An intro to the sport of Olympic weightlifting

Civilizations throughout time have appreciated and pursued the manly trait of strength. Many millennia ago, aproximately 3000 years back in time, the Chinese utilised the lifting of rocks and bags of sand to train their soldiers. In ancient Greece, exercise was regarded as an important element of one’s life as it brought along vigour and health, with weightlifting being a form of exercise that was widely practised. At a time were constant battling was occurring, having a strong body and mind was imperative to the development of men and the first Olympic Games were held in Olympia in 776 B.C as a way to bring about the best athletes within the region in honour of the god Zeus.

Fast-forward to 1896, to the first Olympic Games of the modern era. Since these games represented the utmost expression of the different athletic abilities, strength being one of them, the newly formed International Olympic Committee had to come up with a physical demonstration which would measure strength, thus olympic weightlifting was born. Strength was to be measured in a simple yet bullet-proof form, whoever lifts the heaviest loaded barbell from the floor to overhead (full extension) wins, a premise that still stands to this day. Back then, the exercises were a crude representation of modern olympic weightlifting and included six varieties to be performed. Weightlifting was skipped as a discipline for the next Olympic Games, reappeared in 1904 and then was left out until 1920, staying as a permanent discipline ever since, and having the list of exercises reduced from six to three: the Press, Snatch and Clean with Jerk. By 1932, weight divisions had been incorporated so as to match competing lifters by their bodyweight and the sport didn’t have any further modifications until the Olympic Games of 1972, when the Press was moved out thus leaving the Snatch and the Clean with Jerk as the sole two exercises to be performed.

As stated previously, strength is measured by lifting the weight from the floor to overhead yet present weightlifting is made up of two exercises which have the same goal of precisely doing this, so, what gives? The difference is in the method of achieving this goal. The Snatch has the lifter lifting the barbell in one motion while the Clean with Jerk (also known as Clean and Jerk or C&J) includes one stop mid-way. Due to the fluid motion of the snatch, the lifter is not only tested in strength but agility, precision and flexibility, while the C&J relies more on strength and stamina. To put it in a context that you can relate to, the Snatch is the gymnastic form of weightlifting while the C&J is the brute and raw form of weightlifting (think shouting and head going red). Both lifts are done in an explosive fashion, with the snatch lasting about two seconds and the C&J about five to ten seconds. They really occur that fast!

Here is an overview of the exercises, also known as lifts:

Snatch

The lifter bends down at the waist, with hands gripping the bar wide. He then proceeds to lift the weight, moving it explosively in an upwards fashion while squatting down and receiving the barbell overhead with arms extended. The lifter then stands up from the squat position with the barbell still overhead and stays in an erected manner with the barbell resting overhead until the referee allows him to lower the barbell, indicating the succesful completion of the lift. The lifter has three attempts to lift the heaviest weight he can do with the heaviest attempt being recorded as his competing lift

Snatch illustration: starting position and receiving the barbell overhead in squat position

Source: Olympic Weightlfiting Resource


Finish position, erected from the squat, of the snatch (Pyrros Dimas with 180 kilograms or 396 pounds!)

Source: The Beijing Organizing Committee for the Games of the XXIX Olympiad

 

Clean and Jerk

The lifter bends down in the same manner as in the Snatch, grabbing the barbell with hands closer, at about shoulder width. He then proceeds to lift the barbell, squat down and catch it on the shoulders (what is known as the Clean). He stands up from the squat position, pausing once erected and now pushes the barbell overhead from the shoulders (what is known as the Jerk). Once the barbell is overhead, he remains in the erect position until the referee signals the lowering of the barbell which again means that the lift has been completed succesfully.

Clean and Jerk illustration: first three captions depict the Clean stage and the other three captions show the Jerk stage.

Source: Olympic Weightlfiting Resource

 

Each lifter has up to three attempts in the snatch and another three in the C&J to lift the heaviest weight. Each of the heaviest attempt in the Snatch and C&J is recorded and then summed so as to provide a total (heaviest snatch attempt + heaviest C&J attempt = Total). Whoever has the highest total wins. In order to provide a fair ground of competing, weightlifting is composed of weight categories which allow lifters to compete against each other based on bodyweight, since the more muscle mass one has (with all other factors being equal) the stronger one will be. There are eight categories for men and seven for women, they are measured in kilograms and include up to that given bodyweight:

Men: 56, 62, 69, 77, 85, 94, 105 and over 105 kgs.

Women: 48, 53, 58, 63, 69, 75 and over 75 kgs.

