The functional fitness movement was to some degree a backlash against the commercialization of fitness.…
Interview with Jim Schmitz
When I first started researching Jim for this interview, I was astounded and so very intimidated by his background. He has coached ten weightlifting Olympians and was an US Olympic Weightfting Team Coach at the 1980, 1988, and 1992 Olympic Games. He cultivated some of the strongest men and women in history and some of the most sought-after Olympic Weightlifting coaches around the country. His bio, at the bottom of this page, offers more details of the many phenomenal athletes he has coached. I would like to thank Jim for taking the time to do this interview, and I’m excited to take some of this information back to my own gym.
I’m told that most of your athletes have trained no more than 2 hours a day, 3 days a week. That seems like very little compared to what I’ve heard from other athletes and coaches. What’s the philosophy behind this training volume, and how do you approach the programming so that the trainee gets the most out of those 6 hours a week?
I train most of my lifters three times per week for about 2 to 2 ½ hours, and have for over 40 years. This is a basic philosophy that I learned from Tommy Kono’s “ABC’s of Weightlifting”: Quality not Quantity. My first reason is that my lifters have families, jobs, or school, or obligations that prevent them from training more. The next reason is these workouts are complete and hard, so they need a day off to recover. When you only train 3 times a week, you must train hard and never miss a workout! I’ve had a lot of success with my three times per week programs. However, I do have some of my lifters on programs with four and five workouts per week. They are young (15 to 25) and have the time.
Could you elaborate on your approach to “undercoaching”? How do you give an athlete enough room to breathe while also not letting him or her wander astray?
When I say I undercoach, I mean I design the program, show them how and what to do, then sit back and let them do it. I don’t comment on every lift or give too much instruction or coaching. I let them do it and figure it out as much as they can, and I jump in where and when needed. By saying little, I find that when I do say something, it is more meaningful, and they are able to focus on the one or two points I’ve made.
Obviously, you’ve worked with a lot of very gifted athletes. Have you ever coached anyone who falls on the opposite end of the spectrum—whose biology doesn’t lend itself to the sport? How would you approach training this individual differently than those that are natural-born machines?
I’ve had the great fortune to have trained and worked with athletes that had a lot of ability and were quite successful. I like the saying, “you know what makes a good or great coach…good or great athletes!” Now, thanks to CrossFit, I get a lot of people who really like Olympic Lifting, but they really don’t have the body to lift the big weights needed to compete at the national and international level. I train these people to the best of their ability, and although there is nothing better than coaching a lifter to the Olympic level, I really enjoy coaching these individuals because I think Olympic Style Weightlifting (OSW) is the absolute best way to train for strength, stamina, and suppleness, which carries over to all physical activities from archery to Zumba dancing. I have loved doing snatches, clean & jerks, pulls, and squats since 1960. It’s been 54+years and I always wondered why more people didn’t like it and do it just for exercise. Besides all its athletic benefits, it feels good and it’s fun. Well, now OSW has caught on and I really enjoy coaching anyone that wants to do it. I enjoy their progress and whatever success they have. I do train them easier and don’t push too hard, as I don’t want to make it a drudgery with them sore and tired all the time. If they want to compete, that’s great—and I encourage them to, but I don’t push them.
Say you have a new lifter who needs to get a lot stronger. How would you design his or her training program?
If a lifter needs to get stronger then I have him/her do more work on squats, especially back squats. I think the back squat is the absolute best exercise to increase one’s total body strength. Front squats are great too, but you can handle more weight in the back squat. With a heavy weight on your back, you really have to work hard and use every muscle in your body from “your nose to your toes!” The next best exercise to get really strong is the clean and jerk because you get a heavy pull off the floor, a heavy front squat, and a heavy push or jerk overhead. There’s no such thing as an easy or light C&J! A program designed to specialize in increasing one’s strength would center around back squats and C&J’s. These movements would be done first in the workout and have the most time and energy devoted to them.
What advice do you give your lifters before their first meet? How do they prepare? What should they focus on?
Before new lifters enter their first competition, I make sure they have been training with me for at least 3 months. Two weeks out from the competition I have them do a total or max out on the snatch & C&J and then again one week out. I don’t have them worry about losing weight to compete in a certain weight class unless it just means not eating breakfast the day of the competition. I don’t want them thinking about their bodyweight; I want them thinking about their warm-ups and competition lifts. After their second total out one week before competition, I then plan their competition lifts and warm-ups. Their 3rd attempts will be their best lifts from the two total outs. In the snatch I then have their 2nd attempt 2 to 3 kilos less than their 3rd attempt and their opening lift 3 to 4 kilos less than their 2nd attempt and their final warm-up will be 3-4 kilos less than their 1st attempt. For the C&J the 2nd attempt will be 3-5 kilos less than their 3rd, their 2nd attempt also 3-5 kgs less than their 2nd and their last warm-up 5-7 ks less than their opener. I will write out their warm-ups, weights, sets and reps and give it all to them after their last total out so they can prepare. I want them to just focus on their lifts and not be distracted by all the different things that go on and happen at a competition. I want them to be successful with their lifts as nothing makes weightlifting more fun and enjoyable than making your lifts. Success breeds success. Walk away from the competition thinking you could lift more rather than proving you couldn’t.
