Nicu Vlad

Nicu Vlad is one of the greatest weightlifters of all time. He lifted in the 90kg weight class and is most well known for having the heaviest double body weight snatch; he snatched 200 kilos while weighing 100. He won an gold at the 1984 Olympics, placed second in 1988, and placed third in 1996 (when he was 33!). He also placed in the top three in seven World Championships (winning gold in three) and placed in the top two in six European Championships.

There are only a few videos on YouTube of his prowess, and here are two with the best video quality (note the Gordon commentators).

The 215kg clean and jerk from the same meet.

A few years ago Matt Foreman wrote an excellent article about Vlad in the Performance Menu. The story under the heading “A quick 185 snatch, then some RDLs…” stood out to me. Foreman was watching Vlad snatch, and Vlad missed 175 twice and then jumped to 180 and missed that twice.

I will never forget what he did next.

He loaded 185 on the bar. This time, as he stood in front of the bar preparing for the lift, he stood motionless, tilted his head back and closed his eyes in the famous Vlad-concentration pose we had all seen him strike on the platform at the Olympics and world championships. He had not done this before any of the other lifts of his workout, and the gym went completely silent. After ten seconds, he reached down, grabbed the bar, and nailed the easiest, strongest snatch of the day.

Foreman later found out that 185 was his goal weight for the day, and he pointed out how Vlad didn’t make a big production out of missing the previous reps or getting ready (or “psyched”) for the 185. I admire this trait in Vlad and other weightlifters as it represents maturity and discipline in the mental aspect of training. The ability to mentally induce a hurricane is much more impressive to me than requiring external stimuli like music, slapping, and yelling.

However, I don’t like how Foreman chose to explain it here: “When he got to 185…he just applied an extra level of concentration and focus. It was a big weight, he was having a bad workout, and he needed to tap into his extra reservoir of inner strength, mojo, or whatever you want to call it.”

Foreman and I admire Vlad for the same reasons, but this quick explanation is merely an over simplification on what Vlad was probably doing. Profile studies of the most successful athletes — the elite — show that they score the highest in “vigor”, a summary for strong mental health. This is typically innate in the highest performers, but their ability can be augmented by various mental strategies. World class athletes are typically taught things like arousal regulation, imagery, routines, self talk, and thought stoppage that focus on physical cues or improve concentration, motivation, self confidence, and subsequently performance.

While it’s possible that Vlad closed his eyes and merely gave himself a pump up, I like to think it was a specific psychological method that he regularly uses. The techniques above aren’t just used once in a while; they are practiced hundreds and thousands of times in congruence with the sport itself so that they become as much habit as the sport. For example, if a lifter takes fifteen minutes from each day, relaxes, and visualizes hitting a smooth snatch with whatever his primary cue is (like stabbing the rack position), then when he finally steps back on a platform he has mentally practiced the snatch hundreds of times. He has seen or felt his body perform it, so the lift itself becomes a part of the story that has played out in his head every day. This is just one very specific type of example.

On that particular day, it may have been something as simple as Vlad thinking about wanting to win the 1990 World Championships (Foreman’s stories are from earlier that year). He may have thought about one of his top adversaries lifting better than him. He may have been just been pissed off about missing and was giving himself an ultimatum. Maybe he thought, “Don’t look like a loser in front of these fucking American kids.” Who knows what he thought about, but it wasn’t merely that he “focused harder”. There are many psychological skills that can be implemented whether they are taught or not, and a complete change in performance doesn’t occur from a vague “inner strength”.

Either way, Vlad was an amazing weightlifter and someone whose technique — physical and mental — we should study and learn from.

15 thoughts on “Nicu Vlad

  1. Great post Justin. I have been reading a lot of ironmind stuff and just their book on mental preparation and I really like this idea of thinking through the lift and especially visualization. I almost always lift alone with hard metal (or techno) pumping and your numerous posts on the silent focus and maturity of champions definitely has me thinking. @Tbone- I will be in Asheville over Christmas weekend and I was wondering if there was any chance if I could get a Christmas eve day lift in at your gym. I have stalked your website and the place looks great and it would be sweet to max out, hit some iron, and meet a fellow 70’sbigger. Holla

  2. The reason the Snatch can be difficult for some athletes, even those who have success in other athletic domains, is that it’s very hard to know how to channel the right level of arousal.

    In sports psychology they usually refer to an inverted U model (it’s really just a normal curve) that describes that for any given task, there’s too little arousal, just right, and too much.

    Or there’s a continuum from internal to external locus. Or from relaxation to excitation.

    The problem with the snatch is that it’s maximal weightlifting, and it requires very high levels of arousal to create that much force. However, it’s also a VERY precise serial movement that requires the perfect execution of each stage of the lift and immaculate balance to finish and recover. It’s hard to perform precise movements while you are jacked out of your mind, but it’s also quite difficult to lift heavy weights when you go all Zen.

