Olympic weightlifting is based on that oldest of historical competitions, a simple test of strength. However, what tends to surprise the newcomer to the sport (either as a participant or spectator) is the overall athleticism of lifters. Olympic weightlifters are strong, of course, but the sport also demands flexibility, explosiveness and tremendous power. It is for this reason that so many athletes, sports performers and serious gym-goers often include Olympic lifts (and their associated assistance exercises) in their training programmes.
The two Olympic lifts in competition are the snatch and the clean and jerk, and each competitor is given three attempts to lift the bar. The snatch involves lifting the bar from the floor to overhead at arm’s length in one continuous movement (although having ‘caught’ the bar overhead in the deep squat position, the lifter still needs to rise to stand tall and motionless). The clean and jerk involves first lifting the bar from the floor to the shoulders (the clean), before driving the bar overhead to arm’s length (the jerk). Competition takes place in bodyweight classes, with the lightest weights for men and women being the 56kg and 48kg classes respectively, and the heaviest being over 105kg (men) and over 75kg (women). The weights lifted in each exercise (snatch, or clean and jerk) are impressive across all categories. For example, the current women’s world records in the lightest weight class (48kg) are 98kg for the snatch (Yang Lian, China) and 121kg for the clean and jerk (Nurcan Taylan, Turkey). Male peacocks in the gym take note!
Olympic lifting for fitness and sports conditioning
Olympic lifts are whole-body exercises so they offer the opportunity for a complete workout. However, they are also quite technical and need to be taught well, even if you are just looking to include the athlete’s favourite exercise, the power clean (which is the modified first phase of the clean and jerk), to your training programme. Done well, this exercise helps you work on overall explosiveness, hip drive and general athleticism. Done badly, you’ll just get injured.
You really will benefit from tracking down a weightlifting coach and it will be especially helpful if you can already perform an overhead squat, front squat and deadlift, all with good technique. If you are keen on the sport and live in London, search out Keith Morgan at Crystal Palace or Giles Greenwood in Bethnal Green, or contact British Weightlifting for coaches and clubs around the UK. Everyone will also find Harvey Newton’s book and DVD Explosive Lifting for Sports (Human Kinetics) helpful.
British Olympic hopefuls
Like some other sports (tae kwon do, judo, wrestling, triathlon … the list goes on), British Weightlifting has suffered from controversy and the curse of subjective selections for London 2012. There are five lifters in Team GB with probably the best bet for a decent performance being Zoe Smith who competes in the women’s 58kg class.
In the Paralympics, the weightlifting competition takes one exercise (from competitive powerlifting) that is familiar to everyone who has ever been in a gym: the bench press. As with Olympic weightlifting, competition is in men’s and women’s weight classes. Unlike Olympic lifting, the emphasis (despite the name) is on maximum strength, not power.
It could be argued that the regular gym-goer could learn much about good bench press technique from Paralympians, even if it’s just to read the rules for what constitutes a good lift:
“The bar is placed horizontally on two supports, adjusted on the left and right of the bench. The lifter may request the help of the spotter/loaders when removing the bar from the racks. After taking or receiving the bar at arm's length, the lifter shall wait with locked elbows for the Chief Referee's signal. After receiving the signal ‘start’, the lifter must lower the bar to the chest, hold it motionless (visible) on the chest and then press it upwards, with an even extension of the arms, to arm's length with locked elbows. When held motionless in this position the audible signal ‘rack’ shall be given.1
Grounds for disqualifying a competitor’s lift include:
· Athletes not raising the bar upwards to full extension of the arms
· Athletes not making a synchronised move
· Athletes not maintaining the bar motionless on the chest
· Athletes not completing the attempt within the time limit
· Any change in the elected position on the bench during the lift
· Heaving, bouncing or sinking the bar after it has been motionless on the chest
· Any downward movement of the bar in the course of being pressed out
In the lightest weight classes for men (48kg) and women (40kg), the current world records are 177kg (Adesokan Yakubu, Nigeria) and 106.5kg (Muslu Nazmiye, Turkey).
With the emphasis on just one exercise, the risk of injury is often increased, especially when good technique is sacrificed to lift heavier weights. As with Olympic lifting generally, there are other exercises (aimed at the muscles of the chest, shoulder, back and upper body generally) and training techniques that can be used to help improve the ‘one rep max’ and vary the load, possibly reducing injury risk. The shoulder still remains the site most injured in powerlifters generally. Note that there are differences in recommended bench press technique between gym-goers exercising for health benefits, bodybuilders and competitive powerlifters, too; so seek advice from a knowledgeable instructor or coach.
British Weightlifting is still on the look-out for Paralympic lifters of the future and specifically for the Olympic Games in Rio, 2016. If this might be you, see their talent search criteria at www.britishweightlifting.org
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Fitness Professionals Ltd or Virtual Magazine. Consult a qualified health or fitness professional before making changes to your diet or exercise.