The Beginner’s Guide to Olympic Weightlifting

How does the saying go? “The best time to plant a tree was 10 years ago; the second best time is today.” That adage refers to personal investments of any kind — including starting a new hobby or picking up a sport you’ve never tried before.

You might have seen your favorite CrossFit athlete throwing a heavy bar over their head at the Games. Or perhaps you were mystified by the performance of weightlifters at the Olympic Games. No matter how you found Olympic weightlifting, what matters is getting started properly.

Credit: William Johnson / BarbellStories

Weightlifting is easy to learn but difficult to master. If you started 10 years ago, good on you. But if today is day one, the best thing you can do is begin your journey safely and effectively. Here’s how to get started with Olympic lifting as a beginner. 

About Our Expert

Meredith Alwine is a career weightlifter and 2021 World Champion. Over the course of her seven-year tenure with Team USA, Alwine has won seven overall gold medals in weightlifting and she’s a former American record holder in the clean & jerk.

What Is Olympic Weightlifting?

The sport goes by many names; Olympic lifting, Olympic weightlifting, “Oly” for short, but it is formally known as just weightlifting. Weightlifting is an Olympics-recognized event that has undergone a long series of evolutions since it was first held at the Games way back in 1896.

What Lifts Are Done in Weightlifting?

Weightlifting is technically a biathlon, which means athletes compete in and are judged on their strength in only two disciplines, both of which are floor-to-overhead barbell exercises:

Snatch: The athlete must move a barbell from the floor to over their head in one swift motion. They cannot stop moving the weight at any point until they hold it in an overhead squat and stand up.

Clean & Jerk: The athlete must move a bar from the floor to overhead in two stages. First, they must “clean” the bar from the floor and stand up with it held on their shoulders in the front rack position. Then, they must vault it to arm’s length by performing a jerk. 

Is Weightlifting the Same as Powerlifting? 

Many people confuse Olympic lifting with powerlifting, and for good reason. The two sports have similar objectives and many consider them to have mismatched names. But there are some key differences between powerlifting vs. weightlifting that you should be aware of: 

Competitive Exercises: Powerlifting tests the back squat, bench press, and deadlift, all performed with a barbell. Weightlifting contests the snatch and clean & jerk.

Olympic Status: Weightlifting is recognized by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), while powerlifting is not.

Governance: Powerlifting is a decentralized sport with many worldwide federations, each of which has its own rules and regulations. Weightlifting’s governance is centralized by the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) on the global level, and all national federations adhere to IWF rules. 

Athleticism: Both weightlifting and powerlifting are strength sports. However, powerlifting is solely about testing upper and lower-body strength. By contrast, weightlifting is more dynamic and acrobatic, and its two movements are considered more difficult to master. 

Equipment Needed for Weightlifting

Before you begin learning how to do Olympic lifting, you should know what equipment you’ll need. Weightlifting has a bit of buy-in to it, but you don’t need to fully restock your gym bag in order to begin learning. Here’s what you should have access to: 

Weightlifting Shoes

A pair of weightlifting shoes are non-negotiable for the sport. Sure, you can technically learn to Olympic lift without proper footwear, but that’s a bit like trying to get into distance running without running shoes or play soccer without cleats on. 

[Related: How To Find the Right Weightlifting Shoe Heel Height]

Lifting shoes (sometimes called “lifters”) are specifically designed to help you do the Olympic lifts properly and safely. Their defining feature is a firm, raised wedge in the heel of the shoe, which helps you squat with an upright posture. (1) Weightlifting shoes are also sturdily constructed to provide stable ground contact and help you transfer force through your body and into the barbell itself. 


Barbells are a bit like golf clubs; they’re all designed to smack golf balls, but you use different clubs to execute different shots. In the same vein, there are barbells specifically designed for the sport of weightlifting.

Weightlifting bars weigh either 15 (for women) or 20 kilograms (for men). They also tend to have thinner shafts so you can firmly secure a hook grip, and are “whippier” than regular bars — a bit of bendiness can be advantageous to the snatch and clean & jerk

[Related: Different Types of Barbells & How to Use Them]

A good weightlifting bar also spins fluidly in your palm — the same way a kettlebell’s handle does — as you shift from pulling on it to throwing it overhead, which can help reduce the risk of injury. You can learn the Olympic lifts with just about any bar, but try to practice on a designated Olympic bar if possible. 

Bumper Plates

Once you’re a few days into your Olympic lifting practice, it’ll be time to start loading up on weight. However, you can’t just throw a pair of steel weight plates onto your bar and snatch your heart out.

Both movements in Olympic lifting entail dropping the barbell back to the floor from overhead. This is because your legs are capable of propelling seriously-heavy weights into the air and slowly lowering them back down with your arms can easily go awry. 

[Related: The 9 Best Bumper Plates for Your Home Gym]

In order to drop your bar back to the floor without damaging it, the floor, or the plates themselves, you’ll need to work with bumpers. Bumper plates are rubber-coated weight plates specifically designed to hit the floor after a snatch or jerk. They make a bit of noise, but won’t damage any of the equipment (or endanger you in the process).

