Olympic weightlifting, or simply weightlifting, is the longest-running strength sport currently in existence. Weightlifting consists of two lifts, the snatch and the clean and jerk. Both are highly technical lifts in which the lifter must lock out a barbell overhead, requiring great total-body strength as well as the ability to generate force very quickly. In competition, lifters are allowed three attempts at each lift, and then the best of each are added together to produce a total. Lifters are divided up by gender and weight class, and totals are compared against others in the lifter’s class. In the event of a tie, the lighter lifter wins.
In the snatch, the barbell begins on the ground. The lifter takes an extremely wide grip and launches the barbell overhead, locking out and in the process descending into a deep squat. Then, the weight is overhead squatted up to standing. In the clean and jerk, a closer grip is taken. The barbell is launched up to the shoulders in one movement (the clean) and then in another, the legs are used to build momentum off the shoulders and the weight is simultaneously pressed overhead to lockout.
Olympic lifting has existed in some form or another since the late 1800’s. Originally, other variations on the lifts were considered, including a strict overhead press and one-handed versions of the snatch and clean and jerk. In 1928, one-handed versions were dropped, leaving the two-handed versions and the overhead press. In 1972, the strict press was eliminated due to issues with form and potential injuries. This leaves only the two lifts we know today.
While most barbells and weight plates today are listed as “olympic” because they fit the rough specifications, real olympic weightlifting equipment varies from the run-of-the-mill equipment you’d typically find at your gym. Olympic plates (bumper plates) need to be thicker than traditional plates to withstand the force of being dropped from overhead height after a lift without cracking, and are typically given a thick rubber coating to protect them against wear. As such, while many people can practice Olympic lifts in commercial gyms, they risk damaging equipment if they use regular, non-bumper plates. Olympic lifts are typically weighed in kilos rather than pounds, a nod to the lifts as originating in Europe.
In terms of accessories, weightlifters use a belt similar to powerlifters or strongmen. They also use a unique style of shoe referred to as Olympic lifting shoes. These shoes have a high, stable heel, typically raised a half inch to an inch and a half while the toes remain close to the ground. In a typical squat, depth can be limited by calf tightness, which will prevent the knee from moving far enough forward to facilitate proper depth in the hips. These shoes help remove the calves from the equation by changing the position of the shin relative to the foot, enabling a deeper squat. This is particularly important for olympic lifters, who will need to be able to get into maximal depth in the snatch.
Olympic weightlifters are sometimes compared by a number known as the Sinclair total, as determined by the Sinclair coefficient. The Sinclair coefficient is an equation which scales the weight of the lifter in order to compare them up against superheavyweights. By applying the equation, the resulting Sinclair total is what the lifter would have lifted if they were in the superheavyweight class, enabling comparison of lifters across disparate weight classes. In some competitions, lifters are placed by Sinclair total in addition to their placement within their weight class.
Olympic lifting is less common in gyms today. The high technicality of the lift means that they are less useful for general fitness goals, being practiced mostly by weightlifters and high-level performance athletes. In some places, olympic gyms and coaches can be found, but they’re just as uncommon as powerlifting or strongmen oriented gyms. Olympic lifting has, however, seen a recent resurgence in popularity thanks to Crossfit, which regularly uses the snatch and clean and jerk in its programming.
Olympic lifting is generally more appreciated in Europe, China, and Russia than in the United States. Russia has traditionally dominated at the Olympic games, with China and Bulgaria also producing consistently strong showings. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there has been an effort by American strength coaches to learn Russian methods and emulate their models in an attempt to close this gap. This has led to a certain level of fetishization of Russian training methods, which has become something of a joke on the internet.
Training for Olympic lifting typically involves heavy singles, as the mechanics of the lifts make it awkward to do multiple repetitions consecutively. Variations on the lifts as well as isolation work are also practiced to cover weak points. Developing form and technique, as well as speed, is crucial to create a good lift. The end result is that a good lift will often appear effortless, graceful, while a bad lift may never even make it off the floor.
Olympic lifts are useful in developing athletic speed and explosiveness, and are typically recommended for athletes as a way to improve their reactivity. While they use virtually every muscle in the body at some point or another, it is evident that the focus is on the shoulders, the low back, and the legs, which do much of the heavy work. Since they are highly technical in nature, high rep Olympic lifts may be undesirable as it grows more difficult to maintain form on subsequent reps. This is a frequent complaint against CrossFit, which frequently combines high rep circuit training with Olympic lifts.
There is very little money in Olympic weightlifting, aside from what a country will offer its lifters as stipend for their participation on the Olympic team. Competitions at the lower level offer no prize money, but the Olympic games always offer the opportunity to place and earn a medal. For some, this is worth the difficulty. For others, it’s a long and difficult journey with little potential for fame or fortune. One publicized lifter was Sarah Robles, who featured in an article entitled "The Strongest Woman in America Lives in Poverty" on the road to the 2012 Olympics.
Weightlifting’s status as a sport is largely cemented by its position within the Olympic games, ensuring that while popularity may come or go, it’s probably here to stay. Powerlifting, for example, has been trying to achieve this status for years. Since it is an Olympic sport, the potential to earn medals often outstrips what other strength sports can offer to lifters. For some, that may be right up their alley. For others, the high specialization of the sport combined with its relative unpopularity will make it an unappealing option. However, the Olympic lifts can be a valuable tool in any strength athlete’s arsenal, provided the athlete can perform them with good form.