Olympic weightlifting is often seen as an elite sport, but this special brand of weight training is not just for elite athletes; it’s a training discipline that anyone who is looking to help transform their physique and enhance overall fitness should start embracing and incorporating into their workouts.
With this Everyman’s Guide to Olympic Weightlifting, we provide a comprehensive journey into the world of strength, athleticism, and precision. We’ll break down the fundamentals of Olympic weightlifting in a way that resonates with the everyday individual, making this dynamic and challenging sport accessible to all—whether you’re looking to compete, improve your CrossFit workouts, or want to incorporate the lifts into your day-to-day gym routine.
Whether you’re a complete novice or a seasoned gymgoer looking to both learn and improve their technique in both the snatch and clean & jerk, this guide is tailored for you. We’ll explore what the lifts are, why you should (and honestly need to) incorporate them into your workouts, learning progressions, explore variations utilizing dumbbells and kettlebells, and I’ll craft together a two-day sample program for you to try out next time you hit the gym.
What are the Lifts in Olympic Weightlifting?
Let’s dissect the distinctions between the two primary lifts in Olympic weightlifting. In a typical competition, athletes attempt the snatch first, followed by the clean and jerk—and we’ll delve into these movements in that sequence. The fundamental contrast lies in their execution: the snatch is accomplished in a single fluid motion, whereas the clean and jerk is executed in two distinct phases.
Both lifts require precise muscle coordination, strength, and speed, making it a technical challenge.
The snatch is the first lift attempted in an Olympic weightlifting meet, a dynamic and explosive lift that involves lifting a barbell from the ground to an overhead position in one swift motion. The lifter starts with the barbell on the ground, gripping it with a wide hand placement (we’ll cover how to find the proper grip later). With a quick and powerful vertical extension of the hips and knees, the lifter lifts the barbell off the ground and simultaneously pulls their body under the bar catching it in a deep squat position.
Clean and Jerk
The clean and jerk is a two-part lift that involves lifting a barbell from the ground to the shoulders (clean) and then from the shoulders to an overhead position (jerk). The lifter starts with the barbell on the ground, using a powerful and explosive motion to bring it to their shoulders, catching the bar in a front squat position. After a brief pause, the lifter then executes the jerk, driving the barbell overhead while splitting (split jerk) or slightly squatting (power jerk) to catch it with arms fully extended.
Why you Should Incorporate Olympic Lifts?
Develop Power & Athleticism
The Olympic lifts are explosive and dynamic by nature, requiring fast, precise movement while executing rapid and forceful extension of the hips, knees, and ankles in unison to execute the movements. This demonstration of explosive power extends beyond the gym, contributing to enhanced speed and agility in various physical activities—for athletes and weekend warriors alike.
Improved Mobility & Stability
Olympic weightlifting places a high demand on mobility and stability; being able to hold weight overhead while positioning yourself in a deep squat isn’t an easy task. Here’s a quick list of why the Olympic lifts are great for improving your mobility:
Mobility: The constant practice of moving through a full range of motion improves your mobility—specifically for the hips, knees, ankles, and shoulders.
Joint Stability: Lifters consistently work on stabilizing their joints during lifts, holding positions while under tension from the weights.
Enhanced Flexibility: When it comes to completing reps and reps of deep squats and overhead positions, you have to be able to get into those positions somehow, right? Working on flexibility via a great warmup and cooldown will be rather beneficial.
Balance and Coordination: You’ll notice improvements in precise muscle coordination as you move from position to position, aiming to execute each lift with great technique and maintaining your balance from start to finish.
How to Start and Work Your Way to a Complete Lift
Learning the Olympic lifts isn’t easy—I’d be lying if I said it was. Look at it as a puzzle, each variation is a piece that ultimately forms the snatch or clean and jerk puzzle. Let’s take a look at how to find your grip for both the snatch and clean, and then a quick overview of learning progressions, starting from the ground and working our way up to the full lifts.
