This article was originally published with some comments censored. That is why it appears here with uncensored, original content. The offensive comments were:”This, despite the fact that the forces acting on the lower extremities during the performance of the weightlifting exercises are significantly greater than those experienced by female athletes participating in soccer, basketball, volleyball and of course, softball.”
Soccer, basketball and volleyball were excluded (censored) from the original apparently not to offend any high school, collegiate coaches and or companies (sponsors) of the publisher who are in the knee and ankle brace market and or otherwise would take offense that there might something wrong with common training practices at the high school or collegiate levels in these sports. The author welcomes arguments to the contrary that the forces on the weightlifter’s body exceed those commonly experienced in the aforementioned sports and will not be offended or otherwise feel the impulse to hide behind conventional thinking.
De-masculinization of Strength
Andrew ‘Bud” Charniga
“Rich cultures value thin women, and poor cultures fat women, but all male dominant cultures value weakness in women.” Gloria Steinem
Elite sportswomen have long suffered, in an historical context, from a so – called, androcentric perspective. Sport governing bodies typically have always been run by old men; old men, usually fixated on old ideas.
It is common knowledge women have had to fight for the right to participate in sport, especially power sports. This struggle has paralleled the feminist movement, and in many cases facilitated it. Feminist causes in male dominant cultures whether in sport or society at large involve essentially the same issues and much the same obstacles.
The coaching community has consisted almost exclusively of male coaches and trainers; especially, in the power sports. With the gradual inclusion of females in these events, the initial search was focused on female athletes with some sexual ambiguity. This method of selection shed a negative light on the female athletes recruited to participate in heretofore, exclusively male power events, such as the throwing events of Track and Field.
An outcome of this practice, goaded by the western press, eventually led to the introduction of the highly questionable practice known as gender verification testing.
Although gender verification was discontinued by the International Olympic Committee in 1999, its usefulness and even validity has been discredited by the scientific community. However, it is still implemented episodically; under highly questionable circumstances.
A relatively recent episode of gender verification, was a nine month long, multi – faceted process inflicted upon South African teenager Caster Semenya; following her victory in the women’s 800m race at the 2009 World Athletics Championships.
Gender verification is only one unfortunate episode in a long struggle of the female aspirant to the power events of sport.
The driving force behind the modern Olympic Games Baron Pierre de Coubertin vehemently opposed female events in the modern Games. Consequently, the inclusion of female events, especially power events into the Olympic program has been a gradual amortization in reverse.
For instance, the female 800 meter race was introduced in Amsterdam at the 1924 Olympics in Games. It was the most strenuous event to date for the “weaker sex”. Several of the women in the 800 m final dropped to the ground in exhaustion at the end of the race to catch their breath. This event was eliminated for the next 32 years (Wallechinsky, Loucky, 2008). You see, typically, high level sport is run by old men; and, they are the ones who decided an 800 m race was too strenuous for women.
By the Los Angeles Games of 1984, with the introduction of a women’s marathon, the longest running event on the Olympic program regardless of sex, the female athlete seemed to have finally overcome a long endured stigma of frailty.
However, it was not until the 2000 Games of Sydney that the myth of a weaker sex can truly be said to have been laid to rest with the introduction of women’s weightlifting into the Olympic program.
Women weightlifters lift the same barbell as men in the same competition format: the snatch and the clean and jerk are the two competition exercises. The first official women’s world championships were held in 1987.
Olympic and World champion COA Lei (CHN). Charniga photo
Like boxing, wrestling and track and field, weightlifting has been around for thousands of years. Included in the first modern Games of 1896, the modern weightlifting program for males only, was over 100 years old by the time female lifting came to the Olympic program. The competition protocol evolved over this time from five, to three, to two exercises.
With the elimination of the press exercise in 1973 the modern program and along with it the modern weightlifter, underwent a gradual transformation. In the past, for the most part, shorter athletes with large muscle mass had a distinct advantage in weightlifting sport; due to a reliance on absolute strength to raise the barbell, especially in the press exercise.
The coaches and sport scientists of the Soviet Union specializing in weightlifting, sought out prospective weightlifting champions of the post press era with proportionally wider pelvis, narrower shoulder girdle, good flexibility and joint mobility and proportionally weaker (in comparison to the press era) upper extremity to lower extremity strength; in short, characteristics typically associated with females.
However, there was just one catch, there were no female weightlifters in 1973.
Fourteen years (1987) into the new speed strength era of weightlifting, enter the female weightlifter; the most dramatic alteration to the sport.
After the first women’s world championships in 1987, the female world records constituted approximately 53% of the respective male records. At the present time this figure is approximately 80%. At the present time the strength gap between female and male weightlifter is still contracting.
Almost all of the world records in male weightlifting sport have remained frozen since 1988, along with almost all the world records of the power events in female and male track and field. Female weightlifting records continue to rise (Charniga, 2012).
