Becoming A Weightlifter

by Jason Keen

Unfortunately, finding good instruction in the sport of weightlifting in the early 21st century can be tough. That said, it is far from impossible. To be honest, I had wanted to 'be a weightlifter' for a long time. While competing in powerlifting and strongman was fun, I always wanted to be one of the guys who was not only super strong, but fast, coordinated and lean. The Olympic weightlifters that I saw were not just 'lifters,' they were 'athletes.' Also, I have always felt that the lifters like Chakarov and Arranda (and guys like Pisarenko and Blagoev before them) were the strongest squatters on the planet with their rock-bottom, vertical torso, no recoil gear triples done with triple bodyweight.

But, my 25th birthday had come and gone before I found a decent coach. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is point #1, and the one thing that one needs to leave this article with: if you want to be good at the sport of weightlifting, or explosive lifting for strength training in general, finding a good USAW coach will make all the difference. I have met a few people who have taught themselves the lifts, and a couple of them have actually done a half-decent job. However, to be totally honest, I don't think I have ever met a self-taught trainee who had form 50% as good as it would be with a competent coach. That might be a bold statement, and sure form isn't *everything*, but it is important enough to give it the best shot you can. Learning the power versions of the clean and snatch is a fairly easy thing to do alone. But again, if you really want to learn the Olympic lifts, why not try to become as proficient as possible at them? And, you won't actually have to try that hard to get a lot of good instruction. Look at the USAW website ( and try to find a club listed in your area. If there is none, e-mail one of the contacts listed on the site and ask them if there is a coach in your LWC you could work with. Another resource is to go to the GoHeavy Olympic Weightlifting Forum ( and ask if anyone knows of a coach in your town or somewhere nearby. It never hurts to ask.

If you live out in the boondocks, however, and there are absolutely NO coaches within a reasonable distance, read on. I will try to put forth a concise primer on available resources and learning the lifts.


Books and videos can be valuable to the development of a weightlifter's career and training plan. They seem less so as concerns technique outside of basic descriptions, but can still be useful in helping to understand what one is 'supposed' to be doing and what the theories behind proper technique are.

As to books, I think that the Weightlifting Encyclopedia and Video Set are pretty good, and the Jim Schmitz stuff is slightly less worthwhile. The Quantum Strength books by O'Shea are solid. For my money, however, if there were only a few books one could get to learn from, the best would be the USA Weightlifting coaching manual, Explosive Lifting for Sports (Harvey Newton), and Introduction to Olympic-Style Weightlifting by John Cissik. While these books do not delve into the minutae of the WLE (involving things such as 'what a weightlifting belt is' or 'how to tape a torn callous') they are very practical in terms of basic technical descriptions and learning sequence pictures.

When one wants to go to the 'next level' of informative texts, my opinion is that the stuff by Sportivny Press, available from Dynamic Fitness (, is the best available. These works present a lot of information that comes from studies done in the former Soviet Union, which had a pretty vast field of weightlifters to study and a lot of money to fund the studies with. Go with texts by Roman, and all of the Russian WL Yearbooks. Also, the WLE comes in here. Just about everything you would ever want to know about weightlifting, and probably a lot of things do not want or need to know, can be found in this book.

The IronMind videos are also a priceless resource. These tapes help you not only see what 'proper' form is, but they will teach you that proper form is only a set of guidelines, and every individual works within those parameters to find what the best way for him or her to do the lifts actually is. Personally, I like the 1998 Bulgarian video, the 2001 Creating Champions video from Poland, and the 1993 Worlds training hall tape. (

Learning the Lifts

Again, I must reiterate here that your best course of action, if you truly want to become a competitive weightlifter (or even if you just want to develop the best form you possibly can), is to find a good weightlifting coach. And, in case this is not apparent, that does not mean that you look for someone who is a college strength coach, or someone who has their CSCS, or whatever. This means finding someone with practical knowledge; that is, one who actually has competed at weightlifting him/herself, and who preferably is a USAW Senior Coach.

