Competitions of who can lift the heaviest weight have been around for hundreds, if not thousands of years. It can be traced back to Ancient Greece, Egypt, and China. So, it’ safe to say that showing off by lifting heavy weights is embedded in our DNA. After all, it is the purest test of strength.
Weightlifting can refer to lifting weights (yup you guessed it) or Olympic Weightlifting. Olympic weightlifting has been a sport since the first Olympic games of 1896 but was vastly different to what it is now (it featured one-hand and two-hand events!). The discontinuation of the clean and press in 1972 marked the birth of modern Olympic weightlifting.
I would like to break the sport down and compare it to Powerlifting. Although the debate has been going on for longer than I have been alive it is still relevant.
Olympic Weightlifting consists of two events: the snatch and the clean and jerk. Both events start the same; with just a loaded barbell on a platform, and both events have the same objective; to lift the most weight from the floor to overhead.
• Snatch – The objective of this event is to lift the barbell from the ground to overhead in one continuous movement. It is performed by pulling the bar as high as possible and pulling yourself under the bar to catch it in an overhead squat. (You do not have to catch in a squat, some lifters prefer catching in a split, but this is not an effective method for most people, so you will not see a split snatch at the Olympics).
• Clean and jerk – This is performed as two separate movements, and as per the rules you must completely stop moving between movements. First, you clean the bar from the floor to your shoulders, then jerk it overhead. There are several variations of a jerk; the most popular being the split, but you will also see some lifters from Asia utilise squat jerks, while some Eastern European lifters utilise a power jerk.
The lifts themselves sound extremely complicated, for good reason - they are. Due to their technical nature, they require thousands of repetitions to become proficient. Many people are deterred from training because they think it’s too complicated, but you can still train as a weightlifter even if you are not planning on competing at the Olympics, and all it takes to start is the willingness to learn.
The goal of Olympic Weightlifting just like powerlifting is to get the weight from point A to point B. The style of execution, however, differs quite significantly.
In weightlifting, the objective is to lift the bar as high as possible before dropping underneath to catch it. There is a slight trade-off between power and speed – some people find cutting their pull short will allow them to lift more because they can get under the bar faster. Other slower lifters will find they need to pull the bar higher, to give adequate time to get under the bar.
Unlike powerlifting, you cannot just jump in the deep end and start weightlifting after reading a few articles and watching a few YouTube videos. That is not to say it is impossible, but weightlifting by nature is a difficult sport, as the technique has been refined over 40+ years. And the principles of weightlifting are difficult to convey when not in person.
So, I would recommend starting off your weightlifting career with the help of a coach.
What is the difference between weightlifting and powerlifting?
Powerlifting consists of the so-called “Holy Trinity” of the weight training: squats, bench press and deadlifts. These are the core lifts in any strength sport.
Powerlifters and weightlifters both focus on lifting as much weight as possible for a one-rep max while staying within the rules. However, in powerlifting rules vary from federation to federation, whereas in weightlifting there is only one federation, so the rules are the same at almost every competition in the world – no matter the size or significance.
Probably the most obvious difference between Olympic weightlifting and powerlifting would be the explosiveness of the lifts. Powerlifters tend to perform the lift much slower in a controlled manner as one mistake might lead to injury or the lift might be red-lighted (the lift will not be counted as correct).
Both the Snatch and Clean and Jerk requires explosive power to complete the lift. The first stage of all movements requires you to apply all your strength in a very short amount of time, to account for you not being able to apply any upward force when getting under the bar.
That is one of the main reasons why you have so many misses in weightlifting. The entire lift is done in one continuous motion, so if you screw up at the start, you will inevitably miss. As opposed to powerlifting where you always have a chance to grind out your lift.
You will also need flexibility, stability, and joint mobility. The catch positions of each lift are unbelievably awkward and uncomfortable at first, but after gaining more mobility and stability, you will find them to be very strong positions to keep the bar stable.
There aren’t that many rules in weightlifting compared to powerlifting, so 90% of the time if the bar is overhead then it’s a good lift, but the most common reason to be red-lighted after a seemingly good lift is for a press-out. A press-out is when you fail to fully lock-out your arms overhead and instead press the bar to completion. The reason for this rule is mainly for safety, but it also helps the aesthetic.
Fast Speed training vs Slow Speed training
Fast speed training
Everyone’s deadlift is higher than their power clean. That is because a power clean is not all about pure strength; it is about being able to apply your strength in a very short amount of time. The faster you can go from 90 degrees to 180, the more you are going to power clean. It also helps to be fast when catching the bar; the faster you can get under the bar means you will not lift it as high.
This is the reason why weightlifters train to lift heavy weights as fast as possible.
Slow speed training
If your end goal is to build more muscle mass and gain more strength, try focusing on slow speed training. Time under tension is the key to building more muscle mass. Bodybuilders would focus on moderate weight and high reps to get more muscle fibre tears.