However, to really put into perspective the great leap forward of the estrogenous strength athlete, consider this. At the 1953 World Weightlifting Championships 130 kg Canadian Doug lifted 165 kg in the clean and jerk to become the world’s strongest man, the title traditionally given the winner of the un – limited weight division in weightlifting. At that time the absolute record in the clean and jerk exercise was 185 kg.
By 1955, a huge 160 kg American strongman, Paul Anderson, won the same division. His result in the clean and jerk was 182.5 kg.
In 2009, a 116 kg Korean female, JANG Mi – Ran, lifted 187 kg in the clean and jerk. Neither Anderson nor Hepburn could imagine in their wildest dreams, such a feat; if for no other reason, the female weightlifter did not even exist until the 1980s.
Considerable research and no small amount of speculation (Charniga, A De-masculinization of Strength, 2012) has been devoted to ascertaining the how and why such “a great leap forward” has always been possible.
The first and most important consideration to comprehend the phenomena of a feminine aesthetics of strength has to be the entire notion of physical strength as a purely masculine preserve. The generally accepted and oft repeated aphorism: testosterone builds muscle, estrogen produces fat, does not fit.
Academic notions of absolute strength are connected with the large muscle mass, fast twitch, slow twitch muscle fibers, the hormonal superiority of testosterone over estrogen and the psychological state which goes hand in hand with testosterone: aggressive behavior.
Consequently, the spectacle of the modern female weightlifter, placidly raising weights once reserved for the world’s strongest men means these are at best, old ideas.
Chinese female lifter competing at the 2013 Chinese National Games; eyes closed in bottom of clean. Charniga photo.
In brief, the history female weightlifting begins and continues for the most part, with China. The Chinese females have dominated international weightlifting from the very beginning of international competitions for female weightlifters. For much of the period between 1987 and the present time the results of the Chinese have been approximately 20% ahead of the rest of the world.
The International Weightlifting Federation, fearing an absolute dominance of female weightlifters from one country politely suggested the Chinese let women from other countries win now and then.
The disparity between the Chinese female lifters and the rest of the world peaked in 1992. The average margin of victory between the Chinese lifters, whom won all nine weight divisions at the 1992 World championships in Sofia, Bulgaria, was an astronomical 28 kg.
Subsequently, the Chinese have employed various means to win the team championships and sufficient individual weight divisions without humiliating the other countries. Of late, some of the Chinese female lifters have done a fine job of faking missed lifts to let the other lifters win a few medals, especially if a lifter from the host country of the championships has a chance to win.
What is the secret behind the Chinese dominance?
The Chinese have lot of people and lot of money for elite sport. This is true. But, other weightlifting countries like Russia have money and a long history of sophisticated research in elite sport. It is common knowledge, the Russians essentially taught the other socialist countries the science of weightlifting training and biomechanics of weightlifting technique.
The Chinese female has dominated not only the rest of the world in weightlifting, but elite Chinese women athletes have been more successful than the Chinese men, in virtually all sports.
China had a history of insignificant participation in elite sport before MAO and the Chinese communist party (CCP) came to power in 1949. At the urging of the Christian missionaries, the 2000 year old practice of foot – binding, was outlawed by the early 20th century; but not finally abolished until, in the words of one Chinese scholar, “history chose communism”.
Foot-binding consisted of wrapping a female child’s feet with bandages tight enough to restrict the feet from growing to normal size; effectively crippling a young woman.
As a result of a long history of very low status in Chinese society, the cruel practice of foot – binding inclusive, by 1949, 90% Chinese females were illiterate. Most had never seen the inside of school. However, at the impetus of Chairman MAO, who coined the slogan “women hold up half the sky”; in the early 1950s, the CCP decided China should participate in elite sport.
A rather unique playing field was established. Prospective elite females were afforded equal opportunities for coaching, facilities and most importantly equal remuneration as the men. This is to be contrasted with the USA where it took passage of law known as title IX in the 1970s to force schools and universities to provide equal funding and opportunities for female athletes.
A 69 kg (152 lb) Chinese lifter competing at the 2013 Chinese National Games. Contrary to what one might expect the form a female elite weightlifter can be uniquely aesthetic. Charniga photo.
The window of opportunity opened to prospective Chinese female athletes with CCP’s creation of a meritocracy in sport. This coupled with the thousands of year history of low status, the opportunity to become a champion athlete; the possibility to overcome a low social status is a powerful motivator. This is part of how, in the words of one Chinese scholar, champions of elite sport emerged from athletes recruited from what had been a potential pool of illiterate cripples.
However, motivation (albeit the most important) is one of the only two components of elite sport. The other is coordination (Charniga, 2012).
With the introduction of female weightlifting in the early 1980s the Chinese contribution to the art of training for this consummate power sport was a realization women are not a weaker sex.
The Chinese coaches discovered the female weightlifter is capable of assimilating a massive training load. Soviet research in the 1990s compared the training load of the Chinese women to that of the Soviet national men’s team of the 1980s. The Chinese female lifters were found to have exceeded the volume of lifts and also the number of high intensity lifts, in all exercises, of the Soviet national team of the 1980s.
