Weightlifting, also called Olympic-style weightlifting, or Olympic weightlifting, is an athletic discipline in the modern Olympic programme in which the athlete attempts a maximum-weight single lift of a barbell loaded with weight plates.

The two competition lifts in order are the snatch and the clean and jerk. Each weightlifter receives three attempts in each, and the combined total of the highest two successful lifts determines the overall result within a bodyweight category. Bodyweight categories are different for women and men. A lifter who fails to complete at least one successful snatch and one successful clean and jerk also fails to total, and therefore receives an “incomplete” entry for the competition. The clean and press was once a competition lift, but was discontinued due to difficulties in judging proper form.

In comparison with other strength sports, which test limit strength (with or without lifting aids), Weightlifting tests aspects of human ballistic limits (explosive strength); the lifts are therefore executed faster—and with more mobility and a greater range of motion during their execution—than other strength movements. Properly executed, the snatch and the clean and jerk are both dynamic and explosive while appearing graceful, especially when viewed from a recording at a slowed speed.

While there are relatively few competitive Olympic weightlifters, the lifts performed in the sport of weightlifting, and in particular their component lifts (e.g. squats, deadlifts, cleans), are commonly used by elite athletes in other sports to train for both explosive and functional strength.


Competition to establish who can lift the heaviest weight has been recorded throughout civilization, with the earliest known recordings including those found in Egypt, China and ancient Greece. Today, the modern sport of weightlifting traces its origins to the European competitions of the 19th century.

The first male world champion was crowned in 1891. Women’s competition did not exist, and the weightlifters were not categorized by height or weight.

Early Olympic

The first Olympic Games of 1896 included weightlifting in the Field event of the predecessor to today’s track and field or athletics event. During the 1900 Olympic Games, there was no weightlifting event. Weightlifting resumed as an event, again in athletics, in 1904 but was omitted from the Games of 1908 and 1912. These were the last Games until after the First World War. In these early Games, a distinction was drawn between lifting with ‘one hand’ only and lifting with ‘two hands’. The winner of the ‘one hand’ competition in 1896 was Launceston Elliot, while the winner of the ‘two hands’ event was Viggo Jensen of Denmark.[3]

In 1920, weightlifting returned to the Olympics and, for the first time, as an event in its own right. At these Games, which took place in Antwerp, Belgium, fourteen nations competed. The competition lifts were the ‘one hand’ snatch, the ‘one hand’ clean and jerk and the ‘two hands’ clean and jerk. At the next Olympic Games, in Paris, France, in 1924, the ‘two hands’ press and the ‘two hands’ snatch were added to the programme, making a total of five lifts.

In the Olympic Games after 1920, instead of requiring all competitors to compete against each other regardless of size, weight classes were introduced and, by the 1932 Olympic Games, weightlifting was divided into five weight divisions.

In 1928, the sport dropped the ‘one hand’ exercises altogether leaving only the three remaining exercises: the clean and press, the snatch and the clean and jerk.

Modern Olympic

By 1972, the clean and press was discontinued because athletes started to push with legs and bend backwards instead of strictly pressing the weight overhead, and this left the sole elements of what is today’s modern Olympic weightlifting programme – the snatch and the clean and jerk. The snatch consists of lifting the barbell from the floor to an overhead position in one fluid motion. It is a very precise lift that can be nullified by a lack of balance of the athlete. The clean and jerk consists of moving the barbell from the floor to overhead in 2 movements: from the floor to the shoulders, and from the shoulders to overhead.

Women’s Olympic

As early as 1987, there were official world championships awarded to women weightlifters such as Karyn Marshall and Judy Glenney. However, it was not until the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia that an official Olympic competition for women was introduced.

In 2011 the International Weightlifting Federation ruled that athletes could wear a full-body “unitard” under the customary weightlifting uniform. Kulsoom Abdullah became the first woman to do so at the U.S. National Championships that year, and athletes are allowed to do so at the Olympics. IWF rules previously stated that an athlete’s knees and elbows must be visible so officials can determine if a lift is correctly executed.


