Differences in Technique

No two weightlifters look the same when they lift; there’s always going to be some difference in technique due to either how they were taught or simply due to the fact that their bodies are different. Having short vs. long femurs, arms, and torso is going to affect they way an athlete executes any movement.

Today I’ll be exploring some differences in technique between elite-level lifters and why these differences don’t really matter at all. First, some example videos:

Ilya Ilyin snatching 191kg

And Lu Xiaojun snatching 170, 175, and attempting 177kg

A few differences are noticeable here. For starters, Lu drags the barbell up his thighs to reach his hips, where as Ilya does not – he only makes contact with the bar at his hips, not before. Secondly, Ilya pulls the bar off the ground with much greater speed, where Lu pulls the bar relatively slowly. This is due to a difference in training philosophies. Ilya hails from Kazakhstan, a former member of the USSR and a country which has adopted many Soviet training methods – one of these is to emphasize pulling strength. Lu, on the other hand, is from China, which emphasizes leg/squatting strength over pulling strength, which explains why he has never struggled to stand up with a snatch or a clean. Thirdly, Lu’s lifting overall simply looks much smoother than Ilya’s. This is also due to how each lifter was taught – Chinese lifters are taught a “Chinese-style” pull, which results in more thigh contact (explaining my first point) but also emphasizes smoothness and control over the bar. Kazakh athletes are taught to make their pull more explosive, resulting in two different lifting styles.

Now, let’s look at how different body types influence lifting technique.

Here’s Arli Chontey of Kazakhstan clean and jerking 150kg

And here’s Ilya again clean and jerking 246 kg

Chontey has incredibly short arms, even among Olympic weightlifters, which results in him making contact with the bar at his hip during the clean . Ilya has comparatively longer arms, meaning that he makes contact with the bar at the upper thigh. Neither technique is more or less efficient, they’re simply better suited for lifters with different bodies.

Lifters with all different body types and techniques have won Olympic medals and set world records, because in the end, as long as you follow a few central rules to Olympic weightlifting, the exact specifics of how you lift don’t matter. The first and most important of these rules is to keep the barbell as close to your body as possible. The Chinese achieve this by dragging the bar up their thighs – the bar literally couldn’t be closer to them. Russian and Kazakh athletes do this by emphasizing back strength when they train, allowing them to keep the bar close enough to their bodies even if they don’t make contact until the last second. Second, these lifters stay over the bar as long as possible, meaning that they keep their shoulders directly above the barbell for as long as they can which ensures a more efficient lift. Third, these lifters stay balanced over the middle of their feet for the entire lift, mostly as a result of following the first two rules. By staying balanced, they are reducing the chance that the barbell goes too far forward or backward, causing them to miss a lift. And possibly most importantly, these lifters are consistent – almost inhumanly so. From lift to lift, their form doesn’t change. Looking at the video of Lu snatching above, the difference between his attempts at 170kg and 175kg are unnoticeable, if they even exist. Consistency is the key to becoming truly great in Olympic weightlifting – it doesn’t matter if you can lift a lot one day out of every year. It’s better if you can lift just a little bit less but do it every single day.

Starting Weightlifting

Quick edit: I’ve just been told that this is in fact not our last passion blog post. Oops.

Hopefully, over the past 10 weeks I’ve managed to pique your interest about Olympic weightlifting at least a little bit. Weightlifting is an incredibly complex and nuanced sport – if I’ve done my job of writing this blog extremely well, you may be starting to wonder if Olympic weightlifting is for you. Many people see videos of these athletes performing incredible feats of strength and athleticism and are intimidated – I know that I was at first (and still am, to some extent). You see these elite lifters in competition and think “Man, I’m never going to be able to do that.” And truth be told, 99.99% of people never will. But like pretty much every other sport, most Olympic weightlifters do it not because they think they’ll be able to compete internationally and win Olympic medals, but because they love the sport and genuinely enjoy lifting weights – I know for sure that’s why I do it.

All that being said, if you are interested in picking up Olympic weightlifting, there are many ways to start. If you want to learn to snatch and clean & jerk, ideally you’d find a coach who lives near you and can provide in person, one-on-one instruction. Having immediate feedback available is incredibly helpful, as is training under the eye of someone who knows what they’re doing. Unfortunately, not everybody has access to a weightlifting coach due to either cost or location. Fortunately, there are a ton resources available online, many of them free.

Olympic gold medalist Aleksey Torokhtiy of Ukraine is greatly respected in the weightlifting community not just because he won Olympic gold in London but also because he puts out a wealth of free, informative, weightlifting related content and is constantly trying to increase awareness of the sport. Torokhtiy’s website is home to everything from tutorial videos to free workout routines that he publishes. In addition to this, Torokhtiy offers technique feedback on videos that you tag him in on Instagram, all for free. This website is as good a place to start as any.

