In the world of Olympic weightlifting, there are two competitive lifts. There is a quick lift that’s called the snatch: engage your core, bend your knees, grab the weighted barbell and with one fluid movement, lift it overhead. Arms locked, legs straight, the judge decides when the weight has been lifted successfully. It could be 300 or 400 pounds or more-- it’s a lot.
There’s also the clean and jerk. The weightlifter picks up the loaded barbell to shoulder height and jerks the weight overhead waiting for the judge to acknowledge success before the barbell is dropped to the ground with a resounding thud. The combined weight between these two lifts (best of three attempts for each type of lift) determines how the competition is scored. For UW Medicine scientist Michael Regnier, Olympic weight lifting opened a path to the work he loves most: figuring out how muscles work, the diseases that sometimes attack them and discovering therapies and treatments.
In the 80s, as a freshman at Portland State, Regnier needed to pick up 5 PE credits. A former high school wrestler and football player, he became fascinated with the guys at the school gym who were doing Olympic lifting. He asked them to show him how to do it and at 19, he not only got credit for lifting, he was hooked on a sport that combined physical and mental stamina. The history/political science major became a regular at the gym and stared competing. At 140 pounds, he could easily clean and jerk 200 lbs. putting him above the novice category.
As he trained, he noticed something quite fascinating. “I could see how my body adapted to the weight-lifting,” said Regnier. “As I developed my muscle mass some interesting things happened. In the beginning, at 140 pounds, I could vertically jump and reach 19 inches above my height. As I kept up my training, I eventually weighed in at 200 pounds and could vertically jump 33 inches.” That translates into a huge increase in the amount of power generated by the leg and hip muscles for the explosive jumping motion.
Olympic lifting is not about endurance. It is about explosive movement. As you train, you exert your muscles and then rest. This high intensity exercise increases the size of what is called the fast-twitch muscles used for sudden powerful bursts of movement. The goal is to optimize how much load you can endure. During his workouts, Regnier regularly lifted 40 to 50 tons over the course of a training session. He could snatch 275 pounds and clean and jerk 365 putting him in the elite category.
He began competing during his undergraduate years at Portland State, and when he graduated, the would-be historian or diplomat took a different path: a master’s degree in exercise physiology at Portland State and eventually a PhD at the University of Southern California (USC) --all the while, continuing his lifting.
Regnier competed in four collegiate national championship tournaments and several American championships, including one on the day before his wedding which he handily won. He became a California state champion and tied for bronze in the American championship.
The summer before the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, Regnier trained with the US Olympic team, practicing his lifts on the platform that would soon support the likes of the best of the best weight-lifters from around the world. He briefly set his sights on the ’88 Olympics but he had a choice to make: weight-lifter or scientist. He chose the latter.
“I did a few more meets and then put it on my shelf of memories,” said Regnier. “I wanted to focus on my new fascination: what made those muscles do what they do?” Today his focus is on diseases of the muscles and developing therapies to improve health. He works on skeletal and heart muscles with a multi-disciplinary team of researchers. His heart research ranges from developing gene therapies to research into engineering proteins and cells to treat hearts damaged by various diseases.
“My skeletal muscle work is around congenital contractures and, more recently, muscular dystrophy. Young kids get these contractures and muscular dystrophy and I am looking at how to best treat these debilitating diseases. They impede muscle function and muscular dystrophy eventually kills these kids,” said Regnier.
Regnier has called UW Medicine home since 1995. He is a professor and associate chair for research of Bioengineering with an adjunct appointment in Physiology and Biophysics at the UW. These days, while he still does some lifting to stay in shape, you’re more apt to find him on a stationary bike or on the court for a friendly game of racquet ball with a colleague. That is, when he’s not working to unlock the mysteries of how our muscles work.