[1-29-2020 - I've updated this article for all the changes and new procedures for USAW]
This month, I decided to provide a simple guide to starting a weightlifting team. More and more interest is developing in weightlifting competition, and the process can seem mysterious to those who have not yet been exposed to it. This article should help get you started.
The process may vary a bit depending on where you live, but it will likely be similar to how it works in the US. USA Weightlifting governs the sport in the US under IWF rules and oversees and sanctions all competition and clubs. In order to create a new club (team), you need to have at least one USAW certified coach with current background check. Log into your USAW membership account and click the "Add Club" link on the left.
All of your lifters will need to be current USAW members to compete in sanctioned meets. They can register for memberships on the USAW website, and once logged into their accounts, can select your club. If they're new lifters, they simply add themselves; if they're currently registered with another club, the process will be a transfer which the current and new club presidents must approve (this is all automated and each president will receive an email to accept or decline the transfer).
How you administer your team beyond this is entirely up to you. For example, you can charge fees for your lifters to train with you, or you can allow them to train for free. Do what works for your situation.
Facility & Equipment
The very first thing you need to consider before finding a location and outfitting a gym is that the sport of weightlifting is not going to make you rich, and to be blunt, is unlikely to make you much if any money at all. Don't approach starting a team or a gym with the illusion that it's going to be lucrative. Start small and cheap and grow according to need. Rent space in someone else's gym when you can, don't over-commit financially or time-wise, and do the math before you start - how much do you need to make monthly to be solvent, how many lifters does that mean, and what's your plan to ensure you can make that happen relatively quickly?
There are a few requirements in terms of your facility and equipment for running a weightlifting team: You must have at least one barbell, one set of bumpers and change, and once space in which to lift them. Of course, this minimal setup will not work well if you have more than one or two lifters at any given time. What gear and space you have should be dependent on the size of your team (or the size you wish it to be), how competitive the team is (or you plan to make it), and your budget.
More than likely, you’ll be running your lifting team out of a facility that provides space for things other than weightlifting. You may have to share space and equipment, and this may impact what you use. If you’re fortunate enough to run an exclusive lifting facility, you’ll obviously have more options.
Lifters can share platforms and share bars. It’s reasonable to have three lifters on a single 8’x8’ platform with 2-3 bars (or sharing 1-2 bars if needed) as long as there is space for the resting lifters to get out of the way. Of course, you can make more lifters work, but there will be a lot of weight-changing to be done. As long as all your lifters are good about helping each other out with such things, this shouldn’t be a problem. The nature of weightlifting is that there are typically significant rest periods between sets, which allows other lifters to work in without disrupting other lifters’ training.
If you have female lifters, you need to invest in women’s barbells. There is no way around it. Any competition they enter will use a women’s bar, and they need to be prepared for it. Like with barbells in general, you don’t necessarily need to have as many women’s bars as you have women, but you do need at least one.
How much money you spend on your equipment will depend on how much you have to spend, how serious your athletes are, and how long term you want your investment to be. If you have a team comprised exclusively of local-level competitors and recreational lifters, there’s really no need for top of the line gear (although there’s nothing wrong with having it either). If you have a team with nationally competitive lifters, it’s important for them to be training on better bars.
Although bars from Eleiko, Werksan, Uesaka and the like are quite expensive ($700-900), they will quite literally last a lifetime, and will out perform any other bar for this entire time. You can save money up front by purchasing less expensive bars, but they absolutely will not spin and whip as well even when new, they will likely bend permanently over time, and their spin will deteriorate as they age. If used long enough, these bars will need to be replaced eventually. Replace a $400 barbell once, and you’ve already spent what you would have on a top-level bar that would have been working better for you the whole time.
Of course, you don’t need to outfit your entire gym with the same gear. You may decide to set it up with more economical bars and buy one top end bar for your most competitive lifter(s) to use.
If you’re going to spend the money on nicer bars, you’ll also want to get bumpers of similar quality. Cheaper bumpers will fit too loosely on the bar and be both a pain to deal with during training and also hard on the bar. Of course, cheaper bumpers will be fine with cheaper bars. But like cheaper bars, cheaper bumpers don't last as long and are more prone to cracking and other problems.
