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Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: OL’ing Part 7

Yesterday, in Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: OL’ing Part 6, I examined the events (culture, etc.) surrounding the US’s brief dominance in the sport of Olympic weightlifting, again spanning a period of 12 years from 1948 to 1960. But as I talked about last Friday in Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: OL’ing Part 5, our dominance rapidly disintegrated. From 1960 forwards the sport took a drastic decline that it’s never recovered from.

So having looked at the events that allowed us to be dominant (tho again some think that the US Golden Age is more a myth, just a function of the competition being lower which allowed the US to get away with what they were doing), let’s look at what was going from 1960 forwards.

Make no mistake that a lot was going on and I can’t possibly cover everything. I’d point folks to Bud Charniga’s 6 part series again for a truly comprehensive look at what was going on in the sport both in America and elsewhere, I’ll just try to hit some high points. And the following isn’t meant to be in any sort of order of importance (or even necessarily chronological order though I’ll try to sequence it right), this was all sort of developing at the same time.

A Rule Change in 1964: Thigh Brush Now Ok

Again I want to thank site reader Josh for contacting me to remind me about this, I was aware that this rule had changed but wasn’t sure when it was and didn’t realizes that it coincided quite so nicely with the US’s downturn in the sport. To understand this and why it had such an impact on the sport, I need to explain one of the technical rules of the sport which was this.

In the early days of the sport, one of the rules was that the bar couldn’t actually touch the legs. I don’t know why this rule was in place and it doesn’t matter but this was part of the sport. Among other consequences, this meant that the bar was held slightly in front of the body and, due to that physics thing again, it change the nature of the lifts considerably. First and foremost it slows down the lift since the lever arm relative to the axis of rotation is longer. Secondly, it ends up requiring more upper body strength to control the bar (since the bar is ‘swung out’ from the body).

Lifters often find out both the hard way when a heavy weight gets out in front of them, suddenly a lift that should be easy and quick becomes much slower and harder (as well the bar is put out front of the lifter making it more difficult to keep the bar path right for a proper catch). In modern lifting, keeping the bar close is a key part of technique for the grand majority of lifters.

In 1964, this rule was eliminated and the bar was allowed to brush/touch the thighs which basically reversed all of the above. The bar could be kept in closer, increasing movement speed. It also decreased the reliance on the upper body both for stabilization and pulling (you might have noted a lot of arm pulling in the video of early lifting I posted a few days back) and put the emphasis onto the legs and lower body for generating power. It would cause a major shift in the approach to OL’ing going forwards and was likely as much a key in this as anything else (especially given American fascination with a jacked upper body).


The Rise of the Europeans

It was about this time that, having rebuilt from the war, that the Eastern Europeans were really able to put their effort into sport for their own political goals (as discussed back in 2007 when I started this series). Among other things they would start to throw resources and people at the sport but I already talked about that in a previous section. As well, they started really looking at the sport in terms of technique, optimization, and what was needed to succeed in the sport.

In terms of technique, the focus started to shift more towards speed, especially in how quickly lifters ‘switched’ from the pull to the squat under. Americans had always more or less muscled the weight up, focusing on pulling the weight high to get under it. Europeans started to focus on what is now known as speed-strength and the rapid switching.

So rather than take time trying to pull the bar up, they focused on just pulling the bar high enough and then getting down under it as quickly as they could. You can see this clearly in some of the videos I posted last week. These guys spend a heartbeat at extension (and many don’t even quite get there) before flying under the bar for the catch. And since it’s way easier to move your relatively lighter body down that it is to move a heavy bar UP…..

Mobility and flexibility were also emphasized since it allowed lifters to move more quickly without their own bodies getting in the way (mobility also allowed for the deep squat position to be hit more easily, and the deeper you can squat under, the lower you have to pull the bar; another benefit).

