Aesthetics of Strength
Andrew Charniga, Jr
When one thinks of strength: masculinity, aggressiveness, testosterone, adrenalin, big muscles, and the like come to mind.
Perhaps, but aesthetics, straining without straining, a feminine mystique, are most certainly not associated with feats of strength.
The weights raised by the modern elite female weightlifter, call into serious question, long notions of the physiology of human strength; which has been defined all but exclusively in terms of the male hormone testosterone.
Modern weightlifting sport, consisting of the snatch and the clean and jerk, has evolved over the past one hundred years. Originally only for the males; who would have thought it could become the perfect vehicle to showcase physiological and psychological possibilities of the female body?
It is hard to imagine a strength sport better suited to, even designed specifically for the female body than Olympic weightlifting.
The elite female weightlifters of today raise weights once reserved only for the world’s strongest men. They raise these weights with less body mass and seemingly, with less effort; a unique aesthetic of strength.
The female weightlifter’s official appearance on the international stage came at first World Championships for women, organized in 1987. Female weightlifting made its Olympic debut in 2000.
By end of the first year (1987) of official international competitions for female weightlifters, the women’s world records constituted 53% of the respective male records. By the end of 2012, the female records constituted approximately 80% of the male records.
The figures just cited, the product of elementary calculations, were devised to compare the four middle weight categories of both sexes over a period of 26 years. The mean weight of the four weight divisions was: females 66.04 kg, males 65.96 kg. Essentially, calculations derived from the mean weight of records relative to mean bodyweight compared “apples to apples”, i.e., athletes of the same mass.
In all probability, sophisticated calculations would show the women’s results are, at present, probably closer to 90% of the men instead of our 80% figure. Women lifters continue to close the strength gap between the sexes; while the achievements of the male weightlifter have stagnated; in absolute and relative terms the greatest achievements date back to the 1980s.
However, the real story here is the how and why such a “great leap forward”, more like an incursion, into this bastion of masculine exclusivity, has always been possible. The principle reason for the dramatic closing of this gender strength gap is the fact that the men’s records have not only, not improved (with the exception of a handful), but indeed, they have receded by approximately 4.5% of the records achieved by 1988.
Today’s elite male Olympic weightlifters are unable lift weights raised 24 – 30 years ago and this circumstance is also true of “sister” high power events of Track and Field. With few notable exceptions, today’s elite Track and Field athletes cannot run as fast, jump as high, as far, or throw as far as their elite counterparts of the 1980s.
To put it simply, almost all of the world records of the thousands of years old power sports of weightlifting (males) and the power events of Track and Field (both genders) established before the onset no notice out of competition testing for performance enhancing substances in 1989; have remained frozen, already since 1988.
Although initial efforts were crude compared to the modern protocols of today, the introduction of no notice out of competition testing had the effect on power sports analogous to a meteor hitting the earth thousands of years ago and killing off all the dinosaurs.
For example, from table 1 it is obvious the output of world records in weightlifting (males only) plummeted from 28 in 1988 to only one by 1992.
Table 1. World records of male weightlifters established in the period 1987 – 1992 (from 01.01.1987 – 31.12.1992) A De-masculinization of Strength, 2012
Russian research in the mid – 1990s, of the stagnation of weightlifting world records, projected it would take 16 – 20 years to equal or exceed the world records established in the era preceding out of competition testing. Those projections were overly optimistic.
It is no coincidence, the very same prediction could have been made (and would be true) of the world records of the power events in Track and Field. These sisters to weightlifting power events of Track and Field (jumping, throwing, sprinting,) are close in structure to the weightlifting exercises; requiring essentially the same qualities: high speed muscular relaxation/contraction; an expression of great power in the presence of a complex coordination structure.
Unlike the male weightlifting records no “meteors” have stopped the female weightlifter.
Female weightlifting has been dominated since its inception at the international level by the Chinese. After the first few world championships the Chinese females were so far ahead of the rest of the world the international governing body of weightlifting (IWF) had to politely suggest the Chinese let lifters from the other countries win now and then, in the interests of promoting the sport.
Although Russian coaches and Soviet sport scientists taught the world the biomechanics and the training methodology of weightlifting, at the present time this European sport is dominated by Asian lifters. Asian weightlifters won all seven women’s and six of the eight men’s gold medals at 2012 Olympics in London.
No notice out of competition testing has had a profound affect on the male weightlifter; but, all the more so, with ability of the male weightlifter to perform the clean and jerk exercise.
The clean and jerk is a two part movement. The barbell is first raised to the chest in a single movement to a deep squat position (the clean). The weightlifter then has to raise the barbell to arms – length overhead (the jerk) after the strain of standing erect from a deep squat; all the while holding a heavy barbell on the chest.
