It’s the exercise in its most potent form: a workout that combines overhead lifts and a whole-body range of motion.
Olympic weightlifting has merely no equal when it comes to cultivating speed, strength, flexibility, and endurance. You have probably heard about it but are intimidated by the idea of lifting a racked barbell over your head, aren’t you? Don’t worry — there are plenty of tips to help you get started and master your lifting groove.
Build a Clean Foundation
There’s no doubt that strength is an essential variable as far as weightlifting goes. Your ability to progress in the sport will, therefore, depend on how much strength you can muster from your body. Even if you’re already familiar with the snatch, clean and jerk, it will help to spend some time on these areas:
Develop stability through your feet: Your feet are what set the stage for safe and effective weightlifting. Because the weight is placed in front, the setup stance calls for your feet to be positioned directly below your hips. Their angle relative to each other is also key to maintaining balance.
Squat with integrity: The squat is virtually unmatched in its ability to strengthen every major muscle group in the body. Although doing them heavier and more often will help your case, make sure to keep your torso vertical while you’re at it.
Your core: This refers to the area between your hips and shoulders. Core training is a crucial part of development in weightlifting, not least because it’s where the body draws most of its strength from. Moreover, the core facilitates the transfer of power from the legs to the upper body. Doing lots of sit-ups and back extensions will help strengthen your core, but also remember to work on your posterior chain as well.
Get a Grip
Common sense dictates that you can only lift as much as you can hold. This makes developing grip strength an obvious inclusion in your journey as an Olympic weightlifter. It’s worth mentioning that grip involves everything from your elbows down to your fingertips (think wrists, forearms, hands, and fingers). Take a look at the exercises you could do to make your grip stronger:
Farmer’s walks: Exercise doesn’t get any more straightforward than this: Walking across an open stretch while holding the heaviest dumbbells you can carry. Make sure to keep your torso upright, shoulders down and the abs engaged.
Dead hangs off the bar: As the name suggests, this involves hanging still from a pull-up bar with an overhand grip at about shoulder width. Aim for 3 to 5 sets of 5-10 seconds each.
Pinch grip: It is impossible to develop a solid grip without improving the ability of your digits to hold on to weight. It’s here that pinch grips come into play — you’ll be hard-pressed to find another gym movement that adequately trains this vital function. As for your pinch gripping recipe, look for two plates with flat sides and hold them together for a while. Should that seem too mundane an activity, why not try doing hammer curls with them?
Getting to Work
At the surface, it seems to like Olympic lifting involves hoisting a barbell from the ground up to shoulder height in one seamless movement. However, taking a look at a frame-by-frame photo analysis of any seasoned weightlifter makes it clear that there are several movements involved in the process. The beautiful thing is that you can practice them as separate components before putting them together.
This involves lifting the barbell from the ground and up to a point around mid-thing. The aim of the first pull is simple: to adopt a position that will allow you to execute the triple extension (exploding up from your ankles, knees, and hips simultaneously). To help you perfect the first pull, it would help to:
Begin the lift with your lower body: Practice pushing with the legs when picking the barbell off the ground. As any seasoned weightlifter will tell you, this makes it easier to accelerate the bar as it moves upwards, culminating in peak velocity at the second pull.
Work on your balance: Specifically, practice pulling the bar slightly towards your body while maintaining whole-foot contact with the floor. This is informed by the fact that you and the barbell become one as soon as it leaves the floor.
Watch your knees: No, seriously — it’s crucial that your knees be out of the way while executing the first pull. Driving them out and slightly backward will eliminate the need to move the barbell around.
Keep your back angle constant: Knee extension is what generates much of the movement during the first pull. With that in mind, the angle of your back relative to the floor should remain constant throughout. This doesn’t mean your torso won’t move at all, but rather that there shouldn’t be an apparent change in its position.
This is the part where you propel the barbel to a height at which you can get underneath it. It’s also the most explosive phase of the lift sequence — you’ll have to recruit as much power as you can from your leg muscles to complete it. Here’s what you need to work on to master the second pull:
The slide: It’s natural for the knees to start shifting forward just after the first pull, and before the triple extension. So try not to think about it too much; this will only tempt you to scoop under the bar. Being aware of what’s going on can help you get comfortable with the movement. Just focus on sliding your knees to a position underneath the bar.
The connection: A common consensus among Olympic lifters is that letting the bar make contact with your body helps in setting it up for the upward acceleration phase. For this to happen, you need to keep the bar close to your body throughout the lift. Just don’t let it get so close that you end up bumping it forward. Ideally, you want it to brush up your torso at a point where the latter is almost upright.
Weight Distribution: The second pull ends with the weight shifting from the back of the foot towards the ball. This should coincide with the triple extension of your hips, ankles, and knees. Of course, you don’t want to elevate your heels too high up that your balance is affected.
Also known as the snatch, this is all about using your torso to apply a force to the barbell in such a way that you get pulled down underneath it. Remember that the second pull ends with your connection with the ground being removed from the picture as your feet rise off the floor. This concurs with the completion of the upward acceleration of the barbell.
To dial in the mechanics of this part of the lift, there are a few areas you’ll need to work on, including:
Pulling your elbows up and out: This should be done in the most aggressive way possible, all while making sure to keep the bar close to your body.
Transferring the momentum: Success in the third pull all comes down to your ability to move momentum from your legs and into the pull of your arms. It will take a bit of practice to get this right. Nevertheless, you can make things easier for yourself by adding exercises like snatch/clean high pulls and kettlebell squats into your routine.