Catalyst Athletics is another weightlifting-oriented website which is run by Greg Everett, a respected coach and lifter in his own right. Everett and his staff provide everything from online coaching to nutrition consulting to custom workout programs (though these services do all cost money, they’re worth the price for any serious weightlifter). Catalyst also has a blog which Everett and several other coaches regularly post to and is free to read – the blog is chock full of helpful advice regarding everything from technique to competition strategy.  In addition to all of this, Greg Everett has published possibly the most comprehensive book about weightlifting ever written – the third edition is a hefty $45, but the second edition can be purchased for only $20 and contains very similar content.

For those looking for a more community based resource, the Olympic weightlifting subreddit on reddit.com is an excellent place to post form checks, ask and give advice about training, discuss the latest in weightlifting news, look for different product reviews, and basically get an answer to pretty much anything weightlifting related.

Hopefully I’ve given you enough to get you started on the right path. If you still have questions feel free to come ask me in person (though I can’t imagine I’d be able to answer a question that the resources above weren’t able to, though I’ll try my best). It’s been an interesting 10 weeks and I hope you’ve at least gained a little more appreciation for the sport of weightlifting. I’ll sign off with some of my favorite lifts performed by some of my favorite lifters.

 

Capra aegagrus hircus

There are a select few weightlifters who can truly be said to have been dominant in their times. Today’s post will be covering a few of these elite lifters.

Naim Süleymanoğlu was born in Bulgaria on January 23, 1967. After experiencing persecution by the Bulgarian government because of his Turkish heritage, Süleymanoğlu defected to Turkey. As a Turkish lifter, Süleymanoğlu established himself as the best weightlifter of his time. A few of his achievements include being the only person to snatch 2.5 times his bodyweight as well as the only person to clean and jerk 10 kilograms above three times his bodyweight. He is also the only person to ever achieve a Sinclair score of over 500. (Sinclair points are used to standardize performances across lifters of different weight classes and represent a lifter’s theoretical total if he were in the highest weight class). Süleymanoğlu’s titles include three Olympic gold medals (including one from the 1996 Atlanta Games where he battled against Greece’s Valerios Leonidis in what many consider to be the best showdown in the history of the sport) as well as multiple World Championship gold medals. By virtue of his Sinclair score, Süleymanoğlu is regarded nearly universally as the best weightlifter to ever compete in the sport.

Fun fact: due to his short stature (Süleymanoğlu stood at only 4′ 10″), Naim was often referred to as the “Pocket Hercules.”

Below, Süleymanoğlu clean and jerks over three times his bodyweight to set a new world record.

Ilya Ilyin is a Kazakh weightlifter who is arguably the most dominant modern weightlifter. In addition to holding a handful of world records, Olympic gold medals, and World Championship medals, Ilyin remains undefeated in international competition – from the Youth World Championships early on in his career to the 2015 World Championships just last year, Ilyin has never been outlifted in competition. Incredibly, Ilya won the 2005 and 2006 World Weightlifting Championships as a junior – meaning he was under the age of 21 and competing against fully grown men. Unfortunately for fans of the Kazakh lifter, Ilya Ilyin was suspended in 2016 for doping violations after his samples from the 2008 and 2012 Olympics – both of which he won – were retested by the IOC and shown to contain traces of performance enhancing drugs. Despite the doping violations, Ilyin will still be remembered as one of the titans of weightlifting with his impeccable competition record.

Watch him clean and jerk 246kg (542lbs) below, and then watch it again in glorious slow motion.

While not as well known as either Ilyin or Süleymanoğlu, Andrey Rybakov of Belarus was dominant in his own way. Rybakov is a “snatch specialist,” meaning that he is able to snatch more than is typical for a lifter in his weight class – in Rybakov’s case, much more. Prior to Rybakov’s arrival on the weightlifting scene, the men’s 85kg snatch world record was held by Georgi Asanidze at 181kg. In 2002, at the Junior World Championships, Andrey Rybakov’s third, successful attempt in the snatch was at a weight of 182.5kg, setting a new junior and senior world record (remember, he was less than 21 years old at the time). During the 2005 World Championships in Doha, Qatar, Rybakov breaks his on world record on his second attempt with a 183kg snatch – then does it immediately after with 185kg. At the 2006 European Championships, he set another record by snatching 186kg. At the 2007 World Championships, Rybakov successfully snatched 187kg (shown below). Many have speculated that Rybakov was so far ahead of his competitors that his world record may be untouchable. The only person to snatch within 6kg of Rybakov in the last 16 years is the previous world record holder. Rybakov, in addition to his snatch accomplishments, holds a handful of World Championship gold medals, an Olympic silver, and an Olympic gold to his name (though this last medal was stripped due to a positive drug test).

Hopefully I haven’t bored you to death and you’ve found this post interesting. Are there similar GOATs in other fields (not necessarily sports-related) that you are passionate about? Maybe a a “Pocket Hercules” of Chess or a Rybakov of physics?