Snatch: To find your snatch grip, you’ll want to position your hands evenly on the bar allowing it to be positioned in your hip crease while maintaining straight arms.
*A good pro tip here is to raise your hip to 90 degrees; if the bar doesn’t move, you’re in a good spot. If your grip is too wide, it’ll touch your stomach—that’s not ideal.
Clean: the ideal grip will mimic your front squat hand position—if you’re able to wrap your whole hand around the bar. If not, position your hands a thumb-length away from your legs. This is a good starting point for finding your grip.
Prerequisites To Successfully Execute an Olympic Lift
To successfully execute the lifts, there are a couple of prerequisites required before diving into the full movement. If you’re unable to check the box of these squat variations, work on the power variations of the snatch and clean while focusing on improving your mobility!
Snatch: The ability to perform an overhead squat.
Clean: The ability to perform a front squat.
Here are the technical progressions I use to teach the lifters I coach and for general clients and performance athletes. A few keys: take it slow, be patient, and move well before ever weighting a movement, especially in Olympic weightlifting.
- Snatch-grip press
- Overhead squat
- Tall snatch high pull
- Dip muscle snatch
- Dip power snatch + overhead squat
- Hang snatch at the knee
- Hang snatch below knee
- Snatch deadlift
- Tall clean high pull
- Tall muscle clean
- Dip power clean + front squat
- Hang clean at the knee
- Hang clean below knee
- Clean deadlift
- Strict press
- Push press
- Press in split
- Tall jerk
A Complete List of Olympic Lift Variations
Everyone doesn’t have access to a gym with barbells (or the right type of barbells, at least) but may still want to work on their Olympic lifting ability and reap the benefits. If this is you, check out these exercises that I love to use in my programming for clients and athletes alike when equipment options are limited. Dumbbells or kettlebells will work wonderfully with either of these movements.
- Kettlebell/dumbbell high pull
- Kettlebell/dumbbell single arm overhead squat
- Double dumbbell/kettlebell overhead squat
- Kettlebell/dumbbell single-arm power snatch
- Kettlebell/dumbbell single-arm snatch
- Kettlebell/dumbbell high pull
- Kettlebell/dumbbell front squat
- Kettlebell/dumbbell single arm power clean
- Kettlebell/dumbbell single arm clean
- Double dumbbell/kettlebell power clean
- Double dumbbell/kettlebell clean
- Single kettlebell/dumbbell push press
- Double kettlebell/dumbbell push press
- Single kettlebell/dumbbell power jerk
- Double kettlebell/dumbbell power jerk
- Single kettlebell/dumbbell split jerk
- Double kettlebell/dumbbell split jerk
Coach’s Tip: Don’t be afraid to explore these equipment variations with movement variations. Work from different hang positions, complexes, tempos, and pauses to work on technique, power, and strength development!
Olympic Weightlifting Sample Starter Workout Program
You’ve learned what the Olympic lifts are, why you should incorporate them into your training program, checked out technique progressions, and even know a few substitutions if the equipment or space isn’t available at your local gym. Now, let’s put it into practice. I’ve crafted two training days to help you progress your training to the next level.
Make sure to hit a worthy warmup focusing on mobility, activation, and bar work!
Day 1 – Snatch Focus
A1. Overhead squat (3 sets, 5 reps)
B1. Snatch (4 sets, 2 reps) (*You can also swap for another snatch variation)
C1. Snatch pull (3 sets, 4 reps)
D1. Back squat (3 sets, 5 reps)
E1. Pullups (3 sets, 8-12 reps)
E2. Weighted forearm plank (3 sets, :30 sec. each side)
Day 2 – Clean & Jerk Focus
A1. Clean + Jerk (4 sets, 2+2) (or clean & jerk variation)
B1. Push Press (3 sets, 5 reps)
C1. Clean Pull (3 sets, 3 reps)
D1. Front Squat (5 sets, 3 reps)
E1. RDL (3 sets, 6 reps)
E2. Farmer’s Carry (3 sets, 30 yards)