Olympic Weightlifting Is Awesome – Start Young and Train Often
I love Olympic weightlifting (the snatch and clean & jerk) with a love that is no different from my love for the Powerlifts (squat, bench press and deadlift). But you have to want to love the Olympic lifts in this culture, I think. Powerlifters have kind of a blue collar appeal to them with their clear love of brute strength and eating big, but Olympic weightlifters come off with less burly charm – a little more technical, a little less grip-it-and-rip-it.
Much as it is hard to say, Crossfit has done a tonne to shine light on Olympic weightlifting. Prior to Crossfit, ignorance of these lifts was partly the fault of them being hard to learn coupled with the fact that the likelihood of finding a North American coach in the lifts was unlikely. The sport has little tie to our culture here in Canada (see more on this later), so it is less likely that youths would just pick up the sport in the same way that young kids often do with hockey, baseball and football.
Weightlifting has become a misfit in this corner of the strength world because of simple cultural bias. I admired Vasily Alekseyev from the age of nine when he entered my awareness, but Arnold Schwarzenegger was a lot more readily available in every form of media, and so the bodybuilders became my first role models in the world of strong humans. Through bodybuilding I discovered power lifting, heavy athletics (strongman), and finally weightlifting and I think this progression is, or was, pretty common in North America.
The problem is of course that the Olympic lifting “cart” is put very firmly “behind the horse” of bodybuilding or general fitness training, which is a whole lot more accessible and easier to learn. Power lifting has the advantage that the competition lifts are also common bodybuilding exercises (bench, squat, deadlift), so there is a nice direct connection there. Olympic weightlifting, though, has no connection to most bodybuilding exercises. Few builders, for example, snatch or clean & jerk. Hell, lots of bodybuilders don’t even squat. All Olympic weightlifters squat, but not that many do deadlifts or bench press (there are, of course, exceptions). And with the Olympic lifts often being arrived at through the gateway of bodybuilding, the end result is they are learned least and last.
This is a pretty big issue, because the snatch and clean & jerk respond best to being learned first and trained frequently. They are more a skill than an exercise, you might say, especially when first learning them. In the cultures that value Olympic lifts, the tendency is to start at ages we in North American would think are dangerously young, with the idea of giving the child every chance to achieve mastery of the sport by the time they are old enough to compete in the Junior World Championships. Then they are still a young person when they enter the World Championships and Olympics.
This is not hugely different than the intent behind my fellow Canadians enrolling their children in skating and hockey programs from a young age. In hockey, if you aren’t great by age 17, it is not that likely to happen. So you can see that when you try to learn a technique oriented sport, and start later in life, there is just so much you can do!
Please don’t interpret this as a suggestion not to learn the Olympic lifts – they are awesome and should be learned for their own sake as a sport, as well as for the benefit they can convey to athletic performance. What I am saying is that with any skill sport, a period of time is required to achieve sport mastery. The numbers thrown around are often in the neighbourhood of 10, 000 hours. Let’s say you start Olympic lifting like me, in your mid-twenties. Simple math reveals that training 12 hours per week, 52 weeks a year, would achieve 624 training hours (which may be in excess of what most are willing to invest). At this rate, sport mastery would occur in the mid-forties. Now, there is nothing wrong with mastering a sport at that stage in life, but you won’t exactly be able to represent your country against the 25-year-olds who have been training 20 hours per week since they were ten! You will, however, be able to lift a startling amount for a person your age, and possibly help influence the next generation of lifters to start a bit younger.
That is what I hope I’m doing right now. To that end, and tying back to the Canadian connection to Olympic lifting, here is a video of a young Canadian weightlifter who I think is pretty much the bee’s knees – Christine Girard:
In this video you will see the battle for bronze in the women’s 63 kg class at the 2012 Olympic Games. Christine won our first ever Olympic medal in weightlifting. This historic event was not met with anything like the reception it should have received, in my opinion. Christine Girard, you rock, and you make me proud. I’ll never forget that you were first, fierce and female, and I hope your accomplishment spurs on the next generation of Canadian weightlifters!
If I can help anyone achieve competency at the snatch and clean & jerk, please drop me a line and let me know. My method of instruction is a very simple four stage approach to hip lifting as outlined by Glenn Pendlay in the Cal Strength youtube videos.
Thanks for reading! Start young and train often! Failing that, train smart, train hard, listen to your body and never quit.