Spending approximately 800 hours driving to and from the outstanding Arnold Championship of the Universe allows you and your driving companions to cover a lot of ground. Or pretty much every topic, ever. Twice. So it was only natural that at some point during our drive, the training program of our Uzbeki comrade Mr Begaliev—national team member in Uzbekistan—was going to come up for discussion. This is interesting for a few reasons. One is that training programs, to any weightlifting enthusiast, are inherently interesting. Who doesn’t like training videos, for example? Or reading Soviet articles from the 1970s on training load and volume? Probably lots of people, but presumably they’re wasting their time on tumblr sites about lolcats or something, and not here. Speaking of training, why don’t we watch some training footage, now that I’ve gotten myself all worked up…
(original video credit goes, I believe, to Dr. Randall J. Strossen, who has been filming world events for decades. his DVDs of events and training halls can be purchased here.)
Anyways, the Uzbeki program is also interesting because the country made quite a leap in international standing in a relatively short period of time. In 2008, Uzbekistan sent just two male athletes to the Olympics for weightlifting. Four years later, they qualified six athletes: five men (one short of a full team) and one woman.
The secret Uzbeki training that was (at least partially) responsible for this improvement? Behold…
Session 1 (morning): Front squat (~100%), Snatch, Clean and Jerk
Session 2 (evening): Snatch, Clean and Jerk, Squat (classic lifts up to about 100%)
Snatch, Clean and Jerk, Squat. Classic lifts up to about 80-85%
Session 1: Front squat (90-95%), Snatch, Clean and Jerk
Session 2: Snatch, Clean and Jerk, Front Squat. Classic lifts up to 80-85%
(Wait just a minute. I think I’m starting to see the pattern…)
Snatch, Clean and Jerk, Squat. Classic lifts up to about 80-85%
Session 1: Snatch, Clean and Jerk, Front Squat. 60% training, very brief (~25 minutes) session
Session 2: Snatch, Clean and Jerk, Squat. Classic lifts up to around 100%.
Snatch, Clean and Jerk, Squat. Classic lifts up to about 80-85%, with heavier squats sometimes
In sum, snatch, clean and jerk, squat. Generally two sessions a day. On Mondays athletes would typically squat first for their morning session, assuming they were not in a pre-competition phase. This was the program under Turkish coach Djefer Topchu, who worked in Uzbekistan from 2007 to 2012. In case you haven’t heard of Mr Topchu, perhaps you know one of his protégés:
(Hat tip to Frank Rothwell, of course. As an aside, has there ever been a lifter who looked so happy to be doing what he’s doing? Mutlu looks like a kid eating a bucket of ice cream on his first visit to see Santa Claus.]
Note that this is not necessarily an endorsement of the so-called “Bulgarian” style of training as opposed to what is often termed the “Russian” style, which employs greater variety of lifts (among other principles). Both programs work, and lots of successful countries subscribe to one or the other variant. Rather, my point is to illustrate that (1) at least far as training goes, there are no secrets, and (2) top-level weightlifters do a lot of weightlifting.
Of course, taken out of the context of a place like China or some former Soviet stronghold this sort of dedication and lifestyle is not always practical or applicable. The cultural gulf between most lifting powerhouses and our own country isn’t something we can lightly step over. Consider, for example, the following: at one point during our drive, one of us ’Mericans in the car made a joke about dialup internet. Mr Mangiaracina, assuming Mr Begaliev was too young to get the joke (ah, the innocence of youth…), began to explain the reference, but was cut off when our comrade informed us that dialup internet was de rigueur in Uzbekistan up to around 2007. Allow that to sink in as you open up 50 separate browser tabs with cat websites and shirtless pictures of Klokov.
Where was I? Oh yes: dialup internet in 2007. Do you know what that means? It means that when people in the US were lining up to buy the first generation iPhone, people in Uzbekistan were searching for a local phone number to dial to connect to the interwebz. Probably with Prodigy or CompuServe or one of the five trillion free AOL CD’s still floating around. With internet that slow you may as well spend an hour or two training while you wait for 600-kilobyte text-based web pages to load.
It’s worth taking a look at a similar case study, part of an epic series titled “Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting,” regarding Kenyan runners. The author of this interesting, long-winded, and, in my view, generally accurate take on Olympic Weightlifting notes the following about Kenyan runners:
“There are few distractions for runners, no TV, no Internet, no Facebook. Many run first thing in the morning and then take a nap before run number 2 a few hours later; they go to bed when the sun goes down. This ensures plenty of sleep, a key for recovery. That’s in addition to naps that are often taken between runs. They train, rest, eat, repeat.” (source)
Seem familiar? It’s basically the lifestyle outlined by Mr Begaliev [regarding his extensive sleeping, he noted “Organism must rest!”]. And by every other international level weightlifter I’ve ever spoken to or read about. And when your best internet option is a 2400-baud modem it’s probably easier to snatch 150 than look at
porn weightlifting videos on the interwebz. If you need any more convincing, take a peek at the interview on All Things Gym with Czech lifter Jirka Orsag, the U23 European champion. His days consist of training, eating, and sleeping (with naps). He even has a “second dinner” before bed, like the mirror image of a hobbit’s second breakfast.
