Phil Sabatini is the President and Associate Head Coach of East Coast Gold Weightlifting, one of the largest and most successful programs in U.S. weightlifting history. He is also a senior faculty member at Old Dominion University, teaching anatomical kinesiology and strength and conditioning in ODU’s undergraduate exercise science program.
As a competitor, Phil has been a staple in the national weightlifting scene, having placed in the top 3 in 14 national events and earning more than 40 national medals over a very successful 16-year career. He has been a three-time member of Team USA and currently coaches more than 20 national-level athletes. They are part of the 100+ athletes he and his staff oversee.
Freelap USA: As an Olympic weightlifting coach and a former strength coach at VMI, where do you land on the age-old debate: Should non-weightlifting athletes train the Olympic lifts? Why or why not? And if so, what is the minimum effective dose they should be programmed?
Phil Sabatini: Absolutely. I believe there are many benefits to the Olympic lifts and their variations for an extremely wide range of athlete. Philosophically, I believe in ALL styles/emphases of training. There is justification to use just about anything out there if there is buy-in from the athlete and the coach can progress it consistently. That said, I believe it to be any strength and conditioning professional’s job to have as many “tools in the toolbox” as possible. More importantly, it is their job to know how to use them. “You can dig a hole with a hammer,” but there are certainly better tools for the job!I believe it to be any S&C professional’s job to have as many *tools in the toolbox* as possible. More importantly, it’s their job to know how to use them. Click To Tweet
What I believe you get with the Olympic lifts is that ALL of those tools become more efficient at their job. The carryover in posture, body position, awareness, timing, muscle synchronization, bracing, mobility, force development, force application, changing levels, and load acceptance, among many others, all lead to a more efficient athlete. In turn, athleticism improves, and sport-specific play is accelerated and of a higher potential because of the proficiency in basic and complex movement.
In terms of dosage, that is a difficult question to answer. Because Olympic lifts are so versatile in adaptation, such a wide variety of loading and variation could be useful for many different reasons at many different times. Specifics such as peak velocity, peak power, strength development, metabolic demand, sport season, etc. would dictate load management.
Freelap USA: As a national-level coach and competitor, how have you managed to balance both roles during the training year and even more so during long weekend meets where you lift on the last day?
Phil Sabatini: I will admit that it does take its toll on me as a competitor. Training does not seem to suffer much, as I find it motivating to be in the grind with our athletes. But if I could pinpoint anything specifically outside of competition, it would be recovery.
I am a very high-energy coach, so teaching in the morning, training in the afternoon, then coaching all night is not ideal for the next day’s squats! However, that can be extremely motivating in itself—to prove that if you are sincerely interested in doing something, you will find a way to get it done. I have been so driven to continue to be successful in the sport for so long; it is non-negotiable and has never really been a thought in my mind that anything of that regard would be a detriment.
When coaching long weekends at competitions, especially national competitions where the stress is high, fighting through emotional exhaustion is essential. There are so many ups and downs throughout the events, and as any experienced coach will tell you, it’s MUCH easier to lift in the meet than to coach. As invested coaches, we are constantly lifting WITH the athletes. I get just as nervous watching them as I do lifting the weights myself!
What is important in managing these stressors is to compartmentalize the different roles you take on throughout the competition. When those roles are finished, give yourself time to be an athlete. Although exhausted after a long day of coaching, I still came here to do a job of my own, and the only way I will be successful is if I can lower my state of arousal and anxiety and visualize success. I have ALWAYS felt a sense of relief when it was my turn to lift. All the anxiety and lack of control that comes with coaching—finally, that weight is lifted, and I am in control of my own outcome. That alone has been the shot of adrenaline necessary to perform without fear and apprehension.
Freelap USA: You tore your rotator cuff in 2018 and came back to have podium finishes in 2020 and 2021. How did that process affect your training? And how has it changed your programming for your athletes?
Phil Sabatini: In 2017–2018, at 35 years old, I can say I was at my physical peak. I was the strongest I had ever been, and having been in the sport for 11 years at that point, I was mentally as dialed-in as I had ever been in anything I had ever done.
There were some negative physical changes from the injury: my external rotation has never been the same, which has affected my front rack and overhead positions. I started to develop compensation patterns as a result of that. The following year, my positions weren’t quite caught up to my strength levels, and I hyperextended my elbow in competition, forcing me to withdraw.
The elbow injury was a far worse rehabilitation. During that process, I was very frustrated and was able to accept the fact that something happening one time can be called a “fluke”—but once it happens again, it’s the start of a “pattern.” I had to decide whether or not lifting at a high level was still important to me, and if it was, I needed to do things differently.
Let’s face it, I wasn’t getting any younger; but I was still moving some weight and finding myself right in the mix with the best in the U.S. So, I utilized my resources. I took note of how our coaching staff developed athletes. I asked myself, “If I was one of our athletes, how would we approach this?”
Through a collective effort and a massive, humbling change in perspective, we started the rebuild. Of all the negative things COVID-19 has brought us, the postponing of competitions that year was not one of them. We were able to diligently work on some physical limitations I had for more than a full year without taking our foot off the gas, which allowed me to prolong my career by years.It’s easy to be motivated to push heavy weights around, especially with the exposure of social media. But well-thought-out warm-ups & auxiliary movements must be done with diligence & investment. Click To Tweet
Brenden McDaniel, one of our coaches and one of my best friends, best defined a great lesson through all of this: “Your house is only as clean as the broom closet.” It’s easy to be motivated to push heavy weights around, especially with the exposure of social media. But well-thought-out warm-ups and auxiliary movements must be completed with diligence and investment. And that quickly became point of emphasis among all our lifters in the gym, including me.
