Each style of lifting can have major benefits for people seeking fitness. Both involve intense whole-body training using multi-joint lifts.
Olympic lifting (snatch and the clean and jerk) involves highly precise explosive movements lifting the weight from the floor to overhead.
Powerlifting (squat, bench press, and deadlift) consists of slower movements done with high muscle intensity.
Having competed in both types of lifting, I am inclined to promote powerlifting movements for fitness trainees for two main reasons.
- Power lifts can be practiced and refined without a skilled coach.
- Power lifts can also be practiced in power racks or on benches that allow a lifter to put a weight on safety bars if they can’t complete a lift.
Olympic lifting requires a degree of agility and athleticism that can be developed over time with proper coaching. However, in the early stages of learning weightlifting movements, the speed and explosive movement needed for Olympic lifting is beyond the capabilities of many trainees.
This is especially true with older lifters. The flexibility and body control needed for Olympic-style lifting take time to master and often are beyond what a 50-60-year-old lifter can manage, at least initially.
Olympic Lifting Training for Novice Lifters
The Olympic lifts involve putting the barbell overhead. In the snatch, this is done in one movement from floor to arm's length. In the clean and jerk, the barbell is put overhead in two movements, the clean to the shoulders and the jerk overhead.
For fitness trainees who have been using weight machines where the weight is stabilized throughout the lift, lifting a barbell off the floor and putting it overhead is often well beyond their capabilities.
My approach to dealing with this situation is to begin with the least complex and demanding movements and help the trainee perfect them before moving on to extremely difficult movements.
For example, the progression for learning the clean movement is as follows:
- Front squat
- Old-style power clean (no hip bump)
- Hang clean
- Hang squat clean
- Squat clean
This progression from simple to more complex movements allows trainees to gradually master the quickness and agility needed to do the clean part of the clean and jerk.
It should be noted that power cleans alone are an outstanding training movement for athletes who want to build up coordinated body power. They have long been a mainstay in strength training for athletes in sports such as football, hockey, wrestling, etc.
Read more: Should Powerlifters Olympic Lifts?
One of the Best Olympic Lifts: The Overhead Press
Another lift that is rarely practiced but is one of the best power-building movements in the weight room is the overhead press.
The overhead press was eliminated from Olympic competition in 1972 because lifters had become so adept at bending the rules of performance that judging became nearly impossible.
When training for strength and fitness, a standing press can help the lifter learn the body control and technique needed to control a weight above their head.
The standard pressing movement in most gyms is done while sitting on a bench. This eliminates much of the athletic benefit of the lift by limiting the control that the lifter must maintain to successfully press the weight overhead.
As with the clean progression discussed above, I recommend using a similar approach to learning to lift barbells overhead.
Beginning lifters of any age can gradually master the technique needed to successfully put a heavy (for them) barbell overhead.
- Empty barbell presses from the shoulders
- Clean (from the floor) and press with light weights
- Clean and press using 2 rep sets with sub-max weight
- Clean and press singles
This can lead to mastering the movements needed to do the jerk movement, where the weight is explosively propelled overhead.
Powerlifting for Novice Lifters
Most lifting programs for beginners involve crude instruction in the bench press, squat, and deadlift. Unfortunately, many beginners learn very bad lifting techniques, and considerable effort is sometimes needed to correct their mistakes.
Building strength requires recruiting power from all the muscle groups in the body. This is rarely taught to fitness trainees.
In powerlifting, each of the lifts are “whole body lifts” where every muscle must be tight, and the mechanics of exerting force on the bar must be refined to produce maximum force.
Unfortunately, many trainees do the powerlifts with major parts of their bodies relaxed. This creates a situation much like a leak in a hydraulic system. Power dissipates quickly through the relaxed part of the body.
Training lifters on how to exert whole body tension in the power lifts involves training them to exert tension in many different positions. Isometric poses are very useful for this.
Over time lifters of any age can develop excellent lifting techniques and learn to lift heavy weights for them with perseverance and constant focus on doing the moves correctly.
Unfortunately, many don’t take the time or effort to learn how to generate their maximum power.
Read more: Why is Powerlifting Not in the Olympics?
Powerlifting vs. Olympic Lifters: Which Is Right For You?
For fitness trainees, there is no significant difference between the body strength you develop in one style of lifting versus the other. Each style of lifting requires a serious base of strength to perform at maximum.
Other sports, such as gymnastics, require major strength to perform even simple exercises.
The key to long-term success for athletes in any sport is to maximize the strength needed for your particular endeavor.
Each type of strength training can build a powerful body and be enjoyable to practice. The cool thing is that each offers a long progression of challenges from beginner to master.
Enjoy the journey!
About The Author
Richard Schuller is a retired scientist and lifelong athlete. He has competed in powerlifting for over 30 years at the national (USAPL) and international level (IPF). He helps men over age 50 get in great physical condition and reach their strength goals. He has coached athletes at all levels from beginner to international competitor. His books, free weekly newsletter, and online coaching services are available at MidLifeHardBody.com