What Does It Take To Be An Olympic Weightlifter?

by Jim Moser | July 20, 2022

young weightlifter racks a snatch

I get asked this question a lot. The answer is: start early. The first thing that you need to understand is that the best time to learn the technique needed to be a World Class weightlifter is between the ages of 5 and 10. The body is extremely elastic, and bad habits have not yet taken hold. If there are any bad habits, they are easily corrected. The mind is very easy to train at this age. It is at the first stage of the three stages of learning.

These three stages are known as the trivium of learning. The first stage is the grammar stage. In this stage the young athlete learns to absorb information through memorization, visualization, and repetition. This is a perfect time for teaching Olympic weightlifting. The best method for teaching young children the Olympic lifts is to have them watch the current world or Olympic champions over and over. Coaching comes into play when you can communicate what part of the lift the athlete needs to correct.

The second stage is the logic stage. The athlete starts to understand weightlifting technique and why they are using this technique. At this stage the athlete can discuss the technique and variations of programming with the coach. The athlete and the coach work together. They develop optimal training performance with the feedback from the athlete and the knowledge and experience of the coach.

The third stage is the rhetorical stage. At this stage the athlete understands the technique and programming. The athlete knows it well enough to coach others, and through teaching develops an even better understanding. As this progresses, the lifter's technique becomes automatic – the athlete can react rather than think through the movement.

For example, if your young grammar-stage athlete is allowing the bar to move away from his body as he pulls, point out how the Champions keep the bar close to the body. Have him watch this over and over until it sinks in. At this age they all eventually get it. Remember the first teaching tools are memorization and repetition, just as in learning to read or basic mathematics. The Bulgarian system had young beginning athletes watch their own world and Olympic champions handle maximum weights every week. Some kids may take longer and need more repetition, however with patience and time all kids will eventually develop their technique.

Olympic Lifting in the USA

A very high literacy rate is common in developed countries. In the United States we are very good at teaching our children to read and write. I wish the same was true in Olympic Weightlifting – 99% of weightlifting coaches in the United States teach weightlifting incorrectly. The typical American coach tends to make Olympic weightlifting unnecessarily complicated. In the beginning stages weightlifting coaching should involve 4 to 5 movements: snatch, clean & jerk, power snatch, power clean & jerk, along with squats, and deadlifts. If trigonometry was taught before basic math, and Moby Dick was handed out in the first grade, the numeracy and literacy rate would be equal to our success on the world stage in Olympic Weightlifting.

We have had a flash-in-the-pan high-level Olympic Weightlifter here and there – through shear luck, lack of competitiveness in a weight class, or realignment of weight classes, and on very rare occasions we have won or placed somewhere, somehow in the top five internationally. This last Olympics is a perfect example: even with 2/3rds of the weightlifting powerhouse countries not eligible to compete we were still unable to get a Gold in anything. At the recent World Championships, the men finished in 27th place.

To put in perspective how bad we are at Olympic weightlifting you need to look no further than the 500 lb clean & jerk club for men and the 400 lb clean & jerk club for women. Ken Patera became the first American to clean & jerk 500 lb in 1969, over 50 years ago. Since that date we have had a small handful of men C&J 500 lb. Shane Hamman did it in the 2004 Summer Olympics, 35 years after Patera first did it. Mark Cameron, Caine Wilkes, Mario Martinez, and Ian Wilson finish that list. As far as a female clean & jerk over 400 lb, we have not yet reached this milestone.

Putting it plainly, we are pretty bad, and we will continue to suck until we change how we coach our young lifters. It is funny to me how our United States weightlifting federation employs Pyrros Dimas, maybe the greatest weightlifter of all time. To the best of my knowledge Pyrros has not let the United States weightlifting community in on a few strategic factors that made him a great weightlifter, one of which is how he was coached as a very young child – if he even remembers. Perhaps even more ironic is that nobody has asked him this simple question. Instead of USAW learning from Pyrros about the structure of the hugely successful Greek weightlifting program (which included systematic doping), our weightlifting federation is committed to paying Pyrros to show up at international weightlifting competitions and parading him around as if he is some sort of trophy – a former gold medalist wearing a USA t-shirt that was not a US lifter.

Here are a few of the things he should tell us we could be doing:

1. Hold organized competitions for kids. I mean little kids. For example, my 3-year-old granddaughter is on a tee-ball team. They practice two times a week and have games on Saturday. The good lifting countries know about the grammar stage, and provide organized events to give kids an opportunity to play/compete in the sport.