The first part, the clean, involves mostly power and absolute strength; the second part, the jerk, requires speed – strength and a very high level of skill.
The snatch, on the other hand, is a single movement where the barbell is raised from the floor to arm’s length overhead in a little over one second. The male weightlifter’s ability to perform the snatch has been, as Russian sport scientists have noted, slightly less sensitive to the effects of testing for androgens. Consequently, male weightlifters have been able to establish a handful of “real” world records relative to the marks set prior to 1989; and, of these almost all in the snatch exercise.
It is in the clean and jerk exercise where there appears to be a difference and a peculiar distinction in gender biology. The male weightlifter has an obvious, disproportionate to the female, difficulty switching “gears” from the simpler in coordination structure, fatiguing clean part of the exercise, to the more complex high degree of skill, jerk from the chest.
Consider this example, the world record in the clean and jerk exercise of the 56 kg weight category of 171 kg (305% of bodyweight) was established in 1987. Taking into account two subsequent alterations in the weight categories this weight has never been approached in 25 years.
Furthermore, not one of the clean and jerk world records established by 1988 (excluding a discontinued weight class in 1992) has ever been approached in either relative or absolute terms.
A singular misconception surrounding the effects of artificially elevating testosterone above normal levels, is that this practice will increase muscle mass; extra muscle mass will result in more strength, faster times and so forth.
There is some truth to this assumption. However, our research allows us to suggest that the most important outcome of elevated serum testosterone is psychotropic.
The sophisticated testing of today has effectively curtailed the possibility to enter competitions with elevated testosterone in order to preserve favorable psychotropic effects. With this possibility all but curtailed, improvements in weight, distances and times in power events, has in some cases, ceased; already, for 30 years.
The women’s world record in the 100 m was established in 1988 is 10:49 sec; the 800 m mark was set in 1983. These records have not been threatened since they were established.
The men’s hammer throw world record of 86.74 m, established in 1986, still stands. The only thrower who approached this mark in the interim was excluded from participation in 2012 Olympics. His samples from the doping tests, preserved since the 2004 Athens Olympics, were re – tested with the latest technology and found to be positive for prohibitive substances.
However, the stagnation of world records in the power events of Track and Field (male and female) and male weightlifting, an outcome of a still evolving sophistication of testing protocols, has not affected the female weightlifter.
A comparative analysis (Charniga, 2012) of the progress of world records in weightlifting with almost all of the male and female power events of Track and Field (T&F) was relatively easy and did require complex computations because almost all of the T&F records established by 1988 are the same.
Almost all current world records of male weightlifting are about 4.5% below those established by 1988 despite, in several cases, greater body mass in several of today’s weight categories.
For instance, the world record in the clean and jerk of the 100 kg weight class, established in 1988 was 242.5 kg. This weight class was altered twice in the past 25 years and the current equivalent is the 105 kg division. The world record of the 105 kg class is 237 kg.
The current record weight is 5.5 kg less than the record established by 1988, with today’s athletes having 5 kg greater body mass, i.e., an indication that simply adding muscle mass with the aid of drugs, wasn’t the simple and obvious reason for the fantastic results achieved in power sports of the 1980s.
So, the obvious question arises: how does the female weightlifter raise weights once reserved for the world’s strongest men of the 1950s and unlike the female records of T&F power events, continue to improve records, i.e., immune to modern testing protocols?
Perceived Gender Deficiencies and Bernstein’s Problem
N.A. Bernstein (1947) believed “coordination of movement involves overcoming a superfluous degree of freedom of movement by means of an expeditious organization of the active and reactive forces.” This definition is sufficient to reflect the concept of coordination. Y.V. Verkhoshansky, 1988.
A number of feminist scholars point to the fundamental problem with female participation and for that matter female socio – economic mobility is the social bias a man’s body is considered normal; which in its turn, makes the different features of the female organism abnormal, deficient.
Since almost the entire history of female lifting began after the introduction of no notice out of competition testing, the obvious question is how, the low (10% of males) testosterone gender trains and raises such big weights without the muscle mass and psychotropic enhancements of male hormones?
In the late 1990s the female bar was introduced for use in competitions. This bar is 15 kg and 2020 mm with the grasping area 25 mm in diameter. The respective dimensions of the 20 kg male bar are 2200 mm and 28 mm in diameter.
The idea behind a bar with a smaller diameter for females is to accommodate the smaller hands of female lifter. The barbell manufacturers tested and approved the suitability of the bar’s strength. However, no one foresaw or for that matter, imagined the rate and magnitude of the progression in world standards.
A clean and jerk of 190 kg (the current world record of the +75 kg class) performed with the current regulation 15 kg bar with a diameter of 25 mm can no longer be considered safe. The elasticity of this “lady bar” is becoming too difficult to control with the weights today’s women lift; conceivably, it could possibly break in the middle of a lift.
