Raising the bar with Strength Academy Wales

RAISING THE BAR: Pictured beforehand with SAW coaches Simon Roach (centre back) and Owain Rowlands (far left). PICTURE: Bill Carne.

ELBOWS OUT: Simon tweaks my technique. PICTURE Bill Carne.

DON'T BUCKLE: Owain assesses my early attempt at a clean and jerk. PICTURE: Bill Carne.

First published in Sport
Last updated
by , Reporter

AT  5’10 and just 67 kilograms, it’s safe to say that mass and raw power are not terms that I’m regularly associated with.

Indeed, although gym work is something I undertake regularly, the notions of speed and stamina have always appealed to me considerably more than tests of strength or force.

My weight training has always been done in my own time, at my own pace, and at my own level.

However, as I warmed up for my penultimate Commonwealth Games challenge, a weightlifting session at the Strength Academy Wales (SAW) gym in Haverfordwest, I knew there would be no hiding place.

Especially given that overseeing my session, would be SAW director Simon Roach.

Simon, who is also the Performance Director for Weightlifting Wales, competed in both the World and European Championships in the early 1990’s, and was head coach of the Welsh squad in the 1998 and 2002 Commonwealth Games.

He is assisted by Owain Rowlands, a former rugby player who has made rapid progress as both a coach and competitor since he began lifting last August.

The academy, assisted with funding from Sport Wales, runs in partnership with Pembrokeshire County Council Leisure, and as well as Olympic Weightlifting provides strength and conditioning coaching and open gym classes.

And Simon admits he wants to have SAW weightlifters competing in the 2018 Commonwealth Games in the Gold Coast, Australia.

“Pembrokeshire has a great history in weightlifting but unfortunately things have died down in the last 20 years,” said Simon.

“But there is a lot of junior potential in the county. We run lifting classes every night, for individuals and teams, and now have outreach clubs in Pembroke and Milford.”

And thus far, the venture has proved a positive one. Indeed, teenagers Lewis Thomas, Anita Madan, and Alex John, who all recently became Welsh champions, are just three of the success stories to have emerged from the academy since its opening in August 2013.

And as Owain explained, it’s not just weightlifters who are benefitting.

“We provide sessions and training programmes for the Pembrokeshire WRU Player Pathway, as well as individuals in a range of other sports.

“For example, we have triathletes who want to improve their leg strength, and swimmers looking to work on their explosive power.

“All our programmes can be modified and then adapted to an individual’s particular sport.”

And Owain added the club wasn’t just focussed on developing competitors, but coaches as well – with a host of SAW member s having already gone on to complete level one courses.

But unfortunately, knowing I was in such good hands did little to remove my trepidation as my session got underway. Although weight training was not unfamiliar to me, I was all too aware that what I was about to experience would be far more dynamic than my standard dunbell routine.

“It’s important to get your technique right before you worry about the weight,” said Owain, as he prepared to tutor me through the first weightlifting discipline, the clean and jerk.

“If you warm up properly, and concentrate on getting the movements right, you can make quick progress.”

After a series of front squats to warm up, we started off with the clean movement - a lift which starts in the deadlift position and requires the lifter to rapidly pull under the bar and perform the afore mentioned front squat.

And it didn’t take long for Owain’s words on technique to hit home. Like many novices I suspect, I was guilty early on of trying to pull the bar upwards, as opposed to dropping my body below it.

We then went over the jerk movement, where from a standing position, a lifter will bend the knees and then straighten them in order to propel the barbell upwards – finishing with one leg in front of the other.

After time, I began to master the technique on both movements. But inevitably, when it came to combining both for a full clean and jerk lift, I struggled to put the whole process together.

My primary faults were holding the bar too far from my body, and lunging forward too hastily at the end of the exercise.

But as I staggered outside for a breather, something else was apparent. It is all too easy to associate weightlifting with huge arms and shoulders – but here, it was my lower limbs that ached the most.

Admittedly, like many other gym goers, I have been frequently guilty in the past of that cardinal sin of skipping leg day.

“Just the slightest bit of technique can be the difference between making and missing a lift,” Owain told me.

“And it’s 90-95% legs. When you think about it, you have 16 muscles in your legs and just two in your arms.”

It was a concept that made perfect sense, yet had never occurred to me.

However, there was little time to dwell as I joined Simon for a tutorial in the second weightlifting movement, the snatch – where the barbell is lifted from the platform to locked arms overhead in one continuous movement.

Again, we went through a range of warm up movements – with Simon explaining the different components of the lift, namely the pull (fast deadlift), overhead squat and power jerk.

And his guidance was crucial as I came to terms with accelerating the lift, and transferring my weight, at the right times.

“When the weight is at mid thigh height you have to explode into a shrug movement,” he said.

“But the snatch lift is about combining  different exercises – and  you have to try to keep the proper alignment of your body as it makes it so much easier.”

What was noticeable was as fatigue set in, the routine and thought process became more complex. I had a tendency to rush the lift and forget some of the intricate necessities along the way.

But despite the steep learning curve, the session benefitted me greatly – and dare I say it, has prompted a re-think into my future weight training.

Of course, everybody has different training preferences. Some prefer to use machines and their own free weights – while others are more than capable of reaching their fitness goals without entering the confines of a gym.

But if it’s a pathway in weightlifting you’re after, with a view to enhancing technique and explosive power – I suggest you look no further than the SAW.

And whatever your weight training procedure, I have one solitary bit of advice. Don’t ever skip leg day.

Bill Carne's verdict:

When we looked at the list of Commonwealth Games challenges for Fraser to undertake I made a mental note that weightlifting would be one which he would not only enjoy but pick up in a short space of time.

And I wasn’t wrong because when we visited the Strength Academy Wales facility at STP School, run by Simon Roach who is ably assisted by Owain Rowlands, he relished every moment.

To be fair to Owain and then Simon, they didn’t rush him because they do a great job in making sure that newcomers are well versed in the safety issues and emphasize that correct technique is paramount.

Now it is fair to say that Fraser has done his fair share of weight training as a rugby player at Whitland - but that emphasises a build up of power in the upper body as opposed to lifting heavy weights with a ‘clean and jerk’ and ‘snatch’ like competitors will in Glasgow.

Owain set Fraser off stretching his frame through the legs, starting without any weight and then building through the ‘clean’ part of the clean and jerk lift by utilising a 7kg bar alone, followed by increased addition of weights.

Once Fraser showed he had captured those lifting skills of the ‘clean’ section it was over to Simon to show him the ‘jerk’ component and again it was the same format – honing technique using only a bar at first then adding weight gradually.

When he completed his first clean and jerk he was palpably pleased and from there it was a matter of gently increasing the poundage.

Fraser then tried the ‘snatch’ technique, and surprisingly he seemed to master that quicker than the ‘clean and jerk’, perhaps because some of the skills were transferable.

But he was clearly tired by then and so Simon decided any more work could be left for another day.

And another day there could be because Fraser clearly enjoyed his time with the lads at SAW – and could well be back there when his rugby days are over!

Tune into this week's Radio Pembrokeshire Friday Night Sport Show, between 6-8pm, to hear Bill Carne speak to Fraser about his session, and to Simon and Owain about their work at SAW.

For more on weightlifting in Pembrokeshire, visit the Sport Pembrokeshire Facebook page or www.pembrokeshire.gov.uk/sport.

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