Thinking about switching from powerlifting to weightlifting? Many people are interested in using the strength they’ve developed through powerlifting to become more explosive and compete in weightlifting – but how do we make the switch?
How To Switch From Powerlifting To Weightlifting in 9 Steps:
- Learn The Competition Requirements
- Increase Weightlifting Specificity In Your Training
- Increase The Frequency Of Weightlifting Movements
- Get The Right Gear
- Attain The Required Movement Capacities
- Prioritize The Right Accessory Movements
- Train The Technique Before Pushing The Weight
- Commit To 16 Weeks Of Weightlifting Programming
- Get Feedback
In this article I’ll explain the difference between powerlifting and weightlifting, discuss what movement capacities you need to have, and suggest which accessories to include to set you up for success.
What Is The Difference Between Powerlifting And Weightlifting?
- Competitions Lifts
- Force And Velocity Requirements
- Level Of Competition
Powerlifting involves the Squat, Bench, and Deadlift for its competition lifts; whereas Weightlifting or “Olympic Lifting” competes in the Snatch and the Clean + Jerk.
Both sports are designed with the goal of lifting as much weight as possible.
Force And Velocity Requirements
Powerlifting requires a high force output and less velocity. The goal in powerlifting is to move as much weight as possible, but the speed at which this is accomplished will be slower as it is a maximal load.
Research shows that weightlifting requires less overall force than Powerlifitng but has a higher velocity component because of the need for the athlete to maximally accelerate with the barbell, to pull themselves underneath of it. This acceleration coupled with the load of the barbell, results in an increased level of power output.
The interesting part is that “Powerlifting” actually requires less power than Weightlifting.
In short, Power is essentially just exerting force on the barbell to move it as quickly as possible – which is a major component of weightlifting and not so much powerlifting.
Level Of Competition
In Powerlifting, the highest award we can attain is the title of World Champion, which comes by winning the overall at the World Games. Powerlifting is not an Olympic Sport (yet!).
Weightlifting on the other hand, is an Olympic sport and the highest level you can achieve would be a Gold medal at the Olympics and the title of Olympic Champion.
Want to get advice on programming, technique, or competing? Speak with one of our coaches.
How To Switch From Powerlifting To Weightlifting In 9 Steps
1. Learn The Competition Requirements
The first step for switching from powerlifting to weightlifting is learning the competition lifts and what standards must be upheld in competition in order to be successful.
- Clean + Jerk
- General Guidelines
The first lift in a weightlifting competition is always the snatch.
The snatch is a lift that starts with the barbell on the ground and is lifted in a single motion to an overhead position. The bar is received overhead with arms fully extended, while the legs are either bent or split. The lifter must then finish the lifts in a standing position with legs and arms extended.
Clean + Jerk
The second and final lift in a weightlifting competition is a two-component lift called the Clean + Jerk.
The first portion of the movement is the clean, which requires the lifter to pull the bar from the ground, and receive it in the “front rack” position at the shoulders by either bending or splitting the legs. The lifter must come to a standing position in preparation for the second portion of the lift.
The second part of the movement is the jerk. The goal of this component is to get the barbell from the front rack position to a stable overhead position. The lifter will bend and then fully extend both the arms and the legs to receive the bar overhead. The arms and legs need to remain fully extended and the feet must be brought in line to complete the lift.
- When the referee gives the down command, the lifter must control the barbell down in front of the body and only release their grip once it has passed the level of the shoulders
- When receiving a snatch or a clean in the squat position, the lifter can bounce or rock to assist in the recovery and come to the standing position
- The lifter cannot touch the platform with any other body part than the feet
- Pressing out the arms is not permitted; the bar must be received overhead with fully extended arms
- The bar must be maintained overhead until the referee gives the “down” command
- The bar cannot touch the head of the lifer during the snatch
- The lifter’s arms or elbows cannot touch the knees or thighs when receiving a clean
If you're a powerlifter, and you simply want to try the weightlifting movements without having to switch sports entirely, then check out my article on Should Powerlifters Do Olympic Lifts?
