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There’s No Such Thing as “Just” “Weightlifting.”

December 28, 2014

Me, lifting things.

I hear it all the time. “Do you do weightlifting?” “Are there weightlifting competitions?” “Is weightlifting a sport?” Well, yes, sort of and kind of.

Or someone will tell me that So-and-So is a weightlifter, and I’ll ask what kind, and they’ll be all like, “I dunno, it’s all the same.”

Nope, it’s not. Kind of like all “ball” isn’t the same. There isn’t a sport of “weightlifting” any more than there’s a sport of “ball.”

I mean, what kind of ball? Football? Baseball? Ballroom dancing?

Likewise, there is no sport of “weightlifting.” There is Olympic weightlifting. Power Lifting. Strongman Games. You could probably even put The Highland Games and Body Building in there, if you’re being general.

That said, it’s probably true that most people don’t know the difference between all of those things. Even though, to those of us who are doing them, they are very different and very specific things.

And certainly, to those of us whose life is built around them, and who spend about 12 – 16 hours a week watching our daughter train to compete, the differences are not only obvious, but important.

So, what are they?


(I have been asked to point out that “Weightlifting” with a capital W is a TM term that means Olympic Weightlifting. Ironically, then, this whole article would be unnecessary if people understood that the capital W is the only “real” weightlifting. Which is part of the problem and why this post was necessary. Most people do not speak with capital letters. And most people tho lift weights competitively would say that their lifting of weights is also, well, lifting of weights.)

There are TWO and ONLY TWO lifts that are done in Olympic competition. Those lifts are the Snatch and the Clean and Jerk.

Go ahead, get your jokes out now. You will look like a complete idiot and we’ve heard every permutation of the sex jokes you can think of. Yup, sounds like masturbation, you’re so clever. Yup, sounds like slang for vagina, you witty one, you. Yup, you need good hip thrust to get it up. We know.

The Snatch is a lift that reduced me to tears when I was learning it. Like, I was trying to impress this guy that I was into, and even so, I threw the bar down, in tears, said, “fuck this” and left the gym. (He married me, and I eventually learned how to snatch, but that’s how frustrating this lift is.)

In short, you start with the bar on the ground, and magically pull it all the way overhead, catching it in a full squat, and then stand it up.

The machinations of doing it properly are too many to list, and would bore you. But if you’re watching it in competition, here are the things you need to look for to know if it’s a good lift.

1. Once they catch the weight overhead, do their arms re-bend at all? Not allowed!
2. At the end, do they stand with locked out arms and their toes lined up with each other, with the bar under control, still? If not, no lift.

The Clean and Jerk is a two-part move, but it’s considered one lift. Yes, in workouts we sometimes “just” clean. But in competition, it’s always Clean AND Jerk.

(Do you need a minute to make that joke, where you say that you usually jerk first, then clean?)

Cleaning just means getting the bar off the ground and into your front rack position. (I’ll wait while you make the joke about my rack.) In a full clean you pull it off the ground, catch it in a Front Squat, and stand it up. Easy peasy. Except that it’s hard as fuck.

Once standing with the bar on your shoulders in the front rack position, it’s time to jerk. The Jerk gets it locked-out straight over head. Generally speaking, it’s a quick dip by opening your knees and crocking your hips, and then a drive up to get the bar off your shoulders. You’ll catch it with straight arms, and stand it up.

The footwork is done one of two ways. The most common is the Split Jerk, which looks like a lunge. Then the Push Jerk, which is more like a little squat. Generally, Push Jerk is for lighter weights, because it’s not as strong and stable as a split, which you need for seriously heavy loads. (Then you get people like me who do a squat jerk, so I catch it in a full squat. Not because I want to, mind you. I have a broken neck, and any amount of foot movement feels like whiplash to me, so all of my Oly Lifts are done unconventionally.)

Again, the details of how it’s done are too many to list (especially when you take into account personal variations.) But the performance standards are simple and the same as the Snatch:
1. No arm re-bend.
2. Feet in alignment.

Now, there are standard variations on all these lifts, which you mostly see in practice but rarely in competition. “Hanging” means that the weight starts at the knees, not on the ground. “Power” means you don’t catch it in a full squat, just wherever you need to in order to catch it and stand it up.

In competition, you will generally see 3 judges, each looking from a different angle. You must hold the weight until all 3 of them confirm that you either made, or didn’t make, the lift.

You get three attempts to lift as much weight as you can. If you miss a weight, you can try it again, but you cannot go down.