    That’s what I love about the snatch… You have to have them both. You can’t snort ammonia and go stamping your feet to death metal, nor can you turn on the Enya and take on last hit from the bong before you step up to the platform.

    You gotta have it all!

    If someone has at least a few months with the lifts, then it isn’t difficult to gather an appropriate level of arousal to complete the lift. There may be instances where someone jacks their adrenaline up too high and they forget a cue they are supposed to be working on.

    The physical aspect is more relevant in that most people under-pull the bar (not finish the pull) and some people will have the rare over pull. Over pulling really isn’t a big deal as it’ll indicate that more weight can be done and is usually rectified by catching the bar higher than normal and either riding it down to a squat or just powering it.

    If someone has problems with knowing how hard to pull it or how aroused they need to be, then they are probably very green with the movement.


  3. Aside from strength gains, the chief appeal of powerlifting and weightlifting is that it reinforces acuity of mind. Nice examination of discipline and focus put into actual practice.

  4. Justin,

    Deadlift question. I’m trying to figure out optimal feet separation for my DL. Do I want them narrow enough so my arms can hang down straight, thus putting less emphasis on my arms during the pull? Or does it not really matter? Obviously the closer my feet are together the farther one has to pull to complete the rep. thanks.

  5. Justin,

    Soooo, I pulled something in my lower back, its on the left side and i can feel it from about the middle of my back all the way down into my glutes and tail bone. I made the decision to side line myself for at least the rest of December so I can focus on mobbing and getting healed up. Does this sound like a bad idea, or am I on the right track? In your experience, is this enough time to recover from a fairly painful injury of this nature. I had some x-rays done last week and everything was peachy there so… I guess I just need some reassurance that I’m not totally fucking myself here. Thanks j-train.

    y u do dis?

    I’ll probably have a separate post about this instead of just a small Q&A answer.


  6. Hey Justin,

    Your above post has inspired me to pass on the following:

    Not sure if folks are a big fan of Misha Koklyaev, but I am, so I thought I would share this link with the 70s Big crowd.

    It looks like he’s making a run for the 2012 Olympics. Check these vid’s out: (FYI, make sure you watch the interview at the end)

    Him winning the President’s Cup:

    Two more stops and he’s on to the Olympics. I’m looking forward to the outcome and I hope to see him in 2012. He’s a great showman and it’s fun to watch him compete.

  7. ^ will be interesting to see if Koklyaev actually lifts at the Olympics.

    the story was that Russia wouldn’t let him leave to go lift with another country, and wouldn’t let him lift on the Russian team either, which is why he went back to strongman for a while. Would be great to see him at the Olympics, but with having Chigishev, Lapikov, etc I think we might not.

  8. Justin,

    next time you come to Australia we should go on a pilgrimage down to Melbourne, Vlad lives there now with his family and so does Blagoy Blagoev, his 195kg snatch @ 90kgBW is one of my fav lifts of all-time.

  9. I used to be real good at this in high school, the visualization and focusing without needing an external stimulus or even much of what I would call a pump up, but I seem to have lost touch with it.

    Speaking of high school, do you have any experience with safety bar squats? I want to know how my PR with that type of squat would compare to low bar squats today.

  10. I’m a big believer in visualization. I’ve used it in baseball and especially in learning a new piece of music on guitar. With lifting I mostly use it for the deadlift but sometimes the squat too. The more you do it the more you can get into a zenish state. I’ve never found it necessary to yell or anything but I must admit that often for a PR attempt part of my visualization, in addition to thinking about the motion of the lift, is thinking about something that makes me super angry. I also pinch my ears if something else physical is distracting me like a small injury that I want to ignore–I learned this principle of block one nerve feeling with another in psychology classes.

    I don’t think imagery (visualization) is something “to believe in”. Whenever it’s taught and practiced correctly, it works. There isn’t a question that psychological skills work and that’s why they are taught to the world’s elite athletes. As for there “not being a question that they work”, I can look in this book and see if that is “proven” via research.


  11. Didn’t this guy invent the Romanian Deadlift?

    By the way, if you’re not doing RDLs you’re missing out.

    Dragomir may have “invented” the movement, or more specifically had Vlad do it. The American lifters at the OTC saw Vlad doing them and asked about them. Since there wasn’t a name, they dubbed them as Romanian Deadlifts.


  12. Yeah…by saying I’m a believer I’m saying I’m a “user” of it. I don’t mean to imply that this stuff is a matter of opinion. This stuff was covered in my introductory psychology course in college and the 300-level personality theory course I took. You should be able to find the data pretty easily.

    I know what you meant, but I wanted to clarify for others. A lot of people think it’s horse pucky.


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