A Little Bit of History

Olympic weightlifting in its modern form only came to be in 1972, but the sport has long history dating back to the first modern Olympics held in 1896. The competition held in the 1896 games is a far cry from a standard weightlifting meet today; that competition featured none of the equipment that modern weightlifters are familiar – instead athletes competed in one and two-handed lifts featuring dumbbells and fixed barbells. It wasn’t until the 1928 Olympic games that a standardized format was created for weightlifting – the 1928 games included the snatch and the clean & jerk (the two competition lifts used today) as well as a third lift, the clean & press. The clean & press was similar to the clean & jerk, except to raise the bar from the shoulders to a locked out position overhead, the athlete was not allowed to utilize leg strength in the press. To ensure this, athletes’ feet had to remain planted on the ground during the press. Here, Belgian Serge Redding cleans and presses an impressive 228kg (502lbs).

In 1972, Olympic weightlifting underwent a major change as the clean and press was removed from competition due to difficulties in judging. The press was originally intended to be a test of upper body strength, performed while remaining relatively upright. However, athletes began using techniques that allowed them to better utilize their core muscles in addition to their upper body which enabled them to lift more weight. Contest organizers that this was against the original spirit of the lift, and removed the clean and press completely.

The removal of the clean and press also prompted a change in weight classes – the lightest weight classes became grouped together more and the heavier weight classes were more spread out. Thus started what is often called the “Golden Age” of Olympic weightlifting, a period where incredible performances were put up at nearly every Olympic games and World Championship. There are some records from this time period which still have not been surpassed by modern lifters, mostly due to the incredibly lenient drug testing protocols of the time.

It was during the period from 1973 to 1992 (when the weight classes were changed once again) that many of “the greats” of weightlifting rose to fame. Among them were Naim Süleymanoğlu (considered the greatest lifter of all time and often called the “Pocket Hercules” due to his height of only 4′ 10″), Yurik Vardanyan (whose 405kg total at 82.5kg remains unsurpassed by heavier athletes today), and Leonid Taranenko (who holds the title of heaviest clean and jerk in competition ever at a staggering 266kg).

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Naim Süleymanoğlu, the best pound-for-pound weightlifter ever (image taken from thumbnail of linked video)

 

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your position on PEDs), the IWF decided to change the weight classes again in 1993 due to rampant steroid use among lifters. This shift in classes would essentially wipe out all existing world records, starting off athletes on a clean slate. Combined with this, the IWF also introduced more stringent drug testing measures designed to ensure that the competition was as fair as possible between each lifter. Despite the more stringent tests, this period produced its fair share of weightlifting greats as well including Pyrros Dimas (one of only three weightlifters to win 4 Olympic medals, 3 of them gold) and Halil Mutlu (who until fairly recently held one of the oldest weightlifting records). Naim Süleymanoğlu also continued to dominate during this time period, setting a total world record in the process).

Pyrros Dimas 100 greatest Olympic moments Dimas has the Midas touch

Pyrros Dimas, one of three lifters to ever win four Olympic medals (three of his were gold)

In 1998, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) finally decided to allow women to compete in weightlifting but set a maximum of 15 weight classes to be shared between male and female athletes. Prior to 1998, men had 10 weight classes all to themselves so more restructuring was in order to make things a bit fairer for the ladies. The IWF eventually decided to have 8 men’s classes and 7 women’s classes, once again wiping the record books clean and establishing the weight classes that are still in use today.

In the 2000 Olympic games in Sydney, women competed in weightlifting for the first time. Of particular interest in China’s performance; the Chinese government saw this new opportunity as another way to showcase international dominance. China sent 4 female lifters to Sydney; all four won gold in their respective weight classes. Sydney was also the last time an American (male or female) medalled in an Olympic games (Tara Nott won gold in the 48kg class and Cheryl Hayworth won bronze in the +75kg class) until 2016, when Sarah Robles took bronze in the +75kg class.

Tara Nott

Tara Nott, the last American to win a gold medal in weightlifting

From its infancy with outmoded equipment to its place in the Olympics as a modern, high tech sport, weightlifting has evolved (and continues to evolve) to keep up with the times. Just this year, the IWF announced a new women’s weight class, finally increasing the female classes to match in number with the male classes at 8 each. I (along with weightlifting fans everywhere) am incredibly excited to see what the future holds for this sport.

 

Rio 2016: Men’s 85kg Class

The 85kg session was possibly the most anticipated weightlifting competition going into Rio. Two titans of the sport, Kianoush Rostami of Iran and Tian Tao of China, were set to battle for gold on the world’s biggest stage.

Rostami had set the clean & jerk and total world records for his weight class just a few months before Rio at the IWF Grand Prix held in Iran and has won two gold and one silver medal in the 4 world championships that he has attended; Tian, though only 22, is regarded almost universally as the best cleaner in the world, and has multiple youth and junior world records to his name. Furthermore, he tied the clean and jerk world record at unofficially broke the total record at the 2016 Chinese National Weightlifting Championships – a feat made even more impressive by his relative inexperience.

Prior to Rio, the 85kg world records were as follows: Andrei Rybakou held the snatch world record at 187kg, Kianoush Rostami held the clean and jerk world record at 220kg and the total world record at 395kg.

Unfortunately, due to sanctions from the IWF because of multiple doping violations, the entire Russia weightlifting team was banned from lifting in Rio removing Artem Okulov, the reigning world champion, from competition.