2. Access to training facilities for kids. They have to be supervised by coaches who know what they're doing – admittedly a big hurdle in the US, but these countries are committed to their future in the sport, and they are willing to provide resources for their future world champions.

3. A rewards system for coaches who produce young athletes who are selected for advancement to National Teams based on the results of their coaching. A coach's advancement is thus performance-based, just like their athletes.

4. Understanding that there are two types of coaching. The Colombian head coach came from Bulgaria, where he was the teaching coach for youth. He was the coach before they got to the National Coach Abadzhiev, the platform coach, the coach who was responsible for selecting and getting the best performance out of the lifter at the meet. Successfully coaching novice lifters as they are introduced to the sport is a completely different skill than preparing and handling advanced competitors at high-level meets. If our program is to be serious, we should recognize the two coaching specialties – we need to develop coaches who can teach kids how to do the lifts, from the grammar stage through the rhetorical stage, and we need to develop Senior National platform coaches who can prepare and manage attempt selection strategy (a very complicated skill), and the psychology of competition, as well as correct technical errors on the platform.

Everybody thinks the Bulgarians had a specific selection process. I never heard them talk about that. They took a group of random kids from gym classes and had them lift weights. The kids that were the strongest in the group moved on to weightlifting-specific classes. Then they advanced based solely on the weights lifted. As long as the weights went up, they advanced. In this way, the performances of both lifters and coaches were incentivized.

It is just like our popular sports. In the beginning, everyone plays baseball, and it doesn't matter what your skill level is. As the kids get older they advance, and kids that cannot keep up drop out. By 13 to 15 you have to try out for the team, and as the competition gets better the teams improve. This selection process obviously works for any sport that employs it.

I have often said our national weightlifting federation exists only for its own survival and the inflated egos of unsuccessful national coaches and administrators. These positions are mainly made up of retired wanna-be weightlifters and various CrossFit community members who want to associate themselves with an Olympic Sport. One good thing about Covid is that it put a damper on these misinformation clinics put on by our so-called weightlifting coaches. So much hope and so few results.

So, You Want To Be an Olympic Lifter

The best advice I can give to anyone who wants to do Olympic weightlifting is straight forward and simple. Always remember Olympic weightlifting is a skill. To get good at weightlifting you must practice doing heavy snatches and clean & jerks. You must do a lot of them. Combined with heavy squats and deadlifts, as your skill and strength improve, so will the weights lifted. For anyone who wants to do Olympic weightlifting as a hobby or who wants to impress their friends by being one of the couple thousand people who go to the “American Open Series,” I recommend you find a coach. Pretty much any coach will do if your goal is to be average.

The American Open used to be a legitimate National-level highly-competitive meet; if you won the American Open you were pretty good, and on your way to being great. It started out as the original Junior Nationals, and was a stepping-stone meet for the Senior Nationals and ultimately the Olympic Trials. The qualifying totals were high, and usually you had to be ranked in the top ten in the country to participate. Believe it or not, not too long ago competing at the American Open was reserved for the elite in our sport.

The “American Open Series” is now made up of weightlifting meets held in various cities. The American Open has been watered down to the point the qualifying totals are so low that with three months of training you should be able to qualify. Phil Andrews, former CEO of USA Weightlifting, lowered the qualification totals, called it a “national championship,” and overnight thousands of wanna-be weightlifters became “national-level competitors.”

Phil Andrews is mainly responsible for the popularity of the American Open Series facade. Phil has recently resigned his position with USA Weightlifting and has taken the same position with USA Fencing. Phil turned the American Open series into a huge money-maker for USAW. Phil is a great guy, but he has never competed in weightlifting, or lifted anything heavier than his laptop. Phil’s resignation comes around the time Olympic weightlifting has been booted from the Olympic Games.

Perhaps Phil saw the writing on the wall. It is very doubtful that USA Weightlifting would have been able to support Phil’s salary, perks, and travel expenses to go gallivanting around the world staying at five-star hotels, without weightlifting being in the Olympics. Representing an Olympic Sport has many benefits. My prediction is that after weightlifting leaves the Olympics – the 2024 Games are the last for weightlifting – it will be run by rogue nations where cheating and systematic doping are the norm. Weightlifting in the USA will probably be reduced to the status powerlifting has been, with many different federations making it impossible to follow, and numerous records and “World Champions.”