Today’s elite female lifters accommodate a massive volume of strength loading and raise weights unthinkable in 1987 and, in short order, have even “outgrown” equipment designed for the weaker sex.
ZHOU Lulu (CHN) setting world record 192 kg in clean and jerk as bar bend approaches excessive for safe performance of the equipment. Charniga photo
Considerable research (mid – 1990s) from Russian sport scientists revealed the world leaders, the Chinese females, were executing a massive volume and intensity of training in excess of even that of the Soviet national men’s team of the 1980s, i.e., before out of competition testing stopped the male world records.
Russian and Chinese sport scientists concluded female weightlifters could accommodate such a massive, high intensity loading, not because of elevated serum levels of testosterone (as had the Russian men of the 1980s); but, because they have naturally low levels of testosterone. This is a counter-intuitive argument to the commonly held misperception estrogen adds fat and testosterone adds muscle.
For instance, the seven members of the USA 1964 Olympic weightlifting team averaged about 7.5 hours per week in the gym, training for the Olympic Games. The female (+75 kg class) Olympic Weightlifting Champion Jang Mi Ran (Korea) trained approximately 6 – 7 hours a day, six days per week training for the 2008 games. There was no female weightlifting in 1964 and no testing for performance enhancing substances.
Subsequent (Charniga, 2010; 2012) extensive first hand observations and analysis of top Chinese and other elite female lifters revealed there is nothing special about the training methodology or the technique of the Chinese females, other than the massive volume and intensity.
For this type of sport the Chinese have a lot of money and a lot of people. No secret there. They do more work under conditions of stricter discipline, than most of their competitors. Not a secret either.
The secret, if one can say there is such a thing, of the modern female weightlifter is the opportunity in weightlifting sport to take advantage of some features more generally connected with the female organism:
– low levels of androgens;
– low level of aggressiveness;
– greater range of motion in joints (erroneously referred to as laxity);
– greater overall flexibility, a combination of greater extensibility of muscles, tendons and ligaments;
– ability to perform exercises against a backdrop of less overall muscle tension than males, i.e., in a more relaxed state;
– the possibility to experience less muscle breakdown from high intensity exercise, probably due to low levels of testosterone.
For instance, consider this. Doug Hepburn became the world’s strongest man in 1953 when he lifted 165 kg in the clean and jerk at the world weightlifting championships. His bodyweight was 130 kg. A huge American, Paul Anderson, won this same unlimited weight category two years later with a lift of 182.5 kg at a bodyweight of 160 kg.
Female weightlifter JANG Mi Ran of Korea lifted 187 kg in the very same clean and jerk exercise in 2009 at a bodyweight of 116 kg. She lifted more weight than those huge strongmen, with considerably less body mass, with normal for the female body, low levels of androgens.
The training methodology and technique surrounding the exploits of Hepburn and Anderson typify old, out of date notions of human strength potential. In a nutshell, big muscles mean big strength. These ideas are also consistent of what is taught in academia, where the focus is on muscle physiology: fast and slow twitch fibers, hormones and muscle mass, muscle hypertrophy and so forth.
In order to understand the phenomena of the modern female weightlifter it is necessary to look outside the confines of an androgenous box. Instead of looking at a female athlete and seeing a smaller, weaker athlete with built in physiological limitations such as lax articulations, menses and so forth; it is necessary to envision the possibilities a very efficient biology for weightlifting.
For instance, Charniga (2010), researched the warm up protocols of all the top elite male and female weightlifters competing at the 2008 Olympics, the 2009 and 2010 World weightlifting championships. Two distinct warm up protocols were identified. A “normal” protocol of about 6 – 10 lifts with weights of ≥60 – ≥90% of maximum for all male and female lifters (excluding the Chinese females); prior to taking the first lift on the competition platform. This is a Soviet era protocol of the 1960s; still in use today.
The other protocol followed only by the Chinese women was called the “Chinese warm up”. It consisted of an impossible for man or woman, 23 – 26 lifts with weights of the same intensity range of ≥60 – ≥90%. An example is presented in table 2 where the warm up protocols of a Chinese female are compared to those of a male elite weightlifter.
Tables 2. Warm up and competition lifts for 2008 Olympic champion Cao Lei 75 kg compared with the world champion Russian male lifter.
The quantitative differences in the Chinese warm up of the female Olympic champion and the male world champion are obvious from the table. The effects on the body can be rather distinct as well.
Consider for a moment two photos: one of the female lifter (CAO Lei) and one of the male lifter (Ivanov) whose warm up protocols are presented in the table. The female is covered in a heavy blanket while resting between warm up lifts whereas the male needs to be fanned to cool off; this, even though the volume and intensity of the female warm up is considerably larger.
