I absolutely love olympic weightlifting; it combinines sheer strength, explosive power, and exceptional technique, and can trace its origins back to ancient sports strength contests. Today, growing in popularity, weightlifting is also used by athletes, crossfitters and fitness enthusiasts worldwide. This article deep dives into the sport of olympic weightlifting, offering you the MOST complete guide to the sport anywhere on the internet.
Here are some shortcuts to everything we’ll be covering:
- A Brief History of Olympic Weightlifting
- The Two Main Lifts in Weightlifting: Snatch and Clean & Jerk
- Weightlifting Competition: How Does It work?
- Olympic Weightlifting Training
- Olympic weightlifting technique practice
- The Benefits of Olympic Weightlifting
- Olympic Weightlifting Program
- Olympic Weightlifting Exercises
- Olympic Weightlifting Workouts
- Weightlifting Equipment: Essential Gear for Success
- Frequently Asked Questions About Olympic Weightlifting:
- What is the difference between Olympic weightlifting and powerlifting?
- Do Olympic lifters not bench?
- Do Olympic weightlifters train everyday?
- Can beginners start with Olympic weightlifting?
- Is Olympic weightlifting safe?
- What are the weight classes in Olympic weightlifting?
- How do I choose the right weightlifting shoes?
- Can Olympic weightlifting help me lose weight?
- Great Sources of Further Weightlifting Information
- Next Steps
Let’s jump straight in with a video of Lu Xiaojun setting a clean and jerk world record of 204kg at a bodyweight of 77kg.
A Brief History of Olympic Weightlifting
There’s something incredily timeless about the act of trying to lift as much weight as possible. It’s no surprise then, that olympic weightlifting traces its origins to ancient Greece and Egypt, where early forms of the sport were practiced as part of military training, religious rituals, and public displays of strength.
The ‘modern’ incarnation of Olympic weightlifting was officially introduced at the 1896 Athens Olympics, with the sport continually evolving since then.
Today, Olympic weightlifting comprises two main lifts: the snatch and the clean and jerk. The sport’s international governing body, the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF), has established standardized rules and regulations that are followed in competitions worldwide.
The Two Main Lifts in Weightlifting: Snatch and Clean & Jerk
My favourite lift as an athlete, the snatch is a single, fluid motion that requires you to lift the barbell from the ground to overhead in one continuous movement. It demands speed, power, flexibility, coordination, and raw strength. You’ll start in what can be best described as a hybrid between a deadlifting and a squatting position, gripping the barbell with a wide grip. You’ll then drive with your legs as if trying to push the floor away, before aggressively extending and pull the barbell overhead, followed by quickly dropping into a squatting position and locking your arms. Finally, you stand up, completing the lift.
Done properly, it looks masterful and effortless. As a coach, I can tell you with certainty that it’s anything but!
The Clean & Jerk:
The clean and jerk is performed in two distinct phases, and I’ve found it requires more maximal strength than the snatch. In the clean, you lift the barbell from the ground to your shoulders in one motion. You then adjust your grip slightly and perform the jerk, lifting the barbell overhead and splitting your legs into a lunge-like ‘split’ position to stabilize the weight. You’ll then athlete then brings their feet back together to complete the lift.
Weightlifting Competition: How Does It work?
I can share some good news here, in that weightlifting competitions are incredibly simple.
Athletes compete within specific weight classes, attempting to lift the heaviest combined weight in the snatch and clean & jerk. Each competitor is allowed three attempts per lift, with the highest successful lift for each movement contributing to their total score. The athlete with the highest total score in their weight class is declared the winner.
Pretty simple stuff! Of course on the day there can some interesting gamesmanship as lifters change their attempts and/or miss lifts, but the overall it’s one of the simplest sports to understand in the world.
If you’re interested, here’s a full article on current clean and jerk world records.
