There Is No Summer Vacation for Olympic Lifters

Don’t lose nine months of training because you took three months to goof off.

Unlike many other sports, there is no real well-defined off-season in weightlifting. As soon as any competition, big or small, is over, most athletes take a week or two to transition and start cycling up for the next one. Even if no events are scheduled for the summer, training still goes on. But that’s not how things have always been.

Back in the 1950s, it was not unheard of to see the sport shut down completely for the summer months. Lifting the weights was thought of as a winter activity only. This was especially true in my home country of Canada, where a shorter summer was something to be treasured and spent outdoors. We didn’t have many Muscle Beach-type set-ups, so all training was done indoors. Needless to say, progress came to a halt every June and even had deteriorated during the summer. In an age when there was little emphasis on elite lifting or even any knowledge of how to get there, this was the norm. And when everyone else took the summer off as well, you didn’t lose much relative position.

Even if no events are scheduled for the summer, training still goes on. [Photo courtesy of Jorge Huerta Photography]

The Shift to Bodybuilding and Powerlifting

But of course, that could not last. As weightlifting got more competitive, the luxury of a summer layoff was no longer available, for the better lifters at least. If we did not pack away the barbells completely, we often settled on a different training regime in the warmer months. In those long-ago decades, the demarcation between bodybuilding and weightlifting was not as distinctly drawn as it is now. Many old-time lifters used July and August to pump up their biceps or do some supersets. This was all done in the belief that remedial bodybuilding would help one’s lifting. No less a lifter than Tommy Kono practiced this to great success, so at least we were in good company in those days.

Others would shift over to powerlifting, also expecting this would eventually help their Olympic totals. Extra work on the bench press, squat, and deadlift probably didn’t hurt the non-elite lifters much. Lifters can all use a little bit of extra absolute strength, and the power lifts certainly helped there. This time allowed lifters to unload from the quick lifts and move to something totally different, thus providing some stress relief. But with the arrival of more sophisticated coaching, these forays into our sister-sports are no longer considered optimal today.

By the 1970s, East European periodized programming was becoming known to us just as the Olympic press was eliminated. Bench presses were now taboo, especially for those with shoulder flexibility problems. We still squatted because in those days there was not much difference between an Olympic and a power squat (or if there was, we did not know what it was). As for the deadlift, we gladly replaced that killer with its faster cousin, the high-pull. Summer was still a time to work on our strength and power. The only difference now was that the lifts had changed. It was now always squats and pulls, squats and pulls.

Summer Training Today

All of this however presupposes that summer will be the calendar’s down-time. This was certainly true many decades ago when very few local events were held at that time, but this no longer holds true. Summer has never been a downtime for our most elite level athletes as that is when the Olympics, Commonwealth, and Pan-American Games are usually held. If anything, their training picked up in anticipation of these events. Because of this, there is no real slack-off in the summer. The Senior World Championships are held in the late fall, but that still means that serious training has to be well underway by summer. The Masters World Championships are generally held in late summer, so there’s certainly no rest even for the older lifters. In today’s competitive sport environment, even the pro athletes are lifting all summer.

Though you might not get any downtime this summer, you can increase your focus in the following areas:

Flexibility and Mobility: A good place to start is with the problem of flexibility mentioned above. Summer is an opportune time to work on joint mobility. Warmer weather makes this a little bit easier, although there are some pitfalls.

Body Weight: For those who need to move up in body weight, summer was (and is still) seen as the ideal time to do so. There often are several months between competitions, enough time to gradually adjust to a new bodyweight without having a competition interfere with the process.

Recovery: Closely related to the need for accumulating strength and power is the need to recover from nagging injuries. This is especially true for injuries that are not serious enough to put an athlete on the injured list. The summer or off-season is a time to rehab these injuries and let them heal in time for the coming competitive season.

A Few Words of Caution

A few cautions are in order about warming up in the summertime. When the thermometer climbs, it certainly is a lot easier to get your body warm. While this can cut down on the warm-up time needed, it can also conceal some dangers. The main pitfall is that you may not get your muscles stretched out as much as they should. You feel the sweat running down your back and just assume that you’re all warmed up when only your body temperature has risen. You can pull a muscle in 100 degree heat, just as easily as you could in your cold cellar gym back in December.

As you might imagine, maintaining hydration is going to be much more important in the summertime. Dry and humid climates will both sap your energy and dangerously lower your body fluid levels if you do not replenish the body with lots of water. Keep a water or sport drink cooler in your gym, and keep it filled. Try to get the low sugar versions, as the sweeter versions marketed to the public only encourage excessive drinking.

Your Summer Reassessment

Your summer training will depend primarily on your goals for the rest of the year. Regardless, it’s a good time to reassess. Most summer trainees want to increase their size, strength, and power, and many are using the time to recover from injuries and work on their flexibility. Volume and intensity may vary a bit from the competitive season, but not by much.

One thing that does not happen much anymore is any degree of slacking off. Training must be programmed just as meticulously during these times as it is in the months before your main competition of the year. Don’t lose nine months of training because you took three months to goof off.

Now get back to the gym. (But take some time to enjoy the summer!)

For those newer to weightlifting:

The Olympic Weightlifting Primer

Something for coaches:

Give Your Knowledge Away

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