Lifting Belt

No matter what type of strength training you enjoy doing, a good lifting belt is, debatably, essential. Weightlifting belts provide a surface to contract your core muscles against while improving intra-abdominal pressure, both of which contribute to better posture and force production. (2)

[Related: The Pros and Cons of Lifting Belts]

Powerlifting and weightlifting athletes use different belts, though. Olympic lifters use thin latch leather belts or even Velcro belts, since a bulkier powerlifting-style belt may actually nick the barbell as it travels past your torso. Plenty of weightlifters compete with any belt at all, so don’t consider it a pre-requisite.

Knee Sleeves

Olympic weightlifting is in no way bad for your knees. In fact, the deep squatting required to succeed in weightlifting is commonly considered to be a valuable form of preventative care. Strengthening your knees with properly-executed deep squats is a great way to help them stay strong and healthy. (3)

[Related: 8 Best Knee Sleeves of Winter 2024 (Personally Tested)]

That isn’t to say that knee sleeves aren’t useful in weightlifting, though. Many athletes opt for knee compression (whether from knee sleeves or knee wraps) to help keep the knee joint warm and provide a bit of elastic “bounce” out of the bottom of heavy squats. 


A lifting platform is hardly required to start practicing the Olympic lifts, but is the ideal surface to train the snatch and clean & jerk on. 

[Related: How to Build a Powerlifting Home Gym]

Platforms are constructed for two specific purposes. First, the central strip is made out of layers of wood to provide a rock-solid and even surface to stand on. The edges of the platform are lined with several layers of high-impact matting to disperse the force and noise of a barbell dropped from overhead. 

Other things weightlifters commonly rely on include thumb tape, lifting chalk, and lifting straps. A good pre-workout supplement never hurts either. 

How To Start Olympic Weightlifting

Olympic lifting is like an iceberg. The simple two-lift structure is what you see on the surface, but beneath that lies a lot more complexity than you might think. The strength, speed, and coordination required to move a heavy bar over your head in space takes years to master. Here are the three key steps to starting properly: 

1. Find a Coach

You can read an article or watch a video on an exercise like the Romanian deadlift and work out the technique for yourself in a session or two. This isn’t the case for the snatch or clean & jerk. There are so many moving parts involved that, to learn properly (and save yourself a huge headache), you’ll want instruction from a qualified coach.

[Read More: 3 Reasons Why Coaches Should Program Weightlifting More Frequently]

Weightlifting coaches are educated by Olympic lifting organizations on how to properly teach the sport to beginners. A good coach will assess your unique needs and take you through the technique from the ground up. While it is possible to teach yourself how to Olympic lift, the difference between teaching yourself and working with a coach is as stark as night and day. 

2. Assess Your Mobility

While gymnasts probably hold the crown as the most flexible Olympic athletes, weightlifters truly aren’t far behind. In order to perform the snatch, clean, and jerk safely, you need exceptional flexibility in key joints like the hips, ankles, shoulders, and wrists

Poor mobility in these areas will limit your performance. If you can’t sit into a low, deep squat, you need to throw the bar higher into the air than you otherwise would. If you can’t maintain a full front rack position during the clean, you risk “dumping” the weight during the front squat. 

Five Mobility Drills for Weightlifting

Mobility Checklist for the Overhead Squat

3 Movements To Increase Hip Mobility for Weightlifting

If you’re restricted in these areas to the point of not being able to perform exercises like the clean or overhead squat, you’ll need to spend some time getting flexible before you really start learning how to Olympic lift. 

3. Start Slowly

A good weightlifting coach will introduce you to the demands of the sport at a reasonable pace. If you don’t have a coach, you’ll really need to exercise patience and not dive headfirst into testing your max snatch or clean & jerk.

Good habits built during the first weeks and months of training will last you a lifetime, but correcting bad habits you’ve had from day one can be incredibly difficult. Learning the Olympic lifts is more like playing an instrument or learning a dance than doing a workout. Be patient and prioritize good form before you load up your barbell. 

Sample Olympic Weightlifting Workout for Beginners

Beginner Olympic lifting routines are all about teaching you the fundamentals of the snatch or clean & jerk, not working your body to the bone. To increase your strength in these two exercises, you need to know how to perform them properly in the first place. 

But once you’ve begun to grasp the technique, you can move on to training like a real weightlifter. 

The Workout

This workout is an example of what you might find in a beginner’s Olympic lifting program. While there are template weightlifting routines available online, your coach will likely prefer to design you something from scratch. In either case, the general format might look something like this:

Snatch Pull + Snatch (2+1): 5 x 1 

Power Clean + Jerk: 3 x 1

Back or Front Squat: 5 x 3 

Clean Pull: 3 x 3 

Back Extension: 2 x 10 

Weighted Plank: 2 sets to failure

(X + Y): In weightlifting, it is common to perform more than one repetition of an exercise back-to-back. When you see notation such as “2+1”, it indicates that you should perform two repetitions in a row of the first movement, and one repetition of the second. Those three moves together count as one rep.

Complexes: Weightlifting complexes are essentially a type of superset. It’s common to program several snatch or jerk variations in a sequence — performing a snatch “pull” right before you do a proper snatch can help you practice good form before executing the movement itself. 

