Over the last decade, it has become common knowledge that weight training offers a wide range of benefits for everyone--it aids in bone health, increases metabolism, fights chronic disease, boosts energy levels and mood, and improves cardiovascular health (among other things.) The Department of Health and Human Services recommends that all adults include strength training in their general fitness routine at least two days/week to improve general health.
What is less widely known is the sport that offers arguably the most value in terms of improving strength, power, speed, coordination, and cardiovascular health: Weightlifting.
Weightlifting traces its history back to ancient Greece and China, and was one of the seven sports that made up the first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896. While the sport is often confused with other strength sports, such as powerlifting and bodybuilding, weightlifting has gained more popularity over the last several years due the rise of CrossFit, which incorporates the Olympic lifts in training and competition.
In case you have no idea what we’re talking about, weightlifting is comprised of two independent lifts: the snatch and the clean and jerk. The snatch is one continuous movement in which an athlete lifts the barbell with a wide grip from the floor to to overhead. The clean and jerk is comprised of two movements, first moving the barbell from the floor to the shoulders, and then from the shoulders to above the head, most commonly in a split-legged position. In competition, each lifter receives three attempts in both the snatch and clean and jerk, and the winner is determined by the highest combined total of the two heaviest successful lifts within a bodyweight category.
While you may be thinking that this obscure activity is reserved solely for CrossFitters and competitive weightlifters, it’s not. Weightlifting offers benefits for anyone who wishes to increase their athletic ability, gain functional strength, and get in better overall shape. Continue reading to learn the top three benefits of including weightlifting in your routine training.
1. Enhances overall athletic performance
The Olympic lifts build unmatched explosive strength and speed, as they demand a significant amount of force exertion in a very short period of time. As opposed to other strength-sports, such as powerlifting, which relies on strength and technique alone to execute the lifts, weightlifting requires strength-speed, or the ability to move relatively heavy loads as fast as you can. The movements have been shown to improve rate of force development, which makes them extremely useful for developing explosiveness. It is for this reason that the Olympic lifts and their component lifts (squats, pulls, clean variations, etc) are commonly trained in other sports that demand explosive strength and high power output, such as football, volleyball, track and field, basketball, and more.
The Olympic lifts also share kinetic or movement similarities to jumping and sprinting. The athletic position, the common stance used in most sports to maximize strength, speed, and power in any direction, is an inherent part of the Olympic lifts. Similarly, triple extension, or the explosive action produced by aggressively extending the ankles, knees, and hips simultaneously, is a fundamental component of the lifts. This motion is extremely common in other sports, especially those involving sprinting and jumping like track and field, gymnastics, and football. The Olympic lifts also recruit fast twitch, or type II muscle fibers. These fibers fire anaerobically, and are used in powerful bursts of movements, such as sprinting. Noticing a theme here?
By learning and practicing the Olympic lifts, athletes from other sports can improve their jumping, sprinting, and coordination ability. Individuals seeking to gain greater athleticism for better overall quality of life can also benefit from the movements. It is argued that Olympic lifters have the highest jumps in the world, so if you’re looking to slam dunk on your friends, give the snatch and clean and jerk a try.
2. Improves mobility and coordination
The snatch and clean and jerk are arguably the most complex movements you can learn in any sport. To execute the lifts properly, you need proper technique, which is heavily reliant on both stability and mobility. Without sufficient mobility, or the range of uninhibited motion around a joint, the individual will not be able to get into the positions necessary to successfully perform the movement.
Elite weightlifters are some of the most mobile athletes in the world, as the lifts demand a full range of motion to get proper depth and positioning. The first step in learning the movements is to assess mobility. To carry out the lifts properly, you must have a mobile thoracic spine. Thoracic mobility is crucial to the overhead position, especially in the catch of the snatch and the jerk as well as the back’s optimal arch in the pull. Lack of thoracic mobility can result in excessive shoulder flexion, compensation in the lumbar spine, and ultimately, an unsuccessful lift. If you’ve noticed that you’re leaning far forward in your catch position, not able to get your head through your shoulders in a jerk, and have a rounded upper back in your pull and front squats, it’s likely due to poor thoracic mobility. Another common mobility restriction is poor dorsiflexion, or the movement of the foot upwards towards the shin. Proper dorsiflexion allows the knee the track forward over the toe and enables the lifter to get proper depth in the start position and the squat portion of the lifts.
