Olympic lifting includes two lifts; the clean and jerk, and the snatch. Both involve lifting a ‘dead’ barbell from the floor and finishing with it overhead, elbows locked out, standing up straight. If you are a freestyle kayaker, you want to be doing these lifts. Let me tell you why I love them so much.
For starters, Olympic lifting feels damn good. It blends fast, powerful movements with precise control. There’s something about standing up tall with a heavy weight balancing overhead that feels amazing. Try it and tell me I’m wrong!
Aside from the sheer joy of training these movements, they also carry some practical benefits for freestyle kayaking. Let’s use the snatch as an example. In the snatch, you are required to pull the bar up off the floor in two phases (aptly named the first and second pulls). During the second pull, the bar makes contact with the crease of your hips. This contact allows for a powerful hip thrust to drive the bar higher as you drop down into a squat position to ‘catch’ it, before standing back up with the barbell now overhead. This ‘hip thrust’ feels remarkably similar to the type of hip extension we use in Front Loops, Backloops, Mcnastys, Phonics Monkeys. In fact, almost every trick employs this type of movement in some way or another.
Another great thing about the Olympic lifts is that they both finish with the barbell overhead. I suppose they are somewhat unique in that the barbell is moving to that overhead position at speed. They’re very dynamic exercises. To be successful in these lifts, we need excellent shoulder mobility and stability. Bullet proof shoulders confer great advantages to kayakers, especially freestyle athletes. If you haven’t already, you can read more about this in my blog post on the topic.
Hopefully my description has made it clear that Olympic lifting doesn’t just train strength or speed or balance or power or stability. Rather, it trains all of them at once. If any of these components are lacking, it will show in these lifts. What’s more, I struggle to think of a muscle that isn’t recruited in some way during the snatch or clean and jerk. As you progress, you’re making gains across all of these areas simultaneously. This is great as we need all of them for freestyle kayaking.
The more you practice Olympic lifting, the more you’ll realise that the mechanics of these movements are far from simple. They aren’t just about brute force and ignorance. They are just as much about timing and technique. Your progression requires more than just putting in the hours on the gym floor. You need to become a student of the snatch and the clean and jerk. It takes time to learn them. Personally, I really enjoy the challenge. It means my gym sessions are much more engaging. If nothing else, you’ll develop a profound appreciation for the feats of athleticism of which elite weightlifters are capable. Check out 5-time world champion, Lu Xiaojun. His lifts are nothing short of inspirational.
So far, I’ve focused on the physical benefits of Olympic lifting, but there are also some psychological benefits that transfer nicely to freestyle kayaking. Working in the single rep range with these movements (that is, attempting to beat your personal best) presents a real challenge. You’re entering into the unknown. To break new ground, it requires full commitment. You need to bring every ounce of focus, power and self-belief to each attempt if you want to be successful. Learning new moves in freestyle can feel a lot like this sometimes. My point here is that, willingly taking on a challenge, the result of which being unknown, can only be beneficial for your freestyle training. Stepping out of your comfort zone without hesitation or apprehension. Being happy to try and fail. Being happy to fail again. Learning to see failure not as an end-point but rather just as a point on an upward learning curve. I’m talking about a growth mindset here. I believe this is a key attribute to develop for freestyle kayaking and it will surely come up again.
So, if after all that, you’re sold on Olympic lifting and want to give it a go, where do you start? Well, my advice would be, don’t try to learn the snatch off of YouTube. Get in touch with someone who is suitably qualified to teach you. They should be familiar with your physical abilities and limitations. For example, if you have poor ankle mobility or have a dodgy shoulder from an injury a few years back, perhaps now is not the time to learn to snatch. You might need a few weeks or months of preparatory training to build an adequate foundation of strength and mobility. That’s fine, though. There’s no rush. If you do decide to explore this side of physical training, I hope you enjoy it as much as I have done. Even more so, I hope it helps you feel stronger, go bigger and ultimately have more fun in your kayak.