Nothing is more amusing than sitting at the bar, glancing at the incredibly confused faces when the Olympics are on.
The vibe is just a bit different during curling or synchronized swimming than it is during NFL Sunday.
The most confused faces, though…they come out when the weightlifting starts. Even the most seasoned gym bros have little-to-no idea how those tiny Chinese women are able to put that much weight over their heads (if they even know what a kilogram is!)
The unasked questions they’re probably contemplating are “what are these strange exercises they’re doing? What are Olympic lifts?”
If you’ve found yourself in a similar state of wonderment while sipping on a Miller Lite (not Bud Lite, I assume) and trying not to fall of your stool, you’ve come to the right place. Today, we’re going to answer that age-old what of “what are Olympic lifts” and by the time we finish, you’ll be scouring the internet for shoes, a lifting barbell, and maybe even some knee sleeves to get started with the lifts!
Table of Contents
What are Olympic Lifts: An Overview
Both lifts are performed with a weighted barbell. As you might expect, weightlifters aim to lift the heaviest weight possible in each lift. The winner is the one who manages to lift the most weight in both lifts combined in their respective weight class.
Athletes generally incorporate the Olympic lifts into their routines in order to increase explosive power and functional strength.
History of Olympic Lifting
Weightlifting competition has a rich history. Although not quite the same kind of competition that takes place in modern times, competitive weightlifting was taking place in the Ancient Egyptian, Chinese, Indian, and Greek civilizations..
As an international sport, weightlifting was initially founded in the late 19th century.
The first World Weightlifting Championships took place in London in 1891.
The first time weightlifting appeared in the Olympic games was in 1896. Athletes were competing in one-hand lifts and two-hand lifts. Weight classes had not been incorporated into the sport yet (yes, the big, big guys were lifting against the normal-sized men!)
Weightlifting competitions continued in the form of the World Weightlifting Championships in Austria (1898), Milan (1899), and Paris (1903). The International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) was founded in 1905, but at this time, it was known as “Amateur-Athleten-Weltunion” (Amateur Athletes World Union).
From 1900 to 1920, weightlifting competition was not present at the Olympic Games. However, since then, athletes have competed in weightlifting at every Summer Olympic Games.
In the early years, weightlifting included:
- the one-handed snatch
- the one-handed clean and jerk
- the two-handed clean and jerk
If you’re into kettlebell training and/or have tackled a select few CrossFit Open workouts, you likely have experience with one-handed snatch and clean-and-jerk movements…with kettlebells or dumbbells. Ever tried snatching or cleaning a barbell with just one hand?
(Maybe this is why you, me, and probably nobody else reading this is an Olympic athlete!)
In 1924, the two-handed press and two-handed snatch were added. Thankfully, weight classes were also added at this time and four years later, the one-handed exercises were eliminated from competition. At this point, no major changes were made for decades until 1972 when the pressing movements were eliminated and replaced by jerking movements.
(Judges breathed a sigh of relief, no longer having to take the bend, or lack thereof, of the athlete’s back into consideration when assessing their lifts! Can you imagine what it would have been like to judge these guys?)
Women were permitted to participate in weightlifting events for the first time In 1987. In 2000 women’s weightlifting was introduced to the Olympics.
Rules of Olympic Weightlifting
Like any other sport, Olympic weightlifting has a set of established and standardized rules and scoring criteria.
To properly perform the two main lifts to competition standards, athletes must do the following:
The snatch: lifters lift the barbell from the ground and raise it above the head in one continuous motion. The weight must be held overhead with arms straight until the buzzer sounds.
The clean and jerk: lifters lift the barbell from the ground to their shoulders (the clean). After a momentary pause, the barbell is then pushed overhead (jerk). During the overhead position, the lifters need to keep their elbows straight and hold the bar until they hear the buzzer.
With each lift, the lifter has one minute to initiate the lift after being called to the platform. Also, a number of technical guidelines must be followed:
- The arms can’t bend and re-straighten when catching the barbell overhead (no, “press out” to complete the lift..sorry CrossFitters!)
- Lifters have to wait for the down signal/buzzer before lowering the barbell.
- The weight of the barbell can never be decreased, only increased.
Lifters have three attempts for both movements. The best result from each movement is considered for the total score. The total score is comprised of the highest weight lifted for both movements. For example, if an athlete hits snatches of 225 and 230 pounds (missing their 235-pound attempt) and clean-and-jerks of 265, 275, and 280, their final score will be 510 (230 + 280 = 510).
In the event that two lifters have the same score, the winner is the one with the lower body weight.
The equipment used for Olympic weightlifting competitions needs to follow certain rules too.
The competition platform is square, measuring 4 meters/~13 feet on each side and 10 cm/~4 inches in height.
All lifters at the competition lift with the same barbell. The bar is made of steel. Two types of bars are used: man and women’s bars. The Men’s bar weighs 20 kg/~45 pounds, while the women’s bar is 15 kg/~33 pounds.
The discs (or weight plates) are added on each side according to the planned lifting load. They’re color-coded according to weight:
- 25 kg – red
- 20 kg – blue
- 15 kg – yellow
- 10 kg – green
- 5 kg – white
- 2.5 kg – red
- 2 kg – blue
- 1.5 kg – yellow
- 1 kg – green
- 0.5 kg – white
(noticed a pattern here? All plates with the “25” increment are red, “20” are blue, “15” are yellow…and you can figure out the rest!)
The heaviest discs are placed on the bar first, followed by lighter discs in descending order.
The discs are secured to the bar with collars that weigh 2.5 kg each.
The Dress Code
Lifters have to wear a one-piece weightlifting singlet (that doesn’t cover the elbows or knees) and appropriate lifting footwear.
