Meet the Family

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‘WHO?’ you are probably thinking. True, the Clegg's are not as famous as the aforementioned families, and they certainly don’t have the same royal, political or financial clout, but in terms of power in its purest form – that is, the ability to lift ridiculous amounts of iron and translate it into sporting performance – they are in a league of their own. Consider the evidence: dad Mike Clegg Sr., 53, is a weightlifting coach who has been employed for more than a decade at some local football team called Manchester United.

During this time he has helped the likes of David Beckham, Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo to become more powerful and explosive. His eldest son, also called Mike, 33, played 23 times as a defender for Manchester United during a nine-year professional career that also included stints at Ipswich, Wigan and Oldham. He wasn’t the most technically gifted player but the training he did with his dad ensured he never stopped running and didn’t lose many tackles. Premier League Sunderland now employs him as the club’s strength and conditioning coach.

Second eldest son Mark, 30, is a former British weightlifting champion and Commonwealth record holder who now competes as a strongman. He can throw around some serious iron, not to mention some very large tyres, and has forearms like Popeye’s.

Next up is middle child Steven, 27, who was on Manchester United’s books for five years. Although he never represented the first team he appeared in three youth cups and, like older brother Mike, was noted for his strength and fitness. After retiring from playing he went on to help his dad train the club’s players and now works for a company called CogniSens, which is developing the latest training techniques utilising both mind and body.

Youngest son Shaun is only 18 but he is already emerging as an outstanding Olympic weightlifter with a realistic chance of representing Great Britain at next year’s London Olympics. He has broken 51 British records and currently holds the under-18 national record for snatch and overall total.

The only female among the five super-strength siblings is Mandy, 25, who doesn’t compete but once held a British age group record for weightlifting, although she is a bit too embarrassed to mention it herself. With brothers like hers, we suspect any boy she brought home in her youth had to behave himself very well indeed. “I never got bullied when I was a kid,” she says. Mandy and mum Susan play a vital role behind the scenes in helping to build the family’s formidable reputation.

Until we hear of another family that can match those accomplishments we’re happy to hail the Clegg clan as Britain’s first family of power. In a bid to find out what makes them so special, we headed along the M62 to meet the Clegg's at the family-owned Olympic Gym in Ashton-Under-Lyne, six miles to the east of Manchester.

The gym, which derives its name from dad Mike’s passion for Olympic lifting, opened 29 years ago in a large former cotton mill close to the town centre It’s a little challenging to find, but once you get there you can’t fail to be impressed: the vast weights room on the fifth floor has everything you need to build a great physique and the place is buzzing, even on the Friday morning when we arrived. There are almost 1,300 members in total. The weights room is where the members work out but we soon discovered there are other, more primitive nooks and crannies in the building where the Clegg's cultivate their strength and power.

They lead us down a winding stairwell to a small, damp building that backs on to the car park. “Welcome to the dungeon,” Mark says as we enter, ducking to avoid a foot-long cobweb above the door. Inside there is little sunlight and zero heating but to the Clegg's, this dank space is a thing of beauty. It’s barely five metres long and three metres wide but there is enough space to lift an Olympic bar and that’s all that matters. This is where they learned to lift. “Shaun started training here at 13 months old,” says dad Mike. “He was still in a nappy. He used to follow me round when I was clearing up the weights and lift them up.” Shaun and Mark still come here to lift, rain or shine.

It’s hard to imagine a more contrasting environment to the corridors of Old Trafford with which the family are equally familiar but they talk just as affectionately about this place. This is home. Around the corner is another small building stuffed with strongman equipment. There is a car deadlift frame, an anvil for the farmer’s walk and beer kegs for the keg toss. There are also nine Atlas stones, including one ‘monster ball’ weighing 205kg – heavier than the heaviest stone lifted at the World’s Strongest Man. “No one has ever lifted it,” says Mark. “Not even the pros.” We’re not surprised.

