Why I’m proud to lift like a girl

This week has been a good one, I’ve really enjoyed the numbers of women that have showed a sincere interest in taking up the sport. It surprises me how open, willing and eager they are to really test their strength, get stuck in and mix it up with the guys in the gym.

In typing this, there’s only one thing that surprised me more… and it’s that I still find this hard to believe.

In my last post I talked about the advent of crossfit, the absolute sledgehammer it took to the myths about women lifting weights, and sometimes I think that despite all the awesome people, especially women, I’ve met who relish the challenges, love the training and teach my stubborn ass a thing or two time and again; I’m still amazed by the forward thinking ones that escape the treadmill for a life of ever upward, stronger, faster and fitter.

I’ll not dwell on the positives of weightlifting for women, there’s a million reasons that weightlifting, or even certain aspects of resistance training are not only more beneficial than any other form of training, but that a lot of this is even more important to women.

I was devastated, that I was at a national championship event, almost 300 miles from home, and yet couldn’t make it to an osteoporosis charity event (round the corner from the competition venue), where 30 women lifted in excess of a combined 300,000Lb’s. This magnificent feat of strength was to promote the improvements on bone mineral density and reduction in serious afflictions like osteoporosis, resistance training, specifically weightlifting has to offer.

More importantly it involved several of Ireland’s finest examples of technical performance; all of which women.

Many in the gym have heard me harp on about – technique, technique, technique… – but when it comes right down to it, the best movers and shifters in the weightlifting world are the lightest, most efficient lifters there are. They have to be; they have to be that much better technically, as they do not have sheer size, strength or ignorance to power through weights like their heavier counterparts.

Thing is, when you look at the light weight classes, the ones that stand out to me most, are almost always the women’s classes.

The men’s events have excellent displays of technical ability, but as an awful generalisation I’m going to get a lot of abuse for, the women are simply, consistently, and continuously better throughout; More athletes, in more weight classes, performing excellent lifts, technically, and with a huge amount of weight on the line.

I’ve another piece in mind that’ll be with you soon, about where to look for technique, but that’s for another time.

Most lifters look at their class, maybe those around it, they know the best in their groups, best of all time… but I’m a coach. I’ve watched the pocket Hercules lift the only 500+ sinclair in history

I’ve watched in awe as Lu Xaiojun effortlessly breaks world records time and again. But the most breath-taking part was not simply the weight that was lifted, but just how it was lifted. It was fast, smooth, technically unbelievable. It is simply a master class in every aspect, and I’d highly recommend anyone watch it.


But more and more I found myself inspired by the technical prowess of the women’s weightlifting teams. The lightest groups are simply fantastic when it comes to the technical execution of the lifts. It is also where you see some exceptionally large weights being shifted by equally diminutive people. I mean this in no way as offensive, I’m barely 5”5 (1.65m) myself and lift at 69kg. I’m by no means the biggest lifter out there. But I do train a lot of guys, rugby players, 2m tall and counting, over 100kg, and their ability for strength, is only usually initially matched by their inflexibility, and lack of movement skills when they start.

Thing is those same light women, outlift the burly men in almost every case. It is not their size that’s important. Their weapon of choice is movement; Quick, explosive, fluid. A symphony of neuro- and biomechanics in action. It’s mesmerising, to see the bar and lifter seamlessly integrate into one, smooth amalgamation of speed, precision and strength.

The skill required is immense, and should those of greater stature not only harness, but fully utilise this potential, the weights lifted would be simply astounding. This is what I strive for in my own lifts. It is this that I hold highest above all other achievements. I can move, I can move well… and I can use these movements to achieve what onlookers see as impossible, until it’s done that is.

My lifts may not be exceptional, but to joe public, they’re numbers that are hard to get your head around, and exercises that are even harder to get your body around. When you tell them, there are women, my weight, lifting the same, in some cases more, jaws hit the floor.

There is no magic to it, simply a long time, honing, training and specifically targeting this aspect of performance; and it cannot be underestimated.

Resistance is important, training the correct muscle fibres to fire, in the right order, for the right result requires it. However, without the skill aspect of weightlifting, this simply wouldn’t happen.

Weightlifting differs from other strength sports in that the margin for error is so small.

In deadlift, it doesn’t matter if you lift with a round back, it’s still possible to lift the weight. I’m not saying this is the recommended approach by any means, I’m simply saying that it’s possible.

Even with mediocre technique, there is a significant amount that can be lifted in deadlifts, squats etc. This does not mean all powerlifters are poor technicians, quite the opposite, the best at their sport are technicians of their craft, no different than the best amongst any weightlifting populous.

What it means in very real terms, is that the difference in returns gained from technique in powerlifting, are nowhere near the returns gained for efficient and effective technique in weightlifting.

In weightlifting, say the snatch, the body moves from fully squatted, to fully extended (triple extension), to fully squatted (catch) to fully extended (recovery) all in under 1.5s.

