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An Interdisciplinary Approach to Weightlifting, Part One

Weightlifting Talk with Jon North and Donny Shankle
Weightlifting Talk with Jon North and Donny Shankle

I listen to a Weightlifting Talk Show that is broadcasted (click link below) once per week, 1:00 PM EST:

National champions and USA team members Jon North and Donny Shankle talk weightlifting for about 90 minutes.  If you are trying to learn or improve your performance of the Olympic lifts (the snatch, and the clean and jerk), you NEED to listen to this show.

One of the topics that Jon North got pretty passionate about recently was about how Weightlifting (“Olympic” Weightlifting to the layperson) is as different from Bodybuilding, Powerlifting, and “Strongman”, as Basketball is different from Golf, Volleyball, or Football.  Although it is common practice to group Weightlifting, Bodybuilding, Powerlifting, and Strongman together as the “Iron Sports”, it is foolish and misinformed to do so.

“Weightlifting is NOT Bodybuilding, Powerlifting, or Strongman!”

These activities are VERY different from each other in many ways.  So much so, that Jon North seems to feel infuriated by the comparison of his sport, Weightlifting, to the other “Iron” sports.  Personally, I feel, having extensive experience with Bodybuilding and Powerlifting, and a fair amount of familiarity with Strongman, that Jon North’s anger is justified.  Only someone who does not understand each of these sports would group them together without distinction.  I would further caution you not to assume that a bodybuilder, powerlifter, or other “iron sport” athlete can just walk in and do pretty good at weightlifting (the Snatch and the Clean and Jerk).  If you have been performing primarily bodybuilding type or powerlifting type workouts for most of your career, you will need to work hard to make a transition to weightlifting.

“Can you make an effective transition from bodybuilding to weightlifting?  From powerlifting to weightlifting?”

I believe there ARE training concepts and techniques that can be utilized and applied across disciplines.  Having 30 years of experience in Bodybuilding and Powerlifting before EVER attempting (Olympic) Weightlifting, does give me a particular and somewhat unique perspective on how to improve at the Snatch and the Clean and Jerk. It might be just the right perspective to land me on the podium. It might be just the right perspective to land me in the hospital. Either way, I will keep you posted on my progress and you can benefit from my successes and mistakes.  Before I talk about what concepts and techniques I have pulled from Bodybuilding and Powerlifting that I have, so far, successfully applied to Weightlifting, I would like to clearly define each activity and describe my experience with each one.

Stage 1 – Bodybuilding – The Adolescent Period

Paul Newt 1st Contest
Paul Newt. Backstage “pump-up” area. Massachusetts Regional Contest. 1992. Age 21. Heavyweight Division. 1st Place.

Growing up in the age of Arnold and Sylvester Stallone, I started training with weights at the relatively young age of 12.  You can read a more descriptive account of this here.  For me and many guys that also grew up in the 80’s, this naturally led me to competitive Bodybuilding.  I entered my first contest at age 21 and won 1st in the Heavyweight Division at a local contest in Massachusetts.  Here is a photo from my very first contest:

I was far from a genetically gifted bodybuilder, but there were very few guys around who trained as hard and consistently as I did.  I say that, not to be arrogant, but to give an accurate account of the amount of work it takes to successfully bodybuild.  At age 20, before my first competition, 2.5 – 3 hour workouts, 6 days/week, with never missing a workout, was pretty “normal” for me.  But bodybuilding competitions are not won in the training room, they are won on the stage.  To look good and win on stage is an almost entirely different endeavor than training hard at the gym.  The contest preparation that bodybuilders SUFFER through is the most intense preparation period of any sport.  This is where you are tested the most mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.  Most guys simply can’t hang.  They don’t have it.  They don’t have the fortitude to suffer through it and make it to the stage.  Most just self-destruct and bail in the final 4 weeks of prep and say, “forget it”.  It’s really no joke.  I have much respect for bodybuilders and the intensity of their efforts.  I’ve always said that to excel at bodybuilding, it helps to be a little bit mentally disturbed because very few rational, well-adjusted, mentally “healthy” people would put themselves through the rigors of a bodybuilding competition phase.