In terms of training, slow grinding movements were avoided for the most part (or at least used in a very limited degree) since it wasn’t found that those carried over to the more dynamic movements terribly well. This was demonstrated both empirically and in research (Charniga examines a lot of the research on the carryover from maximal and limit strength to speed strength in his articles sourced below) where various lines of research pointed away from high-tension, pseudo-isometric work and towards much more dynamic explosive work for optimizing the qualities required for OL’ing success.

I imagine that a big help in this regard is that the Eastern European countries were coming at the sport from a purely OL-centric standpoint. That is, recall that the US had come at the overhead/Ol’s from a background of physical culture, maximum strength and hypertrophy. That was what they knew, that was what they liked (because it appealed to the simple, appearance obsessed lifters), that was what they did.

Ol’ing for Americans was just part of the overall goal of being strong and jacked and this was reflected in the training of the top stars which was a mix of maximum strength, bodybuilding and some OL practice. Many Ol’ers would spend a good part of the year just bodybuilding or strength training and then jack in the OL’s when it was time to compete. But Ol’ing was just part of the overall package.

In contrast, the Europeans didn’t have that background since they weren’t coming out of a niche subculture for rich white people. They were looking to go to the top of the sporting world for political and ideological reasons and their focus on OL’ing was part of that. But for them, OL’ing was it’s own activity and they approached it from the standpoint. Basically they started with a fresh slate and built from there, developing training methods and philosophies that only served the purpose of improving the OL’s.

The goal wasn’t to get strong and jacked and then hope you’re OL performance went up; it was to optimize your OL’ing with everything else as a purely secondary goal. That was especially true for the snatch and clean and jerk but even in the press which was still contested, the Europeans were treating it more as a speed lift. Whether this was a cause or an effect of relaxed judging I can’t say (I’m sure Charniga addresses it). But they were approaching it from a speed of movement type of way.

I’d also note that some of their early research found an inverse relationship between pressing strength and the snatch; if you improved one the other got worse. Which was a good indication that maximum/limit strength and speed of movement were at odds with one another.

They also came at it from a far more centralized viewpoint due to the communist/socialist nature. The title of Charniga’s series “There is No System” is really referring to the fact that the American system of training didn’t exist. There was no central philosophy, no central idea; it was just as decentralized as everything else in the US. Lifters sort of did what they did, or did what they liked, or did what other lifters were doing and hoped it worked.

We just threw people at sports and let them work it out. And that got us pretty far in certain sports. Especially the ones where we had the sheer numbers (i.e. baskeball) that a lack of system didn’t matter at the end of a day (throw enough people into any system and someone will rise to the top). But Olympic lifting was a niche activity in the US without monstrous numbers, there was no system of training or coaching or anything.

And against countries that were investing massive resources and manpower specificaly towards that goal, it got us into trouble. That was on top of treating sport as a profession (while Americans were hamstrung by the amateur rules) and having their athletes train full time at levels that were heretofore unimagined. Training frequencies and volumes went up and the majority of it was dedicated to movements that enhanced the OL’s specifically. And, effectively, these countries were just mobilizing every resource they had into optimizing performance in this one sport (along with others) on top of focusing on winning at the Olympic level.

And as soon as it happened, their lifters started to jump ahead of the Americans, their results started to improve, they started to win medals and set record after record.


The Fall of the USA

And this change in the climate of the sport was reflected as US lifters started to lose ground fairly rapidly though their results during this period indicate to some degree what we were doing wrong. Because while our results in the press stayed fairly high early on, our results in the quick lifts rapidly fell behind the European nations. It was obvious that the focus on maximum strength that had ‘worked’ to this point was no longer working except in the one lift that relied heavily on it.

And for reasons discussed at length (I’d say ad nauseum but I am in no position to criticize) by Charniga in his series, the US was resistant to accepting reality. They were working from the standpoint of what had ‘worked’ before and weren’t going to change. This was what I was referring to yesterday that American success would end up being part of their downfall: what they had done before had put them on top and they saw no fundamental reason to change their approach.

