The Art of Olympic Weightlifting

The subtitle to my blog is not Zen and the Art of Weightlifting for nothing. It isn’t a joke, nor is it my way of being gimmicky. I don’t take it lightly.

I strongly believe that Olympic Weightlifting is an Art Form in the same way that Kung Fu is. 

My friends Adam Stoffa and JC Deen encouraged me to write up this post, or rather I decided it was the only option when I was asked the following question that might not (at first) seem related, but here it is:

“Question: When do strength athletes hit peak performance, age-wise?”, said Adam.

I explained that it all depends upon when they start. If you start in your early twenties (or better your teenage years), and you work your ass off, then you’ll likely peak at around 30 or even 35 (if you can stay injury free).

However, if you don’t get into it until you are ALREADY over 30 (or 40, or later) then you probably won’t peak. Not strictly. You’ll never reach that genetic maximum that you could have reached had you started much younger.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that you will be able to keep making progress almost forever, and that you can still get close to that maximum.

Start at 30, you probably won’t stop getting stronger till you’re ready to retire. This is even more true the older you are when you start. Begin at 50, you’ve got a solid 20 years in you. And even then, you’ll be able to maintain your strength for WAY longer than most people believe is possible. (Think of Jack Lalanne. That man was from another planet.)

We had a lifter in the gym for about 8 months who turned 60 last year (did I get that right, Bob?) and he made great progress. He’d always wanted to learn this stuff, and Hot-Dog, he did! He also does yoga, hikes for miles and miles at a time, and is one fit dude all around.

Now the RATE of progress slows down over time. The longer you’ve been lifting, the harder it is to see progress. But it still comes.

Age can slow that rate down even further. So while it might take a 20 year old 3 months to add 50 pounds to his front squat, it may take a 60 year old over a year or more. (Depends on a lot of factors, of course!)

So the key is this: No matter how old you are when you start, you can continually make progress until you come close to your genetic maximum. You may only reach it if you’re young. But shoot, if you only got 50% there, that would be amazing … and a Hell of a lot stronger than you are now.

Everyone progresses at a different rate, but everyone progresses.

Start young, you peak early. Start older, and you may never peak at all. It’s kinda awesome to be older sometimes. Who wants to peak early and spend the rest of their life regressing?

The Art of Weightlifting

This point led Adam to say (something like), “So you’re saying that weightlifting is an art, something you get better at as you get older?”

YES :)

But not so much for the reasons above.

The Martial Arts are justifiably called “Arts” because they require a kind of mental training and development that is absent in many sporting events. They require years of hard work and maturation to even be mediocre at them. How in tune your mind is to the task at hand is every bit as important as how powerfully your muscles can contract.

Adults are simply better at mental training than young people are. A LOT better. This gives the advantage to us.

Case in point: Football players.

There are many many college football players in this country who have the physical strength to snatch and clean what the best Olympic lifters in the U.S. can do … but they aren’t able to pull it off.

It’s NOT a simple lack of technical training (though, that’s part of it!). It’s also that they are basically very very large children.

As I’ve said a million times before (and will say a million times more), it’s one thing to be able to exhibit proper technique on the snatch with an empty bar, it’s quite another to do so with your maximum.

The technique is the same.

If you show me that your technical skills are beautiful with light weights, but that you fail to lift anywhere near what I KNOW you are capable of … Then you have a mental problem.

Only dedicated work on training your mind is going to fix it.

You must learn to no longer allow the fear response (the “holy crap this weight is heavy!” response) to cause you to break down and lose form.

In the martial arts it isn’t uncommon to see a new recruit who is capable of performing the moves very well in the dojo completely break down in a street fight.

Life and Death and Snatching

In my book I have a chapter entitled, “The Samurai Strength Philosophy” where I go over this exact point.

Samurai faced life and death situations. If they maintained their ability to use proper sword technique, even in the face of an opponent, they might live. If they freaked out and started flailing around like a monkey … they’d surely die.

Mental strength was literally a life or death skill. Excommunicating fear and anxiety was a MUST.

You aren’t going to die on the platform. But on a (much) smaller scale, this is what is happening to you when you miss your heavy attempts.

Control your fear! If Samurai could do it while facing death, you can do it while learning to snatch.

Of course, it’ll take a while. A very long while.

My own belief is that a proper use of meditation combined with a training program that forces you to face your fears constantly is the best approach.

I’m not just a “Bulgarian” because I like the food. The approach to training is to take on the heaviest weights you can handle with good form … and constantly try to move the needle.

  • How close to your true max can you get with perfect form?
  • How often?
  • Can you do it on cue, with no anxiety or fear and under pressure?

That’s exactly the situation of a contest. You are under pressure, there is a bunch going on around you, and you have to somehow attempt to make lifts that match your best ever.

How do you do that?

Practice … duh!

Putting it all together

Olympic Weightlifting is the clearest example of an activity that requires a truly “Strong Mind in a Strong Body”. You have to have both.

Building physical strength is the easy part. It is FAR easier to take someone and make them brute strong than it is to get someone to become truly efficient on the snatch. (By efficient I mean that they are lifting at the upper capacity of what their base-line strength allows.)

When you get that rare person who is “too efficient” for their own good, then all you have to do is get their squats and pulls up and you’re gonna have an amazing lifter.

So long as this person can hold it together in a contest, you’ve got a champion.

If only …

Those three things:

  1. Strength
  2. Efficiency of Technique when NOT under pressure (light weights)
  3. Ability to keep it together when under pressure (heavy weights, contests, etc)

… Are very hard to put together. But that’s the sport. And it’s why I love it so much.

If you can get better in all of those areas it will spill over to the rest of your life. All of that mental strength and control is something you get to use outside the gym as well.

Becoming a better person, a better version of yourself ain’t gonna just “happen”. It isn’t good enough to know WHAT to do.

You have to find a way to practice those skills and get better at them.

With the right approach to The Art of Olympic Weightlifting that is exactly what you get: A strong mind in a strong body and the ability to do something that is cool as hell.


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