Weightlifting 101: Getting Started
by Randall Strossen
Olympic-style weightlifting (“weightlifting,” for short) consists of two lifts: the snatch and the clean & jerk. Both are considered quick lifts and both start with the bar on the ground and end with it being at arm’s length overhead. In the snatch, the entire lift is performed in one continuous movement, with speed and good technique sometimes substituting for raw strength. The clean & jerk is really two lifts in one. First, the bar is lifted to the shoulders, and from there it is jerked overhead. Speed and good technique certainly help on the clean & jerk, but there’s no way you can clean & jerk a lot of weight without being just plain strong. In fact, the clean & jerk is probably the ultimate power lift.
Let’s not make any bones about it: weightlifting is not the easiest thing in the world to learn. For anyone who is less than a first-rate athlete learning the lifts will be quite a challenge, so be prepared to invest months of effort before achieving even a moderate level of technical skill. So why put up with these rites of passage when you can learn to perform the powerlifts and most bodybuilding movements much quicker?
For starters, whatever reservations some people might express about weightlifting, it is the only branch of the Iron Game that –indisputably – is a true sport. Thus, anyone with even an inkling of athletic skill or ambition will find it infinitely more rewarding to perform even a power clean than all the benches and curls in the world. And for the select few, the ultimate athletic showcase – the Olympic Games – awaits weightlifters, while bodybuilders and powerlifters can only become spectators. By extension, weightlifting is the preferred weight-training medium for virtually all sports.
Second, the qualities required to be a top weightlifter are essentially independent of those required to be a top bodybuilder, so it’s very possible that someone who might not even make it to the finals in a regional bodybuilding contest could become a champion weightlifter. This might be a refreshing revelation to all who aspire to great achievements in the Iron Game, but whose genetic gifts simply do not present the opportunity for significant success in competitive bodybuilding.
Third, the amount of equipment required for weightlifting is a pittance compared to either bodybuilding or powerlifting. A top-flight weightlifting gym is nothing more than a platform, an Olympic set and a pair of squat racks. Period. And you can start with much less than even those three elements. For example, Bud Charniga – who at one time was snatching within spitting distance of the world record – used to snatch 260 pounds on a 6-foot York standard exercise bar in his basement, early in his lifting career. Mario Martinez – easily the top performing American weightlifter of the past decade – spent his early training days bending exercise bars and putting holes in his parents’ patio. Mario would straighten out the bars with a hammer, and move to one side of his latest set of holes before starting anew.
But what about some of those negative things you might have heard about the sport of weightlifting?
In recent years, someone started the rumor that weightlifting is dead in the
Ignorance – rather than malice – has probably led some people to claim that the sport of weightlifting is inherently dangerous and has an extremely high rate of serious injuries, when the facts contradict this situation. One need look no further than to such a seemingly tame sport as gymnastics to find injury rates higher than in weightlifting, and by the time you get to something like American-style football, any comparison becomes ludicrous.
Finally, there seems to be a residual feeling in some quarters that all weightlifters are drug users. To be sure, at least in the
Your active involvement with weightlifting can be either as a means to an end, or as an end in itself. In the first case, for example, you might be a bodybuilder, primarily, who is interested in the unparalled back development achieved through weightlifting; or you might be a basketball player looking for a big boost in your vertical jump, or a football player looking for more horsepower coming off the line. In the second case, you might be interested in seeing what you can do on the lifts for their own sake, regardless of whether you ever enter a lifting contest. Whatever your motivation and goals, you will essentially start your weightlifting career the same way.
Assuming that you are basically in sound physical condition and have been training steadily with weights for at least a year or so, the most important way to kick off your weightlifting journey is to start stretching to increase your flexibility. Talk to a qualified coach or buy a good book on stretching and start to systematically work, minimally, on your shoulders, wrists, hips, knees and ankles. Start to stretch before every single workout and don’t hesitate to stretch as many times during the day as you can. Please don’t think that stretching is a waste of your time: Whatever flexibility you develop will only augment your performance when you actually grab the barbell, and it just might be the most important factor in preventing injuries.
