Categorized | Fitness

Understanding Fitness – Olympic Weightlifting and Powerlifting

In addition to strong man events, there are two official “strength sports” which involve lifting heavy weights; Olympic lifting and powerlifting. To the uninitiated, these sports are interchangeable but in reality are very different.

Olympic weightlifting, often simply called weightlifting, is an old sport and while the actual lifts contested have changed since its inception, the aim of the sport to lift as heavy a weight as possible from the floor to above head height.

Weightlifting earned its Olympic moniker back in 1896 and has been a feature of every Olympics since 1920 although the first women’s Olympic competition was only held in 2000 at the Sydney games. In the early days of Olympic lifting, there were three contested lifts; the snatch, the clean and jerk and the standing overhead press, commonly simply called the press. Judging issues and concerns over safety saw the elimination of the press from international competition in the late 1960s and now only the remaining two lifts are contested.

The snatch involves lifting a loaded barbell from the floor to above head height in one single movement. Lifters use a very wide hand position to limit the distance the bar as to travel to be considered overhead and combine this wide grip with a very deep squat. The lifters literally “dive” under the bar so they don’t have to lift the weight any higher than absolutely necessary. The snatch is as much about gymnastic prowess as it is strength and power and is a hard movement to master.

The clean and jerk involves lifting the bar from the floor to overhead height in two separate movements. The clean is the movement of the bar from the floor to shoulder-height and the jerk is the explosive pressing of the weight to full arm extension.

Most weight lifting competitions allow each lifter three attempts at each lift and the winner is the person with the highest combined total for the two lifts. Lifters are allowed to wear weightlifting belts, knee wraps, wrist wraps and specialist shoes and use chalk to minimize sweaty palms but are not allowed to wear anything that would increase their strength. This is in contrast to powerlifting where euphemistically-named support gear is often permitted.

The high velocity of movement in weightlifting means that it is actually power as opposed to strength that is the most important physical characteristic. There is no denying that Olympic weightlifters are very strong but it is their ability to generate lots of force in a very short time which separates the winners from the also-rans. For this reason, athletes from a wide variety of sports use the Olympic lifts as a training method for improving power production.

Weightlifters are, in general, well muscled, but not to the same degree as a bodybuilder. Their physiques, while impressive, can best be described as athletic although in the higher weight categories, this muscular development may be covered in a not insubstantial layer of fat. The action of weightlifting requires a very high level of flexibility and subsequently weightlifters are very supple and mobile – especially in the hips and shoulders.

Mastering the techniques of weightlifting takes a long time, such is the complexity of the snatch and clean and jerk. Often, a weaker but more technically proficient lifter will post the highest total beating stronger and bigger lifters. Technical efficiency means that no effort is wasted and that translates to more weight being lifted. Even very experienced lifters will spend a lot of time practicing and perfecting their technique while trying to develop maximum strength at a given bodyweight.

Powerlifting is a far newer sport and has only been around since the late 1960’s. Powerlifters contest three lifts; the squat, the bench press and the deadlift. Each federation (and there are a lot of them) have slightly different rules as to what constitutes a “good lift” but in general the squat only counts as legal if you break parallel at the thighs, the bar must touch your chest in the bench press and for a deadlift to be legal, the bar must be lifted from the floor to hip height in one single movement so the knees, hips and back are fully extended. Powerlifting is not part of the Olympics.

The term powerlifting is somewhat misleading because although the weights lifted are generally greater than seen in weightlifting, the load moves much more slowly. This means that powerlifting is really all about brute strength and not about muscle power (force generated at speed) at all. Subsequently, Olympic weightlifting should be called powerlifting and powerlifting would be better called weightlifting but that’s a whole different article!

While seemingly less technical than Olympic weightlifting, there are a lot of specialised techniques used by powerlifters to maximise their performance in the squat, bench press and deadlift. While these exercises are commonplace in many gyms, they are performed quite differently when the aim is to lift as much weight as humanly possible. For example, in the bench press, lifters will maximally arch their lower backs to reduce the distance the bar has to travel so they can lift more weight. For chest development, this is actually the opposite of what most exercisers should do.

Like weight lifting, powerlifting competitors get three attempts at each lift and the winner is the lifter who accumulates the highest total across the three lifts. Some lifters become known for their ability to perform one lift especially well and for these competitors there are single event competitions designed, for example, to find the best bench presser.

As previously mentioned, there are a lot of different federations in powerlifting and these can be broken down into four main categories: equipped, raw, natural and the rest…

Equipped lifting refers to the use of very tight and supportive clothing like bench shirts, squat suits and deadlifting briefs. These items of clothing were originally designed to offer support to the lifter and prevent injury but have now developed and been designed to assist the lifter hoist bigger and bigger weights. Support gear is usually made from very restrictive and stiff material such as denim and is very hard to put on and extremely uncomfortable to wear. Designed to give you “bounce” out of the bottom position of a lift by storing some of your energy, most of the world records in powerlifting have been achieved using support gear.

Raw lifters do not wear support gear and some of the more strict federations will also forbid the use of knee wraps and even the ubiquitous weight lifting belt. Raw lifters pride themselves as being more “natural” then the geared lifters but this is merely a matter of opinion. Raw lifters put up some truly amazing totals and some might argue that geared lifting is cheating but as a equipped and raw lift would never be compared side by side, these arguments are somewhat mute.

Natural lifters can compete equipped or raw but they are drug tested to ensure no banned/illegal performance enhancing substances have been used. In contrast, in untested competitions, it’s a case of “don’t ask, don’t tell” and the competitors may well use a host of otherwise banned substances.

Powerlifting is less athletic than weightlifting and subsequently powerlifters tend to be generally bigger in terms of overall boy mass. A thick waist and barrel chest combined with short arms and legs are highly conducive to good powerlifting performances. Lifters often refer to their bigger than average bellies as “power guts” and some will purposely bloat up before a big competition or training session to increase waist diameter and subsequently generate more intra abdominal pressure. Intra abdominal pressure (IAP) is the term used to describe how lifters maximise pressure and tension within the abdomen to increase spinal stability. Combined with pushing their stomachs out against a rigid weightlifting belt, generating lots of IAP will significantly increase the amount of weight a powerlifter can shift.

Both Olympic weightlifting and powerlifting are readily accessible sports and it’s simply a matter of finding a suitable club or gym and getting some good coaching. Novices are welcomed and encouraged by most clubs and there are levels of competition specifically for newcomers. If you enjoy going to the gym, training with weights and getting stronger, you could do a lot worse than try your hand at weightlifting or powerlifting. Be warned though; heavy iron is very addictive and once you get that rust and chalk on your hands, you may never want to give it up!

For more information on Olympic weightlifting please contact

For more information on powerlifting please contact


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