The sport is controlled by the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF). Based in Budapest, it was founded in 1905.

Weight classes

Athletes compete in a division determined by their body mass. There are eight male divisions and seven female divisions since 1998.

Men’s weight classes:

  • 56 kg (123 lb)
  • 62 kg (137 lb)
  • 69 kg (152 lb)
  • 77 kg (170 lb)
  • 85 kg (187 lb)
  • 94 kg (207 lb)
  • 105 kg (231 lb)
  • 105 kg and over (231 lb+)

Women’s weight classes:

  • 48 kg (106 lb)
  • 53 kg (117 lb)
  • 58 kg (128 lb)
  • 63 kg (139 lb)
  • 69 kg (152 lb)
  • 75 kg (165 lb)
  • 75 kg and over (165 lb+)

Official procedure

In each weight division, lifters compete in both the snatch and clean and jerk. Prizes are usually given for the heaviest weights lifted in each and in the overall—the maximum lifts of both combined. The order of the competition is up to the lifters—the competitor who chooses to attempt the lowest weight goes first. If they are unsuccessful at that weight, they have the option of reattempting at that weight or trying a heavier weight after any other competitors have made attempts at the previous weight or any other intermediate weights. The barbell is loaded incrementally and progresses to a heavier weight throughout the course of competition. Weights are set in 1 kilogram increments. When a tie occurs, the athlete with the lower bodyweight is declared the winner. If two athletes lift the same total weight and have the same bodyweight, the winner is the athlete who lifted the total weight first.

During competition, the snatch event takes place first, followed by a short intermission, and then the clean and jerk event. There are two side judges and one head referee who together provide a “successful” or “failed” result for each attempt based on their observation of the lift within the governing body’s rules and regulations. Two successes are required for any attempt to pass. Usually, the judges’ and referee’s results are registered via a lighting system with a white light indicating a “successful” lift and a red light indicating a “failed” lift. This is done for the benefit of all in attendance be they athlete, coach, administrator or audience. In addition, one or two technical officials may be present to advise during a ruling.

Local competition rules

At local competitions, a “Best Lifter” title is commonly awarded. It is awarded to both the best men’s and women’s lifters. The award is based on a formula which employs the “Sinclair Coefficient”, a coefficient derived and approved by the sport’s world governing body and which allows for differences in both gender and bodyweight. When the formula is applied to each lifter’s overall total and then grouped along with the other competitors’ and evaluated, it provides a numeric result which determines the competition’s best overall men’s and women’s lifters. And while, usually, the winner of the heaviest weight class will have lifted the most overall weight during the course of a competition, a lifter in a lighter weight class may still have lifted more weight both relative to his or her own bodyweight, and to the Sinclair coefficient formula, thereby garnering the “Best Lifter” award.



Olympic weightlifting uses a steel bar (also known as a barbell) with larger-diameter rotating sleeves on either end, holding rubber-coated discs of different weights. This sleeve rotation is important for the Olympic lifts, particularly the snatch and clean movements, because it drastically reduces the rotational inertia of the plates. Without sleeve rotation, the Olympic lifter faces more challenging lifts and a greater risk of injury.

A men’s Olympic barbell weighs 20 kg (44 lbs) with a shaft diameter of 28mm and a length of 2200mm, whereas a women’s Olympic barbell weighs 15 kg (33 lbs) and has a shaft diameter of 25mm with a length of 2010mm. The distance between the sleeves, however, is the same for the men’s and the women’s bars at 1310mm. The grip texture of the bar is called the knurling, and is distributed differently between the men’s and women’s bars: the men’s has knurling in the centre but the women’s does not. The Olympic barbells used in competition are certified by the IWF.

