Training talk with John Thrush (Part 1)

American weightlifting has reinvented itself over the past few years as new clubs and coaches have emerged across the country. Unfortunately, throughout this process some of the old names and pioneers have been overlooked. One of those is John Thrush.

Coach Thrush has been involved in the sport of weightlifting for more than 50 years. In the state of Washington, where I grew up, he was Mr. Weightlifting, having founded the Calpian Weightlifting Club and working with top athletes like Melanie Roach (7-time US champion, former American and World record holder, Pan American Games medalist, and 6th place at the 2008 Olympics), Dean Goad (5-time US champion) and Matt Foreman. As an athlete himself, he competed at a national level for more than a decade and won a national championships. In 1986 he was also hired by USA Weightlifting to be the National Junior Coach in 1986.

» Related content: want to read more written interviews with world-class coaches? Check out our book Training Talk: Conversations With a Dozen Master Coaches and more training talks in our archives.

As a high school athlete I had the chance to work with him a few times. Unfortunately I was too young and arrogant to fully take advantage of his knowledge and resources. But since then I’ve been able to reconnect and talk shop. Below is the first part of a two part conversation we had. We start off by talking about his own development as a coach and the two key elements of his coaching philosophy. In part two we dive into weightlifting technique, and help athletes with the mental side of training.

Becoming a coach 

MB: To start out with, it would be interesting to hear how you learned about weightlifting and became a coach. Over the past decade, weightlifting has exploded as a sport and information about coaching materials are easily accessible to everyone online. But in your era it was a bit different: weightlifting as a niche sport and resources were hard to come by. How did you get into coaching and develop your abilities?

Thrush: I’ve had other people ask me that and, in retrospect, it was all completely accidental. In the gym where I was training, people would start to ask me for help and ask me questions about training. I was always willing to help out since I had a deep interest in how things work and what it takes. That was probably 5 years before I retired as a lifter. I was still active and trying to be a factor on the national scene, so it never occurred to me that I was already coaching.

I always said if I knew I would become a coach, I would have gotten more prepared to do it. Maybe actually done some academic work. Instead I had no real coaching help or any developed coach giving me help back then. There were only a handful of people nationally at a national level I would seek out help from, but due to the fact that I was not where they were, it never really happened.

I went to my first national meet and actually bombed out at the meet. After that happened I was sitting over on the sideline and this older man Frank Bates came over to me and commiserated about how this type of thing happens. Then he sat down and we started talking for two or three hours, just talking about various things about lifting. He was a big name in lifting at the time, and official, and involved with his local weightlifting. He was kind of my first mentor as far as any type of advanced lifting information.

The second one I really hit it off with, because I became friends with his son, was Bob Hise. His son Bob Hise III lifted contemporaneously with me. We got introduced and hit it off. Then I got a chance to meet his dad was an old country preacher in the way he acted and talked. He kind of liked me apparently because he would go out of his way to check on me at meets and go to dinner.

But I was never around guys as far as watching them coach or knowing specifically what they were doing as far as training was concerned. I was never around them enough to really gain practical insight. There just weren’t any guys like that up here.

MB: In track and field or football and other sports you have distinct coaching trees. You go to one school, or play for one team, learn from the coach, and then pay it forward. In weightlifting at that time it seems that everyone was so isolated it was hard to develop any coaching trees. I assume most of your learning then came about through trial and error?

Thrush: Absolutely. I’ve always said I was kind of like my own lab rat. I tried everything, discarded what didn’t work, and went on to learn about something else or find information about a different approach and try that.

Technique was a bitch to learn. The first pictures I saw of weightlifting were in Strength & Health magazine. You’d see a pictures of someone at the bottom of the snatch. That was real interesting and you could see what position you wanted to be in, but how do you get there? There was no information out there about how to do that. And, in any event, I don’t think you can really understand it by reading something that says do this and this and this.

So there was a lot of trial and error, and frustration. I sometimes wonder why I kept at it. The thing is I just had this gut feeling that it is what I wanted to do. I just loved it from the start, even with the frustration. I kept going and it’s been over 50 years.

Training philosophy

MB: How would you define your core philosophy?

Thrush: Two things eventually became my mantra about what has to happen if you are going to be successful: variation and work capacity. It seems obvious when you say it out load, but I don’t think a lot of people think about it concretely. Those are the two things I think are very important.

MB: It is interesting that you mention variability. A few years ago Matt Foreman wrote an article that looked at his training plan from 1993 when he was training with you. He wrote that there was not a lot of variety. In talking with him since then he said the point he took away was how good a training program can work with a small number of variables.

Thrush: There is a fairly long list of things that need to be done to be successful. It is a sense of prioritizing which things are the most important, and which things we’d like to do if we have time at some point in the program. With the American lifestyle where we have jobs or have to go to school, we don’t have all day to train like the Chinese. We can’t do an unlimited number of things.

So I’ve pared it down in some of the programs where it is just very basic and essential things, but there are times especially in the developmental phase for new or intermediate lifters where they are going to be doing a lot of other stuff for periods of time that I think will pay off as far as technique or getting leg strength levels up. But the variability comes within the program.

MB: The counterexample are programs where you look at a weekly plan and there are 50 different exercises included.

Thrush: I think that’s overdone. The quality of some of the work you are doing is very poor due to fatigue and the neural taxation that goes on in heavy and structured training.