In addition to stretching, you need to start thinking about speed: Weightlifters are among the very fastest of all athletes (some would argue that they are the fastest). Until you see a world class lifter hoist hundreds of pounds to arm’s length overhead faster than you can follow the bar with your eye, it will be hard to fully appreciate the level of speed we are talking about. To put yourself on track, just remember two things: 1) A world class lifter will snatch the heaviest of weights in less than one second, literally, and 2) as your technique develops, try to move ever more explosively on the lifts.
Start by making the following adjustments to your current training program:
1. Stretch daily.
2. Perform all your back squats in a high-bar, medium-stance, rock bottom style, with no support gear.
3. Add standing presses to your routine.
4. Add the clean deadlift and shrug to your routine, performed as follows. Using a moderate weight, grab the bar with a conventional overhand grip, using a grip a little wider than your shoulders. Perform a conventional deadlift, but strictly maintain a flat back and your hip-shoulder position throughout the lift. At the top of your deadlift, shrug the bar as high as possible, rising on your toes as you shrug. Perform each rep like this.
Do 5 sets of 5 reps in each of these movements, using progressively heavier warmups for your first 2 sets and then do 3 sets of 5 with your “working weight.” Be sure to include a little abdominal work at the end of your workout as well.
Making these changes in your routine will help lay a foundation for the next step in your training. Don’t forget to stretch!
Last issue I introduced the Olympic lifts and had you start to incorporate related movements into your training. Now we are ready to build on that preliminary step and advance in your adaptation to weightlifting.
High Pulls From the Hang
The essence of weightlifting is to get the weight to arm’s length overhead by first pulling a weight as high off the ground as you can and then instantaneously reversing directions and getting under it. Pulling the bar in the most efficient manner possible is likely to be very different from what you might have already been doing, so try to ignore your preconceptions as you learn to pull.
For simplicity, consider the pull to comprise two stages: 1) The first stage involves breaking the bar off the floor and getting it to above the knees for 2) what is usually called “the second pull.” The first pull somewhat resembles a deadlift; the second pull is the essential aspect and is much harder for most people to learn. Thus, your training on the pull will begin with pulls from “the hang,” that is, you will do your pulls with the bar starting off a little above your knees.
In the first photograph of Naim Suleymanoglu (
From the hang you will, in order, straighten your legs, back and finally shrug your shoulders to finish in a position as shown in the third photo of Suleymanoglu. Note the arms are mere connectors in this chain of events – you do NOT perform something like an upright row. Pulling with “bent arms” or “arm pulling” at the end of the movement will be a natural temptation, but don’t give in to it – these faults will only weaken your pull, and from a bodybuilding perspective will turn a great back movement into a lousy biceps exercise.
Pulls are done for both the snatch and the clean, with the primary difference being one’s hand position. Snatches are done with a very wide grip, and cleans are done with the hands a little more than shoulder width apart. The first two photographs of Suleymanoglu illustrate the hand position for a clean pull, and the third photo illustrates the hand position for the snatch pull. If your time/energy is limited, perform snatch and clean pulls in alternate workouts; otherwise do your snatch pulls first and follow them with your clean pulls. The weight used for snatch pulls should be about 80% of what you use for clean pulls, with the bar reaching about pec-height on snatch pulls, and about waist-height on clean pulls. Don’t let your form deteriorate in an attempt to handle too much weight too early.
The Push Jerk
No matter how strong they are on the standard bodybuilding movements or the powerlifts, most people new to weightlifting will be very weak overhead. Since the Olympic lifts are overhead lifts it’s a good idea to start working on your overhead strength immediately.
To simultaneously lay a foundation for learning the classic jerk and for building overhead strength, you should begin with the push jerk (also called the “power jerk”). The idea is to begin standing upright with the bar on your chest as if your were going to do an overhead press. Next, in sequence, dip, and then forcefully straighten your legs, push up with your arms, and simultaneously drop under the bar. The net result should be that you catch the bar on fully straightened arms, in the position illustrated in the photograph of Ronny Weller (
If this entire sequence proves too difficult to learn initially, don’t be afraid to spend several weeks training on the push press instead: Start as above, but simply dip, straighten your legs and finish the movement by pressing the bar to arm’s length overhead. After a few weeks on the push press the transition to the push jerk should be fairly direct.