Lifters can use bandages and tape to protect some parts of the body from injury, such as wrists and thumbs. However, no bandages or tape are allowed within 10 cm of the elbow area. Sticking plasters/”Band-aids” for covering wounds are also allowed.
Competitors can wear a weightlifting belt outside of the singlet, with a maximum width of 12 cm. Fingerless gloves are also allowed, as long as they only cover the first knuckle of the fingers.
Olympic Lifting Movements
Let’s dive deeper into the two main movements in Olympic weightlifting.
In this exercise, the lifter sets up over the bar, taking a wider “snatch grip”. He then lowers himself over the bar, with his shoulders extended slightly further forward over the bar.
From here, the lifter rises with the barbell, keeping the shoulders over the bar with the weight firmly in the back of the feet. As the power builds, the barbell makes contact with the lifter at around hip level while the lifter conducts a forceful second pull.
The force generated will raise the bar as the lifter makes a strong vertical pull while simultaneously dropping under the barbell. The athlete then stands up with the bar overhead to complete the lift.
Variations of the Snatch
There are a few different main variations of the barbell snatch. These include the:
- snatch (or full snatch)
- power snatch
- muscle snatch
- split snatch
The full snatch ends with the lifter in a below-parallel squatting position. Because the athlete is lower to the ground in the full snatch than in any other variation, the weight has the lowest traveling distance, allowing for the most weight to be lifted.
In the power snatch, the bar is lifted as high as possible and received overhead with a slightly bent knee and hip. This increases the height that the bar must be lifted and generally decreases the amount of weight that can be lifted.
The muscle snatch requires the lifting of the bar all the way overhead with arms locked out. The hips and knees should be fully extended and only minimally, if at all, contribute to power produced to lift the barbell.
The split snatch is rarely seen in modern competition. In this variation, the lifter splits the legs and places one foot to the front (akin to what one would see in a split jerk).
As previously mentioned, snatches can also be performed with one hand, although these are almost always performed with a dumbbell or kettlebell. This variation can help to combat asymmetrical muscle development (if repetitions are evenly distributed between hands!) Asymmetrical muscle development may happen with bilateral movements when a stronger limb takes most of the work.
The Clean & Jerk
The clean is an extension of one of the most fundamental barbell movements.
However, where the deadlift movement ends (legs locked out, the bar hanging by the hands in front of the lifter’s waist), the clean is only getting started!
The clean’s finish position is at the lifter’s shoulder. The hands and front of the anterior deltoids and clavicles securely support the barbell and hold it in place.
After a brief pause, the lifter makes a slight dipping movement in the legs before exploding up into the air, hoisting the weight overhead as they drop under the barbell.
Once the weight is settled and secured overhead, the lifter returns his feet to a neutral position to finish the lift.
Variations of the Clean and Jerk
The clean has three common variations:
- the power clean: used during training (not in competitions…unless the lifter is either really inexperienced or is really strong); the lifter doesn’t catch the bar in a full squat position.
- the hang clean: the bar hangs from the arms (off the ground, usually around knee cap level) at the beginning of the lift.
- the continental clean: the lifter can use any method to lift the bar from the floor (as long as the bar is not upended or doesn’t touch the floor).
The jerk also has three major variations:
- the split jerk: the lifter dips the hips and pushes the barbell up in a short jump and then splits the legs and catches the bar with straight arms above the head.
- the power jerk: starts the same as the split jerk, but the lifter catches the barbell in a partial squat with legs parallel to one another.
- the squat jerk: the lifter catches the barbell in the same way as in the power jerk, but in a full squat position, locking out the barbell above the head.
The Benefits of Olympic Weightlifting
Many people begin training for the Olympic lifts in order to get better at CrossFit. However, the benefits of these movements are much more numerous than faster Grace times! These include:
Full Body Activation
The Olympic lifts work a lot of the muscles of the body. The snatch and the clean and jerk primarily work the:
Olympic weightlifting provides an excellent opportunity for progressive overload by adding weight to the barbell from session to session (at least in the early years of training…gains are a little harder to come by as one progresses in the sport!) This ensures that the whole body is being worked harder and harder as it continues to grow stronger.
Build Explosive Strength
Olympic lifting involves moving heavy loads as quickly as possible. When done properly, this develops and increases explosive strength. Compared to other strength and power-based exercises (such as back squats and deadlifts), Olympic lifting has been shown to produce much higher levels of force and power.
Building explosive strength can translate to increased performance in other sports, especially those that require sprinting and vertical jumping.
Improves range of motion and coordination
Olympic lifting requires flexibility in order to perform the lifts correctly, especially in the hips, shoulders, and wrists. This builds coordination and balance while improving flexibility.
This kind of training can greatly improve range of motion in these areas.
I always love the looks on peoples faces when I tell them that I “practice” Olympic weightlifting.
“You mean…you’re going to be in the Olympics?” they stammer, looking my less-than-shredded, late 30’s physique up and down with a bit of surprise.
After clarifying for them, their next question is inevitably, “so….what are Olympic lifts?”
If you’ve ever spent any length of time in a run of the mill, commercial globo gym, you probably feel some sympathy for them; they honestly may have never seen these lifts performed before.
Just like you may not have known about them prior to reading this article!
Knowing what you know now, there is no excuse not to be doing these lifts, even if you have to set things up in your garage or basement to do so.
And before you give me any crap, like, “I do CrossFit…I’ll never have to lift that heavy!” well…let me tell you, sometimes you gotta put up over 700 pounds combined if you want to with the event!
So, I’ve sold you on Olympic weightlifting, answered your question of “what are Olympic lifts?”. and you’re ready to get started. Your best bet is to check out our review of one of the best beginner books written on the topic and to get lifting yourself. Once you start, you’ll regret all of these sessions of curling in the squat rack!