The Differences Between Recreational Versus Career Weightlifting

As much as every young boy playing basketball wants to be Michael Jordan, realistically it’s just not going to happen. Some will lose interest, some will move on to play other sports, and some will play as long as their abilities allow for them. Weightlifting shouldn’t be looked at any differently. I’ll put it bluntly; just because you lift weights doesn’t mean you’ll be Mattie Rogers or CJ Cummings one day.

Stop comparing yourself to them.

Stop taking their Instagram posts to your coach telling them that if you do her exercises you’ll be that much more confident and overnight have the strength to snatch 100 kilos. That would be awesome! But then again, if that were possible, we would all be world champions. It would also mean that we would all have the same intellectual abilities, the same artistic abilities, and ultimately be the same.
We aren’t.

I don’t think any coach would argue with me when I say that there are a lot of factors that go into building a top weightlifter. To keep it simple, let me lay out two that I find to be the most important.

1. Genetics.

Sorry not sorry. You just have to have it. Some of us are gifted in the arts, some marketing, some business, etc. Top weightlifters are gifted with incredible genetics. They have great balance, coordination, flexibility, and above all else, a totally different mind-set. I honestly believe that the majority of our top weightlifters could have been high level competitors in almost any sport they chose (except maybe basketball). Some of them were. Before weightlifting, Jenny Arthur competed in track and field, Colin Burns did Judo, and the list goes on and on.

To put it in perspective, let me give you a story on the power of genetics. My husband, Jason, is a strength and conditioning coach at the University of Alabama for track and field. Track was my first passion before I found weightlifting, and to this day I still enjoy watching these athletes compete. Because of this, I choose to volunteer with some of the athletes and help them during their training sessions in the weight room. Alabama has a set of identical twins named Olivia and Flippa. Olivia is a 60 meter/100 meter sprinter and weighs 94lbs. Flippa is a long jumper weighing in at 96lbs. Both came into the program last year with personal best power cleans of 40kg (88lbs).

At Alabama, they train in separate groups. The jumpers train at 6:30am every morning and the sport sprinters (200 meters and down) train at 3:00pm, and they use completely different programs designed to fit the specific needs of their events. (And mostly to keep the track coaches happy, because they all think they need something totally special for their kids). Amazingly enough, when it came time to get maxes on them, both girls lifted within 5lbs of each other, not once but twice. They first maxed 10-12 weeks into training depending on the program. Both had power cleans of 55kg (120lbs). They maxed again before Christmas break and both had power clean maxes of 61kg (135lbs). The only difference was the back squat. Olivia squat 89kg (195lbs), her sister 91kg (200lbs). The most interesting part to me was that during the second max, neither sister knew what the other had lifted.

This article is not to discourage you from training and competing in weightlifting. My goal is simply to help guide you with your expectations. All of us train to improve our current strength levels. All of us can improve on weaknesses that currently limit our ability to lift more weight. All of us can increase range of motion that allow us to have better positions for completing the Olympic lifts. That’s really stating the obvious.

However, I will add that the top levels of strength that we can reach will be different for everyone. I think certain factors like starting at a younger age, and not suffering previous injuries can help play a role in how we improve over time, but it simply comes down to genetics. Some of us are just meant to be better at this sport than others.
Mattie Rogers and CJ Cummings are fantastic examples. They most likely aren’t doing anything too terribly different than what other weightlifters are doing. They are just that much better. It also doesn’t mean that we won’t have athletes in the future come up and beat their records (although I don’t see this happening in the near future).

This is also not written to underestimate the power of a good coach and program. A good coach finds weaknesses, imbalances, and technical flaws in athletes and then develops a program to help that athlete reach their top potential. Their guidance can, and will, bring about better and faster results that otherwise may not happen. Which is why pulling exercises off the internet and asking your coach if you can do them probably won’t benefit you in the long run. You are not the people you see on the internet. Your weaknesses, however similar they seem to be, are not the exact same as anyone else’s. Just the same as your results won’t be the same as anyone else. Believe in your coach and let them guide you to the top of your genetic potential.