But there were other apparent factors such as good old fashioned inertia and the fact that coaches just tend to hand down what they personally did to their charges (see also: American football and how long it held onto outdated conditioning ideas). The guys who had been successful in the 50’s were coaching the new breed the same way that they always trained. They didn’t know any other way. And it’s not as if anybody really knew what the Europeans were doing, the information just wasn’t available.

But as big of an issue is the fact that Strength and Health was still the dominant magazine for disseminating information about training and the Olympic Lifts just as it had been for damn near 3 decades. And here the commercial interests of the magazine got dragged into it (this is where capitalism can go awry, when commercial interests are more important than the truth).

About this time, Hoffman was on a big push for his new isometric/power racks; he had done work with some athletes that just generated what seemed like amazing strength results and it was in his commercially best interest to keep pushing that. What was left out of the early reports on such amazing strength gains was the fact that they had also test run a new compound called Dianabol. Not recognizing the profound impact of the drug on gains (or preferring to downplay it because it wouldn’t sell racks), it’s impact was minimized or simply ignored.

Hoffman heavily pushed functional isometric training as the key to strength gains, in as little as a couple of minutes per day, pressing against the pins of the rack, you could get strength gains that he was certain would push American lifters back to the top (it didn’t hurt that he had a financial benefit to be gained by pushing this). And he pushed it heavily as the solution to our Olympic lifting woes because he was still working from the base idea that maximum strength was the key to performance.

That, coupled with American lifter’s focus and enjoyment of pure strength training kept OL’ers training the way that they always had: some bodybuilding work to get jacked, a focus on big strong muscles throw slow work, functional isometrics. Occasionally working on the OL’s and not understanding why they couldn’t keep up with the countries who were focusing solely on OL’ing as it’s own sport. And starting to train with progressively higher volumes and frequencies in very specific types of work (if I have space I’ll try to briefly discuss some of the primary training ‘schools’ before I finish).

Effectively the sport was changing, the Europeans were focusing on speed of movement and higher frequency work in the Ol’s to improve technique in the lifts while the US were doing what they had always done: training the Ol’s a few times per week and doing a ton of maximal strength or isometric work. Physiques were changing already, with a shift to a leaner lighter look (and the big boys were just chubby). And Americans, still confusing appearance with performance couldn’t understand it.

This is even reflected (as quoted extensively by Charniga) by writer’s in Strength and Health commenting that the guys dominating the OL’ing stage didn’t look muscled at all; to an American mind these guys certainly didn’t ‘look’ like lifting champions. And they seemed fixated on that rather than on the fact that these ‘unmuscled’ guys were setting record after record and handing them their ass. And didn’t make the connection between what they were doing that wasn’t working and what they had always done. Their guys were buff and strong as hell but they were getting ass kicked on the platform by guys who didn’t look the part.

They just chalked up European success to ‘working harder’ (see also: the Puritan work ethic that I talked about before) and certainly that was part of it. But it wasn’t even remotely all of it. The sport had changed and American lifting had not changed with it. But that wasn’t all that happened because 10 years later, a host of other stuff would occur that would continue to degrade the US’s previous performance and lead us to where we are today.


The 70’s Were an Ugly Decade, An Ugly Ugly Decade

I’m no historian as I have proven throughout this series but I’m going to throw out a handful of different things that happened in the 1970’s that probably signalled the final death knell for Olympic lifting in this country.

At least one that probably deserves mentioning was the rapidly increasing stupidity in terms of payment for professional sports. Here I am truly no historian but it seems that about this time the incentives for playing the big three were starting to grow and grow (and I’d make a correction to an earlier part of this series: steroids were already prevalent in football in the 70’s, not the 80’s as I previously stated. Thanks, Glenn).

That alone would serve to dilute any potential talent away from Ol’ing, not that most interested in the team sports would have been pursuing OL’ing in the first place. But as the money got bigger, the incentive to really pursue one of the big three got bigger and bigger. Today, it’s just moronic the amount of money guys get paid to play a game.

And while there were certainly a ton of other things going on socioculturally (think the 60’s and flowerpower, the 70’s and Vietnam, etc), I really want to focus on three big things that were happening in the US specifically in terms of gym culture that I think drastically impacted on the sport of Olympic lifting in this country.