Soviet and Chinese sport scientists concluded the naturally low (10% of a male) testosterone levels of the female athlete were the unexpected source of this physiological potential.
Charniga (2010), researched the warm up protocols of 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.
The other protocol followed only by the Chinese women was called the “Chinese warm up”. This protocol consisted of an impossible for man or woman, 23 – 26 lifts with weights of the same intensity range of ≥60 – ≥90%.
The effectiveness of the Chinese protocol may be the elevated body heat from a prolonged and high intensity warm up which in its turn, facilitates the female’s natural greater elasticity of muscles, tendons and ligaments while at the same time provides a prolonged specific rehearsal for the competition platform. Under these conditions, the female lifter makes effective use of the body’s viscera – elastic tissues to overcome what were once considered impossible weights.
Chinese female lifter resting between warmups lifts at world weightlifting championships while preserving body heat at room temperature. Charniga photo.
A number of distinct features generally peculiar to the female organism contribute to overcoming what one scholar called the “chemical asymmetry” (Hoberman, 1992) between the sexes, in performance of the weightlifting exercises.
For instance, in a modern, male dominant society like the USA social bias is all too often convoluted, i.e., confused with science. Some of physiological features, frequently associated with the female body such as low serum testosterone levels; generally, greater than for males, flexibility of muscles, tendons and ligaments, “laxity of articulations” and so forth, are believed to predispose female athletes to higher injury rates and a lower potential to assimilate strength loading than male athletes.
Practical experience in elite power sports has shown these ideas to be not only untrue; these feminine “afflictions” are in fact, advantageous in sport.
For instance, the old Soviet scientists cited the need for an “extensibility reserve” of muscle, tendons and ligaments. Such a reserve means an athlete has the ability to readily exceed the normal amplitude of motion in the joints required for a given sport exercise. An “extra” mobility is considered to be an injury prophylactic. (R. Moroz, 1980).
Contrast this to such androcentric notions that the female’s lax articulations probably predispose these athletes to higher injury rates.
Relatively high injury rates among female athletes in the USA such as knee ligament (ACL) tears occur frequently in what are considered appropriate for females in American collegiate sports, such as soccer, softball, basketball, volleyball and so forth.
Elite female lifters exceed the acceleration of gravity of a free falling body as they drop under the barbell; receiving it at the chest or at arms length in a deep squat. Compare these forces on the female weightlifter’s body to soccer, volleyball, basketball and others. Charniga photo.
Knee ligament and meniscus tears are not unheard in female weightlifting; but, they are rare by comparison to the injury rates in the aforementioned collegiate sports.
This, despite the fact that the forces acting on the lower extremities during the performance of the weightlifting exercises are significantly greater than those experienced by female athletes participating in soccer, basketball, volleyball and of course, softball.
Wolrd champion DENG Mengrong cleans 136 kg at 63 kg bodyweight. Note bend in barbell as the athlete receives it in low squat. Charniga photo.
An essential problem for the female athlete has always been and continues to be, most of the coaches of women, are men. Initially, the aforementioned search for elite female power athletes focused on women with some sexual ambiguity, because male coaches were trying to find a man, in a manner of speaking, in a woman’s body. The sport community, reflected the generally accepted social bias that the female body was not suited for power sports.
No one really knew, or maybe a better phrase would be, most never took the time to explore the potential of the female power athlete. The assumption was and for the most part still is: testosterone is the hormone which builds muscle, whereas, estrogen makes fat. It has been assumed, the natural female hormonal fluctuations, predispose the female athlete to higher injury rates. And, this is still the case.
Gender verification was introduced about the same time as the use of testosterone and its derivatives were introduced into power sports. Women found to have higher than normal serum testosterone levels, but, nonetheless had a CAIS mosaic (complete androgen insensitivity), were excluded from participation on the basis of gender verification tests.
Some coaches switched from looking for a man in a woman’s body to sort of making a man with male hormones.
The explosion of world records of the 1980s in the female, male power events of Track and Field and weightlifting are a testimony to the effectiveness of the administration of these substances. The dependence on them was likewise obvious from the abrupt halt in the improvement of those very same records, beginning in 1989, with the introduction of out of competition testing (Charniga, 2012).
For instance, the world record for the women’s 100 m 10.49 sec, established in 1988 is 26 years old. The women’s 800 meter record was set in 1983; already, it is 30 years old. The world record of the hammer throw for men is 86.74 m, set in 1986, and so on, and so on.
The world records of the modern female weightlifter are still climbing i.e., the strength gap between males and females continues to contract; not as a result the use of performance enhancing drugs as in the 1980s with Track and Field, new biomechanics, or some new high tech suit like in swimming; but, the evolution of this athlete’s horizons.
/Charniga, A., A De-masculinization of Strength, Livonia, Michigan, Sportivny Press, 2102.
/Wallechinsky, D., Loucky, J., The complete book of the Olympics, London, Great Britain, publishers, 306:2008.