Climbing the stairs I can hear the thumps getting louder. Thud. Thud. THUD. And then I see it, through a small window in the door. The Lifting Room. As I open the door the smell of sweat and chalk reaches into my nostrils, it isn't unpleasant, but then its no bouquet of roses either. Inside, the room itself is surprisingly small, less than 200 square feet total, with lifting platforms dotted around all sides. In the corner, a recess lined with heavy looking bumper plates and a row of barbells looms ominously.
I spot an elderly looking gentleman coaching an athletically built girl through a movement I know to be the jerk. “Now dip, and PUSH” he instructs, as the girl, on command, dips through her legs, before explosively pushing a barbell clean over her head. She steadies herself. “Good” says the man, and she drops the weight, setting it down almost apologetically. The man suddenly notices me and confidently strides over, “You must be Dan?” he says with a smile offering me his hand, I take it and we shake firmly “I’m Terry, very pleased to meet you”. This, is how I began my Olympic Weightlifting Journey.
Olympic weightlifting as a sport has been around for well over a hundred years. It was included in the very first Olympic Games, though in a somewhat different form from todays standards, which were implemented definitively in the games of 1972. It consist of two movements, the snatch and the clean & jerk, both of which are performed separately then added together to determine an athletes maximum lift total. Each weightlifter receives three attempts in each, and the combined total of the highest two successful lifts determines the overall result within a competition.
Now not all people who use the olympic lifts, do so with the intention of taking part at a competitive level. Indeed, more recently Olympic Weightlifting has been heavily adopted by two very different schools of people. The first, are strength and conditioning coaches, who recognised the lifts as fantastic tools to help condition their athletes and develop explosive strength, the transference of which into other sports has been shown to be hugely beneficial. The other group, who it could be argued are at the centre of the sports renaissance, are Crossfit athletes. Crossfit has exploded over the “gym scene” in a global way, and, for the most part, has helped thousands of people achieve fitness through its community driven, “constantly” varied training programme. And so as part of this constantly varied framework of fitness, they have incorporated the Olympic Lifts.
Now if someone was to witness a person carrying out the lifts, someone untrained and unfamiliar with them I might add, then they might be fooled into thinking that the movements involved in performing them are not all that complex. When properly executed, the snatch and the clean & jerk are both dynamic and explosive while at the same time, appear graceful, and, to a point, effortless. This, let me tell you, is not the case. Every lift, every weight heaved and thrown, is far from an effortless endeavour. These are heavily choreographed, biomechanically complex, max effort movements, that take months and months to master, and that’s precisely why their growing popularity in gyms across the country, is mildly worrying.
Six months after walking through the doors of Team Manchester Weightlifting and shaking hands with head coach Terry Surridge, I finally begin to feel like I can snatch, clean and jerk with something approaching consistent competency. Six months of two, three hour training sessions a week, and I just about feel like I’m beginning to “get it”. Don’t get me wrong, some people do pick it up more quickly than others, of that there’s no denying. Take Akeem Baballoa. While Terry occupies the role of head coach at Team Manchester, Akeem is by default, his second in command, the guy tasked with the hands on training of new members at the club. Having turned 23 he now competes at national level, but prior to that, has represented England at almost every level since starting the sport at the ripe old age of 14. “Some people just pick it up more quickly, Akeem was one of those people. Having come from a background of gymnastics and dance, he already had a fantastic base of strength, but that isn't to take away from his raw ability, that kid took to weightlifting fast.” Akeem stands roughly 5, 5” and weighs a lean 65kg. To look at, he’s no beast. His body is lithe. Wolf lean and clearly athletic, but without much of the bulk you’d expect to see on most of the bro’s filling gyms across the country looking to get swoll. Given his stature, you wouldn't expect the guy to have a lifting PR of over 250KG total. Believe me when I say, thats huge. Thats the thing with Olympic Weightlifting. It isn't a sport that will get you in fitness model shape, not on its own anyway. But as a means for developing power, strength and explosive capability, theres’ few methods that can beat it. Its also supremely effective in terms of developing CNS efficiency at recruiting motor units, and in developing inter-muscular co-ordination. Of course, all of these benefits are only properly harnessed when the lifts are performed correctly.
As I mentioned earlier, Olympic lifting is enjoying something of a moment, and with good reason (see all the benefits listed above). While its renaissance is without doubt a good thing for the long term future of the sport, it has also created some rather unfortunate repercussions: More specifically, poor coaching from unqualified instructors. I’ve stopped counting the number of people Ive seen teaching the lifts incorrectly in gym’s across the country. Rushing the first pull, reverse curling the bar overhead and catching it in a position closer to the start of a dive then an overhead squat. Without even going into the very real risk of injury this practise poses, being taught the lifts by someone who themselves doesn't know how to properly perform them, is a sure fire way to negate all the positive effects the lifts have in developing an athletes ability to produce power and speed strength. It’s a direct route to habituated bad movement patterns and basic mobility problems.
At this point, I feel like I have to stress that I am not, by any means trying to scare people away from the Olympic lifts themselves, far from it. Since incorporating them into my training over a year ago, my markers for performances with regards to power output have all increased. My vertical jump, 20 meter sprint time and standing broad jump distance have all improved. The hype, it would seem, is very real. Olympic Weightlifting truly is a golden gateway to improved athletic performance, ask any S&C coach worth his salt. It simply needs to be taught by those who know what they're doing. So when you’re choosing an instructor, don’t be fooled by “two day workshop accredited” instructors, with a seemingly legitimate governing body certificate backing them up. Take the time to find out a little about their experience in the sport. Have they lifted competitively? Do they belong to a club? How long have they practiced and/or taught the lifts themselves? Basic due diligence like this can really make the difference between finding a teacher who can unlock your lifting potential, or one who’ll leave you with bad habits and poor technique. Olympic lifting truly is a wonderful way to exercise, just make sure you’re doing it the right.