Another great thing to do is take a USAW coaching course. Make no mistake, these courses are expensive. However, you get the USAW coaching manual, the video about teaching beginners to lift, and usually a couple days of hands-on instruction from some of the best weightlifting coaches in North America. You also get the chance to become a certified coach for USA Weightlifting, and spread the sport and be on the front lines yourself. Personally, I learned the most about what *I* was doing wrong on the lifts only after I had learned how to effectively coach others in the lifts and recognize their common mistakes at full speed.

If you cannot find a coach near you, and even if you *do* find a good coach, learning how to coach yourself and gaining knowledge about how the lifts should be done is very important. I don't think anyone wants to be a 'robot', just doing what his coach tells him and not understanding what is going on. Again, the USAW coaching manual and Harvey Newton's book are great print resources. I will still put some helpful information for getting started, however, here.

Sequences: There are many different opinions on the order or sequence in which one should learn the Olympic lifts. The old USAW sequence was, in my opinion, horrendous. It amounted to teaching lifts like the upright row and 'jumps' while holding a barbell that really did not have that much carryover to the competition lifts, yet were close enough to them to mess up one's form. The Bulgarian sequence for learning the Olympic lifts is to learn to back and front squat with absolutely perfect form first. The Bulgarians also teach the clean first with respect to the competition lifts, and then on to the jerk and finally the snatch.

My own preference is somewhat of a combination of a touch of the Bulgarian method with a large part Russian. Like the Bulgarians, I do believe that being able to do a full back, front, and overhead squat is essential to the competition lifts. I would make sure that any lifter could perform these movements before trying to teach him/her to do the full competition squat clean or snatch. Beyond this, however, I prefer what is often referred to as the Russian sequence for teaching the lifts. This sequence is essentially a 'backward chain' method of learning, with the snatch learned before the C&J. I still warm-up for most workouts with about a 10-minute version of the sequence I learned the lifts in. Because I am too lazy to re-type it all, here is the basic text of a series of e-mails that my coach Mark Carey sent me when I was trying to do some learning at home, supplemented with some editorial comments by myself:

THE SNATCH: Here's the progression you should follow for learning the snatch. Do it every day before every workout. I still do this every day before every workout for a warm-up and to remind my body of the technique. First, do some rope jumping to get the blood flowing. I like to do some stationary bike too, anything to get up to a breaking a sweat, then I know my body's internal temperature is up and the muscles are warm. I call this my general warm-up.

1) Set your snatch grip width by measuring from the outside of one shoulder to the knuckles of your outstretched arm while making a fist. This is the inside distance between hands on your snatch grip. (just a guideline/starting point)

2) Place bar only on your back shoulders as if doing a squat. Put your feet just outside your shoulders with the toes pointed slightly out. This is your squat or receiving position for the feet. Using the snatch grip, do 5-10 full squats, each followed by a snatch grip press.

3) Snatch Press. Place your feet under your hips. This is your pulling position. The receiving and pulling positions are the only 2 positions you should find your feet in. With your feet in that position, place the bar back on your back shoulders and put hands in snatch grip position. Do 5 presses snapping the bar overhead to a locked out position. Your elbows should be pointed down, your hands cranked back so the bar is locked up tight.

Typical of people who have done lots of benching is they try to hold the bar overhead with their biceps. By rotating your elbows around so they point down (not back) and crank your wrists back, the bar locks in with the elbows bone-on-bone, rather than trying to hold it with the muscle.

Look at some of the top lifters. It appears as if they have double-jointed elbows (Botev, for example). the idea is to let the leverage hold the weight overhead, not the muscles. Do a couple sets of 5 to practice snapping to that position. It feels weird and uncomfortable at first, but stick with it. This is where you start stretching those shoulders, wrists and tightness in the biceps/inside elbow area of the arm. Also, when you snap the bar overhead, it should be lined up with your ears, shoulders, hips and ankles. Make sure you lock your back in and push your chest out.

