Friday, July 6, 2012

A Week Under The Bar

Each week in weightlifting is a similar journey downward into a hellish existence of aches, pain, fatigue, rage, and eventually, quasi-death.  It's easy to be blunt about this path, as there is no sugar coating the fact that despite feeling unable to rise from your chair without wincing in pain, there is another workout looming on the horizon every 8 hours or so, a workout that will force you into the deepest reaches of pain and misery, and still require every ounce of strength you've got left in that tired, wrung out body of yours.  Despite the pain, you must rise, again and again.

The first day is fantastic.  You feel renewed, rejuvenated, angelic, like a bird.  You feel like running, jumping, sprinting, laughing, and as if the world is once again with you, instead of on your shoulders.  The weight feels like nothing, your muscles work quickly and efficiently.  You rise easily from morning squats, throw your pulls through the roof, and the power lifts feel solid and lightning fast.  You hit them hard.  They feel like lightning, shooting overhead, explosive shots of force and velocity.  The bar slams down over and over into the platform, and you are sure this week will be different.  After all, you are the essence of the beast, a raging monster slamming the platform with wooden heel and flexing quads.  A monster, pure strength contained in the human vile.  

The second day, is a day of caution, and reassurance.  You spend extra time stretching, rolling, massaging, icing, and popping supplements to ensure that those aches and pains can't touch you as the week wears on.  You treat your muscles as tenderly and lovingly as you can, knowing they will respond to your treatment beneficially.  Maybe they'll stay loose this week, you hope.  Maybe they'll remain flexible and pain free as you slam them with heavy squats again and again.  You still feel strong.  The lifts still feel easy, though the fringes of fatigue are evident behind your eyes.  

Shake it off buddy, you've still got four more days.  

The third day, you wake in a haze, and you know hell's grasping claws are tickling your legs.  You can feel the devil's fingernails graze your neck.  Your legs don't seem sore as you roll them out, yet as you begin to stretch more deeply, the pain is there, only in small puddles at first, but potential lakes and rivers, ready to flow through joints and tendons alike.  You try to drain them, open the floodgates, release that soreness out of your body before it's too late.  Not hard, right?  Just keep stretching, keep protein intake high, and pop those B-complex pills.  Not bad, you got this, you got this.  

But no-matter your attitude, your determination, your god given strength, as the sun rises, that first set of front squats kick you in the face.  They feel so heavy it's as if your body is drained of everything.  You're tripped off your pedastal, and all that pain you thought you'd finished off, held back, chained up, comes roaring back up through your legs, settling solidly in your knees.  Oh god it's horrible.  You struggle through, every rep gasping for air, desperately forcing your core to stay tight as a drum as the weight attempts to break your upright position.  After the final rep, you nearly fall to your knees in grace, thankful to be alive.

That afternoon you sleep, deeply, if you're lucky.  

Day three's second workout is the full lifts, which add insult to injury.  Generally they don't go past 85%, and therefore aren't remarkably heavy, but you are so drained from those morning front squats that they feel vastly more massive than they should.  Legs are bent, folded, accordions pumped in an aggressive polka.  Tendons stretch across knees to maximum length, and despite their current warmth, the heart sinks in knowledge that your body will retaliate, freeze up, and become solid and unmoving.  Upon dropping the last weight, you stretch, roll, stretch, massage, and ice in frantic determination.

But it's of no use, for as you crawl into bed that night, you can feel yourself turning into stone.

The second half of the week becomes one blur, a hazy streak on the front of your mind.  It exists as a fog of pain and struggle, of pill popping, ice, and massage.  You can barely walk, yet must squat every morning.  Shooting pain rocks your tired body with every rep, and no bounce from the hole can be achieved without wincing, groaning, and nauseousness.  You must creep into the depths of every squat, and power out with any muscle that doesn't hurt.  Stay upright, stay strong, stay tight.  God it hurts, it HURTS!

The afternoon is ice and sleep.  B12 and protein.  More ice, more stretching, ice, nap, try to hold your lids open.  Eat and wince, groan and ice.  And then it's time to lift again.

Time to lift.....again.

