The World’s Most Unconventional Lifter? (with Nathan Morris)

What’s a “sumo clean”? Today I’m talking to South African weightlifter Nathan Morris, an international level lifter who has competed at the African Championships and Commonwealth Championships. Originally a rugby player, Nathan switched his focus to weightlifting. After several years in the sport, he stumbled upon an innovative and unconventional clean & jerk technique that’s brought him success: a sumo or frog style clean. We learn how Nathan arrived at this unique (but competition legal!) technique, and why what works for one lifter may not work for another.

Nathan Morris on the BarBend Podcast

In this episode of The BarBend Podcast, David Thomas Tao and Nathan Morris discuss: 

  • Nathan’s athletic career thus far (1:40)
  • How maxing out every day ran Nathan into the ground (6:00)
  • Representing South Africa in international competition (11:00)
  • Why boxers are most impressive athletes at international sporting events (14:00)
  • Discovering the sumo or frog-style clean (18:00)
  • Did the frog-style clean recharge Nathan’s weightlifting career? (20:30)
  • Why the same technique doesn’t work for everyone (23:00)

Relevant links and further reading:

Transcription

There’s an empty bar, I am going to try this, and it works. [laughs] Here’s how it went, so I tried it and I had been battling a lot with my clean. I do a few of the bar, I think we put on 40 kilos or whatever, and the lift for fun and it felt good. My mate looks at me and goes, “Had to look better than your normal clean.”

 

David TaoDavid Tao

Welcome to the “BarBend” podcast where we talk to the smartest coaches, athletes, and minds from around the world of strength. I’m your host, David Thomas Tao, and this podcast is presented by barbedend.com.

 

Today, I’m talking to South African weightlifter, Nathan Morris. He’s a super heavyweight. He’s an internationally competitive weightlifter, having competed at the Commonwealth Games and African Championships.

 

We talk a little bit about his transition from rugby to full-time weightlifting, but we also focus on unconventional weightlifting technique. He uses what’s referred to as a frog-style clean or even a sumo-style setup in his clean. He’s really the only international-level weightlifter to do that currently.

 

We talked about discovering that why was unconventional may work best for you. How Nathan developed that to become an internationally competitive lifter? Using a technique that virtually no one has ever seen live before.

 

It’s super interesting. He’s really interesting guy, has a great perspective on some of the positive feedback. Even hate he’s gotten on social media. I hope you enjoy this one as much as I did.

 

Nathan. I really appreciate you taking the time to record today. We’re in very different time zones. I’m in Brooklyn, New York. Where are you just for reference?

First of all, thanks for having me, man. Right now, Johannesburg, South Africa. Yeah. I think we got about a seven, eight-hour time difference.

David TaoDavid Tao

Well, I appreciate this. It’s funny because this was a seven or eight-hour time difference, but this was the easiest podcast to schedule. I’ve had in a long time, which means you’re more organized than everyone else. I really appreciate that.

Well, I was just excited. I do read. I’ve read “Bobbing” for a while. I go to Macy’s. “Hey, do you want to be on the podcast?” “Yes.”

David TaoDavid Tao

[laughs] Let’s talk a little bit about your background in sports, in strength training, and how you got to where you are today as an internationally competitive weightlifter for those who don’t know your background.

 

 I’ll give it a long story short. I wish it was a coolest story. I played rugby for high school and just out of high school started doing weightlifting to improve performance. You read the articles, you get more explosive, you build muscle. I think what sold me was I can get Foster and I can stay fairly fit and I don’t have to run. That is fun.

 

That was the idea and started weightlifting. I think I did it for about two months and did a competition on the fly and it was the most fun I’d had in sport. It was like one of those local club competitions take place in a CrossFit gym. It was just from there. I played both for a bit, did rugby for a bit, did weightlifting for a bit, and then just your bunk bed.

 

I said no, I want to give this my best efforts. Eventually, I can’t play sport anymore, professionally or at a high level, and I want to know that I gave this my best effort.

David TaoDavid Tao

I like that a lot. I have noticed a lot of folks who get into weightlifting or any strength sports, so your powerlifting because they find that the training they’re doing to support their on-the-field sport, they’re enjoying more and build more of a passion for.

You hit it right on the head. I remember someone else. Why are you choosing weightlifting? The two things that — I actually just had this conversation the other day — stuck out was, number one, I was having more fun weightlifting, just training was more fun. I liked that if I work hard then the results will come.

