My Long, Slow Love Affair with Olympic Lifting

When I walked in Broad Ripple Fit Club three-and-a-half years ago, I knew next-to-nothing about Olympic lifting. Like many American men, I grew up playing baseball and football and soccer. I ran a little track and cross-country.

What I didn’t do is lift. Well that’s not entirely true. I’d done the curls and leg presses and bench presses that you see in most gyms. But I hadn’t done much in the way of training.

Still, I thought: How hard can lifting weights really be?

The answer: Really hard.

Which doesn’t mean that you can’t do it. Quite the opposite. The moves are so technical and beautiful that no matter your strength or body weight, you can get good at these movements. It doesn’t take long to begin moving more weight than you ever thought possible.

The true beauty of the art: When you do it right, the weight floats like a feather in the air. (Of course, it then crashes down on you because…gravity. So don’t get too enamored with the grace of it all.)

The secret: Set aside your ego, strip off all that weight on the bar, start at square one, and do the work.

Three years into this, and I’m still very early in the journey. I’ve still got so much to learn about how my body moves and how to get my mind in the right space. When you can master those two things — your body and your mind — you see amazing things happen.

As part of the “get your mind in the right space,” I thought now would be a good time to revisit just how far I’ve come. The reason: We just ended max week (the time in training where you re-check how much you’ve improved on the six major lifts we track) and  my body is feeling not so fresh right now.

August 2013: 34-kg Snatch (Setting Ego Aside)

This was from one of my first snatch training days, after I realized that I had no idea how this movement worked. And I realized that when my coach Jeff Edwards walked up to me on my first day, watched me snatch, and said (while waving his hand in a circle): “Everything you just did is wrong.”

I immediately liked that guy. I set aside my ego, dropped most of the weight off the bar, and started from Square One. I was here for several months trying to figure out exactly how all of these moving parts were supposed to work together.

November 2013: 63.5-kg Snatch (Dipping My Toes in the Water)

I was still terrible at the movements, but I was intrigued. Olympic lifting, I found, wasn’t about brute strength. It’s not the bench press. It’s not the deadlift. I’ve watched guys with giant biceps get handily out-lifted by women half their size.

This interested me. I wanted to understand how these movements worked.

Until then, I’d done CrossFit almost exclusively, attending the Saturday Olympic lifting class from time-to-time and when it didn’t interfere with my running schedule. But I’d grown a bit weary of CrossFit. The programming was amazing, but there were too many movements for me to master. I couldn’t learn the snatch, the clean, double unders, rope climbs, muscle ups, kipping pull-ups, and the rest.

Or more accurately, I could learn them but I wasn’t great at them. And I wanted to be great. Or at least really good. Hell, I’d settle for good.

So I began training almost exclusively on the snatch, a movement I wanted to perfect. (The clean & jerk is more forgiving, which is why I started with the more technical movement.)

The problem: I was also still bad at this movement. I didn’t really understand how the initial pull worked, where my butt was supposed to go, how to swing my hips forward into the bar (instead of pulling the bar back to me), how to explode up, and how to snap the bar into place.

But I’d made the decision: This is what I wanted to learn.

September 2014: 70.3-kg Snatch (Decision Point & The Injury)

I spent the next year doing three things: working by myself in the morning on ancillary movements, attending Olympic lifting classes, and training with my coach in one-on-one sessions to help me set the movements.

I needed to strengthen my body. I did overhead squats, drop snatch balances, heaving snatch balances, press-in-snatch, and a host of movements that I’d never heard of before. This was amazingly humbling for someone who’d done athletics. Hell, I’d run an ultra marathon (50K) the year before.

Surely I could lift some weights.

But I couldn’t.

Running didn’t prepare me for Olympic lifting in any way. In fact, long-distance running was working against my lifting. My running required me to sustain movement for hours at a time. My lifting required maximum effort exerted in less than a second.

So I spent a year in the gym, working, working, and working. I wasn’t getting much better, but I was getting stronger. I had a lot of retraining to do. To motivate myself, I set a goal: 80-kg by December 2014.

This was the first day I hit 70.3. I’d grown strong enough to lift much more, but my body and my form weren’t yet working together. The moves still felt disjointed. But I’d reached the point where I was about to start getting better if I could just put everything together.

Then disaster.

I got hurt just a few weeks after this. I had a bulging disk, an injury that required me to stop everything. For nearly nine months, I feared every step, every sneeze, and every movement. A weird selection of movements would send me tumbling to the floor with back spasms.

My training stopped. In fact, I feared that my Olympic lifting days were over. I was convinced that I’d hurt myself with all the lifting.

Not the case, my doctor and physical therapist said. The injury happened because I continued to run twenty-to-thirty miles a week, to lift four-to-five times a week, and to commute eight hours each way every other week between Pittsburgh and Indianapolis.

The constant sitting, the pounding from running, and the exertion of lifting worked together to confuse my body, which at this point was now forty years old and not happy about being tricked.

January 2016: 76-kg Snatch (Finally Starting to Lift)

Then magically the pain stopped.

I started back to CrossFit in July 2015, nine months after my injury. I spent two months slowly getting back into shape, testing my back, building up my endurance. I didn’t worry much about the Olympic lifts until mid-September. And I didn’t come back to Olympic lifting full-time until late November.

Since I returned, I’ve felt stronger, smarter, and better at the movements. There are three reasons that happened:

  • I’ve started tracking my food again. (You can find me on MyFitnessPal.)
  • I’ve stopped running, and focused only on Olympic lifting.
  • And I’ve started working more closely with other lifters and following my coaches programming (mostly) to the letter.

The result of focusing on those three things: After struggling at 70-kgs for months — and I mean months — before my injury, I’ve zoomed past that weight in just the six weeks that I’ve been

In less than a month, I’ll compete in my first local event. I don’t have any concrete goals set for this competition yet, although I’d like to total in the neighborhood of 160 kgs, a modest goal if I hit my 95 percent lifts on the platform. Regardless of February’s outcome, I’ve given myself a full calendar year to train before the 2017 Masters events.

Now that I’m all in on Olympic lifting, I want to see how far I can push my body and mind.