This time it's not as bad, as your legs are so numb and tired that the pain isn't as evident.  You smear them with pain relieving creams, trying to break up those frozen muscles.  The rocks your torso sits on.  The slabs of granite preventing you from making those damn lifts, weights you threw through the ceiling earlier this week, just won't go above your head.  You try harder, force yourself lower, pull the bar as high as you can.  As

The last day is the trial.  The test of your true composition, what you're made of, the deepest fibers of your being.  When you cannot rise from your bed without coughing in pain, when all your muscles will NOT MOVE, when you are a brittle and hardened candle wick that has no internal strength, will not bend, refuses to light, and will shatter at the slightest touch.   This is the day you will lift the heaviest.  This is the day when plates are piled on top of each other and the bar wobbles freely up and down in your ripped palms.  You squat to max, and despite the lightning pain, you yell and shout and rage against the bar, and you make the lift.  You snatch to max, and despite the pain in your knees and your ankles, and your tired upper back, you make that lift too.  And when finally the reps upon reps upon reps of clean and jerks are over, and you cry in agony as the heaviest weight possible for that particular day is thrust overhead, and you make THAT lift as well.  Then you drop it.  You drop them all.  You fall over.  You collapse in sweat and numbness.

And you wait for it to begin...again.  

Tuesday, July 3, 2012


I consider it my first escapade into the realm of the greats.  Moorestown New Jersey, home of national champions and promising young stars of the weightlifting world.  We traveled there, my coach, his family, and I, to reintroduce our small group of Mainers to the rest of East Coast gold, the team we officially compete for.  Inside me my nerves rattled slightly, strung tight like the strings of a violin.  I knew the skill of those who lifted there, pure and practiced, and to me, a skinny tall tree of a weightlifter, I felt I had reason to be surely intimidated.  I wasn't sure of what I'd see, and whether I would be accepted, or shunned as amateur and out of place.

The club itself was small, nestled in a shaded brick building below street level.  But oh god, how beautiful the place was.  Ten platforms, racks and racks of Werksan plates, and squat stands on every polished plank of wood.  The bars shone brightly, and the air was refreshing and cool.  It was a weightlifting haven amongst the crazy streets and road rage.

The talent in that room was fantastic.  Darren Barnes, the national champion 56kg lifter, repping out snatches heavier than any I'd made.  Lance Frye, former 77kg champion, power cleaning 150kg off blocks, a relatively light weight for him, as he'd snatched the same amount in his hay day.  Newcomers as well, a short Asian kid only a few years older than me, perfectly squat jerking 110kg, descending deep into the realm of normally unattainable flexibility.  They've all been to nationals, some once, some multiple times.  I feel utterly outclassed, as was expected.

However I lifted all the same, snatching up to an easy 80, clean and jerking to an effortless 95, and squatting to a feather light 120.  The reps were what killed me, as was the norm.  Volume makes champions, not heavy singles.  The lifts were solid, however my muscles were tight, initially unwilling to bend into the crazy shapes they must conform to in order to complete the lifts.  Nerves perhaps? Entwined in my ever thickening fibers?  Hah.  Despite the impossibility of that situation, it seemed like that's exactly what was happening.

Here's a training video of myself

We lifted two days in that paradise of weightlifting.  As was usual, Gwen showed her great superiority, proving she deserved her spot in the top 10 women of the United States.  After the second day, we took Darren Barnes, the remarkable 56, out to lunch at a Tuscan grill, where we laughed and chatted over chicken and pasta.  He is a boy of great knowledge for his age, and great wisdom as well.  He comes from almost nothing, and has clearly made great strides for himself.  His achievements are truly humbling, and despite his 5'3" stature, I feel like I've never looked up further to someone's being.  His smile is always stretched across his dark cheeks, and I'm quite happy to now call myself his friend.

Darren I wish you the best, and hope to meet you again soon.  You better be coming up to Maine to train with us sometime soon.  You'll love the lobster!

To wrap things up, this trip was an experience like no other.  My first handshakes with true champions, my first sightings of pure determination and unbelievable skill.  And strength, how could I forget the strength.  Without a doubt, Moorestown is hallowed ground in weightlifting, and represents the future of the sport for this country.  With men like Darren, and hopefully myself someday, we will be back on top.

Monday, June 25, 2012


Alfredo Herrera is a watchful man. His lips only part in absolute necessity, and 
the words he speak only take the form of Spanish and Russian, with a few 
English phrases thrown in here and there. He is a man of vast experience, a father 
modern weightlifting. He has coached lifters across the globe, and brought the 
Cuban team 5 world records in his first year of duty.  He has also brought gold medals to the Columbian national team, and is an expert in the Soviet weightlifting system, of which he had a huge part in creating.  While others claim depth of experience and concrete knowledge,      their form, their words, their philosophies, all crumble to dust beneath his steely eyes. 

