Few sports adhere to the so-called “10,000-hour rule” like Olympic lifting. While your technique certainly matters a great deal for every exercise you do in the gym, the nature of the snatch and clean & jerk in particular — weightlifting’s two competitive disciplines — commands your respect and attention.
What, then, should you do if you only have one day per week to work on your skills (or strength)? Nearly all weightlifting programs rely on moderate to high-frequency training. If you want to get better at the sport while also working under a time constraint, you’re going to have to get creative.
Fortunately, there are ways to “hack” the system and make progress without stepping on the weightlifting platform three, four, or five times per week. Here’s how to get the most out of your limited time in the gym.
How to Do Weightlifting Once Per Week
How You Got Here
Life does tend to get in the way from time to time. You may even be sidelined by a temporary injury.
A Busy Schedule
For most recreational lifters, an unpredictable or hectic schedule is one of the main factors that can affect a gymgoing routine. After all, work and/or one’s home life (usually) takes precedence over lifting weights.
In the event that your training plan is thrown into chaos by a change to your schedule, rest assured that you can still salvage things and continue towards your goals. That said, you’ll have to be willing to make some concessions when you do arrive at the gym.
Not everyone places the gym on the back burner because they have to. You shouldn’t feel guilty if you decide to partake in other forms of exercise or get outdoors more during the warm summer months.
Strength training, whether you practice Olympic lifting or go to a “regular” gym to get in shape, should add to your life, not detract from it. There’s no harm in occasionally deprioritizing your weightlifting practice if you want to use that time to improve your health in other ways.
Unfortunately, one of the most common contributing factors to a training plan gone awry are injuries or sports-related illnesses. While you are by no means sentenced to suffering an injury just because you lift weights, most dedicated weightlifters will experience some form of physical accident here and there, especially at the higher levels of the sport. (1)
It is worth noting, though, that weightlifting-specific injury rates are low compared to that of most track, field, or court sports. A large portion of Olympic lifting injuries are also caused by way of chronic overuse rather than specific traumatic incidents. (2)
The Once-Per-Week Weightlifting Workout
Weightlifting is never easy, but it’s a lot easier to get good at it when you have all the time in the world to train and practice. If you want to move in the direction of progress under a severe time constraint (such as only having one day per week to devote to the barbell), something will have to give.
Fortunately, designing a program under the guise of limited gym time does come with a silver lining. You have to confront your own needs and really prioritize the exercises, sets, and reps that give you the most bang for your buck.
If you’re a chronic program-hopper or always feel the need to add just one more accessory movement to an already-bloated training plan, having only one day in the gym could provide some much-needed clarity.
The overwhelming majority of Olympic lifting workouts are centered squarely on the snatch and clean & jerk. As such, those two movements will also have to be the centerpieces of your one day in the gym.
This workout represents a general approach to single-day training for weightlifting. Your best bet is to pack in as much sport-specific work as you can, and include movements that address your weaknesses.
Note: Weightlifting programming is highly individualized, even at a beginner level. The specific sets and reps will depend on your unique needs (or the discretion of your coach if you have one).
You should also consider performing exercises that you can only do in a weightlifting facility, such as max-effort singles or block work. What you might notice is that your one-day routine looks remarkably similar to the kind of workout you’d perform close to a competition.
Training weightlifting on a tight schedule and preparing for a meet have a lot in common. Both approaches require you to trim down fluff and frills from your program so you can focus on what really affects your performance.
With that in mind, you’ll have to get comfortable working on both the snatch and clean & jerk in the same day until such time that you can revert to a more “traditional” training schedule.
How to Progress
It’s perfectly possible to make headway on your technique, endurance, and even strength while training once per week. You should, however, recognize that you may not make as much progress as someone who trains more frequently.
Olympic lifting is extremely skill-intensive. The form and posture of the two competitive lifts each take years to master, so the more often you practice, the more quickly you develop your technique.
With only one weekly session on the table, then, you should be hyper-diligent about your form and prioritize technique to a greater degree than you otherwise would. If you only have one chance per week to notice (and fix) a technical error, it becomes of the utmost importance.
Conversely, you should have an easier time improving your strength, even if you’re saddled with only one weekly workout. Strength is specific — lifting a lot of weight on the bench press won’t necessarily carry over to your jerk — but you can bring up your numbers in accessory movements and see some of those gains translate to the main lifts themselves.
Keys to Success
A productive once-per-week weightlifting routine probably won’t look as familiar as other, more standard plans. You should also be prepared to reframe your definition of success to a certain degree.
Still, there are things you can do both in and out of the gym to ensure you’re making the most of your time when you do have a bar in your hands.
Be Prepared to Train Hard
It goes without saying, but a once-weekly weightlifting workout is going to be hard. To make up for lower training frequency, you’ll have to up on your volume and intensity on the day you do make it onto the platform.
Fortunately, some research supports the idea that those two variables more strongly influence strength adaptations than training frequency does. (3) If your technique is on point, you should be able to add kilos to your barbell.
Warm Up Thoroughly
A hard and heavy training session requires a comprehensive, full-body warm-up. The last thing you want to do is squander your one weekly opportunity to make progress by neglecting your soft tissues or not mobilizing certain joints.
You may feel tempted to rush through your warm-up and get right to the “real” work, but doing so is foolhardy. Your workout is only as good as the warm-up that precedes it.
Bring a Snack
Intra-workout nutrition works well for some and can be downright detrimental to others — it all depends on your stomach. That said, if you’re saddling up for a big Saturday training session, you might want to bring something to snack on.
