A good weight for a small woman

Snatch. Clean and jerk.

I’ll be using these words. Get used to it.

Over the years I’ve hefted a fair few weights: kettlebells, atlas balls, weights in body pump classes, machine weights in the gym, furniture. In one job I even gained the nickname Pansy – for Pansy Potter, The Strongman’s Daughter in The Beano. I’ve always liked being strong.

Pansy Potter

But it took me by surprise when I discovered I was so weak I had to use two hands to lift a kettle, and getting up from a chair had to be done in stages. I was in early remission, and slowly finding out how my body had been affected by the toll of cancer and six months of chemotherapy. Some days I could walk around my local park, some days I couldn’t unscrew the top of a jar.

Taking a walk every day helped me start to rebuild my fitness and, when I felt confident I could get through an hour of someone telling me what to do, I used a combination of body pump classes and kettlebell sessions to rebuild my strength. It took time but I no longer need to push myself out of a chair and I can open jars without help.

Olympic lifts

Olympic weightlifting was one of the seven sports in the first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896 Although official world championships have been awarded to women weightlifters since 1987, an official Olympic competition for women was only introduced at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. There’s two lifts in Olympic weightlifting – snatch, clean and jerk.

But the more I studied the lifts on YouTube the more confused I became about how to do the moves, which involve pulling, raising, holding, squatting, jumping, standing. There’s a lot going on. And a lot that could go wrong if you’re not sure what you’re doing.

London is full of places to lift weights but I struck gold when I found London Olympic Weightlifting Academy (LOWA). After a quick chat with LOWA founder and head coach Mike, he introduced me to Sarah, one of LOWA’s coaches, and she invited me to join a taster session and a personal training session.

Poles and barbells

Saturday morning in Battersea and one of the gyms near LOWA was preparing for a weightlifting competition. Men in track pants you’d never sit in on your sofa were jumping purposefully from 4x4s to stretch and stride. No one looked happy.

Through the metal door it was a different story: one woman was in the middle of a boxing personal training session, people were chatting and laughing, LOWA regulars were swapping their preparation plans for the competition next door.


There were ten of us in the class: four women and six men. After an introduction to LOWA and Olympic weightlifting from Mike, we began a warm-up routine: using poles to rotate our shoulders and arms in front and behind the body, and stretch different parts of the body. We repeated some of the moves using stretch bands. And finished with a few squats holding the bar above our heads. My body felt warmed up and I was already sweating.

Lifts and weights

Swapping the poles for barbells, Mike went through the sequence of moves for the snatch: picking the bar up from the ground, pulling it to the knees, pulling it to the top of the thighs, pulling the bar up and driving it above the head while jumping into a standing position, dropping into a deep squat holding the bar above the head, pushing up into a standing position while holding the bar above the head.

I managed to do it slowly while Sarah corrected my moves: ‘Straight arms. Deeper squat. Push and hold.’ As I made each correction it felt odd, mainly because I was doing something my body had never done before but I finally understood the sequence of moves and gradually started to complete the sequence with speed.

Freya, Sarah
Freya, Sarah

Between lifts we talked about what makes a good weightlifter: ‘People often think it’s about upper body strength but it’s really about your legs and your core. And your ability to make explosive movements.’

A few more repetitions and it was time to learn the sequence for the clean and jerk. It shares many movements with the snatch but also involves pulling the bar up and flicking it over towards the front of the shoulders and pushing the elbows forward while jumping into a deep squat then driving the bar above the head while jumping into a split-stance standing position, and stepping both feet right foot back and left foot forward while holding the bar above the head to complete the lift.

I copied Mike as he moved through the sequence. Then tried it on my own under Sarah’s close supervision: ‘Pull the bar closer to your shoulders. Wrists back. Elbows up and forward.’

Between lifts I watched the rest of the group, some of whom were gradually increasing weight on their bars. And I knew my next session would involve more weights.

Mike, Freya, Sarah
Mike, Freya, Sarah

Once more, with weight

A few days later I joined a group session (two women, four men) focusing on the snatch. Two of the group had taken part in the competition at the weekend and were feeling it.

My body remembered the sequence of moves and, after watching me repeat the lift a few times, the coach suggested I needed more weight. Oddly, I found it easier to complete the lift with a heavier weight and told Sarah – she added a bit more. I lifted it.

Then it was time for the clean and jerk. Sarah took the weight off the bar and checked I remembered the moves. I did. She added some weight. I lifted. She added more weight. I lifted. And I suspect that’s how the rest of the afternoon would have gone if my legs and arms hadn’t started feeling heavy from the morning’s swim session.

Back home I’ve dragged out the weights and bar and will be practicing to increase the weight I can lift. My strength is back and I’m keeping it.


Weightlifting. 25 February 2016

London Olympic Weightlifting Academy, Battersea Park

Cost: £20.00 drop-in class