Functional Fitness Workouts Work But Don’t Sleep On Isolation Exercises


Sean Waxman

Sean is the head coach and owner of Waxman’s Gym. He’s been a professional coach for nearly 25 years, a national-level competitive weightlifter, and a graduate-level student of kinesiology and biomechanics. Since opening Waxman’s Gym in 2010, Sean has developed two top-ten finishers at the World Championships, a World University Championship Silver medalist, a Pan Am Championship Silver medalist, and two Pan Am Championship team members. In addition, Sean has developed more than two dozen national-level weightlifters with three National Champions and seven national medalists. Moreover, Sean’s lifters have produced four American records, nine international medals, and nearly two-dozen national medals. Sean has also worked with CrossFitters of all levels including Regionals and Games athletes. When not developing competitive weightlifters and CrossFitters, Sean works with athletes of all skill levels from a wide range of sports to help them develop great skill, strength and power. Sean also has a great passion for helping other coaches learn to teach/coach weightlifting. Sean is currently a Director on the Board of USA Weightlifting, a USA Weightlifting Lead Instructor for Coaching Education, and the former President of the Southern California chapter of USA Weightlifting.

// Here is Why Isolation Exercises  for weightlifters Shouldn’t be Overlooked

Over the past decade or so, the term “functional fitness” has proved to have staying power. There are some things to like about it. Movements that translate to real-world scenarios. Applicable to a wide range of sports. Functional fitness workouts are definitely an efficient way to build strength as well. That said, isolation exercises for weightlifters and single joint exercises have received such a bad reputation that they’ve fallen out of favor. 

When I was still competing, my old-school coach gave me a steady diet of snatches and clean and jerks. We also worked classic exercises like front and back squats, but beyond that, the routine was, well, pretty routine. As a result, it could get pretty boring at times. Don’t get me wrong – I loved doing the two Olympic lifts and still do. While you don’t want too much randomness for your lifters, some planned variety is useful to keep things fresh. It creates a hunger to return to the snatch and clean and jerk.

It might surprise you to know that high-level lifters still include movements that raise eyebrows in functional fitness circles. I’m talking about guys and girls who compete at the Pan-Am Games, World Championships, and Olympics. Now let’s take a look at why I program isolation exercises and single joint exercises for my athletes.

Being Physical and Building Endurance

A core component of our “General Preparation” block here at Waxman’s Gym is to be physical. This is one of three main training blocks I utilize throughout the year. The other two are “Special preparation” and “Competition”. Beginning a four-year Olympic cycle with elite competitors, the road to greater capacity starts with getting outside and getting active. This can mean playing basketball or soccer. Going outside and running. Anything else that they might have fun with. This will challenge various energy systems, and will get them into different positions. 

From there, we move inside and start to build their strength and endurance. They will do some clean and jerks and snatches, but it isn’t time to make this the focus yet. We’ll start circuit training and also do some high volume, multi-exercise sets with timed rest. This is a great time to mix in some isolation exercises and single joint exercises. In this block there are specific physiological qualities we’re aiming for. We want to build a base of strength and cardiovascular endurance to handle the rigors of the next two blocks. At this point we’re not pushing the intensity very high, but rather using high density. 

Be warned against doing too much volume, as this can predicate an athlete to injury and eventually burn them out. In this general prep phase, the volume of each set is comparatively higher than the singles, doubles, and sometimes triples we’ll do in the main lifts. We’ll typically see rep counts around 10 to 12, and occasionally higher if necessary, but don’t push it.

Tweaking Work-to-Rest Ratios

Once we move past doing circuits, the lifters will have a short break between each set. The trick here is giving sufficient recovery time while keeping the quality of work high. We also want to maintain the density needed to boost their endurance. So over the course of a three to five-week General Preparation block, I’ll start decreasing their rest periods gradually. We might start with 90 seconds and finish with just 45 or even 30 seconds. The goal is to perform the same amount of work, or more, with less rest between each set. This creates greater efficiency and helps them build a bigger engine. Once we get to the Special Preparation block, they’re going to need it. We can also mimic the need to put in a big effort multiple times in succession as competition requires. 

The General Preparation block must be measurable so we can find out what’s working and what’s not. One way to do this is by looking at the quality work being done. The lifts don’t need to be as technically sound as the snatch and clean and jerk. But only good quality work should be performed. Then we use heart rate monitoring to assess the athletes’ endurance, which we want to see progressing. This technology also gives us some insight into the resting heart rate. As a lifter gets in better condition, they recover faster. They can also get their BPM back down to the resting rate quicker than when we began. At least that’s the theory. If we see numbers stay stagnant or go the wrong direction a signal goes off to make an adjustment and re-test.

Finding the Sweet Spot

Speaking of recovery, it’s also important that athletes bounce back from session to session. We can’t have lifters doing too much and getting hurt because at the elite level that’s a killer. You have to put together week after week and month after month of training. Hard training, five to six days a week. This requires durability and our programming in the General Prep block reflects this need. We want to push our athletes just hard enough so they achieve adaptation, and no further. 

Countries that followed systematic doping programs saw one great advantage. Steroids and other PEDs facilitated faster and more complete regeneration. I’m not saying this was a good thing ethically, but the results were evident. Our challenge in a country that outlaws such cheating must find ways to recreate the physiological effects of PEDs. This makes the combination of thoughtful programming that includes intentionally timed recovery and getting adequate rest between training days essential.

General Prep Tune-Ups

General Preparation is not only the foundation to the other two blocks, we also implement it throughout the training year. The aim here is to ensure that fitness levels remain high no matter what. Over the years I’ve experimented with different timing for this intermittent general prep. I’ve found the sweet spot to be introducing a one-week mini block every 45 to 55 days. 

In addition, we have our lifters perform supplemental exercises throughout the year which include isolation exercises and single joint exercises. The training during our Special Preparation and Competition blocks is unilateral. For example, we’ll do clean and jerks twice or three times a week. Same with snatches, and then we’ll add in fairly heavy front, back, and overhead squats. This allows us to add in isolation exercises without pushing the overall volume or training load too high.

Yes, Weightlifters Sometimes Do Curls

Olympic lifts and squatting involve a lot of leg work (literally). Therefore, we don’t do an awful lot of supplemental lower body work. It’s mostly focused on the upper body. Athletes will do variations of upright and bent over rows, shrugs, pulls, triceps extensions, and yes, even curls (sue me!). Lat pulldowns, dips, DB bench presses, plate raises, and floor presses are also in the mix. We’ll add in some triceps pushdowns, dead bugs, and heavy bar walk-outs as well. “But Sean, these exercises aren’t ‘functional’ and don’t improve the clean and jerk or snatch” I hear you say. Perhaps not directly. But they do help strengthen muscles that support those lifts and also improve joint integrity. So they do indirectly improve athletes’ abilities to perform the Olympic lifts. 

Combining these movements with the “Big Two” or, in the general prep phase, making them the focal point of high density training, delivers big time in terms of general fitness, cardiovascular capacity, and building a baseline that sets us up well for successive training phases. So maybe you might want to reconsider some of those supplemental lifts and ponder the notion that although they’re not “functional” as some people might define the term, they can still be a useful tool to have in your coaching bag of tricks.

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