Olympic Weightlifting Training
As a coach, designing olympic weightlifting training programs is literally my day job. I’ve spent hundreds, mabe even thousands of hours staring at spreadsheets full of sets, reps and weights. With that in mind, here’s what you need to know:
“Weightlifting requires a complex combination of strength, speed strength, specific positional strength, power, mobility and technical coordination, and these things need to be well-balanced”
I tend to have my newer lifters focus on building a solid foundation of strength, power, and technique. That typically means beginning with fundamental movements such as squats, deadlifts, and overhead presses before progressing to simple variations of the snatch and clean & jerk. I might also add in some accessory exercises, mobility drills, and plyometrics (jumps) to ensure balanced development and optimal performance.
For my more experienced lifters, their training still has plenty of strength focus, but they’ll also need a lot more time performing snatches and cleans above 80% of their 1rm, and will have to use periodised training plans to manage their fatigue.
How often should I train Olympic weightlifting?
How often you train depends on your experience level, goals, recovery and time availability. I tend to start beginners with 2-3 sessions per week, focusing on technique and building a strength foundation. Intermediate and early advanced lifters may train 4-6 times per week, incorporating higher intensity sessions and periodization to optimize performance and recovery. High level competitiors may even benefit from 6-9 sessions per week.
Olympic weightlifting technique practice
Don’t get me wrong, strength is essential in weightlifting, but you also need to spend plenty of time mastering the correct technique is crucial for long term success in the sport. This involves taking the time to learn proper body positioning, smooth barbell trajectories, and efficient force transfer throughout the lifts.
How can I improve my Olympic weightlifting technique?
Honest coach talk for a minute, improving your weightlifting technique requires putting your ego to one side and commiting to consistent practice, feedback, and adjustments. That tends to mean recording your lifts for analysis, and incorporating drills and exercises that target specific weaknesses to help you refine your technique over time.
Pro Tip: Developing neuromuscular coordination, balance, and timing to execute the snatch and clean & jerk with maximum efficiency takes YEARS, so don’t get discouraged if your lifts don’t look perfect after a couple of training sessions.
The Benefits of Olympic Weightlifting
Obviously I’m pretty biased, but I think it’s fair to say that olympic weightlifting offers a bunch of physical and mental benefits:
- Enhanced Strength and Power: Olympic weightlifting is an excellent way to develop strength and power through full ranges of motion, which can translate to improved performance in other sports. In fact, I often use weightlifting variations as part of my S&C programmes for athletes.
- Improved Mobility and Flexibility: Weighted resistance training through full ranges of motion has been shown (Morton et al. 2011) to be as effective as stretching and yoga for improving flexibility. Plus you’ll actually be building strength through those ranges.
- Mental Fortitude: Weightlifting can be tough at times, the focus, determination, and discipline required for olympic weightlifting can instill a strong sense of mental resilience and trust me, you’re not attempting a 100kg snatch without self-confidence!
- Increased Bone Density: Research conclusively shows (Westcott 2012) that weight-bearing exercises, such as those in Olympic weightlifting, can help to improve bone density, reducing the risk of osteoporosis and fractures.
- Improved Body Composition: Don’t get me wrong, weightlifting training won’t get you looked like a bodybuilder, but the intense nature of Olympic weightlifting training will absolutely give you more muscle, help you burn fat, and allow you to look more athletic
Olympic Weightlifting Program
As a weightlifting coach, program writing takes up a lot of my time, and that’s because a well-designed olympic weightlifting program takes into account an athlete’s experience, goals, and individual needs. Put simply, no two programmes I write ever look exactly the same.
Good weightlifting programs also typically include some form of periodization, typically linear, gradually increasing intensity and reducing volume over time towards a peak. This approach helps athletes build strength, refine technique, and prevent burnout or overtraining.
With that said, there’s a lot of nuance and variation involved in the process. For a more detailed explanation, here’s my full weightlifting programming guide.
Olympic weightlifting hypertrophy program
I’ve actually written hybrid weightlifting and bodybuilding programme which you can check out right here.
12 week olympic weightlifting program
I’ve also written a 12 week classic weightlifting programme which you can check out here.
Free olympic weightlifting program
Don’t worry though, if money is a bit tight, I’ve also written this free olympic weightlifting programme that you might like. I call it the no-nonsense weightlifting programme, and its simple, but effective.
