I recently did my second Olympic weightlifting meet, on October 2, 2021. The first was 6 years ago. I’m not new to meets, as many of you know, but I’ve mainly done powerlifting and strengthlifting ones before. The lifts performed are different – that’s obvious – but in a way all three meets have a lot more in common than their differences. Hanging out in the warm up room, stepping up onto a platform when your name is called, doing a judged lift in front a small, somewhat sleepy, quiet crowd – it’s almost eerie how similar it all feels. Yes, you execute different lifts, but the true essence is very similar: whoever lifts the heaviest weights on the bar that day wins. All three are competitions that use a 220cm barbell – a little over 7 feet. The differences are: weightlifting involves 3 attempts at the snatch and the clean & jerk. Powerlifting involves the squat, bench with a pause and either sumo or conventional deadlift. Strengthlifting involves the squat, press and only conventional deadlift.
The main and best differences, however, are that in strengthlifting no judges participate in your lifts and you weigh out of the meet after your last deadlift. Which means you don’t have to wake up so damn early and worry about making weight – if you need to be within a weight class, that should have already been taken care of. So you’re there to lift the heaviest weights, not worry about what you weigh. This isn’t a Weight Watchers group, this is a barbell meet, goddammit it! Lift some iron.
Meet vs Gym Lifts
Training and competing are two very different things. Training is what I love to do personally, but competing is proof that my training is on the correct trajectory. Most of what I can do in the gym I can do on the platform, but that’s not true for everyone. I seem to be a “gamer” – I show up and perform well. That doesn’t mean I win, but I always surprise myself and usually hit a PR, or do better than in previous competitions. There’s one caveat here: I tend to only compete once a year, which allows me plenty of time to get stronger than previously, and as we know being stronger correlates closely to being a better lifter. A whole year gives me lots of time to improve, as opposed to someone who competes 3 or 4 times a year. A frequent competitor won’t usually make big leaps in strength from meet to meet.
The 3 main road blocks that create plateaus, preventing most lifters from reaching their goals, are usually either physical, mental, or technical. The majority of the people I coach struggle with the technical issues. Once the weight gets heavy, their form goes to shit. That’s what we’re doing when we’re screaming as coaches: trying to hold form together.
Physical issues are the second classic pitfall. Usually a lifter is simply not big enough or eating and recovering hard enough to make progress from training. I’ve written a separate article on under-recovery for more depth on this topic.
The final hurdle is mental: when someone sees a heavy weight on the bar or hears a number and screams, “No, I can’t possibly do that, that’s way too heavy!” I had my share of physical, mental and technical issues coming into this weightlifting meet. Most of mine are mental. My goals for this meet were eminently doable training numbers – from the days when I was more well practiced. This time, however, I only had 6 weeks to prep. My goal was 90/130 and my previous PRs were 100/135. I don’t have much weightlifting background apart from training the lifts correctly with Rip at seminars or grabbing him out of his man-cave for 5 minutes to watch me lift.
In the UK, I originally trained at a CrossFit gym where I had no coaching to speak of. The standard wasn’t especially high – the upshot is that a 100kg snatch and 140kg clean & jerk meant you were the big silverback in the room, or at least top 3. In a regular gym those are pretty decent numbers – you wouldn’t see them at Gold’s or Snap Fitness. In weightlifting terms, however, a 100/140 is what the 59kg women lift in the Olympics (just to put these numbers into perspective). Now, I’m not looking to change my gender or identify as a female just yet, but even with those numbers I would struggle to place in the Games in the women’s division.
My original goal when I started weightlifting was always to hit a 100/140, because they seemed like nice round numbers that most of my peers were struggling to do. These days I have bigger numbers in my head, as I’m looking to chase down a friend who lives in Dallas. That’s mainly for banter, but it’s also a personal side quest on the road to becoming a better weightlifter. Looking around the old CrossFit gym, seeing how weak everyone was, that’s where my journey began.
The interesting thing was that the closer I got to approaching my goal numbers, a mental breakdown occurred. When I loaded the bar to 100/140, I suddenly became more nervous and anxious than I should have been. When I snatched 100kg I missed it maybe 10 times before I made it. That’s a technique issue caused by a problem between my ears – not a strength issue. Fear, if you didn’t know by now, is not a helpful emotion when you’re under heavy barbells, and especially not if you’re also trying to slam yourself underneath those heavy loads (which is the nature of weightlifting). It was like a block, as if I wasn’t worthy of being that strong.
And bear in mind that, as I said above, 100/140 is not actually that impressive. I think my attitude would have been different if I was training in a gym with lifters who could all clean & jerk 180kg. I would maybe not have been such a wuss. It’s easy to blame my surroundings, and it’s a cheap shot I know, but if you’ve ever been in a big, strong environment, it does make you step up.
Why Was I Doing a Weightlifting Meet in the First Place?
I’m still eager to crush some strengthlifting and even powerlifting goals, like benching 400lbs, deadlifting 600lbs and pressing 300lbs, but my life situation has changed recently. To give you some personal insight: my beautiful fiancée has very recently been diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 35. This devastating news rocked us to our core. I quickly realized that my training would have to change in order to deal with this life-changing news. Family comes first.
This made me decide to switch from a more strengthlifting-oriented program to a weightlifting one, as hitting my planned goals in powerlifting and strengthlifting wasn’t my main priority any more. Instead, I was focusing on consistent training and looking after my fiancée, so losing some bodyfat and focusing on getting my snatch and clean & jerk back to old numbers became a feasible and achievable new goal. I didn’t plan on doing a meet with only 6 weeks’ prep, but that’s just how it panned out. Life, like training, isn’t perfect, but you make the best of things with the shitty cards you’re dealt sometimes.
