There are a lot of ways to train, innumerable programs to follow, a tsunami of exercise science to surf, and widely varying (and often conflicting) philosophies, theories and pet notions to consider when you are setting up a program. I’ve waded through most of it and experimented on myself and many lifters. I’ve distilled all I’ve learned down into a couple things I think are true: you get strong by lifting as heavy as possible, as often as possible; strength is a practice, especially in weightlifting.
Strength is often spoken of generally, but it is always applied specifically. That is, you don’t do “strong.” You do a deadlift or a clean or a back squat, a very specific expression of strength. That is a complex series of neurological and muscular actions. The more a specific application of strength is practiced, the better you get at it.
But specificity is not simply expressed in an observable action. It is also expressed as a specific motor recruitment pattern and speed. Those recruitment patterns and speeds are as specific as the observable action and vary with the weight on the bar. So to be as specific as possible in your practice of strength, you need to duplicate as often as possible what you want to specifically do. And what we want to do in weightlifting is get as much weight as possible overhead in the snatch and clean & jerk.
Doing the competitive lifts with lower weights can be used to focus on developing speed or trying to ingrain a motor pattern at weights that are more easily controlled in the learning process, but once the technique has been “roughed in” there is little use for weights below 90% but for warmup, technique refinement or speed work. To lift heavy weights with technique that actually applies to heavy weights, you need to lift heavy weights as often as you can stand.
That means weights at or above 90%. These weights do not move like 80% or 85%. They don’t behave like lighter weights or feel like lighter weights. They demand more precision, more speed under the bar. They demand more patience in the pull and the most of your athletic ability. 85% ain’t 95% and never will be. You can do hundreds of reps at 80% or 85%, endless doubles and triples, and it doesn’t really mean shit when you get to 90%+ weights in the snatch and clean & jerk.
Lifting this heavy, as often as you’d need to get very good at it, is quite stressful. It is not for beginners. But far too many intermediate level lifters get stuck at the beginner stage, doing doubles and triples in the belief that they’ll continue to progress like they did early on. The truth is that just about anything will work with a beginner. But beyond that point you’re spinning your wheels with doubles and triples in the competitive lifts. If you look at the most successful programs, most do 90%+ very often.
The best things in life come one at a time. Ever hear anyone wish to meet their soul mates? Start thinking of the Olympic lifts that way, one at a time and heavy, because no one gives a shit what your PR triple is.