Wowed by the weightlifters at the Olympics, fitness writer Chloe Gray decided she’d give it a try. Here’s what happened when she learned to snatch and clean.
I’ve been too comfortable with my lifting routine for too long. I can walk into the gym without thinking and move through a rotation of upper or lower body workouts without too much thought. While they’re beneficial for my mental and physical health, they were becoming slightly sloppy and too easy to skip.
Then the Olympics happened, and I watched the most powerful people in the world move with passion – particularly Emily Campbell, the female weightlifter who took silver for Team GB. Scrolling through her Instagram after the competition, I realised I needed more from my training. While I am very aware of the fact that I’m never going to be an Olympian, I wanted Campbell’s full-face determination before touching the bar, and her sense of pride when she finished her lifts.
What is Olympic weightlifting?
Weightlifting has become a more common pastime recently, but there’s a difference between using dumbbells and barbells in the gym and Olympic lifting. According to British Weightlifting, the sport concentrates on just two very technical lifts: the snatch and the clean and jerk. Forget your shoulder presses and deadlifts, the two Olympic lifting moves are considered the most difficult and complex weightlifting techniques.
The snatch involves lifting the barbell from the floor to over your head, finishing in a deep squat with your arms overhead, holding the weight. In a clean and jerk, you move the bar from the ground to a front rack position, then jump into a lunge-like position as you press the weight overhead. Complicated? Just a little.
While these moves are commonly performed in CrossFit or other circuit-based training, they may not be performed with quite the same level of detail. In CrossFit, the idea is to get as much weight lifted as quickly as possible, whereas in Olympic lifting, the technique is crucial for both reasons of safety and standardising competitions.
What happens during an Olympic weightlifting session?
To see how hard Olympic lifting really was, I went to train with Chloe Whylie, a strength and conditioning coach and silver medalist at the 2019 England Weight Lifting Grand Prix. Honestly, I was terrified. I know that I’m fit, but the image of lifters throwing huge barbells overhead felt so alien to my usual gym-based training. I spent the entire Tube journey to my first class with a dry mouth and nervous shakes.
Whylie is no stranger to working with beginners. She asked me about my lifting history, about what I wanted from the session, and assured me that at no point in the first workout would she be asking me to lift heavily. Instead, newbies should spend the first few weeks, if not months, perfecting technique. It may be called weightlifting, but weights come second.
We started making shapes with a light pipe, rather than an actual barbell – some simple squats and overhead presses, nothing I hadn’t done before. But when we moved onto squat catches, I was once again filled with fear. I couldn’t make it work, my mind churning with where and when I was supposed to move each body part.
The problem, Whylie explained to me, was that I was trying to move the weight, rather than my body. The goal in Olympic lifting is that you move around the bar, meaning that you don’t pass it from your shoulders to hands or from the ground to your chest, but you leave it floating in midair as you move to catch it. It’s a lesson in trust – and I realised that’s a skill I hugely lack in my training.
In order to put my mind at ease, we perfected everything: my grip, my foot placement, the position of my shoulders, chest, arms and eye line. And that was just for the beginning stance. Whylie broke down each phase of the move into inches that we spent minutes finessing, from learning how to ‘dip’ and ‘hinge’ properly, before powerfully ducking under the bar.
If one thing was even a centimetre out, it was redone, and my brain has never worked harder. The focus was so intense, there were so many positions, placements and sticking points to remember. You have to know when to drive, when to go slow, when to jump, when to stick.
That doesn’t mean it’s not physical – it goes without saying that weightlifting requires strength. I admit that I’d underestimated how much power would be required. You have to throw yourself into the extremes of each position – a small hop won’t cut it when you need to move your body under the bar.
I struggled: I found it difficult to drive myself into full extension, perhaps because of nerves or embarrassment. I think of myself as an empowered person in the weights room, happily taking up space, but this was different. It was about being huge – and noisy. Lifters are encouraged to slam things around and make as much noise as they want to. In my commercial gym, that’s frowned upon. But at the Olympic weightlifting site, it’s weirder not to cause a scene.
What I learned from Olympic weightlifting
I’d like to carry on with Olympic lifting – but I still very much need a coach like Whylie. My lessons with her have taught me that I need more respect for my training. When things go wrong in Olympic lifting, you don’t change the weight or the bar but you notice what you were doing wrong and change your technique. It requires you to think before you move. Most importantly, it made me realise that I need to be bigger and bolder in my training – both physically and in terms of my confidence. I’ve got to learn to trust my body – it’s a work in progress, but Olympic lifting has helped.
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Images: Chloe Gray
Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).