2. Increase Weightlifting Specificity In Your Training
To switch to weightlifting we need to change certain aspects of our training to increase specificity.
- Squat Styles
- Pulling Positions
- Power Training
In Powerlifting, most lifters compete with the low bar squat, which is performed with the bar racked in a lower position on the back and is very hinge-dominant. This allows us to recruit the muscles of the posterior chain, which tend to be stronger muscles.
In Weightlifting, the squat components of the snatch and clean + jerk are performed in a more vertical position to minimize horizontal deviation of the bar; which makes the lift harder and less efficient.
To structure our training to accommodate these positions we should train using the high bar squat, front squat, and overhead squat which emphasize recruitment of the quadriceps, more than the posterior chain. I wrote an entire article on the Olympic squat vs Powerlifting squat.
Learn more about front squat technique and its benefits with our Ultimate Front Squat Guide
In Powerlifting, when deadlifting or “pulling”, the goal is to leverage the bar off the floor, keep the bar sliding up the legs, and lockout with the shoulders behind the bar and hips squeezed to the bar.
In contrast, in weightlifting, we are pulling the bar to mimic the clean and snatch pulls.
This requires us to start with the hips in a lower position (to emphasize driving through the legs), and to stop the pull just before the “power position” (where the bar makes contact with the hip, right before triple extension occurs), with the goal of leaving the shoulders over the bar and having the hips “closed” and not fully extended.
As we discussed earlier, weightlifting involves more powerful movements than powerlifting. To train this quality, we need to implement movements that challenge us to create force rapidly.
Research tells us that there are very strong correlations between weightlifting performance and measurements of rate of force development, isometric peak force, peak power and jump height, which are all qualities improved through power training.
We can conclude that increasing these measurements through the implementation of power training into our program, has the potential for us to perform better in the olympic lifts.
In powerlifting, we have the options of pulling double overhand, mixed grip, or hook grip.
In Weightlifting, it is most beneficial to pull hook grip (with the thumb squeezed between your fingers and the bar), to avoid losing grip on the bar as we pull ourselves underneath the snatch and the clean.
To learn more about grip, check out our guide on How To Maximize Your Deadlift Grip
3. Increase The Frequency Of Weightlifting Movements
Practicing the movements more often is critical for weightlifting as it is a very technique based sport. Learning the proper technique and body positions, specific to weightlifting, is only possible with repetition.
When switching from Powerlifting to Weightlifting, it is especially important to increase the frequency of overhead movements (strict press, push press, jerk, overhead squat, etc.). This is a position that powerlifters do not perform as often, but is required for both of the competition lifts in weightlifting.
That being said, you always want to progress gradually to avoid injury. By increasing the load and volume incrementally, we give the stabilizing muscles, the tendons, and the ligaments time to adjust to the increased demand. This allows them to become more resilient over time, rather than suddenly overloading these tissues and risking injury.
If you're thinking about doing more overhead presses, make sure to check out my article on Bench Press vs Overhead Press: Differences, Pros, Cons.
4. Get The Right Gear
- Weightlifting Belt
- Olympic Barbells and Bumper Plates
- Lifting Shoes
When switching to weightlifting you may need to trade in your powerlifting belt for a weightlifting belt. Belts for weightlifting are usually either velcro or tapered in the front to allow us to properly receive a clean without the bulk of the belt digging into our rib cage.
To learn which belt is right for you, check out our guide on Powerlifting Vs Weightlifting Belts
Olympic Barbells and Bumper Plates
Weightlifting bars differ from Powerlifting bars because they are built to rotate. The rotation is important so that we can pull under the bar in the olympic lifts without having to adjust our grip.
Weightlifting bars will also have more “whip”, which essentially means that they have more elasticity that allows the bar itself to create momentum. The momentum helps us to drive the bar upward.
Weightlifting also has a Women’s bar that weighs 15kg, and has a smaller diameter to accommodate grip issues that could occur when trying to hook grip on a larger bar.
When switching to Weightlifting it’s also beneficial to use bumper plates, because these plates are designed to be dropped.
