From the ground up
Last weekend things got heavy on the local sports scene, literally. Some of the most powerful athletes in Malta rocked the house at the Cottonera Sports complex on Sunday with the sounds of crashing weights as they contested the 2011 National Weightlifting Championship.
Across all weight classes, men, women and children came together to move around some serious amounts of steel, but once the chalk clouds settled there could only be one overall champion.
The talented and experienced middleweight lifter Clint Grech once again proved he is, pound for pound, the most powerful athlete on the island, able to thrust weights well in excess of his own body weight up and over his head with astonishing ease.
While mainstream sports fans rarely break down doors to watch strength sports, those who do find themselves at a lifting event usually cannot help but marvel at man’s struggle against the most fundamental force in the universe: gravity.
Locally, we have a thriving strength sports scene, with a healthy number of competitive brothers-in-iron, competing in both sister sports of powerlifting and weightlifting.
In the international amateur powerlifting circuit we have several athletes who can hold their own against the very best in the world. In weightlifting, our athletes hold multiple small nations records, and have in the past qualified by right for some major international events.
Regular readers will be familiar with the flagship event in powerlifting competition, the king of exercises: the squat. Many words have graced this very page in the past concerning this fundamental move and the numerous benefits it has to offer, so today we shall delve a little deeper instead into the flagship move in weightlifting: the clean and jerk.
In honour of last week’s championships, let’s examine some of the benefits to be gained from lifting heavy stuff over our heads.
If you ask a young boy to show you his muscles, he will almost always show you his biceps. While bodybuilders work the entire body to extreme levels of muscular development, they instinctively know there is something special about that relatively small muscle that sits at the front of our upper arms.
Similarly, if you ask a young boy to show you how strong he is, he will almost always mimic lifting something heavy to arms’ length up over his head. He won’t mimic a bench press or a squat, but something that looks a lot more like a clean and jerk. Just like bodybuilders possess a deep-rooted respect for well-developed biceps, so too do all strength athletes instinctively know and respect the art of lifting weights up to the greatest height possible.
If it’s functional strength and fitness you’re after, you can’t get more functional than lifting a dead weight up off the floor, and if you really want to conquer that weight, then you’re going to want to put it right up there as high as you can; at arm’s length overhead.
No racks, benches, machines or cages, but just you against gravity, all the way from the ground up.
By adding this one single concept to your training regimen, you can start to benefit from greater functional strength more applicable to everyday life and sports than almost any other traditional gym move.
Getting the bar from the floor into a position on your shoulders ready to press overhead is known as the ‘clean’.
In terms of more known resistance training exercises, the clean would resemble a deadlift, followed by a shrug and upright row.
The deadlift gets the bar from the floor to about mid-thigh level, while the shrug and upright row keeps it moving upwards into a position where we can get our elbows under and support it across the front of our shoulders.
The muscles of the legs, hips and lower back get the bar moving off the floor, while the trapezius muscles and rear shoulder muscles, biceps and forearms keep it moving onwards and upwards to the maximal height.
Once the bar is in position, we are ready for the second phase of the lift: the jerk. The reason it’s called a jerk and not a press is because in its pure competitive form, the lift is quick and dynamic, not slow and deliberate. In a jerk lift, the bar is essentially thrown using the power of the hips and legs, and subsequently caught at arm’s length and stabilised with the arms.
Before you progress to the jerk, however, pressing the bar deliberately at first will help condition the right muscles should you choose to progress to the jerk later on.
Here, the front of the shoulders take over the brunt of the work, along with the triceps, which lock the arms and fix the bar overhead.
To stabilise the weight, the muscles of the core are also engaged, and if you’ve got the positioning right, you will also feel that a great deal of flexibility in the shoulders and back is also required.
In case you have not already noticed, we have just about mentioned nearly every muscle in the body. Yes, that’s right, with just one exercise you can train the body as a single unit through one big concerted effort.
Try the clean and press with very light weights over high repetitions. You will find few muscles escape the fatigue, showing how useful the move can be to spice up virtually any programme when added periodically through the course of a given workout.
If you like the feel of it, and want to progress further, it is time to get some guidance and start going heavy.
There is certainly no shortage of expertise on the island when it comes to strength development, so simply search online for the local weightlifting association and its affiliated clubs, and you will find all our local lifters to be warm and welcoming.