Because even in the 60’s, the US was still trying. Sure, it was trying with totally outmoded ideas of training, technique and the rest but it was trying and still hoping that it could return to its former glory. It was just failing and couldn’t come to terms with why. But going into the 70’s a number of things would occur that truly destroyed the sport in this country.

The Press is Dropped

As I mentioned previously, the press was always one of the big focus lifts for US Ol’ers for reasons I talked about yesterday. And to at least some degree it had been the press (along with being able to muscle the clean and jerk to some degreee, especially before the thigh brush rule change) that had put them ahead. Simply, you could give up a bunch of kilos in the snatch (a more technical precision lift that required a lot of practice; hence: something that Americans weren’t interested in) and just make it up in the clean/jerk and clean/press.

But in 1972 even that potential advantage would be lost. The Europeans had already reconceptualized the lift as a speed lift as I mentioned above although part of that had to do with some of the judging issues. They could make it a speed lift because judges were letting more shit slide in the lift. And as that problem kept getting worse and the press was becoming a standing bench press, the solution was to finally just drop the lift entirely. And suddenly one of the biggest advantages that US Olympic lifters had had in the first place was now gone.

And now the US lifters were totally screwed in competitions. They were still using outdated training and methods (spurred in part by what I talked about above) and now the only lift where it might have helped was gone. They had already slipped in the quick lifts and that slippage was just magnified when the remaining strength lift was removed.

But there was still more going on about that time that signalled the final death knell of the sport in this country in my opinion.


The Rise of The Terminator

The first was the final mainstreamization (is too a word) of bodybuilding, an action that can be attributed to two names: Joe Weider and his protegé Arnold (no last name needed). Weider was in the process of creating his empire, based around magazines, equipment and supplements. And Arnold was the perfect poster child. Joe took this unknown Austrian kid and helped to turn him into an absolute superstar.

As I mentioned yesterday, previously bodybuilding was looked askance on as a cult activity for self-obsessed narcissists (who were probably gay). It didn’t make sense for grown men to do nothing but get big muscles and then primp around in their bathing suits covered in baby oil. The majority wanted nothing to do with it. And Arnold made it ok. Or at least more ok than it had been.

He was clearly no poof, he kicked all kinds of ass in his movies (and the 80’s were a decade of massively muscled superhero action figures), he made the activity ok for the mainstream to be interested in. Americans were even willing to overlook the fact that he was from Foreignland ™. His personality and sheer force of will couldn’t be ignored.

Arnold would win his first Olympia in 1970 and make his first movie the horrible Hercules in New York in the same year. A couple more flops would follow before Pumping Iron produced in 1977 showed people that bodybuilding was more than just a bunch of weirdos in their bathing suits on stage; these guys were hardcore. And while the OL’s are fun and all, who wouldn’t rather get this out of their training?

Finally, in 1982, he would shoot to stardom due to Conan the Barbarian and his fame would just continue to increase. He became the face of the American action hero, another true to life (and bigger than life) action figure. He’d even be elected to the President’s Council on Physical Fitness in an attempt to stem the (then new) rise in childhood obesity.

Like Pre before him and Lance in the future, Arnold just had that same force of will character that made people pay attention. He succeeded at everything he put his mind to; I have no doubt he’d be elected president if he were allowed to run. Arnold took the American mind by it’s ears and made it listen to him talk about coming and coming and coming from bodybuilding training. And they listened. Along with this was a change in how people looked at training.

Previously, bodybuilding had been done in addition to maximum strength training and with the overhead lifts as part of the relatively non-specialized physical culture movement. Certainly some, bodybuilders of the 70’s and 80’s often did a clean and press but that would rapidly disappear as ‘modern training methods’ were developed that were focused solely on bodybuilding to the exclusion of anything resembling actual strength, power or ability. The insurgence of anabolic steroids into the sport, which allowed guys to train in a fairly silly fashion (compared to what had gone before) helped with this; why grind out sets of 5 with monster weights if you can just pump it up and take a pill and get jacked?

