Monday, October 12, 2009

Confessions of a wannabe Olympic weightlifter

For the past six months, I have been trying to join one of the sports clubs at Kyoto University. I wanted to join the swim team but was told it was for Japanese students only. The long-distance running team welcomed me with open arms but it turned out to be more of a drinking club than a running club. I toyed with the idea of joining the karate club until I found out that having watched the Karate Kid, like, 10 times didn't count as "valid" experience.

But I'm happy to report the long search is now over. I have finally found a sports club at Kyoto University that has accepted me. I am the newest member of -- wait for it -- the Olympic weightlifting team. Yes, that's right. Olympic weightlifting.

Trust me, no one is more surprised by this turn of events than I am. Olympic weightlifting was last on the list of clubs I wanted to join. For me, Olympic weightlifting was synonymous with bulging muscles, big bellies and bad hair. I was worried I'd get a mullet and start dating women if I spent my spare time clean and jerking.

But all of that has changed. My preconceived notions about the sport have gone flying out the window. I no longer think snatch is a dirty word.

But maybe I should explain how I came to join the Olympic weightlifting team before I start busting myths and stereotypes about the sport. Here's how it all went down: A Japanese guy by the name of Yoshi approached my friend Javier at the Kyoto University gym back in the summer. Yoshi, who is a member of the weightlifting team, asked Javier if he wanted to join the club. Javier, whose arm is easily twisted, said yes. Javier asked me if I wanted to try it too. Javier is my regular workout partner and I didn't want to lose him so I decided to go along for the ride. I wasn't sure I'd like it but I'll try anything once (well, except for steroids and mullets. You have to draw the line somewhere).

The Olympic weightlifting team has its own private gym and there are never more than six people in it at a time. Although the guys who work out here don't call it a gym. They call it "the shed." I'm not exactly sure why but I think it has something to do with the fact that the gym is housed in a shed at the end of the football field.

The first time Javier and I met Yoshi at the shed, there were a couple of other Japanese guys working out at the same time. To call these guys "huge" would be an understatement. Their limbs and chests curved outward in cartoonishly exaggerated proportions. It was as if someone had cut open their skin, implanted slabs of concrete and sewn them back up again.

I immediately decided Olympic weightlifting was not the sport for me. I wanted to stay slim and feminine. This place, which was filled with the grunts and shouts of men attempting to lift staggering amounts of weight high above their heads before sending the barbells crashing to the ground, was the antithesis of femininity.

But I don't like to give up on things before I've given them a fair shot so I figured I would try it out for a month before deciding whether I liked it or not.

Yoshi spent the first few sessions coaching Javier and I through the basic techniques of Olympic weightlifting. Like anything new, it was awkward at first. I had to completely unlearn everything I thought I knew about weightlifting. The first misconception I had to toss out was that bodybuilding and Olympic weightlifting are the same thing. They're not.

Bodybuilding is about aesthetics while Olympic lifting is about function. Olympic weightlifting is a very technically demanding sport. You are not lifting the barbell above your head with just your arms. The lifts use every muscle in your body. You are using the muscles in your legs and butt to generate force. With the right technique, the explosive power generated in your lower body should cause your arms and the barbell to practically fly up over your head. It's not just about brute strength. It's about proper technique, concentration, speed and flexibility.

Bodybuilding, on the other hand, uses isolated movements (bicep curls, for example) that serve no real function outside of the gym. Except for maybe impressing chicks who are impressed by those sorts of things. Personally, I'll take big brains over big biceps any day. (I will, however, make an exception for my boyfriend Barack Obama, who manages to have both big brains and ripped abs.)

In addition to the snatch and the clean and jerk, an Olympic weightlifting routine contains all sorts of great strength training exercises. Squats, crunches, vertical jumps, push-ups and chin-ups are all part of the regular workout. I can't think of a better way to increase overall strength. Olympic weightlifting also develops tremendous explosive power, which can be transferred to other sports, like cycling and running.

The only downside is that I am the only female member of the club. I've had no trouble recruiting male friends like Sergey (now known as the Bulgarian Bodybuilder). But trying to get female friends to join the club is impossible. The women I've talked to want to work out on a stationary bike or do light weights. But the Olympic gym only contains barbells and plates. And most women assume lifting heavy weights will make them big and muscular.

But instead of giving me the shoulders of an East German swimmer, Olympic weightlifting has actually made me smaller. I've burned fat and lost weight since joining the club. Two months of consistent weight training has toned my legs better than years of running ever did. The best part is that I feel great. Plus, I can bang out a set of chin-ups, chug back a protein shake with the boys and still feel feminine. I have no desire to go on the juice or cut my hair into a mullet.

I had no idea I would enjoy Olympic weightlifting this much. It was the last club I wanted to join. But I have gained a whole new appreciation and respect for the sport. It's so much more than just bulging muscles, big bellies and bad hair.


R. Watson Chung said...

Hello Sarah.

I stumbled upon your blog post while searching for a Kyoto gym. Long story short, I am going to further study in Kyoto University by coming April. I have been a regular in my local gym back in Malaysia and Olympic Weightlifting is one of my targets.

There are two troubles I am facing; 1) is there any gym with barbells and such (not just those simple machines) other than university gym? 2) how to be accepted into such club, considering I am not a Japanese?

Hope to hear from you soon!

Sarah M. said...

Hi Watson,

Very cool that you are going to study at Kyoto University. I hope you like it as much as I did!

There are lots of gyms outside the university setting and anyone (Japanese or not) is free to join them. Some of the membership fees can be quite high but friends of mine who joined gyms seemed quite happy with them.

The advantage of working out at the Kyoto University gym is that it's free for students. Good luck!


Anonymous said...

Do you know how a non student adult can find a weightlifting club near them?


Scott Wilson said...

Hi Sarah,

I'm a weightlifter from Australia, I'm heading to Kyoto in January for 4 days (11th till 14)

Do you know if the club is open to athletes from other countries?

Is there any contacts you have at the university you could pass on?

I understand the weightlifting system is based out of the university's and I'm going to visit Wasada university in Tokyo to train with the National team coach.

Thanks in advance