9 Steps to Becoming a Real Weightlifter

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There are a million ways to get fit, but there are just a few paths to becoming a great weightlifter. If you want to become the best lifter that you can possibly be, then there are some essential steps that you must take.

First things first…

1. Start smart.

When a new athlete enters the gym, one of my primary goals is to teach and implement the Olympic lifts into their training as soon as possible.

My basic approach in teaching the lifts is the same on Day 1 of training for most athletes. I always start with an empty barbell and attempt to have the athlete perform two basic movements.

The first movement my athletes learn is the Snatch-Grip Romanian Deadlift. The second movement is the Front Squat. Depending on the performance in these movements I generally have a good idea of what we need to work on, or if we can progress to leaning the competition Olympic lifts.


If someone is unable to perform these movements first, that indicates that we need to spend a little time working on other areas before they can experience the full benefit of the lifts.

Your Rx: Do not rush the start. This is not a race, this is weightlifting. 


2. Concentrate your focus.

The concept of periodization is basically dividing the training period into distinct phases, each with its specific training goal. The whole idea is to arrive at peak performance at the time of competition.

Block Periodization is a specific, very effective training strategy that has evolved quite a bit over the last 20 years. In fancy terms, it can defined as a training cycle of highly concentrated specialized work with a large volume of exercises directed at a minimal number of targeted abilities. Simply put, you can get an amazing result if you direct a lot of effort towards only a few goals at a time.

The high technical skill component of the lifts requires a lot of focused attention.  To develop as a weightlifter you need to spend time performing the full competition lifts. There are no shortcuts.

For new athletes struggling with a full snatch or clean, for example, the question is clear – Are you focusing on the right things? You are busy in the gym, but is your effort going where it counts?

Your Rx: Do not try to improve at everything at once. Make sure that you create and keep a clear focus in training. Move the needle – really improve! – before you switch gears.


3. Frequency is everything…Practice! 

Assuming a basic level of technique exists, to get better in the snatch you need to snatch, repeatedly and with heavy weight. No matter what may be holding you back; flexibility in the bottom position; stability with weight overhead; position off the floor; slow going under the bar; performing the snatch will help correct those problems. You just have to do it often.

This is not to say that remedial exercises are not effective or necessary, but successful improvement in one exercise does not guarantee success in another.

Your Rx: If you want to get better, do the full lifts as often as you can. This is a craft like any other. If you feel awkward during any point of the lift, then you haven’t done your work. Fix it. 


4. Understand transfer effect.

Not everyone can handle lifting heavy weights in the competition lifts repeatedly for days/weeks/months/years on end. The barbell can grind you down considerably, so be very careful.

When selecting accessory exercises it is necessary to choose those that have the highest degree of positive transfer. Think bang for your buck!

For maximal effect an exercise must be specific to what’s being tested and it must provide an overload stimulus. Positive transfer can only occur when the athlete uses exercises that are similar, in terms of load, performance, tempo, and structure, to the competition movements.

Your Rx: Including new exercises and different loading patterns can deliver a much needed break, but to excel in Olympic Weightlifting you need eliminate the exercises that you think you should be doing, and instead concentrate on the movements that are proven to yield results.

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 Don’t miss FORTIS by Dr. Michael Hartman. It’s an excellent training resource.


5. Be as consistent as you can possibly be.

The best way to develop consistency is practice…years and years of practice.

One of the major shortcomings of United States lifters at the international level is time in the sport compared to lifters in Europe and Asia. Catching up is possible, but it will take time.

For those who came to the sport late, or those that do not plan on making competing in weightlifting a lifelong pursuit, years of practice may not be an option. So, you MUST be consistent.

Every set and rep needs to be as consistent as possible. This does not mean just the snatch and clean & jerk, but also all similar exercises. Take an extra second to ensure proper placement of the feet, grip width on the barbell, the rhythm with which the lift is completed, everything.  When using accessory exercises, this is equally important.

Your Rx: Do it right, or as close to it as you can manage. Every…rep…counts. 


