Olympic-style Weightlifting 
An Introduction
By John Cissek MS, CSCS

Olympic-style weightlifting is a sport that is inaccessible to many and misunderstood because of this.  Rightly or wrongly, the sport is so difficult that many of its practitioners will develop the kind of attitude that turns off perspective participants.   With this article, Jason is letting me put up a few things to try to expose more people to the sport, minus the politics and bs!

        Olympic-style weightlifters contest two lifts: the snatch and the clean and jerk.  In the snatch, a lifter takes a wide grip on the barbell and lifts it from the floor to a position overhead in one motion.  In the clean and jerk, the barbell is first lifted from the floor to the shoulders (the clean) and then from the shoulders to a position overhead (the jerk).

        Both men and women compete in Olympic-style weightlifting.  The 2000 Olympics will be the first time that women will be allowed to compete in the Olympics.  Contestants are divided into either ten (for men) or eight (for women) weight classes.  The weight classes in Olympic-style weightlifting are:
Men: under 47 kg, 51 kg, 56 kg, 62 kg, 69 kg, 77 kg, 85 kg, 94 kg, 105 kg, 105+ kg
Women: under 43 kg, 48 kg, 53 kg, 58 kg, 63 kg, 69 kg, 75 kg, 75+ kg

        A number of qualities must be present for one to be successful at Olympic-style weightlifting.  First realize that the Olympic lifts occur very quickly.  It is not unusual for a lifter to take a second or a second and a half to perform the lifts.  In fact, if one is too slow then the exercises cannot be executed properly.  Therefore, speed is an important component for weightlifting.  The Olympic lifts provide a great deal of stress to the muscles of the upper back, abdomen, lower back, legs, and calves.  A weakness in any one of those muscles can limit one’s performance on the lifts.  As a result it is important that all those muscles are strong and very explosive.  Flexibility is another quality that must be present for weightlifting success.  Lack of flexibility can make the exercises impossible to perform correctly.  Lifters must have flexibility at the shoulders, wrists, elbows, lower back, knees, and ankles.  These joints are necessary for fixing the bar overhead out of a deep squat position (as in the snatch), for receiving it on the front of the shoulders in a deep squat (as in the clean), and for hitting a deep squat position (in the snatch or clean).  Finally, and most importantly, one must have proper technique on the exercises to succeed in Olympic-style weightlifting.  This last quality is what makes the sport extremely difficult and frustrating for many.  A large time commitment is required to learn the exercises correctly and usually coaching is necessary.  It is possible to learn the lifts without correct coaching, but this is very difficult.  The requirement of good technique tends to make this sport inaccessible too many.

        A number of means and methods are used to train weightlifters and to develop the above qualities.  First, weightlifters perform the exercises that are contested.  Obviously if you want to become proficient at performing the snatch you must practice it.  In addition, partial variations of the exercises are performed (for example, performing the clean or snatch with the bar starting out a mid-thigh instead of the floor).  These variations train portions of the lifts resulting in a lifter who is more explosive, stronger, who has better technique, etc.  A number of traditional weight training exercises are used to train the muscles of the lower body; back squats, front squats, lunges, and step ups.  Exercises which train the abdomen and lower back are also emphasized.  These include abdominal work performed with weights and performed explosively (ex. Medicine ball sit-ups).  In addition, good morning variations, hyperextensions, and Romanian deadlifts are performed for the lower back.  Variations of presses are performed to strengthen the upper body.  In addition to weight work, it is not unusual for weightlifters to perform plyometrics, short sprints and to throw implements – all designed to make the weightlifter more explosive.

        There are two major schools of thought when it comes to training Olympic-style weightlifters.  The Soviet approach involved long-term, periodized workouts with a huge number of possible exercises.  These included the competition lifts, partial movements, combination lifts, conditioning lifts (ex. Squats, lower back exercises, etc.), and general training such as sprints, plyometrics, etc.  The exercises that one performed would be changed depending on what part of the year one was in.  Likewise, volume and intensity would be adjusted from training phase to training phase.  This approach to training results in some very well conditioned weightlifters and produces a number of world- and Olympic-champions.

        The other major approach is the Bulgarian approach to training.  Bulgarian weightlifters train a number of times (4-6) per day.  They do not have a great variety of exercises (usually the competition lifts, a “power” variation of the lifts, squats, and sometimes pulls).  They also train at high intensity for most of the year.  In some ways it is similar to the training approach in powerlifter where one only benches, squats, and deadlifts in each workout.  The training is very rigorous and is an example of specificity of training.  Here is an example of a Bulgarian program (preparation of the National Team for the 1980 Olympics):

Monday, Wednesday, and Friday
  • 09:00-10:00 am: Snatch
  • 10:30-11:30 am: Clean and Jerk
  • 11:30-12:30 pm: Clean pulls
  • 05:00-06:00 pm: Clean and Jerk
  • 06:30-07:30 pm: Snatch
  • 07:30-08:00 pm: Front Squat
  • 08:00-08:30 pm: Snatch Pulls

Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday

  • 09:00-10:00 am: Snatch from the hang
  • 10:30-11:30 am: Partial Jerks
  • 11:30-12:00 pm: Back Squat
  • 12:00-12:30 pm: Power Clean
  • 12:30-01:30 pm: Snatch and Clean Pulls


        In other words, you must be able to lift weights full time for the Bulgarian system to work.  The Bulgarian approach is very successful, but most recreational lifters cannot do it.  This is why most good coaches will take information from all the various approaches and adapt it to their athletes.

        Many people will look at Olympic-lifting workouts and wonder how someone can train the snatch twice a day.  Or squat 4-5 times a week.  Or train lower back every day.  There are a number of differences between this sport and other strength-related sports.  First, the Olympic lifts themselves really do not have much of an eccentric component.  This means that they really don’t make you sore – so you can train them two days in a row.  Second, Olympic lifters typically perform fewer than six reps a set.  This means that they are training their nervous system more than fatiguing their muscles, which allows them to train more frequently.  Unlike most strength sports, an Olympic lifter relies more on their nervous system and less on the size of their muscles (it is a weight-class sport remember!).  Because they do not focus on hypertrophy, they are able to do things like squat 4-5 times a week.  Obviously if you wanted huge legs you would not be able to do that!

        I hope this has given you a look at what is involved with Olympic-style weightlifting.  We are planning three additional articles on the sport; one will deal with how to perform the snatch and the clean and jerk, one will include a beginner’s 12-week training program, and the last one will describe the exercises that were in the workout program.

        There are a number of places you can turn to for more information on the sport.  First of all you can check out the sport’s National Governing Body, USA Weightlifting.  USA Weightlifting has a number of books and videos you can purchase about the sport.  If you are looking for videos, Ironmind produces a number of videos of the world championships as well as training hall videos of elite weightlifters working out.  While the videos are not very useful from a “how to train for weightlifting” perspective, they do show how the lifts should be performed.  Finally, there are two books you can turn to for information on the sport.  Arthur Dreschler has written a book entitled “The Weightlifting Encyclopedia” which can be found at any of the online bookstores, he will have a companion video out soon.  I’ve also written a book entitled “An Introduction to Olympic-style Weightlifting” which is also available at any of the online bookstores.

Coming Next From John: Getting Started: A 12 week program for the Beginning Olympic Style Weightlifter.

For more information on getting started check out the  Olympic Weightlifting Forum at GOHEAVY.COM.

  Reproduction of this article, in whole or part, for any purpose other than personal use is
        prohibited without written consent. Copyright 1999 John Cissek, MS, CSCS.