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Olympic Weightlifting versus Powerlifting

Think you know the difference between these two lifting disciplines? Here’s a primer on each sport as well as the pros and cons of each method.

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Olympic weightlifter Behdad Salimikordasiabi
Matthias Hangst/Getty Images

There’s no doubt that the fitness industry has seen a shift towards the weightlifting niche over the past decade. CrossFit has made Olympic weightlifting popular again, and Powerlifting is making a comeback as well. Although the two forms of lifting are well known, they are also different in their trainings.

 

Olympic weightlifting focuses on performing two ballistic lifts overhead with good technique known as the clean and jerk, and the snatch.

 

Powerlifting, on the other hand, is less technical and focuses more on completing three, controlled, heavy lifts known as the squat, bench press, and deadlift.

 

If you’re looking to get more serious about one or both these sports, we’ve broken down everything you need to know about them. Read on and let the gains begin!

 

Olympic Weightlifting History

Before there was CrossFit, early records found that weightlifting competitions were popular in Ancient Greece, China, and Egypt. This style of training became a variation of today’s Olympic Weightlifting, which appeared in Europe in the late 1800’s when Strongman competitions were popular. Prior to 1972, lifters participating in these events were required to perform the snatch, clean and press, and clean and jerk.

 

SEE ALSO: Master the Clean and Jerk

 

The clean and press was removed by the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) in 1972, according to Kathryn Ferriello, a USA-W National Coach (L2), Cross Fit Level 1 certified trainer. ”This happened because they found it placed too much stress on the lower back of athletes and wasn't considered safe anymore,” she says. Today in competitions, participants are expected to perform the clean and jerk, and snatch and are given three attempts to complete their best lifts.

 

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Modern Day Olympic Weightlifting

Although there has been a boom in CrossFit boxes over the past decade, not all are created equally. “A good CrossFit gym usually starts class (after warm ups) with a strength component,” says Ferriello.

 

This is followed by “Metcons” or metabolic conditioning, which typically include a few movements and lasts eight to 12 minutes, on average. It’s key to find a Box that focuses on building strength primarily, and conditioning secondarily. She says this is because it's harder to build strength than it is to get into good cardiovascular condition. Also, coaches should be able to address proper lifting technique and scale your workout depending upon your abilities if needed.

 

A good rule of thumb is, “You should feel tired after a CrossFit class, but the goal should be to become fitter and stronger, not just more beat up,” says Ferriello. If you’re uncertain if your Box is up to these standards, a few red flags to look out for are long workouts of the day (WOD), coaches who force students to do exercises they can’t physically do, and a quick turnover client rate.

SEE ALSO: The Ultimate Beginner’s 28-Day CrossFit Guide

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Powerlifting History

Powerlifting has been around since the Greek and Roman times, but the sport didn’t originate in the U.S. and U.K. until the 1950s. It officially became a competitive sport in 1965, when the AAU's National Weightlifting Committee approved it, and decided that the squat, bench press, and deadlift would be judged. Today you are given three tries to achieve your one rep max in each of these lifts. This competition style was first practiced in Strongman competitions known as "Odd Lifts."

SEE ALSO: This 14-Year-Old Powerlifter Keeps Breaking Records

How to Find a Powerlifting Gym

It’s vital that your powerlifting gym has experienced competitive lifters. Find a coach who has competed many times and learned through trial and error, suggests Robert Herbst, an 18-time World Champion and 32-time National Champion Powerlifter and member of the AAU Strength Sports Hall of Fame. "Powerlifting is an inexact science and is not one size fits all, and one needs a coach who has the experience to adapt and change someone's program," Herbst says.

Novice powerlifters should aim for good form over worrying if they’re lifting heavy enough. “At their first meet they should watch the different styles lifters use depending their body type, such as wide or narrow grip or stance," says Herbst. “They will also see that the other lifters are supportive of one another because the competition is not necessarily with someone else.” Instead it’s with the weight and one's own personal limits.

Once you get the hang of the movements, lifting heavy gets easier, but you should give your body a chance to adjust. “Early on they will make rapid gains because they are at the bottom of the curve, but as progress slows, they should not become discouraged and quit,” says Herbst. He says the solution is usually as simple as tweaking the lifter’s program.

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Pros of Olympic Weightlifting and Powerlifting

 Whether you’re an average Joe or an athlete, weightlifting has many positive effects. “Team sport athletes benefit greatly from a strength and conditioning program that incorporates powerlifting and weightlifting methods combined,” explains Danny Takacs, MS, CSCS, USAW, Owner and Coach at Kratos Fitness in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Powerlifting has proven to help just about any athlete. “It has been great for disability sports, and I was fortunate enough to work with [British Paralympic powerlifter ]Ali Jawad in 2012 as his Sport Psychologist,” says Dave Readle, Sport and Performance coach, founder of the fitness class, HIITSEP. Olympic Lifting helps with functional movement that we need for everyday life, which is why it’s scalable for anyone, Readle says.

“There's a saying in CrossFit that goes, ‘Our needs vary in degree, not kind,’ ” says Ferreillo. “In other words, an 80-year-old woman needs to squat, and she doesn't need to squat what a competitor needs to squat, but she needs some strength to get in and out of a chair.” If you’re an athlete that needs to focus on endurance and improving flexibility, Olympic weightlifting may also be for you. “Olympic lifting requires technique because the athletes use their flexibility and explosive efficiency to move weight much more than just by muscle alone,” says Ethan Schmidt, CrossFit level 1 coach, and Co-founder of GymBull.com.

SEE ALSO: The 6 Best Exercises for Maximum Gains

Cons of Olympic Weightlifting and Powerlifting

Unfortunately there are some risks tied to weightlifting as with any sport. Overtraining and lack of rest days can lead to injuries and diminishes any progress you’ve made. Lifting heavy too soon and lacking core strength can lead to back pain or injury. There’s also the chance of wear and tear on certain joints such as, the elbows, knees, wrists, or rotator cuffs. Ultimately, both sports offer many benefits, and overtime you learn what you can or can’t handle when lifting. Most importantly it’s necessary that you practice proper training and find a good coach to minimize the possibility of injuries during your fitness journey.

SEE ALSO: 10 Ways To Avoid Injury in the Gym

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