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The 4 Lessons I Learned from Olympic-Style Weightlifting

All right, I’ll admit it, this is a shameless rip-off of a blog post that one of our other therapists, Jake, wrote about the life lessons he learned from being a competitive swimmer up through college at Alabama. But, it’s a great idea, and they say imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, right? So I’m gonna run with it. However, I certainly was NOT a successful collegiate athlete, but I figured I could talk about the sport I love, and hopefully share some interesting insights too.

You may not be super familiar with the sport of Weightlifting, so I’ll give you a quick overview. Weightlifting competitions consist of testing how much weight someone can lift in two movements: the snatch, and the clean & jerk. In the snatch, a barbell is taken from the ground to overhead in one fluid movement, with extended elbows supporting the weight overhead. See below:

Lu Xiaojun snatching 175kg@ 77kg bodyweight

In the Clean and Jerk, the weight is taken from ground to overhead in two movements: first lifted from the ground to the shoulders (Clean) and then taken from the shoulders to overhead with locked out arms (Jerk). Again, see below:

Jourdan Delacruz Clean and Jerking 108kg @ 49kg bodyweight

That’s it! That’s the entire sport. Every athlete gets 3 tries at each of the two lifts, and whomever has the highest combined total weight lifted from the two lifts wins! There are many more technical rules but I won’t bore you with the details, but now we’re on the same page with what sport we’re talking about. This is the sport that I participate in, and I love it! I’ve tried taking breaks from it, but somehow I always find my way back to the barbell. With that said, let me give you some lessons I’ve taken away from this sport through the years.

1. Enjoy the process

This is a simple one, but ultimately one of the most important. As I mentioned, this is a pretty simple sport. Every day I go to the gym, I’m doing some variation of those two lifts, or doing something like squatting or pressing to make me stronger for those two lifts. I will definitely say, many people would find it boring! There’s not a lot of variation, I repeat workouts week after week, trying to make them just 1% better each time. And this would be absolutely miserable, IF I didn’t enjoy the process itself. A lot of people have a lot of health and fitness related goals, like getting stronger, losing weight, improving their diet etc. but many of these fail. Most of the time, I’d argue, they fail because people hate what they’re doing! They start going to the gym doing workouts they dread, eat food they don’t like, and become miserable because of it! You don’t HAVE to do barbell workouts to get stronger, and you can have a health-promoting dietary pattern while still eating food you like. If you hate the lifestyle changes you make, how successful do you think you’re going to be in making them stick? My advice: find the small, sustainable changes that you actually enjoy and focus on the process.

2. Take things one rep at a time

I mentioned before that at a weightlifting competition, you get 3 attempts in the snatch, and 3 attempts in the clean and jerk. As with many things in life, sometimes things don’t quite go as planned. Oftentimes, lifters can out and fail their first attempt in one of the lifts. If it’s a really bad day, they might even miss their second. What happens after that becomes more about the mental battle than anything else, and that’s where this next lesson comes in. Weightlifting has taught me to learn from my mistakes, but not dwell on them. Fixating on why I may have missed a previous attempt, or becoming frustrated with myself and losing focus can make mistakes multiply. But, over time, you develop the skill of separating yourself from the moment, observing and accepting what errors you made, and apply that knowledge to the next lift. Failure is data that allows us to make a more educated attempt the next go-round, but it’s very easy to become caught up in the negative emotions of the moment. But in our lives, if we can recognize the areas in which we fall short, observe them without judgment, but view them only as data from which to learn, we can do better in the future.

3. Increasing the minimums

In Weightlifting, we’re talking about lifting the most amount of weight over your head that you possibly can that day. However, this doesn’t happen in training as much as you may think. Depending on the athlete, you might take a true ‘max out’ effort once every month or two, if we’re talking about a maximum attempt snatch or clean and jerk. While there are a few reasons for this, one of the main ones is that you simply won’t be at your absolute best on any given day. Think about this - do you think Usain Bolt could match his fastest 100m dash once or twice a week? No chance! Those personal records (PR) are hard to come by, especially the longer you practice a sport. There are gonna be bad days, tired days, days when you only have an hour to train, days when you don’t feel like training at all. But I learned about another interesting way to look at things to continue to measure progress: increasing the minimums. What I mean is this - what is the minimum weight I can lift today, even on a bad, tired, frustrated day. What numbers can I lift, even on my worst day. I may not be setting a new PR, but if I used to only be able to snatch 60kg on my worst days, and now I can snatch 70kg, we know that’s progress. This has served me a great deal in my life outside of weightlifting too - remembering that every day is not going to be my best, but trying to do what little bit I can, every day. When you’ve got a big task to tackle, or a big problem you want to address, try thinking about it from this approach, and see if it makes it feel a little more manageable.

4. Consistency beats intensity

This one may seem like a no brainer, but it has been a tough pill for me to swallow. I tend to take care of projects in bursts - I allow a task to linger for a little while, and then I make this superhuman effort all at once to get it done. Sometimes this can come in handy with tasks that require a burst of effort, such as helping someone move, but weightlifting requires a different approach. If I go into the gym and just work myself to death one day, it would take me 3 or 4 days to recover before I could have a productive workout again. As it turns out, this is not the most productive way to get better at a sport. I’ve had to modify my strategy to make my efforts much more consistent over time, and stacking workout after workout rather than just crushing myself for a week or two and expecting to make huge improvements. Not only does this allow for more productive training, because I’m not crushing myself, but it allows me to not be so subject to the day-to-day changes in performance. In reference to my previous lesson about the minimums, when I was trying to make big, intense progress, I would often have large swings in performance, which made it hard to judge if I was really making progress, or if I just had a lucky day. But, putting in the effort day after day, I am able to notice trends more easily, and am able to take a more informed approach to training. This is a huge life lesson for me, as there are so many different tasks that require different approaches to solve. Sure, it is useful to be able to kick it into high gear when I need to, but having the skills and perception to know when to take a ‘slow and steady’ mindset is a game changer.

Weightlifting is a heck of a sport, and I’m certain I’m going to be trying to improve for a long time to come. I love the process of working and training to improve, and when you finally hit that new personal record, there aren’t many feelings in the world that are better. I’m grateful for the lessons weightlifting has taught me about life along the way, and I’m sure those lessons won’t be stopping any time soon either.

Thanks for reading!

Jesse Brown, PT, DPT

Along with his education as a Doctor of Physical Therapy, Jesse brings an extensive background in exercise to the clinic. With experience across all different types of weight training, including Olympic-style weightlifting, CrossFit, and powerlifting, you can be sure that Jesse has the expertise to help you get where you want to go!

When he’s not helping individuals in the clinic, Jesse can be found practicing what he preaches - lifting the bar. He is an avid weightlifter, competing and refereeing locally through USA weightlifting.

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