Your upper body strength: Should you find yourself struggling to muster enough power for the third pull, it could be that your upper body muscles need a bit of strengthening to be able to cope. Exercises that target these muscle groups include traps, rhomboids, pull-ups and bent over rows.
Making good use of your leg drive: Using your legs to drive up the bar will make the pull under more efficient and more comfortable as well. So practice recruiting your leg muscles when performing the exercises mentioned above.
The first, second and third pulls take the barbell from the floor to the receiving position; this is where your shoulders are raised as high as they can go. It’s worth pointing out that, with the right approach, there’s no point in the lift where the bar will slide of control. If anything suggests otherwise, it probably means that you need to be pulling the bar down.
As for how you can improve your catch position, train your body to:
Rotate the shoulders inwards: This should result in the insides of your elbows facing forward at an angle of 45 degrees. Doing so will allow you to utilize your upper back muscles to support the weight overhead.
Keep your hips centered: More specifically, keeping your hips straight and aligned means your torso to be much taller. As a result, you’ll be able to sneak in a brief recovery moment while the bar is still overhead.
Once you’ve mastered all the key positions with consistency, it’s time to unleash the beast.
Consistency is as vital in Olympic weightlifting as it is in any other sport. Even so, it’s not enough just to hit the gym once every couple of days — progressive overload is the name of the game here. This principle involves increasing the demands on your muscles continue to make gains in strength and endurance.
And it’s not just your muscles that need challenging; this extends to just about all other parts of your body. Fortunately, making progressive overload work for you is all about working around the variables in your training equation. This could be by:
Upping the resistance: Without a doubt, there’s no easier way to challenge your muscles than to increase the weight you’re lifting. This should, of course, be done in small increments (think 5 pounds or less on each side of the bar). Also, keep in mind that there’s an inverse relationship between reps and load — expect the former to fall by some degree when the latter rises.
Doing more repetitions: Popular opinion dictates that your sets should end in the 8-12 rep range. Rather than stop at an arbitrary point, how about going on until you can’t complete any more reps? This won’t necessarily make you stronger, but there’s no better way to improve muscle endurance as you make progress.
Increasing the volume: Think of this as the 3D version of the rep-increase scheme. Raising the volume involves adding more sets (either by introducing a new set into your routine, or just doing more exercises). Doing so means your rep count will go up, as will the level of resistance.
Raise your training density: The magnitude of work you complete for a given unit of time is what’s referred to as density. A denser workout thus means packing more volume into your time frames; this could be by performing sets faster or decreasing rest intervals. What’s important is to ensure the weight you lift remains constant either way.
Upping the frequency: This is more or less similar to increasing volume, only that you’ll be training each muscle group more often. The technique is particularly helpful in addressing weak areas. Just keep in mind that too much of a good thing can be harmful.
Change up your routine: This involves performing variations of the same exercises that you do. Although it won’t overload your muscles, it’ll force them to adapt to the variations. Long story short is that progress will come in the form of better intermuscular coordination.
Increasing your lifting tempo: Force is directly proportional to the rate of change in speed. This means it takes more effort to make the same weight travel a given distance with more acceleration. Applying this formula to your routine means, you can make sets harder by increasing the lifting speed.
Promote Better Recovery
The need to provide the right stimuli to your body goes hand-in-hand with that of allowing it enough time to recover. With that in mind, it behooves you to know what you can do to optimize the recovery process:
Don’t skip warm-ups and warm-downs: Stretching before a workout session will help make your muscles pliable, thereby enhancing their ability to cope with the demands you place on them. From a post-workout point-of-view, it alleviates tension and the soreness you experience later on. Both are worth allotting time for.
Focus: You’ll be surprised by how much life can get in the way of your recovery. There’s no sense in taking time off the gym only to end up working out elsewhere. So be sure to account for external factors when planning.
Deload: It can’t hurt to turn down the notch every once in a while, ideally by getting some reps in at high percentages of your max. Pushing past your limits is still essential, but doing so all the time won’t do you much good. Remember that it’s all about the long game.
Eat right: What you eat before and after your workouts plays a hand in the recovery equation. Much can be said about the importance of a balanced diet, but working out will inevitably diminish your body’s reserves of certain nutrients. It’d, therefore, help to include a post-workout supplement in your regimen.
Hydrate: Water plays a couple of roles in recovery: It cools down the body and catalyzes the repletion of its energy stores. Besides getting eight glasses every day, make sure to drink about 8 ounces of water every 20 minutes during an intense workout. More crucially, avoid drinking anything that will leach water from your body.
Make some active recovery: Although rest days are supposed to give your muscles a break, they could still use a little movement nevertheless. In particular, light mobility drills are known to relieve soreness and stimulate blood flow.
Get enough quality sleep: Most of the body’s restorative processes take place while your sleeping. This is also the time when growth hormone production is at its highest. So aim to get at least 8 hours of slumber every time you hit the sack. As for quality, it’s all about going to bed and waking up at similar times each day.
Now here’s the most important thing to remember: it’s quite likely that you’ll experience burnout at some point. This could come in the form of extended muscle pain or an inability to sleep. Whatever the case, such moments should serve as a wake-up call to improve your recovery routine. Don’t be afraid to seek help while you’re at it.
No matter your current fitness level, Olympic weightlifting shouldn’t be intimidating. You’ll be surprised to learn that the majority of its champions weren’t particularly gifted when starting. Admittedly, it might be necessary to work on your form before taking up the sport, but that shouldn’t prove too much of an obstacle. From there, it’s all about applying these tips for Olympic weightlifting in their proper contexts.
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