On women and weightlifting

Maryse Turcotte @ collectionscanada
Maryse Turcotte @ collectionscanada

Although there are some stories about  women wanting to compete in weightlifting from the 60’s, the inclusion of women in ”serious” weightlifting competitions events  is ”recent”. Before the Olympic Games of 2000, women could not lift at the Olympics. The first presence of women in world weightlifting championships was in 1987. For such a recent participation in the sport, women are showing constant progress with many world records being beaten every year. I want to illustrate the special conditions women have, especially in our case (in Canada), in regard to weightlifting and discuss a few consideration.

Canadians women have had a great reputation as athletes for the past 10-15 years. They have won over 30 medals for Canada in Championships ranging from Pan ams to the Olympics Games. This is a feat that Canadian men have yet to come close. For many women, it started with the success of Maryse Turcotte who was part of the first Olympic Game that included women weightlifters. She finished in fourth position, with a total of 205kg at a body weight of 58kg. This put weightlifting on the map for women.

Christine Girard @ Olympics.ca
Christine Girard @ Olympics.ca

Since then, many women have been successful in Canada. Christine Girard won a bronze medal in London 2012, Marilou Dozois-Prevost won a silver medal at the commonwealth games in 2006, and the list goes on and on (Marie-eve Beauchemin Nadeau, Annie Moniqui, Valérie Lefebvre, etc.). Women in Canada, have what Canadian men don’t have at the moment (or haven’t had in a very long time), they have Canadian heroes/models in weightlifting.  In my opinion, they have not received enough credit for their achievements.

On comparing men and women

It is very obvious that women and men are biologically different. Not only are we different hormonaly, there is also a big difference concerning the amount of muscle as well as how the muscle mass (and fat mass) tend to be distributed. Somehow, this biological difference has created a long lasting belief that men are (or should be) strong and that women are not strong (or weaker). It is a narrow minded to think that.

For one, when you consider this biological difference between men and women, comparing the performance – or the ability to display power in weightlifting, of men and women is like comparing apples and oranges. We have no problems accepting the fact that a 56kg man will lift less than a 105+kg man so we should have no problems accepting the fact that, at least at the moment, women are lifting less than men. It does not mean a women should not lift nor does it mean that men are better.

For instance, in the men 69kg category, the world record for the snatch is 165 (Markov), 197kg for the clean and Jerk (Guozheng) and 357kg for the total (Boevski). In the women 69kg category, Chunhong has the world record for the snatch (128kg), for the clean and jerk (158kg) and for the total (286kg). However, people should be as excited to see a 69kg woman lift 128kg in the snatch as they are excited to see a 165kg snatch by a 69kg man. Both lifters are at the top of their respective category. Both are excellent athletes in their discipline. It is not unfair to say that women are lifting a bit less than men (at the moment, it may change over time), but it is unfair to say that men are better.

On why north american women seem to be doing better than north american men (at the moment)

It is widely acknowledged that a lot of N. American weightlifters (men and women) start this sport later in their life. Weightlifting is often a second, or even a third sport, for many athletes. A lot of men in Canada played hockey, or american football, as a first sport whereas many women are attracted to gymnastics, volleyball and basketball as a first sport (This is a generalization). As a beginner athlete your ability will be greatly influenced by previously learned motor skills.

Most Canadian school don’t have a strength and conditioning coach. Some do have one, but more often than not, the knowledge of Olympic weightlifting is limited.  It turns out that a lot of men and women have to train on their own. In college and at the university level, it is my experience that male athletes spend their GPP time chasing hypertrophy while a lot female athletes will do a fair amount of plyometrics. It is my experience as a coach and as an observer that a lot of women who start this sport late actually starts with proper flexibility and understand the concept of explosive strength (Not that men don’t understand that, but I often have to work on their mobility first). Other reasons can explain the difference in the results such as different approaches, difference in the training, etc. Overall, it just seems like the previous learned sports develop great abilities that translate well in weightlifting.