The bar is moved overhead and caught half way through this process, stabalised overhead, in a window no bigger than the base of your feet to secure the combined centre of gravity of bar and lifter, before recovering to the standing position.

Thing is, if even the slightest bit of movement is off, the lift will fail. The bar has to constantly accelerate or it will not gain sufficient height, it has to be kept close to the body to effectively and efficiently add greatest acceleration to it, and this must happen throughout the lift. The lifter must pull hard enough to get the bar to sufficient height, before completely reversing their own trajectory, pulling under, to secure the bar in a full squat position, which must be positioned exactly under the point of the bar, that combines its centre of gravity with their own to ensure that the base is sufficient to support the lift, as well as maintaining a strong enough structure, with hip, knee, ankle, trunk, core, shoulder stabilisation, all taxed to their absolute limits, and working in 100% harmony.

In very real terms, what this means is that those with insufficient technique, simply cannot perform the lifts. Those with poor technique, simply can’t compare, or compete with those who can.

When a weightlifting coach says someone has poor technique, they may in fact be saying that they’re getting about 95% of the lift right. Problem is, due to the nature of the lifts, and to an extent the perfectionist nature of us mere mortals striving for them, 95% is simply not enough. It could easily be that even at 93% of perfect in the snatch, the lifter is still at risk of injury, due to major technical faults, such as a rounded back, which is immediately dangerous, or twisting to secure the bar overhead, which can lead to muscle imbalance and injury long term.

As weightlifters we are intimately familiar with the lifts, the experience gained in their pursuit cannot be underestimated. There is a unique understanding and appreciation of just what it is to lift that comes with time under the bar, in the gym, and in the eternal pursuit of excellence.

Striking that balance of strength and finesse is a lifelong challenge, never completed but thoroughly enjoyed. It is an amazing feeling, the weightlessness of the bar, that first time a lift feels almost effortless in its execution. It’s a feeling you can spend your life trying to recreate, and not feel bad that you couldn’t do twice. It is in itself euphoric when it happens, and one of the greatest reasons we hold our sport in such high regard. Only a weightlifter knows that feeling, the first time it happens, you’re done for. It is an affliction for perfection from which there is no return.

It explains why we get grumpy when we see it done badly; it is infuriating at times when there is simply no intent towards what is almost the definition of perfection when it comes to moving weights in a way that tests every physical and mental components of fitness; speed, power, strength, flexibility, balance, control, coordination, reaction times, concentration, state of mind, and so on. We want people to feel the joy we feel, and it’s not possible when it’s not done right.

After my previous post, I’ve heard the allegory that crossfit specialises in not specialising, this is why the technique is not the same. This I feel is untrue. Crossfit is a pursuit to be the best, same as any competitive pursuit, that’s why there are competitions and leagues. To have it said that avoiding spending time getting better at a very technical exercise, by not practicing technique because it’s not fitness is simply mind blowing. It’s a huge problem.

My basic opinion – If you’re going to incorporate it into your program: Do it right, no excuses!

Thankfully there are a massive amount who share that opinion and do not shy away from the fact that these movements require a lot more than a one day cert to qualify you to teach. This is hotly debated, even internally throughout crossfit.

I’m seriously lucky, all my interactions with the crossfit clubs I have worked with have been massively positive.

They display not only the key movement skills to perform, but also the unmistakable quality of a fantastic teacher/coach/mentor. They want to learn. All of them, the athletes, coaches, owners, everyone. They want to be better, they want to learn, and they’re all more than willing to ask for the help where they need it most.

I applaud this, I love this, it is one of the reasons my interaction, and subsequently view of crossfit as a whole is so positive. I don’t know the videos of the fails, the youtube comments…. I know the people; and frankly the people are great.

Anyway that is a digression to the previous post. This post is about one thing… the unbelievable women of weightlifting.

The pinnacle of those same components of fitness I mentioned earlier; the absolute best the sport has to offer.

The time dedicated to the skills, the programs, gruelling training and, until very recently, the isolation encountered means I have the utmost respect for the women who have perfected their art.

Until very recently, this was exclusively a mens only sport. Weightlifting is the oldest serving sport of the modern Olympics, and even so, the first women’s event actually took place in Sydney in 2000. It took the turn of the millennium to have inclusivity at the Olympic games, the absolute pinnacle of our sport.

To now sit back and see world record after world record tumble in the 2013 world championships, is a testament to the hard work, perseverance and dedication that has been invested. It’s not because they are women; but because, they not only lift incredible weights, but do so, with a technical ability to not only rival, but supersede their male competition.

In short, when I want to see how weightlifting should be done. It isn’t the 105+ men I look towards, jerking 260 and beyond; it is the lightest, most efficient, and to my mind significantly greater achievements of the lightest, efficient and most effective performers of our sport.

That’s what I strive towards, and why you’ll only ever see me smile if someone says, I lift like a girl.

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