Unlike the previous sessions that I’ve covered, there were no “breakaway” performances – the top contenders weren’t miles ahead of their competitors, simply better by just enough to be successful.

Tian opened his snatch at 173kg – unsuccessfully. After Rostami made his opener at 174kg and two other lifters were successful at 175kg, Tian made a risky move and requested 178kg to be loaded on the bar, a similar (but much riskier) move to his compatriot Long Qingquan in the 56kg session. Because Tian had yet to successfully complete a snatch, attempting heavier weights meant he was more likely to bomb out from the competition altogether.

Much to my (and I’m sure Tian and his coaches’) dismay, Tian was unable to lift 178kg, requesting the same weight for his third and final attempt.

On his final attempt, Tian finally managed a successful lift; he nearly lost the bar forward but pulled an incredible save out of nowhere to stay in the competition.

 

Rostami ended the session by making his final attempt at 179kg with relative ease.

 

After the snatch portion of the competition, Rostami led, followed by Tian, then Oleksander Pielieshenko of Ukraine who was tied with Denis Ulanov of Kazakhstan, followed by Gabriel Sincraian of Romania.

Tian, much like fellow Chinese lifter Lu Xiaojun, utilizes the squat jerk instead of the conventional split jerk (I talk a little bit about the differences in my coverage of the 77kg session in Rio.) And much like Lu, Tian also bombed out in the clean and jerk during the 2015 World Championships. Rio was set to be the site of Tian’s redemption, but only if he could avoid repeating his failure from 2015.

Near the end of the session, Tian made his first attempt at a weight of 210kg. The clean, as always, looked easy. However, he lost the jerk forward, resulting in a failed lift. Same story for the second attempt, again at 210kg – easy clean, missed jerk. Viewers around the world wondered what Tian and his coaches would do next. After Tian’s second attempt, Pielieshenko missed his final attempt at 212kg, Sincraian made his second attempt at the same weight, Ulanov missed his final attempt at 215kg, and Rostami made his second attempt at 215kg as well. This put Tian in a tough spot – due to his heavier bodyweight, Tian had to beat Rostami’s total by at least 1kg if he wanted to win – a tie would result in a victory for Rostami. That meant that Tian had to best Rostami’s clean and jerk by at least 2kg due to Rostami’s 1kg lead from the snatch.

As I’ve said before, at the Olympics you go big or you go home. Tian requested a staggering 217kg for his final attempt – 2kg above Rostami’s 215kg (though Rostami had one more attempt remaining) and 2kg over the Olympic record set by the legendary Pyrros Dimas of Greece.

 

After this lift, all that was left for Tian was to wait and see how the competition played out. Sincraian requested 217kg for his final attempt as well, and was successful, securing at least a bronze medal. Rostami set his final attempt at 217kg, which would earn him the gold medal if successful.

He struggled with the clean, enough where even the commentators remarked on it. The full lift can be seen below.

Rostami finished the competition with a gold medal as well as a new total world record of 396kg, Tian took silver with a total of 395kg (with only 2/6 lifts being successful as well), and Gabriel Sincraian took third with a total of 390kg. I’ve linked Sincraian’s lift at 217kg below as well – out of the three medalists, Sincraian’s attempt looks the easiest by far.

 

Unfortunately for him, Sincraian tested positive for performance enhancing drugs – as soon as a retest is conducted to eliminate the possibility of a false positive, he will be stripped of his medal which will be given to Denis Ulanov, who also totalled 390kg but lost by virtue of heavier bodyweight.

What do you guys think of my coverage posts so far? Too much detail, not enough? I’d love to hear suggestions.

Steroids in weightlifting

You probably won’t find a more hotly contested topic in weightlifting (or sports in general) than the use of performing enhancing drugs. It’s pretty widely accepted that every top international weightlifter is taking PEDs of some sort. Many people point to performance enhancing drugs as the reason that the USA lags so far behind in weightlifting compared to many other countries. (If you read my other post on China’s dominance in weightlifting, you’ll realize that this isn’t the case).

The topic of performance enhancing drugs have risen to the top of the weightlifting world relatively recently, though it’s been intertwined with the sport for decades. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) decided to retest athletes’ samples from the 2008 and 2012 Olympics using newer and more sensitive testing methods. Numerous weightlifters, including several big names in the sport, tested positive under these more advanced tests. Kazakh lifter Ilya Ilyin, multiple world record holder, undefeated in international competition, and considered by many to be one of the most dominant lifters of all time, was “popped.” So were Apti Aukhadov of Russia, Boyanka Kostova of Azerbaijan, Andrei Rybakou of Belarus, and Khadzimurat Akkaev of Russia – all medalists on the international stage.

Opponents of retesting have said that it is unfair to athletes, providing similar arguments to those who argue against ex post facto laws. If the lifters were able to pass tests in use at the time, why should they be retroactively punished after new tests are developed? These same people also see weightlifting as a two-pronged sport – part of the game is lifting as much weight as you can; the other part is to avoid testing positive for performance enhancing drugs. To test after the fact is to rig the game against the athletes, in their eyes.

