Anatomy of a Weightlifting Competition

My son, Benson, has been lifting heavy things above his head for at least ten years (mostly for wrestling and football in the beginning) but he has been doing it as a sport for about eight years. It’s been over two years since I was actually at a weightlifting competition in person due to the pandemic.  Benson and I drove to Columbus, Ohio for The Arnold which is a giant competition of bodybuilding, weightlifting, gymnastics, running, wrestling, strongman and boxing (to name but a few).  Columbus is awash with physiques from all walks of life but it definitely is skewed to large muscle-bound men and women strolling the streets in athletic wear. I calculated more that once the weight limit of an elevator while descending with four or more herculean bodies on board. Being at The Arnold was quite the experience.

My son, Benson Robles, competing in the Snatch at The Arnold.

My children have both been athletes and participated in sports for the majority of their lives. Soccer, football, water polo, track, and wrestling, I’ve been in the crowd (or lack of a crowd) for the last fourteen years. I’ve driven three hours to see my son compete in a wrestling match to only see his hand raised because he didn’t have an opponent.  I’ve sat in the bleachers for my daughter’s soccer match where there was just my father and me in attendance for the visiting team. I’ve flown to Miami, Salt Lake City, San Francisco and Atlanta, to see my son compete in weightlifting competitions.  I’ve sat nervously on my phone streaming a competition hoping and praying the connection won’t drop and listening to commentary that you don’t hear when there in person. It’s strange to hear someone talk about your son strictly from a sport perspective. Someone you will never meet but they are critiquing your son on the merits of his techniques.

Here is the anatomy of a weightlifting competition:

Weekend

Most, if not all, the competitions are on the weekend.  Some start on Thursday and they are all over by Sunday (local one-off meets are typically only one day like Saturday).  The men and women who are the lightest and lower qualifying weights go first. So, women that are 55 kg and men that are 61 kg start the competition, but they are arranged by categories like 55 H or 61 N.  The letter of the category indicates where this group is slotted in the competition.  So, a later letter alphabetically indicates that they have a lower total lifted (weightlifted) in prior competitions, so they are slated to go earlier in the competition, in this case on Thursday.  My son’s category was 96 A.  That means he is in the 96 kg competition, and he is in the final flight of the competition because he has an A (the most weight lifted) category, and participants in the flight are likely to be on the podium. He was slated to lift at 10 AM on Sunday.  Benson is usually at the meet with teammates or comrades from the same gym and will usually see some of the other competitions before he lifts but definitely after he has competed.

Leading up to Sunday

Leading up the competition is mostly down time and eating.  We traveled by car all day on Friday. Benson got together with his teammates on Friday night after several folks had already competed. So, every competition has a group, smaller competitors that have already gone, those competing the next day and those like Benson, still trying to time his workouts, eating and sleep up to the competition. Benson has historically had to eat (a lot) to maintain or “make” weight. He’s had times in his athletic career where he would be doing burpees and/or tapering off food and water before a weigh-in but this time he was comfortably in the range.  He went to lift on Friday when we arrived and then slacked off on Saturday.  I don’t completely understand the schedule, all I know is to go with the flow; if he’s hungry we head to a restaurant (he normally orders two entrees) or if he’s tired we hang out in the hotel room. Benson knows what he needs and I just sit back and wait for instructions.

Competition Venue

The day of the competition the weigh-in is usually two hours before the time of the competition. I dropped Benson off at the venue to weigh in and then we went back to the hotel.  I personally prefer an early time so there isn’t a lot of sitting around overthinking things.  Benson has lifted as late as 8 PM which makes for a very long day. We arrived back at the venue at about 9:45 AM.  Athletes and coaches have lanyards that have their credentials and time slot; they go behind the lifting platform while the audience, like nervous moms, sit in the stands or folding chairs depending on the venue accommodations. This was an enormous competition because it had several age groups and competitions going on at once.  So Junior, Senior and University students were all competing on 6 platforms.  Every other national meet I had been to had three platforms, this was big. There were curtains behind the main lifting platform and weights, chairs and mats behind where the competitors and coaches that can’t be seen.  When I watch the competition on live stream it is very frustrating because you can’t see who is waiting to come up next or hear who they are calling up next.  In person, you can hear what’s going on and, more importantly, see that your son is waiting in the wings with his coach to go next. 

Weightlifting Poker

Each lifter gets three attempts at the Snatch (going from the ground and above the head in one movement) and three attempts at the Clean and Jerk (going from the ground to your chest and then another movement above the head).  The weight on the bar always starts at the lowest weight and with each attempt must either go up in weight or stay the same.  The weight NEVER goes down.  To be clear, it is three attempts total at the Snatch.  So, if you miss your attempt on the first snatch, you can try at the same weight or you can try at a higher weight.  If you miss, they usually will assume that you will come back to attempt the same weight.  Most lifters (and their coaches) will usually wait out the two-minute clock before saying they want to try a higher weight (if you miss an attempt and have to follow yourself because no one else is lifting that weight, you get a two minute clock). If you just missed, you want as much time as you can muster before attempting again.  This creates what I call Weightlifting Poker.  If you are trying to beat your other competitors, you must be willing to go up a kilogram in hopes that the other guy won’t be able to make it.  So, if three guys have said they are trying 150kg and the first two guys miss their attempt, the third guy can win at 150kg unless the other two lifters have another attempt; then they can go one kilogram higher on the next lift.  During the competition, it’s a constant change of who the next lifter is as lifter and coach try to figure out, their best lift, how the other competitors are doing so far and if they have enough rest in between to make the next lift. At the Arnold, I would say that the platform that Benson was competing on, had at least 50% red, meaning that at least half of the lifts were missed. It was exciting and nerve racking to watch not knowing which lifter would prevail.

In the end, my son took three silver medals.  He had the second heaviest Snatch at 142 kg and the second heaviest Clean and Jerk at 172kg and the second heaviest total (add the Snatch and Clean and Jerk together) of 314 kg.  He barely missed a 175kg Clean and Jerk for Gold. As I sat in the audience, I overheard some guys talking about “Benson Robles” being the one to beat.  Pretty cool at a national meet. The entire competition is a ballet of skill, might and mental fortitude. I’m so proud of my son for his tenacity, hard work and endless training that has brought him this far.

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