2. Recreational lifting vs Career lifting

A lot of top athletes (weightlifters included) make training a career. They lift as if it were a full time job, because it is to them. I’m not saying they don’t do other things as well, but that’s the seriousness they have with their lifting. They are carefully monitoring training, nutrition, recovery, and sleep.

Most of them are probably not working a 9-5 either. There are a few exceptions, but on average, they train twice a day and lifting is their number 1 focus in life at the current state. They survive from stipends given by USA Weightlifting based on performance, sponsorships, weekend seminars, and other part time jobs. Quite a few double up as coaches or do some remote programming to generate revenue as well.

Weeks off? Those are specifically scheduled by their coaches based on the needs of the athlete. They are not a week off for Christmas vacation or a spring break trip to the Bahamas. We train through Christmas (and New Year’s). We mold our lives around weightlifting. If we can make seeing our family fit, that’s awesome! This year Christmas was on a Sunday and I have Sunday’s off (good news for me!). If it doesn’t fit, we have come to the realization that it is the life we choose. We don’t set New Year’s resolutions for fitness. We live that resolution day in and day out, year after year. It’s a job.

It is not logical to expect the same from yourself if you started later in life and use weightlifting as a recreational activity. People take weightlifting lessons now the same way they would join the tennis club or aquatic fitness. I believe the idea of recreational weightlifting came from CrossFit’s model of functional fitness for everyone. People decided that breathing hard wasn’t that fun and lifting heavy stuff was awesome, so they made the switch. The growth of our sport the last few years has been incredible and I hope it continues to grow forever. I remember starting my competitive years with 6-7 people in my session and no one knew what it was that I did. Now, we have D sessions and weightlifting is everywhere!

After you’ve determined where you fit and the type of commitment you are willing to make, use the next two steps:

1. Set realistic goals

The best piece of advice I feel like I can give you is to sit down with your coach and talk about your goals. We all have an idea of what we want, but an honest coach will help you put them in perspective and keep them realistic. I would love to snatch 120kg and clean and jerk 150kg; that’s not attainable for me. However, I do have room for improvement in my career, and I have goals set. From there, my coach takes it. It’s my job to show up, train hard, take corrections, and put my full trust in the program. You have to believe in the process. I will never ask to do an exercise I see online no matter how cool it looks (except for maybe the Rubik’s Cube pause squat).

I know my coach is paying close attention to my personal weaknesses and designing something to help me reach my goals.

Maybe you have the physical ability to qualify for the American Open, maybe Nationals over time. A select few have the ability to win those meets and an even fewer have the ability to make Pan Am, World Teams, and the Olympics. Determine where you fit and after that, fully commit to the process. Put full faith in your coach and let them guide you to realistic goals without question.

2. Choose appropriate weightlifting competitions

My advice again would be to talk to your coach. Let them help you decide which competitions fit your goals and experience. Entering too few meets will never help you learn how to compete. Entering too many and you can stall progress, because you have no time to actually train. This concept is the same whether you are a recreational lifter or an elite level athlete. You need time to recover and train for the next peak. Elite lifters choose competitions based around their goals for the year. They may train through the American Open or skip it completely and wait for Nationals.

Newer lifters may choose based on what they are currently qualified for. The can use the American Open series to gain big stage experience and qualify for major national events. Recreational lifters may choose based on what fits their life. If you want the feel of a major competition setting, but you aren’t hitting the qualification marks, lift in the Arnold Classic.

It is a huge event with the big raised platforms, bright lights and always brings a crowd.
Once you’ve analyzed your situation, talked with your coach, and set honest and realistic with goals, you won’t feel the need to stress over them. Maybe you just want the experience of competing, even if it’s at a local meet. Competing is half the fun and makes training so much easier knowing you have something to train for.

Editors note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

Featured image: @traviscooper77kg on Instagram