4) Overhead Squat. With your bar now in the overhead position, place your feet in the receiving position from #2 above. Make sure your elbows are locked in, the bar is over your ears, your back is locked in (arch it) and your chest is pushed out. Descend to a full depth squat position, putting your hips right between your ankles. Keep the bar locked in over your head in the position we discussed in #3. This is where hip and ankle flexibility comes in. In the full depth position, push your knees out over your toes (no, its not bad for the knees). return to the start position. Again, this may be difficult for someone coming from a powerlifting background where you don't usually squat in this position. Do a few sets of 5 with the bar only. Work on this every day so your hips and ankle flexibility comes around and you are comfortable holding the bar overhead in that full squat position. Remember to keep the bar lined up with your ears, shoulders, hips and ankles — all in a straight line in the standing position and full squat position.Some flexibility things you can do include placing your heels as close to a wall and forcing yourself into that deep squat position. Use the wall to push your hips between your ankles (this is without a bar — just flex training after your workouts), doing maybe 3 sets of 30 seconds each. Also work each individual ankle by pushing against the wall, stretching the achilles tendon in each ankle.

5) Footwork. Mark your pulling position of your feet with chalk or tape on the floor.Mark your receiving position. Practice jumping from the pulling position to the receiving position with your feet. Then practice a quick aggressive shuffle of the feet without much of a jump. Then practice dropping into the squat position shuffling the feet from the pulling to the receiving position. Make it quick and aggressive, hitting the marks every time.

6) Drop Snatch. (still bar only)Now, combine exercise #3 with #4. Start with the bar on the back shoulders with a snatch grip. Put the feet in the pulling position right under the hips. Now, dynamically and aggressively press the bar at the same time you are dropping into the receiving squat position. Your feet should shuffle quickly from the pulling to the squatting position. You should end up in the bottom squat position from #4 with the bar perfectly lined up with the ears, shoulders, hips and ankles. Do 3 sets of 3 drop snatches. If it is awkward at first, give a little jump (make it small and very quick) to help you get going, but the idea is to race the bar to the floor by aggressively dropping under it into the full squat snatch receiving position.

6) Shrug Snatch. (still bar only)Now stand up, feet in pulling position, bar hanging down in front with snatch grip. with straight arms, shrug your shoulders all the way up to your ears. Not a body builder's rotating shoulder shrug, but just pull your shoulders up to your ears as high as possible. Do 3 straight shrugs with the snatch grip. On the third shrug, make it dynamic, aggressive and violent; shrug so the bar's momentum is moving up (make sure you pull with straight arms). after the shrug, snap your arms overhead while dropping into the receiving position, shuffling your feet to the marks on the floor. I call this the pop and drop. Pop your shoulders on the third shrug, and drop aggressively into the full squat snatch receiving position with the bar overhead lined up with the ears, shoulders, hips and ankles. Do 3 sets of these.

7) High Hang Snatch. (still bar only)Stand up with the bar in front like #6, feet in pulling position. Lock the back in and push chest out ('spread' the chest). Now, bend over and place the bar against your legs just above the kneecaps. Unlock your knees a little bit. Your shoulders should be out over your knees. You should feel your hamstrings; if not, make sure your back is locked in tight (arch it, don't round it).Now, slide the bar up your thighs with straight arms but straightening your knees and start straightening your back. When you get to your upper thigh, violently straighten up all the way, pull the shoulders to the ears like the 3rd shrug in #6, and pull the bar overhead while dropping into the full squat snatch receiving position. Keep the bar on your thighs the whole slide part. I call this the slide, pop, and drop. This is also where the double knee bend starts to come in. It should be natural without thinking about it. If it doesn't feel natural, try pausing slightly when the bar is at the upper thigh to gather yourself (bend knees slightly while straightening back) for a 2nd pull and pop. Do 2 or 3 sets of 3 of these.

8) Low Hang Snatch. Place the bar just below the kneecaps. Slowly pull the bar to the high hang position and continue just as in #7. Remember to keep the shoulders out over the bar. In fact, start by putting yourself into the high hang position, then drop to the low hang, keeping your shins in contact with the bar. You should really feel a stretch in the hamstrings if your back is locked in properly. In both the high and low hang position, if you let the bar hang loose, it should be several inches in front of your knees. You have to actually force the bar back to touch your knees. This means that your shoulders are properly in front of the bar. Also, crank your wrists back toward your knees as well. Again, 1 or 2 sets of 3.