 

Rugby’s a team sport and guys are amazing, but I struggled with playing my hard as soon as someone drops school. That was tough. [laughs] Weightlifting was if I work harder, I’ll see success, and similarly, if it goes bad, I got no one else to blame. This, it was entirely in my control. I gravitated toward that and I just can’t think of something more fun than snatch, clean, and jerk.

David TaoDavid Tao

I really appreciate that perspective. It is also nice because you wake up sore in a different way, maybe not sore from all the tackles or being tackled, more sore in the quads from heavy sets of squats. It’s a little bit different, but the toll it takes on the body is maybe a little more sustainable longer-term.

If you’re smart with it. I wouldn’t have called my early training smart.

David TaoDavid Tao

[laughs] Let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about your early training compared to now. If you could go back in time and you could tell Nathan in his first couple months of weightlifting. If you give him some words of wisdom, what might those be?

It’s easy. Stop trying to max out every session.

David TaoDavid Tao

You are one of those guys. OK.

I mean, it worked for a while. Eventually, your results are going the other way. If I could go back, I’d tell him, accessories matter. Doing abs matters. 70 percent is a percentage and you should have sessions in that range.

 

I would give him a bit more guidance. My first comp was a hell of a success and I thought, “I’ll just max out every day. In three years, I’ll snatch 200. This shouldn’t be a problem at all.” I had to figure out the hard way. It doesn’t work like that.

 

I’m a bit stubborn so it probably took a bit longer for it to get into my head than I think anybody else.

David TaoDavid Tao

Did you have a coach then or were you training by yourself and figuring it out by yourself?

My lifting career has been very, very different. I’ve never had a guy with me every day, but I’ve had some incredibly smart mentors who have provided guidance. Who have, “Hey what do you think about this?” They’ll just tell me that’s a dumb idea and you should try this. Or I’m seeing this. I probably didn’t listen in the beginning. Very hard-headed. If I could go back, I’d say shut up and listen. They’ve got some good tips.

 

As for 95 percent to 90 percent of sessions, I was just rocking and rolling. Even if we had, with said mentors, planned a session, I would just go out of my own. You know that meme? Coach plans a session, athlete sends a message, “Hey, maxed out today?”

 

That’s me. Well, was me.

David TaoDavid Tao

That was you. A little older, a little wiser right now. When was your first national-level competition?

I just want to clarify because we work a little different, you’re talking about national championships?

David TaoDavid Tao

Yeah.

 2017.

David TaoDavid Tao

How long from starting weightlifting to being at the national level? That’s correct. It means a different thing in the United States.

Each country’s got different standards. Absolutely.

David TaoDavid Tao

How long did it take you to level up to that point at where you’re like, “OK, I’m competitive against everyone else in my country, in my body weight category. I could potentially be among the best.” When was that realization? How long did it take in training weightlifting in a dedicated fashion to get there?

Just short of a year.

David TaoDavid Tao

Oh wow. Pretty quick. Did you already have a pretty good base of strength from rugby, you think?

I caught on quick. I had a decent strength level which got me to a certain point. I think that’s where I started to stall out. I picked it up quick. What was it about three, four months. I was cleaning about 140, 150. Three months to about snatch 100.

 

I caught on quick. By the time I got into Nationals, I was snatching about 120, trying to get into 150. Something like that. Clean and jerks was, I think at that Nationals, I said 150 would be good. I had a very quick start.

David TaoDavid Tao

Got it. Now, let’s talk about your first International competition. When was that and where was that?

 

That was awesome. 2018, Mauritius. This was an interesting comp because if you go on iwf.net, you can find results of everything. I don’t think you can find it. Well, I think you can find very hot results, if that makes sense.

 

That competition, there were two. It was the standard African champs, which obviously are competing. There was one as well, called the Mauritius open, which was basically for the guys who had not yet been registered on ADAMS, which is our anti-doping system. Good on weightlifting.

 

Good for them for setting that standard. I did that, which I was in African Champs and the Mauritius Open, which was about…I put it at I’d been lifting about two years.

David TaoDavid Tao

 

You see, that was awesome. You clearly have some memories from that. Walk us through that experience. Obviously, Mauritius is a place where not a lot of folks, at least in the United States, ever get to visit. It’s an island nation, a really cool, exotic location. Let’s talk about that experience. You fly to this. I assume you flew and didn’t take a boat.

We flew.

David TaoDavid Tao

That’d be really badass if you had to take a boat to get to your first international comp.

Yeah, that would have been an interesting experience. Mauritius to [inaudible 10:46] is two hours away from us. Three hours away. Little island nation. If you haven’t been, you should go. Beautiful country. It’s basically a giant beach. It’s like Africa’s version of Hawaii.

