In my pursuit to become a great weightlifter, people often remind me that the Russians begin their training in their adolescent years. They have worked for decades to get to the level they are at when we see them in hookgrip video clips on instagram. These same people say that unless you have been brought up in their system and have their drugs and their coaches, there is no way you can really become an elite level weightlifter. But is that really the truth in the matter?
To really understand if late arrivers here in the U.S. have a shot at truly being great, we need to look at what makes individuals in China, Russia, and a few other countries, so good. The truth is that their success is achieved not because they start at an incredibly young age, but that their system is very methodical. The coaches have athletes doing things such as simple gymnastics movements and basic resistance training (kettlebell swings, back extensions, and air squats) for months or years before they move on. So what? We play football, soccer, baseball, and we are just as active. What's the difference between what they do and what we do?
Well it's simple. Everything their coaches have them do is with the intention of creating a base to build on in years to come. What we have children do is for fun, because we want kids to be active, learn teamwork, and develop social skills. The activities kids in the U.S. perform do not build up tissues in the same manner that gymnastics and resistance training do in other countries. In this country we even see people vehemently opposing these types of exercise for children, even though it improves self esteem, confidence, coordination, and social skills (but that's for another day). These countries set their systems like this to ensure better movement patterns and tissue quality later in life so the athlete can sustain the incredible work volume. We structure training so the kids don't become overweight, or in some cases, so they have a shot at a college scholarship.
Because these athletes from other countries learn how to squat perfectly from a young age, you rarely see mobility issues or imbalances in their movements. Once they get into training for weightlifting just before their teenage years, the coaches know that they do not have to worry about shoulder instability, valgus knees, or weak backs. But still, for some strange reason in this country we push our youth athletes far harder than coaches in other countries do. Why is that?
Why, if our young athletes don't have the position, tissue strength, or movement quality, do we insist on pushing them harder than the proven systems around the world do? There are two reasons for this, and they are both mentalities that need to change. The first is the belief that their athlete is “special”. Let’s get real, they might be gifted, but their body still has to follow the rules of physics and biomechanics no matter how special they are. They cannot defy gravity with their speed, nor can they move poorly for years without injury.
The second mentality issue we have is rampant in everything we do in this country. This is the idea that success should be had overnight, and this instant gratification that we all want is what destroys our young prospects. The Russians build their athletes to peak between ages 22-28. In the U.S.A. we build our athletes to peak in 2 years, no matter their age, skill level, or goal. Two years is about the furthest the vast majority of coaches look. Yes they will get strong, maybe they will even have moderate success. But the sooner the peak, the lower the overall result, and the longer the performance drop on the other side.
Now that we have identified the differences in our youth programs, can we use that knowledge to understand if we have a shot as individuals who came into the sport in our late teens or early twenties? There is a way to build incredible strength and ensure that the athlete’s body does not break down, even if they started late. I will let you know how to accomplish this next Tuesday in the second part of this article…