the joy of strength training

Gubernatrix

October 17th, 2010 at 11:49 pm

What’s the difference between powerlifting, olympic weightlifting and strongman?

Mikhail Koklyaev snatching

Mikhail Koklyaev, arguably the only man on the planet who is world class in all these sports

The short answer

I have been asked this question many times! The quickest way to explain is to describe the events, as anyone who is interested enough to ask has probably seen some in action:

  • Powerlifting is the squat, bench press and deadlift.
  • Olympic weightlifting is the snatch and the clean & jerk.
  • Strongman is a variety of events such as atlas stones, farmer’s walk, log clean and press, carrying/loading medley.

So much for the 30 second answer. But there’s much more to it than that!

What are powerlifting, weightlifting and strongman and why do people care?

They are all strength sports. You can do them competitively or just do them in the gym. In fact many studio gyms, Crossfit affiliates and internet gurus now regularly feature moves and skills from these sports in their programmes (such as power clean or farmers walk) and naturally people are curious as to where they come from.

Incidentally these are not the only strength sports. Others include all-round weightlifting, highland games, grip, arm wrestling, girevoy sport (kettlebells) and the heavy athletics events of hammer, shot put, discus, javelin and weight pentathlon (although these are also in their own category of ‘throwing sports’).

You won’t see any of these on television in the UK however as the British media is obsessed with team sports, motor sports and running (and once every four years the ‘sitting down’ sports of cycling, rowing and sailing). But that’s a rant for another time… [Update: since this post was written, strongman is back on terrestrial TV in the UK, hurrah! ]

Laurence Shahlaei log lift at World's Strongest Man

Big Loz representing Britain

Isn’t ‘weightlifting’ just lifting weights?

Technically, weightlifting is the sport of the snatch and the clean & jerk. However most people use ‘weightlifting’ as a generic term to mean any lifting of a weight. So those involved in the sport of weightlifting have taken to referring to it as olympic weightlifting or even olympic lifting, as it is the only weight lifting sport that features in the Olympics.

What about bodybuilding?

Bodybuilding involves lifting weights, but the goal is aesthetic, not a performance goal. The competition is about who has the most pleasing physique, not who is the strongest or fastest.

So the lifts are different – what else?

These sports test different types of strength. Powerlifting tests absolute strength as the bar is moved a relatively short distance in a relatively uncomplicated manner, making these events the heaviest in terms of poundage.The powerlifting events are sometimes referred to as the slow lifts, because you simply have to move a weight from point A to point B in whatever time it takes. Sometimes the lift can grind out for several seconds.

Andy Bolton deadlifting

World record holder Andy Bolton deadlifting an extremely heavy bar

In olympic weightlifting the bar must be moved at speed. The bar starts on the floor and is pulled up to waist height but then the lifter must drop under the bar at speed in order to catch it overhead. For this reason olympic weightlifting has the reputation of being the most technically difficult of the three sports.

Dmitry Klokov different stages of the snatch

Dmitry Klokov in different phases of the snatch

In strongman, all types of strength are tested – strength, strength-speed, endurance, grip, even cardiovascular conditioning, over a full day of several events. Usually the winner is the competitor who is the most consistent, the best all-rounder.

Don’t you have to be huge to do powerlifting, weightlifting or strongman?

Chen Xiexia 48kg female weightlifter

Chen Xiexia of China, under 48kg gold medal winner in Beijing

No, not at all. They are all weight class sports, like boxing or martial arts, so it doesn’t matter what weight you are, you will fit into one of the categories. As an example, in weightlifting the women’s categories start at under 48kg, and the men’s start at under 56kg.

Strongman is a bit different. It used to be that competitions were just ‘open’, i.e. no weight classes. However weight classes such as under 105kg and under 90kg have been introduced, giving the lighter guys a chance to be competitive. Strongwoman still tends to be ‘open’ but there have been under 75kg competitions [Another update: these days you’ll find weight classes in strongwoman too; a popular split is -63kg, -75kg and Open].

How do you learn these sports?

