I met Mike at Mike Burgener’s gym some time in early 2007 when he returned from a deployment as a corpsman in Iraq. What he had going for him right from day one was ambition, commitment and the kind of work ethic that I very much respect and am constantly disappointed in not seeing in more people these days. Unfortunately, he was old (yes, 34 is old in this case), immobile, and not particularly quick. But he put his head down and went to work, chipping away for what has now become nine years, going from missing snatches in the 80 kg range to giving me a run for my money when we train together (I have to rely on my superior mobility and positions to give me the winning edge in the total). He is a great example of what consistent hard work over time can do—most people coming into the sport in circumstances like he did would have thrown in the towel a long time ago and made no progress.
More important than the huge improvement in lifting he’s managed to make, Mike is a perfect example of someone who just plain gets it. He truly understands weightlifting as a sport, culture and lifestyle in a way that is lost on so many of the people now finding it. He understands atmosphere, training, programming, and support. There are very few things in my life that I’ve enjoyed as much as the times we’ve been able to train together. One of my favorite days was the last day I trained at Burgener’s gym before I moved back to the Bay Area to open the new gym—Mike and I literally trained all day, maxing out on basically every exercise we knew of, and then throwing some more in afterward for good measure. The times I’ve returned to visit Burgener since 2009 have been made perfect by being able to train again with Mike in that garage.
This week marks the nine-year anniversary of when I started my journey into Olympic Weightlifting. I had been lifting weights since high school in some way, but had never before tried my hand at the snatch or clean & jerk. I was just coming off a deployment and someone had mentioned it to me in the gym, so I thought I would look into it when I got home. I was pretty fortunate that when I googled it, Mike Burgener’s website popped up first, and I realized he lived about 15 minutes away from me. After some correspondence over email, he invited me up to get some coaching. I was then quickly passed on to his daughter Sage, who was about fifteen at the time, and I became her first lifter. So now that we have that part of this story covered, I am going to explain what I did right, what I did wrong and what I did that could easily fall into both categories.
What I Did Wrong
Knowing when to adjust: I made a lot of shitty lifts in the early years. I should post a picture of some log books from early on, but honestly I am embarrassed to even look at them. I would make a lift at, let’s say 100, then miss 5, make another 1, then miss 3. Instead of lowering the weight and making adjustments, I would just plow through and try to get the prescribed amount of reps and sets no matter the cost. If you are new and aren’t making lifts, take it down until you start making lifts again, and then if you can, move it back up. Misses are okay; 3 times more misses than makes is not.
To small of a spread: What I mean by this is that my snatch is high relative to my clean & jerk; correction, it’s extremely high relative to my clean & jerk. It wasn’t at one point, but as my snatch got better, my clean & jerk did not keep pace. I remember once I was training alone up at Coach Burgener’s one Saturday, and his wonderful wife Leslie was in the garage waiting for me to finish (probably wanting me to help her with a small chore—if you’ve done some real time up there, you know what that means). She asked what my snatch was at that point—I believe it was in the high 120s—and then she asked what my clean & jerk was, which must have been in the low 140s. She bluntly said, I would like to see a 20-25 kilo spread on that, and I couldn’t agree more. So if you see a lift pulling away from the other one, it’s time to maybe concentrate on the not so good lift a bit more and try to even that up. Because I can honestly say from experience, being the last guy snatching and then having zero time to enjoy it because you need to warm up for clean & jerks sucks.
Recovery: I didn’t and I still don’t do the little things that could help me. I will get into a cold plunge if it’s there, but I don’t go looking for them. I hate massage, and the thought of rolling around on a lacrosse ball to break up my psoas or whatever is the stretch of the week just baffles me. Get into the recovery game—it’s a necessary aspect of this sport.
Being able to maintain the right position: What I mean by this is simple: if you were to look at video or picture of your lifts, does it look right? Are your elbows and feet in the right position? Is your clean or jerk being held back because you can’t rack the bar in the proper manner? When I first started, I couldn’t properly rack the bar in the clean or jerk. It was literally lying on my upper chest and I would have to jerk it from there, trying to keep it from sliding down my chest while dipping for the jerk. Now it’s much better years later, but it’s still not where I want it to be. I would love to rack the bar with it much deeper in my hands than it is. If you can’t establish the proper positions, you need to work on that so you can.
Taking it personally: I have over the years have helped a hundred or so people in this sport, and you know what, 90% of them quit for various reasons. I have a hard time with this because once I committed to this sport, I was all in and haven’t looked back. Another aspect of this is when people show a lack of respect for the sport or themselves. I see it all the time lately, and when I started I didn’t. You don’t lie around on a platform like a child when you miss a lift—get the hell up and get on with it. You don’t spend more time on your Instagram than you do on the platform when you are supposed to be lifting. These are the things that I have a hard time dealing with, and I take it way too personally when it happens. Wearing all the gear and talking about the latest Klokov YouTube video doesn’t make you a lifter; lifting makes you a lifter.