You can still have variation with fewer exercise. The variability comes within the program. If you’d seen several weeks of that program you’d see that we don’t do the same combination on the same day of exercises. In one week you might snatch on Monday, but the next would be cleans or clean and jerks on Monday. There’d be something different and the whole week would be structured that way. It is not fixed that Friday we max out or Monday we squat heavy. We continually change things around.

That’s also not the only program we use. We have a pre-competition program. Matt’s example was a more generalized program before that. There’s another program I use when I want people to take a break from heavy ballistic training when I want them to do pulls and squats and some kind of overhead work depending on what their weakness is. That’s a 4-day a week program they do for short times usually from 2-4 weeks when I want them to essentially take a break from the lifts. Obviously they’re still training, but they’re not doing the things that are very ballistic.

Individualization

MB: So you have variation with the breaks you take from the ballistic training, variation in how the exercises are organized in the week. And, of course, I assume some variation in sets and reps throughout the phases. Are there are other ways you look to implement variation?

Thrush: There’s also a chance for the variability to come in once we get to individualization. Matt was pretty all-around balanced lifter, so it wouldn’t be him, but I might have someone with problems in the snatch, so they might have some other things not everybody else was doing to work on that. Some of the variability there was in the matter of need. What does the athlete need to get to improve relative to him.

The program that I write is the structure and roadmap of what we’re trying to get done, but I’m making changes all the time. That’s why I don’t send programming. I get people all the time that want me to write programs for them and pay me money for it. I don’t do it. If I don’t see you and don’t know what your technical ability is and what your work capacity is, I don’t see how that program is going to work. It’s a waste of your time and my time.

In training all the time there are only one or two workouts per week for any athlete where they actually do absolutely what’s on paper. I’m adjusting up and down what needs to be done all the time, trying to get the most out of them for that given day. If that means 10% less than I programmed, that’s it. I don’t want to spend time missing weight trying to make the program when it’s not productive. That’s where the art of coaching comes in. I’m trying to guess or surmise through observation what the optimal training level is for that day for that person and try to get there and no go over the edge into failure and walk out doing less than they apparently could have done.

MB: Matt also told me that the general sessions were quite same for the whole group. So it sounds like the overall plan might not be very individualized, but the execution is very individualized through active adjustments you were making during the sessions. Is that right?

Thrush: To a large degree yes. We do also make changes to the plan even if the exercises and volumes are the same. As an example, if you are supposed to do snatch, pulls, and back squats on Monday and you have very weak legs relatively speaking, I may have you come in and squat first before you do the lifts. This is different than everyone else for a particular reason based on your needs.

Or it could be that a guy is technically pretty good, but just weak. So I might have him do more pulls than everyone else is structured for. We realize it might have a small negative effect on the next workout, but he needs that to happen right then so we will emphasize that. There is room for individualization that way.

But I don’t write completely different program for different athletes. I don’t think that is necessary or warranted. Generally speaking all lifters have the same essential needs to do certain things as a group. Any kind of variation from that requires a specific reason, but it still remains that everyone has to do snatches, clean & jerk, and have leg strength. If you go down to the bare bones, that’s what everyone needs. Anything beyond that might have a purpose, but it is not essential. There are many things in there you would like to do if you have an unlimited amount of time, but we don’t so we don’t do those.

MB: This bare bones approach could in theory be applied to every sport, but I rarely see it done. How many hammer throwers are there that just throw and do squats? None that I know of. But there are successful weight lifters that really have training focused on just those core elements. I think in most sports there is the tendency to throw that extra bit in. Lifters for some reason keep that focus better on the essentials.

Thrush: It comes down to simply the hammer throw and other sports have multiple layers. What we do is what we do. We don’t go out and throw the hammer and add a layer on top. It is more complex to do some of these other sports. Weightlifting is more fundamentally simple.

Work capacity

MB: We talked about how variation was part of your core philosophy, but we haven’t talked much about the second element: work capacity. What exactly do you have in mind there? For me it means that if you don’t have the ability to take more than 10 throws in a session, you will never be good in the hammer throw. You have to physically be able to put in the right amount of work. Is that what you mean?

Thrush: Exactly. And that changes over time so you have to put more work in to make less incremental improvements. That’s really the only place we have to go unless we say we’re going to train on drugs. There is no way to stimulate the organism to make it change unless we do that. And that’s a continual process: one year from now you have to be doing x-percent more work to be make the same progress as before or even less progress. That goes on and on until you get to the top tier where someone in their primes is doing 2-3 times more work than someone just entering their productive years.

MB: How do you train work capacity? Is there anything special you do, or is it just accumulation of volume over the years?

Thrush: I think it is just a matter of knowing your athlete, observing, and knowing when they are plateauing. Whatever you are seeing as a coach, you need a strategy to fix the problem. Do they need a break? Do they need to go on some other program? Or do they need more work, which is often the case so we change the program to get the volume up 5-10%, not drastically, to see if they get a stimulus they need and start to improve again.

You can’t go to page 33 of some book where it says if you do this then that will happen. The answer isn’t there. You have to figure it out through accumulation of experience.

MB: So when you reach a plateau, your first instinct then is to add more volume rather than back off?

MB: It may not be increase volume. It may be increased intensity. Maybe it is someone that needs to be forced to be more courageous in their training and exist in a higher intensity level for a while. He can do the volume work and reps, but when it comes to bumping it up and doing singles over 90% he fails. So maybe you need to force him into that mode so that he gets used to that pressure and begins to make progress that way. It’s not always one or the other, but it’s not like we have an unlimited number of tools to work with.

» Continue reading Part 2, where we dive more into mentally preparing athletes, thoughts on lifting technique, and exercise variations.