Olympic Lifting: A Master’s Tale
On April 3, 2017, I’ll turn 45 years old. That’s the easy part.
If all goes well, I’ll also weigh 77 kg (169.7 lbs). That’s a bit harder.
I begin with those two numbers because they are two of the four most important numbers I’ll be thinking about over the next eighteen months.
I decided to train for and compete in one of the two USA Weightlifting Masters’ events here in the U.S. In order to do that, I’ll be competing in the 45-49 age division and the 77 kg weight class.
The 45 years old is pretty easy to hit. That’s coming whether I like it or not. The 77 kilograms is a little tricker, but we’ll get to that in a second.
Let’s start with what the hell this thing is that I’m doing.
Olympic lifting weightlifting events consist of two movements: snatch and clean & jerk. Each weight class has a winner, which is determined by adding up the totals from each lift (and making adjustments for the competitor’s body weight). There’s some more complex formulas used for best lifter, but that’s not important right now.
If these movements sound only vaguely familiar to you (or not familiar at all), you’re not alone. Unless you’re a CrossFitter, Powerlifter, or an Olympic lifting junkie, the only time you’d see these lifts is during the Summer Olympics. Even then, it’s not likely that you’ve spent much time thinking about them.
You can click on those links above and check out what it looks like when a real pro does it.
Okay, good. Now you know what it’s supposed to look like.
What I’ve got to do in order to qualify for either the National or the American Masters is hit a specific, cumulative weight total in a sanctioned meet. In other words: Add my best snatch lift to my best clean & jerk lift. Boom: cumulative total.
While my coach and I don’t know what the 2017 totals will be in order for me to qualify, we do know the 2015 totals were 165 kilograms (363.7 lbs). As of today, my total is 161 (Snatch: 74; C&J: 89), which is only an unofficial total. I haven’t actually lifted in any sanctioned events yet. And I’ll need to add at least 4 kg (8.8 lbs) to my total just to qualify.
And I need to do that after I shed another 8 kilograms (16.7 lbs), which involves not eating lots of chocolate and carbs, two of my very favorite things. So far, I’m down 8.3 kilograms (18.2 lbs) from where I began but the journey is far, far from over.
The real takeaway is this: I’m not that far off from qualifying and I have more than a year to train to do it.
But The Real Question Is Why, Why Are You Doing This Old Man
Why am I doing this? Isn’t it dangerous? Isn’t that bad on your knees?
I get it. Running makes sense to people. Swimming makes sense. Training at a gym using elliptical machines makes sense.
Heaving up and then diving and squatting under heavy weights doesn’t make sense. It certainly doesn’t seem like an old man’s gam.
So those questions come up. A lot. Particularly from the over-forty crowd (which includes my parents). And the conversation almost always ends up with a discussion about the dangers of the sport.
To the untrained eye, I get that Olympic lifting looks dangerous. You’re using your entire body (not your arms, mind you) to throw big, heavy weights just a bit above your hips and then you’re swinging under the bar to catch them.
That’s…intimidating. And a little fucking stupid. And more than a little scary. It’s still scary for me, and I’ve been doing it for three years. Every time you step up to that bar, you have to remind yourself that you can — and will — catch that bar.
Which doesn’t mean people are too scared to try. Quite the opposite. Like anything else, Olympic lifting may not be for everyone.
I’ve just found that their concerns about Olympic lifting are not mine. In part that’s because I’ve got a badass USA Weightlifting coach, Jeff Edwards, who makes sure that you never take on more than you should, and who emphasizes moving properly over moving heavy weight.
Yet even with all that, you can still get hurt. Accidents happen. Age happens. You can be as careful as you can, and you can still get hurt.
So yeah, I get why Olympic lifting isn’t for everybody.
But it sure is for me.
Very, Very, Very Humble Beginnings
Since this first post is about questions, I’ll end this entry with the next-most-common question: How in the great holy shit did I get started doing this?
The truth: I didn’t mean to.
In April 2012, I joined Broad Ripple Fit Club (then CrossFit Broad Ripple). I wasn’t sure exactly what the CrossFit phenomenon was all about, but I was interested in joining a community of people who placed fitness and a healthy lifestyle at the center of their lives.
I was a runner at the time. I’d spent a summer running big trails throughout the South and Southwest. I’d trained and run my first (and only) ultra marathon. What I wasn’t was a weightlifter. I could run for days, but if you put a bar with weights in my hand I could barely move.
For months — actually probably for a good year — I wasn’t seeing many tangible gains with my lifts. I went to the gym five days a week. I felt like I was getting stronger. But I just couldn’t move the weight.
There were so many days I just wanted to throw in the towel, go back to running, and not worry about the technical nature of these damned lifts. Check out one of my first sessions learning how to Power Clean (Age: 41).
The more I completed CrossFit workouts, the more I found myself gravitating towards the technical side of lifting. In many ways, CrossFit workouts are about volume, speed, and endurance. You’re pushing through Workouts of the Day (WODs). You’re doing big sets of lifting, sprinting, gymnastics.
Class was fun. But I wasn’t mentally stimulated.
Before long, I found myself coming to the gym on my off days to work on the technical aspect of the snatch and the clean & jerk. I spent hours doing the ancillary movements necessary to build up the strength in your legs, you back, your shoulders, and all the little places in between that allow you to seamlessly move that bar from the floor to above your head.
By November 2013 (age: 41) — twenty months after I’d joined CrossFit — something magical happened (even though my form was just utterly terrible). I hit a 63.5 kgs (140 lbs) snatch.
This probably doesn’t seem very magical to you. That’s understandable. It’s the worst magic trick ever. It’s one that was only meaningful to me, and one that required lots of work done alone in the gym.
But I’d been trying to break through the 61 kg (135 lbs) mark for months, and couldn’t. I have video upon video of missed lifts and shitty form.
So even though I nearly ran this lift out of the gym, I was stoked (as you’ll see by grin). At that moment — that day in the gym after I hit that lift — I decided that I wanted to learn how to perfect the Olympic lifting technique, and see what my body could do.
Even if my body can’t do today what it could do ten years ago.
What I didn’t realize was this: The body of a Masters athlete is quite different from the body of a Senior- or University-level athlete. And all those concerns that people expressed to me — the ones about injuries and pain — are real. Very real.