On the other hand, there are those who want weightlifting to be a legitimately clean sport – not just one that looks clean only because the top lifters are able to control their PED dosage to avoid testing positive. These are the advocate for keeping samples indefinitely so that athletes can continue to be retested long after they’ve made their last attempt.

I said previously that performance enhancing drugs aren’t the reason that the US lags behind in international weightlifting – this isn’t entirely true. Performance enhancing drugs aren’t the main reason why the US lags behind in international weightlifting, though they do play a factor. It’s been estimated that over the course of an athlete’s career, using PEDs will add anywhere from 10kg to 15kg onto an athlete’s total. However, looking at the results in international meets it’s clear that steroids aren’t the only factor at play. In the 2016 Rio Olympics, the US sent one male lifter to compete, Kendrick Farris – a lifter who prides himself on being clean (i.e. he claims he doesn’t take steroids and is very vocal about the fact). Kendrick lifted in the 94kg class and recorded a total of 357kg. The gold medalist in the 94kg class, Sohrab Moradi of Iran, recorded a total of 403kg, a whopping 46kg more than Farris. Even controlling for steroid use (about 15kg), Moradi still would have had a total 31kg higher than Farris’s, proving that steroids aren’t the main factor in the US performing poorly internationally.

It remains to be seen how performance enhancing drugs will evolve alongside weightlifting  – will chemists be able to keep up with newer detection methods to give athletes that extra edge? Or will more aggressive testing by the IOC and WADA (the World Anti-Doping Agency) eventually push chemistry to its breaking point and make weightlifting a truly clean sport? Does steroid use in weightlifting bring to mind examples of less-than-ethical practices in other sports or activities?

Rio 2016: Men’s 77kg Class

This week, we’ll be analyzing another session from Rio in depth. However, before I get started, a quick rant:

At most big weightlifting events (World Championships, US National Championships, assorted international meets), there are two amazing companies, All Things Gym and Hookgrip, which provide excellent video coverage of meets. They record and upload incredibly high quality footage of the best lifters in the world performing at peak capacity. (If you’re interested in watching some good weightlifting, check out their YouTube channels: All Things Gym and Hookgrip). However, neither of these companies are able to cover weightlifting at the Olympics because of the IOC’s strict broadcasting rules. So, despite the fact that many, many incredible lifts were made and several world records were broken, we may never have decent quality footage of these mind-blowing feats of strength because the IOC wants to milk a few more dollars out of the Olympics.

The men’s 77kg class at Rio was one of the most exciting the watch. The favorite coming in was Chinese lifter Lu Xiaojun, current world record holder in the snatch and the total. His three main contenders were no slouches either, having captured the podium in the 2015 World Championships in Houston: Nijat Rahimov of Kazakhstan who won gold, Mohamed Ihab of Egypt who won silver, and Andranik Karapetyan of Armenia who won bronze.

The snatch event of the competition went pretty much as expected. Lu is the best snatcher in the world by a fairly large margin – the only lifter who could even approach him was Karapetyan. Both Rahimov and Ihab snatched 165kg. Lu and Karapetyan both set their opening attempts at 170kg – by the time they opened, everyone else had already completed all three of their allotted attempts. Both lifters managed their openers with relative ease, with Karapetyan then moving on to 174kg and Lu to 175kg – once again, both were successful. On his final attempt, Karapetyan requested 176kg to tie Lu’s world record, but was unable to successfully complete the lift. Seeking to best himself yet again, Lu requested 177kg for his final attempt – a lift that if successful, would set a new world record and make Lu one of the most dominant snatch specialists in weightlifting history (surpassed only perhaps by Andrei Rybakou of Belarus).

 

At this point in the competition, both Lu and Karapetyan were basically guaranteed medals due to their performances in the snatch – the closest competitors to Karapetyan were 9kg below him, and even further away for Lu.

Entering the clean and jerk portion of the competition, the results stood as such: Lu led with 177kg, Karapetyan had second with 174kg, Rahimov was in third with 165kg, and Ihab was in fifth als with 165kg (though Ihab weighed in heavier than Rahimov did, giving Rahimov the advantage).

Of the four previously mentioned lifters, Karapetyan opened his clean and jerk with the least weight at 195kg. He missed his first attempt, and kept the weight the same for his second attempt. WARNING FOR THE FOLLOWING VIDEO: Do not watch this if you’re squeamish. Karapetyan dislocated his elbow during this attempt and was forced to drop out of the competition.

Ihab was the next to open, attempting 196kg unsuccessfully his first time. He kept the same weight for his second attempt and thankfully completed the lift with no dislocations or other injuries. Lu was the next lifter to open, requesting 197kg for his first attempt.