Unlike in Powerlifting, in Weightlifting it is common practice to drop the weight upon completion of the lift; mostly to avoid injury that could occur from re-racking heavy weights from an overhead position.
While having access to an olympic bar and bumper plates is not necessary for success, it will definitely make life easier. Most strength-specific gyms will have this equipment on hand.
Most olympic lifters train and compete in lifting shoes. Lifters are designed with different heel heights to allow the athlete to get their knees further over their toes, which results in a better start position, and a more upright receiving position.
Check out our recommendations for The 5 Best Squat Shoes With The Highest Heel
5. Attain The Required Movements Capacities
To switch from Powerlifting to Weightlifting, we must have the proper movement capacities required to complete the snatch and clean + jerk. The most important capacities are the following:
- Shoulder Mobility/Stability
- Lat & Wrist Flexibility
- Thoracic Extension
- Hip Mobility/Stability
- Ankle Mobility
To achieve the overhead positions of the snatch and the jerk, we must have the mobility to get our arms overhead without restrictions. If we do not have sufficient mobility to complete this task, then other areas of the body will compensate for this deficit.
For example: If the lats are tight and prevent the arms from going comfortably overhead, it can cause the lower back to arch in an attempt to “achieve” the desired position. As you can imagine, a severely arched lower back paired with a heavy load overhead is not ideal for the health of your spine.
Along with the ability to get the arms to this overhead position, we need to be able to maintain this position as it is loaded. When a weight is overhead, we can control the weight by activating our stabilizing muscles.
If these muscles are not strong enough or are not able to recruit when we need them to, we won’t be able to control the bar and it could cause us to strain another muscle that tries to do a job that it would normally not be responsible for.
Lat & Wrist Flexibility
The latissimus dorsi (or “Lats”) and the wrists need to be mobile for us to successfully perform the “front rack position”. This is the position that we use when we front squat and, more importantly, when we receive a clean.
If we lack mobility in these areas, we will not be able to keep the elbows up without straining the wrists. If we let the elbows drop in the clean, then we drop the bar and miss the lift.
Check out my other article on the best wrist wraps.
Thoracic extension, as it relates to weightlifting, is the ability to stay upright through the thoracic spine when both arms are extended overhead. This is especially important in the snatch, when the bar is received in an overhead squat.
If we do not have the movement capacity to keep the thoracic spine extended in an overhead squat, it will severely compromise our overhead position and limit our ability to perform the snatch correctly.
We must have adequate hip mobility to catch the snatch and clean in a solid bottom position. To get the most out of our bottom position, we need to have sufficient hip flexion, external rotation and internal rotation.
For example: If our hip mobility is limited by external rotation, the hips will not be able to open up and create space to receive the bar in the clean.
Performing the Olympic lifts without this capacity will result in compensation at another joint and usually lead to injury.
Want to learn how to squat deeper? Check out these 9 Tips and Get Advice From Pro Powerlifters.
We’ve got the mobility, great! Now it’s time to stabilize.
Pulling ourselves under a heavy weight and successfully receiving it, requires a lot of stabilization from the lower body to maintain the proper position under load.
Most often what I’ll see is that lifters do not have enough hip stability to control the knees from coming inward into a valgus position when receiving the load in both the snatch and the clean.
This severely stresses the tendons and ligaments of the knees, especially with increased repetition of these improper movement patterns.
Struggling with knee valgus? Learn How To Fix Knee Valgus With These 7 Tips
Ankle mobility is the ability of the knees to travel forward over the toes while maintaining the heels on the ground. Ankle mobility is important to keep the body in a strong stacked position when we receive the snatch and the clean in the bottom positions, before standing.
If our ankle mobility is insufficient, we are forced to use our posterior chain by hinging (because the knees are restricted), rather than utilizing the quadriceps and staying upright. As you can imagine, the olympic lifts are quite difficult when our chest is towards the floor.
Weightlifting shoes can help to increase the forward knee position that happens naturally with adequate ankle mobility, but we cannot rely on these alone.
We need ankle mobility to be equal on both, because if one side is more mobile than the other, it can cause problems with the knees and hips over time and weightlifting shoes will not address this.
