Today I’ve got something special for y’all. As some of you may know, my blog pal Robert Read, a fellow writer who did such a great job critiquing my manuscript for The Compass Master, just also happens to be a serious practitioner of Olympic weightlifting. What some of you may not know is that this sport is a superb way of getting in shape for Layla-type action-hero activities.
And so to enlighten you, Robert has generously agreed to be a guest on this blog today. Here is his superb essay on the art of Olympic weightlifting. Enjoy!
“The fountain of youth of has been found, and it shaped like a heavily loaded barbell.”
Olympic weightlifting is a basalt island thrust up amid a slopping, surging ocean of diets, fads, crazes, trademarked farragoes of Oriental philosophy melded to Western iron and snake oil. Until it was adopted by the recent fad of Crossfit, it was considered an advanced technique that was mostly done by serious college and professional athletes.
Please don’t confuse Olympic weightlifting with the Mr. and Ms. Olympia competitions, which are body-building competitions primarily about who can take the most androgenic male steroids without growing, or while retaining, tits.
Olympic weightlifting is what they do in the Olympics. Both men and women compete in distinct weight classes. The highest weight classes of course favor very large people. All the other weight classes favor strong, athletic people, who are not terribly tall in proportion to their weight. Women who compete are small and strong. They are thicker than fashion models, but still very attractive, at least to me. Men who compete tend to have Herculean physiques, by which I mean heavily muscled and not slender, with low body fat but not shredded the way body-builders are during a competition.
This is a picture of Piros Dimas, an Olympic champion.
And below is a picture of Melanie Roach, an American Champion.
When I was thirty-two, I was a 240-pound ball of goo. I began a standard Olympic weightlifting routine in about 3 months had become a muscular, slightly overweight man of 240 pounds. I went to a small local competition (I had to drive 250 miles to LSU) where skinny teenage football players outlifted me. Those three months changed my life. I had lifted weights, run, and biked for all my life. No other fitness routine or diet has had such a profound impact on my body as did Olympic weightlifting.
Olympic lifting is, on the surface, simplicity itself. You take a bar and lift it over your head. You do this in two legal lifts. The first is the snatch, in which you raise the bar over you head to locked elbows in a squat, and then stand up. The second is called the clean and jerk. It consists of two movements. The clean is raising the bar to your throat, the jerk is raising the bar overhead to locked elbows and standing straight up and still for one second. Doing it, however, is not simple. It is 50% raw strength and 50% technique.
It is, however, elegant, because you need no more equipment than a bar and enough room. No cages, benches, shirts, belts, pulleys, or machines. As you get better, it does help to have special shoes which don’t squish down when you have a heavy weight on your shoulder or your arms, and it is nice to have platform where you can drop your weights safely, and it is nice to have a good Olympic bar with bumper plates made of rubber rather than iron for the same reason, but I had none of those things when I started.
You can clean and jerk about 50% more than you can snatch. A body-weight clean and jerk is respectable. Body-weight-and-a-half would be locally competitive. Double body-weight is world-class.
We must ask ourselves: why do so many people believe something so simple is so effective? Why is this better than a complex battery of machines? Why should we believe that the clean-and-jerk is a total body exercise?
In the first place, you must understand that Olympic lifts are the most intense action that a human being can exert in 2 to 5 seconds. Sprinting 40-meter dash or less comes in a distant second. Both lifts are performed in a very short period of time, as explosively as possible. The lifts are, essentially, weighted jumps, recruiting as much of the human musculature as possible. The lower back, the glutes, the hams, the quadriceps, the calves, the trapezius, are all used in the initial pull. The abdominal and intercostal muscles are exercised to maintain thoracic pressure. A heavy pull can only be done while holding your breath—trust me on this, or try it. A heavy pull causes the biceps to grow; I don’t know if this is because you contract your biceps to stabilize your arms, or because hormonal changes make all of your muscles grow, but I did no bicep exercises at all for 3 months and my biceps got bigger from my Olympic lifting routine. The completion of the lifts, where the bar is overhead, again exercises the entire back, the shoulders, and triceps. The lifts even exercise the gripping muscles of the hand and forearm. (The lats, used in doing chin-ups, are the only muscle that is not exercised by the Oly lifts, the exception that proves the rule.)
