Olympic-style resistance work can be good for your health and improve your self-esteem, as Dr. Victoria Hewitt discovers
‘The World’s Strongest Man’ competition was, as far as I was concerned, to be endured in a hungover Christmas stupor.
But, where once I laughed with friends at the expense of grunting mounds of muscle in the Olympic Games, now I marvel as these men and women hoist twice their body weight above their heads in gargantuan feats of strength and courage. For my passion is the somewhat unconventional and much-maligned sport of Olympic weightlifting.
I always loved going to the gym, and I especially loved resistance training.
As a youngster, I was a gymnast and found I was naturally strong for my size. But, like many women, I feared developing muscles to match the Williams’ sisters.
Eventually, my partner, who is a sprinter and does Olympic weightlifting as part of his training, convinced me to go with my talent and try lifting heavier weights.
Snatch and clean
I was fortunate to find an instructor with an almost encyclopedic knowledge of weightlifting. He didn’t seem bothered that I didn’t know how to snatch or clean. He patiently took me through the lift from floor to chest that is the ‘clean’ followed by the ‘jerk’ of the bar to above my head.
The ‘snatch’ involves propelling the bar from the ground to straight above the head while the lifter pushes up from a squat to standing.
My partner and I try to fit in at least one full training session together each week so we encourage and support each other to improve technique.
The gym runs a creche, where my daughter has a couple of hours of structured play, followed by a fun family swim.
While it’s nice to train with someone, it’s not essential and I don’t have to do the whole program every session.
In fact, it’s often better to break it up into half an hour devoted to the upper body one day and the same for the lower body the next. This is flexible enough to fit into my schedule, rather than having to commit to fixed sessions at a club.
Olympic weightlifting focuses on individual strengths and weaknesses to reach full potential. I love the fact that I am competing against myself, reaching a new ‘personal best’ every couple of weeks and the sense of achievement is amazingly addictive. However, I have learned that failure is necessary to weightlifting. To improve, you have to reach a point where you just cannot lift the bar up to get better.
I also realized that without focusing and being calm you will not make the lift. So I was somewhat surprised to find a new sense of focus and control, as well as developing enough courage to attempt the lift in the first place.
I used to run but never felt safe enough to relax and enjoy doing it alone.The gym is a safe environment where staff is always present and I’m rarely alone. This also affords an unmissable opportunity for a good chin-wag between sets.
The people I work with generally know when I’ve been weight training.
I invariably list the evils of chocolate, while diving into a box of Belgian truffles, and exhort colleagues to palpate evolving biceps and quads.
At first, I was viewed as a freak, but a trip to the gym with a male workmate earned a degree of respect. And after a couple of months, my clothes size fell two notches.
Women are just as strong pound for pound of muscular body weight as men, but genetic and hormonal factors mean we would really only end up resembling our male counterparts if anabolic steroids were being abused in the process.
Instead, we develop more firm and shapely muscles.
I have been known to discuss my hobby with patients on occasion. One gentleman will always stick with me.
A former bodybuilder and confirmed bachelor in the terminal phase of an unusually aggressive form of chronic lymphocytic leukemia, he was struggling to accept his much-diminished body image. Our relationship was centered on our love of the sport but through it, he gradually opened up emotionally and spiritually to his impending death.
Last year I concentrated on getting my technique right, focusing on the ‘clean’ and ‘jerk’. This year I’m determined to get stronger and lift heavier weights, and I nurture the distant aspiration that one day I may just enter a competition.
I know that resistance training will help retain strength and muscular development in the years to come, with associated and well-documented health benefits.
Through it, I’ve made new friends become closer to my family and I’ve improved my self-esteem immeasurably.
By DR VICTORIA HEWITT, a GP registrar in Newcastle-upon-Tyne