Beginner Olympic Weightlifting Guide
Your one stop guide to getting started with the sport of Olympic Weightlifting
Attitudes to Weightlifting
Essential Movements and Mobility
Beginner Technique Progressions
A sample beginner programme
Attitudes to Weightlifting
As a coach, I typically see two attitudes towards Olympic weightlifting from those that haven’t practiced it yet.
1. They believe weightlifting to be so overwhelmingly complex that they couldn’t possibly become good at it.
2. They believe that weightlifting doesn’t look that hard and that they can learn it in a couple of weeks.
BOTH types of people are wrong.
In response to person one, yes weightlifting is difficult, and yes it’s technical, but with good coaching, sensible drills and well-designed schemes of progression there’s no reason you can’t become good at it.
In response to person two, no weightlifting cannot be learned in a couple of weeks. I would expect somewhere between eight to twelve weeks to learn the absolute basics of the lifts, let alone how to optimise them for maximum power development.
The closest parallel I can offer to weightlifting is gymnastics in that both sports require high levels of strength in combination with high levels of technical coordination. Both sports also take significant amounts of patience, but if you’re willing to put in the work you’ll be able to perform feats that most people can only imagine.
Essential Movements and Mobility
I’m assuming by this point that you’ve actually looked at the two major lifts involved in Olympic Weightlifting, if you haven’t; here are two links for clarification:
Clean & Jerk: http://www.catalystathletics.com/exercise/76/Clean-Jerk/
As you can see, both movements involve the explosive transition between multiple positions. In order to begin weightlifting, you must first be able to achieve and hold each of these individual positions in isolation.
For the Clean & Jerk this means you should be able to perform a front squat whilst maintaining a solid ‘rack’ (elbows up) position. You should also be able to overhead press and push press with no mobility restrictions.
For the Snatch this means you should be able to perform a smooth overhead squat with a good range of motion and adequate stability.
If you lack any of these essential components then your first goal as a beginner weightlifter is to develop these AS SOON AS POSSIBLE. No real Olympic weightlifting practice can occur if you’re unable to achieve the basic positions and movements.
Now, if you’re unable to perform these movements it may be a lack of adequate mobility that’s causing you problems. Some examples include:
Bar falls forwards when overhead squatting – Shoulders, chest and lats too tight.
Cannot squat low enough – Hips and ankles too tight.
Cannot maintain braced, flat back – Thoracic spine not mobile enough.
Here’s a link to a great video by Physical Therapist Dan Pope taking you through essential weightlifting mobility drills: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K9vu81ltPE0
Perform these every day for a few weeks and your mobility will significantly improve.
For the snatch you’ll need a wide grip. How wide exactly depends on your individual physiology. Best bet is to find a width that allows the bar to rest in the crease of your hips. This will allow for adequate contact and vertical drive during the snatch.
For the clean you’ll need a narrower grip. Again the exact width will vary based on your own physiology, but a good rule of thumb (pun intended) is to give yourself a thumbs length between your legs and your hands. If you place your hands on the bar with your thumbs sticking out so they’re parallel with the bar, the tip of your thumb should be next to your legs.
Beginner Technique Progressions
Okay, so you’ve got the basic movements and mobility required to begin learning the main lifts, that’s great news! Now you’ll need a sensible system of progressions and drills to help teach you how to perform the movements correctly.
As a coach, I prefer to teach the movements for the top down, meaning that you’ll start in an upright position with the bar already in your hands. When you’re more confident we’ll move the bar further down your body and closer to the full movements. The aim of each progression is to help you develop a certain aspect of the full lift. Do not skip steps. Only move on to the next step when you’re performing the previous step with technical accuracy.
For the Snatch:
Snatch Balance. http://www.catalystathletics.com/exercise/80/Snatch-Balance/
This drill is great for teaching you to drop under the bar into a deep receiving position.As you can see in the video, you’re essentially dropping into the bottom position of an overhead squat. (see why I made you learn the Overhead Squat before starting)
Multiple sets of 3-5 repetitions are ideal for practice.
Top Tip: The bar SHOULD NOT move upwards, the bar should pretty much stay where it is and it should be YOU that moves down under it.If training with a partner you can get them to hold their hand above the bar as a warning that you’ve done the movement wrong.
Scarecrow Snatch. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ClsHmaxAGBw
As you can see, this movement basically starts with you in a ‘scarecrow’ positions with your elbows up and your weight on your toes. From that position your goal is to actively pull yourself underneath the bar down into the receiving position (the bottom of the overhead squat)
Again, sets of 3-5 repetitions work well here.
2. High hang snatch. http://www.catalystathletics.com/exercise/394/Hip-Snatch/
For this movement the bar has moved further down the front of your body.You’ll be aiming to use your hips to project the bar upwards as you simultaneously pull yourself down underneath it to the receiving position that you’ve practiced earlier.In essence, you’re simply performing a scarecrow snatch with a bit extra.It can help to think of ‘jumping’ as you use your hips to elevate the bar.
Once more, a few sets of 3-5 reps should do the trick.
3. Knee hang Snatch. http://www.catalystathletics.com/exercise/63/Hang-Snatch/
As you can see, the bar has moved further down your body. All you’re doing here is a high hang snatch with a little extra at the start. Aim to keep your shoulders over the bar and bring it to your hips ready for the explosive ‘jump’.
