Introduction to Olympic Weightlifting
Olympic-style weightlifting is one of the purest expressions of athleticism there is: pick a weight up off the floor and lift it over your head.
At first glance, Olympic lifting would appear to be a simple feat of physical strength. However, this is not the case...
Olympic lifting is a highly complex movement skill that requires the combination of several qualities. Strength, speed, power and mobility are introduced to technique, timing and coordination.
Throw in the psychological aspects (bravery, aggression, confidence, composure and an ability to meet missed attempts with a cool head) and it becomes clear that there is a lot more to Olympic lifting than first glance suggests.
What are the Olympic lifts?
Olympic weightlifting consists of two movements:
Clean and Jerk
Both involve picking up a barbell (with weights attached to it) from the floor and lifting it over your head. This is accomplished in one movement for the snatch and two movements for the clean and jerk.
Increasing Popularity of Olympic Weightlifting
Olympic-style weightlifting is a sport in itself but in recent times the Olympic lifts have become increasingly popular amongst recreational exercisers and athletes from many different sports.
Cleans, jerks and snatches are now commonplace in gyms as people seek to improve their health, physiques and performance regardless of whether they have a competitive or health based fitness goal.
Why is Olympic lifting so Awesome?
Olympic weightlifting requires you to be skilled, strong, flexible, controlled, fast, powerful, aggressive, composed and generally athletically adept.
In competition, all eyes are on you and you get one shot to display all of those qualities.
Basically, the olympic lifts are awesome because they require whole body athleticism.
Whole Body Athleticism
A lifter's ankles, knees, hips, back, shoulders, elbows and wrists all need to be strong, stable and mobile.
This strength and mobility is then combined to generate force, explosively, whilst simultaneously controlling and transitioning a heavy weight from the floor to over your head.
Doing so requires precise timing and subtle changes in velocity, weight distribution and positioning. No easy feat.
Who Can Benefit from Olympic lifting?
The physical qualities Olympic lifting develops are beneficial whether you are competing for Gold or simply exercising to stay fit as you grow old.
Olympic lifting training will make muscles and bones stronger, joints more mobile and improve coordination. With good coaching and by scaling the movements to match the individual's capabilities, benefits can be gained by almost anyone.
What do you mean by 'scaling' the movements? The Olympic lifting movements can be broken down into various segments that flow into one another. These segments can be performed individually or as one full movement.
'Scaling' the movements simply means performing one or several segments at a time, instead of a full lift. The different segments all have varying technical, strength and mobility requirements and thus segments with less demands can be introduced accordingly.
For example, if someone lacks the mobility required to get into a starting position then instead of starting the lift with the bar on the floor you might start with the bar at the the knee or mid-thigh. This lessens the mobility requirements and also eliminates the technical component of the first pull.
Scaling movements is a way of both introducing beginners to the lifts and enabling those with movement restrictions to still get the benefits. Scaled versions (or individual segments) are also performed by elite level lifters when working on specific aspects of the lifts.
Do you need to do the ‘full’ lifts to get the benefits?
No, benefits can be gained from all versions of the Olympic lifts such as power cleans, high pulls, hang snatches and even muscle cleans and muscle snatches. What movement is chosen will depend on a person's ability and goal.
Non-Olympic Lifters and 'Wristy' Sports Players
Non-Olympic weightlifting athletes tend to gravitate towards power or hang power cleans as opposed to full cleans or snatches.
This is often because the power clean involves a less demanding third pull than that of a full clean and has less shoulder mobility requirements than the snatch.
Racket sport athletes often only do the high pull variations to avoid the turnover of the third pull. The third pull requires strength and a fast change of position at the wrists,.
The wrist is a pretty important joint for racket sports. By avoiding the third pull, racket sport athletes can get the power improvement benefits but without placing any unnecessary strain on, or risking injuring, their wrists.
How will Olympic lifting help my sports performance?
Olympic lifts are all about generating force quickly. In other words, they’re about being strong and powerful.
There aren’t many sports in which increased strength and power is a bad thing.
A key part of Olympic lifting is the second pull, which involves extension of the hips, knees and ankles. This is termed ‘triple extension’ and has a direct crossover to improving performance in any sport that involves sprinting, jumping or moving quickly.
Learning the Olympic Lifts
Anyone can learn to Olympic lift if they are willing to put in the practice and are coached well. The basics can be taught fairly quickly but, like most highly skilled activities, the movements take time to master. How quickly someone grasps the basics will depend on the person, their training experience, motor control and the coach.
First Things First
The number one aim when learning is to establish good positioning to ensure you can lift safely and effectively.
In my experience, the people who are less concerned with how much weight they are lifting and more concerned with getting the movement pattern established are the ones who are most successful. Rushing into doing heavy weights is a sure fire way to establish poor movement patterns and get injured.
Taking time to learn the technique and embed good movement from the start will save lots of time, frustration and potentially pain in the long run. A well executed power clean/snatch with a lighter weight is worth much more beneficial than a poorly executed full clean/snatch.
Where Do I Start?
Learning the Olympic lifts is a lot like playing a computer game, make sure you can complete level one before moving on to the next. Going straight to taking on the boss on level 10 will leave you in a ball of flames. Crash Bandicoot is an avid Olympic lifter.
There are many different ways to learn and different coaches use different coaching styles. Some coaches use the full lifts from the off, some won't let you touch a bar before you've mastered the positions without any weight (Karate Kid style!?), some use a broomstick to mimic a bar and some use a combination of all of the above!
Generally, the key positions and individual segments of the full lifts are taught initially and a person is progressed from there. The specific route to Olympic lifting glory will depend on the person and their learning style.
I’ve done loads of kettlebell cleans and snatches, can I go straight to the advanced class?
No, you will end up Crash Bandicooting in to a ball of flames...
Derivatives of the Olympic lifts can be done with kettlebells and dumbbells but these are much easier to learn and, in my opinion, don’t really help out much when performing the movement with a barbell. (There is some crossover but not a whole lot.)
That said, previous experience of resistance training, and in particular barbell training, is often useful as it will (hopefully) have developed an appreciation of some of the key principles and coordination required for basic barbell movements.
Any Tips for Learning the Lifts?
There are two things I encourage when beginners ask me about learning Olympic lifting:
1. Drill the key positions of the Olympic lifts with a barbell as part of every warm up.
These positions are the: power; hang; receiving and starting positions. Become familiar with how they feel and how your weight is distributed in each. Take 10-15 minutes to repeat them over and over, concentrating diligently on each and every rep. Work through the positions statically, in slow motion, at full speed and a combination of all three.
2. Learn how to and improve your front squat.
If there is one movement that will help you with Olympic lifting, both as a beginner and as an advanced, it’s the front squat. The front squat will also help you if you are an athlete or a recreational exerciser who just wants to be healthier, so it's worth doing anyway.
Olympic lifting can improve your strength, power and mobility whether you are a competitive athlete or a recreational exerciser.
It’s important to realise that there is a large skill element to Olympic lifting and performing the most advanced version is not a case of simply muscling the bar up from the floor.
Take time to learn the correct movements and don’t rush to add weight to the bar. Enjoy!