Accessory Exercises: While Olympic lifting is all about two movements, weightlifters rely on a number of accessory exercises to supplement their strength and build resilience to injury. Accessory training like deadlifts, lower or upper back exercises, and core training is typically saved for the end of the workout. 

Olympic Weightlifting Advice From a World Champion

All of the best weightlifters in the world started as beginners themselves. The journey from your first snatch to the top of the podium at the World Weightlifting Championships is a long one.

Here are three things that 2021 World Champion Meredith Alwine recommends any beginner weightlifter prioritize if they want to succeed in the sport: 

Credit: William Johnson / @barbellstories

All Stress Is Stress: “If work, school, or life is wearing you down, don’t be afraid to pull back on the lifting,” Alwine says, emphasizing that physical and mental stress both impact your performance as a weightlifter.

Consistency Over Optimization: “There’s a lot of emphasis in modern sports performance on optimization of sleep, nutrition, programming, supplements, pain management and so on … Sustainability is more valuable than perfection, and there’s more to life than weightlifting,” Alwine notes. She emphasizes the 80/20 rule — if you’re on your game 80% of the time, don’t fret about the rest of it.

Chase More Than Numbers: Alwine remarks that it’s all too easy to get caught up on the weight on the bar, even though there are other ways to measure success in weightlifting. “I’ve had competitions that felt like failures despite a gold medal because I didn’t hit numbers I wanted to and that was my only goal … Setting goals like improving technique or being consistent can help you avoid disappointment,” she says.

Weightlifting Federations & Governance

Understanding the bureaucracy of weightlifting isn’t crucial to enjoying the sport itself. But if you want to compete in Olympic lifting someday, you’ll need to have at least a general knowledge of how the sport is organized and managed. 

International Olympic Committee (IOC)

The single quality that distinguishes weightlifting from the other strength sports (bodybuilding, powerlifting, strongman, and CrossFit) is that weightlifting is hosted at the Olympic Games. 

As such, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) presides over the larger weightlifting bureaucracy. The sport’s governance must abide by IOC decrees if it wishes to remain on the Games program. 

International Weightlifting Federation (IWF)

The International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) is the governing body for all Olympic lifting events worldwide. Athletes compete internationally on behalf of their home countries at IWF-sanctioned events such as:

World Weightlifting Championships

World Cup

Grand Prix

European Championships

Asian Championships

Pan-American Championships

And so on. The IWF’s rules and regulations for the sport are adopted by all national federations as well, centralizing the sport as a whole. 

Continental Weightlifting Federations (EWF, AWF, etc.)

One notch down from the IWF are the continental federations. These groups oversee, regulate, and manage the sport at a regional level: Europe’s weightlifting scene is facilitated by the European Weightlifting Federation (EWF), Asia’s by the Asian Weightlifting Federation (AWF), and so on. 

National Governing Body (NGB) 

Weightlifting is more popular outside of the United States than it is stateside. Each country that is a member federation of the IWF has its own National Governing Body, or NGB. These organizations operate the sport within individual countries. In the U.S., weightlifting is regulated by USA Weightlifting (USAW). 

To compete in a sanctioned weightlifting meet, you must be a validated member of your country’s NGB and abide by their rules. NGBs are also responsible for weightlifting education and athlete development at the local and national levels. 


Weightlifting is frustrating at times and exhilarating at others. If you want to get started on your Olympic lifting journey but don’t feel ready, check out these common questions: 

Can you learn Olympic weightlifting on your own?

It’s possible, but teaching yourself to Olympic lift is generally a bad idea. The snatch and clean & jerk are the most complicated things you can do with a barbell. All advanced, competitive weightlifting athletes rely on coaching in order to succeed. 

What Olympic lift should you learn first?

Most weightlifting instruction begins with the snatch before moving on to the clean & jerk. Many of the technical elements of snatching apply to the clean & jerk, but the inverse isn’t as true. 

How do you start weightlifting?

To start weightlifting, you only need a few things — a pair of appropriate shoes, decent mobility, and, ideally, access to a coach. After that, it’s like learning anything new. You begin with simple drills, practice your technique, and repeat. 

What age is too late to start Olympic weightlifting?

Professional Olympic lifters often begin doing the sport at a very young age. That said, there’s no such thing as “too old” for weightlifting. Competitions are held for athletes who are 8 and 80 years old alike.


Legg, H. S., Glaister, M., Cleather, D. J., & Goodwin, J. E. (2017). The effect of weightlifting shoes on the kinetics and kinematics of the back squat. Journal of sports sciences, 35(5), 508–515. 

Lander, J. E., Simonton, R. L., & Giacobbe, J. K. (1990). The effectiveness of weight-belts during the squat exercise. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 22(1), 117–126.

Cotter JA, Chaudhari AM, Jamison ST, Devor ST. Knee joint kinetics in relation to commonly prescribed squat loads and depths. J Strength Cond Res. 2013 Jul;27(7):1765-74. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3182773319. PMID: 23085977; PMCID: PMC4064719.

Featured Image: Riley Stefan

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