Today, he sat in our small gym and watched me, among other lifters, attempt 
their workouts with great caution, as we all felt his gaze across our bodies.  The gym             eminated thick clouds of unbreakable focus. To say I felt anxious would be a complete and    utter understatement. My only wish was for this little old man, who has coached champions astruly groundbreaking as Pablo Lara, to approve of my attempts, and my discipline to the spor 

Snatch after snatch, jerk after clean, my mind was blank, and my gaze unbroken. 
As the rain poured in record deluge just outside, I knew nothing but the bar. 
Straight and true, I did not miss. I could feel the eyes of the doctor. His 
stare, his sharp mind exploring me, testing me, forcing the best from my 

That day I knew no fatigue, only the bar in my hands

At last, at last the weight was, for the final time that day, perched perfectly 
above my deep split, and deliberately I stood. For a moment I held it there, proud I had not
missed before this god of weightliftng.  It was true.  I had not missed a lift.  They weren't the
heaviest I'd done, nor the most solid, but I had not missed, and I was proud of that.  I brought the bar back to the platform again, and began to unload the plates in silence.  

When I finally worked up the courage to look at Dr. Herrera again, he hadn't moved, and 
somehow expected our eyes to meet.  His lips parted, and for a moment, the world around me dissapeared.

"Good.  Very good."  

My soul jumped from my body.  Approval.  I had gotten approval.  The rain may pour, my 
knees and hips may ache, but I had gotten approval from this god.  

To all who may be interested, I didn't stop there.  Dr. Herrera came and watched my workout the next day too, where I proceeded to solidly snatch 87kg, a Personal Record for me by 2kg.  90 is right around the corner, I can feel it.  Maybe next week, at last, I'll throw more than 
200lbs above my head in one fantastic lift.  

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Evening

This is a place of family, a tight knit community of strong and dedicated people. Tonight we lift, hard and heavy, and then we dine, on Maine's finest delicacy: fresh lobsters from beneath the black waves. We devour the large red insects, slurping out the smallest pieces of protein dense muscle, splattering brine across our shirts and shorts, laughing as we crack the toughest shells and knaw at cartilage. We young litters eat the most, in fact I personally had five of the crimson beasts. It was a meal fit for a king and large enough for the court.

And as the sun goes down, Ivan hands out carefully kept Cuban cigars from a polished mahogany case. German and Nick take them eagerly, clipping them with careful touch and bathing their tips in fire. They puff slowly, savoring the foreign taste in their cheeks.

Then, Ivan pours the rum, a Guatemalan rarity one would never find on US soil. Its from his private collection, an eclectic variety of expensive liquors from around the globe. The lifters sip and puff, and I sit and feel the cool yet remarkably humid evening air. We talk of lifting, and heavy weights, yet as the sky grows dark we forget about that world for a bit. Our aching knees and sore hips vanish from our minds, and amongst the coming night we are free from the kilos, released from beneath the bar.

In this place, just a shallow dip into maine's vast borders, we live in a world all our own. The red plates, the boiled lobster, and cigar smoke make our lives, and allow us to live in peace with ourselves and those who share our love.

We are together, under the bar, and the rising moon.

57 Squats

I rose with the sun this morning, my back under the bar as the orange rays came gently peaking through the garage door windows.  The time had come again, to strain my tired legs under volume few would dare to undertake.  57 squats.  Fifty, freaking, seven.  I cringed at the sight of it on my little sheet of paper, scribbled "6/22 morning w-out."  Was a missing something?  Did I write one too many sets across this little sheet?  Alas, I would be a champion, and thus I would squat.  

I won't lie, the sheer volume made a wimp out of me.  I remembered the feeling of fear when for the first time in my life I crawled under 140kg and forced it from the hole.  It did not compare to the ending doubles on this fateful day.  Two doubles of 120kg, a weight I could easily squat after 20, even 30 reps.  But 50?  After 50, it felt as if I were atlas, with the world on my shoulders.

I'm glad I was alone today, on this humid morning.  My strained yells and bulging eyes would find no one's eardrums, and instead reverberated off the concrete as I finished those two last doubles.  The noise was a purging of sorts.  Rarely do I yell, but today 120kg brought it out of me.  Two, final reps, as slow as molasses, but solid none the less.  I did rise, my legs did not fail me, and 57 reps were at last, in my past.  In revelation I threw the bar from my back, and lay my head back on my tired traps.  The ceiling was all I saw for a couple minutes, blank and white.  Fifty seven reps on nothing but 6 hours of sleep and oatmeal in my belly.  Damn.  

