Frank Cosenza  - Aug 02 2020

Female Athlete in Olympic Weightlifting & Program

The sport of Olympic weightlifting dates back to the earliest of civilisations. Men from different tribes would compete to demonstrate their strength. The earliest Olympic competition dates back to the 1890’s. To say this sport is rich with tradition and history would be an understatement, however women’s involvement in this sport didn’t take place until 1987. I believe there are many factors that lead to this delay; stigmas being one of them. Regardless, of the reasoning for exclusion I firmly, believe the inclusion of the female athlete to be a great thing for the growth of this sport. As a strength and conditioning coach, I firmly believe that the involvement is a must, to make this sport mainstream.

Unfortunately, women are at a disadvantage, albeit not an impossible one, still a physiological disadvantage in which they will have to do more work to overcome this disadvantage. However, once they get passed the baseline strength needs, their ceiling for performances metrics are unlimited. Physiological demands for requiring more muscle mass for the sport of Olympic weightlifting lend themselves to a very male dominated sport. Females that join the sport, must push their bodies to new heights despite, nature; less muscle mass as required to birth children. My hope that this article will discuss the necessary criteria to accommodate such needs, by mapping out a strength training protocol.

Chen Guiming 59kg making 138kg c&j in Tianjin IWF World Cup 2019

First and foremost, any athlete trying to break into Olympic style training must build off a standard baseline strength. Olympic weightlifting is the combination of two lifts; the snatch, and the clean and jerk. The demands of these two explosive movements place great stress on the neurological, physiological and musculoskeletal systems. An athlete should be able to squat, deadlift, overhead press, overhead squat and perform pull-ups greater to or equal to at least bodyweight. If the athlete cannot, it will be even harder to learn the Olympic technique. For females, strength training was considered taboo, at least in this form until 1987 when they first competed internationally. Now-a-days it is not taboo, but equal uphill climb to overcome natural laws, of anatomical differences for women. Once, a woman begins strength training it will require more work and demands more effort to build muscle mass or HYPERTROPHY. IT IS NOT IMPOSSIBLE, but it will take more time, comparatively to that of the male-counterpart.  

Chen Guiming and Wang Zhouyu doing core strength training

Working with elite level lifters daily, I can tell you first-hand that women are up to the task of such rigorous training. Currently two athletes I work with Wang Zhouyu (world champion in the 87 kg class) and Liao Quiyun (world champion in the 55 kg class) lift over 2x bodyweight daily. To give you context, Wang Zhouyu squats 185 kg x 1, deadlifts 195 kg x 1 (2.17;2.2 x bodyweight); while Liao Quiyun squats 135 x 1 and deadlifts 150 (2.4;2.72 x bodyweight).

Their male-counterparts Lu Xiaojun (two-time Olympic medal holder top 81 kg class & G.O.A.T) and Shi Zhiyong (Olympic Gold Medal winner in the 69 kg class) also lift 2.5-3.15 x bodyweight respectably). These individuals are the elite; and they have put in the work to get strong enough to compete for Olympic gold.

The goal for an athlete should be to utilise the cultivated muscle mass created through baseline strength training and apply it to the explosive nature of the OLYMPIC LIFTS. In order to do that the athlete must create the strength ability to perform Olympic lifts and baseline hypertrophy. All the while, maintaining flexibility for optimal ranges of motion of the hips, knees and thoracic spine (T-Spine).

Below I have mapped out a plan for training the Olympic lifts while building hypertrophy through strength training work.    

Program for building hypertrophy while training Olympic lifts

For example, a day could look like: clean & jerk followed by heavy deadlifts with high pull, lat pull down, pull-up and rows both barbell and single arm dumbbell lastly isometric core holds finish with stretching of hips, back shoulders.

While this plan is not the only way to perform and create strength for Olympic lifting athletes, it is the plan I believe will help individuals trying to learn Olympic lifting while build baseline strength and hypertrophy. The objective is that during the time you are learning Olympic lifting technique you can work on really building muscle mass to increase your 1 repetition maximum via the deadlift, squat, front squat, overhead squat, and shoulder press. All lifts will be based off a percentage of your maximum ability and gradually increasing efforts over time. For example, day 1: you perform your Olympic lifts with 70% of your ability for 5 sets of 5 repetitions. Followed by your strength training with 85% of your maximum ability 6 sets 3 up to 10 reps {depending on movement} Overhead squat 85% 6x3; seated overhead press, handstand push-up and dips might be performed as a tri-set (grouping) for 4x10 reps.