John Cheah / @cheahjohn
Team Singapore Olympic weightlifter, personal trainer, mother-in-law still thinks he’s a bodybuilder
When people think of weightlifting, they tend to think of lifting weights at the gym, which a good number do to look good or get strong. The kind of weightlifting I do, Olympic weightlifting, is a sport in which athletes attempt a maximum-weight single lift of a barbell loaded with weight plates for two different competition lifts, the snatch and the clean and jerk. These are two of the most athletic ways to move weight from ground to overhead and are technical movements that are very difficult to learn without a coach.
I represent Singapore in Olympic weightlifting as a professional athlete who trains day in, day out, knowing I will never stand on a podium with a medal around my neck. I remember lifting the following weights for my three snatch attempts at the 2019 Asian Championships: 125kg, 128kg, and 130kg, which effectively put me in last place. The guy who was second to last made a first attempt of 155kg. That’s the disparity between second last place and last place. Singapore’s not very good at weightlifting. It’s not something weightlifters in Singapore admit even though it’s an unspoken consensus today: we know that we’re not training to win competitions. We’re training to be the stepping stones for future generations to win. We see our seniors’ lifts as achievable aims we can surpass, given our team’s capabilities. It can get quite demoralizing sometimes, especially since we know winning is not going to happen anytime soon. No one likes walking into a competition they have trained their heart out for knowing they are going to lose before it has even started.
I may not win anything in this lifetime, but I’ve come to realize that it’s not always about winning. I like weightlifting. Even though it only consists of two movements, these movements are so complex that I still find something new to appreciate about them regardless of how long I’ve been doing them. I also enjoy competing. I compete against myself whenever I go for a competition. I document my lifts on Instagram as a way for me to look back on them and set higher targets for the future. I’ve added 25 kilograms to both my snatch and clean and jerk movements since I started competing three years ago. There’s a kind of satisfaction you get when you beat yourself, which pushes me to keep going a lot despite the losses at competitions. I may not be better than everyone else on the world stage, but I can be a better weightlifter than I was the year before, and that still counts as progress and an achievement.
My teammates and I also want to pass weightlifting down to future generations and keep the sport alive, but in order for that to happen, people have to gain more exposure to weightlifting and dispel any preconceived notions they may have about the sport. The number one myth: weightlifting stunts growth. It doesn’t. Weightlifting, when done properly, actually forces your body to push against resistance, and in that pushing against resistance, you build bone density which is a good thing if you’re getting older and losing bone density. In fact, puberty is the best time to start strength training because when you subject your body to this kind of resistance in puberty, it produces a lot of human growth hormone, which is what people take as (usually banned) drugs while competing for faster recovery. If someone starts weightlifting during puberty when all that natural human growth hormone is coursing through their body, they will be able to build a better foundation of strength that they can take into adulthood.
But all that aside, I also know that as much I like it, weightlifting is just one small part of life. There’s so much more that we have to focus on, like how well we can move our bodies in the long term. Most of the injuries weightlifters sustain stem from overuse and wear and tear because of how repetitive our movements are. In fact, I am recovering from one right now - I overused my knee and the meniscus is slightly strained, which I’ve been resting over the past month. You need to rest and lay off the part that hurts if you’re injured so you recover properly. There’s no point going crazy training if you’re not able to bend your knee when you’re 35. That’s not what I want to train for. Contrary to what many people think, being an athlete isn’t always about the medals.
COMMON MISCONCEPTION ALERT