115 kg...not much

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Turn up the Volume

Here in Maine, we lift differently.  While others drop heavy singles forward and behind, over and over, we quietly nail triples and doubles with ease, throwing weight above our head consistantly and with perfect form.  Five hundred repetitions per week?  Bare minimum.  We are always lifting.  We don't wait to fail, unsure of our strength, we build it quickly, effectively, perfectly, with repitition, just as the old Soviets did.  And we obtain the same success, as is evident in every competition we wipe through. We are hardened, prepared, un-phased by the heavy stuff.  It is instinctual, the technique forged in the fire of pure, unfaltering, repetition.

Volume is the name of the game.  I learned that quickly under Ivan's coaching.  We as American weightlifters are flawed in believing that heavy singles are what creates success and confidence under the bar.  Failing heavy weight does not teach you how to lift heavy weight, it only severely taxes the central nervous system and will, undoubtedly, cause injury.  In the words of the famous Coach Rojas, "It doesn't matter how much you lift, but how many times you lift."

And the top weightlifting forces around the world completely agree.  Cuba, the Soviet Union, Germany, and other countries all use similar, if not identical systems as the one we (and I), lift on.  High volume is the only way to guarantee success on the world stages of weightlifting, where every lift determines whether you are a champion, or an absolute nobody.  Volume, reps, and constant, unceasing weightlifting will produce champions.

I remember attending a coach certification class in order to obtain my level 1 weightlifting coaching licence.  This class was obviously run through USA weightlifting, a weakling in the sport compared to countries such as Russia, Bulgaria, Pakistan, Germany, and pretty much anywhere else.  The teacher boasted how our program was such a fantastic piece of work, created by top scientists and guaranteed to produce champions.  Yet we haven't had an Olympic weightlifter who's actually medaled at the Olympics in...well...forever.  We, SUCK.  While I stood there, chuckling at her misplaced confidence, I watched her lifters demonstrate their "prowess."  I watched each and every one of them miss single after heavy single, failing in both technique and overall strength.  It was so futile.  I wanted to scream. This country is doomed to failure on the platform as long as we refuse to adapt a different method of training.  Heavy singles do NOT make champions, at least not with our damn programming.  The Bulgarians might disagree, but hey, we're not Bulgarians.  And they were all busted for drugs anyway.

I'll say it one more time.  High volume creates discipline, rock solid technique, and unbreakable mental strength.  It hardens muscles and builds champions from the ground up.  It is brutal, unforgiving, tiring, and uninspiring.  But it works, oh god does it work.

And at the end of the day, when I drop my final weight, to know I didn't miss any reps, even 85-90% triples, is a fantastic feeling.

We Squat, Because We Must

We are calm, as we step underneath the bar.  We make little noise other than a pressured hiss as we force our traps against the cold steel, squeezing tight our shoulders and forcing abdominals in rigid line.  We consider it monotonous, yet crucially necessary.  To be driven into the ground repeatedly, deep into vast realms of hip and hamstring flexibility, maintaining upright posture far below what those around us would consider sane.  We are comfortable in the hole, and powerful coming out of it.  We are precise, empowered, and determined, as the weight oscillates on our back, plates slammed tight against each other.  We do it for the strength it builds, the rigidity it provides, and the confidence it provokes in our being.   Yes, we squat because we must.  It is a brutal contrast to the lifts that comprise our sport. The snatch is an instant of power, a frozen moment of artistic significance as weight is transferred perfectly from floor to lockout.  The clean is comprised of pure power, a testament to the raw force a human being is truly capable of producing.  The jerk is like lightning, instant and stunning, a plyometric clap of godly thunder.  But the squat, the squat remains silently in the background, a nagging piece of lifting monotony.  It brings us back to earth as our celebrations end, and our personal bests fade into memory.  It forces us back down, underneath the unforgiving push of steel and rubber.  And we are forever condemned to rise again and again from the depths of torture and uncompromising weight.  We are pushed down, and we must push back, one with the hand of gravity.  Yes, we rise with the sun, the bar on our back, and throw it off only as we fall into caressing sheets.  As long as we dream of gold draped around our necks, we are condemned to squat.