9) The Start. Put a light weight on the bar - I use wooden plates cut the same size as regular bumper weights (this is to set the bar at normal starting height). Stand up and look down at the bar, lining it up with your toe joint. This is just a rule of thumb, the start position can be adjusted later with a good coach, but start there for now. Make sure your feet are in the pulling position. Now without rolling the bar at all, squat down and grab the bar with a snatch grip. Again, keep your shoulders out over the bar. Your hips should be slightly lower than your shoulders. Have someone stand on the side and help you get lined up. This is a pretty tough position to hold for very long, especially when you are learning. Slowly pull the bar into the low hang position and hold for 2 seconds, return to the floor the same speed and position from which you pulled. Your back should keep it's position relative to the floor the whole pull to the low hang, slightly above perpendicular to the floor (remember, hips just below shoulders). Try this a couple of times.

10) Now with the start from #9, pull to the low hang, pause for 2 seconds, then continue on and snatch from the low hang as you did in #8, keeping in mind all the coaching points covered. Be diligent to keep everything as precise as possible and under control, but still aggressive and violent at the 'pop' part.

11) Now do the full snatch from the floor with no pause at the low hang. Keep the speed the same, though, as if you were going to pause. You should ease the weight off the floor. My coach used to tell me "silence off the floor". But, at the pop where your shoulders are violently shrugging, he would say "music at the top", the music being the rattle of the weights from the violent shrug and pull. (SILENCE at the bottom, VIOLENCE at the top)Do this progression every day before you do any workout. It's amazing how sore you can get from just the bar only!

NOTES: Arm Action- Remember to pull with straight arms. After you pop at the top (with straight arms), you then aggressively pull yourself under the bar by bending the elbows and then rotating them around and snapping them overhead. You can practice this by doing high pulls. Keep your elbows over the bar so the bar stays as close to the body as possible, pull the bar as aggressive and high as possible. Remember this action happens while you are descending under the bar and is very quick and aggressive, in the blink of an eye, I like to say.

Drill progression: (empty bar)
-starting position (feet under hips)
-split position (front foot 1.5 foot lengths forward of toes, back foot same distance back of heels)
-recovery (hips come up and knees straighten, glide front foot some of the way back, back foot forward, and front foot rest of the way)
-BN Press (a few sets of 5 reps)
-Push Jerk (behind neck, pop and drop under slightly for catch)
-Eye Jerk (hold bar with light weight in front of eyes, then drop into split) [jerk analogue of drop snatch]

-dip straight down and under control, explode up
-receiving: rotate elbows out
-keep bar directly over ears when caught
-weight evenly distributed between legs (front shin should be perpendicular to floor, back foot should have heel off ground and knee bent) [most people keep back leg straight and heel on ground, so front leg bears all the weight]
-recover front foot first, then back foot

Drill Progression:
-front squat
-shrug and go ( bar at waist, 3 shrugs and go under on third)
-high hang (full clean from high hang)
-low hang (clean from low hang)
-can do clean starts if you want, but probably on to:

-keep shoulders over bar
-don't jerk weight off of floor (NO noise. silent at the bottom, music at the top…)
-keep back ARCHED all through the lift
-arms straight
-pull shoulders to ears as dynamically as possible
-snap elbows around, and keep them high

Again, even if you have no coach, all of these tips should be used in conjunction with a good text like the USAW coaching course, Harvey Newton's book, or the WLE book/video that contains a very methodical description of each lift, and has a good picture breakdown of the technique of each lift. In addition to the above tips, a couple of great articles that should be of help to anyone trying to figure out weightlifting include "Steve Sandor's Training Tips" ( and a couple of articles by James O'Malley ( , on the Ontario Weightlifting Association's page.

As this article has already gotten horrifically long, I will go into some learning tips that I have arrived at through my own learning and coaching process, as well as some discussion on the planning of one's training, at a later time.

The views and opinions expressed in this page are strictly those of the page author.



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