I weigh 220 pounds today (I am 46), and clean and jerk about 154 pounds a few times in my normal workout. That is nothing to crow about. Many, many high school boys and girls, if you take body weight into account, do better. But forgetting that for a moment, understand that I am raising the bar to the full 7-foot extension of my arms over my head. I am 5 foot 10, and the bar starts about a foot off the ground (due to the diameter of the plates) so I am moving 154 pounds through 6 feet of motion in about 5 seconds (because I stop to take a breath and narrow my stance after the clean and before the jerk.) This of course does not include the two raisings of my own body-mass which is a necessary part of the exercise. This is a tremendous amount of physical work, in the sense of physics, that is being done in a short period of time. (Actually, to be precise, it is about 1000 foot-pounds of work.) In physics, we call work per unit time: power. More than any other sport, Olympic weightlifting is about maximizing power.
Since I normally exercise at somewhat less than my one-repetition maximum exertion, I would typically try to clean-and-jerk 154 pounds for 3 repetitions, with no rest, or only a few seconds, in between reps. This might take about a very intense 45 seconds. I feel light-headed and my heart is audibly pounding after this.
The effect on the body is to stimulate the fast-twitch muscles as much as possible. These are the muscles that have poor endurance, but can deliver great power for brief periods of time. They are also the easiest to stimulate to growth in the human body. This maximizes the impact on the physique, and maximizes the human readiness to respond to brief, emergency situations, such as jumping away from an oncoming vehicle or fighting. Things that Layla Daltry, the heroine of Helena Soister’s novel, has to do.
I prefer scientific evidence, but unfortunately we don’t have rigorous studies based just on Olympic lifting. I would like therefore to present to you my own personal opinions, based on surmise, anecdotes, and certain amount of educated guessing.
I think everyone should learn to do some Olympic lifting and do it on a regular basis. I do not mean that everyone should make this their sport, or do the Olympic lifts every workout or even every week. I just mean that it should be considered a standard exercise, along with pushups, situps, and chinups.
The weaker you are, the more benefit you derive from a small amount of Olympic lifting. It will make a strong man a little stronger, but it will make a weak, bird-boned little old lady a lot stronger. A weak person of course will not be lifting a heavy weight—but will still derive tremendous benefit from it. An empty bar weighs 44 lbs. There are plenty of people who would benefit from the exercise of lifting 44 lbs over their head. I wish I had been able to get my grandmother to do it as she aged and became frail and eventually died.
We know that load-bearing exercise fights osteoporosis. It stands to reason that Oly lifting, which is surely the most load-bearing of any exercise, does so in spades.
The Oly lifts strengthen the back. I am surrounded by people at work who are nearly debilitated by back pain. I can’t prove that the Oly lifts prevent back injuries—in fact, you may pull a muscle in your back doing the lifts. But a strong back prevents much more serious back injuries.
The Olympic lifts are basically weighted jumps. They increase the capacity known as “vertical leap”. When I was lifting a lot my vertical leap went from 6 inches to more than 2 feet. Under a standard ceiling, I could jump up flat footed and touch my elbow to the ceiling. I could touch the rim of a 10 foot basketball goal (I never could dunk, however.)
I believe the lifts make you look more attractive. A small amount of Olympic weightlifting is not going to make anyone thick or blocky or anyway unfeminine. If a woman feels she is getting too muscular, she can just stop.
The short, intense exercise of weightlifting does not provide all of the cardiovascular benefits that longer-duration exercise, such as running, swimming, biking or walking provide. However, it does control high blood pressure, and it does increase the volume blood that heart can pump with each beat.
In summary the benefits of Olympic lifting are:
ñ Making you stronger,
ñ Fighting osteoporosis,
ñ Preventing back injury,
ñ Improving some aspects of cardiovascular function,
ñ Increasing vertical leap and jumping ability,
ñ Exercising almost every muscle in the body in a single action, and
ñ Improving the physique.
So, no matter who you are or what your fitness level is, I recommend you find someone who knows how to do the Olympic lifts with proper technique and make them part of your health regime. Don’t worry about how much you can lift, just focus on technique, and strength and power will come.
None of us will live forever, but we need not go gently into the night.