Advice for the Newbie Weightlifter

Bewildered and discouraged at your start in weightlifting? Here are some ways to improve like a pro, even if you’re brand new.

Your awkward reverse-curl-clean and slow press-jerk are dead giveaways. The skin on the inside of your thumbs is still smooth, and you don’t have any calluses. You’re a newbie Olympic weightlifter, and you may not know what you’re doing yet, but you sure as hell make up for it with enthusiasm.

Technique in Olympic weightlifting is an art, and your style of lifting will become as individual as you. Some people drive the bar off their hips, some don’t. Some bend their arms to hit the power position, others won’t. There is more than one way to get a barbell from the ground to overhead, and I’m not here to debate the intricacies of proper technique – I’ll leave that for you and your coach.

If you are a beginner, there are a few things you can do that will put you miles ahead of your counterparts. Start here if you’re looking for ways to improve your lifting today.

Practice, Don’t Train

In the sixth grade I took up playing the trombone. The first time I pulled the shiny brass pieces out of the case, I screwed the slide on backwards. I didn’t even know how to put it together, let alone play it. So naturally, I practiced daily (oh, my parents’ poor ears), and in time found myself holding the first chair of my junior high jazz band.

What does playing an instrument have to do with Olympic weightlifting? I doubt you’ve ever heard someone say they needed to go train the guitar, because that sounds weird. It’s hard to train something that you don’t know how to do. You have to practice before you progress to training. Weightlifting is like learning to play the guitar. It takes years of fine-tuning to find your groove.

Approach each lifting session with the intent of practicing your craft. Get comfortable with the fundamentals before you rack on the weight. Your opportunity to train hard will come in time. When you reframe the way you think from training to practice, you learn to understand and value a huge piece of the weightlifting puzzle: patience.

If you worry about going hard and heavy too early, you’ll only hold yourself back.

Narrow Your Focus

In a sport that’s so technical, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. To some extent, you need space to figure things out on your own. Too many cues can be confusing, which is why I encourage you to pick one thing to focus on and hammer that for the entire session.

One great place to start is to focus on the first rule of Olympic lifting: keep the bar close. Draw a line on the floor and imagine that a kitten will die if you cross the line. If you feel frustrated by information overload, remember to keep it simple. When lifting is approachable and fun, you’re more likely to celebrate the small victories, which will stoke your fire to learn more.

Don’t Think, Feel

There’s no better feeling than flowing through a snatch with the grace and precision of a ballet dancer and the speed of a cheetah. It’s a sensation that is hard to put into words, but you’ll know it when it happens, and it’s…awesome.

Before you get lost in the intricacies of technique, learn to pay attention to what a lift feels like. Can you feel your feet drive hard into the ground on the first pull? Do you notice when your back angle changes? What do you feel that is different when you make a lift versus when you miss? Being able to communicate what you feel to your coach is an invaluable skill, and will give him or her a better opportunity to provide specific feedback and direction.

Identify Mobility Roadblocks

Almost everyone has some sort of mobility issue that is holding them back. No matter how hard you work on technique, if you can’t lock out the top of a jerk or find a comfortable position in the bottom of a squat, your lifting will never progress. Ankles, hips, shoulders, upper back, whatever it is, identify the roadblock and get to work.

I get it, mobility work isn’t glamorous, and can feel daunting. But if you want to be a successful weightlifter, you’re going to have to suck it up. Don’t let mobility be a source of frustration.

new weightlifter

Addressing your mobility issues early will allow you to progress much more quickly than trying to train around them.

Create Your Weightlifting Ritual

Watch any high-level lifter closely, and you’ll notice the OCD-like quality to the way they address the barbell. Establish your own consistent routine that puts you in a frame of mind to succeed. Grip the bar in the same place each time. Place your feet in the same location under the bar. Take the same deep breath before you initiate every lift. I ask my lifters to approach each session with intention. Step up to the bar every time with purpose. Visualize what your perfect lift looks like, and execute. Eventually, what you see in your head will become reality.

I’m not saying you can’t play around with different foot or hand placement to find what works best for you, but pay attention to what you are doing. If you are random with your set up, you success will be random. When you walk into the gym, block out the noise of the day and focus on the task at hand. Breaking bad habits is excruciating, so it’s best to never form them in the first place.

Don’t Rush Your Progress

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was an Olympic weightlifter. Becoming proficient in Olympic lifting is a long process of trial and error that will teach you how to face and overcome both physical and mental challenges.

Mastering the lifts takes determination, and implementing the above tips will pay huge dividends in your journey. Practice patience, establish good habits, and you will develop into a confident and competent lifter. 

More for the Weightlifting Neophyte (and You Experts, Too):

Photos courtesy of CrossFit Empirical.

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