And the American lifter, which already had that ‘I want it all and I want it now’ mentality grabbed onto an activity which not only fed into their ‘form over function’ mentality but also their need for immediate gratification now that it was suddenly ok to do. The supplement industry, which had always existed, really came to the forefront thanks to Weider. Muscle gain and fat loss was as easy as buying the newest concoction and that’s a whole lot easier than training.

Competition was also changing for those that didn’t just train for personal or vanity reasons as along with this was the development of the IFBB under the hand of Joe Weider. Previously bodybuilding was run by the AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) and bodybuilding had height classes; as well the clean and jerk was part of the score which forced guys to train it to one degree or another. Weider threw that out and the Olympic lifts, which had been part of gym culture for decades slowly started to slip out of the training of the day.

And seeing a marketing opportunity in all of this the magazines changed as well. Even Strength and Health had been downplaying it’s Ol’ing coverage. Hoffman stated that a mere 0.5% of the 200,000 readership he had were Ol’ers and he knew that the money was in the masses. OL’ing was on the way out and bodybuilding was on the way up.

Soon magazines like Muscle and Fitness and Flex would change the landscape of lifting ‘literature’. Whereas kids getting into the activity in the 40’s had seen images of big strong men lifting weights overhead, the focus shifted to getting huge, and jacked and buff by using the Weider methods and pumping it up from all the angles.

Much of which was spurred on by….

The Rise of the Machines

At about the same time Arnold was mainstreaming bodybuilding was the first major development in gym technology and that was the development of exercise machines, primarily Nautilus as developed by Arthur Jones. His first machine, the Nautilus Pullover would be sold in 1970 and the gyms, such as they existed, would never be the same. Jones was a consummate salesman, running ad after ad in magazines to sell his product.

He claimed results from miniscule amounts of training (compared to what the bodybuilders were doing) due to his focus on High Intensity Training. He had his own mouthpieces, bodybuilder Mike Mentzer being the most well known who claimed to get the same gains in muscle mass from short intense workouts as the others were getting from their hours in the gym.

This happened along with the development of the first commercial gym chains such as World Gym and Gold’s Gym, both started in California (where, honestly, most of this was really going on). Previously, when gyms existed they were dank dungeons populated by cellar dwellers (a term still used by old school purists) and filled with the most basic of equipment. Basic barbell training was all that was done for the most part.

But with the development of the mainstream commercial gym (because the money is ALWAYS in the majority) and the rise of machine training, coupled with the new focus on bodybuilding as a totally separate identity, gyms started to change. People wanted fancy machines and America is all about style over substance.

Barbells and chalk and noise and grunting scares away the masses which is where you make your money in a capitalist society, the quick lifts were dangerous and exposed owners to liability and made all that awful noise when the weights were dropped. Numerous companies would jump on this bandwagon producing endless lines of fancy, easy to use machines.

To get the most money means making training easy and simple and that meant doing away with the platforms and bumpers and filling your gym with machines where the hardest thing you do is pull a pin on the stack and then pump until you come. Even the remaining bars and racks and plates were unacceptable for the overhead lifts; it’s rare enough to find a bar that spins well in a typical commercial gym. Bumper plates? Forget about it.

The Rise of Powerlifting

And the final big factor that i think played a role was the formation of powerlifting as it’s own sport. Coming out of the odd lifts that I referenced yesterday, powerlifting started to develop as a competitive sport based around the squat, bench press and deadlift. And at the risk of irritating the powerlifters again let’s face facts: from a technical standpoint, the powerlifts aren’t even in the ballpark compared to the OL’s (that’s along with the powerlifts inherently lending themselves to what Americans like to do, get strong and jacked).

Because while you can learn the OL’s at a basic level in as short period of time, mastery takes years and years (it can take a decade to master the snatch, ahem). The PL’ing movements are trivial by comparison, you can be competent in a short period of time and have the movements more or less dealt with in no time at all (again, I realize that mastering current GEAR takes time but we’re talking about the 70’s when the cutting edge of gear was putting half tennis balls behind your knees).