Leaning against the wall outside is a whopping 330kg tyre for flipping. As well as competing in strongman contests, Mark organises them so he has the dubious pleasure of lugging all this gear around the motorways of the North-West in his well reinforced vehicle. After showing us these sacred family shrines the Clegg's take us back inside the main building to a freshly painted room one fl oor below the main gym. The contrast with where we have been could hardly be more striking. Instead of lumps of iron and huge boulders, this room is full of futuristic fitness gadgets with names like the NeuroTracker and iSpan. These machines are designed to train the mind as well as the body, which is what dad Mike and Steven think will be the next big thing in elite sports fitness.

Working for a club like Manchester United, Mike has been encouraged to travel around the world seeking out anything that could give the players more speed and power on the pitch and a good deal of this equipment is the product of his quest. The fact that they have been used by the likes of Rio Ferdinand and Ryan Giggs suggests they have some merit. Mike Sr. and Jr. along with Steven are combining the best of the new with the best of the old to develop a workout that tests mind and body so one minute you can be hitting boxing pads and the next minute you’re sat in a quiet room following dots on a screen in an exercise designed to heighten your powers of concentration. “The difference between elite and super-elite is cognitive ability,” says Steven. “That’s why we think this is so important.”

Back in the weights room we gaze at the newspaper and magazine cuttings stuck to a wall telling the family’s story. There are pictures of the family lifting cups and posing with the likes of Ryan Giggs and Cristiano Ronaldo. It’s heady stuff; an incredible story. And it all began in this very room. Mike Sr. tells how one day in the late 1990s Brian Kidd, then the assistant manager of Manchester United, called him out of the blue when he was working at the gym to sound him out about helping the club. Kidd had been impressed by the power and fitness of Mike Jr. and Steven at Old Trafford and wondered if their father could inject the same explosiveness in the rest of the squad. Football was pretty backwards in terms of fitness at the time.

Even a club like Manchester United didn’t have any kind of structured strength or conditioning programme. It was to prove to be the start of the family’s amazing story yet the foundations on which it was built were pretty shaky. In his youth dad Mike was, in his own words, a puny pub singer. “I was in a band on the Yorkshire circuit and one day I saw a photo of me and my arms were skinnier than my guitar strings,” he says. That photo motivated him to do something about it and getting fit set him on the path to becoming a coach and gym owner and then to encouraging his kids to get on.

We will tell the full story of Mike Sr., and his involvement with Manchester United, in subsequent editions of the magazine. You may have seen our feature about Mike Jr.’s work at Sunderland in the November 2010 issue – we will focus on his siblings in the months ahead too. This family has too much muscle for one edition. It’s been a fascinating insight into their lives but before we leave we still want to know what they think sets them apart from other families. Four of the five siblings have held British weightlifting records; one has played for Manchester United; another got far closer to the Red Devils’ first team than most mortals could ever dream and another is gunning for a place in the weightlifting at the next Olympics.

Having so many outstanding athletes in one family can’t be coincidence. Dad Mike is in no doubt. “Olympic lifting is the key to it all,” he says. “They have all done various sports and plyometrics from a young age but the Clegg philosophy is about lifting weights fast. Jump high and jump long but always fast. It’s all about speed.” His offspring agree that learning to lift correctly at a young age helped. “Olympic lifting does give you a good base for every other sport,” says Mark. But he thinks there is more to it than that. “It’s about having a gym, working hard and having a good upbringing. Our parents brought us up with the right attitude,” he says. Mandy says the fact that they all began lifting at such young ages is another factor. That and ‘hard work’.

Successful they are; big-headed they are not. Mandy sums it up when we ask her if the prospect of seeing Cristiano Ronaldo set her head spinning. “God, no,” she says. “I’d rather meet Mark Felix.” They like people of substance, the Clegg's. M&F We start our series on the Clegg's next month with an article on Mike Clegg senior, who has helped to make Manchester United’s players more powerful over the last ten years. MF

Muscle & Fitness Magazine Article

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