Since many girls were exposed to the exploit of Maryse Turcotte, many girls started weightlifting very young too. This is very important for optimal performance in this sport. I often joke that the two most known lifters in Quebec are Alekseyev (it stroke many of us, when he came to the Montreal Olympic Games) and Maryse Turcotte.

On why women are breaking world record at a faster rate than men

For one, since the participation of women in weightlifting competition is recent, so the coaching, the programming and the technique is still evolving a at very fast rate which translate in better results. For instance, Hoover (2006) reported that ”the women (us nationals lifters) in this study demonstrated greater drop displacement and drop under times than those previously reported for men weightlifters”. The technique of women is evolving and it is normal to be breaking record with better technique.

Also, we are slowly starting to understand how men and women should be training differently. Many coaches have described how women seem to be able to withstand a higher volume of training and a higher training intensity. Stopping to train women like men, which is something lots of countries are doing at the moment is bound to create better results too.

Conclusion

In Quebec, a very large percentage of all athletes are women. Many countries have women teams, although some countries chose to not have one. Weightlifting is a sport of flexibility, power and technique, which are three things that women are able to achieve. At the moment, the best weightlifters in Canada seem to be women and it does not seem like it will be stopping any time soon. Particular considerations should be taken when training women (like higher volume at high intensity, seems to be widely accepted) and great consideration on their technique has to be taken. This is a perfect time for any women to start weightlifting : it is constantly evolving and the standards for big competitions are relatively ”low” which allows women to gain more competitive experience over time. There is a lot to gain for any serious women athlete in this sport. 

Jean-Patrick Millette

Jean-Patrick Millette is a full time weightlifting coach located in Montreal, Canada. He has a bachelor in kinesiology. He coaches dedicated weightlifters of all ages (Youth to senior) as well as running the well respected First Pull website. He has been very active at promoting the sport of weightlifting.

4 comments

  • The fact that you have to state that women can be weightlifters seems shockingly behind the times, but when put into the perspective that 2000 was the first Olympic year for us, I suppose I’m just lucky it progressed so quickly. That being said, you spend most of this article justifying why we can lift, but don’t give any detail into the differences in training you mention aside from increased volume.
    You note in this article and in your October article that women were slightly slower and had greater drop displacement on average than the men, but that the patterns seen recently in the best international-caliber women were very similar to the men. Do you think there are naturally differences in bar trajectory due to physiological differences, or that women are simply improving and being better trained?
    I train in small co-ed classes where I get personal corrections, but I do spend a lot of time watching the form of male counterparts and discussing regimen with them. I would also be interested to know differences you’ve noticed in things such as coaching cues.
    Thanks!

    • Hi Alexa,

      Sorry for the late reply. The differences are not many as far as training goes in my opinion. I have noticed faster recovery from my women lifters, but it could well be due to individual reasons (them having been high level athletes in other sports before starting weightlifting) rather than gender related reasons.

      I don’t think there are differences in bar trajectory due to physiological differences between the gender, but there could be physiological differences in how women cope with recovery (since the hormones are differently regulated). Now, as far as biomechanical differences, there are some and they can have an impact of trajectory. Shorter height, wider hips, shorter arms, short torso/long legs, etc. is a generalization, but it is often seen. For instance, as a 63kg, Christine Girard (Bronze in London 2012) is 5ft1. I think most 62kg men in weightlifting are probably under 5ft5.

      As far as coaching, I have a different approach that is more understanding and gentle-oriented, but again, it is due to the lifters I currently coach as I adapt to them. Male lifters I currently coach respond more to direct approach and I will sometimes say things that target their ego so they lift more/better. My women lifters, I just go more into details and explain more like a teacher than say ”a gym rat”. It’s very contextual to our situation though.

      I do know from talking to women lifters that lots of them respond better to a women coach, mostly because of what a lot of women have to endure to be good weightlifters. Meaning that society is still hard on women who want to lift weights (ie ”you are going to look like a man”), so having a women coach is good for them. It reminds them that its possible and to swim against the current of society (Although I wish they didn’t have to do it..but that’s for another conversation).

      If you are in Montréal, Feel free to come lift with us!

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