Bondarchuk Classification of Exercise, and Application for Weightlifters

I’ve been doing some study on the Bondarchuk method, particularly in reference to how it can be applied to other sports. As I am a recreationally competitive weightlifter, naturally my thoughts eventually gravitate to “How can I apply this to my own training as an athlete?”

Rather than give you a super sweet cookie cutter 6-week program, I just want to discuss how a lot of the things we already do as weightlifters fall within Bondarchuk’s paradigm of exercise classification.

Bondarchuk identifies four classifications of exercise: Competitive Exercise (CE), Special Developmental Exercise (SDE), Special Preparatory Exercise (SPE), and General Preparatory Exercise (GPE). Below, I’ll discuss their original meaning, as well as how they can be generally applied to sport, and specifically to the sport of weightlifting.

Competitive Exercise (CE) is fairly obvious: movements and loads that are identical (or nearly so) to the competition event. Within Bondarchuk’s throwing programs, this includes throwing a variety of weighted implements. As such, it’s not always exactly the competitive event, because in competition, a male hammer thrower will always throw a 16 pound hammer.

The idea is to allow the athlete to practice sport skills at or near competitive intensity. Across the board, competitions of any kind fall within this category. Competition can be replicated and changed in practice. For a team sport, CE can include scrimmages and small-sided games. For a combat athlete, this would include sparring. For a track athlete, CE includes sprints, jumps, and throws at various speeds, heights, weighted implements, and short approaches.

For a weightlifter, this obviously includes snatches and clean & jerks, particularly when approaching maximal weights. As we know, things start to feel different around 90% of your PR – hopefully in a good way. It becomes more difficult to “save” lifts, or use improper technique or recruitment patterns. As such, a single snatch at 60% would not fall within CE. However, if an athlete can only snatch 60% from the high hang, then doing so would be similar enough to the competitive intensity that I would consider that with the classification of CE. Additionally, if a modified exercise or complex is “to a max,” I would consider that to be approaching competitive intensity.

He probably practiced this once or twice before.

Lu probably practiced this once or twice before.

Special Developmental Exercise (SDE) involves exercises that mimic the competitive event, usually in parts and/or reduced intensities. For a thrower, this can include weighted twists and med ball rotational throws. For a team sport, this can involve running specific plays, and drills that are similar to what would occur in a game. For a boxer, this might include bag work. For a sprinter (or any athlete looking to increase her or his linear speed and acceleration), this will include drills for sprint mechanics, bounding, and resisted sprinting. SDE will often take the form of mindful practice of sport skills, where a drill or movement starts and ends differently than it might in competition, or is slower and more deliberate, as well as special strength exercises to prepare for a specific movement that will occur in competition.

For a weightlifter, this will include lots of partial movements. High and low pulls from any starting position, hang variations, power variations, jerk dips/drives, push presses, various complexes, and even front squats and overhead squats can fit within this category. These all allow you to get more reps in, practicing a particular aspect of the skill that you need more work in.

He seems pretty strong in this position.

Lu seems pretty strong in this position.

The tricky thing is that things like hang work and complexes can be part of CE or SDE. In my mind, the way to differentiate between CE and SDE for a weightlifter is intent. Are you trying to set a PR in that exercise, or are you doing that exercise in order to practice that particular movement skill? I realize that a lot of coaches will do both simultaneously; weightlifters love chasing PRs, and having them track PRs for a complex or a partial movement can be a good way of keeping them engaged while increasing overall volume and volume within a particular portion of the movement. I personally don’t like to stress about complexes and hang work, and instead just try to use them to help me “feel” a movement, and practice to improve a particular part of the movement. As such, when I employ SDE, it comes in the form of warming up at lighter weights with more deliberate movement, or doing heavy pulls and jerk dips to strengthen a particular pattern.  Of course, I don’t think anyone within weightlifting worries too much about their clean low pull PR, so I think movements like pulls and jerk dips will almost always fall within SDE. I realize different coaches have a good amount of success using complexes and hang movements “to a max” on a regular basis in place of heavy singles, and I think that’s fine. I suppose the difference there is more about the preferences of the coaches and the athlete.

Special Preparatory Exercise (SPE) involves exercises that do not mimic the competitive event, but do train the muscles and energy systems used involved. For a thrower, this often includes barbell training, jumps, and sprints. For team sports, this will include strength training and conditioning relevant to the sport (10s and 20s for linemen, longer for wide receivers…).

For weightlifters, this can include squats, deadlifts, presses, rows, jumps, short sprints, etc. Anything that will make you generally stronger in a manner that can be utilized within the sport of weightlifting. Again, the tricky thing is that things like front squats and push presses can be SDE or SPE, and once again I’m going to point to intent. Are you doing front squats as a general strengthening exercise? If so, consider it as SPE. If you’re front squatting as part of a complex, perhaps it’s closer to SPE.

I'd say Lu's generally pretty strong.

I’d say Lu’s generally pretty strong.

Finally, General Preparatory Exercises (GPE) involve different muscles, different movements, and different energy systems than the competitive event. For a weightlifter, I’d consider most bodyweight movements, bodybuilding, and aerobic training to be GPE. Granted, it’s hard to find muscles that aren’t involved in a snatch or a clean & jerk (so maybe your Saturday bench/curl program can be GPE 😛 ). However, weightlifting includes little movement in the sagittal and especially the transverse plane, as well as being quite anaerobic, so any horizontal, rotational, or aerobic movements can be considered GPE.

Lu, what are you doing? That looks nothing like a snatch.

Lu, what are you doing? That looks nothing like a snatch.

Competitive Exercise Same muscles Same movements Same or similar intensity
Special Developmental Exercise Same muscles Similar movements Different intensity
Special Preparatory Exercise Same muscles Different movements Same energy systems
General Preparatory Exercise Same muscles Different movements Different energy systems

Putting it all together, you probably already have all or most of these categories covered in your programming. If you have a good general dynamic warmup, that will involve a lot of GPE. Your specific barbell warmup and partial movements will involve some SDE. Your strength work will likely involve a good volume of SPE, and we all know that you’re chasing PRs in your CE.  

The beauty of such a paradigm is its flexibility. Jogging is CE for a marathon runner, while it’s GPE for a strength athlete. Squatting is SPE or GPE for most sports, but CE for powerlifting. Regardless of the sport in which you compete, chances are you’ll know a good number of exercises that fit within each of these categories.

Of course, there are many ways to structure your programming, dependent on how you feel you or your athletes need the most emphasis at what part of their career and in relation to their competitive season. Bondarchuk recommends Complex Periodization, which involves using each of these classifications within a block rather than progressing from one to the next, with a heavy emphasis on CE. I think this approach is fine, especially considering he works with high-level competitive throwers. I think that all categories should be used in all blocks, as is done in Complex Periodization, but perhaps different emphases could be placed. For example, the further you are from competition (or the competitive season), the more GPE and SPE you put into your programming, while still including enough CE and SDE to maintain positional strength and sport skills. Later, as you approach your season, the saturation of CE and SDE would increase, while SPE and GPE decrease. Most importantly, I think it’s wise to never completely abandon any classification of exercise, as it’s far easier to maintain any quality than it is to gain or re-gain it.

For more in-depth information regarding Bondarchuk’s programming, you can read his books Transfer of Training in Sports, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2.

For more regarding periodization, check out this article on the old Complementary Training blog.

For more general discussion about the Bondarchuk method and principles from Martin Bingisser, a student and athlete of A. Bondarchuk, check out this series by 8weeksout.com: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.

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