If you want more info on how to do these lifts yourself, I think that Catalyst Athletics has, BY FAR, the best collection of instructional videos out there.


Power Lifting consists of three lifts: Bench Press, Squat, and Deadlift. Generally done in that order. Like the Oly lifts, you get three chances to lift as much weight as you can, and the judges will tell you when you can consider the lift complete.

The Bench Press starts with the athlete on their back and butt on a bench, feet securely on the ground. The weight is lowered from a rack by spotters, onto the athlete’s chest and must be motionless before the lift begins. The weight must be lifted to full extension, with locked out arms. Generally, the lift ends when the bar is back in the rack.

Judging: Butt and back must remain in contact with the bench, feet cannot touch the bench, the bar can never dip down once the lift has started. And a few more, but those are the biggies to watch for.

The Squat in Power Lifting is a Back Squat (yes, in CrossFit, we do Front Squats and Overhead Squats too, that’s CrossFit, not Power Lifting.) The lift starts with the bar on the shoulders (no more than 3 cm below the anterior deltoids, if you want to be precise.) You then squat until your hip crease is below your knees, or, as we call it, “below parallel.” Then stand back up, WITHOUT bouncing out of the lift.

Judging: must break parallel, must stand up to full hip extension WITHOUT bouncing out of it.

The Deadlift is everyone’s favorite lift. Okay, that’s obviously not true, but as a coach, I can tell you that this one is simple, (which is not the same as easy) and people get big numbers quickly on this one, and that makes them happy. Of course, most of us never deadlift the insane weights that win competitions, but it’s a fun one.

Simply, the weight is lying on the ground, you grab it with both hands, and pull it to standing with your knees locked out and your hips fully open.

Judging: Stand fully up with locked knees.
Not resting the bar on your thighs for support.
No moving your feet.


Now, there are also Strongman competitions, which are obviously about lifting weight. And dragging it. And pushing it. And…. This is WAY too complex for me to go into. But I think it’s pretty amazing stuff. These are the people who do things like drag cars, and toss Atlas Stones that weigh a seemingly impossible amount. There’d be no way to call that anything other than “weightlifting.”

Historically, it’s thought that the Strongman competitions grew out of the Highland Games, which are a Scottish tradition. Both Strongman and Highland Games competitions are wildly popular and can be seen all over the world. They toss logs, and heavy things on chains and all sorts of stuff that look like it would be in Game of Thrones or the circus. (Often in kilts, which is really kind of awesome, if you ask me, which you didn’t.)

I feel like I ought to give a nod to Body Builders in here somewhere, since that is also a sport, and it is one that is won by lifting weights. But the truth is, I don’t get it. I mean, I “get it,” they want to see every muscle in their body and ye with the most visible things wins. Yay. I just really do not understand the idea behind something that is purely aesthetic and has no real functional value at all. And makes people look like cartoons. (Yes, I feel the same way about Kim Kardashian, though I’m sure she’s a lovely person.) But there you have it. That’s a thing. And it probably falls under the umbrella of “weightlifting.”

Let me just add this about weightlifting in general; I love it. I have no interest in winning anything. When I teach people how to lift weights, especially when they are just beginning, I tell them that how and why we set goals is important. My overarching goal is to be able to put away my own groceries and wipe my own butt when I’m 94. Not a lofty goal, really, but weightlifting is a way to get there.

I will never be “ripped,” and I don’t care. At 45, I am stronger than I ever have been. And in the process of both learning and teaching to lift, I have gained a much deeper understanding of how bodies work. The value of full range of motion, the importance of form and posture.

On a daily basis, I watch people discover their own bodies and their own power. It’s amazing.

That’s the sport of life.

*Adding to clarify that this is largely aimed at your “average people” who know nothing about weightlifting at all. In the “Oly” gyms that I hang out in, the “other” weightlifters are called “power lifters,” and CrossFit is something else entirely. The aim here was to clarify that there are many distinct sports that involve weight lifting, and most people seem to think they are all the same. They’re not. 

One Comment leave one →
  1. December 31, 2014 4:39 pm

    As someone who falls into the Bodybuilding/standard weightlifting category, I wanted to offer why I lift weights. I lift for strength, but I am not interested in competing with anyone other than myself, and there is an aesthetic component for me. For me, the aesthetic part does involve being able to see a certain muscle definition, but that is because if I can see muscles it helps me remember that our bodies serve a purpose beyond just being a certain size. I applaud you for all you do both with your own daughter and all the other females you coach by helping them place value in what their bodies are capable of instead of how they look.

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