In powerlifting, you would tense your whole body before the lift to gain more stability. You cannot do that in weightlifting since the movement also requires mobility. You are not very mobile when your body is under tension.
Weightlifters focus on explosive power regardless of the load, while powerlifters are only explosive in the first part of the movement.
Olympic Weightlifting and Powerlifting are not as different as everyone thinks they are.
Obviously, the key difference in sports is the exercises you do, but when you look at it from their core, they are incredibly similar.
At the end of the day, the key to both sports is lifting heavyweights. And anytime you step into a gym, you are focused on adding kilos to your total. The training methodology is also identical. With both sports featuring phases of training cycles; utilising lots of high-volume, low-intensity training and hypertrophy work at the start of a cycle to increase muscle mass, before lowering the volume and upping the intensity to the peak.
And in both sports, how much you squat will always prove your worth as a man (or woman).
• Weightlifters use barbells with needle bearings. This is because the bar is orientated differently in the catch position to the starting position, so the sleeves have to spin during the turnover.
But then again, too much spin might cause you to lose the balance. So you do you really need a bearing bar?
There is a common misconception when it comes to bearing and copper bushing barbells. First of all, they are not made equally, a cheap bearing bar might spin just a tad better compared to the bushing. But a higher end copper bush barbell will spin just as well as the bearing bar.
Another thing which people overlook is the longevity of the barbell, more importantly, the longevity of the bushings. All you need is a few dented bearings and the sleeves will no longer be spinning smoothly.
Knurling – IWF Standard knurl markings are 91cm apart (Powerlifting 81cm). Both bars come with centre knurling. Weights – Olympic weightlifters use bumper plates.
They are designed to withstand thousands of high drops (2m-2.5m). That is one of the reasons why they are much thicker compared to powerlifting plates. Although it can be annoying, dropping weights when Olympic weightlifting is necessary. There simply is not a safe way to perform any weightlifting movements in reverse, and when you miss a lift the bar will be going straight onto the floor anyways.
For example, ATX 25kg Calibrated Plates are only 22mm thick. While Power Maxx Eco Bumper Plates are 90mm thick. If you drop the Powerlifting plates from the same height, they will probably cut your platform in half.
Wraps and straps – Weightlifters also tend to use much less heavy-duty wraps when training, this is to keep your knees and wrists mobile while still providing support. There are no rules on wrist wraps and knee sleeves/wraps in competition, so it is all a matter of preference. Because squats are so frequent in weightlifting, many people require knee support to take some of the load off, some people also utilise them just to keep their knees warm.
Straps, while banned in competition, are incredibly common in training. There is a monstrous amount of pull exercises in weightlifting training, so if you are training frequently then using straps will take some of the pain away from your hands. The straps weightlifters use are typically open-ended and fairly short, this makes it easier for the straps to come loose in case you fail a lift. The key to failing a lift is getting away from the bar, but having your straps wrapped too tightly makes this difficult.
As beneficial as powerlifting may be, an increased one rep max is only good for a few athletic activities. For instance, a strong bench press will not necessarily translate to a strong javelin throw.
But then again, powerlifting should not be dismissed on the bases that it does not have a direct application to other sports. It is far more forgiving than weightlifting and although it might not be providing the maximum results as opposed to other sports, it does have a relatively low injury rate even at the highest level of competition.
Weightlifting builds and relies upon fast-twitch muscle fibres, which are also the key to many other sports such as sprinting, long jump, or most field events for that matter. Combined with flexibility, balance, and muscle mass; the applications of weightlifting are never-ending.
In order to reap these benefits, you will have to spend years perfecting your form with the assistance of a qualified coach.
Increase in Popularity
A few years back you would only find a handful of people who would be performing Olympic lifts. However, they became much more popular with the rise of CrossFit. Rather than going for a one-rep max people started focusing on the endurance side of training – performing as many reps as possible with a fixed weight.
CrossFit has brought a lot of attention to weightlifting – be it good or bad. Many people use CrossFit and Olympic weightlifting as interchangeable terms, but that similarity could not be more incorrect. Although CrossFit has gained notoriety for its questionable training methodologies, the attention has not been all bad; it is great to get more people interested into such a niche sport, and hopefully, they stick around.
So what we’ve learned so far is that powerlifting and weightlifting are inherently the same sport; in both, you’ll be training to add kilos to that precious total, and they both attract the same types of people; those who love lifting heavy things. But there are also some glaringly obvious differences which make the two distinct. Powerlifting is less explosive and focuses much more on upper body strength; whereas explosiveness is the critical component in weightlifting but is much more focused on lower body strength.
Powerlifting is more beginner-friendly, whereas weightlifting takes a lot of time to become proficient, but both, if done correctly will help you strengthen your body.