Bodybuilding, for me, was not a Perfect 105…

Paul Newt 1st Contest pic2
Paul Newt. Backstage “pump-up” area. Massachusetts Regional Contest. 1992. Age 21. Heavyweight Division. 1st Place.

Mentally and emotionally, I was, and still am, EXTREMELY well-suited for bodybuilding, both in the training room and in a pre-competition phase.  But competitive bodybuilding for me was never the perfect fit.  It took only a handful of contests for me to “see” the truth about competitive bodybuilding and envision where that journey may take me.  After that moment of enlightenment, my “spiritual self” questioned the path in such a strong way that I could not convince myself to continue in that specific manifestation of weight training.  Although, deep down, I think I will forever consider myself a bodybuilder at heart because of the gifts my early weight training days gave to me and the anchor that it served as at a difficult period in my life, I know that I made the right decision to hang up those posing trunks.

Here is a link to one of my favorite bicep building routines of all time.

Stage 2 – Powerlifting – A Post-Collegiate Education

More than 15 years of weight training done in a bodybuilding format had radically developed my body.  When I started lifting weights, I weighed 102 lbs at 5 feet, 2 inches tall.  Naturally growth and maturity combined with consistent weight training landed me at 6 feet, 1 inch tall, weighing a consistent 245-250 lbs and on stage at a lean 220 lbs.  I was big. I remember getting fitted for a tux during this time and wearing a 54″ coat, and 34″ waist pants. I was doing concentration curl dropsets in a slow, super-strict form starting with an 80 pound dumbbell.  I remember several times I had to stop training biceps altogether for a few weeks at a time because my arms were SO big that everything else looked horribly small.  When I sat in the incline bench one time and looked in the mirror as I reached back to grab the barbell and saw that my arms looked bigger than my head, I decided that was enough.  I was also fairly strong.  I performed Bent-legged Deadlifts every 4-6 days at the tail-end of my high volume quad day using well over 500 lbs for 6-10 reps.  My best performance was 405 lbs x 20, rest 5 minutes, then 595 lbs x 2.  I would perform the full range chin-up with up to 140 lbs strapped to me.  I have consistently been terrible at the bench press, pressing (raw) in the low 400s, but at least I could do the 140 lbs dumbbells on the flat bench for 10 reps.  It was not long after these strength zeniths that I considered trying some powerlifting.  And I did.  I had mediocre results.  I never felt like powerlifting was the right fit for me.

What REALLY turned me OFF about powerlifting the most was the growing use of supportive gear… super-suits and bench shirts and such.  Don’t get me wrong.  Powerlifters are like powerful animals, worthy of respect.  And awesome, kind, courteous, and surprisingly generous people as a community.  But I was, and always will be, unimpressed by the low bar back squat in a supersuit and the 800 lb bench press done with a shirt that pinches your arms together like you’re some sort of T-Rex.  I mean these monsters posting 2700+ lb totals with supportive gear ARE REALLY STRONG WITHOUT THE SUPPORTIVE GEAR.  Why not have them compete that way?  But, that is not for me to decide.  And the final problem I had with powerlifting was… I am not willing to be fat just so I can be strong.  It is just not a fair trade, in my opinion.  Deep down, I always harbored the thought that powerlifters were bodybuilders who just couldn’t stick to a diet.  Is that true?  I don’t want to insult anyone.  But anyone with experience can tell you that it is MUCH easier to get strong when you are eating in a way that makes you FAT.  And to be LEAN and (super) STRONG is VERY difficult to achieve.

So, again, as in bodybuilding, I suffered a spiritually misalignment that, deep down, whispered to me that powerlifting was not the right path for me.

And lastly, I would like to mention that Strongman, which I have the least experience with, could never really capture my full attention.  It just looks like too much like hard labor!

In Part 2 of this blog post, An Interdisciplinary Approach to Weightlifting, I will begin to tell you about my personal experiences with learning the Snatch and the Clean and Jerk and how my physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual selves were finally able to align for The Perfect 105.

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