This is a question of understanding the difference between a sport and fitness. Most people associate the word “weightlifting” with “lifting weights”. This is no fault of their own, as it is a misnomer in English and the sport wasn’t popular in North America, until recently. Most athletes who compete in the sport of weightlifting or who practice the elements of the sport on a regular basis, refer to it as Olympic weightlifting, or some variation of that. You might also hear terms like “Oly lifting”, “lifting”, or “Olympic lifts”. These help to distinguish the sport from traditional training.
Weightlifting is made up of two events. The objective in both events is to lift the most amount of weight on a barbell from the floor to a locked, overhead position. The Snatch is completed in one movement, while the Clean and Jerk is completed in two movement segments.
Power, Speed, Explosiveness
What sets Olympic weightlifting apart from traditional training is its precision. It requires skill, flexibility, agility, coordination, and explosive speed. Strength is a side note when it comes to lifting. Without all of the above, strength is of little value.
My favorite example is to take a powerlifting athlete – those who are arguably the strongest athletes as they compete in Bench press, deadlift and squat (capable of squatting 2x most weightlifters) and to put them into a lifting situation. Even with multiple sessions of training, many lack the agility, speed, flexibility or coordination; to perform a snatch or clean and jerk properly with little more than an empty bar. All that strength does little good without the more important parameters.
Weightlifting is therefore used to train unique elements that we miss in traditional training, particularly with athletes. The snatch and clean and jerk are now used to train high level athletes in a variety of sports, including baseball, hockey, football, basketball, soccer, rugby, athletics, aquatics, ski and snowboard, and extreme sports of all kinds. The lifts are used as a part of a complete strength and conditioning program. They are used as tools to improve all of the parameters mentioned above.
In the 1970’s and 1980’s, the Soviet Union Olympic Committee routinely administered a well-rounded series of test to all of its Olympic teams to measure what they called “athletic ability”. The test included such events as sprinting, distance running, slalom running, jumping for distance, jumping for height, etc. In every Olympiad the test was administered, their weightlifting team was ranked first…above runners, throwers, gymnasts, swimmers, divers, basketball players and all other sport teams.
Training the Olympic lifts offer a particular benefit to the general public. Those interested in health and fitness usually find the lifts frustrating at first because of their high level of complexity. However, the lifts specifically tax the central nervous system, training it to react more quickly, performance improves gradually, and all other training parameters see improvements as a result. The movements are complex and full body, requiring concentration and coordination. A single repetition arguably uses every muscle and joint in the body, which makes them extremely efficient.
A Contrast to Traditional Training
There are clear and marked differences between traditional training and Olympic weightlifting. Traditional training focuses on one muscle unit, or a specific muscle group, isolating it from the unit of the body it normally interacts with. Sets and reps are performed slowly while Olympic lifting is performed explosively.
Weightlifting forces the body to learn to coordinate by flexing and extending more rapidly, with more control, and speed.
Traditional training can get boring, and people rely on the aesthetic benefit of lifting weights to remain motivated. In contrast, the challenge of acquiring and perfecting a new skill and then increasing the mass being moved is usually what keeps people interested in lifting.
The good news is that lifting does not have to be heavy to enjoy the benefits of it. CrossFit has been a huge promoter of Olympic weightlifting by simply using them as a part of typical crossfit workouts. More people are being exposed to what lifting is, how beneficial it is, and how much fun it can be. We see that when a person is good at weightlifting, they are somehow better at other functional movements. Pulling, pushing, jumping and even running becomes easier when a person trains Olympic lifting regularly. All of the segments of performing a lift transfer to other aspects of training.
Lifting and Aerobic Capacity
The only exception to this is in aerobic training. Lifting usually consists of just a few reps and plenty of rest. So those who want to have improved aerobic capacity have to look to other methods of training, such as high intensity intervals.
It should be noted, however, that some cardiologist recommend the anaerobic effects of weightlifting over aerobic counterparts because the heavy short-term load of an Olympic lift spikes heart rate momentarily. They feel that this process is more akin to real life than prolonged periods of higher, but not spiked, periods.
Getting Involved in Lifting
There are low profile weightlifting clubs in every city across the nation. Though weightlifting used to be a niche sport with few knowing it’s top athletes, exposure in recent years as a result of CrossFit has led to greater number of participation among adults and children. Many CrossFit gyms have a segment dedicated to weightlifting. Classes to perfect the lifts are usually offered at no or low extra costs. Many lifting coaches are now spending more time with CrossFit athletes of all levels to help them perfect the lifts at low and moderate weight.
If you are an aspiring athlete, find a strength and conditioning coach who is very familiar with the lifts, and who can guide you in training with them effectively. All facilities should have the proper equipment; bumper plates and official weightlifting barbells sized for men and women. Without these, it is difficult to advance beyond the first couple of weeks of training. Expect to see changes in your power and speed within 3 to 4 weeks of training.
At the very least, anyone can make their own traditional training program a little more interesting by introducing elements of the Olympic lifts into their usual program to keep things interesting, and to add a little challenge.