My Approach to the Barbell
Consistent training over the past decade and my mindful approach to the barbell – whether I’m doing an empty bar or my max – is what has always made me calm and relaxed during a meet. It’s because I’ve been there before, for thousands of reps. So what’s one more? I would go so far to say that in a meet I’m actually not thinking about my form per se, but about maintaining unblinking focus. It could be a snatch, press, squat, or clean & jerk – my approach to the barbell is the same. I take a moment to stare deeply into the center knurl, take a few calm and deep breaths, and then I’m ready for battle. It’s the exact same as when I’m training that particular lift. I’m always striving to produce the same movement pattern, and that’s what keeps my performance on the platform consistent.
Anyway, that’s my theory. This, I would say, is the main reason why I can usually do my gym PRs on meet day. Another habit I have built into my training is being self-sufficient. I coach and program myself – yes, I get people to watch my lifts from time to time, but I mainly coach myself. I’m constantly filming my work sets and being heavily critical about the mechanics, seeing what I can improve.
If you’re a coach or aspiring coach and haven’t gone through the process of coaching yourself, it’s a humbling experience that should be respected. If you have, you know that the hardest person you will ever coach is yourself. You have to be honest and ask the hard questions. You have to be a stickler for form and overall successful habits. You know why you missed that lift: you rushed your warm-ups, didn’t eat enough, got distracted by other life issues. You can’t just scream This Program’s Not Working! and go running to your coach to fix it. You know you fucked up, and you need to make the program work. There’s tremendous underrated value to coaching yourself for periods of time which can’t be overlooked. I have always been my biggest critic, and I am always striving towards barbell mastery.
Sure, it’s nice to hear people say you’re strong or have good technique, but like any ignorant gorilla I’ve always found it hard to take a compliment, even if it’s well deserved. Anyways, that’s a rabbit hole for my future therapist or another article.
A big mistake I see a lot of lifters committing is disregarding warm-ups and trying to smash work sets out as fast as possible – like finishing their workout 10 minutes faster is some sort of achievement. It’s not. Being mindful and present under the barbell during all your warm-ups and taking your time to hit good-quality reps in your works sets is the key to being at your best when competing. That’s at least the lesson I have drawn from why I can do well on meet day. Of course, people’s experiences and opinions will vary, but I don’t think most people would disagree when I say that when training for weightlifting you should aim to never miss reps. Don’t skip training sessions – aim to train your ass off as much as you can. That I can guarantee to be helpful.
When it comes to the day of the meet, food preparation is key. Eat foods you know are “safe” so that you don’t get any unwanted digestion issues on the day – or, worse, be starving or lightheaded. It’s a good idea to bring a lunch with snacks with you. Don’t forget fluids: maybe even some coffee in a flask, too. A trip to your local supermarket a day or two beforehand is a lifesaver, as there isn’t always a shop within spitting distance of where your meet is hosted. Another way to get around prepping food the night before or morning of is to do a Google scouting report. Check on the interwebs where your meet is and scan for the closest shops or good eateries where you can grab some solid fuel.
When it comes to doing a meet, you have to think about the logistics. This is a big area where people fuck up. I currently reside in Windsor (which is within waving distance of the Queen). The meet was in Vauxhall, which doesn’t sound like far.
However, we all had to weigh in at 8–9am, always the worst part of a meet. I didn’t want to wake up at 4am and get a £100 Uber so instead I booked a cheap hotel near the station, meaning I woke up at a reasonable 7am. Again, on meet day you want to set yourself up for as little stress as possible, minimizing the variables that could go wrong. I could have woken up at 4am and taken a cab, sure, but what if there was a road collision or cabs weren’t around, or maybe a petrol shortage messed up the traffic? All of that could have made me late for the weigh-in, which would have meant I would miss the weigh-in. You just don’t know, so getting a local hotel or Airbnb and being within walking distance is my preferred option.
It’s attention to these types of details on meet day that set you up for a successful day’s lifting. It’s not about what brand names you’re wearing or how many friends you bring to scream for you. All of that is nice, but the main thing is having a stress-free and logistically smooth day.
Having a Handler
I was lucky enough to bump into a weightlifting coach I knew at the meet, and I asked him nicely to be my handler. Seth, who is also a British Commonwealth lifter, is well-versed in how weightlifting meets go. I am not, which is why bumping into him helped, because there are certain tactics that get deployed in a weightlifting meet that don’t occur in powerlifting and strengthlifting meets. In weightlifting, you are called to lift depending on what number is on the bar. The weight keeps increasing, from lightest attempt to heaviest attempt. So if your first snatch is 50kg and your second is 55kg, and no one else is doing those numbers, then you are going to follow yourself, and you would only have 2 minutes between attempts. The lifters can change attempts for any reason (as long as the weight on the bar doesn’t go down), which changes the lifting order throughout the meet. This makes the lifting order rather chaotic, and it is a completely different experience from the other two barbell sports.
In powerlifting and strengthlifting, everyone in your flight does their first attempt, from lightest to heaviest, then their second, and then their third – you always know when you’re doing the attempt. Having an experienced eye to tell you when you are up, plus maybe someone to advise whether you need to take tactical jumps in order to obtain a longer rest between lifts is quite important for weightlifting, and that’s the main difference in these 3 meets. Having a handler also keeps your stress levels to a minimum. Anyway, I have plenty more to say about weightlifting meets, so stay tuned for Part 2, which includes my Top 10 Tips. I kick things off by discussing how to taper correctly, which I accomplished with the help of Josh Wells SSC.