Though for a pro in either of these weightlifting subtypes the difference between the two will be clear, for many new lifters, the distinctions and nuances can be harder to understand.
That’s why the experts at Strength Ambassadors put together this guide, walking you through the exact differences between powerlifting and weightlifting with some in-depth guidance on which might be right for you. We hope it helps!
So – What is the Difference Between Powerlifting and Olympic Lifting?
The short answer is that powerlifting is based on the squat, bench press, and deadlift, whereas Olympic weightlifting is based on the Snatch and the Clean and Jerk. Both types of lifting demand a tremendous amount of overall strength. However, since they specialise in different lifts, they have many distinctions:
- Olympic weightlifting generally has a higher requirement for flexibility than Powerlifting in order to execute the lifts correctly. Olympic weightlifters are some of the most flexible athletes at the Olympics, with shoulder and hip mobility being particularly important.
- The Olympic lifts are more technically demanding and explosive than the power lifts. It can take several months for someone to feel reasonably comfortable with Olympic lifting technique, whereas the power lifts are easier to learn in the short term. Of course, both types of lifts have technical subtleties that can take years to master.
- Olympic lifters generally train more frequently (professional athletes may train every day) than powerlifters to keep technique fresh. The loads used tend to be lighter than in the power lifts, so less recovery time is required between training sessions.
- Powerlifting tends to build more chest strength (for the bench press) than Olympic lifters require, whereas Olympic lifting will put a greater emphasis on leg strength (particularly the quadriceps) than powerlifting.
So now you know the basics, let’s take a deeper look at the two and really get to know their differences.
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What is Powerlifting?
Powerlifting exercises are based around the squat, the deadlift and the bench press. These 3 multi-joint exercises are the fundamentals of strength training. By nature, these are slow lifts with a large amount of muscle mass and strength required. Powerlifting is a sport of absolute strength, but technique on the ‘big 3’ is still essential to be successful.
Powerlifting is a very specific competitive sport, which consists of three attempts to reach a maximal weight on the squat, deadlift and bench press for one repetition. The highest weight achieved from all three lifts is combined into a total and is used to determine the winner of the competition.
Powerlifting has seen a huge increase in popularity over recent years, with more competitions, federations and local meets being created. Powerlifting is a great sport to get started in if you enjoy lifting weights and want to push yourself. Who wouldn’t want the chance to see how much weight they can lift?
One example of a great powerlifting champion is Joy Nnamani from the UK, who has won multiple world championships at U52kg and U57kg. She is known as ‘the beltless terminator’, as she has pulled many of her winning lifts with no powerlifting belt – very rare in the competitive echelons of the sport.
Another well-known character is USA’s Ray Williams, a multiple world champion at superheavyweight. Williams is particularly known for his incredible squatting, and currently holds the world record for the heaviest raw squat at 490kg.
What is Olympic Lifting?
Olympic weightlifting is based on two lifts: the Snatch and the Clean and Jerk. It requires a high level of technicality and expertise, as well as massive amounts of strength and power to be successful in this sport.
Olympic lifting is focused on technique, with lifters being judged at each stage of the lift on how well it is executed. It’s important when you train that you learn technique correctly and go back to basics before moving on to more complex combinations.
When used effectively, the Olympic lifts provide a new dimension to strength training. As the Snatch and the Clean and Jerk both produce high levels of power, it makes olympic lifting a great tool for focusing on explosive strength.
The Snatch and the Clean and Jerk are technically very challenging movements that involve a huge amount of total body coordination. Both lifts require strength, speed, power and mobility, all of which are developed through extensive training in the gym.
Olympic Lifting Examples
Lasha Talakhadze, multiple times world and olympic champion at superheavyweight, is now widely considered the greatest weightlifter of all time. He has surpassed the heaviest weights ever recorded in both the snatch and the clean & jerk. At the time of writing, he is still enjoying a golden period in his career, and may break many more records before he retires.
Olympic weightlifting is developing strongly in the UK, especially on the women’s side. At the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, Team GB’s Emily Campbell became the first British woman to win an olympic medal in the sport, bringing home the silver medal in the superheavyweight class. Only a few years into her career at the time of writing, Campbell has an exciting future in the sport on the world stage.
Key Differences Between Powerlifting and Olympic Lifting
The overall goal of Powerlifting is to increase absolute strength by moving the heaviest weight possible, whereas the overall goal of Olympic lifting is to increase explosive power by moving heavy weights as fast as possible. This doesn’t mean that Powerlifters can’t have great coordination or be explosive, but Olympic lifting will give you a better opportunity to increase these qualities. Likewise, Olympic lifting will make you stronger, even though heavier weights are lifted in Powerlifting.
Number of Lifts
As we have mentioned throughout this article, one of the main differences between these two lifting styles is the number of lifts they are centred around. Powerlifting consists of three main lifts — the squat, the deadlift and the bench press. Olympic lifting consists of two main lifts — the Snatch and the Clean and Jerk.
The clean and jerk is a two-part lift where first the lifter moves the bar to the shoulders (the clean), then jumps explosively under the bar and uses the momentum generated to push the bar overhead (the jerk). The snatch on the other hand is a one-part lift where the lifter must move the barbell from the floor to a locked-out position overhead in a single movement.
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An average training day for a competitive powerlifter could consist of 2-3 hours which can include working on technique, working on the big 3 lifts and doing accessory lifts. Olympic lifters require less time per session (more like 1-2 hours), but more sessions per week (usually 5 or more). Elite olympic lifters will sometimes train twice a day, focussing on different physical qualities in each session, e.g. a strength session and a technique session.
Speed of Movement
Because powerlifting is focused on the weight of the lifts, the goal is to lift as much weight as possible regardless of how fast it is lifted. Olympic lifts are done at a much faster speed, which requires greater attention to technique and execution.
Powerlifting requires you to play to your strengths and typically strong lifters with good muscle potential clean up in this sport. Olympic lifting requires technique and attention to small details such as hand placement and foot movement. You can’t always rely on brute force with Olympic lifts if you want the lift to be efficient and successful; it’s about athleticism as well as pure power.
Olympic bars are more flexible, whereas Powerlifting bars are stiffer. This flexible bar allows Olympic lifters to do more complex movements such as the Clean and Jerk without the weight snapping the bar in half or being very hard to control.
Powerlifting bars don’t have as much flexibility, as their purpose is just to hold up a lot of weight while you perform heavy Squats, Bench Presses and Deadlifts. This isn’t to say you can’t ever do Olympic lifts on a Powerlifting bar, or that you can’t deadlift or bench press on an Olympic bar, but you should be aware of the uses and limitations of each bar.
Olympic lifters use rubber bumper plates rather than metal plates, as they regularly drop the bar from an overhead position. The bumper plates cushion the impact when dropped, saving equipment from wear and tear.
Looking For Powerlifting or Olympic Lifting Classes in London?
At Strength Ambassadors, we offer expert strength training classes in both Powerlifting and Olympic Weightlifting. Our instructors not only have a wealth of knowledge and experience to share, but they also have the passion and drive that makes them excellent coaches.
We welcome everyone, regardless of age, experience, or fitness level, and have a range of classes tailored to suit different needs.
If you’re looking for a new form of exercise, want to discover something completely different, or just want an opportunity to try out one of these sports in a safe and encouraging environment, then please get in touch or book a class today!