Weightlifting for Athletes

As someone who works as both a weightlifting and strength & conditioning coach, I find myself pretty uniquely positioned to talk about how weightlifting movements can be integrated into the training of athletes.

In this article, we’re going to start by clarifying which physical characteristics weightlifting movements actually develop, and why these are beneficial for performance.  We’re then going to review some key considerations to help you decide whether weightlifting movements are right for you as an athlete, and provide some practical recommendations for implementation.

Let’s get started, shall we?

What does weightlifting develop?

From the research I’ve read and conducted, and from coaching experience, I can say pretty confidently that weightlifting movements develop two things…

1) Lower body power and explosiveness

Weightlifting movements are classic examples of speed-strength, which is the ability to move very quickly with the maximum load possible (not to be confused with strength-speed).  

From a practical performance standpoint this translates to bigger jumps, faster sprints and quicker accelerations.  In fact, there’s a decent research body supporting their usage as superior to traditional resistance training and kettlebell training for improving the squat jump, countermovement jump, sprint time and maximal squat strength.

2) Body awareness and athleticism

Being able to control the position of your body around a dynamically moving barbell requires great motor control.

If you consider a full snatch, for instance, you have to initiate the movement, accelerate the bar, triple extend (at the ankles, knees, hips) and then change direction, aggressively moving into flexion to catch the barbell overhead, where you then have to stabilise it and stand up.  That’s a lot to do in a movement that lasts less than 1 second.

3) What about strength?

Where I’m a little more cautious is in saying that weightlifting movements develop strength, which is often something that athletes assume they do.   

The reality is that good strength training requires maximal or near-maximal force application, which simply isn’t possible in the weightlifting movements as they are constrained by speed demands.  What I mean by this is that you can ‘grind out’ a set of heavy squats or deadlifts, allowing barbell velocity to drop considerably whilst still pushing really hard against the bar.  This is something you just can’t do in weightlifting movements.

Plus, you’ve got to consider that the weightlifting movements are often dropped after completion, removing the eccentric (lowering) component that is a key part of the strength and hypertrophy mechanism.

So whilst I would say that you can develop some strength through weightlifting movements alone, they’re not the most efficient way to do so on their own, and are best supplemented with some squats and deadlifts.

Is weightlifting right for me?

Assuming that you want to develop power, explosiveness and athleticism for your sport, there are three things you need to consider when deciding whether or not to use the weightlifting movements.

1) Your level of lifting experience

Look, I would LOVE for anyone to be able to jump into weightlifting and reap the benefits, but I’ve also got to be honest with you.  If you’re brand new to the gym, or have little lifting experience, you’re going to have a really hard time with them.

  • Being able to perform a successful clean is significantly easier if you already know how to deadlift, front squat and overhead press.
  • Being able to snatch is significantly easier if you know how to deadlift and overhead squat.
  • And both movements are much easier if you’ve spent some time developing a base of general strength to build from.

As a rule of thumb, I would say that you’ll get the most out of the olympic lifts if you’ve already spent 3-6 months in the gym learning the basics of barbell movements (squats, deadlifts, presses etc).

2) Mobility and injuries

100% honesty, having good full-body mobility and no major injuries are prerequisites for the full snatch and clean & jerk.  Lack of range of motion in the ankles, hips, thoracic spine or shoulders almost always leads to pretty dodgy movement patterns.

With that said, mobility limitations and injuries don’t have to be a deal-breaker for weightlifting.  All they mean is that you have to pick suitable weightlifting movement variations.  For example:

  • If you have really tight ankles and hips, you could use power snatches and power cleans where you catch the bar higher and don’t have to go down into a deep squat.
  • Or if you have shoulder issues you could use snatch and clean pulls or high pulls, where you get all the benefits of aggressive acceleration and hip extension, but you don’t have to catch a barbell on your shoulders or overhead.

3) Logistics and Space

Not something that everyone initially considers, but these are really important factors in deciding if the weightlifting movements are right for you.

  • If you train in a crowded gym with little room around you, it’s probably a bad idea to go throwing heavy weights overhead.
  • Or, if your gym doesn’t have the right equipment (weightlifting bar, bumper plates and platform) then it just won’t be possible.

So make sure that your gym has the right space and equipment.

Practical Recommendations: Where Should I Start?

If you’ve considered all three of the factors I just mentioned and you’re keen to give the weightlifting movements a try, then I’ve got a few actionable pieces of advice to get you started.

1) Practice the movements frequently

When learning any new skill, regular practice is key, I recommend at least 2-3 times per week.

2) Do the movements first in your sessions

Since the weightlifting movements are technically complex, put them first in your sessions so that you’re both physically and mentally fresh.

3) Start light

Don’t let your ego get the better of you.  Start lighter and gradually add weight as your technique improves.  Trust me, it’s better to learn it properly at the start than have to unlearn bad habits later.

4) Break the movements down

Rather than only trying to perform the full movements over and over again, try breaking them down into smaller, more manageable chunks.  So instead of full cleans you could try clean pulls, power cleans, hang or block power cleans, hang cleans and other close variations.

*Pro-Tip:  If you’re unsure of the terminology, catalyst athletics has a full library of exercises and descriptions.

An example beginners protocol

I used this exact plan with ~20 rugby players as part of my masters’ research, and we saw some truly RIDICULOUS improvements in sprint speed, jump height, jump distance and rate of force development at the end of it.

example weightlifting plan for atheltes

Each phase was 2 weeks long, so the programme took 6 weeks in total, and we ran this session twice per week, typically followed up by 3 sets of 4-6 reps of front or back squats and a little core work.

As you can see…

  • Phase 1 focuses on clean pulls and clean high pulls from the block, as these are simple weightlifting movements.
  • Phase 2 keeps what was done in phase 1, but adds in a power clean as part of a combination lift.  So there’s a little more complexity, but the weight of that combo is much lighter to allow for good technique.
  • And then phase 3 adds in heavier hang cleans and higher rep power cleans, which are more technically demanding.

So you have this gradual progression of technical difficulty, whilst still allowing for large amounts of work to be completed.

Trust me, in weeks 5 and 6 when you’re completing 10+ sets of weightlifting movements at 90% + intensity, followed by squats, you’ll know what hard training feels like.

Wrapping everything up

Weightlifting movements can be a great tool for athletes, provided that you’ve got the right training ability, equipment/space, and you’re ready to adapt exercises around mobility limitations if required.  To get started, put movements first in your workouts, start with lighter weights and simpler variations, and progress complexity over time.

Or for more articles check out our beginner weightlifting guide. If you’ve got any questions or comments, pop them down below, or feel free to email me at [email protected]. Or if you want to learn more about equipment, check out our best weightlifting shoes article.

And if you want more info on weightlifting movement execution, check out our guides on how to power snatch and how to power clean.

‘Til Next Time


Further Reading

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • Parry, A (2021). Weightlifting for AthletesAvailable from: https://sportscienceinsider.com/weightlifting-for-athletes/. [Accessed dd/mm/yyyy].

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Alex Parry header image
Alex Parry
British Weightlifting Tutor & Educator at Character Strength & Conditioning | Website | + posts

Alex is the Owner and Head Coach of Character Strength & Conditioning, and specialises in strength & power development for athletes.

He currently works as a Tutor & Educator for British Weightlifting, and has previously delivered S&C support to gymnastics and swimming talent pathways.