6. Know that technique and strength are not so different.

To compete and win in weightlifting an athlete has to be very strong AND have the technique to allow them to lift progressively heavy loads leading up to the competition. However, strength and technique do not exist in a vacuum independent of one another. They are closely linked.

In my mind, failure to make lifts at 95%+ of maximum is due to TECHNIQUE failure, which is largely due to the inability to maintain the same body position as with lighter loads, which is essentially lack of STRENGTH.

Your Rx: When training to improve technique, use a weight that forces you to main proper position. Anything less than 75% may not be appropriate for actually improving technique. There’s no substitute for load. 


7. Squat, Squat, Squat!

The squat is an accessory exercise to the completion lifts and is given less emphasis in a weightlifting program. However, the relationships between squat load and the competition lifts are well related, meaning as the squat load increases so will the snatch and clean & jerk. You just have to spend an appropriate amount of time working  each focus (which is another post entirely).

An easy way to adjust your training to emphasize squats while concentrating on developing the competition lifts is to change the order of when squats are performed.

Squat first in the off-season, or at least 4-6 weeks out from a contest. This allows you to improve strength and increase training load, and in some cases it will improve competition technique as well. This takes a little getting used to due to fatigue, but this will improve over time as you are conditioned to the training load. You need to get in shape for this sport too, you know?

When you’re less than 4-6 weeks out squat last, or at least save it for after the competition lifts. The slow grinding nature of a heavy set of squats can induce a large amount of fatigue. The timing and coordination needed to perform the snatch and clean & jerk require that you are fresh to receive the greatest benefit. So keep that in mind.

Your Rx: Squatting at the end of the session during periods of high volume training will further increase total work volume without degrading technique due to fatigue. In your offseason, try squatting first. 

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8. Know when to unload.

Unloading weeks should occur at regular intervals within your training program.

Training experience factors heavily into the timing of planned rest days. Less experienced athletes are generally able to tolerate more successive weeks of intensive training compared to the experienced athlete.

Building a break into your training program every third or fourth week is common and very effective. I advocate most athletes train hard for three consecutive weeks for most of the off-season, and reduce to two consecutive hard weeks before competition. I favor an intensity decrease where the weights used are 30-40% lower than normal, but a similar volume of competition lifts is still performed.

Your Rx: You will eventually need to unload to keep making progress. When in doubt go by feel. If after four weeks of consistent training your body feels like it needs a lower intensity week, take one.  


9. Just compete!

One of the best pieces of advice I have ever received is that nothing can replace competition. You will learn a ton by stepping on the platform, things you can never be taught in the training hall, or during the course of a weekend seminar.

The journey up to the competition is an invaluable learning experience, for both the athlete and coach.

YourRx: Train hard and train wise, but understand that nothing is more valuable to the weightlifter than the competition experience. Don’t worry about how well you do, just compete. That’s how you will discover exactly what you need to improve. The competition is just something to signify the next step in your journey. 

Train wise, train hard. You’ll do just fine on this journey.



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7 Responses to “9 Steps to Becoming a Real Weightlifter”

  1. José Torres

    How Does one Lose Weight But Get Better While Getting Better At The Lifts? Not cutting weight for competition. Lose fat but keep the muscle mass?

    • Chris

      That’s what everyone wants. You have to build, though, then refine. It’s a process, not a simultaneous fix that can be found.

  2. Anthony

    As someone who is beginning weightlifting late – i have been learning these very things – slowly. its very good to hear them articulated so clearly.
    I was teaching myself the lifts at a YMCA – and now have been lifting at a crossfit gym with a coach. There truly is no substitute for load. Lifting repeatedly at light load seems to only have reinforced bad habits – that i didn’t even know i had. All the crappy pulls in the world do not get me ready or a single heavy pull. Weight on the bar reveals all the little things i wasn’t even aware of. Its humbling and exciting at the same time to know i have so much to work on. But i would never have known if i just kept ripping 135# off the floor and thinking I was making progress.

    Thanks for the the great content.

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