With all of these sports, you will progress better with a coach and training partners, just as in any sport. In the UK, there are many gyms which specialise in one or more of these sports. They don’t advertise in the way that chain gyms do, so you might think they don’t exist. But they are there – in fact, I am willing to bet there is at least one in your town!

Any decent powerlifting, strongman or weightlifting gym will have experienced lifters – usually the owner of the gym and the regulars – who will be happy to show a newcomer the ropes and find a group for them to train with.

Don’t worry if you feel that you are ‘not that strong’. Experienced lifters don’t look for great strength in newbies; they look for attitude and work ethic.

There are also many online resources, including this website! I have a range of articles on lifting technique and many stories of my experiences in competitive strength sports. There’s also a list of useful links at the bottom of this post.

Can you learn olympic weightlifting from videos?

Yes and no. You can learn enough to get started and have a bit of fun – and often that is all people are interested in. But you need a real live coach to learn the lifts properly.

It’s a sport in which you need a lot of feedback on your movement, particularly in the early stages. Watching a video will tell you what the movement should look like and give you some drills but it will tell you nothing about what you are actually doing. Which might be some way from the video!

A full-length teaching video such as Dan John’s ‘Olympic Lifting for Beginners’ is the best option if you don’t have access to a coach or club.

Here are some ideas to get you started: olympic weightlifting – starting out

What about elite competition?

If you want to win an Olympic medal you will need to take up weightlifting as that is the only one that is currently an Olympic sport. Athletes with a disability compete in Paralympic powerlifting, which is the bench press only.

Natalie Blake paralympic powerlifter at Beijing

GB powerlifter Natalie Blake prepares for the bench press in Beijing. She benches over twice her bodyweight.

Globally, olympic lifting is the best organised sport as it has a single international federation, the IWF. Each country has a national governing body. In the UK, this is BWLA. If you want to get into competition, compete nationally and perhaps even represent your country, you will need to join your national federation and start lifting in their competitions.

Powerlifting has a glut of international federations; most people compete in one, maybe two. So there’s no single powerlifting competition where all the world’s best powerlifters lift against each other (apart from paraylmpic powerlifting). In your country, there may be several federations. I’ve lost count of how many there are in the UK – it’s at least five!

Strongman has no single international federation either, but the World’s Strongest Man brand is the best known competition. There are others though, including the Arnold and Fortissimus. In the UK, most strongman competitions are put on by individuals and you don’t have to be a member of a club or federation to compete in them. You just put your name down and pay the entry fee.

How do I get involved?

Like any sport, the best way to get involved is to find a local club and join it. Strength sports are minority sports in the UK, so don’t be surprised if you have to dig around for information or travel a bit further to find your nearest club. The upside is that you’ll probably be welcomed with open arms – all minority sports love new members!

Videos

Powerlifting – IPF promotional video

Weightlifting – Andrei Aramnau at the Beijing olympics

Strongman – Pudzianowski and Savickas in the final of WSM 2009

Useful forums (UK only)

Sugden Barbell – strongman, powerlifting and weightlifting
Powerlifting UK – powerlifting and strongman
Powerlifting UK’s list of powerlifting gyms (not exhaustive but somewhere to start)
Muscletalk – bodybuilding, powerlifting and strongman

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  • 1

    I don’t think I would have ever learned the O-lifts without a coach my first time. It also takes one’s own learning to improve their movement quality. I’ve only become better for reading more on the sport and examining elite athletes’ videos.

    Secondly, learning from one coach and another can create a bit of conflict. I’ve heard 3 coaches describe the lifts differently, but I could only really understand what works best for me through testing and evaluating.

    Niel on October 18th, 2010
  • 2

    Off topic, but the contact form does not work for me …

    Are you aware of the Dan John interviews that are up on startingstrength.com ? About 2 hours worth of video, they made me buy his book 😉

    Juergen on October 18th, 2010
  • 3

    It is sad indeed when a country places snooker and golf above that of strongman… such that strongman doesn’t even get shown at Xmas.

    sumoman on October 18th, 2010
  • 4

    […] What’s the difference between powerlifting, olympic weightlifting and strongman? […]

  • 5

    Juergen, thanks a lot for pointing that out! I have now installed a new contact form which can be accessed from the main menu at the top right.

