The Soviet Weightlifting System has produced a lot of champions. China, Bulgaria, Cuba, Kazakhstan, and many other countries have modeled their weightlifting systems after the Soviets, also producing some of the most legendary weightlifters in the world.
So what is the Soviet/Russian weightlifting “system”?
I’ve read about this topic online, heard it in conversation and have probably used the term myself. But when I actually try to define what the Soviet Weightlifting System is – I get stuck.
I decided it’s about time to dig deeper and do some research on the topic by asking some of the most successful Russian weightlifters and coaches for their input.
The following is paraphrased and translated, and I must preface it with this: Perspective changes the definition of anything. If you ask a student to define what the school system is – they will have a very different answer than that of a teacher or a school principle. To that end, I tried to capture two very different perspectives on what is the Soviet Weightlifting System – one from the perspective of an athlete, and another from a coach.
I asked Vasiliy Polovnikov to share his thoughts, as he was a direct product of the Russian Weightlifting system. His response was that a weightlifting system is not technique. It’s not programming. It’s not any one thing. The system is the entire process.
Compare it to a religion. A religion has a set of rules and disciplines that get passed from one generation to the next. Every religion has its own rules on how things should be done, from what you can and can’t eat, to how you should behave and live your life.
Like a religion, the weightlifting system has rules for everything. It starts with how young athletes should be raised, what lessons they should be taught, to how they should behave in the gym. They must learn the proper etiquette with the coach, with the bar, with their peers. The system includes a training theory for all ages. It’s the religion of weightlifting.
Next, I asked Boris Sheiko, one of the most decorated powerlifting coaches of all time and the former head coach of the Kazakhstan Junior and School Age Weightlifting team.
Like with Polovnikov, I asked Sheiko to define what the Soviet/Russian Weightlifting System was. After a few days, he responded to me saying that I had posed quite a challenging question. He said he wanted to research the question further himself. He searched through the Russian internet for concrete definitions of the system, and had found nothing that was particularly relevant or accurate. He then looked through books, including those of Roman, Vorobyov, Chernyak, Medvedyev, and other authors, but was unable to find anything definitive there either. I shared with him what Polovnikov had said.
Sheiko replied: “Well, if we’re talking specifically about an athletic system of training and preparation in Russia, then it’s this…”
The weightlifting system is the system by which athletes are developed from a young age.
The Soviet Weightlifting System (now the Russian Weightlifting System) is actually part of the school system that starts at a young age. Young athletes who want to pursue a career in weightlifting can join a school with a focus or concentration on sports (kind of like a major). As with any other focused education, students must get a general education in addition to their selected focus.
The first phase of their education is in the sports school, when the kids are 10-12 years old. This is like an elementary school. They are taught a general curriculum appropriate for students at this age. In addition, they do general physical exercises (70% of the work) and technique development (30%) to begin their training.
When the young athletes turn 12, if they are capable of lifting enough weight in competition then they can advance to the next phase of their training and join a Group for Beginning Preparation. In this group, they have a dedicated coach for a group of 12-15 kids. More of their time is spent on weightlifting, and their education is more focused on weightlifting.
In every subsequent year, if they can lift enough then they advance to the next tier group. Higher tiers are more prestigious, have fewer athletes, and are more weightlifting focused. They devote more hours to training as well as academic subjects that are pertinent to being successful weightlifters – biomechanics, nutrition and anatomy.
Below is a chart showing the 4 groups, their sizes, age requirements, how much time they must spend on training, and the requirements they must fulfil to advance to the next grade or group.
The last column, Requirements in physical and technical proficiency, is based on the Russian Weightlifting classification system. For each weight category, there are levels or ranks you can achieve by lifting a minimal total in competition. By the end of every school year, athletes must lift the minimal amount shown in the chart to advance to the following year.
For every group, and every year, there is a set schedule, and a curriculum. The chart below outlines how many hours should be spent in every month on theory, general physical exercises, on strength and technique training and on learning how to coach and judge. This chart below is specifically for the 3rd year of the athletic training group.
In addition to the planned training schedule, the athletes go to classes, and over the course of their education become professionals of the sport. In their curriculums, they study psychology, physiology, anatomy, biomechanics, nutrition, and sport-specific theory and history. Their coaches and teachers teach them lessons on morals, respect, and how to behave in the gym and in the world.
That’s the systematic approach by which weightlifters are raised in Russia.
I started this post by trying to research and understand what it means when someone refers to the Soviet/Russian Weightlifting System. What is it about this ‘system’ that has produced so many weightlifting greats? After getting some perspective from Polovnikov and Sheiko, I now have a clearer understanding of what a weightlifting system is.
Over the span of decades, through research and trial and error, the Soviet/Russian weightlifting community has developed a collection of academic knowledge, as well as cultural, physical, and psychological attributes required for weightlifters to be successful. These attributes and the systematic process of developing them is the weightlifting system. This is what’s given Russia the ability to have some of the strongest and most successful athletes of all time.