Olympic Weightlifting and the Recreational Athlete

This is not a sport that can be taken lightly or approached with indifference.

So you wanna be an Olympic weightlifter. I do too. I also want to be a fighter pilot, the President of the United States, and the Fittest Man on Earth. I would also like to be a dolphin wrangler, a Super Bowl champion, and Guy Fieri’s new sidekick on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. Problem is, all of those things require an intense amount focus, dedication, and specialization—not to mention eons of time—to accomplish.

So you wanna be an Olympic weightlifter. I do too. I also want to be a fighter pilot, the President of the United States, and the Fittest Man on Earth. I would also like to be a dolphin wrangler, a Super Bowl champion, and Guy Fieri’s new sidekick on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. Problem is, all of those things require an intense amount focus, dedication, and specialization—not to mention eons of time—to accomplish. And there’s just not enough Chris Holders to get it all done.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but venturing down the Olympic lifting road is the weight training equivalent to the skills mentioned above. The Olympic lifts are the gold standard for all strength and power lifts. Some gymnastic feats are incredible, and some of the foolishness that is attempted in the name of strength is impressive in its own right (you know, the guy who is standing on two 8kg kettlebell handles with 315lb on his back… with the plates on fire… blind folded… with his… well, you get the point).

From a skill set standpoint, if you can barbell snatch with a high level of execution, you can pretty much do anything else in the weight room. A seriously heavy clean and jerk says more about your level of strength, power, and athleticism than nearly all other weight lifting skills, combined. Olympic weightlifting is the mountain top.

Having said all that, do you still want to do this? You clicked on this article, which means you probably said “yes!” without hesitation, which means I have to keep writing. Fine, I’ll take the bait, but you might not like what I have to say.

From this point forward, I am going to address you like I do my own athletes. I have hundreds of college athletes who, from time to time, venture down the Olympic road. As their coach, I have made the decision that they have developed enough proficiency in other skills to give me just enough faith that they won’t kill themselves during the training cycle ahead.

In my house, you must qualify for the Olympics.

What’s Your Skill Set?

I’m not talking about what your power clean max is. I want to know if you can squat. And not just that:

  • Can you high bar squat?
  • What does your front squat look like? Can you keep your back vertical, your elbows high throughout, and can you sit ass-to-grass?
  • What does your deadlift look like? Do you lose your spine at any point in a heavy pull? Can you slide your hips forward once you pass your knees without needing to section the lift? Do you rear your head around like bull in a rodeo pen before opening the gate, or can you keep things quiet and pull with grace?
  • Can you overhead squat, and do so with a certain degree of smoothness? Do you drop into your hips with the bar high overhead, or do you have to make some horrendous compensation and fake your way into position?

Where most lifters go wrong is they don’t have enough hours under the bar doing the little things, building their lifting toolbox before attempting high skill movements like the Olympic lifts. Hear my words: You have no business attempting any of the Olympic lifts if you don’t have the above-mentioned skills somewhat perfected. If you have a hole in any one of the questions I asked, you will inevitably hit a massive training plateau that will be some of the most frustrating times of your lifting career, not to mention dramatically increase your injury risk.

Why Do You Want to Do This?

Do you want to train the Olympic lifts because they are badass? That is not a good enough reason to go down this road. They are badass, but you must be a badass yourself if you think you can wrangle the demands of this discipline of training.

Olympic lifts are the truest test of power. They are the culmination of a broad array of skills into one volcanic, choreographed movement. Power is the application of force, and how quickly you can apply it. High-level Olympic lifters are a hybrid of sorts. They can do both, and with incredible grace. If you want to train the Olympic lifts to develop speed, you picked the wrong tool. If you want speed, swing kettlebells. If you just want to heave a massive weight off of the ground, you are also only partially correct. Sumo deadlift if you want to pull something tremendous.

Olympic weightlifting is about precision. When I was doing my graduate work, we did preliminary research on ground force production and how certain shoe choices affect it. As expected, weightlifting shoes produced significant amounts of peak force over standard athletic shoes. But what was the most startling was the insane spike in ground reaction force we saw during both the second pull and the catch. There are back-breaking forces in both the acceleration and catch that the weekend warrior has no business entertaining. Because of these forces, your skill set has to be there. If you aren’t fluid, or if you can’t hit specific positions, you shouldn’t be doing it.

Are You Brave Enough?

Any coach who teaches the Olympic lifts will tell you that when their athletes attempt a heavy lift, they quickly become sports psychologists. The coach title evaporates, and we have to become the Olympic weightlifting version of Dr. Phil.