Bumper plates

The weight plates, typically referred to as “bumper plates” because of their rubber design, weigh between 0.5 kg and 25 kg. The bumper plates are constructed out of rubber to allow the weights to be dropped from various heights—either after a successful lift or during an unsuccessful one. Olympic bumper plates conform to international standards for colouring. That is, 10 kg is green, 15 kg is yellow, 20 kg is blue, and 25 kg is red.

Competition iron plates

In addition to the rubber bumpers, smaller competition iron plates can be used to add weight in small increments to the bar. The colour designations for these iron plates are as follows: 1 kg is green, 1.5 kg is yellow, 2 kg is blue, 2.5 kg is red, 5 kg and 0.5 kg are white. It is useful to note the colour assignment of these iron plates is consistent with the heavier bumper plates (i.e. 1 kg and 10 kg are green, 1.5 kg and 15 kg are yellow, etc.).


Weight plates are secured to the bar using collars on each sleeve that weigh exactly 2.5 kg each.


Lifters typically wear a one-piece, close-fitting leotard often called a singlet. The wearing of a T-shirt underneath the singlet is optional.


A weightlifting belt of 120mm maximum width may also be worn to provide lower back support.


Chalk is regularly used by Olympic lifters, generally prior to each attempt at a lift. Lifters rub their hands with the chalk to promote dryness and prevent the bar moving in their hands. In addition to the hands, chalk can be applied to the neck, usually above the collarbone, which is a key point of contact for the bar during a clean and jerk.


Olympic lifters frequently use tape to cover the areas of their bodies exposed to friction while completing Olympic lifts. Tape is most commonly found on the Olympic lifter’s thumb. A taped thumb not only lessens the risk of calluses, it reduces the pain associated with the hook grip.

Olympic lifters also tape their wrists, preventing exaggerated and uncomfortable joint movement during lifts. For particularly heavy overhead lifts, a taped wrist enables the lifter to regulate wrist extension and delimit the translation of the radius and ulna distal heads. However, while taped wrists can prevent wrist and forearm injuries in the short-term, excessive use can lead to weakened connective tissue in the area, increasing the risk of pain and injury.


Perhaps the type of shoes worn by Olympic weightlifters is their most distinctive piece of equipment. Weightlifting shoes are typically designed with a raised heel of 0.5″ to 1.5″ and one or two metatarsal straps that tighten across the instep of the shoe. The raised heel helps the lifter maintain an upright torso while catching the bar and also allows for a deeper squat under the bar. The soles of the shoes are also quite rigid, helping to resist compression while under heavy loads. The shoes are designed for maximum stability while remaining flexible in the “toebox”. This allows the lifter to come up on the toes and to catch the weight on the ball of the back foot during the “jerk” movement of the lift.

From Antiquity to the 19th Century

Modern weightlifting history officially begins on March 28, 1891, when the first weightlifting World Championships were held in London, where 7 athletes representing 6 countries took part. Unofficially, the story goes way back, when people paid to see gigantic men demonstrating their physical power in public places (parks, public squares, etc). According to people’s testimonies, Canadian Louis Sur lifted a 669kg wagon in 1880. American Walter Kennedy lifted from the ground a sphere weighing 600kg, while Czech Anton Richa held over him a weight of 854kg.

Weightlifting competitions began to take place in USA since 1860. Ten years later the sport became known in Europe; the first weightlifting clubs were set up in Paris and in Brussels.

The first official weightlifting competition in Greece was held in 1888 during the 4th Zappas Olympiad, at the Central Gymnasium in Omonia. As Paulos Manitakis mentions in his book “100 years of Greek sports 1830-1930”, “in one-hand lift, Anastassios Philadelpheus from Athens came up first and Lazaros Moussiou second. In two-hand lift, Lazaros Moussiou (a hair dresser from Spetses) came up first and Ioannis Tsepetakis second”. Those three pioneering weightlifters also competed in other events. Tsepetakis took the first place in shot put, Moussiou came up second in pole vault and Philadelpheus second in climbing.