Olympic Weightlifting Exercises
Specific weightlifting exercises include:
- Hang Snatches
- Power Snatches
- Clean and Jerks
- Hang Clean and Jerks
- Power Cleans
Strength exercises for weightlifting include:
- Clean Pulls
- Snatch Pulls
- Clean Deadlifts
- Snatch Deadlifts
- Push Presses
- Back Squats
- Front Squats
More more in-depth guides on exercise selection for weightlifting, check out:
- Best Exercises to Improve Olympic Weightlifting
- Weightlifting and Bodybuilding Exercises
- Bulgarian Weightlifting Exercises
Olympic Weightlifting Workouts
There are a bunch of different ways to structure olympic weightlifting workouts. A balanced approach is to have each workout combine elements of strength, power, technique, and arguably conditioning or general physical training.
Typically this means you would start by performing the primary lifts (snatch and clean & jerk) followed by strength work such as pulls, presses, and squat variations. Of course, the exact sets, reps and weights for each workout should be tailored to your skill level and needs, with a focus on maintaining proper form and progressively overloading over time.
Here’s a sample olympic weightlifting workout:
- Snatch: 3×2 @ 80%
- Hang Clean + 2 Power Jerk: 3 Sets @ 70-80%
- Back Squat: 3×5 @ RIR 2
- Push Press: 3×5 @ RIR 2
- Plank: 2 sets of 30-60 seconds
Weightlifting Equipment: Essential Gear for Success
I’ll be honest, olympic weightlifting does require you to have some pretty specific equipment. Yes, it somewhat enhances performance, but having the proper gear also ensures your safety during training and competition. Here what I consider to be the some essential pieces of weightlifting equipment:
- Barbell: A high-quality barbell is the centerpiece of Olympic weightlifting. The barbell used in competitions typically weighs 20 kg (44 lbs) for men and 15 kg (33 lbs) for women. It must meet the specifications outlined by the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF), including length, diameter, and weight distribution.
- Bumper Plates: Trust me, you can’t be using any old iron plates for weightlifting training. Bumper plates are rubber-coated weight plates specifically designed to be dropped safely from overhead without damaging the floor or equipment. They come in various weights and are color-coded according to IWF standards for easy identification during training and competition.
- Weightlifting Shoes: Specially designed weightlifting shoes provide a stable, supportive base for executing lifts. They also feature a raised heel, which allows for better ankle mobility and a more upright squatting posture. Weightlifting shoes also have a more solid, non-compressive sole which ensures a firm footing and efficient force transfer during lifts.
- Lifting Straps: I encourage my lifters to use weightlifting straps for exercises like pulls, where they need to maintain a strong grip on the bar without their arms getting too tense or stiff. They wrap around the barbell and the your wrists, reducing the risk of losing grip during a lift.
- Weightlifting Belt: A weightlifting belt provides additional support to the lower back and core during heavy lifts, potentially helping athletes maintain proper form and reduce the risk of injury. Generally speaking you only wear a belt during heavy, hard effort squats, clean and jerks, and other exercises that place significant stress on the lower back.
- Chalk: Hear me out, chalk is MAGIC. It improves your grip by absorbing moisture and reducing friction between your hands and the barbell. You’ll notice an immediate improvement in the weights you can lift once chalk is used.
- Knee Sleeves or Wraps: Now, I wouldn’t quite call knee sleeves or wraps essential, but they can provide compression and support to the knee joint during lifts, helping to stabilize the joint and potentially reduce the risk of injury. I actually tend to recommend them mainly to keep the knees warm, promote blood flow and reduce discomfort during training sessions (especially for garage gym lifters in the winter)
- Wrist Wraps: Wrist wraps offer additional support to the wrists during heavy lifts, such as overhead presses and clean and jerks. They help to stabilize the joint, allowing you to focus on their technique and performance. Personally I’ve never need to use them, but they can be useful if your wrist is known to be a bit niggly.
Frequently Asked Questions About Olympic Weightlifting:
What is the difference between Olympic weightlifting and powerlifting?
Olympic weightlifting focuses on two explosive lifts: the snatch and the clean & jerk. Powerlifting, on the other hand, consists of three strength-based lifts: the squat, bench press, and deadlift. While both sports involve lifting heavy weights, they require different techniques, training methods, and muscle recruitment patterns.