Weightlifting tests your mettle. It tests what you are made of. When the shit hits the fan and you are going for a legit 1RM, it’s fucking scary. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched an athlete miss a weight that is totally within their capability because at some point during the lift, fear took the wheel. I have watched scores of lifters smash a weight with the mastery of a professional, then add a measly 2.5kg to each side of the bar, and crumble like a novice.

The critical role of psychology in Olympic weightlifting cannot be overstated. You have to have a switch in your head that shuts fear down, and a trust in your technique that will lead the way through each attempt. You can’t punk out because the first pull felt heavy. You can’t sit slowly because things feel “off.” Weightlifting is about staying with your attempt, trusting completely and almost blindly in technique, and being fast even when everything in your body tells you to slow down. Toughen up, buttercup. This type of training is not for sissies.

Who’s Your Coach?

If you don’t have a coach, you have zero business taking this on. There is absolutely no way a person can wade through the maze of technique that is Olympic weightlifting without a coach.

Not just any schmuck will do. I was trained by the best in the world, Mike Burgener. He groomed me, not as a lifter, but as a coach. He helped develop my eye. He was my go-to, because I wasn’t going to have some random at the local CrossFit box who teaches the 6am open class—and then leaves to go to his real job at the bank—help me put the lifting equivalent of a loaded gun in my mouth. I needed someone who knew his stuff. I needed to be put through the ringer by a master.

I didn’t have time to waste with someone who has no business coaching me, and neither do you. The idea of 10,000 hours to mastery is a real thing. If your coach is younger than 25, they aren’t your best choice. Find someone who has put in thousands of hours coaching, because they can see things the average coach can’t. They have a large enough coaching vocabulary to say what you need to hear.

Years ago, I had volleyballer attempting a clean max. She continued to miss because she was scared. She didn’t need me to tell her, “Well, you need to shrug yourself under the bar, and pry your knees as hard as you can in the catch, so your pelvis will be stable enough to accept the load.” I put my arm around her, and quietly told her, “Here’s what you need to do: Push your fucking gum to the side of your mouth and pull the bar with the bomb diggity-diggity.” Like a boss, she nailed the attempt. That stupid phrase had nothing to do with the lift. It did nothing for her in terms of technique. But it was exactly what she needed to hear, at that moment.

That wasn’t luck. That was a coach knowing what this one athlete needed to hear, to bypass her fear and get on with sticking the attempt. Your coach has to know what to say and when to say it, so you can get where you need you to go.

Have You Ever Dislocated Your Shoulder?

Or your elbow? Have you ever broken your wrist, or violently bulged discs in your back? Olympic weightlifting puts you in a position where these things are a real possibility. How many of your daily activities put you into this type of reality?

I once saw a lifter bail forward on a botched snatch attempt, and because he didn’t move fast enough, the bar caught his ankle and snapped it. I don’t want to scare you, but you need to respect the dangers here. Olympic weightlifting is a symphony of movement that needs to be exact. There is no time or space for halfhearted attempts or casual approaches, because the potential for cataclysmic injury is very real. Speed in anything creates dramatic increases in risk, and when we are talking about lifting and speed, there is nothing more dangerous (or beautiful) than a heavy snatch or clean and jerk.

Look up Olympic lifting injuries on YouTube. Time how long you can watch what you see. I personally can’t make it very long, because the types of injuries that can happen in this style of lifting are life-changing and horrendous. It’s not like pulling a hamstring or straining a pec. It’s real deal awfulness that shouldn’t be taken lightly.

This Is Too Serious to Be Casual

Maybe I’m getting old. Maybe I am a little burnt out. Or maybe I have done this for long enough that my standards for my lifters are no longer negotiable. When I tell you that my athletes have to qualify for the Olympic lifts, I mean exactly that. I have redshirt sophomores (that’s three years in my program) who have just now met the standard. They have performed hundreds of lifting sessions, developed enough general strength, and built enough trust for me to “let them” have a go at it. I also have teams and individuals who are finishing their careers who were never given the keys to this style of lifting. Most of those individuals did not display enough toughness, technique, or desire to where I felt comfortable enough to invest the enormous amount of time it takes to get even competent at these lifts.

Olympic weightlifting is the real deal, folks. The challenges and risks inherent in this style of training mean that having it as part of your once-a-week lifting schedule is silly.

I talk about the “weight room gods” to my athletes all the time. You know, the spirits of the place that demand respect the second you walk in the door. You honor them by wearing only Cal Poly stuff in our room. You break down your weights when you are done, and return those items where they belong. You don’t ask about changing the music. And you respect the culture, the history, and the intention of our system at all times. This includes Olympic weightlifting. You honor the weight room gods by being dead serious and not casual about the Olympic lifts. It is a privilege to train this way. I hope you feel the same.

Leave a Comment