If you've tried to catch any of the weightlifting coverage at the Olympic games, you've probably had some trouble. It seems that the lifting is mainly shown late at night or early in the morning, and only on NBC's smaller affiliate stations. I'd suspect the main reason for this is that Michael Phelps isn't a weightlifter, and America's presence in Olympic weightlifting has been dwindling for 40-odd years.
The U.S. hasn't won a medal in weightlifting since 1960, and that's tragic, since we had been one of the world's most dominating forces in the sport for decades up to that point. According to American Weightlifting, the sport was once so popular here that in 1958, 10,000 people poured into Madison Square Garden to watch the World Championships.
So what the hell happened?
A few things. Like so many sports, there have been drug scandals over the years that have tarnished its reputation. And I'm sure the layman simply doesn't find lifting heavy weights as enjoyable as watching basketball or women's beach volleyball (and I can fully appreciate the latter). However, I think the big reason for weightlifting's disappearance in this country is rooted in, oddly enough, the rise of what we call "fitness" today.
Weightlifting's decline ties in closely to bodybuilding's explosion. In the 1930s, Bob Hoffman, a weightlifter in York, Pa., published what was arguably the first fitness magazine, Strength and Health. The mag pushed weightlifting as the route to health, athleticism, and functional strength. Joe Weider followed soon afterward, but the agenda in his magazines was bodybuilding--the development of an aesthetic, lean, and muscular body. While both pursuits offered similar benefits in strength, health, and aesthetics, the kind of training involved in each was very different. Weightlifting entails lifting a bar explosively overhead in either the snatch or clean and jerk (in those days, they also did the press), and it requires virtually every muscle in the body to work in congress. Bodybuilding makes you break the body down, training a few different muscle groups at a time with specific exercises for each (even full-body training, as was once the norm, involves doing several exercises aimed at building each muscle area in succession).
It's not to say that weightlifting can't build size or get you ripped like bodybuilding can, but that's never been its main function. Rather, it was Weider's brand of bodybuilding that became known for transforming physiques. When World War II came around, a lot of the country's best weightlifters went off to fight, and the sport lost momentum. By the 60s, and the emergence of good-looking, marketable champions like Dave Draper, Larry Scott, and Arnold, bodybuilding was in full swing. To make a long story short, training for aesthetics held greater appeal for the masses than training for athletics did, and that mentality has evolved into the cookie-cutter gym chains that don't let you drop weights on the floor, and the overpriced fitness gadgets we see today. (For a longer story, check out my article on the history of Muscle Beach.)
That's all well and good, and no one at MF would ever knock bodybuilding training for the purpose of looking good, but it's a shame that weightlifting has fallen so far under the radar. If you're a college athlete, especially a football player, you've likely done some power cleans in your day. But I'm afraid that the average guy in the gym will never get a taste of it, and the man on the street will think it's a sport of fat guys lifting big weights for two seconds at a time.
The reality is that weightlifting builds tremendous muscle and can get you in great condition. You don't see that so clearly looking at some of the superheavyweight competitors, who don't need to monitor their diets to make a weight class, but you do in lighter competitors. It's interesting to note that those guys don't do many, if any, leg extensions, crunches, or dumbbell lateral raises, and they're every bit as muscular and chiseled as the most impressive guy most of us have seen in our gyms. If not more so.
Check out the magazine for weightlifting exercises you can do in your own training.