The Overhead Squat
The overhead squat is considered by many to be the single most unpleasant movement in the weightlifter’s program – so you might as well learn about it immediately. The overhead squat is nothing more than a full squat with the bar held overhead in the snatch position, which sounds innocent enough, but for most beginners it will leave the wrists and shoulders absolutely screaming for mercy, so progress slowly, allowing your body to loosen up and your mind to toughen.
Begin the movement with a wide grip (collar to collar or thereabouts for anyone from medium height on up), as the bar fests on your shoulders (as if you were going to do presses behind the neck of squats). Now, in sequence, dip the knees, quickly straighten the legs while pushing up with your arms – jerking the weight to arm’s length overhead. This is your starting position, and from here you will lower yourself into a full squat – as illustrated by Igor Sadykov (
Back Squats and Front Squats
Perhaps no exercise/lift is capable of such a wide variety of interpretation as is the squat. Thus, what a powerlifter calls a squat would probably cause an Olympic lifter to ask, “What’s that?”
To be sure, if your sole objective is to see how much weight you can “squat” with, you will want to emulate powerlifters – from position to gear. For weightlifters (as with bodybuilders), the squat is a means to an end – an absolutely critical tool, but one that must be used properly for best results, even if this requires that less weight be moved than in a different style. Of course the irony is that while a top weightlifter could easily adapt to the powerlifter’s style match his poundages, a powerlifter converting to the weightlifter’s movement will probably get a very cold shower when it comes time to load the bar.
In the get-set position of an Olympic squat:
1. the bar is high on the traps Once you have developed proper Olympic squat technique you will understand why the old-times referred to this movement as “the deep knee bend” and not “the squat.” Note Chakarov’s depth in the photo, as well as the position of his head, chest and feet. The key element is that the hip-back-shoulder position does not deteriorate into a simulated good morning with a lean forward and the back taking up the work – instead, form is held even when breaking through the sticking point. By the way, Chakarov’s best effort in this style, at 198 lbs. bodyweight is about 772 pounds.
2. the chest is up
3. the chest is lifted
4, the feet are about hip-width apart
5. no wraps, squat suit or belt are used
Once you have developed proper Olympic squat technique you will understand why the old-times referred to this movement as “the deep knee bend” and not “the squat.” Note Chakarov’s depth in the photo, as well as the position of his head, chest and feet. The key element is that the hip-back-shoulder position does not deteriorate into a simulated good morning with a lean forward and the back taking up the work – instead, form is held even when breaking through the sticking point. By the way, Chakarov’s best effort in this style, at 198 lbs. bodyweight is about 772 pounds.
In addition to properly performed back squats start to do front squats as well. Front squats will be performed just as the back squats except that the bar will be held on your chest, instead of your upper back. At least until your wrists and shoulders loosen up, feel free to front squat with the bar only resting lightly on your fingertips, rather than feeling you have to maintain a death grip on the bar. Be sure to keep your elbows high, maintain your hip/back/shoulder position throughout the lift, and squat to rock bottom. Also be sure to keep your elbows clear of your knees. If you have to dump the bar while front squatting and your elbow hits your knee, you can end up with a severely sprained wrist.
Perform back squats and front squats in alternate workouts, doing back squats, for example, on Monday, front squats on Wednesday, back squats on Friday, and so forth.
Here’s how your whole training program will look:
Push Press/Push Jerk
Back Squat/Front Squat
Perform 5 sets of 5 reps of each. Make the first two sets progressively heavier warmup sets, and then do three sets with your “working weight.” Finish off your workout with a little abdominal training. Train 3 days per week, allowing one or two rest days in between workouts. This is a lot of work and if it leaves you overtrained cut down on the number or work sets and/or make one training day fairly light, one day moderately heavy and make the remaining day heavy.
Best of luck!