    I was also not aware of those Dan John interviews, so thanks too for letting us know.

    gubernatrix on October 18th, 2010
  • 6

    […] Rest WOD Rest CF Football Here CF Endurance Here (Ladies) How to Get Stronger Without Getting Bulky What’s the Difference Between Powerlifting, Olympic Weightlifting and Strongman? 5 Misconceptions About Posture How Well Do You Know Your CrossFit Abbreviations? October 30th, […]

  • 7

    […] entertainment is that of golf and snooker… such that strongman doesn’t even feature at Xmas. But one must soldier […]

  • 8

    […] What’s the difference between powerlifting, olympic weightlifting and strongman? […]

  • 9

    hi again,gubes i am booked on the UKSCA olympic lifting course on mar 17/18 this year, already done the foundation lvl 1 course and my REPS lvl 2 GI, have you done this and any thought about prep for it.

    The foundation course was really good i thought.

    cheers TT

    tentigers on February 12th, 2012
  • 10

    Hiya TT,

    I haven’t done the UKSCA course. I am doing Giles Greenwood’s new Weightlifting Instructor course in March-April (see http://www.greenwoodweightlifting.com).

    Giles’ prerequisites for his course are the ability to correctly perform an overhead squat, a front squat and a deadlift, so that’s as good advice as any for preparing for a weightlifting course.

    gubernatrix on February 12th, 2012
  • 11

    that looks good, the UKSCA one is probably a little less indepth i would imagine as its over 2 days not four!!

    all the same i am looking forward to it, i am alright on the overhead squat and deadlift, need a little work on my front squats mainly elbow position lol, but i’ll practice it .

    cheers TT

    tentigers on February 13th, 2012
  • 12

    Yes, Giles’ is the most in-depth course available AFAIK. However I am sure the UKSCA one will be fine – and anyway you are not London-based are you? So useful to be able to do one closer to home.

    gubernatrix on February 13th, 2012
  • 13

    What a fantastic blog! I stumbled across it because Mark Clegg publicised it through MuscleTalk (where I’m a regular). I’m a bodybuilder by heart but am really getting into the idea of Powerlifting and Olympic Weightlifting. I’ve already done Strongwoman but again suffer due to the lack of u75kg competitors in the country. I’ll definitely add you to my blogroll!

    Flick Williams on May 31st, 2012
  • 14

    Thanks Flick! Good luck with your lifting. It’s all there to have a go at!

    gubernatrix on May 31st, 2012
  • 15

    […] What’s the difference between powerlifting, olympic weightlifting and strongman? […]

  • 16

    TRAINING WITH WEIGHTS BUILDS STRENGTH.
    I USED TO BE A WEIGHT LIFTER AND POWER LIFTER.
    I STILL TRAIN WITH WEIGHTS.
    I AM ONE OF THE STRONGEST PEOPLE IN THE WORLD IN THE AGE GROUP EIGHTY YEARS AND OLDER. TO GIVE YOU AN IDEA OF MY STRENGTH WATCH MY TWO VIDEOS ON http://www.youtube.com
    TO SEE MY INTERNET PROFILE CHECK ME ON http://www.google.com THEN SURF THE LINKS.
    SIDNEY COAD WILLIAMS HEALTH ACTIVIST

    Sidney Coad Williams on November 16th, 2012
  • 17

    […] learned the difference between olympic and power lifting on Gubernatrix. […]