Clean and jerks are a finnicky lift for Lu. His clean is undoubtedly one of the strongest in the world owing almost entirely to his incredible leg strength (he’s front squatted 507lbs for two reps in the past). Lu’s jerk is another story. He utilizes the squat jerk technique, a rarity among international weightlifters. Most athletes use the split jerk, demonstrated excellently by Ilya Ilyin of Kazakhstan here:

In the squat jerk, instead of splitting the legs apart, the athlete drops into a deep squat to receive the bar. In theory, this allows a greater weight to be lifted as the athlete does not have to drive the bar as high as in the split jerk in order to be able to catch it. In practice, however, the split jerk is rarely used because of its sheer difficulty. A regular split jerk already has a very fine margin of error – too much movement forward or backward will cause a missed lift. In the squat jerk, because the legs aren’t split wide to create a stable base, the margin of error is even smaller; to be successful at high weights a squat jerk essentially has to be textbook perfect. Even for Lu, an incredible athlete, this is a difficult feat. At the 2015 World Championships, Lu was the favorite to win gold but instead bombed out because he failed to complete a jerk. For fans watching (and I’m sure for Lu and his coaches), everyone was wondering if he would be able to redeem himself from his Houston performance.

Lu’s first clean was almost comically easy – he stood up with the barbell like it barely weighted 10 pounds, let alone the 434lbs it actually did weight. As he dropped down into the squat jerk, weightlifting fans around the world held their breath – and then sighed with disappointment as he dropped the weight before he could stand up. Lu requested the same weight – 197kg – for his second attempt, this time successfully completing the lift.

For his opener, Rahimov requested 202kg, and completed the lift with little fuss. Lu matched Rahimov’s opener with his final attempt – and made the lift, giving him a 12kg lead over Rahimov. Due to Rahimov’s lighter bodyweight, he only had to tie Lu’s total in order to win. Ihab took his final attempt at 203kg unsuccessfully, leaving Rahimov with two remaining attempts to secure the gold medal.

The clean and jerk world record for the 77kg class was set in 2001 by Oleg Perepetchenov and has stood for more than a decade despite attempts by several lifters (including Lu) to break it. In order to achieve a winning total, Rahimov had to lift 12kg more than his opener at 202kg. For those of you handy with math, that means he had to lift 214kg if he wanted to bring home a gold medal. For those of you who are even better at math, you’ll know that a 214kg clean and jerk would exceed the current world record by a staggering 4kg. In weightlifting, it’s incredible if an athlete manages to break a world record at all – to do so in such a spectacular fashion would be incredible.

For his second attempt, Rahimov requested the magic 214kg that would earn him the gold. I’ll let you see the result yourself:

All in all, the 77kg class was absolutely riveting to watch. If you’re this far down the page, hopefully you’ve seen the result of Rahimov’s attempt at 214 (if you haven’t, spoiler alert: he makes it, then shows off his dancing abilities afterwards). Rahimov’s lift will go down as one of the greatest moments in weightlifting history – shattering a decade-old world record by an astonishing 4kg to secure an Olympic gold medal.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this write-up; what other moments of athletic dominance come to mind after seeing Rahimov’s performance?

China’s Dominance

“Why is China so good at weightlifting?”

This is a question that was raised in the comment section of my last post, and a question that is continuously asked within the weightlifting community.

Before we examine why China consistently produces the best weightlifters I think it’s important to understand the level of dominance that Chinese weightlifters have, particularly in the lighter weight classes. Take 2015, for example: for 56kg men, 9 out of the 10 best lifters in the world were Chinese. For 62kg men, 5 out of the top 10 lifters in the world were Chinese. For 69kg men, 6 out of the top 10 were Chinese, and you need to go down to 6th place before you encounter a non-Chinese lifter. In some ways, China’s dominance in women’s weightlifting is even more staggering. Take the women’s 53kg weight class, for instance; the top 8 lifters in 2015 were all Chinese. The top five +75kg lifters were also all Chinese, as well as the top three 63kg lifters and the top four 48kg lifters.

Perhaps another metric that might be useful in conveying China’s dominance is world records; out of a possible 135 records (snatch, clean and jerk, and total records for 15 different weight classes over 3 different age divisions), China holds an astounding 48. The next closest country is Russia, a country whose weightlifting heritage goes back to the beginning of the Cold War, with 24 world records. In fact, China holds more world records than the 3 next closest countries combined.

Way back in the early days of Olympic weightlifting, the US and Soviet Union where seen as the dominant powers. Throughout the 20th century, Olympic weightlifting, along with many other things, was seen as a way for the two countries to indirectly fight the Cold War. Whoever could produce the better athletes would be seen as the superior country.

However, as the Cold War died down and the Cultural Revolution ended, China saw a new opportunity for itself on the international stage – sports. Today, China completely overshadows the rest of the world in certain sports: diving, table tennis, badminton, certain shooting events, and weightlifting. The Chinese government has poured funding into developing systems for each of these sports – systems that include every possible aspect needed to produce successful athletes, from scouting to world class coaching to designer drugs (yes, drugs. Like steroids. More on this in a later post). Chinese weightlifters are given yearly stipends and are provided room and board for free provided they continue to train and compete for the national team. In the United States, the best athletes go to where the money is – the NFL, NBA, and other sports where contracts regularly run in the tens of millions of dollars. In contrast, USA Weightlifting (USAW), weightlifting’s governing body in the US, provides stipends which rarely exceed $10,000 only a select few athletes receive.