However, if your mobility is not quite there yet, don’t fret! Consistently performing quality movement is the first step and most effective way to improve your mobility. While you may spend several sessions with the bar alone, or only going to a certain depth, repetition of good movement is a sure way to increase your range of motion and get you on the right track to performing the snatch and clean and jerk with proper form.
Not only will practicing the movements help you increase your range of motion for the sake of the sport, the mobility that you gain can also improve posture, alleviate lower back pain, and most importantly, aid in injury prevention. Enhanced mobility can help undo some of the day-to-day stress we place on our body, such as sitting at a desk with a hunched back 8 hours/day, and improve our overall quality of life.
Moreover, given their complex and technical nature, the snatch and clean and jerk demand high levels of body awareness and coordination. Learning how to hold a barbell in a stable overhead position while in the bottom of a squat requires far more motor skill development than basic free weight or machine training. This coordination, combined with functional strength improvements, and increased range of motion in the muscles and joints sets us up to be fast, strong, and injury-free well into old age.
3. Improves body composition and physique
If you’ve ever seen the body of a weightlifter, you’ve probably noticed that they share striking similarities to sprinters (not so shocking now, huh?). While weightlifters come in all shapes and sizes (the bodyweight categories range from 55kg/121lbs to +109kg/240lbs for men and 45kg/99lbs to +87kg/191lbs for women), it is common for elite weightlifters to have defined muscles and relatively low body fat. This is for a few reasons:
A. Fast twitch muscle fibers develop full, dense muscles (compared to slow-twitch muscle fibers developed from steady-state exercise like distance running);
B. Competitive weightlifters, especially those outside of the heavy weight (+) categories, follow regimented diets to best fill their weight class (a 64kg female athlete with 12% body fat will have more muscle mass than a 64kg athlete with 25% body fat);
C. Weightlifting works the cardiovascular system, which aids in a healthy metabolism; and
D. Weightlifting trains the entire body as a single unit, as opposed to targeting one muscle group at a time, which results in a more natural, balanced appearance.
While nearly every muscle in the body is recruited to perform the explosive lifts, the muscles that play the biggest role include:
• Hamstrings, glutes, and quads: Utilized throughout the lifts, including the pull from the floor, extension of the legs, the catch and stand of a clean and snatch, and in the dip, drive and catch phase of the jerk. The legs are also developed through training accessory movements for the lifts, including front and back squats and pulls.
• Lats: Responsible for keeping the bar as close to the body as possible and to aid in overhead stability in the snatch and jerk.
• Traps, shoulders, and scapular stabilizers: Used during the extension in the snatch and clean and in the catch position of the snatch and jerk.
• Biceps, triceps, and forearms: Developed during the pull.
• Lower back and spinal erectors: Used during the pull and to keep an upright torso in the clean.
• Abdominals, obliques, and transverse abdominals: Developed throughout the lifts, and especially during the snatch, as the further you move an object away from your center of mass, the more strain it puts on your core to stabilize it.
While the physique impact of weightlifting may come slower than bodybuilding, the lifts and their accessories develop quality, functional strength and power that is unmatched. Moreover, weightlifting, due to its anaerobic nature, improves cardiovascular endurance, resting heart rate, and blood pressure, areas of health that are typically associated with “cardio” workouts. So if you loathe running but want to improve your health, give the lifts a try.
While weightlifting may appear intimidating at first glance, it is a sport for everyone. According to the International Weightlifting Federation, weightlifting is considered one of the safest sports with just 0.0017 injuries per 100,000 hours of participation (compared to track and field athletics with 0.570). Whether you are an athlete of another discipline looking to improve your explosive strength and power, or you’re an average gym-goer seeking to develop coordination, body awareness, and life-long strength, the Olympic lifts offer countless physical (and mental) benefits. And you’ll feel badass doing them!