  • 18

    I HAVE INDULGED IN WEIGHT LIFTING, POWER LIFTING AND GENERAL STRENGTH TRAINING. I STOPPED WEIGHT LIFTING IN 1990 AT THE AGE OF 64 YEARS. INCIDENTALLY I HELD THE TITLE OF SOUTH AFRICAN WEIGHT LIFTING CHAMPION AT THE AGE OF 64 YEARS. IN THE EARLY DAYS OF WEIGHT LIFTING THERE WERE THREE LIFTS. THEY WERE:
    CLEAN AND PRESS
    CLEAN AND JERK
    SNATCH
    THE CLEAN AND PRESS WAS ELIMINATED BECAUSE LIFTERS USED TO CHEAT.
    I AM CURRENTLY 86 AND MY MAXIMUM IN THE DEAD LIFT IS 160 KILOGRAMS. I DEAD LIFT 140 KILOGRAMS WITH EASE. CHECK MY TWO VIDEOS ON http://www.youtube.com CHECK MY PROFILE ON http://www.google.com THEN SURF THE LINKS.
    SIDNEY COAD WILLIAMS HEALTH ACTIVIST

    Sidney Coad Williams on December 18th, 2012
  • 19

    IT IS NOW 2013 AND I AM 86 YEARS OF AGE.
    MY MAXIMUM IN THE DEAD LIFT IS 160 KILOGRAMS AT A BODY MASS OF 100 KILOGRAMS.
    CHECK MY TWO VIDEOS ON http://www.youtube.com THEN EMULATE ME. CHECK MY INTERNET PROFILE ON http://www.google.com THEN SURF THE LINKS.
    CHECK MY POSTS ON http://www.blogger.com GO TO MY BLOGGER DASHBOARD AND CLICK IN THE LINKS OF YOUR CHOICE.
    I MAINTAIN THAT WHAT I HAVE ACHIEVED OTHERS CAN EMULATE IF THEY ADOPT A HEALTHY LIFESTYLE AND TRAIN WITH WEIGHTS. I STARTED TRAINING AT EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE. MY MOTIVATION WAS TO BECOME STRONG ENOUGH TO SCARE OFF THE BULLIES AT SCHOOL. IT WORKED. SIDNEY COAD WILLIAMS HEALTH ACTIVIST.

    Sidney Coad Williams on January 11th, 2013
  • 20

    […] What’s the difference between powerlifting, olympic weightlifting and strongman? Old post but relevant to this blog in general. […]

  • 21

    IN TWO MONTHS TIME I WILL BE 88 YEARS OF AGE. I STILL HAVE NOT RECEIVED ANY CHALLENGES IN THE AGE CATEGORY EIGHTY YEARS OR OLDER.
    CAUTION: IF YOU ARE EIGHTY YEARS OR OLDER AND YOU WANT TO CHALLENGE ME PLEASE VIEW MY TWO POWER VIDEOS ON http://www.youtube.com TO SEE WHAT I AM CAPABLE OF. IN MY DEAD LIFT VIDEO YOU SEE ME LIFTING WITH MR. SOUTH AFRICA 2013. SEE HOW EASILY I DEAD LIFTED 140 KILOGRAMS. MY MAXIMUM IN THE DEAD LIFT IS 160 KILOGRAMS WHAT I HAVE ACHIEVED OTHERS CAN EMULATE. I AM NOT EXCEPTIONAL.

    SIDNEY COAD WILLIAMS on February 26th, 2014
  • 22

    WHEN I INDULGED IN WEIGHTLIFTING WE HAD THREE COMPETITIVE LIFTS AND THEY WERE:
    CLEAN AND PRESS
    CLEAN AND JERK
    SNATCH.
    THE CLEAN AND PRESS WAS OMITTED BECAUSE COMPETITORS USE TO CHEAT WHEN THEY WERE SUPPOSED TO PRESS THE WEIGHT.

    SIDNEY COAD WILLIAMS on February 26th, 2014
  • 23

    IF YOU ARE 80 YEARS OR OLDER AND FEEL THAT YOU HAVE A HIGHER POWER TO BODY MASS RATIO THAN ME BE MY GUEST CHALLENGE ME TO A POWER CONTEST.
    THE BODY MASS RATIO IS ASCERTAINED BY DIVIDING THE MASS OF THE WEIGHT LIFTED BY THE BODY MASS OF THE LIFTER.

    SIDNEY COAD WILLIAMS on February 26th, 2014
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