Transitioning to Olympic Weightlifting

I’ve been talking with a few people about this topic lately, and I figured I’d give my thoughts on it. The popularity of CrossFit has pushed more people into the realm of strength training. Powerlifting is incredibly accessible since most people are squatting, benching, and deadlifting in their program to get bigger and man-like (woman-like?), yet Olympic weightlifting is that girl across the room that you’re too afraid to approach.

In reality, she’d probably love to talk to you because she’s sick of hanging out with losers. Please, for the love of the old gods, follow this motto:

“Who dares wins”

— the motto of the UK and Aussie SAS, and also my pup Lily

If you’re bored with powerlifting, strength training, or CrossFit and want to give Olympic weightlifting a try, this is my recommendation on how to make the transition.

Shirts are optional in weightlifting.

A Note

There are probably some Oly disciples that will disagree with these recommendations. Considering that I coach both raw powerlifting and Olympic weightlifting, I once made this transition myself, and I regularly counsel people on the transition, I think the recommendations are solid. I regularly see people accumulate nagging injuries when they don’t do something like this.

Ignore Sexiness

Wait, what? But I love sexy stuff! Jesus, that much is apparent. I know that there are cool Russians lifting many times a week. I know that there are cool Americans lifting frequently throughout the week, often going to max. I know they are so cool and sexy, it makes your teeth hurt. But ignore them. Look to them for inspiration, nothing more.

Emulating the frequency, intensity, programming, assistance lifts, complexes, or whatever of a more advanced lifter will not yield success to you. You literally have no idea of the context of anything that they are doing. Sure, a coach like Pendlay will kind of talk about those things, but it’s still hard to glean his program, structure, or strategy from his tidbits (and in reality, I don’t think he should detail his exact program for everyone to see). Ignore them. What they do does not apply to you. Yet.

Progression

“The journey of a thousand leagues begins with a single step.” — Lao Tzu

Start lighter. Incorporate the lifts with a consistent, steady progression. Do not begin by maxing out. In fact, you won’t even do the lifts more than twice a week. You’ll use non-Oly days to start incorporating motor pathways and strengthen musculature that will facilitate the Olympic lifts.

Chances are you are not a balanced lifter. Chances are that your mechanics support that of powerlifting. These things need to be addressed, and that’s why there are some exercises below that are not in a traditional Olympic weightlifting program. When you advance — in how you adapt to the stressors of Olympic weightlifting and are actually decently strong in the lifts — then your program will look like a more traditional weightlifting program. But right now, you are aiming to transition.

As for progressing the lifts themselves, you’ll only make incremental jumps when you do train them. Something like 5 or 2.5kg will work. As with any skill or strength development, the rate of progression will slow as you advance. Treat your Oly work as a linear progression for several weeks. After the initial “baby phase” is over, you’ll do one of the lifts at a “medium” intensity while the other is “progressed heavier”. That doesn’t mean you max out; just continue the steady progression.

The Template

Monday
Snatch
Clean and Jerk

Tuesday
High bar squat
Press*
Rows

Thursday
Snatch
Clean and Jerk

Friday
Front squat
Bench*
RDL

Elaborations on the Template

* People will whine about how the bench and press, are not specific to weightlifting. If you are weak — and you should know if you are — then just do them. No one wants to see a skinny fat 85kg male lifter go 80/100 while, as Brent says, high school football players easily out-bench him. None of you are going to the Olympics anyway, so get traditionally strong to compliment your future Oly prowess. If you are “strong”, then you could use push-press.

– Keep the rows. Having a jacked back is one of the coolest things ever. Sure, the Oly lifts will eventually get you there, but unless you’re running some test propionate, your back needs all the help it can get.

– Pull-ups or chin-ups can be thrown in on the “strength days”.

– Front or high bar squatting can be interchanged. Both are important; both will help. Just do them both. No, don’t do them on the Oly days just yet.

– RDLs can be done 2x/week if you want, but I’d have them be a bit lighter on one of the days. Banded good mornings are a good substitute for the lighter posterior chain work.

– I say that this template should be used for at least 4 weeks, but it should probably be used for about 3 months. It eases the joints into consistent Oly work, it improves mobility and mechanics, and it allows a progression on the O-lifts and vertical squat styles. You will feel like you can do more. It’s easier to prevent your dick from being driven into the ground than to pull it out (the female equivalent, as requested by the ladies at the Tucson seminar, is “burning your labia off”).

Rep Schemes

Snatch/CJ
The “baby phase” will have you working up to five singles on each of the lifts after you have warmed up with Pendlay’s teaching progression (google them, but they are on the Cal Strength website). This should last for several weeks. Then one lift will be medium while the other is progressed. “Medium” means at least 80% of a hypothetical max. Do 6 to 10 reps at this weight, preferably on a clock (1 minute for snatch, 90 seconds or 2 min for CJ). This will work on the whole “power development” thing and get you used to lifting with some fatigue on a clock (important for a) meets and b) not being a poon). The “heavier” lift will be pushed by the standard 5 or 2.5kg and hit for 3 to 5 singles. When 5 singles gets hard, just do 3ish. When 3 gets hard, just do 2. When you can only hit a top rep, aim to push it steadily every week. Eventually it won’t go up, but if you did this right you should have at least 2 or 3 months of this progression. At this point, you’ll graduate to a 3x/week program. No, you shouldn’t start doing 4, 5, or 9 training sessions a week.

Squats
If you came from powerlifting and you have been low barring, then do 3×5 or 3×6. You need reps with vertical style squatting to reinforce movement patterns, actively push your mobility ROM, and develop the musculature with the new mechanics. Think “heels” out of the bottom and control your descent. You can fall into the bottom of your high bar squats when you’re more experienced. That won’t be for at least a year unless you’re already high barring 500+ lbs. After the first 4 weeks, you can start doing triples on the squats if you want. Note that if you want muscular thighs, you should progress the 3×5 for as long as you can.

