What Malcolm Gladwell Has to Do with Olympic Lifting

A few days ago, I won some swag from Catalyst Athletics for a Twitter contest they hosted. CA is a gym out in California specializing in olympic lifting and they’re one of the best in the biz. I started following their website mostly because of the owners, Greg and Aimee Everett. Greg is a well known oly lifting coach and co-host on the Paleo Solution podcast with Robb Wolf; and Aimee is a national weightlifting champion.
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One of the prizes I won was a CA sweatshirt and the other prize was Matt Foreman’s book, “Bones of Iron.” (paper version or Kindle version) Essentially it’s a collection of his articles from the Performance Menu, a journal run by Greg Everett. So where does Malcolm Gladwell come in? Well, if you thought it’s because this little Jewish man who writes for the New Yorker spends his free time cleaning, snatching, and jerking…you’d be wrong. But if you read “Outliers,” and you think this is about the 10,000 hour rule…well, then you’d be right. 
The 10,000 hour rule basically states that you need to do something for that amount of time before you master it. Even if you do something for 3 hours every day, it would still take about 10 years before you hit that quota. Gladwell cites a number of examples of people who took about that amount of time before they were recognized as geniuses, masters, or experts. Examples in his book include the Beatles and Bill Gates.
(By the way, Gladwell was not the first to come up with this theory, but I would say he’s the most famous person associated with it. So I’m just going with the crowd on this one.)
Anyway, what does this have to do with Olympic weightlifting? Well, reading one of Foreman’s articles entitled “Third Snatch from the Sun,” (yes, he’s very witty), he discusses the theory of taking powerlifters and turning them into weightlifters. Although they can move massive amounts of weight very easily, the coordination needed for olympic weightlifting is completely different and takes years to hone one’s skills. Here’s a passage that really stuck with me:

“When an athlete performs snatches, cleans, and jerks, there is a strengthening effect that develops very precisely with the movements. All of the muscles and connective tissues of the body move in a very exact way, and they grow stronger and denser in the positions of the lifts themselves. Every fiber of soft muscle tissue, along with the athlete’s tendons and ligaments, increases in strength and power when the athlete performs thousands of snatches or cleans. Bone density even increases in the supportive posture of the lifts. And this type of specific strength takes millions of reps and several years to accumulate.” (2011)

 So what is this all saying? You need to PRACTICE!

It’s an obvious thing, but to get better at something, you need to PRACTICE….a LOT. People walk into our CrossFit gym and they want to be good at everything, but they don’t spend any time outside of a WOD honing their skills. This can be for any movement really: double unders, handstand push ups, rowing….but the two movements that really need work are the clean and jerk and the snatch. 
When I attended my USA Weightlifting certification in Pittsburgh, the coaches there said that it takes full time olympic weightlifters FIVE YEARS to get their skills down and another FIVE YEARS to find their max lifts. Guess what that adds up to. Yep, 10 years. And that’s everyday with double and triple sessions, unlike our CrossFit schedule of once every few days or even weeks.
So, hopefully this article did two things for you:
1. Made you not feel as bad that you suck at clean and jerking and snatching
2. Motivated you to keep practicing and realize that it takes literally thousands of repetitions to become comfortable with the movements
Practice at home, practice at work, practice at the gym, practice with a broomstick, practice with weights….just practice! And most importantly, have a coach who knows what they’re doing teach you in the beginning and try to get observed anytime you can after that. Building a strong foundation of correct movement is essential.
Now let me go practice.
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8 thoughts on “What Malcolm Gladwell Has to Do with Olympic Lifting

  1. Great post, and I'm glad you like the book. I'm still chuckling about the connection between Iverson's "Practice?" speech and the idea of having to practice the OLifts to develop skill. Trying to have a conversation with AI about weightlifting would probably be like trying to convert Kim Jong Il to mormonism. Thanks again for the good words!

  2. Great post, Chris. I actually read Outliers last week. I heard about the 10,000 hours theory a long time ago but Gladwell definitely put it into perspective. Anyway, back to O-lifting.

  3. Anders K Ericsson is the Scientist who unearthed the theory, it hasn't been proven in sport, and further to this there are always exceptions to the rule, eg sports which transfer to others etc. However it is a fairly sound theory in bringing perspective to the demands of achievement.

  4. Matt, thanks for the comment! I really enjoy your writing and always look forward to your articlesLarry, I always like Gladwell's stuff…even though some of it might be a stretch, it's always entertaining to think aboutHugh, thanks for the info. I don't think it's an exact science, but quality repetition will increase efficiency especially when it comes to complicated lifts

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