Well & Good
Why would a woman want to pick up a barbell and lift 30 kilos above her head over and over again? Because she can.
Each Monday night, along with around 15 other women of varying ages I go to the gym to lift weights with Lizzie Makowski, the instructor who's introduced Olympic-style lifting into our cardio and strength class.
She's the one pushing 30 kilos of metal into the air - the rest of us are on our L plates, lifting between 10 and 25 kilos in a class that keeps up a tough pace until the very end.
Just when you think there's no strength left to lift your water bottle, Lizzie gets us to pick up the barbell and drive it skyward eight more times and somehow we do.
Besides being an event in the Olympic Games, Olympic lifting is a style of training that's appearing in mainstream gyms.
It involves classic weightlifting moves with names like 'snatch' or 'clean and jerk' that we watched at the London Olympics - the ones that involve lifting a barbell from floor or shin level and raising it high above the head while sinking into a squat or splitting the legs into a lunge position.
What's the appeal? It's challenging and there's something confidence boosting (and, yes, showy) about swiftly raising a heavy barbell over your head and holding it there.
As for the benefits, it's an exercise that delivers more bang for your buck because achieving these complex lifts forces you to use your entire body, not just one or two muscles, says Makowski, an instructor with Shredded Boot Camp in Dee Why and Zip Fitness.
"Because Olympic lifts are fast explosive movements they help you build muscle power - the combination of speed and strength. This makes you stronger for everyday activities as well as improving sports performance," she adds.
"There are also benefits for the cardiovascular system – a solid set of clean and jerks can leave you gasping for air."
If you want to get leaner, stronger or fend off type 2 diabetes, working with weights has advantages.
It helps burn kilojoules, control blood sugar and - if you ask me - does more for a body's contours than a stack of shape wear.
But the approach to strength training is changing, with a drift away from exercise machines and exercises targeting single muscle groups to exercises that work out a number of muscles at a time, using free weights like dumbbells, barbells and kettle bells.
"People are realising that using free weights has more benefits for reducing fat and building muscle compared to training isolated muscle groups on resistance machines," Makowski says.
One difference between a weights machine and a barbell is that machines keeps you stable – an advantage for anyone who's less mobile or overcoming an injury, for instance.
But if you're stronger, the instability that comes with lifting a barbell can be an advantage because you work harder to keep your body stable.
This is especially so with an Olympic lift – the challenge of hefting a barbell from floor to shoulder height and then above your head forces your stabilising muscles to fire and helps to improve balance, she explains.
Will Olympic lifting make you muscle bound?
No, insists Michael Keelan, CEO of the Australian Weightlifting Federation who thinks that one reason more women are taking up weightlifting is a growing awareness that you can be both small and strong, like Britain's Zoe Smith who lifted 121 kilos – more than twice her bodyweight - at last year's Olympics.
"Women often say that they're worried about getting big legs or a big behind and I tell them, 'this isn't body building – it's weightlifting.
You'll build functional muscle – muscle that helps your body work better – but you'll drop a dress size because muscle takes up less room than fat'."
- Sydney Morning Herald
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