Pushing your limits

The lifter starts almost sitting down; knees bent, hands on the dumbbell in a wide grip.There is an explosion upward as the lifter brings the full weight above his head in one motion. He stands there with his arms extended, balanced. This isn’t lifting to look good. This is utility over aesthetics. The lift is called the snatch, and when you see it done you see the name is fitting. The sudden and almost violent motion moves the weight from the floor to directly over the lifter’s head in less than a second.

This kind of lifting is designed to do one thing, push the human body to lift as much as it can. In Olympic weight lifting, the top lifters end up competing globally for the gold, but that is an extremely difficult ladder to climb.

The dedication and sacrifice these athletes are putting in the weight room places them in a high risk reward situation. The sustainability of this as a career is limited even at the peak. Why put themselves through this?

Paul Aya, 24, is a personal trainer at Powerhouse Gym in Chatsworth. Aya got into weightlifting by being offered a job training high school students in Calabasas.

“I knew how to lift weights, just not the right way, so through working with the trainers and kids I got to learn about cleans,” Aya said. “The clean is one of the Olympic movements, and I’ve been in love with them ever since.”

The clean is similar to the snatch, only broken down into two motions. First, the lifter bolts up and brings the bar above his chest and under the chin. The jerk comes from the arms raising the weight above the head for a brief moment.

The clean and jerk and the snatch are the only for which that Aya trains. Aya started training in a friend’s garage before moving into bigger gyms. Eventually Aya decided to bring the gym home and sold his BMW to pay for his set up where he now trains.

“It’s nothing like your typical gym s***,” Aya said. “It’s the two movements and then auxiliary movements from the two and strength work. Squatting, pulls, snatches, and clean and jerks from the blocks.”

Lifters prepare for local competitions that are designated as official USA Weight Lifting meets. Numbers are recorded and lifters move up to competitions on a larger scale. Getting on the national stage is a precursor for an Olympic appearance. Each weight category has goals lifters must hit, and they get three attempts for each lift. For Aya’s next meet he’ll have to put up 293 kg or 645.9 pounds.

James Furedi assists Aya with his workout program. The workout is intense to build up to the day of competition, followed by rest before training begins for the next meet.

“It’s very calculated because you have to plan your attempts,” Furedi said. “Common overuse injuries that you can find in weightlifting are the back and the knees. You’re squatting and lifting from the floor a lot more than a typical person.”

Furedi said that a careful program, along with things like stretching and keeping joints mobile, limits injuries.

“A lot of weight lifters take great care in their recovery. Massages, hot baths, things to keep muscles from stiffening up,” Furedi said.

Coaching others in the sport is something Furedi looks forward to, but he said that his friend Sean Rigsby began training with him, and Aya dedicated himself. Rigsby, 26, is a national bronze medalist and a professional weightlifter with team MDUSA, Muscle Driver USA, the reigning national champions in weightlifting.

Over time, intensive training can wear parts of the body, such as the back and the knees, which can be pushed to their limit. All the time spent with the weights compounds the stress on the joints and muscles.

“Weightlifting actually has the second lowest incidents of injury per 10,000 hours. Soccer has the highest,” Rigsby said. “It’s usually a lot of little minor things. Most of the injuries in weightlifting are chronic, like tendonitis.”

Aya decided to begin work in construction and has only in the past few weeks been able to continue training.

“I want to make it to nationals, but since I got this new job I’ve taking it easy with the weights,” Aya said. “I’ve already qualified for regional competition in St. Louis. It’s another step closer to nationals.”

In our pursuit of our passions, we may find ourselves at odds with the world around us. Aya is trying to balance his new job, and his drive to go further in the sport just as he strives to balance the hundreds of pounds he holds over his head with each lift.

Aya estimates he’s about a year away from getting to nationals. “I want to be recognized for something, and Olympic weightlifting demonstrates your overall athletic abilities in every other single strength sport,” Aya said. “If I wasn’t working manual labor you better believe I’d be on top.”