More squats: I squat more now than I ever have. This is probably a personal thing, and trust me, I didn’t duck them ever, I just didn’t embrace them like I do now. I front squat all of the time. I just can’t get enough of them and I think they have helped everything start to fall into place for me.
What I Did Right
Surround myself with people better, stronger or more knowledgeable than me: Some of this was just blind luck, but I have had the opportunity to train with Olympians and National Champions and it was the best thing I could do. Being the small fish in a big pond was so beneficial to me in my early years to watch how lifting should be done, to see flawless technique firsthand, and to watch how these lifters improve on their craft day in and day out.
Showed up every day and trained hard: I don’t miss days. Now this could fall into the What I Did Wrong category as well, but I’m not going to put it there. I brought very few things to the sport of weightlifting when I started: I was already 34, tall, skinny and Blake Barnes has more fast twitch fiber in his left forearm than I have in my entire body. However, what I did bring was drive and the desire to show up day in and day out. I can honestly say I don’t remember since I started Olympic lifting taking any significant time off. I can’t remember missing two training sessions in a row. I’m a gym rat and I usually have to be kicked out because I love to train. Show up—It’s that simple. Three weeks on and three weeks off won’t get you where you want to be.
Nutrition: I eat well, and I eat healthy. I enjoy this aspect of my life and the thought of eating like a garbage disposal does nothing for me. Now trust me, I know guys who eat like shit who are much better and stronger than I am, but when it came time to cutting weight, I believe I had the upper hand because it was already hard-wired into me.
Been a good training partner: I’m pretty confident that if you asked the people (men and women) who have trained with me consistently over the years, a majority of them would say that I am a pretty good guy to train with. Now, a lot of this comes from the people I align myself with. I choose the people I train with carefully. Talent means nothing to me; I would rather train with a guy who shows up on time every day and is ready to lift. Be there for your partner, know when to be serious, know when to have fun, and always be supportive even on the days when you feel like crap and aren’t having the best of days.
I was raised right: I was lucky in this aspect because I started in a real gym and was taught by a real coach who hadn’t been lifting for as long as he has been calling himself a “coach”. I was taught early on the etiquette of weightlifting and how to handle one’s self as a lifter. What Coach Burgener said was gospel, and one of the things I appreciated about him was that he would be the first to say that there was a million ways to skin a cat and that he didn’t know everything and would work with lifters on different ways for technique and programming.
Making friends with fellow lifters: Just about all of my closest friends are fellow lifters. When you spend that kind of time in the trenches with somebody, it’s just going to happen. Some of them have gone on to other sports due to work or injury, and that’s fine, but at one point we trained and suffered together, and that is a kind of bond that is hard to break. Having someone to text and ask how each other’s training went and talk about it every day is important to me, and I am happy I have that.
Married the right woman: Having a support network in this sport is incredibly important, and honestly there is no way I could have achieved what little success I have had without the support of my wife, Emily. She’s always been by my side and has been there for me during the good and bad times of it. She helps me in every aspect of this sport and knows how important it is to me; I can’t stress how much that helps me.
Things That Would Fall into Both Categories.
Training through pain: This is a fact of life for weightlifters—you will be in pain at some point and you have to decide for yourself what is too much. I can honestly say that I have walked out of the gym maybe 5 or 6 times because of pain; one of those won me a surgery. Now ask me how many times I should have walked out of the gym because of pain? At least 30. My body was trying to tell me something and I ignored it and just kept going because I am just that stubborn. A few weeks ago, I strained my oblique to the point where I couldn’t break 40kg off the floor without shooting pain that would literally force me to drop the bar. Most people walk out and call it a day, but I sat there and kept moving the bar up higher and higher on the blocks to find a height that didn’t feel like I was being stabbed on every rep. I ended up doing hang cleans + front squats all night with the only pain being taking it off the blocks to get started. I feel like there was a victory there because I salvaged a day, but on the other side of that, would I have been better off just taking the day off?
Ego: This is definitely a problem for most lifters, and I have no doubt been guilty of some ego lifting. However, lifting with an ego can be a good thing or a very bad thing, and it’s very situation-dependent. If you scrap your entire training plan and change it, let’s say from what is supposed to be a recovery or light day because you want to show off, then that’s very bad. If you are lifting well because someone or something in the gym has your ego going and it’s pushing you in a positive direction, and you have that feeling like no matter what gets put on the bar, I’m going to make, then that’s good. Manage your ego—use it when you should be using it.
That’s it. That’s what I did right, wrong or both in my weightlifting “career”. If I had to do it over again, I would’ve done some of it a bit differently, but for the most part I did okay. Looking around at the various gyms I train at, I see plenty of the right and wrong, and those are lessons can have detrimental effects on your lifting as well if you don’t pay attention to them.