x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Fitness: Olympic lifting is a gold medal winner

We take a look at the skill, poise and energy required to lift weights like an Olympic gold medalist.

Ikaika Paakaula and Melanie Swan during Olympic lifting training at a gym in Al Quoz in Dubai. Pawan Singh / The National
Ikaika Paakaula and Melanie Swan during Olympic lifting training at a gym in Al Quoz in Dubai. Pawan Singh / The National

As a lover of exercise, there are few things I won't try, at least once. From boxing to yoga, I love anything that challenges me - and hurts, to boot. However, Olympic lifting is not something I ever expected I would take to. But after just one session, I was in love.

The sport has seen a huge boost in Dubai with the explosion of CrossFit over the past year. CrossFit, a mix of skills including a range of gymnastic, plyometric and cardiovascular work, contains a number of big lifts that are key to the ever-changing "workouts of the day", including the dead lift and clean and press.

Anyone who watched the recent Olympic Games saw how even just one kilogram can be the difference to making that winning lift, or failing.

Little did I know how technical each and every step of the two main lifts - the snatch and the clean and jerk - is. My first session began with a plastic pole, both for warming up and starting with the basics: simply positioning the body in the right place before even thinking about any weights, learning how to transition, jump and push through before the final all important balance.

It is a sport that can seem scary. Several of the Olympic lifters sustain injuries including dislocating elbows; but if done correctly, it is one of the most amazing workouts you will ever do. It got my heart rate up while challenging everything from my legs to my core, not to mention my shoulders.

Even watching the professionals on television, you can't grasp the speed at which each move is performed and the jump to thrust the weight into the air is so fast. Only seeing it in the flesh did I realise the strength and power involved.

My teacher, Ikaika Paakaula, says: "In the Olympics, the jump seems so minimal but they have an amazing vertical jump." Paakaula, at his peak of competition in the US, was able to jump 99.5 centimetres above his own height. "It works the fast twitch muscles to improve speed as well as speeding up the brain."

Soon, he has me using the small Olympic bar - which even with no weights is 12kgs - to work on technique. I can see why the poor guys and girls in competition have no skin left on their shins as they drag the cumbersome weight slowly up from their shins before even starting to take it overhead.

Paakaula, who started lifting at the age of 10, reassures me it's a misconception that lifters get big. The exercise focuses more on the small muscles - the interconnecting muscles that pull everything together - rather than isolating muscles as in body building.

"If you're going to do it, you'd better have a good reason, because it's one of the most frustrating things to learn," says Derrick Branford, a former US state champion who brought the sport to the UAE and is personally responsible for inspiring dozens of aspiring athletes. He began lifting at 14 and knows only too well the commitment involved to take it to competition level, having qualified for Olympic trials in 2004 before injury forced him to retire.

He and Paakaula will continue to train CrossFitters, keen to instil good technique in those who plan to take it to a more competitive level.

"It's a chance for me to remove some of the CrossFit notions of Olympic lifting. Some pick up bad habits and resort to learning from YouTube videos," says Branford.

Candice Howe, who came third in the CrossFit Games 2012, runs Dubai's CrossFit Lifespark facility. She says Olympic lifting is also a great way to develop accuracy, coordination and balance.

"In terms of individual uptake, I think people like the challenge of the complex movement and the significant weight that you can move once technique develops," she says.

"The level of Olympic lifting in CrossFit does not come close to the volume that Olympic lifters train. Olympic lifting is a sport in itself and warrants dedicated training to achieve the levels seen at the Olympics and other such competitions."

Ikaika Paakaula charges Dh250 for personal training and is planning to run group sessions soon. For more information, email ikaikap86@gmail.com.