In fact, here’s an article explaining the difference in detail
Do Olympic lifters not bench?
Bench press has a low carryover to the snatch and clean & jerk, so many olympic lifters do not bench, or only bench very occassionally. With that said, a lot of weightlifters bench or perform chest exercises purely to look good.
Do Olympic weightlifters train everyday?
High level international weightlifters will typically train 6 days per week, often twice per day. However, you can still get great results training 3 to 5 times per week.
Can beginners start with Olympic weightlifting?
Yes, beginners can start with Olympic weightlifting, but it is crucial to learn the proper technique and build a solid strength foundation before attempting the main lifts. Working with a knowledgeable coach and starting with lighter weights or technique drills can help beginners ease into the sport safely and effectively.
Here’s a full guide on getting started with weightlifting
Is Olympic weightlifting safe?
Yes, when performed with proper technique and sensible training volumes, olympic weightlifting can be a safe and effective form of exercise. However, like any sport, there is always a some level of risk of injury. To stay as safe as possible make sure to follow a good warm-up, work on your mobility, and progressing gradually over time.
What are the weight classes in Olympic weightlifting?
Weight classes in Olympic weightlifting vary between men and women. As of my knowledge cutoff in September 2021, there were ten weight classes for men (ranging from 55 kg to +109 kg) and ten for women (ranging from 45 kg to +87 kg). These classes may change as the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) periodically reviews and adjusts them.
How do I choose the right weightlifting shoes?
I’ve found that choosing the right weightlifting shoes depends on your foot shape, personal preferences, and budget. Good weightlifting shoes should have a raised heel, solid non-compressive sole, and secure closure system (laces, straps, or both). In an ideal world you would try a bunch on and check for fit, but since most weightlifting shoe shopping is done online, my best advice is to read reviews on sizing and fit before you buy.
Can Olympic weightlifting help me lose weight?
To be fair weightlifting can help you lose weight by increasing muscle mass and burning calories. At the end of the day, though, it ultimately depends on creating a calorie deficit through a combination of diet and exercise, and if I’m totally honest, there are far easier ways of losing weight.
Great Sources of Further Weightlifting Information
Hopefully I’ve pointed you towards plenty of additional article on my website, I’ve aimed to cover a bunch of key olympic weightlifting topics. You can also drop me a message through my website contact form. With that said, I also wanted to give you some other useful sources of information.
- Greg Everett/Catalyst: Greg Everett, owner of Catalyst Athletics, is the OG of weightlifting information, he’s got loads of articles and videos, and his exercise library is second to none.
- Juggernaut Training Systems: Founded by Chad Wesley Smith, Juggernaut Training Systems is a comprehensive strength training resource. The JTS website and YouTube channel feature articles and videos on various strength sports, including Olympic weightlifting, with plenty of in-depth guides
- Oleksiy Torokhtiy: A Ukrainian Olympic weightlifting champion, Oleksiy Torokhtiy shares his knowledge and experience through his YouTube channel and website. I’ll be honest, his articles aren’t exactly amazing (sometimes the language gets a bit lost in translation) but his YouTube videos are fantastic, and he showcases his wealth of experience in the sport.
1) Hopefully you’ve found the article useful, if you did, maybe take a moment to consider joining my mailing list for weekly programmes, workouts and weightlifting tips.
2) Feel free to share the article with anyone you think would benefit
‘Til Next Time
Alex Parry, MSc, BA
Alex is the Head content writer and Coach at Character Strength & Conditioning, as well as an Assistant Lecturer and PhD Researcher at the University of Hull.
His experience includes 7+ years within professional strength and conditioning, as well as working as a tutor & educator for British Weightlifting.
Morton, Sam K; Whitehead, James R; Brinkert, Ronald H; Caine, Dennis J. Resistance Training vs. Static Stretching: Effects on Flexibility and Strength. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 25(12):p 3391-3398, December 2011. | DOI: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31821624aa
Westcott, Wayne L. PhD. Resistance Training is Medicine: Effects of Strength Training on Health. Current Sports Medicine Reports 11(4):p 209-216, July/August 2012. | DOI: 10.1249/JSR.0b013e31825dabb8