The secret: Train, mostly by doing the lifts. During rare moments when you aren’t training, eat and/or sleep. If you have access to some recovery aids—massage, sauna, some, uh, “restoratives”, or (apparently) wearing cold gloves—great.* (Begaliev said they used the sauna several times a week.) But never lose sight of the core: Train. Eat. Sleep. Repeat for roughly ten years. There is nothing even remotely facetious about any of this. It is, quite literally, the common thread for all top-level weightlifters (and likely for all top-level athletes in most Olympic sports).
And diet? Here is where the diet secrets of Lu Xiaojun are relevant. Every so often, when I look to see what searches are bringing people to this little corner of the interwebz, the phrase “lu xiaojun diet” is at or near the top, right around searches for things like “klokov” and “klokov handsome” and “is klokov god?” There are also a lot of searches for “best steroids for arm wrestling”, which is interesting, but not really relevant at the moment. No, today we’re here to consider the dietary habits of Mr Lu Xiaojun, which are presumably of interest to people because of pictures like the following:
I mean, look at that guy’s intercostals. They appear to have been chiseled in dragon bone, for shit’s sake. Apparently lots of people (or just one person doing thousands of searches, I suppose) think that Lu Xiaojun has some special diet that granted him this physique.
For reals, Nacho? Do you think Lu Xiaojun is doing Atkins? The Zone Diet? Paleo? Attending nutrition seminars by Greg Glassman? Let’s look at a picture…
He’s eating food! And an entire Chinese village’s worth of it! Okay, making assumptions about Lu Xiaojun’s dietary habits based on a single photograph is wildly irresponsible, but I’m nothing if not wildly irresponsible—and even downright reckless—when it comes to making assumptions. Yet I think it’s safe to say that most high-level athletes in the rest of the world (based on what I’ve seen, read, and heard) are not subscribing to the fad diets so popular in the Western World, and specifically in the US, where the diet industry is worth anywhere from $20 to $40 billion a year (or more, depending on sources). The important point is that world class athletes eat food, typically their national food, and lots of it. Mr Begaliev was no exception: when I asked about the diets of Uzbeki weightlifters, he said they ate lots of palov, a traditional, nutrient-dense Uzbek dish with rice and meat.
National cuisines aside, in what universe do the dietary needs of Lu Xiaojun—OLYMPIC GOLD MEDAL WEIGHTLIFTER—align with those of Joey Biceps, an office worker who does abs and arms six times a week at LA Fitness? (The answer is “no universe”, in case this isn’t clear.) Lu Xiaojun is a machine. He and his lifestyle are about as similar to the rest of humanity as the Millennium Falcon is to a 1983 Honda CRX with one blown tire. Shoving Han Solo and a Wookie into your CRX is not going to make it capable of jumps to hyperspace any more than eating tables full of Chinese food is going to give the average person razor sharp intercostals and a 175-kilo snatch. If that were all it took, lonely C++ programmers everywhere would be winning World and Olympic medals. But they’re not. (Are they? If so my claims don’t hold up…)
Perhaps the only secret to all of this, or the commonality between lifters in China or Uzbekistan or anywhere, is that for many (perhaps most) of these athletes weightlifting and the weightlifting lifestyle is a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. It is a way to improve one’s quality of life and maybe even get yourself a broadband modem or some DSL. These are very different motivators from the ones in the US. Despite the current economic shitstorm in the good ol’ US of A and the very real sinking of our working and lower-class families, poverty in a place like China or Eastern Europe (or even Western Europe) is a very different beast. And Begaliev noted that athletes in his home country who had some other way of improving their situation—e.g., school—often went that route, as it was easier and likely offered a more secure reward. This is not to shortchange the sacrifices of American lifters; it is merely to point out the vast cultural and socioeconomic divide that plays at least some role in this or any sport. The supposed secrets of other countries—which for the most part are available for anyone who cares to look—simply are not an option for us. Weightlifting in the US, far from bringing you out of poverty, may very well lead you straight into it. (CrossFit and companies like MuscleDriver USA are slowly changing this, but that’s another topic.)
Of course, that’s just one facet of a complicated issue. If you want details—and I mean exhaustive, extensive, occasionally soul-killing minutiae and verbiage—check out the article cited above on why the US lags way behind in Olympic Weightlifting. In the meantime, enjoy the fact that this web page probably loaded on your computer in under ten seconds, while there are people in rural China and Uzbekistan still waiting for their kid sister to free up the phone line so they can log in to CompuServe. Never mind that their nine-year-old brother is capable of out-snatching you…
* Assuming the Stanford research pans out (a very big assumption, but see supra for my disclaimer on that), will anti-doping crusaders call for a ban on cold gloves? Will they also require athletes only wash their hands in lukewarm water, to avoid unintentional “cold hand” doping? And speaking of gloves and cold, remember these? Man I miss the 80s…