Maybe the Chinese warm-up protocols should not be characterized so much a warm up as an arousal; the female body apparently requires more time to prepare for high intensity work. The effectiveness of this protocol is believed (Charniga, 2012) to result from a prolonged build up heat which facilitates storage and release of strain energy from the athlete’s muscles and especially the body’s biological springs: the tendons and ligaments.
The Chinese not only do a significantly larger volume and intensity of work in their warm ups, but, go to atypical lengths to preserve heat between warm up and competition lifts. The photos presented of a Chinese female lifter in the middle of a massive warm up protocol and male elite weightlifter in the middle of a much smaller protocol are an interesting contrast in gender physiology.
Some of this strain energy accumulating in tendons and ligaments apparently remains un – dissipated between warm up and competition lifts, performed within relatively short rest intervals.
This would indicate the Chinese female weightlifters do not experience a coordination disrupting fatigue because the successive lifts with heavier weights are performed against a backdrop of a relatively higher level of economy of movement, i.e., with less reliance on muscular contraction and greater utilization of release of stored strain energy from tendons and ligaments.
Add to this the female physiology of relaxed straining and what seems to be fatiguing work, is relatively energy efficient.
“Before I lift I shout Fung Song – Relax. I tell myself to relax so that I can lift the weights relaxing.” ZHOU Lulu, 2012 Olympic champion +75 kg (CHN)
Perhaps the most singular feature of the modern female weightlifter is a distinction with a difference between the genders in the expression of strain while lifting a maximum weight. The following four photos depict an elite female lifter performing the jerk part of the clean and jerk exercise.
In the first photo the lifter is standing on straight legs in a resting posture before bending the lower extremities to thrust the weight overhead. Even though this is a resting posture the strain of holding the weight is evident on this young woman’s face; even the muscles of her neck reflect this strain.
In the next three photos the athlete begins to bend and in the process of bending the strain of the weight on her body increases. Indeed, by the fourth photo the barbell is bending across her chest because she has stopped bending and is beginning to reverse direction by forcefully straightening the lower extremities.
However, the expression on the young woman’s face has gone from one of strain to placidity. The muscles of her neck have even relaxed, i.e., that is to say the athlete’s face has altered its’ reflection from one of strain while resting, to an expression of relaxation at straining.
Due to a natural greater elasticity of tendons and ligaments, the female body experiences less internal resistance to movement due to the less than males, overall muscle tonus. This circumstance reflects the female lifter’s innate ability to perform exercises against a backdrop of less overall muscle tension than males; essentially in a relaxed state, i.e., to strain without straining. And, this is reflected in the young woman’s features and musculature as she placidity “strains to lift the heavy weight”.
The issue of Bernstein’s problem has special significance for the female weightlifter. Stated simply, how does an athlete manage the large and even redundant degrees of freedom of human musculo – skeletal system? Bernstein’s problem in theory would be a greater challenge to the female weightlifter because of larger than the male, degrees of freedom; which in turn makes the development of coordination more difficult.
However, with the understanding women may need more time to learn how to control all this extra freedom, i.e., to cope with Bernstein’s problem; the greater amplitude of motion possibilities allow the female weightlifter to generate power more efficiently against a backdrop of less internal resistance to movements.
As already noted females typically possess greater flexibility, range of motion in joints (some call this “lax ligaments”) which are believed in academia to be a possible root cause of injuries to the lower extremities (for females only). There is even some preposterous research which claims estrogen binds to the female ACL ligament and “weakens” it.
These perceived defects are of course advantages in weightlifting; and the notion of hormones binding to and weakening ligaments a pathetic example social bias masquerading as science.
Greater range of motion in joints, generally less overall muscle tension than males, means female lifters are able to perform weightlifting exercises with less “internal resistance” of stretching muscles and ligaments and tendons and the resistance of muscle antagonists.
Top female lifters (male lifters as well) are able to lower the body’s center of mass so fast as to exceed the acceleration of gravity of a free falling body; descending to a generally lower level, with less resistance to movement, i.e., movements are more efficient, the barbell need only be raised to a relatively low height; less work is performed against gravity. These peculiarities effectively encompass the advantage the female athlete brings to weightlifting sport.
Numerous feminist scholars have characterized female participation in sport as a history of prolonged struggle to overcome social bias; the more power involved in the sport, the bigger the struggle.
The women’s 800 m track and field event was included for the first time in 1924 Olympics. It was promptly discontinued until 1960 after several participants dropped to the track in exhaustion after crossing the finish line. The “old men” who ran the Olympics decided this event was too strenuous for women.
The accomplishments of the modern female weightlifter are a stark contrast to the sclerotic ideas of those days.
1/ Charniga, A., A De-masculinization of Strength, Sportivny Press,