 

It’s your first comp. I remember getting the phone call and I remember the selector going, “Congrats, you’ve been selected. You’ve made great progress. We just want you to temper your expectations. You’re just going to go for the experience. A lot of amazing lifters there and we want you to hit some PVs.” Great.

 

Immediately that was actually what I went in with. There was no expectation. You grow up wanting to rep your country. Now here I am, wearing a South African tracksuit, incredibly proud South African and I get to lift and the vibe was amazing.

 

You’re making new friends. You’re meeting all these lifters who you’ve only seen on social media, unlimited food. The food is amazing. Now, if you’re a super heavyweight lifter, that is just incredible. I don’t have to make weight.

David TaoDavid Tao

Super heavyweights always have the best time at competition.

 That’s exactly it, man. It’s petty, but if you’re sitting next to someone at the dining table who has to make weight the next day, it feels good that you can just eat what you want. Like “Hey, do you want to try some of this gigantic bowl of pasta?”

David TaoDavid Tao

You’re either the most fun person to travel with or if you’re cutting weight, the worst. My worst nightmare to travel with, it seems like.

Yeah, it’s totally person dependent. You’re either going to hate it or you’re going to love it. I had a decent performance. I put on the [inaudible 12:38] singlet for the first time and that’s a memory that will stay cool for a while. In terms of international comps, I couldn’t have had a better start.

David TaoDavid Tao

Let’s talk about competing at the Commonwealth level. Was that a different…Did that feel like a different experience compared to competing at the continental level?

Absolutely. That was a hell of a learning experience for me. You’re not just around weightlifters. You are around some of the best athletes in the world in multiple sport. You just get to see how they move.

 

How they interact with the world, how they approach training, their mentality. I’d just never been at anything like that. To be in that environment was a bit of a shock, great learning experience. Obviously, it’s a Common game, super fun. Everybody, it’s like on the media and all your family are messaging you, friends are messaging you.

 

“Good luck.” It’s cool. For a month, the world revolves around you. It was a hell of a thing.

David TaoDavid Tao

Was there a particular athlete or particular group of athletes or maybe athletes from a particular sport that really fascinated you? Because you’re right, it is a little bit like watching a human zoo. You have people at the peak of their capabilities. Maybe sprinters are over here, weightlifters are over here, swimmers are over here, and you’re watching like the absolute peak of humanity for that little thing.

 

I’m curious, who fascinated you the most?

10 out of 10, the boxers.

David TaoDavid Tao

Really? Why is that?

Yeah, they work so hard. The way you got to prep for boxing. The weight cuts are really a hectic thing. If you think weightlifting weight cuts are hectic, the boxers take it to another level. Again, super heavyweight life. I’d get down from my room and I’m going to feast at the breakfast hall. I’m not going to eat small. I’m about to dig in.

David TaoDavid Tao

Yeah. The food is provided especially. Oh, my God, you’re at the buffet.

Oh, absolutely. Eggs and bacon, man. That’s the one. All you’ll see is you’ve just got to look around a little bit and you’re about to dig in, and the boxers are already training. They’re already going. Session one in the hall. Wherever they can do it.

 

Because obviously you get and this is my assumption. We all get hours. You get your training hall, you get your hours. We all have our own training halls. I assume they had more sessions than they could fit in the training hall. What do we do? Oh, well, we’ll just train in the hall.

 

They are guys literally smashing it, going super hard in the lobby of your hotel, your village, or whatever it is. The thing that struck me was what I felt was I am lazy. These guys. I thought I worked hard, man. These guys take it to another level and they’re just cool with it.

 

The cool thing about them is they’re the nicest people in the world. All over all the conversations I had, the boxers were by far and away the coolest guys to chat to. You will have a huge amount of humility if you can get knocked out in like two seconds. It could happen. You can be a nice guy.

David TaoDavid Tao

That’s so interesting, too. I guess they get all their aggression out in their sport.

 [laughs] Yeah, I never thought about that. Just save it all up, store it so you can just use it in the ring.

David TaoDavid Tao

Yeah, that’s the thing. They have to channel that. If you get really mad…Weightlifters, if you have a bad training session, maybe, you’ll kick a barbell or you’ll like…I used to always tip over my chair in a really angry way. No one cared. It was like the wussy is looking thing in the world. “Oh, look, David just tipped over his chair because he missed a clean and jerk.”