What do you prescribe for improving mobility for the overhead squat position?
My methods for improving mobility for the overhead squat snatch position are: Overhead Squats; Snatch Balance; and my favorite exercise for snatch bottom position is 1 Snatch Balance + 2 Overhead Squats, on the second squat, you stay in the bottom position and look to your right, then left, then down, then up and then stand up. Besides developing your mobility, this exercise develops your sense of where you and the barbell are: “proprioception and kinesthetic awareness!” My favorite stretching exercise for increasing snatch mobility is this: with a broom handle or PVC pipe behind your neck just above your traps, wrap your arms around it and clasp your fingers behind your head. Once you get this position under control, go into a full squat and hold it for 10 to30 seconds. Stand up, relax, unclasp your hands, shake your arms a little, re-clasp and repeat up to 10 times.
Do you have any recommendations for young coaches that are just starting out? Where should they go and what should they study?
It’s good if coaches just starting out have actually been lifters and have competed. It’s not absolutely necessary though, as I know some great coaches that weren’t competitive lifters– such as Dick “Smitty” Smith, Gayle Hatch, and Dennis Snethen who coached many US National Champions and were selected as US Olympic Team Coaches themselves. However, I think the first thing you must do—and I’m sure the three I just mentioned did this—is learn as much as you can about the sport of weightlifting, from training to competing. Read books, attend clinics, seminars, take courses offered by reputable and successful coaches. Attend as many competitions as you can even if you don’t have lifters entered or aren’t competing yourself. Ask questions of successful coaches. And now there is the internet, but I caution you there. Just because it’s on the internet doesn’t necessarily make it correct. And finally, just do it. Start with willing athletes and train and coach them and learn as you go. That’s how we did it back in the 1960’s; Strength & Health and IronMan magazine were our only sources of weightlifting information then.
I heard that the RDL has a bit of history in your gym. Could you tell me about that?
The RDL, which stands for Romanian Deadlift, got its name in my gym. In 1990, Olympic and World Champion, Nicu Vlad and his coach Dragomir Cioroslan were in the US for the Goodwill Games that were held in Spokane, WA. They did a seminar at the NSCA convention in San Diego, and I invited them to San Francisco and The Sports Palace for a week of training and sightseeing. I scheduled a seminar/workout while they were there. Nicu did a 190 snatch and a 230 C&J and then put 250 on the bar a proceeded to do a flat back, knees slightly bent partial deadlift. He pulled to the top of his thighs, but didn’t straighten his legs completely and the lowered the bar to his shins without touching the platform, keeping his legs slightly bent. He repeated 5 times, for at least 3 sets. Everyone was very impressed as it wasn’t a dead lift or a clean pull and someone taking notes asked what he called the exercise. Dragomir who spoke excellent English translated. Nicu shrugged his shoulders and said he didn’t have name for it. So, I suggested we call it the Romanian Deadlift, RDL for short. It’s amazing how the exercise has taken off in popularity. I asked Nicu what he thought of the notoriety of the RDL and his comment was, “well it is a very good exercise.”
Not counting the competition lifts and derivations of those lifts, how much accessory work do your athletes do? (RDLs, pull-ups, core work, etc…)
Besides snatches and C&Js I have my athletes do a wide variety of lifts and complexes from dumbbell lifts to heavy overhead supports. One of my favorite “core” exercises is Clean Deadlift, Shrug, Rise Up On Toes. I call it CDL for short. It’s done in slow motion or ½ speed both up and down, that’s the key to really working your “core” which I consider your thighs, hips, and torso. This exercise teaches one how to lift off the floor correctly with a flat back and to slide the bar up the thighs, go up on your toes, shrug your shoulders, and get as fully extended as possible. Then you lower the bar down at the same slow speed—this is the “secret” of the great benefit of this exercise, “slow mo” up and down, concentric and eccentric contraction.
I hear you have a lot to say about “knees in while squatting”?
Ah, the “knees in and out” while squatting issue otherwise know as “valgus”, which is considered a deformity of the knee joint. Well, I too in my early years of coaching from 1968 up until 1990 thought the knees going in was bad form and always taught knees should always stay directly over the big toe. That was no problem for almost all my lifters, but then when I began coaching women in the late 70’s and 80’s, I saw so much of it I figured it must be due to the skeletal differences of men and women in the knee and hip area. I always tried to straighten out my women’s squatting technique, but just couldn’t do it– that was the way their bodies worked and they were lifting pretty heavy weights and not getting injured or having any knee, hip or back issues. One of my Hall of Fame female lifters, Giselle Shepatin, (had an 80kg snatch, C&J 100, and a back squat of 140 at 60k) –her knees went in and out on all her lifts. Then in 1990, two-time Olympic Champion (1964 & 1968), Yoshinobu Miyake was living in San Francisco and working out at my gym. He told me he developed that technique for himself and taught it to others to get through the sticking point at the half way point of squat, snatches, and cleans. Yoshinobu was the first man to snatch double bodyweight 118 at 58.5 bwt in 1962. And, he back squatted 200k for 2 in 1964 with this technique. I then really became more aware of this technique and let people do it if it worked and felt good to them. There used to be a great video on IronMind.com of Ivan Chakarov from Bulgaria back squatting 270kg (595lbs) for 3 reps while weighing 90kg (198lbs) at the 1993 World Championships in Melbourne, Australia. There, he uses the knees in and out technique beautifully. I could go on and on about the different Olympic and World Champions that use this technique. So, don’t worry about it if you or you lifters do it, it’s okay!