Freelap USA: How has your programming style adapted to allow you to sustain such a long and successful weightlifting career?
In any sport, longevity is gained through a wide variety of experiences and modifications. From the time I was four years old, I was “training,” whether or not I thought of it as that. My only goal in life was to play for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Then when I turned 10, it became the Pittsburgh Pirates.
I played every sport my parents would allow me to and could never stand to lose or be mediocre at ANYTHING. So, a deep combination of various experiences, vast physical development, and natural intrinsic motivation is certainly the foundation to the success I have for as long as I have had it.
Over time, as my needs as an athlete became more specific and ever-changing, some of the biggest mistakes I have made as an athlete came with a hard-headed disposition that often found me trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. Some of the greatest training years came in the greatest adversities I have ever faced as an athlete.
The first of those circumstances came as a result of my career. I was the Head Football Strength/Conditioning Coach at VMI, and not only was I working a ton of hours, but I was also traveling with the team. From August to November, training conditions were not ideal. But I was determined to continue progressing as I was still young in my weightlifting career and wanted to be successful.
So, Coach Leo Totten and I communicated about training frequency and volume, and despite training only 3–4 times a week, I was still able to earn victories and podium spots in December at the American Open, one of two Senior National events that were also qualifiers for Team USA. This really opened my eyes to the importance of quality over quantity. I was finally able to translate some of the best advice my father ever gave me: “It’s not what you do, it’s HOW you do it.”
The next meaningful training hurdle came during the birth of my first daughter, who was born at 27 weeks, weighing 1 pound 14 ounces. She came two months before the 2012 National Championships/Olympic Trials. I was ranked in the top 8 at the time, preparing for a battle between a handful of others for a spot on the final qualifying team for the Olympic Games, which would compete at the Pan-Am Championships for team points.
My wife stayed in the Ronald McDonald House in Charlottesville, Virginia, for three months while our daughter was in the NICU at UVA. I commuted back and forth from Lexington, still working full-time. I was emotionally exhausted on a daily basis, watching our little girl suffering and trying to breathe on her own, unsuccessful feedings, transfusions, etc. The only thing that felt good to me was training.
Rightfully so, it was NOT going well. So, Coach Totten reprimanded me for expecting it to, and we had some great discussions about developing perspective in training, competition, and life that would allow me to get what I needed out of training and keep even just a small amount of focus on the sport. We talked about how it was okay to not live, sleep, and breathe weightlifting—but just enjoy it as a breach of reality for an hour or two and be thankful that you have the opportunity to do so.
Two months later, I had the greatest showing of my career, going 6/6 with personal bests, at the time, of a 155-kilogram snatch and 189-kilogram clean and jerk: enough to make the final Olympic qualifying team in 2012 for the Pan-Am Championships. (Although I lost the gold medal on the last lift of the competition to a young Ian Wilson with a 192 clean and jerk.)
Later in my career, my modifications came as a result of injury and age. Two substantial injuries back to back really made me evaluate my training mindset. As I recovered from those, I noticed my body was not moving like it used to and I was not recovering as easily as I used to. Still, in my mind, for me to continue to compete with the best, I HAD to train 5–6 times a week at close to maximal capacity—because that is what brought me success over the past decade.
My training suffered, and for the first time I really felt like my performance was declining after almost 15 years in the sport.
Coming off of injuries, I refused to finish my career in such a disappointing fashion. So, our coaches and I collaborated and introduced not only new movements, but once again, a new perspective to training that allowed me to continue competing at a very high level. Since then, I finished third, second, and first in the past three national events, making 16/17 total lifts on the platform—the first place finish came three weeks before I turned 39 years old.
Freelap USA: As an exercise science professor, what do you believe is missing in academia to help aspiring strength and conditioning coaches become better prepared for the field?
Phil Sabatini: There is definitely one glaring omission that is essential to the field in general—the ability to teach! Because the programs are so heavily based around the science, there is rarely an opportunity for application. Even with opportunities to apply the science, so many professionals are ill-equipped.There is definitely one glaring omission that is essential to the field in general—the ability to teach.… I believe that exercise science programs should cross over with physical education. Click To Tweet
Personally, my undergraduate degree is in physical education, so to graduate, I had to do almost two years of hands-on teaching in the schools. While I enjoyed certain aspects of it, I knew it was not what I would do for the rest of my life. However, it absolutely IS something I am doing and will be doing for the rest of my life! Coaching is teaching.
So many attributes that make up an effective coach also make an effective teacher, such as presenting to a large audience, the words you choose and when you say them, being concise with your ideas and delivering them in a way that the highest number of people can understand and engage with them, the power of enthusiasm, time management, organizing groups, and the list goes on! I am so thankful I stuck with the degree and got my teaching license even though I knew I was going to pursue strength and conditioning.
I believe that exercise science programs should cross over with physical education. The students should be required to take at least two semesters of methodology/pedagogy and should be evaluated by the physical education department. This is all essential to the professions within the field and should have just as much weight as the scientific foundations they will graduate with.
Since you’re here…
…we have a small favor to ask. More people are reading SimpliFaster than ever, and each week we bring you compelling content from coaches, sport scientists, and physiotherapists who are devoted to building better athletes. Please take a moment to share the articles on social media, engage the authors with questions and comments below, and link to articles when appropriate if you have a blog or participate on forums of related topics. — SF