 

Boxers, they just get to pummel another human being and have to channel that. If you’re doing that professionally, you must be good. You must be able to walk through life. Just chill.

Yeah, I do fear for them once they don’t get to pummel people anymore. Like what you do with that anger?

David TaoDavid Tao

Oh, yeah.

I think, yeah. Therapy is right there for you, and you get to win a medal for that as well.

David TaoDavid Tao

[laughs] Let’s talk a little bit about what initially put you on our radar besides the fact that you’re an internationally competitive athlete representing South Africa. One thing that caused a little bit of a stir…I think it was earlier this year. There’s a bad stir and then there’s a good stir. This is very much a good stir.

 

Anything that gets people looking at strength in a slightly different way, I would call that good, right?

I’m glad you view it like that.

David TaoDavid Tao

I do. Well, that’s a technique that you use in the clean and jerk and you start your clean in what most people would call a sumo stance, which is completely fine. It’s a good lift. There’s nothing in the rule book that says your feet have to be in any particular place when you clean.

 

It’s pretty rare to see. I would love to hear a little bit about how that developed and how that has become your go-to style in the clean and jerk.

I phrased it as a joke which it was actually just having fun. I was in the gym with a mate and we were talking about old-lifting styles. We nerded up man, proper. What you do? I’m a nerd for the sport. There’s an empty bar, I am going to try this, and it works. [laughs]

 

Here’s how it went, so I tried it and I had really been battling a lot with my clean. I do a few of the bar, I think we put on 40 kilos or whatever, and the lift for fun and it felt good.

 

My mate looks at me and goes, “Had to look better than your normal clean that” and not like having a joke with me is like, he was being dead honest. We are, “All right, cool. Well, tomorrow let’s give it a go.” Like, “What, why not?” You’re not going to lose anything by trying this.

 

I walk up and not particularly in strong shape in terms of you have your ups and downs and, I walked up in the time, I max power cleans 150, and I partly in 150 and I jerk it. Fairly easily feels really good.

David TaoDavid Tao

With the Sumo start, where your legs are coming in on the catch?

Correct. At that time, it’s roll man. Like, it doesn’t look good, but it feels alright. It was just a case of having me give this a go. It was all right, I give myself clear to six months. This is about was 2021.

 

If I take six months to give this a go, I don’t think I’m going to lose anything. I want to know, want to try. It’s not against the rules. I know it’s not against the rules and I know it’s not traditional, but I don’t care.

David TaoDavid Tao

There was a time when squat cleaning was not traditional, people tended to split.

Correct. I gave it a go and it morphed and changed. I wish I could show you videos. Maybe I’ll send some to you. It was pretty rough in the beginning. The ball is pretty far away, and it slowly started to morph into what you saw with the games and on my Instagram, etc.

 

What started happening was I get more and more comfortable with it, and it became what it is. Now, the cool part about this is I’ve gone back post social media blow-up and looked at my competition results in the clean and jerk.

 

I was historically not proud of it but I would literally one to three on the clean and jerk. Someday I’m going two for three, three for three. Now, you can put that down to a lot — good training, better training, better mindset. I’m working on all these things at the same time, but what I am doing is I’m going to the bar, and I’m not worrying anymore. I’m not worrying about my technique.

 

This for me feels good, feels like something I can invest in, and it’s getting better and better and better. My clean and jerk went up, dramatically. Again, you can attribute that to training, increased body weight, yadda yadda, but I like to think that this played a role for me. It was a case of if it’s working, and you’re showing better results, it’s not against the rules. Stick with it.

David TaoDavid Tao

Has there been any backlash? Has anyone in person told you, “Oh, I don’t like it,” or “This is bad for the sport,” or “They need to change the rules”? Has there been any negative feedback you’ve gotten from people?

Absolutely. Face-to-face, no. I wouldn’t consider social media face-to-face.

David TaoDavid Tao

That’s true. Face-to-face, by the way, people tend not to criticize super heavyweights face-to-face that often. Just throwing it out there.

I got a good hard stare. Maybe that’s why. Face-to-face, no. I think behind closed doors when I’m not looking, absolutely. Social media, absolutely. A man like 10 out of 10 to them like fair play. It’s different.

 

I went on a global stage and I did something different. It is a sport and criticism is encouraged and allowed and you are allowed to feel how you want to feel. It’s probably not going to change how I do things, but if you don’t like it, that’s cool. 100 percent no one’s telling you to do it. If you feel it’s something that might work for you, well, hey, for you, man.

