Explosively lifting a giant barbell over your head takes strength, technique, and a certain fearlessness. I’ve been training this sport — Olympic style weightlifting — for about two years now, and it seems like I find something new to learn about it every day. Recently, I had a chance to ask two members of the US Olympic weightlifting team, Jourdan Delacruz and CJ Cummings, about how they train, how they stay motivated, and what it’s like to step on the platform while under so much pressure.
Their answers were illuminating to me, partly for what they do differently than me and from each other, but also for what is the same. For example, both of them told me beginners need to be patient and remember they’re in this for the long haul — something my coach has told me a million times.
This is a sport where you do just two lifts: the snatch, which takes a barbell from the ground to overhead in one swift movement, and the clean and jerk, which does it in two. The moves are tricky, and you have to do them so consistently that they become second nature. Pulling slightly too hard, or keeping your balance slightly too far toward the front or back of your foot, could mean the difference between a miss and a make, a win and a loss.
So you spend hours in training every week, and it all comes down to six separate minutes on one big day.
How do you stay motivated to train every day?
My coach programs me three to five days of weightlifting stuff each week. I usually fill my remaining time with other lifts and training for other sports, but that’s because I get bored otherwise, and lifting is fun. I find staying busy physically does wonders for my mental health. But it would probably be different for me if lifting were my job, so I asked these two Olympians how they stay motivated to train every day.
“You know, some days it’s gonna be tiring, but you just always have to remember your goal and why you’re doing it,” says CJ, who also mentioned that people often don’t realise how fun Olympic weightlifting can be. “I love doing what I’m doing.”
Jourdan also connects her daily training routine to her goals. “I have my big goals, and then I have my very small goals,” she says; as recent examples of the latter, she lists getting stronger at squats and focusing on mental health amid the chaos of 2020. (Both CJ and Jourdan were able to train through the gym closures during the pandemic, but the Olympics being rescheduled threw everybody for a loop.)
But what keeps both of them showing up each day is just the fact that that’s what they do. “Because weightlifting is kind of my life right now, it’s become like a routine,” says Jourdan. “Like, it’s kind of weird not to train on a Monday, or not train on a Tuesday.”
How do you prepare to be your best on a specific day?
Peaking for a big competition is another complex skill. You want to be physically strong, but you don’t want to train so much you get tired. You also want to be mentally sharp, and focused but not nervous.
“I say to myself, ok, it’s just like coming into the gym,” CJ says. He reminds himself he’s done these lifts thousands of times, and tries to focus on the familiarity of the lifts rather than the pressure.
Jourdan describes a process of narrowing her focus very intentionally. “About four or five weeks out, I try to make my routine very simple. I tune in on my nutrition, tune in on my mental skills, and tune in on recovery — just basically all the aspects around the lift itself. I try to make those very routine.” On the day of the competition, “I put it down. And then I focus on exactly what I’m doing on the platform.”
What’s going through your mind when you step on the platform?
And then, the day arrives. We spoke before the Olympics (Jourdan has already competed this week; CJ’s turn is yet to come). Here’s how the two lifters describe how they approach the bar.
“I work really hard to be able to have, like, a very simple mindset,” Jourdan says. She tries not to focus on the importance of the competition, but just focus on “one or two cues” to think about during the lift. “My favourite cue, and one that I’ve actually stuck with for a couple years now, is feeling the floor with my full foot,” she says. (“I don’t know if that makes sense?” she asks, but I assure her it does — it’s a cue I use, too. If you’re not a weightlifter, well, it helps you stay balanced, so you’ll end up with the bar directly above you rather than in front or behind.)
CJ admits to getting nervous on a big day, especially before his opener, the first lift of the competition. (We all do.) He goes for distraction as a way to manage nerves. “I don’t think about the lift at all,” he says, until the moment he’s on the platform. “I’m thinking about anything else but the lift. So I might think about what I’ll be doing after I compete, I could be thinking about what I’m eating tonight, or if I have to do anything else later that week, because I don’t want to start thinking about the lift because if I think about it too much it’s just gonna mess with my head.” His favourite cue is just “pull, jump, and squat,” a phrase he’s heard over and over from his coach. “But I don’t really think about it until the very last second before I start.”
Was it scary or intimidating the first time you lifted something heavy?
Let’s talk for a second about the fact that people who compete in this sport are yoinking a bar from the ground to overhead, a bar that may weigh more than twice what they do. (My own clean and jerk is only slightly above my bodyweight; CJ’s and Jourdan’s are both more than double theirs.) It does take a certain fearlessness to approach a heavy bar that you’re basically going to throw upwards, and then use its inertia to pull your own body downward while the thing is momentarily weightless. The whole concept is almost unbelievable. I was curious about these athletes’ take on what they do.
“That’s the crazy thing,” says CJ, who started at age 11. “I never found it intimidating at all. When I first stepped into the gym I saw these guys lifting massive weight and I was like, whoa. Like, I want to do that. So I was just like, How can I do that? And that’s when we started training.”
Jourdan admits to feeling the fear, and doing it anyway. “Oh, it’s super intimidating,” she says. “I mean, still even now, I get nervous about really big lifts. But when I first got started, I was super fortunate to be surrounded by already pretty strong women in the gym, so I could see other women and girls lifting heavier weights than me and feel a little bit more confident in [myself.]”
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