Are You a Barbell Generalist?

Long before the powerlifters and Olympic lifters stopped talking to each other, barbell athletes used to train both, and more.

In my last article, I explored the issue of whether one should be a generalist or specialist with regard to sport training. Since then, I have been made aware of other aspects of the question that bear further discussion.

Any thoughtful observer of the iron game today will notice that things have now become very specialized. We have the Olympic lifters emphasizing fast, powerful, and technically sophisticated movements. Powerlifters concentrate on the development of absolute strength. The relatively new sport of strongman competition concentrates on feats of strength endurance. And yes, bodybuilding exists for those more concerned with form than function.

The specialization that exists today was not always the case. If we go back to the first half of the 20th century, we see that many trainees did a little bit of everything. Some Olympic lifting, some bodybuilding, and maybe a few of what were called the odd lifts. These were things like squats, bench presses, and curls, which in the fullness of time developed into the power lifts.

The Days Before Specialization

It is probably true that most Olympic weightlifters started out as bodybuilders. Many people today may still begin weightlifting for its aesthetic benefits. But in those early days, a lot of weight trainees liked to display a certain level of competence in all aspects of the game. Everyone trained in the same gym, so a cross-pollination of ideas frequently occurred.

Even if not everyone competed, they certainly all talked to one another. Weightlifters would be in the audience at their friends’ bodybuilding contests, and vice versa. Such people, if they chose to compete, would enter any sort of competition, be it bodybuilding or weightlifting, and quite often excel at each. They were helped along by the fact that standards were nowhere near as high in those days, so it was quite possible for person to be a double- or triple-threat with the iron. But that would not last.

This is the natural way of the world. Generalist pioneers always blaze a trail through an unknown wilderness so that more specialized practitioners can refine it later. Today, very few weightlifters know many local powerlifters or bodybuilders, and might only be familiar with only one or two such champions via the media. Weight trainees are so specialized today that there is very little feeling of commonality, even by those who use similar equipment in their training.

There are some hardy individuals who have consciously made themselves an exception to this development. Those persons are what are referred to as “all-round” lifters, and they practice a wide variety of lifts while trying to maintain a high level of strength, technique, and shape. In Great Britain, Olympic weightlifting and the strength set (British term for powerlifting) were at one time merely specialist parts of the larger organization.

CrossFit Before It Was Cool

Going back into the early 20th century, this aspect of the sport was actually dominant. British championships were held every year. There were 44 different lifts recognized over the various body weight categories. As you might imagine, not all of the lifts were contested at any one championship. Rather, five lifts were selected for the competition. The tricky part was that you did not know what those five lifts would be until about four or five months before the actual championships.

Those were held in May, so lifters would be informed of that year’s lifts right after New Year’s. This would ensure that people could develop a certain amount of skill in the lift, and had sufficient time to devote to more specialized training. The rest of the year, from June to December, all-around lifters would drop some or all of the lifts they had contested in May and return to their routine, all-around training.

They had to do a little bit of everything to ensure that they had developed a sufficient base of overall strength and conditioning, so that they could switch to the five designated lifts and not be too far behind everyone else. Part of the fun was not knowing what your training was going to consist of in those first few months of the year. Sometimes a favored-to-win lifter would guess wrong when planning his training, and then be upset by a lesser lifter who guessed right. This factor made everything more interesting.

All of this forced a more complete development of the lifter, but at the expense of absolute peak performance. It was impossible to be the very best at all 44 movements, so some compromises were necessary with regard to personal goals. Most strove for a respectable level of fitness such that they could take on any of the 44 lifts and achieve at least a respectable performance. Others decided to specialize in a few particular lifts.

That there was a little something for everyone in all-round lifting. You could indeed be a generalist or a specialist. This allowed for a certain amount of flexibility that today’s competitors are lacking.

All-Round Goes Global

Today there is actually a world body dedicated to all-round lifting. The International All-Round Weightlifting Association (IAWA) boasts the USA, UK, New Zealand, and other national affiliates as members. And while the 44 lifts used in Britain in the 1950s seems like a lot, the IAWA doesn’t settle for so few. Oh no. They now recognize about 150 lifts over 21 weight, three age, and two sex categories. (I would hate to be Records Chair for that group!)

This variety is somewhat suggestive of CrossFit and strongman competitions, where the events contested are not always the same. A certain amount of all-round fitness is required, while the performances of specialists are not usually reached. As such, the all-round lifting events may be another alternative for more generalist fitness trainees.

For those who do not care for the intense training required to get to the top of any of the current barbell sports, all-round lifting might be just what the doctor ordered. This is especially true of Masters lifters who no longer want or are unable to compete at the same intensity as they did in their younger years.

All-round lifting can extend your competitive career significantly. Lifting veterans who have not set a PR in decades can do so on one of these “odd” lifts. Since most lifters have not trained on those lifts before, anything they do now, even had an advanced age, becomes a new PR. One can relive their novice days all over by simply adopting a new lift and watching progress grow all over again. And there are probably even more opportunities for women among the “all-rounders.”

Don’t like the Olympic lifts? Not interested in the powerlifts? Not a bodybuilder? Why not try life as an all-rounder? But you still have to go to the gym!

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