At the first modern Olympic Games in 1896, weightlifting moved from town squares to stadiums. The Weightlifting Organizing Committee decided to include weightlifting among the nine Olympic events. Qualifying games were held in Greece aiming to form a national team that would represent the country at the Olympics. Sotiris Versis and Alexandros Nikolopoulos qualified for one-hand lift. Sotiris Versis and Georgios Papasideris dominated the two-hand lift.

According to the official records of the first Olympics, indicted by Timoleon Filimon, N. Politis and H. Anninos, the event was held, fifth in a row, on March 26, 1896, on the second day of the games. Eight athletes participated; Viggo Jensen from Denmark and Launceston Elliot from Britain took first and second place respectively.

The two Greeks came up third. Sotiris Versis of Panellinios GS lifted 100kg in two-hand lift. Born in 1875 he was an all-around athlete. He also competed in discus finishing third with 27.78m. Member of a wealthy Athenian family, Versis practiced shooting as a hobby. In 1896, he was into commercial studies. Later he worked in the stock market. He died in 1918 at the age of 43 struck by Asiatic influenza. Alexandros Nikolopoulos, a medical student from Messinia, came up third with 57,2kg in one-hand lift.

Greece played a decisive role in establishing weightlifting as an Olympic event. On the other hand, the French did not include weightlifting in the program of Paris Olympics in 1900. Reinstated in St Louis (1904) and Athens (1906 Mid-Olympics) weightlifting was excluded from London (1908) and Stockholm (1912) Olympics.

Weightlifting in Antiquity

ancientAlthough weightlifting is considered to be the main sport of strength and vigour, it was not included in the programme of the Olympic Games in ancient years. Since that time, weightlifting became a way of demonstrating physical strength. Greeks treated top weightlifters as half-gods. Milon of Kroton, whose athletic achievements Pausanias extols in his work “Iliaka”, is a perfect example. He was not the strongest though. Elianos records that Titormos of Etolia carried a huge rock, which Milon could barely lift. When he saw Titormos carrying the rock, Milon exclaimed: “Zeus, have you sent us a second Hercules?”

In an Egyptian royal tomb, people are depicted lifting bags loaded with sand. Nevertheless, there is no written evidence suggesting an athletic competition.

On the other hand, in Greece, at Pelopio of Ilia, a site near Ancient Olympia, a 143,5kg stone was found dating back to the 6th century BC, where one could easily read the inscription: “Vyvon lifted me with one hand over his head”! Not only the inscription but also the fact that the stone was carved so that the athlete could grab it, suggest that Vyvon won a weightlifting competition.

Although French historian Raymond Vanker once wrote that modern athletes could lift heavier weights, it remains an amazing athletic feat given the fact that no athlete in our days is strong enough to lift a 143,5kg stone with one hand.

Vyvon’s stone is exhibited at the museum of Ancient Olympia.

An achievement almost beyond physical power is recorded on a huge 480kg stone, found in Thira (Santorini). According to the inscription, Eumastas, son of Kritovoulos, lifted that stone from the ground. The assumption that Eumastas probably used both hands to lift 480kg few centimeters off the ground does not lessen his achievement.

The most important proof that even though weightlifting was not included in major athletic games, every Greek city-state held its own weightlifting competitions (“domestic games”) can be found in Wurzburg Museum in Germany. A cup (dating back to 500 BC) similar to those that ancient Greeks, Athenians in particular, awarded to winners, presents a young man lifting two stones. This young man is considered to be the winner of a weightlifting competition.

It is therefore confirmed that weightlifting constituted an athletic event in ancient years. The attempt of ancient Greeks to combine strength with velocity and flexibility was probably the main reason why they chose not to include it in the Olympic Games. Nevertheless, all athletes used to practice weightlifting as a training exercise.

As Filostratos once wrote: “Old gymnastics aimed to enhance physical strength. Athletes used to lift big weights in order to become stronger”.