[note: a version of this was published at the fine health and fitness website Greatist]
I was somewhere in the middle of Grafton State Park, near the eastern edge of Maine, when I was seriously struck with the urge to totally abandon this trip to Montreal. By this point I was about three or so hours into the drive, nearly all of which had been devastatingly beautiful. The curving and gently rising and falling roads; the wooded vistas; the quaint houses perched near rolling rivers; the little clusters of cattle grazing lazily in fields: it was the sort of drive I’d dreamed of all my life. My home state–New Jersey–is composed largely of asphalt and hellish traffic, and you don’t get to do much inspiring driving.
But the drive up through western Maine and into New Hampshire is stunning, even if you have to slam on your brakes and do some quick shifting to slow down for every one-horse town you pass through on the two-lane roads. There was a powerful temptation to simply blow off the Montreal trip and hole up in some tiny B&B on the edge of the woods, grow a long beard, and write half-crazed diatribes on the evils of society.
But no! I had to resist that awful temptation. I was, after all, on assignment. Even if it was unpaid, I was supposed to be heading to Montreal for the biggest conference on Olympic Weightlifting that city has ever seen, and I was expected to submit something to this fine health and fitness website upon my return.
I made it to Montreal without much fanfare, apart from a slight problem getting off an exit on a Canadian highway. The posted speed limit for the exit said “65”. This seemed awfully high to me for an exit speed, but if the Canadians felt it was safe it was no business of mine to argue. Only about midway through the tight curve, as my tires started screeching in protest before I initiated a very fine near-drift across the road did it dawn on me that the speed was posted in kilometers per hour, and I was therefore doing nearly double the legal limit. Fortunately a quick stab at the brakes and a bit of wrestling with the steering wheel brought things under control. And really there’s no better way to jog the nerves to attention after multiple hours behind the wheel than nearly careening off the road. I felt very sharp after that, and was ready for whatever the weekend held.
The conference started at ten in the morning. I wasn’t sure what kind of schedule to expect, but I’m a firm believe in a good breakfast regardless of the situation. Per usual, I had my epicurean assistant do some scouting of the food scene and send me some suggestions for eating, which is how I ended up at Fairmont Bagels. This is a place whose philosophy is to do one thing, and do it well. They don’t even have coffee. What they do have are some excellent bagels, even if they are different from their more famous NYC counterparts. If you go early enough–or maybe they do this all day long–you can catch them as they make their stock, watching the expert hands of people who actually make food, rather than just reheat it. This is food as it’s meant to be made and enjoyed.
Despite giving myself plenty of time to make it over to the conference I still managed to nearly miss the start. I had to spend an agonizing twenty minutes trying to find a place to park, a task made infinitely more difficult by the use of French on all the parking signs, in combination with numbers and symbols whose meaning still eludes me. Eventually I just stopped my car on the side of the road and hoped the parking police would take pity on me for being an anglophone.
The seminar was organized by John Margolis, coach of Concordia International Weightlifting Club (http://www.concordia-international.org/ ), and was held at the McGill University Currie Gymnasium. After a short introduction things got under way.
The event’s speaker was Bud Charniga, a man who is, by any reasonable assessment, somebody deeply entrenched in weightlifting. A true expert. A guy who has spent the better part of his life devoted to the sport, and who has spent the last two decades (or more) traveling to international events to watch world-class lifters, talk with coaches, study technique, and, quite simply, to learn. This is someone who learned Russian for the sole purpose of being able to read the vast body of scholarly literature on sports science from that country. This is also someone who boasts of not having any initials (e.g., PhD, MD, NSCA, NCSF, ACE, etc., etc.) after his name. Initials are easy, in his view, and can be misleading; the acquisition of knowledge is neither. A quick look at the erudition available at his website—www.sportivnypress.com—should give the reader a sense of this guy: a veritable scholar, someone who’s not out to sell anything.
What followed was a nearly nine-hour seminar, with only a brief hour break for lunch, that touched upon an array of topics related to weight training, olympic lifting, sports training, and–especially–weightlifting for female athletes. It was at times rambling, and demanded a certain high level of attention to keep all the threads straight. But this was a consequence of listening to someone with an encyclopedic knowledge of his topic, someone who is more interested in truth, no matter how unpopular or unappealing, than easily strung together sound bites and maxims.
I learned a great deal that day, especially in the late afternoon and then early evening, as the crowd thinned out and it turned into a more informal Q&A session. Even now I’m still trying to put it all together, staring at pages and pages of hastily scribbled notes, many of which are almost totally illegible.