There’s an exhaustive amount of research on the impact of intra-workout carbohydrate intake on athletes. Modern research reviews note that carbs ingested during your workout don’t directly correlate to strength gains, but they may increase performance in certain contexts.
Namely, if your workout exceeds 10 hard sets per session, or the duration is particularly long. (4) Both scenarios apply to a single weekly weightlifting workout.
Practice at Home
You might only have access to a barbell and some bumper plates at your gym, but you can still develop better technique in the comfort of your own home. If you can’t make it to the platform multiple times per week, consider picking up a dowel or PVC pipe.
You can run through some slow and methodical drills in your living room or garage to help you stay sharp for your upcoming workout.
Even if you can’t make it to your weightlifting gym more often than once per week, you should still be able to exercise elsewhere regularly. You can use your time in a commercial or home gym to get some “bonus” weightlifting-specific training in.
There are plenty of exercises which are safe to perform at home (provided you have the right equipment) or in a commercial facility that also carry over to your weightlifting performance. Think of your push presses, loaded carries, upright rows, and all manner of posterior chain work.
Best Accessory Exercises for Low-Frequency Weightlifting
Maximizing the value of your off-the-platform training is the key to making progress when you can only snatch or jerk once per week.
What you may lack in high-frequency technical practice, you can make up for by addressing muscular weaknesses and hammering your accessory work hard. Rest assured — you’ll notice the difference on the platform.
The push press is great for developing coordination between your lower body and upper limbs, as well as perfecting the cadence of your dip-and-drive motion. Most importantly, you can do push presses in a commercial gym out of a squat rack. There’s no need for bumper plates if you simply re-rack the bar between sets.
Check out our guide on how to do the push press.
Most gyms have a designated area in which you can work with a barbell resting on the floor. As long as you have full-sized circular plates, you can refine the first half of your snatch by performing deadlifts from the floor. Just be mindful to not habitually drop the weights at the top of each rep.
Check out our guide on how to do the snatch-grip deadlift.
The Sots press is revered (and feared) among weightlifters in equal measure for how effective — and humbling — it is. The best part? You don’t need weights at all to reap the benefits it provides.
Sink into a deep squat and press an empty bar overhead to replicate the catch posture of your snatch. You can build comfort and stability in the bottom of the overhead squat, increase muscular coordination, and more, without even having to load the bar up.
Check out our guide on how to do the Sots Press.
Hang Muscle Clean (or Snatch)
The limitations of most commercial facilities make it impractical to work from the floor or drop weights from overhead. You can sidestep both issues by performing hang “muscle” variations of both the clean and snatch.
Hang muscle cleans will give you one heck of an upper back pump, help you develop the role of your arms in the clean, and improve your front rack. They’re also convenient to set up and bang out in a crowded gym without requiring a lot of plates or excess free space.
Check out our guides on how to do the hang clean and muscle clean.
Even without full-sized circular plates, you should be able to perform all manner of high pulls in just about any gym as part of your leg or back workout.
High pulls are a great middle-of-the-road accessory because they reinforce proper bar path in both the snatch and clean while also providing some decent stimulation to your traps and shoulders.
Weightlifting takes years of practice and many, many weekly workouts to master. Barring a proper training schedule, you can still make some progress on as little as one session per week if you make the right adjustments and manage your expectations.
- A schedule change, adjustment to your exercise habits, or an injury can all impact how often you train Olympic lifting and may require you to move to a low-frequency plan.
- You should only train the essential lifts during your one weekly weightlifting session: heavy snatch, clean & jerk, and technical variations you can’t perform elsewhere.
- Be prepared for a long and difficult session when you do get into the gym — perform a thorough warm-up and consider bringing intra-workout nutrition as well.
- You can make up for some of your lost weightlifting practice by performing drills at home, prioritizing mobility, and including weightlifting-adjacent movements as part of more generalized workouts.
A low-frequency approach is far from ideal for developing your proficiency in weightlifting. But in a pinch, you can take certain measures to ensure you don’t regress in strength or skill.
Do a Lot With a Little
It’s far from ideal to relegate your Olympic lifting to one solitary session per week. Most recreational lifters will practice anywhere from three to five times over the course of seven days, and professional strength athletes take it even further.
Still, that doesn’t mean you can (or should) give up on your pursuit of building a bigger Total. Even the busiest folks can find a few hours a week for one high-quality session — and, believe it or not, one workout can be enough to keep you moving in the right direction.
When life hands you lemons, you can sit on the couch and pout, or you can make lemonade in the gym. Choose the latter and drink up the gains that follow.
1. Bueno, A. M., Pilgaard, M., Hulme, A., Forsberg, P., Ramskov, D., Damsted, C., & Nielsen, R. O. (2018). Injury prevalence across sports: a descriptive analysis on a representative sample of the Danish population. Injury epidemiology, 5(1), 6.
2. Calhoon G, Fry AC. Injury rates and profiles of elite competitive weightlifters. J Athl Train. 1999 Jul;34(3):232-8.
3. Colquhoun, R. J., Gai, C. M., Aguilar, D., Bove, D., Dolan, J., Vargas, A., Couvillion, K., Jenkins, N., & Campbell, B. I. (2018). Training Volume, Not Frequency, Indicative of Maximal Strength Adaptations to Resistance Training. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 32(5), 1207–1213.
4. Henselmans M, Bjørnsen T, Hedderman R, Vårvik FT. The Effect of Carbohydrate Intake on Strength and Resistance Training Performance: A Systematic Review. Nutrients. 2022 Feb 18;14(4):856.
Featured Image: Riley Stefan