You guessed it, multiple sets of 3-5 reps.
4. Full Snatch. http://www.catalystathletics.com/exercise/58/Snatch/
The full movement as practiced by lifters around the world. Basically it’s just a hang snatch with a bit extra added at the beginning. You’ll be aiming to control the bar to your knees and then begin to accelerate the bar towards your hips ready for the explosive ‘jump’.
For these I actually recommend single repetitions with about 30-40 seconds rest in between. As many as needed to get a feel for the movement.
Congratulations, you’ve just learnt what is arguably the hardest movement in weightlifting.
For the Clean…
To keep things simple and save you some reading time, the progressions for the clean are pretty much exactly the same as for the snatch, except for there’s no snatch balance.
Scarecrow Clean. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HqxndPyVVqc
High Hang Clean. http://www.catalystathletics.com/exercise/365/Hip-Clean/
Knee Hang Clean. http://www.catalystathletics.com/exercise/68/Hang-Clean/
The only major difference is that due to your narrower grip, you’ll be getting your explosive ‘jump’ at around the upper thigh rather than the hip.
For the first three progressions, multiple sets of 3-5 repetitions are good, for the full clean stick with singles every thirty to forty seconds.
For the Jerk…
The jerk is the second part of the ‘clean and jerk’ movement. It involves an aggressive ‘dip and drive’ of the bar into the air. This dip and drive gives the bar a momentary weightlessness in which you can drop underneath it. For the purposes of simplicity, we’ll be focusing on the split jerk.
This should essentially be a split squat position.Your legs will about hip width apart, and about one lunge in length.Your front leg will be bent to 90 degrees, and you’re back leg will be bent in a similar fashion (though often less than 90 degrees)
Top Tip: Once found, use chalk to draw around your feet.
Split jumps. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pc_JxaBWQLE. (3:15-4:40)
Starting with your feet in the centre, jump then out into the chalk marks that you made earlier.Your aim should be to consistently hit the chalk marks in stable, confident position.You should return your feet to the centre position each time by first moving your front leg then your rear leg, although this may vary if the lift is slightly off balance.
I recommend multiple sets of five or more reps.
Split jerks. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pc_JxaBWQLE. (5:40 onwards)
Basically you’re doing split jumps but with a bar.You should use the acceleration of the dip and drive to push yourself underneath the bar.It can help to think of moving yourself down rather than pushing the bar up.
Coaching wise, I’d recommend a few sets of 3-5 repetitions.
BOOM! You’ve just learn how to safely perform a split jerk. Meaning you now know how to perform all three major movements involved in Olympic weightlifting.
How Long will it take to learn all these progressions?
Good question, and the reality is that it varies based on individual circumstance. If you’re an ex-gymnast with great bodily awareness and a good base of strength you’ll find it easier than someone whose just jumped off the couch. Similarly if you can practice three to five times per week you’ll progress faster than someone only practicing once. It will also massively help if you’ve got a coach (insert very un-subtle link to my coaching pages here, Online Weightlifting Coaching or in person 1:1 Olympic Weightlifting Coaching) to watch your technique and give you live feedback. At the very least try to record your lifts and submit them to forums for pointers and advice.
With all the above factors considered it can take anywhere from two weeks to three months to become confident in executing all three major Olympic lifting movements.
A Sample Beginner Weightlifting Programme
Right, at this point you should be able to safely and effectively execute the three main Olympic lifting movements. This programme assumes that you can snatch, clean and jerk, if you’ve tried to skip ahead rather than doing all the necessary preparation and technique work then this programme is not for you.
Snatch – 10 moderately heavy singles
Snatch Pull – 3 sets of 5, fairly heavy
Front Squat – 5 sets of 3, fairly heavy
Split jerk - 5 sets of 3, moderate weight.
Push press - 5 sets of 5, moderate weight.
Overhead Squat - 5 sets of 3, moderate weight.
Clean & jerk - 10 singles, moderatly heavy
Clean Pull - 3 sets of 5, fairly heavy
Back Squat - 5 sets of 5, moderate weight
WTF, there aren’t any given weights or percentages, what’s going on?
Good question. Percentage based programmes are for early-intermediate level lifters and beyond. At this stage you need to learn to listen to your body and play it by ear somewhat.
Moderately heavy means that the weight should be tough, but not so tough that you risk failing or missing a repetition. At this stage in your training it is MUCH more important to be consistent than it is for you to simply bang weight on the bar. If you find yourself missing repetitions and dropping the bar then lower the weight. Trust me, the majority of your improvement is going to come from nervous system adaptions as your body ingrains the correct movement patterns.
What about Progression?
Progression is done according to how you feel each week. As a beginner it’s not at all unexpected to be increasing the weight as much as 5% each week for the first couple of months. Again, though, be conservative and never use a weight that damages your form, technique or consistency. Even with this conservative approach I’ve had clients more than double their snatch, clean and jerk weights in around 12 weeks.
Well done on sticking with me this far. If you have then you’ll know about attitudes, movements, mobility work, grip positions and skill progressions. You’ll also have a good quality three day per week Olympic lifting programme lined up for when you’re ready.
I hope you found this guide helpful, and I 100% encourage you to share it with your friends and fellow lifters.
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Good luck with your weightlifting, and keep on growing stronger
Head Coach at Character Strength & Conditioning