If there was an overriding theme–apart, of course, from weightlifting–it had to do with female athletes and female weight training. It is hard to find a sport where women have progressed with such extraordinary success, especially in comparison to their male counterparts. As noted by our speaker, in the 1950s the American weightlifter, powerlifter, and strongman Paul Anderson, who probably weighed about a metric ton, was lifting World Records of around 185 to 192.5 kilos in the clean & press and clean & jerk lifts (about 407.8 to 424.3 pounds).
In 2009, the Korean lifter Jang Mi-Ran–a woman in the 75+ kilo category–lifted 187 kilos (412.2 pounds) in the clean & jerk, breaking her own World Record (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=APo68_j-pEU). If you look across the board at current World Records in all categories, those held by women are approaching 80% of men’s records in similar weight classes, and continue to increase.
The relevant point here–and one that was stressed throughout the seminar–is that not only are women capable of serious weight training, but that we still don’t know what they’re capable of. The upper limits of female athleticism, especially those related to strength and power, are still being explored.
It’s important to note here that many of these female weightlifters are not the musclebound science experiments of the type that came out of places like East Germany in the 1980s. These are very often women–some as small as 48 kilos–who betray little evidence of their prodigious strength, something totally at odds with the myth of women “bulking up” if they lift weights. To underscore the point, the coach of Concordia International pointed to two female lifters in the audience, both of whom were petite young women in excellent shape. The shift has come about thanks to some of the more enlightened coaches in the world, who realized that instead of trying to train women like men–and therefore essentially to turn them into men, or approximations thereof–it makes more sense to focus on training female athletes differently, with an eye toward their unique abilities and physical characteristics.
This does not mean a reduction in training, or a routine that is “second” to a man’s training routine. In fact, as Mr. Charniga pointed out, for several countries they’ve realized the opposite is true–that women are able to handle more volume and training load than their male counterparts.
This sort of philosophy–that women are more than capable of rigorous training, and that we should train them as women rather than as pale imitations of men–is something totally at odds with most Western thought, especially in the States. Yet the classic American training model—a remnant of antiquated ideas on the alleged “weakness” of the female constitution—has probably led to more injuries than it’s prevented. An avoidance of classic lifts like squats, cleans, snatches, or anything with free-weights—in short the best exercises out there—has resulted in an entire industry built around selling various devices and methodologies that are purportedly “safer” than regular weight training or olympic lifting. And yet girls today suffer a distressing number of knee injuries [N.B. – as I write this a young woman sitting across from me has a visible—and scary—knee-surgery scar].[i]
For women the benefits of weight training, and especially something dynamic and full-body, like olympic weightlifting, are clear. Better flexibility, better overall health, stronger and healthier joints, stronger bones, protection against osteoporosis, better athleticism, the chance to show their male counterparts how real athletes train, and on and on. But this is unpopular stuff among most people, since at its heart it requires hard work and a resistance to the fad of the moment.
These myths are hard to kill, and so you get all sorts of ridiculous ideas floating around in the so-called sports science community, in which groups like the NSCA promote ideas and exercises based on flimsy or nonexistent research. The result is a whole class of women–athletes, even–afraid or unwilling to use weight training or olympic lifting as part of their fitness or training routine.
But you can’t argue with science and you can’t argue with results. All it takes is a peek into a training hall in Russia or China or South Korea, where beautiful women and girls of all shapes, sizes, and ages are doing time-tested movements that you won’t see for sale on TV (you can’t sell or patent a squat, after all). There are no fancy machines, no silly gimmicks, just girls with weights, girls doing crunches, girls stretching, girls proving mainstream American fitness culture wrong one extraordinary lift after another.
When I left Montreal the following morning I stopped briefly for breakfast at a small charcuterie down in Old Montreal, the quaint part of the city that has a decidedly European feel to it. There I enjoyed a simple breakfast–yogurt with fruit and granola–before buying a baguette on my way out, for the drive home. I spent a little time walking around, carrying my baguette like a foolish tourist, nearly taking out pedestrians as I passed. The previous day had been intense, and my mind was still soaking it all in.
Yet I knew there was still more to learn, from my notes on the seminar, from the city itself. All it requires is a willingness to open your eyes to the fundamental truths that have been around for longer than any of us. This was embodied, for example, in my discussion on nutrition with the presenter and some athletes. The key, they all agreed, was protein; this was something I learned way back when I was a kid reading–of all things–Muscle & Fitness. For all the fad diets that come and go, anyone smart enough to do their research has had the “trick” all along: protein, and if you train hard, a lot of it.
Of course man does not live on protein alone, and the cuisine in some of Montreal’s restaurants can teach us a little more about eating. The meals I enjoyed in that city were mostly made up of simple ingredients, and more importantly, you could actually tell what was in your food. Again, there were no secrets. And a place like Fairmont Bagels, where one can watch people make the food, shows that those with the best products–intellectual or otherwise–have nothing to hide.