Olympic Weightlifting Basics

Understand the Fundamentals of the Competition

Ilya Ilyin Olympic weightlifting
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Olympic weightlifting is a sport for men and women categorized by weight classes from the huge heavyweights to the small flyweights. Gold, silver and bronze medals are awarded in each class.

Only two distinct lifts are performed—the clean-and-jerk and the snatch. Weightlifting is a popular viewer sport at the Summer Olympics, even though it has been more popular as a participant sport in some European, Middle Eastern and Asian countries. Here is a roundup of what you can expect to see at the Olympic Games.


Weightlifting was first introduced to the Olympic Games in 1896 as a part of track and field. It had an on-and-off history as it was left out of the 1900 Games, reappeared in 1904, and didn't return to the Olympics again until 1920 when it was admitted in its own right. Initially, Olympic weightlifting featured some event criteria that would seem unusual in the current era. They didn't have weight divisions and they had one-handed and two-handed lifts.

By 1932, five weight divisions had been established and three disciplines made up the competition—the press, the snatch, and the clean-and-jerk.

The press was discontinued in 1972, leaving the snatch and clean-and-jerk as the sport's two lifts. The women's competition was first included at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

Weight Divisions

Men compete in eight weight classes from 56 kilograms (kg) to 105 kilograms and greater, and women in seven classes from 48 kilograms to 75 kilograms and greater. Kilograms are the official Olympic unit of weight. Countries are allowed two competitors in each weight class subject to Olympic qualifying standards.

Weights Used

The round weights attached to the bar range in size from 2.5 kilograms to 25 kilograms. These are color-coded for competitor and audience convenience.

  • 25 kg: red
  • 20 kg: dark blue
  • 15 kg: yellow
  • 10 kg: green
  • 5 kg: white
  • 2.5 kg: black

Men use barbells weighing 20 kg, and women use barbells weighing 15 kg. Each bar must have two weight clasp collars of 2.5 kg each.

Judging and Scoring

Timing: An athlete has one minute to perform a lift, and a warning bell sounds when 30 seconds remain. Extra time is allocated when two lifts are attempted consecutively.

Judges: Three judges adjudicate and score. The acceptability of a lift is acknowledged by lights controlled from the judges’ panel—white for a positive and red for a negative. Two out of three is sufficient for the lift to be recorded as successful.

Winners: Each competitor is allowed three attempts at each lift. The heaviest weight lifted in each discipline for each person is recorded. The heaviest combination of both lifts wins the gold medal. If a tie on weight lifted occurs, the person with the lowest body weight wins.

The Olympic Lifts

Clean-and-Jerk: The clean-and-jerk starts with the barbell on the floor. The lifter grabs the bar with two hands and pulls it upward to the chest while squatting down. He or she steadies at the standing position and then presses it overhead with a split stance.

The snatch can be distinguished from the clean-and-jerk by the early overhead movement. The lifter starts from the same position, ducks under the bar and throws the bar overhead while in the squat position. He or she then stands to the finish position with the bar overhead.

The technique for these lifts is very demanding and not only requires great strength but exceptional flexibility and balance. Many months of practice are required to perfect the movements.

If you enjoy watching weightlifting at the Olympics, a little background can make it as exciting as many more popular sports.

By Paul Rogers
Paul Rogers is a personal trainer with experience in a wide range of sports, including track, triathlon, marathon, hockey, tennis, and baseball.