They didn’t require specialized equipment (just a basic bar and the same plates every gym had) and America was already forming it’s unending bromance with the bench press as the key movement. Even gyms that were machine crazy could keep a squat rack and bench press in and guys could train for the powerlifts. They didn’t take much room, were relatively easy to learn and teach and most folks used a type of training that they always enjoyed which was slow, grunty strength. Comparatively speaking, the OL’s just had no real draw.


And That Was That

And that all meant that in addition to everything else going on, the rise of the Eastern Europeans while the US stayed stagnant, what few people entering the weight game who might have pursued Olympic lifting were now going into other activities. Bodybuilding and powerlifting were both far easier to get into, there were more people, they fit into the type of training Americans liked and gave a much more immediate bang for the buck than Ol’ing ever could.

Gyms were changing towards a machine based approach as training methods got diluted by pure bodybuilding methodology and barbells and bumpers were considered old school (except to the niche) and were relegated to the corner of the gym if they were kept at all.

And the cycle was started, the number of lifters was diminishing, the ones that did exist couldn’t produce for a number of reasons, the facilities were disappearing and that sounded the death knell for the sport. Less facilities meant less lifters, less lifters meant less interest, less interest meant less coaches and knowledge development, less coaches and knowledge meant less lifters and less facilities and the spiral downward couldn’t be stopped.

Some also feel that the remaining lifters started to get into a psychological spiral of failure; their inability to produce at the highest levels caused them to start to decrease their expectations in competition. Basically, they simply gave up (in the same way that runners may be giving up when they see 10 Kenyans at the line).

Charniga points out that foreign lifters started to be disallowed from US competitions; basically helping American lifters do better. Amusingly, a similar trend appears to be occurring in American distance running with America-only events or American-only prize money. Since we can’t beat ’em, we just won’t let ’em compete. Like the World Series. I’ll talk about this more as I wrap this stupidity up in the next few days.

The sport, already niche to begin with became even more niche with a handful of enclaves in the country. Usually ex-lifters themselves who maintained the old teachings. All in the face of an American lifting community that simply no longer gave a fuck. It didn’t even matter that American sports fans didn’t care, they had never cared in the first place. But the lifters that had once gone into OL’ing, or at least been exposed to it, no longer were in the fact of bodybuilding, machines and powerlifting (strongman would show up later to further dilute any potential talent).

And, again, all of this was happening as the Europeans were continuing to throw endless athletes and resources and research into the sport. Powerlifting and bodybuilding weren’t state allowed sports and weren’t Olympic events, they didn’t have the big three sports pulling potential talent away for money. They were throwing thousands (or hundreds of thousands in the case of the USSR) of athletes at Olympic lifting just as the US was losing what few lifters it had had (and the ones left weren’t adapting to the changing sport).

There Is No System Parts 1-6 by Bud Charniga Again, I’d refer people to Bud Charniga’s article series on the decline of American Olympic lifting, very interesting are the bits about how American lifters just couldn’t understand why the lifters handing them their ass didn’t ‘look’ the part of why their old methods weren’t working anymore. His site sucks (it’s still in FRAMES, for god’s sake) but the information is excellent.
Farticles by Bud Charniga. I’d also point readers to articles 5-8 in this list which examine varying aspects of the OL’s along with the issue of maximum/limit strength and what role (if any) it plays in success in the lifts (Article 5 specifically addresses how the allowance of thigh brush significantly changed the nature of the lifts). And check out the URL if you’re wondering why I called it that.

And that’s where I’ll cut it today. Tomorrow I’ll look at where things stand now in the sport (almost finally answering the original question and the title of this series); if there’s space I’ll start to examine some of the ‘solutions’ that have been proposed to try and elevate the US back to a high level of importance. If not, that will wait until Thursday and Friday for the final wrap-up (I mean it).

Read Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: OL’ing Part 8.

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