The Art of Weightlifting or is it Music? by JW Turner

Below is a blog that I asked our newest team member, Professor JW Turner to write. He brings such a different perspective to our sport. I believe that we all have something to learn from him. Enjoy!

The Art of Weightlifting or is it Music? by JW Turner



As I have come to understand it, successful weight lifting consists of performing several relatively simple actions accurately, in the correct order, and with precise timing. Unfortunately, while the fundamental actions may be practiced separately, when integrated into a complete lift, they happen so rapidly that the order and timing must be performed largely intuitively. Experienced lifters thus acquire a “feel” for the various lifts over time, following a frustrating period of poor and missed attempts.

This description closely resembles my experience in learning to play the cello, in fact, the problems of cello playing might be even more complex, as the right and left hands perform strikingly different actions. In both cases, however, one’s progress does not follow a linear progression; after an initial period of relatively rapid advancement, students reach a plateau where they remain, sometimes for a substantial amount of time, before abruptly “punching through” to the next level.

I began playing the cello for fun in grade school, and by my High School years, was competing on the state level and attending summer camps and seminars. Ultimately, I was accepted into a prestigious program at the Cleveland Institute of Music, with the intention of following a career performing in a professional orchestra or chamber group. Unfortunately, I was not a particularly good student on any level; I was lazy, outwardly arrogant, and inwardly insecure.

Twenty-five years later, when I started training with Br. Travis at Mash Elite Performance, I was immediately struck by the similarities in musical and athletic training, and felt that I had been given a “second chance” of sorts. I resolved to correct all my previous shortcomings. I would be focused, coming to each session with all the right equipment and beginning my warm up as soon as I walked into the gym. I would be humble, never talking back to the coach or becoming defensive over criticism, and performing whatever was asked of me obediently and promptly. I would take outside assignments seriously, and bring results rather than excuses. Finally, after I’d been training for a few weeks, I also resolved to be confident. In a sport actually called “weight lifting” it seemed silly to be intimidated by the number of plates on the bar, even with my uncertain technique. As Br. Jacob, the “Rabbit,” told me, “the way to deal with heavy weight is to attack it.”

My first month of weight lifting was very much like my lessons at the Cleveland Institute: I spent a lot of time repeating simple, unfamiliar actions, and getting them wrong. Then, I had to put away all the detailed thinking and perform complete snatches and cleans, missing lift after lift without understanding precisely why. However, my frustration and anger at each session was quickly cooled by the atmosphere at Mash Elite Performance. My determination to be the “best student” gives me an intensity that endlessly amuses the other lifters. “Whoa! Slow down!” they call out. Br. Travis even laughingly scolded me: “What are you missing!? A chair! Go grab one!”

In addition to the relaxed atmosphere, I was surprised by two other significant differences: weight lifters support each other and know their strengths, while musicians, at least in my experience, generally do not.

While my experiences at Cleveland were generally positive, music schools can be cold, intimidating places, and breaking in to the culture can be difficult. My most extreme experience was at a camp that I attended in High School. Like a lot of programs, the camp included a weekly “master class”; a session when all the cello students in attendance met all together with several of the teachers. Selected students were scheduled to perform and then received comments from both the instructors and the other students. When it was my turn to perform, I found that, in my anxiety, my hands were shaking so violently that I was not able to draw a straight tone. This had never happened to me before, and I had no idea what to do about it. Since my own teacher was not able to attend that day, I grimly went up to play my assignment anyway, and watched helplessly while my bow jumped and skated over the strings in spite of everything I tried to settle it down. When I was finished, one of the instructors launched into a bitter tirade that probably lasted ten minutes, but felt like an hour, denouncing me as an incompetent fool who was clearly wasting everyone’s time. Everyone else in the room, teachers and fellow students alike, nodded sagely. I was on my own that day.

By contrast, at one early session with Br. Travis when I was struggling with my snatch, I noticed that the Rabbit, who was supposed to be doing his own workout, kept stealing glances at me out of the corner of his eye. Finally he hissed, “Shoulders tight!” at me when Br. Travis was looking away. I was so astonished that I almost dropped the bar. Since then, I have been regularly cheered on by groups of four to six lifters, all of whom are twenty years younger than me and capable of lifting three times as much. “Easy! You’ve got this!” they call to me as I prepare to lift all of 50 kg. “Chest up! Shoulders! Go!” Afterward, they all come around to shake my hand.

Several years after the incident at the master class, my cello teacher in Cleveland asked me what I thought my strengths were. The idea that I had strengths as a cellist was something I had never encountered; to my memory, none of my previous teachers or mentors had ever mentioned anything about strengths, only weaknesses. After an awkward silence in which I tried to imagine something I might be good at, I answered meekly, “I don’t have any.” It was one of several times when something I said or did made him visibly angry. So angry, in fact, that he let the subject drop. Since then, I’ve come to feel that I’m pretty good at perceiving musical direction, but I still struggle with many aspects of cello technique.

Again, by contrast, all the lifters at Mash Elite seem to have a clear understanding of their abilities: “I’m not so good off the floor,” one of them confided to me, “but I have a really fast second pull.” On a recent episode of the Barbell Life podcast, this self-knowledge was articulated as, “lift to your strengths, train to your weaknesses.” This is a much more realistic approach to improving any sort of performance: rather than filling the training time with empty repetitions of skills already mastered, it makes sense to focus on isolating and correcting weaknesses. While most musicians would certainly agree in principle, I’m surprised that there hasn’t been more emphasis on recognizing mastery in students in order to promote this sort of focus.

The philosophy of music pedagogy seems to be changing. I understand that the local jazz community, for example, is very supportive of newcomers, and I recently took a series of lessons with Eugene Friesen of Berklee College, who startled me by praising something I’d played at nearly every session. My experience at Mash Elite Performance, however, has profoundly changed my ideas about building community, and, while I don’t teach cello students, I have certainly reconsidered my approach to teaching my academic music classes. It continues to be a privilege to train with the Mash Mafia, and I am deeply grateful to Br. Travis and all the team members.

We are hosting a Holiday Olympic Weightlifting Meet December 20th at the Mash Mafia Compound. Come hangout with the Mash Mafia Crew, some MDUSA Stars, Coach Mash, slam some bars, and of course KILL Some PRs! Click on the link to find out more:

December 20th Meet at the Mash Mafia Compound

We are hosting a New Year Learn 2 Lift Seminar at the Compound as well! January 10th and 11th come out and hang with Coach Mash and the Mash Mafia. Weightlifting Day 1 and Powerlifting Day 2. Come to one or both days just click on the link to find out more:

New Year Learn 2 Lift at the Mash Mafia Compound

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