The current heaviest lifted snatch is 213 kilograms (468.6 pounds) and the heaviest Clean and Jerk is 263 kilograms (578.6 pounds), both having been lifted by Hossein Reza Zadeh from Iran, a 105+ lifter who was at his height in the early 2000’s.

As you can see, both lifts look simple yet put one in very awkward positions, which is why weightlifting not only requires strength but also power, flexibility, coordination, agility, precision, endurance, explosiveness and much more. Now, you may be wondering if weightlifting is really for you, with all those massive poundages being thrown around and the acrobatic positions ensued. Well, the answer is a big YES! By taking on weightlifting you are not making a statement of wanting to go to the Olympics, nor do you have to train everyday and give up your day job. Not at all. An average training program has you training for three days of the week for 60 to 90 minutes, make two of those days on the weekend and you can fit the remaining day anywhere on your working week.

Weightlifting is a great sport that can help one get fitter, stronger and healthier. The nature of the lifts in weightlifting means that not only are muscles put under stress but also bones and connective tissue, and there is no age limit to get into the sport. Weightlifting is a great way to strengthen bones, cartilages, tendons as well as your mind, since going down to catch that barbell not only requires physical strength but also courage and determination. If you play other sports, weightlifting serves as a backbone to develop your athletic abilities and it is widely used by professional sportsmen all around the world.

 

Weightlifting will help you jump higher!


In order to start learning this sport, you should join a club and have a coach oversee you. Don’t worry, it is not going to break the bank. A weightlifting club membership fee is much (and I really mean it), much lower than that of a conventional gym. There are plenty of clubs around in the US as well as other countries and sometimes a club will only be a simple basement with a few barbells and a few determined lifters. Google is your friend, as they say, and most of the time you can locate a club with Google. If you cannot locate any in your area, you can contact the weightlifting federation/body/association of your country and they will be able to help you out. I personally know a few clubs in different countries so feel free to leave me a comment if you need help locating one (or need anything else/want to comment).

Yours in Strength!

All the best,

Rogelio

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Rogelio is the go-to guy when it comes to men's hair. Having embraced his natural curly hair for over a decade while living in 5 countries, Rogelio has learnt a thing or two along the way. Rogelio is the author of the two bestselling men's books "The Curly Hair Book" and "The Men's Hair Book", and his motto when it comes to hair is, "Gentlemen, having a good head of hair should not cost us our testosterone".

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7 comments for “An intro to the sport of Olympic weightlifting

  1. Chris
    November 26, 2011 at 5:47 pm

    Great Article! But, there is some factual errors. The heaviest snatch was performed by Antonio Krastev at 216 kilos. The heaviest clean and jerk was performed by Leonid Taranenko at 266 kilos. Both in competition. Or are you just going by official records?

    • Rogelio
      November 26, 2011 at 9:18 pm

      Hi Chris,

      Thanks for the comment. Yes I am aware of those records but I am going with the official ones, mainly so as to not cause confusion among my readers as those records were set in different obsolete body weight categories and was the International Weightlifting Federation’s unofficial response to deal with the AAS scandals of the 80’s that tainted the sport.

      All the best.

      • Antoine
        November 27, 2011 at 8:44 pm

        I agree Rogelio, it would cause confusion. I have been myself competing in weightlifting for many years and I don’t know the records set before the change of categories. Although glad to see other readers adding more interesting points to the comments.

  2. Joel
    August 3, 2011 at 9:04 am

    Hey Bud,

    Hello from bodybuilding.com.. I have read your posts in the O-35 and Oly sections over there. I am NorwichGrad at bb. Great website. PS. Too bad I don’t have curly hair; it’s straight.

    • Rogelio
      August 3, 2011 at 1:31 pm

      Hi Joel,

      Thanks for the kind words. Most of the stuff is useful regardless of what type of hair you may have so feel free to keep checking the content.

      See ya at bb!

      All the best.

  3. Alan
    July 16, 2011 at 8:08 pm

    This is the sort of stuff that I am looking for to get motivated to find a weightlifting gym! Have been considering for ages to give the sport a try as I am bored of bodybuilding routines. I have some barbells at home and I have a weightlifting training program you posted in another website, is it ok to start on my own? are the exercises difficult to perform?

    Thank you in advance.

    • Rogelio
      July 18, 2011 at 9:39 pm

      Hi Alan,

      The snatch and Clean & Jerk are technical lifts which should be learnt with the supervision of a certified olympic weightlifting coach. If you cannot get one, my advice is to watch as much as you can on Youtube and record yourself so you can watch yourself and also have others watch your lifts.

      In any case, start by Googling your area for weightlditing clubs, I am sure there must be one (as small as it may be) nearby.

      All the best.

      Rogelio

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