In China, athletes are often selected to attend sport schools as young as 8 years old. Someone who has been training consistently in good conditions since they were 8 is going to have a massive advantage over an athlete who only started when they were 16 – the former athlete’s body will be much more conditioned to handle intense training and his neuro-muscular system will already have learned the proper motor patterns necessary in weightlifting – not to mention the 8 or 9 years of training that the athlete will already have gone through.

The weightlifter shown above doubtless already has almost a decade of training under his belt. Elite US lifters usually would only have been training for 3 years at this point, if not less. To squat 200kg (440lbs) once at age 17 is an incredible achievement, to say nothing of doing it 13 times when already fatigued from a workout.

China is not unique in having a system to develop athletes for weightlifting and other sports starting at a young age – many former Soviet Bloc countries including Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan have similar systems to train athletes. What sets China apart?

To answer this completely we need to look at what makes a good weightlifter. The ideal weightlifter has short femurs and a long torso to allow for a more upright squat position which translates to more efficient lifts. He has short arms to reduce the distance he needs to propel the bar during the jerk and the snatch. His skeletal morphology allows him to hit optimal positions when lifting – open hip and shoulder joints to allow for increased mobility are ideal. He has a high proportion of fast-twitch to slow-twitch muscle fibers. (Fast-twitch fibers are responsible for power production whereas slow-twitch fibers are recruited heavily during endurance focused activities like running). In addition to these physical qualities, a good weightlifter must have great mental fortitude and be resilient, driven, and hardworking (the extent to which one’s upbringing affects mental qualities is still a topic of much debate). The best weightlifters are created when an athlete with these qualities is entered into a weightlifting system from a young age.

For a scout to encounter a child with all these ideal qualities and recommend them to enter the weightlifting system is a rare event. Part of the reason for China’s dominance falls to simple statistics: because of its enormous population when compared with other weightlifting-heavy countries, it simply becomes more likely that a child with all the necessary qualities to become a great lifter will be born in China and discovered by a scout.

So there you have it – China is pretty damn good at weightlifting. It has a well established system in place to develop athletes and the largest population in the world to draw from. This is the reason why earning 5 weightlifting gold medals in Rio was considered an “off year” for the Chinese team, why China regularly places first at world championships, and why in recent years China has claimed about 10% of all available weightlifting medals at world championships, higher than the 70 other competing countries.

In recent years, only one American athlete, CJ Cummings, has proven himself capable of lifting competitively on the international stage. He recently became the first American weightlifter to hold a world record at any age level in over a decade and the first American male world champion at any age level since 2000.

Some point to CJ’s incredible performance as a sign that weightlifting in the US is on the rise again; with the proliferation of CrossFit and the increased public exposure to Olympic weightlifting as a result, such claims are not so far-fetched. However, it still remains to be seen if CJ’s record-setting lifts were a fluke due to simply to an incredible individual performance or a sign of better things to come from weightlifting in the US.

 

Rio 2016: Men’s 56kg Class

The 2016 Olympics held in Rio de Janeiro were full of drama, intrigue, scandal, and above all, amazing feats of Athleticism. The weightlifting competition was fierce in nearly every weight class, which made for quite a spectacle. Over the next few weeks I’ll cover some of the more exciting and interesting sessions (in my opinion) in detail. This week I’ve decide to examine the lightest men’s weight class, the 56kg weight class where two titans of the sport battled for gold.

Going in to this session, the two favorites to win were Long Qingquan of China and Om Yun Chol of North Korea. Long is the current world record holder in the snatch having lifted 139kg in the 2015 World Weightlifting Championships and was the 2008 Olympic champion while Om was the defending Olympic and world champion – both men are incredibly talented athletes, to say the least.

In the first half of the competition, the snatch, things went pretty much as expected. Om Yun Chol is not as strong in the snatch as he is in the clean and jerk (which is the second half of the competition), though he successfully lifted 134kg on his last attempt, achieving a new personal best. Long Qingquan made his first attempt (or “opened” in weightlifting parlance) at 132kg, completing the lift with ease. Long’s second attempt at 135kg was not so easy as he could not complete the lift.

At this point in the competition, Long Qingquan and his coaches faced a dilemma: Om Yun Chol was the world record holder in the clean and jerk – that is to say, he was really good at it. Because Olympic weightlifting results are based on an aggregate total of both the snatch and the clean and jerk, it was critical for Long, who had a relatively weaker clean and jerk, to build up as large of a lead as possible during the snatch portion of the competition. Because of the rising bar system, Om had completed his 134kg lift after Long’s 132kg opener; Long and his coaches knew that he had to lift at least 135kg to have a lead going into the clean and jerk portion of the competition. However, a 1kg lead over Om Yun Chol wasn’t much Om’s best clean and jerk could potentially be 3 or 4kg higher than Long’s. Long could either choose to make another attempt at 135kg which would give him a 1kg lead if successful, or he could choose to move to a higher weight which increased his chances of failure but also would give him a larger lead if successful.