David TaoDavid Tao

That is the most mature response to any tough question that we’ve ever gotten on this podcast. If I could bottle that sentiment, I’m going to do me, you do you, don’t let this impact your life too negatively, but it improves my performance. If I could bottle that and sell that as a supplement, we wouldn’t need to produce content anymore.

[laughs] Yeah, like a little mental supplement. You could just get off on that and…

David TaoDavid Tao

Yeah, like you take it with…

You make some big money.

David TaoDavid Tao

Yeah, it’s like a chill. You take with your creatine. It makes you better. It doesn’t make anyone worse. Oh, my God. That’s it. I got to figure that out. Is this something that you’re pretty confident going to be sticking with for the long-term technique-wise or could you ever see yourself going back?

I tried for fun. “Oh yeah, let me try the old.” For me, it’s old, obviously, it’s the tried, true and tested way. It is as bad as a…It didn’t feel as good as the Sumo. I think at this point if I approach the boom, my feet just go into that position.

 

It works for me and it works for my body. I will stick with it, and it might morph and change and as a lifter does and as you move through your weightlifting career life. Will you see me stick with it? Yeah. I got to put 100 kilos on my clean, for me to go back.

David TaoDavid Tao

Got it.

Like tomorrow, by the way.

David TaoDavid Tao

[laughs] It will have to be immediate. How has it…

 

Yeah, it would have to be immediate.

David TaoDavid Tao

How has it impacted your training? I assume you’re doing pulls and accessory work. You’re using that as your starting position for like pulls, accessory work, hangs. Are you able to do hang cleans with that positioning?

Yeah. In fact, I think I’m better at the hang clean. It’s just, if I’m doing a pull, I put my feet in that position. If I lift from the trap bar, I put my feet in a position. It’s not any different to how you would train weightlifting, normally. If you do a pull for your clean, you should probably start in the same position you’d want to clean it in.

 

I just do that. If I’m squatting, I put my feet in the same position I think I’m going to receive the clean or the position I want to receive the clean. Same goes to a snatch, nothing’s changed aside from the fact that my feet are close, turned out at about 45 degrees, and my knees are out. That’s it.

David TaoDavid Tao

Are you familiar at all with the powerlifting space?

Yeah.

David TaoDavid Tao

The whole, “Sumo is cheating debate” in powerlifting. I’m curious as to your thoughts on that.

 

Watch the video. Watch nice videos. Maybe not the Commonwealth one, not the best clean ever. I hate that one of the worst cleans I did went viral. Watch a nicer one. The feet are close and they’re turned out. In my brain, and I’m sure people want to debate this when you Sumo you’re super wide.

 

Now, I am not super wide. It’s very, very close. In fact, probably slightly within hip width. I have close to or as much work to do as you would in a conventional clean. It’s just the angles and change to suit what I’m trying to accomplish which is, the same as anybody else, which is, put the bar on your chest throw everything.

David TaoDavid Tao

The thing is, the debate in powerlifting is that lifters lifting in very wide Sumo stances are moving the bar less of a distance. Ultimately, with the clean and jerk at the end of that lift you’re moving the bar at the same distance because you have to have that barbell overhead, and you have to bring your feet in line and show control.

Yeah, and I still got to catch it in a squat.

David TaoDavid Tao

Yeah. There’s no way to cheat a clean and jerk. It’s not like you’re suddenly lifting the bar, you took five inches off of what you’re lifting overhead because you still have to stand up straight with it. You know what I mean? There’s no way to cheat that, you didn’t shorten your arms.

I wish I could.

David TaoDavid Tao

 [laughs] I’ve heard that from a lot of super heavies. They’re like, yeah man…

That would make life infinitely easier.

David TaoDavid Tao

[laughs] Hey man, where’s the best place for people to follow along with you, your training, upcoming competitions, anything like that?

 I’m pretty much this active on Instagram, man. I’m not really much of a social media guy, but if you do want to follow the journey Nato Morris @natomorris on Instagram and that’s about it. I don’t have like one million handles.

David TaoDavid Tao

Any upcoming competitions you’re excited about?

No, I wish I could hype this up, man, but I’m rehabbing from injury at the moment. I’m just taking it day by day. For me, next year we got this thing called African games, which is our version of the Pan American games. That’s a nice one, I’m kind of circled on the calendar.

 

I’m hoping I can get into shape, get better than I was before, and qualify and go rep the country one more time.

David TaoDavid Tao

Excellent. Nathan, thanks so much for joining us, sharing a bit about your journey. Really appreciate your time.

Cool, man. Thank you so much for having me.