Olympic Lifting: The Power and the Glory

Olympic weightlifting might just be the sexiest sport there is, a near-perfect blend of strength, agility, complexity and grace that if done right, brings the lifter face to face with an acute combination of the strong and the beautiful.  When an Olympic lift comes off, body and mind come together.

An Olympic lift–the clean and jerk, and the snatch–is not a simple lift in the original sense of ‘simple’. It is not one thing. It is complex–and complex things, as Aristotle told us, require analysis into their constituents; it has many parts and all its individual components need to be drilled extensively. The barbell and PVC drills that precede an Olympic lifting session then, are tedious but essential. They are tiring. (Many is the time when my shoulders have ached from just the pre-lifting drills.) In the case of the snatch: the high scarecrow pull, the muscle snatch, the drop under; and then incredibly enough, you combine them into, hopefully, one indivisible movement, and realize how they come together. At lighter weights the drill works; all is well in God’s world. Then, despair, for at heavier weights the lift starts to break down. Here is where grace under pressure is required, a struggle to fight, to remember the drill, to maintain fidelity to form.

Coaching tips for Olympic lifts can thus attain shadings of both the poetic and the everyday. Consider the question of how you should have your knees and hips bent for the ‘jumping position’ as you move into the ‘hip-opening’ position. Well, how would you flex them if you wanted to reach up and touch the ceiling? Think of that position, that flex, that partial squat, poised to head upwards, which every kid, every human perhaps, knows instinctively.  That’s how you want to be when you are in the hang position. Or you will hear Olympic lifting described as ‘jumping with barbells.’ Think about it:  ‘jumping with barbells.’ Would you ever have imagined weightlifting described in those terms? Once you connect that dynamic motion with moving weight, which ordinarily conjured up visions of slow grinding movements, you begin to glimpse the heart and soul of Olympic lifting.

To do well in Olympic lifting is to overcome your sense of disbelief at the sheer unlikeliness of it all: How is that motion possible? Is it really possible to throw that barbell over your head? Of the two Olympic lifts, the snatch is especially improbable: How does the barbell unfurl like that over your head even as you seem to jump up and then down under it? But it can happen; if you pay attention and don’t let frustration get the better of you. And that is where paying attention to the component movements is crucial–they are what make the lift possible–they are what enable the overcoming of the sheer physical improbability of it all.

But the true beauty of the Olympic lift is to realize that this is a strength movement that requires you to have the grace and balance of a ballet dancer, the explosive muscle recruitment and deployment of a sprinter and the strength of a…weightlifter. Because you must concentrate on the lift and its components, you can teach yourself the vital skill of zoning in on a task at hand, an act of concentration and living in the moment that if cultivated, transfers well to life off the lifting platform. And because many attempts at lifts will not come off you will learn patience.

So in learning an Olympic lift you do more than train your body, you train your mind too. And how useful is that?

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