Ultimately at the Olympics, it’s go big or go home. Team China, a weightlifting powerhouse, wanted as many gold medals as they could get their hands on. Long and his coaches decided to attempt 137kg for his final attempt, a mere 2kg under Long’s own world record. With bated breath, the crowd waited.

Long came out, pulled the bar up and dove underneath it, catching it in a deep overhead squat position. But that was only half the battle – he still needed to stand up successfully, a feat which becomes much harder when trying to hold more than double your own bodyweight above your head. Long wobbled for a few seconds in the hole (the “hole” is what weightlifters call the lowest position of each lift, when you receive the bar in a deep squat). Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, he stood up successfully and walked off the stage with a look of defiance on his face.

After a ten minute intermission, the competition resumed with clean and jerks.

As explained in my previous post, Olympic weightlifting uses a rising bar system. This means that the lightest attempts are taken first and the heaviest last, regardless of the attempt number that each athlete is on. To give you an idea of how far ahead of the rest of the field Long Qingquan and Om Yun Chol are, when the time came for them to make their opening attempts every other lifter had already finished. In other words, their lightest attempts were heavier than the heaviest attempts of the rest of their competitors.

Long lifted first with an opener of 161kg, followed by Om who opened with 165kg. Long then successfully attempted 166kg, forcing Om to attempt 169kg if he wanted to win (due to Long’s 2kg lead). Om, however, was unable to complete the jerk following the clean, resulting in Om taking another attempt at the same weight which he successfully completed on his third attempt, giving him the lead and setting a new Olympic record. Long had one attempt left at this point – mathematically, he only needed to lift 168kg to win, but due to the rising bar system he was forced to lift heavier; he set his final attempt at 170kg.

Long’s final clean and jerk started off well – he timed his pull under the bar superbly and stood up with little trouble. However, he was forced to take a step back after standing up due to being off balance, costing him precious strength and leaving him visibly trembling before the jerk. His jerk was less than ideal – Long had to split unusually low to receive the bar and looked shaky overall. However, after taking several steps forward  to stay underneath the bar and prevent it from falling, he was able to finally bring the weight to a stable halt above his head despite shaking violently the entire time. The judges awarded Long a good lift, giving him the Olympic gold medal, a new Olympic record clean and jerk, and a new world record total of 307kg at a bodyweight of under 56kg.

In the end, Long Qingquan outlifted Om Yun Chol by a total of 4kg. Long registered a 307kg (677lbs) total and Om registered a 304kg (670lbs) to take the silver medal. Bronze went to Thai lifter Sinphet Kruaithong with a distant total of 289kg (637lbs). Overall, the 56kg session proved to be among the most competitive and exciting contests of the entire Olympiad.

The Structure of a Meet

Olympic weightlifting consists of two lifts: the snatch, and the clean and jerk. In the snatch, the bar is lifted from the ground to overhead in one smooth motion. This is Lu Xiaojun, world record holder in the 77kg weight class for the snatch and the total (we’ll get to that in a second), snatching 175kg.

In the clean and jerk,  the bar is lifted from the ground to the shoulders, then from the shoulders to overhead in two distinct movements. This is Ilya Ilyin, former Olympic gold medalist and cleand and jerk world record holder in the 105kg weight class, clean and jerking 246kg

During meets, each athlete has 3 attempts for each lift. Meets are run on a rising bar system, which means that the weight on the bar can only stay the same or go up – never down. Athletes and their coaches will enter the 3 weights they want to attempt – they can change the requested weight up to 2 times, but can never request a weight lower than the weight currently loaded onto the bar. The rising bar system means that the lifters with the lightest attempts will lift first, with the heaviest attempts coming near the end. The structure of a meet is fairly basic and consistent: all snatch attempts are completed first, then the clean and jerk attempts are made after a 10 minute break.

In a weightlifting competition (or “meet”), athletes compete to lift the highest total – their heaviest successful snatch is added to their heaviest successful clean and jerk to compute their total weight lifted. Failing to register a total (successfully complete at least one snatch and one clean and jerk) is referred to as “bombing out.” While there are many reasons for an athlete to bomb out (fatigue, poor coaching, requesting weights that are too heavy), one of the more interesting reasons for an athlete to bomb out involves competition strategy, which may seem counterintuitive. What kind of strategy can you have in a sport where all you have to do is pick up a barbell? Strategy in a weightlifting meet involves adjusting your attempt weights, either to give yourself more time to lift or to affect your opponent. If you adjust your weight to higher than another athletes next attempt, they will have to lift sooner than anticipated, which can throw off their warmup attempts. This strategy was used to great effect at the 2015 World Championships where Lu Xiaojun, reigning world champion and world record holder, bombed out due to not having enough time to finish his warmup lifts.

Hopefully you can see that Olympic weightlifting consists of more than just lifting heaving things (though that is a major component of it). It’s a fantastic sport with that offers many different angles for exploration and discussion.