“That looks interesting. What do you call that?”
I carefully place the barbell back on the floor and look up at the man standing no more than 18 inches from my face. If that.
“They’re called hang snatches,” I say, using a towel to wipe perspiration off my sweat-soaked afro. Normally I might just let the liquid evidence of a hard workout drip right onto the floor, but this is a commercial gym, much cleaner and much more polite than the places I’ve become used to for training my sport of choice.
“What do they work?”
An impossibly broad question, narrowed only by my suspicion he’s talking about the most cosmetic and well-known muscle groups. There’s just not enough time for me to explain how this lift trains neural pathways as much as it trains the muscles themselves. But this is his turf, his fitness palace. Heck, I don’t even know where the locker rooms are. I’m simply a visitor, here and making due because proper weightlifting equipment and coaching is just too far away for me to reach on a regular basis.
“Well, everything, I guess. I use them to train for weightlifting.”
Before the last words even leave my tongue, I know where this is going.
“You know, you don’t really look like a bodybuilder.”
Before I respond, I pause, lest I say something I’ll later regret. Sure, the inquiring other half of the conversation is in need of some corrective explanation, but that doesn’t mean things need to get gruff. At least not this early.
“It’s not bodybuilding. It’s weightlifting. They’re two different things.”
Silence. Always silence after that response. I might have been through this with a hundred different folks, but it’s always the perfect deer-in-headlights stare, if a deer had swiped in at the front desk, trotted on down to the weight room, and decided to ask me a question between sets. So I press on, always hopeful I can throw this metric-ton of revelation at the wall and make it stick.
“Bodybuilding is an activity in which competitors train to grow their muscles for size and symmetry. They lift weights, but at the end of the day their goal isn’t to lift the most weight. It’s to look a certain way.”
He nods, an excellent sign. It makes sense, after all. Since I’ve got him this far, why not push a little further?
“Weightlifting is a sport in the Olympics, so sometimes it’s called Olympic weightlifting. It involves two lifts: the snatch and the clean & jerk, each of which involves lifting weight from the ground to overhead. Competitors train to lift the most weight for one rep in each lift, then those weights are added up and compared against others in their weight class.”
Now the cogs are really working, my counterpart’s brain reaching to find some handhold for the situation. At this point, I couldn’t care less how he responds, because as far as I’m concerned I’ve laid everything out as clear as cellophane. As long as the next sentence out of his mouth doesn’t involve the word “powerlifting,” my attitude is guaranteed golden.
“So it’s powerlifting.”
No, sir/madam/mummy, it’s not powerlifting, a sport wherein athletes compete to lift the most across the squat, bench press, and deadlift, often— though not always— aided by special gear designed to reduce their range of motion and increase the potential for heavy poundages. True, powerlifting spun off from weightlifting some sixty years ago, and it involves lifts used by most weightlifters to increase their raw strength. But Olympic lifting/weightlifting involves degrees of flexibility, speed, and technique completely separate from what powerlifting— and while we’re at it, bodybuilding— demands. Set the debates about which athletes are really stronger or which sport is really harder aside for the moment; right now, all this enquiring mind needs to know is that they’re very, very different.
“Not quite. Powerlifting is more about limit strength. The Olympic lifts involve a lot more speed, flexibility, and technique.”
A moment of recognition flashes across his face. Someone call Archimedes.
“Right, I’ve seen that on ESPN.”
Except that he hasn’t, at least not to my knowledge. What he and millions of others have seen on ESPN is strongman, a veritable hodgepodge of unconventional and classically named strength events from Atlas Stones to Apollon’s Axle. Certainly, it’s a sport requiring great strength, great speed, and great athleticism, drawing athletes from weightlifting and powerlifting alike into competitions perfect for daytime television. But it’s most certainly not weightlifting.
“Maybe. I guess they have it on there sometimes.”
Sometimes I feel I have an obligation to inform, and other times I feel like my hip abductors are tightening from taking too long in between sets. Today it’s definitely the latter. I start pivoting back toward the bar, hoping to get a few more sets in before the place closes.
“You competed in the Olympics?”
How he got back to the Olympic tidbit after casting aside much more relevant information, I dare not even guess, but it’s probably the most relevant question he’s asked this entire time. I have not competed in the Olympics, and barring some catastrophic event wherein thousands of legitimately talented, legitimately strong athletes are either A) abducted by extraterrestrials or B) decide to leave the planet to carry out some preemptive abduction of their own, I likely won’t come close.
I train this way because it’s enjoyable, a lot more satisfying to me than countless reps on the pec deck. And because, on the increasingly rare occasions when I actually get to train with real weightlifting coaches and athletes, I’m astounded by the drive and intelligence with which they go about pursuing their goals, be it lifting 50 kilograms or 250.
“No, I never competed in the Olympics. Guess that’d be pretty cool, though.”
Finally, he turns and heads back to the adjacent squat rack where he’s pounding through some mysterious looking exercise that crosses bicep curls with a chiropractor bill. I turn back to the bar for another set, my hips already stiff from inactivity.