After a few weeks of working on lifting and form, Fit for Lifie columnist Nicole Tsong is astonished by how strong she’s become.

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MICHAEL REAMS stood a few inches in front of my barbell. My job was to lift the bar from the floor over my head into a squat — without hitting him. I quaked a little inside. But Reams is not someone you refuse.

I did it. I didn’t hit him.


I started Olympic-style weightlifting at my CrossFit, where I first learned I like lifting weights. After a couple years of steady workouts, I had stagnated a bit on lifting; I knew with some focus I could improve my technique and lift more weight. When the gym offered Olympic lifting with Reams, a nationally certified coach, I dived into a two-hour session.

Olympic lifting covers two lifts — the snatch, and the clean and jerk. The snatch uses a wide grip, and the lifter takes the barbell from the floor to an overhead position in a squat in one fluid motion. For the clean and jerk, the lifter brings the barbell from the floor to his or her front shoulders, then does the jerk, a quick thrust to shoot the barbell overhead.

Perhaps you’ve seen Olympic athletes lift what looks to be impossible weight overhead. According to USA Weightlifting, the lifts challenge virtually all of the muscles in the body. Reams says lifters are among the most flexible athletes, because they hold so much weight overhead in a deep squat.

Olympic lifting is technical — you need excellent form to get all that weight overhead. I knew I had work to do, but I didn’t know how much. A lot, as it turns out.

On my first day, Reams watched closely. He moved my feet wider for my squat so I could get down lower. He shifted where the bar started over my feet. He kept reminding me to stick out my chest and butt to get into my hamstrings for the first pull of the bar off the floor. He told me to look up.

Reed Phinisey works out during an Olympic-style weightlifting class. (Benjamin Benschneider/The Seattle Times)
Reed Phinisey works out during an Olympic-style weightlifting class. (Benjamin Benschneider/The Seattle Times)

It took me a few weeks to redo my basics. Since then, he also has stood in front of my barbell more than once to teach me how to extend my hips to drive weight up and overhead. If I get frustrated by poor form in a lift, he smiles and says I have about 1,000 more lifts to go. Adjust and do it again.

I also like the pace. Olympic lifters sit around a lot. After doing three reps of a lift, lifters sit on chairs and hang out, watching other people. Reams says this gives muscles time to refuel between effort, about three to five minutes. Sit around and call it work? Sure.

But don’t let the slow pace deceive you. Weightlifting is, well, heavy. There’s no easy way out of getting a heavy bar overhead.

Reams also works to get you strong. That might include front squats, a torture known as reverse hypers to strengthen your low back and hamstrings, and core work, plus technical strengthening specific to the Olympic lifts.

For the first few weeks, I lifted at 70 percent of my maximum weight and increased slowly from there, adding two kilos at a time. If I calculate back up to my new maximum after just a few weeks with Reams, I’m astonished at how strong I’ve gotten.

I’m also surprised by how much I enjoy spending two hours lifting heavy weights, without running or other endurance. I like the detailed work on form. I like getting stronger. I’m interested to see where lifting will take me.