, belt-throwing adult temper tantrum. As she’s losing her cool her training partner chides, “don’t get too high, don’t get too low.” Head hung in frustration, shame, and disappointment, she gathers herself, makes notes in her training log, and promises herself that she’ll defeat that weight next time.
A weightlifter fights the barbell every day. Some days the lifter wins, but more often than not she leaves the platform defeated by the barbell, still chasing that extra kilo, still dreaming about the PR that’s evaded her for months.
The same thrill that sucked the lifter into the sport — the sense of gratification that comes from doing something she couldn’t do the day before — becomes less and less frequent the longer she spends lifting. She’s spending more hours than ever on the platform, but seeing fewer PRs as the months go by. Some days, weights that typically feel smooth as peanut butter feel like they’re being held to the ground by electromagnets. She longs for the excitement that comes with hitting a PR lift, and will do anything to remember what that feels like.
Weightlifting requires an insane amount of intrinsic motivation, and a level of persistence that borders on obsession. Without that persistence, that insatiable hunger for bigger weights, it would be easy to throw in the towel.
The weightlifter has to accept the fact that not every day, month, or even year will bring a PR. Consistency and persistence through these hard times will bring back the familiar PR feels. Here are a few rules to follow to break through that plateau.
Rule number one when chasing a PR: Eliminate negativity and HAVE FUN. With very few exceptions, weightlifters don’t train to support their families or make a living. Weightlifting is a hobby, and as long as that’s true, it should be fun! Training partners and the training atmosphere should be uplifting, lighthearted, and positive. Yes, focus is key to making lifts. But it’s possible to focus, remain positive, and have fun at the same time. If the lifter gets upset when her training partner plays T-Swift’s “Shake It Off” after a missed lift, it’s time for her to take the stick out of her ass and start having fun.
The second and perhaps most important rule when going for a PR: Never take more than three attempts. In a competition, the lifter has three attempts. Her training should mimic what will happen on the competition platform. Allowing only three attempts at a given weight in training helps to develop consistency, confidence, and routine. Under physical and mental fatigue technique will start to breakdown, pushing that PR further out of reach for the day. Likewise, if the lifter takes ten cracks at a snatch PR, she’s not going to have much left for clean & jerks that day. Rather than having only one sub-par lift, she’ll end up with two because she spent so much energy on those max effort snatch attempts. Don’t get greedy — limit PR attempts to three per training session.
Rule number three: Trust the process. Maybe it’s not time for that PR yet. Maybe the goal of the training cycle is to build strength or dial in technique. Maybe the training plan is written as “build to heavy single” as opposed to “build to max” because coach knows a given day isn’t going to bring an all-time PR, even if the rest of the country is doing max-out Friday. The lifter needs to focus on her own training, keep training, get stronger, and that PR will happen when it’s meant to happen. All the challenging hours spent training will pay off. And ideally, that PR will happen on the competition platform. But if it doesn’t, she’ll have a big bowl of post-comp ice cream, lace up her shoes, and keep lifting, because she loves the thrill of the chase.
Elisa is a gymnast-turned-weightlifter and full-time coach living in Colorado. A previous career in the Air Force let her travel to several countries and experience different cultures. Now, she uses weightlifting and snowboarding as excuses to travel and see more of the world. Her aim as a coach is to introduce others to the same confidence, physical strength, and mental awareness she found through weightlifting.