Olympic Weightlifting: The 411

Oxygen blogger Genevieve Gyulavary explains the clean-and-jerk and the snatch – and how these elegant exercises are for men and women alike!

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Ever since I was a little girl, I have received the message through media or interactions with other people that I am supposed to remain small. Even today as I sit here and thumb through the pages of a magazine, there are images of women who are frail and waif-like. These women are glamorized and, at certain points in my life, I wanted to be one of them. That is, until I found a barbell.

My first experience with Olympic weightlifting occurred in my early 20s. I had always been an athletic person. I ran marathons, joined all the group classes, lived for Spinning and could even throw a decent right hook in kickboxing. But through all these ventures, I never came across fitness in this way.

I walked into a CrossFit gym, and the coach called it “the snatch.” Come again?! Maybe this word is more mainstream now, but at the time, I had never heard of such a thing — at least not used in context to exercise.

Olympic weightlifting is made up of two movements: the clean-and-jerk and the snatch — not to be confused with powerlifting, which encompasses such movements as the back squat, front squat, bench press, deadlift, strict press, etc.

Powerlifting movements focus on raw strength, whereas the clean-and-jerk and snatch are extremely technical movements, which from a physics perspective rely on a brief period of weightlessness throughout the movement that can take years to develop. They are also two essential movements that are used at moderate loads in the sport of CrossFit.

At a standard Olympic-weightlifting meet, you have three attempts to perform both lifts within a specific weight class. Athletes who perform these lifts in a stand-alone sport are required to do so in silence, on a platform, in front of a crowd of people and generally in a singlet (think of a one-piece wrestling uniform).

Months of training is encapsulated into sometimes no more than a minute. If this is your sport, you are practicing these movements and accessory exercises to improve day in and day out.

In terms of what these movements actually are, a quick YouTube or Google search yields a slew of videos that visually break these down. In layman terms, however, both these lifts use the entire body to bring a weight from the ground to overhead. While Olympic weightlifting is extremely technical, it is the functionality of the lifts that eventually made me fall in love with developing these skills.

When I walked into the CrossFit gym that first day, I was introduced to a barbell and instructed to get into positions that my body just wasn’t having. I was immediately put off. It was hard and frustrating, and I literally wanted no part of it. “Let me sweat! I can jump and run and string some pull-ups together, but man oh man, that barbell is not for me.”

Fortunately, I loved so many other aspects of functional fitness at the time that I decided to stick with it. Eventually, this training forced me to learn how to incorporate a barbell into a workout. And I am so thankful I did. I’m also grateful for cellphone cameras because watching the progression of my lifts and technique over the years has been invaluable.

I love being strong. I love possessing the ability to bring a heavy weight from the ground over my head with grace and beauty. They say if you really want to know whether someone moves well, watch them dance. Well, I disagree. Watch an Olympic weightlifter. The grace and finesse required to perform these movements is actually breathtaking.

While I am in no way discrediting dance, weightlifting is so functional. When performed safely, it can positively impact your functionality in everyday life. You can carry all your groceries in from the car in one trip. You can lift heavy furniture off the floor, correctly. These are full-body movements. No muscles are left behind.

I began this post talking about how society has engrained the desire for smallness in women. Women who lift heavy barbells have historically been seen as masculine rather than feminine.

As weightlifting becomes more and more popular for both men and women and is understood as a powerful and graceful sport for anybody, I hope my future daughter will not make herself small. I hope her role models as an adolescent will look a lot different than mine did. I hope she will know that strong is beautiful and to be sought after.

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