A Few Tips

When starting Olympic Weightlifting, there are two very important things to learn from day one in the first part of the pull off the floor. During the setup you want to start with your knuckles facing down, creating a “curled wrist” effect. The second thing you need to do is start with your elbows turned out. The elbows remain turned out throughout the pull. Your arms hang like cables – the elbows are straight – and the hands are like hooks. The earliest the arms should be activated is shortly after the thigh or hip contact.

It is very important at this point that your coach is reinforcing the proper motor pathways. Once bad habits are developed, they are extremely difficult to break. Remember Olympic Weightlifting is a skill: practice does not make perfect – perfect practice makes perfect. Do it right in the beginning and you will save yourself a lot of unnecessarily frustrating hard work later.

There is one exception to this rule and that is coaching children. For the most part children 5 to 10 years of age have very short attention spans and do not have the same muscle and movement patterns that adults do. For an example, coaching my grandson Traison at age 6 is very different than coaching an adult. Perfect practice takes more time. Traison can go through a workout doing everything wrong regarding technique. We plod through the workout with me trying to correct his mistakes, and nothing works. Then just when I am ready to give up, almost miraculously he will do a rep with maximum weight with perfect technique. The main thing with kids learning Olympic weightlifting is you must make it fun and provide a lot of instant gratification, and over time the technique will improve.

When I was being coached by Doc Yogi in Maui, one of the most important things he taught me was the value of a good miss. When you trained at Doc's you went heavy every workout. Every day you were attempting a PR; Doc had the unique ability to load weights that somehow always ended up with you attempting a record. Doc would make you take your record lift over and over if you missed. He would not let you stop until you had what he termed a “good miss,” meaning a miss due to the load, not the technique. We knew this going in, so you always gave max effort to make your PRs. If you missed, you knew you were in for a long night. A “good miss” to Doc was when you had nothing left in the tank, you were spent both mentally and physically, but you still pulled the weight with technique that would have finished the pull if you'd had the gas.

Doc let you know from day one you were there to become a National Champion and he expected you to train that way. When it came to snatch and clean & jerk you did one rep and on rare occasions you might do a double. Doc would tell me, “They only give medals for one rep,” and as usual he was right.

CrossFit bastardized the lifts by convincing ignorant people that doing high reps in the snatch and clean & jerk was a good idea. Understand that Olympic Weightlifting is a highly technical, explosive, skill-based sport. You need to lift heavy weights often, to practice skill and technique with heavy weights, and to be strong enough to lift them explosively. Anymore than two reps and you are doing something else. The only way to clean 150 kg easy is to be able to do 165, and you don't get strong enough to do 165 by doing 90 for sets of 10.

The first thing I ask someone who is training the Olympic lifts is how many days you snatch and how many days you clean and jerk. If you are training 4 days a week, the answer should be 4, 5 days a week the answer should be 5, and 6 days a week the answer should be 6. After 40 years of coaching Olympic weightlifting I have concluded that the sport – although it is extremely difficult – is really very simple. I can teach someone to snatch and clean & jerk in 30 minutes, but it will take them 5-plus years to master the 30 minutes of teaching. Your workout should consist of snatch, clean & jerk, deadlifts, back and front squats, and some pulling exercises. As you advance you can add more assistant exercises like drop snatches, overhead supports, lifts from the blocks, etc. These assistant movements are mainly to boost your confidence. When doing assistant exercises, you must handle more weight than you do in the lifts – this builds confidence.

For example, I recently had a junior lifter visiting Maui. She had been coached very well, and her form and mental attitude were on-point. I was pleasantly surprised when she had drop snatches scheduled by her coach on one of her training days. Her best drop snatch at the time was 85% of her best snatch. After a bit of coaching and persuasion she was able to do more than her best snatch and set an all-time PR in the drop snatch.

If you decide to take the journey into Olympic Weightlifting, be patient and be in it for the long haul. It will take you a minimum of a year to feel comfortable with the lifts if you are the average weekend athlete training 3 days a week. The goal is to be able perform the movements without having to think about the technique and only focusing on the strength part of the movement. Thinking in Olympic weightlifting slows you down. True speed is achieved when the athlete reflexively reacts to the bar.

While you are learning the technique it is very important to also be getting stronger. Like all things in life, the stronger you are the easier it is to master the technique. There are hundreds of different assistant exercises; most are the spontaneous creation of a newbie coach trying to justify his existence. Stick to the basics and the core movements. Getting stronger is one of those things where more movements are not better – more weight is better. Always remember there is no substitute for speed and strength, and there are no technique medals in Olympic weightlifting. The heaviest total wins the meet.

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