Do you have any specific aspirations for your coaching career in the next few years?
As far as coaching aspirations, like any coach, I would always like to have another Mario Martinez, Ken Clark or Rachel Silverman. For a coach, it is just awesome to be able to take a kid from their first workout to the Olympics. I’ve coached ten men to fourteen Olympics and Mario won a Silver medal and if I never get another that’s okay, but I sure would like one. However, I’m very proud of some coaches that started with me and are doing great things for USA Weightlifting. They are Steve Gough, Kevin and Paul Doherty, David Spitz, Freddie Myles, Tom Hirtz, Butch Curry, JoAnn Aita, and Diane Fu. And I’m really enjoying the tremendous increased popularity of Olympic Style Weightlifting—thanks in a big part to CrossFit, the internet and the USAW coaching courses. I’ve always known that OSW was the best way to build up your body and develop strength, stamina, and suppleness and I wondered why more people didn’t get it, but now it’s changing. I’m just amazed at all the people that are now snatching and C&Jing and just loving it—not because they want to be Olympic Champions, but because it feels good, is fun and challenging. I am really enjoying doing USAW coaching certification courses and just sharing my vast experience.
Where do people go to find you? (Websites, social media, etc)
I used to say “you could be a National Champion weightlifter in the US and be on the FBI’s ten most wanted list and they wouldn’t find you,” and that being a champion weightlifter in the US was like being in the federal witness protection program. We were obscure and anonymous, but now that has all changed thanks to CrossFit, the internet and USA Weightlifting. So, you can find me coaching in The Sports Palace “dungeon,” in a gym in South San Francisco called Physique Magnifique, 387 Grand Ave, SSF, CA, 94080. My journey to this location can be attributed to the need for a building strong enough for the impact and noise of dropping weights, and for someplace where we would not disturb the neighbors. If you go to IronMind.com and click on “articles” and then “Schmitz on the Lifts” you can read many of my coaching tips. I have been writing training articles for MILO magazine for about 16 years now. I can also be contacted through my website, nevertoostrong.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org and you can even Google me!
JIM SCHMITZ, owner of THE SPORTS PALACE, a weightlifting and weight training gym and club established in San Francisco in 1968. His accomplishments in the field of Olympic Style Weightlifting are numerous. He has twice been selected as head coach of United States Olympic Weightlifting Teams, 1980 and 1988, and was selected as assistant Olympic Team Weightlifting coach in 1992. He was head coach for the 1979 Pan American Games Weightlifting Team and the 1977, 1985, and 1987 US World Teams. He was Competition Director for Weightlifting at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games. He was president of USA Weightlifting 1988 to 1996 and a member of the International Weightlifting Federation’s Executive Board and Chairman of the IWF Scientific and Research Committee, 1992 to 1996.
His SPORTS PALACE WEIGHTLIFTING TEAM has won the US National Team Championships in 1982, 83, 84, 85, 86, 87, and 1989. He has coached the following US National Champions, Record Holders, and Olympians:
Ken Patera, 110+, 1972, Dan Cantore, 67.5, 1972-77, Bruce Wilhelm, 110+, 1974-78, Tom Hirtz, 82.5, 1979-83, Jim “Butch” Curry, 90, 1978-86, Tom Stock, 110+, 1978-80, Ken Clark, 100, 1971 – 90, Mario Martinez, 110+, 1977-96, John Orlando, 75, 1982-86, John Bergman, 110+, 1981-88, David Langon, 90/100, 1983-92, Thanh Nguyen, 60, 1982-97, Rachel Silverman, 52, 1982-88, Giselle Shepatin, 60, 1983 – 95, Carol Cady, 82.5, 1988-90, Anne Lehman, 52, 1994-2008.
JIM presently coaches weightlifting in the Sports Palace “dungeon” of the gym Physique Magnifique at 387 Grand Ave., in South San Francisco. He also teaches USA Weightlifting’s Coaching Certification Courses, CrossFit Olympic Lifting Courses, does personal training at Claremont Country Club, Berkeley IronWorks, coaches weightlifting at St Ignatius High School in San Francisco, Genentech, and writes weightlifting articles for MILO Magazine and IronMind.com.
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I appreciate and use your articles: terrible twos, sets and reps for strength and power, and natural cycling. I focus on the close grip bench press, squats z and deadlift.
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