Metal change plates are not exactly high-tech pieces of equipment, and this is an easy place to save some money. The only difference between more and less expensive plates will be how accurate the weights are, and any deviations in cheaper plates won’t be anything noticeable. You don't need friction plates, so if you need to save some money, this is an easy way to do so.
Your weights and bars should be in kilograms, not pounds. All lifting competition in the world uses kilos—constantly converting pounds to kilos and back is unnecessarily aggravating. Of course, if you’re already outfitted with pound gear, weight is weight and you can still get just as strong with it. But do yourself a favor and don’t mix pound and kilo gear—you may think you’re smart enough to do the calculations now, but take my word for it that you’ll think differently in the middle of your workout.
After your barbell setups, you need places to lift them. Ideal are wooden platforms with rubber landing surfaces for the bumpers. The typical training platform is 8’x8’ and is extremely easy to build
relatively inexpensively. Lifting can be done on just rubber gym matting, but many athletes will find the difference in feel significant enough to be disruptive when suddenly lifting on wood in a meet.
Next you’ll need at least one squat rack. Coaches and athletes may disagree on accessory exercises for weightlifters, but no one argues about the necessity of squatting regularly. There are many types of racks—as long as they will hold as much weight as your strongest lifter will be using, choose whatever rack you like and fits your budget. Lighter weight, portable racks are a good choice so they can be moved out of the way when not being used.
Finally, make sure you have good chalk and lots of it. Talcum powder is not chalk, and it does not work like chalk. Don’t try to fool anyone with it. You can buy bulk broken chalk blocks from gymnastics suppliers that will last you a very long time and cost less than you can imagine.
Lifter Recruitment & Retention
Finding weightlifters is the toughest part of running a team. Parents are not signing their kids up for weightlifting like soccer, football, baseball, basketball and gymnastics. Schools don’t expose kids to the lifts, let alone the sport. Many people are convinced lifting weights is dangerous (yet send their little tikes onto a football field with little or no reservation).
This is where creativity and ambition play a huge role. Find ways to get in touch with the type of athletes you’re interested in recruiting. If you want a team of adult professionals, you’ll end up approaching it in essentially the same way you’d promote fitness training and similar business endeavors. If you’re looking for youth lifters, you’ll need to go after both them and their parents, and possibly their coaches from other sports they’re involved in. The kids need to be interested; the parents need to be willing; and the coaches need to be cooperative. This can be quite a challenge.
Take good care of the lifters you have, first because you should anyway or you shouldn't be coaching, but second because they will be your best recruiting assets, especially for youth and junior lifters. If they have fun and are successful, others around them will notice, and they'll want to tell people about it and bring their friends and siblings.
Programming for your team can be as simple or complicated as you want to make it, although at some point, some degree of complexity will become unavoidable. With a small group of recreational or local-level competitive lifters, you can get away with a single program for the team. This is a smart approach because it will save you a lot of time and stress, and it’s easy to make quick modifications to address specific problems each lifter has when necessary. It’s completely justifiable to not completely individualize programming for athletes at this level.
As individual lifters progress, it will become increasingly necessary to program specifically. In part this is due to competition scheduling, and in greater part to the need to work on both technical and physical weaknesses.
Multiple programs can be simplified by converging schedules as much as possible. Writing multiple programs is not terribly difficult, but it can become overwhelming when you have 10 different cycles starting and ending at different times. Obviously your recreational lifters can be kept on the same schedule by being kept on the same program. You local-level competitors can be kept on the same schedule even if you decide to individualize programming to some extent. This can work even if not all of your athletes will lift at a given meet. If your facility is staffed adequately or you can change the training schedule by a day, the non-competing lifters can finish their cycles either on the same day as the meet, or possibly the day before or after. The recreational lifters’ program can be made to align with this schedule as well.
National level lifters will likely be on a totally different schedule based around the American Open and National Championships, and possibly around other events to be used as qualifiers for certain teams, rather than the local meet schedule. Again, it’s helpful to time cycles for these lifters together even if the programs themselves are different. This isn’t always possible, but it’s worth making the effort.
A lot of coaches use my training programs
with or without modification (or credit). That's what they're for, just don't post them publicly or pretend they're your own.
Experiment & Improve
There will always be an element of experimentation involved in coaching. Embrace it and take advantage of it. Don’t ignore the results of your coaching and programming and promotion—use them to shape your future choices in a way that helps your lifters improve, your team growing, and keeps you sane and functioning.