Yay Burpees! An Interview with Mike Burgener
By Robb Wolf
This month we have the honor of an interview with world-renowned Olympic Weightlifting coach, Mike Burgener. Those of you who know Coach B know that anything written by or about him should be ALL CAPS ALL THE TIME!!! This is because he is “SO FREAKING PASSIONATE ABOUT THE OLYMPIC LIFTS!!” Well, our design department nixed the ALL CAPS for the interview, but I want readers to know the boundless energy, knowledge and excitement that burns in this man. If you watch him coach, see his excitement, and do not want to become an Olympic lifter, you do not have a pulse.
If you have not checked out Coach B’s site, you need to at www.mikesgym.org. Read the articles and look at the sequences he has picked out as exemplifying good pulling technique in the Olympic lifts. Once you have done that, get a broomstick, dowel or piece of PVC, and practice The Warm-up.
Read the interview, compete in the Olympic lifts, and make this man proud!
Would you give our readers some background on yourself? What are some of the athletic achievements of which you are most proud? When and how did you get in¬volved in Olympic weightlifting?
I grew up in southern Illinois. Marion, Illinois, to be exact. My dad was a dairy man, my mom a beautician. I have two sisters who still reside in the Midwest. I played football at Notre Dame and was a defensive back under Ara Parseghian, who brought Notre Dame back to prominence in 1964. My strength coach, Fr. BHB Lange, was an Olympic lifting coach who taught me the lifts, and I competed in the off season.
When you begin coaching a newbie in the Olympic lifts, how important are overall conditioning and athleticism?
Overall conditioning and athleticism are very important to be a high-caliber Olympic weightlifter. Having said that, everyone can have loads of fun training the lifts and participating in contests at the local and even national levels.
How do you gauge the attributes you find desirable for success in the Olympic lifts and what are some ways you address possible weaknesses in these areas?
Flexibility is the number one attribute that I look at when identifying a potential athlete. I also look at size: long levers and shorts limbs are ideal to be successful at a high school level. However, I have seen many motivated men and women who have big hearts and lots of motivation that do not have those attributes but have been successful. There really is not much that I can do about somotyping, but we can address weaknesses of individuals with certain exercises to enhance the strength in various positions.
Coach, you teach the Russian style of pulling in the O-lifts; tell our readers a little about this style and why you like it.
I like the Russian style of the pull because of its vertical position. I have found that when we are pulling in the straight up and down position, we can put more momentum on the bar. Also, the Russian pull is what most kids in the USA identify with, i.e. the vertical jump. I have found it easier to teach us¬ ing this system because of our youth knowing how to vertical jump. When I can get them to jump with a barbell in their hands, putting momentum and elevation on that barbell, then learning to pull their bodies under the barbell, the light goes on and they become addicted to the sport.
What are some other styles that are effective on the international level?
The Bulgarian style is more of a horizontal thrust if you will… a big arc or a C-pull. Many Olympic champions, the pocket Hercules, use this style and have been very successful.
Do you see any benefits or short-comings of these styles relative to the Russian style?
I choose to teach the lifts with the Russian style because of the ease with which the kids learn them.
You have included things like The Patch and kettlebells in the training of your athletes for some time. This seems to fly in the face of “conventional” wisdom. What do you feel these tools bring to your athletes?
Functional strength, core strength, core stabilization. It is amazing to see the athletes become much more functionally strong when doing the patch, kettlebells and CrossFit. What I am after is better Olympic weightlifters, and using these modalities has made my lifters stronger and more powerful.
When did you first hear about CrossFit?
In February 2004.
Did you expect it to take such a prominent role in your coaching?
I was not sure. I started reading about what Greg and Lauren were doing and the fact that the military and special forces and secret service were using it. I was intrigued to say the least. Let’s just say I am a good learner, so I was open to the CrossFit family and how it could make me a better coach.
Would you share with us some of your successes using this combined approach?
I use CrossFit daily in my teaching of physical education. Josh Everett, a CrossFit mad man, uses CrossFit and the Olympic lifts to better his lifting. My son Cody and my daughter Sage are both athletes and lifters who use CrossFit to aid their performance.
You are the Strength and Conditioning Coach at Rancho Buena Vista High School. Could you tell us about your experiences with CrossFit and the Olympic lifts at the high school level?
My final exam is the snatch, clean & jerk, back squat, front squat, and ten kettlebell exercises. Now I am adding a CrossFit workout to that final. The students will be allowed to choose between Angie, Grace, Helen or Fran for their finals. We will have a minimum standard for the students to perform to pass.
Please fill us in on your desire to bring CrossFit to high schools everywhere.
It’s a no-brainer: CrossFit brings us back to the hardcore, physically fit lifestyle that we used to have—back in the day. It does not take much money, it’s easy to administer, and the kids will love it. Believe it or not, kids want to be worked hard. Kids want to be in shape. They may not know it initially, but I have found that the harder I work the kids, the better they like it. Putting the ladies’ names on the board and the kids’ names on the board that accomplish the workout has done amazing things within my weight room. Braggin’ rights are abundant!
Do you modify how the O-lifts are performed if you are training people for sports besides the Olympic lifts?
Not really. I may not use a full clean or a full snatch if I see a potential problem with flexibility, but I will always work toward getting that full range of motion.
Coach, the Olympic lifts are not popular in the US. What can we do to change that?
Get them into the schools: high school, middle school, and elementary school. Getting back to the fitness age, i.e. getting our kids fit again and introducing them to all kinds of activities… other than football, basketball, baseball and track. There are many sports and fitness activities that everyone can perform. That is why I like CrossFit: it is written across the board and everyone can do the workouts… scaled down, sure, but everyone can do them!
This article was originally published in the Performance Menu Journal.