Youth Weightlifting Pioneer Marty Schnorf
Three decades of success prove that adolescent athletes can lift heavy weights safely
By Kim Goss
Published: Summer 2003
One of the most controversial issues in sports conditioning is strength training for young athletes. Many coaches still believe itís dangerous for young athletes to lift weights, and some believe itís a waste of time.
Marty Schnorf has spent 30 years dispelling these myths while training young athletes to lift maximal weights with relatively few injuries. Further, Schnorfís athletes have broken junior and senior American records and have competed in countless international competitions, including the Olympics.
Schnorf was born in Charleston, Illinois, living most of his life there, and attended Eastern Illinois University, where he earned a degree in physical education in 1974. Later he went back to school to earn his law degree from Southern Illinois. After college he coached young athletes in several sports, particularly baseball and basketball, and spent his free time in the weight room training champions and future champions in Olympic weightlifting.
Among his most accomplished athletes were Curt White, who won his first senior nationals in 1977 when he was only 14, and Stewart Thornburgh, who won the senior nationals in 1978 at age 17. Curt went on to compete in the 1988 Olympics, and his best lifts included a 347 snatch and 441 clean and jerk at 181 pounds bodyweight. Currently Schnorfís training is focused on 14-year-old Amy Miller, who at 117 pounds bodyweight can clean and jerk 195 pounds and has numerous age-group records on her athletic rťsumť.
In this exclusive interview, Coach Schnorf shares his experiences and coaching methods in training young athletes to be super strong.
BFS: How did you become interested in weightlifting?
Schnorf: I was primarily a shot-putter and discus thrower but also participated in football and baseball. I started lifting weights to help improve my strength for the shot and discus. I learned the Olympic lifts by reading Strength and Health magazine, since there was never really anyone around me who competed or knew how to coach them. The first time I saw someone actually perform the lifts was in 1970, when I went to watch the World Weightlifting Championships in Columbus, Ohio. This is the meet where the Russian superheavyweight Vasily Alexeev became the first weightlifter to clean and jerk 500 pounds. After that, I was hooked and started having some of the kids I worked with perform the Olympic lifts to help them improve their performance in other sports.
BFS: When did you start making your mark coaching Olympic lifters?
Schnorf: In 1973 one of the kids I trained set a national record in his age group. That same year I took some athletes to the National Junior Championships and several of them won. Thatís when I started getting more heavily involved in the sport.
BFS: Did you continue lifting after college?
Schnorf: After college I didnít lift seriously. Also, the efforts I could have made would have been pretty pathetic compared to the lifts some of the kids I was working with were doing.
BFS: You stopped coaching for several years to go to law school, and it was almost a decade before you got back into coaching. Why were you away from the sport for so long?
Schnorf: Thereís a long path from the time you first start teaching athletes how to perform the Olympic lifts until they reach the point where they actually are capable of competing on a world level. Itís such a huge commitment of time and energy to do it the way it should be done that sometimes it can burn you out. Besides that, it can be frustrating when your athletes lose interest or quit for other reasons.
BFS: So what made you get back into coaching lifters seriously?
Schnorf: James Williams, a high school thrower I was working with on the lifts, made an international junior squad in weightlifting, and that got me back into coaching the sport.
BFS: Did your physical education classes at college prepare you to coach weightlifting to young athletes?
Schnorf: At that time there was a reluctance to advocate weight training for kids, certainly prepubescent kids. In fact, I remember asking my instructors if it was safe and I canít recall anyone I ever had contact with who was a proponent of early training.
BFS: Do you know of any top lifters who experienced growth plate injuries from the sport?
Schnorf: In my experience I canít think of any who have been diagnosed with such an injury, and I would say that Iíve certainly started more kids at an earlier age than all but a handful of coaches in this country. Iíve known plenty of kids who developed serious injuries from playing baseball and other sports, but Iíve had very, very few even moderate injuries in weightlifting.
BFS: Many medical experts will say that while it may be fine for kids to lift heavy weights, they must avoid lifting weights overhead because it can easily damage the shoulder at that age. What is your opinion?
Schnorf: Medical and scientific theory often conflict with practical experience. A lot of such theories have been proven wrong, such as women who are pregnant shouldnít exercise or that women athletes canít tolerate running long distances. If you remember, 60 or 70 years ago experts said that a curve ball didnít curve, that it was an optical illusion. As for stress on the shoulders, certainly anyone who participates in gymnastics at a young age is putting a high level of stress on the shoulder joints and they seem to do fine.
BFS: Seldom do your athletes perform any pressing exercises. Isnít shoulder strength important in jerking weights overhead?
Schnorf: During the time I worked with Curt and Stewart we never did any pressing. Stewart could never bench press 200 pounds, and Amy Miller has jerked 237 pounds overhead but canít do a military press with 75 pounds. Amy has one of the best jerks Iíve seen, male or female, and certainly the best jerk of anyone Iíve coached. I am of the belief that the jerk is a speed and technique lift, so with my athletes I emphasize speed, speed and more speed.
BFS: What effect does the starting age have on speed and starting strength?
Schnorf: The sooner you can establish the proper motor patterns in lifting the better. The toughest athletes to teach are the kids who are maybe 16 to 18 and have done a lot of bodybuilding exercisesóit gets very frustrating for them. I think that especially for a kid whoís pretty bright and has an appropriate attention span, the younger you can get them started the better.
BFS: You were one of the first coaches to train athletes twice a day. Did you encounter criticism from other weightlifting coaches for training that frequently?
Schnorf: Certainly. The accepted practice was generally to train every other day, so the idea that an athlete could train six days a week or twice a day some days was just not looked upon as being appropriate at that time.
BFS: Are there any problems related to the age at which an athlete begins lifting twice a day?
Schnorf: An athlete who starts such frequent training younger has a big advantage over an athlete who begins at a later age, especially in terms of how the body handles it and frequently in how the mind handles it. One of the problems with older lifters trying to train this frequently is that they have a lot more stress and personal obligations and may not have the ability to focus like a kid who doesnít have all those pressures.
BFS: You have a reputation for pushing your athletes through brutally hard training sessions. Is that true?
Schnorf: At the 1979 Friendship Cup in Russia, Stewart lifted well while the other US lifters didnít lift very well. On the plane back someone asked Stewart why the pressure didnít seem to bother him, and he said, ďI have more pressure on me every day in the gym than I ever had in Russia.Ē My philosophy is to put my athletes under a lot of pressure in t