If you lack ankle mobility, your heels may rise from the floor while squatting. Check out my other article on How to Fix Heel Rise In The Squat.
6. Prioritize The Right Accessory Movements
- Shoulder Stability
- Core Stability
- Quad Focused Movements
- Power Progressions
As we discussed earlier, shoulder stability is an important factor in weightlifting because of the demand placed upon the shoulders in the overhead position. To stay “healthy” and decrease our risk of injury, we should prioritize exercises that strengthen our shoulder stability.
Some examples include:
When we catch a clean or a snatch in the bottom positions, we need to have a strong braced core position to keep from collapsing forward or into the hole. Because of the dynamic nature of weightlifting, we need to be able to brace our core as we move; which is why we should train the core movements with the same principles in mind.
Some examples include:
Quad Focused Leg Strength
The Olympic lifts require us to put more emphasis on quad strength because we need to drive through the legs, stay over the bar, triple extend, and catch the bar in an upright position.
This differs from powerlifting where we tend to shift the weight backwards, and use more of our posterior chain to lockout the hips.
To emphasize the quads, we can keep the knees forward while performing the following:
- Knee-Dominant Split Squats
- Eccentric Focused Heel Taps
- Cossack Squats
Need more instruction on the cossack squat? Check out our guide on How To Do The Cossack Squat
Increasing our rate of force development can be accomplished by including more explosive movements.
My favorites include:
7. Train The Technique Before Increasing The Weight
Technique is the key to success in weightlifting because without it, no matter how strong we are, we will not lift as much weight and we will be more prone to injury.
In weightlifting, the mindset should be to earn the next progression. If we’re snatching and we increase the weight but our technique is falling apart, then we should go back down in weight. We haven’t mastered the technique to have earned that weight yet.
The focus needs to be on technical proficiency instead of the weight on the bar to be successful long term, and to avoid backtracking to deal with bad movement patterns.
Related Article: Powerlifting vs Strongman: 12 Differences
8. Commit To 16 Weeks Of Weightlifting Programming
To become successful in the Olympic lifts, we need to spend an adequate amount of time dedicated to practicing the competition lifts, and the accessories that compliment them. Dedicating at least 16 weeks to a weightlifting-style program is what is recommended to see progress.
That being said, a better way to gauge our progress could be by evaluating our stages of learning. According to Fitts and Posner, there are 3 stages to skill acquisition and learning motor patterns. The stages are: the cognitive stage, the associative stage, and the autonomous stage.
The cognitive stage is the first stage, which is when we first start weightlifting and we are learning what to do and how to do it. This stage is characterized by lots of mistakes, and lack of consistency in technique.
The associative stage is the second stage that occurs when our technique starts to improve. This stage is associated with less technical errors, the ability to recognize when our technique is “off” but are not fully able to identify why. We understand how to apply some cues, and we become more consistent.
The final stage is the autonomous stage, which is when we can perform the lift correctly without thinking as much about our technique. We are able to identify exactly what we did wrong and have the ability to fix it.
We will all move through these stages at our own pace; therefore, there is no strict timeline. Many people may never get to this final stage of skill acquisition in weightlifting by themselves, as it is a complex sport; this is why most athletes have a coach.
9. Get Feedback
Because of the technical nature of weightlifting, it is important to assess our technique through video feedback.
This external feedback can help us to determine if we are in the right positions (too hinged), if our timing needs work (too fast off the floor or too slow in the extension), or if there is a movement pattern that is breaking down (knees caving in).
Video analysis combined with a coach’s eye is even better. Having a knowledgeable weightlifting coach is a powerful resource. Their value can come from providing programming or simply giving feedback on our technique to assess where our focus should be.
Switching from Powerlifting to Weightlifting is a process, but having built a foundation of strength through powerlifting gives us a head start in the learning process. If we can develop the movement capacities, learn the technique, pick the right accessories and stay dedicated, who knows how far we could go in the sport!
Related Article: How To Switch From Bodybuilding To Powerlifting (9 Steps)