When one mentions weightlifting in the United States, most people think bodybuilding, bench pressing, and Cybex-styled gym strength machines. However, outside America, weightlifting is a popular Olympic sport that attracts all ages. Olympic weightlifting is composed of only two barbell lifts: the snatch (one fluid motion from ground to overhead) and the clean and jerk (two motions, starting from ground to chest, with a jerk movement to overhead position). Olympic weightlifting differs from powerlifting in that the latter includes bench press, squat, and deadlift.
Sadly, U.S.A. Weightlifting, the national governing body of Olympic weightlifting in the United States, only qualified 3 of 15 allowed spots to compete in the Summer Olympic Games in London. There are many reasons why we only qualified three lifters, which is outside the scope of this column. At our national meets, we may only attract about 200 lifters, whereas in Europe, their local events attract this amount or more. It would greatly benefit the United States to embrace this sport. Weightlifting improves strength, bone density, flexibility, proprioception, explosiveness, and functional movement, and these benefits carry over to almost every other sport. Moreover, this sport does not involve a lot of capital. To get started, all one needs is a barbell, some rubber weights, a home-made platform, and some shoes.
As my sports medicine fellows and I provided medical coverage for the 2012 International Weightlifting Federation’s (IWF) World Masters Championships in Lviv, Ukraine, I was impressed with so many advanced-age lifters. This competition focuses on Olympic weightlifters (aged 35 years and older). A total of 580 of the world’s best master lifters from 45 countries competed at the 8-day event. This prompted us to think about this column and how we could easily review the medical literature on the benefits of strength training and, specifically, Olympic weightlifting. However, we thought it may be more interesting to share three different examples of individuals who are gaining the benefits of Olympic weightlifting.
The first is an 84-year-old German weightlifter whom we have come to know during the last 14 years of covering the Masters competition. Kurt Rosenberg, at a weight of 91 kg (200 lbs) and standing 5 ft 7 in, is overweight and experiences some mild arthritis and occasional hypertension. Despite these minor maladies, he continues to train in weightlifting two to three times a week. In addition to his athletic endeavors, he is the IWF Masters chief referee. Kurt comes from humble beginnings in Wuppertal, Germany. He was interested in strength training from a young age. He believes that this is what allowed him to survive World War II, which he became involved in at the age of 16 years when he was conscripted into the German army. He feels that his strength training allowed him to escape an American prisoner of war camp and be able to break into East Germany after the war to bring food and supplies to his family. When you ask Kurt what Olympic weightlifting has done for him, he says it has allowed him to go to the 1972 Summer Olympics (as an IWF referee), make lots of friends, and travel the world. Another thing he often refers to is his good health. Many studies demonstrate that lifelong daily activity confers many health benefits, including a decrease in lipids, cardiovascular fitness, bone health (1), mental health, improved glycemic control, and improved blood pressure control. By the way, Kurt was able to snatch 35 kg (84 lbs) and clean and jerk 51 kg (110 lbs), good enough to earn him a silver medal at this year’s IWF competition.
Our second example is Coral Quinnel, a small, youthful, 55-year-old woman weighing 53 kg (117 lbs) from Brisbane, Australia, who, in that same competition in Ukraine, won a gold medal with a 51-kg (112-lb) snatch and a 60-kg (132-lb) clean and jerk. Coral has always been into fitness. She used to own a large health club and now owns a small CrossFit personal training studio focused on Olympic weightlifting. She has coached numerous women in her country to championships at all levels, has started a Master’s training camp, and is a member of the National Masters Panel in Australia. Before Olympic lifting, Coral competed in powerlifting and holds 13 women’s records, including a 168-kg (370-lb) deadlift at a body weight of 51 kg (112 lbs). For Coral, strength training has allowed her to see the world; help advance women’s health in her country; to maintain the same body composition and weight as when she was 20 years old; to have a profession; and to maintain great flexibility, strength, and bone density. The literature supports the effects of strength training on female health and bone density in older females (8,9). Coral perfectly eradicates the myth that if you lift heavy weights as a woman, you will look like a man. Coral, who has lifted in two disciplines of strength training for more than three decades, is a very attractive youthful-appearing female. In our experience, only those with Turner syndrome or hormone dyscrasias or who use exogenous anabolics appear masculinized. Coral has been teaching fitness through strength training for decades, but she has enjoyed tremendous success by focusing on the middle-aged female population who may or may not have been athletic. As she trains them, she empowers them. Their self-confidence blossoms as their technique improves. Because Olympic weightlifting is a weight class sport, people of all sizes can compete. Thus, body image is preserved whether a person is of slight build or of greater size.
Three-year-old Kristoffer is our next example. He is the son of Jan Hinrichson, a 300+-lb Swedish police officer who also is the chairman of the IWF Masters who boasts a personal record of 187 kg (411 lb) in the clean and jerk and 132 kg (290 lb) in the snatch. Jan shared a video of young Kristoffer snatching an 8-kg (17.6-lb) bar in their local gym where they go three times a week to train and play. In Europe, weightlifting often starts as early as 3 to 4 years of age. In the United States, this may be frowned on because of many concerns associated with robust strength training in youth, such as growth arrest, decreased growth velocity (4), and physeal plate injuries. Generally, youth in the United States are not encouraged to strength train until late in middle school or high school. Often, youth in the United States are only introduced to Olympic weightlifting through cross training for other sports. The literature supports enhancement of long-term athletic development by starting weightlifting during youth (12). It also suggests that those who participate in weightlifting improve injury prevention (6,7), and females specifically have been found to be at decreased risk of rupture of the anterior cruciate ligament. Have we in the United States missed out on an opportunity for our youth? We are a nation who introduces our youth to gymnastics, soccer, baseball, and swimming often at the same time young Kristoffer was introduced to Olympic weightlifting. Epidemiologic data collected from emergency rooms show that most strength training injuries occur during nonsupervised sessions and less than one-half of a dozen involved physeal plates (13). Numerous reputable organizations have put out position statements stating that children can engage in strength training when prescribed and supervised by qualified people (2,3,5,10,15,16). Previously, long-term athlete development models for youth were based on chronologic age. Current thought focuses more on bridging maturation and periods of trainability for a limited number of fitness qualities (11). Youth physical development can be defined by growth rate (rapid or steady phases), maturational status (involving before, during, and after peak height velocity in adolescence), training adaptation (neural dominated before 10 years of age and neural/hormonal combination after 10 years of age), physical qualities of youth (fundamental movement skills, sport-specific skills, mobility, agility, speed, power, strength, hypertrophy, endurance, and metabolic conditioning), and training structure (unstructured, low to moderate to highly structured) (11). Overuse injuries seen in our youth, possibly because of our country’s obsession of encouraging our youth to focus only on a single sport, might be prevented in part with appropriate preparatory conditioning (17).
These examples of weightlifters demonstrate the multiple benefits from Olympic weightlifting in helping people achieve various individual goals. During the last 30 years, the term “cross training” has become pervasive in training for almost every sport. Because of improved flexibility, ballistic movement, balance, proprioception, and strength, Olympic weightlifting could enhance most athletic endeavors. Olympic weightlifting seems like a natural fit to propel athletes to the next level of competition. After speaking to both the executive director at USA Weightlifting, Michael Massick, and the secretary-general of the IWF, Bill Barton, we mirror their hope that the sport of weightlifting continues to grow in all age groups, especially as an adjuvant training component for all sports. They hope to establish a more grassroots effort to grow the sport in youth and junior levels, including incentives to establish more collegiate scholarships.
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