Just a few days after 2016 Weightlifting Nationals, Mike Graber and I got 15 year old weightlifting phenom CJ Cummings on the phone and chatted about his life, his goals, and training.
Just to note a few of his accomplishments: at 11 years old, CJ burst onto the scene after becoming the youngest American lifter to clean and jerk two times his body weight — 200lbs. At 14, he broke the Senior Men’s American Record (63kg) with his 153kg (337lb) clean and jerk at the 2014 USA Weightlifting National Championships. One year later he set an unofficial youth world record at the 2015 USAW Senior National Weightlifting Championships for his 175kg clean & jerk in the 69kg weight class. (The current official record is 173kg, set in in 2011 by Firudin Guliyev.)
He’s also been dubbed the “Lebron James of weightlifting” by the Wall Street Journal, the “Michael Jordan of weightlifting” by former USA Weightlifting president Dennis Snethen, and named the “Strongest Man in America” by USA Today.
With the number of accolades CJ has rightly acquired in the past few years, we expected a 15 year old going on 30, but what we got was a 15 year old going on 15.
“A lot of older people come up to me and fill my head up with knowledge and life lessons,” Cummings said a few minutes into our phone call. At the ripe old ages of 31 and 30, respectively, Mike and I realized we fell into that category of “older people.”
CJ’s favorite life lesson? “ ‘Remember why you’re doing it…,’ I forgot what it was exactly. It went away for a bit, it’ll come back to me!”
It’s difficult to comprehend that one of the “Strongest Men in America” is actually a teenager from Beaufort, South Carolina, who both thinks like a teenager and talks like a teenager. We’re used to talking about athletic prodigies in the same way we talk about up and coming corporate executives. They’re supposed to train 40 hours a week, micromanage their diet, performance, and recovery, and sacrifice education and childhood all in the name of sport. They’re not supposed to only train an hour or two after school and eat french fries after weigh in.
And yet, here we are. CJ goes to public school, full time, and then works out for an hour a half to two hours a day, Monday through Friday. He used to train at the local middle school, but now he works out at his local CrossFit gym, CrossFit Beaufort.
Despite training at a CrossFit gym and demonstrating his weightlifting skills at the East Coast Championships, he’s never tried CrossFit. “A lot of people at the CrossFit gym want me to try it, but it seems like a lot of cardio when it comes to CrossFit,” he says.
When he gets a week off from training, as he did after US Olympic Trials in May, the thing he looks forward to the most is coming home from school and taking a nap. If he wasn’t weightlifting, he’d be playing football. His favorite subject is math, and he really likes McDonalds, so much so that his coach once made him eat five green beans for every one french fry, just to get a few veggies in him.
“That was something we were just trying out,” Cummings quickly added. He continued, “I feel like I can stay at this weight (69kg) for another year or two, but eventually I’m going to grow.”
Though he currently competes at 69kg, Cummings walks around at 70/70.5kg. His recent training numbers include a 134kg snatch, 215kg front squat for a double, and a 200kg front squat for a triple. He never back squats because as a kid, it bothered his knees, so he and his coach, Ray Jones, decided to just front squat.
While everyone around him understands the magnitude of his potential, CJ talks about it in the same way another kid might talk about upcoming state soccer championships. He lights up when he talks about weightlifting, but it all comes across as entirely normal, like breaking records and aiming for multiple Olympics is the most obvious thing in the world. CJ is just doing his thing and worrying about the details later.
This no-big-deal approach directly translates onto the platform. While speaking about weightlifting, he has a very go-with-the-flow attitude. He doesn’t question himself, or need to talk himself into lifting like an adult lifter might. CJ makes lifting sound as simple as he makes it look.
Cummings says the hardest part about training is being consistent, “‘cause some days I’m off and some days I’m on.”
The easiest part of training is “snatches and clean & jerks,” and his favorite lift is the clean & jerk because, “well, some days are snatches and some days are clean & jerks, but a snatch is just a one movement lift, and if you mess up a clean and jerk you have a chance to re-fix it [sic] because you have to jerk too.”
If we could all just re-fix our jerk after a botched clean, gym life would be so easy.
Despite Cummings’ straightforward outlook on day to day training, he’s still focused not only on a long weightlifting future, but on continuing to make history.
“I want to officially break the Youth World Record and then keep breaking it, like if I break it, then keep going up more and more.”
Thanks to a recent partnership with Reebok, “CJ Cummings” will make the first steps toward becoming a household name. We tried to get him to tell us more, but like the budding media professional he is, he kept quiet. Only time will tell if he can fulfill the destiny we’ve all mapped out for him.