Other stuff
Don’t over complicate this stuff. Use a 3×5 set up, especially if you need strength and size. That goes for press, bench, rows, RDLs, or weighted pull-ups. If you’re using push-press, do sets of 2 or 3 reps. If you have crappy hamstring mobility, use higher rep sets of 8 to 10 reps (this will help in the “baby phase” if you are severely lacking hamstring musculature).

Mobbing
Note that regular and aggressive mobility work is implied at the beginning of all sessions. Always, always, always open up your anterior hip, external hip rotators, and ankles. Anterior hip stuff can be hit with anterior band distraction and couch stretch stuff (work on your psoas at night). The external hip rotators can be hit immediately  before training with a lacrosse ball while the hip is in flexion (lying on your side). Use the “table top/pigeon stretch” after. Use banded distraction on the ankles. Most people with forward torso inclination on the snatch have shitty mobility in their thoracic spine. Lacrosse balling the t-spine and using “5 way shoulder” are good starting points. All of this shit has been mentioned on this website multiple times, but you’ll find it on MobilityWOD.

External Rotators
Some people still have crappy external rotation. Do the “band pulls” with a supinated grip after every session (3 sets of 12ish). Shirts are optional.

Thoughts
There you have it. It’s a very simple template with some simple guidelines that will help ease you into Olympic weightlifting activity. What happens to people that try to do too much? They accumulate injuries or excessive joint pain that can be debilitating to performance. Everyone is not me, but I wasn’t able to jerk over 120kg in training when I made the transition due to a mechanics issue (I would do 140kg in the first meet). I’ve seen people accumulate hip, knee, elbow, and shoulder issues from doing too much stuff too soon. I’ve written about this concept in FIT, and the two TM books, but when you are introducing a new activity, do so with a slow progression. Structures need to adapt.

The system also needs to adapt. High(er) frequency Olympic weightlifting training is very different than low frequency strength or powerlifting training. Don’t ignorantly jump into the former, because it won’t work as well. You’ll either develop a structural issue (which can happen as fast as two weeks or take as long as four weeks to materialize), or just reinforce awful habits with heavier weights. At the very least, the “Transitioning to Weightlifting” template above will allow you to learn about the lifts, get many quality reps, not develop a nagging injury, strengthen Oly specific motor pathways, and give you time to get some feedback (I’d start at the Pendlay forums). In other words, it’s a simple template that helps transition you into a weightlifter from a strength trainee, CrossFitter, or powerlifter. Post questions to the comments (but don’t over think this stuff).

62 thoughts on “Transitioning to Olympic Weightlifting

  1. “None of you are going to the Olympics anyway”

    is probably the most important take away from this entire post.

    I think this all the time when I’m snatching 55kg.

  2. Good stuff to think about. Ive been doing the olympic lifts for a little over 4 months with a similar program (mainly because i didnt see this one first.) Im about 30 lbs away from body on the snatch and im hoping to hit that by winter hopefully sooner but im takkng it zlow go avoid injuries and developing bad habits. When i get to body weight should i condsider the baby phase over?

  3. Great article. Finally working my way through the Game of Thrones books so always appreciate the references. Couple questions:
    a) What type and volume of conditioning would you layer onto this template?
    b) I tend to have trouble maintaining thorasic extension on the olympic lifts and some other lifts (FS, rows, goodmornings). Is this typically caused by a strength defecit or poor mobility somewhere downstream from sitting at a desk all day?
    I’ve been trying to attack this from both sides, but not seeing a lot of improvement over the past year. Strength: primarily cobras, IYTs, back extensions (wth flexion and extension). Mobility: lacrosse ball to t-spine and lats, banded shoulder work, and general lower body mobility.
    Thanks.

    • A) I already indicated the volume. If you want to be an Oly lifter you wouldn’t really be doing a lot of conditioning. Just do it twice a week after lifting.

      B) You are tight all over, especially through your thoracic spine. You need to get more aggressive with your mobility on your hips, spine, and shoulders. This means increasing the frequency and/or consistency.

      B-2) Search “hip impingement” on this site and read about that. If you have a crappy set up (i.e. wide stance, knees are inside of the feet) in any pulling movement, you won’t be able to extend the t-spine, especially if it has limited mobility to begin with.

      • Thanks for the quick response. Sorry for the confusion, I meant conditioning in terms of sprint/run/bike/metcon/etc.

        Will make a renewed effort to increase the consistency of my mobility work and report back.

  4. Glorious article. The importance of wading in slowly cannot be overstressed, especially for guys that are already strong enough to hurt themselves.

  5. Very sorry that this is OT for the post, but Justin, or anyone who would know the answer for that matter, what brand lifting shoes do you wear (are you wearing in the epic headband pic up there). Thanks!

    FYI, 50% through FIT. Awesome stuff. Thanks for that too!

  6. Great post, as always, Justin. As someone who transitioned from powerlifting to weightlifting this year, I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to ease into a weightlifting program.
    This stuff is incredibly technical and requires years to master. Many new lifters underestimate the risk of injury. Many coaches are advocating for a Russian or Bulgarian template (including my own) and may look at you sideways if you are not lifting 6 days a week. After injuring my shoulder this spring, I found that lifting 4x a week is optimal for me. Some may say this is not frequent enough, but I find that I need adequate recovery to lift at or near my max every session.
    I would add that if you are serious about weightlifting, sign up for a local meet ASAP. There’s nothing like stepping out on the platform for the first time.
    Also: squat. A lot.

  7. Your posts this week are exactly what I’ve needed. Thanks for the response yesterday as well.

    Couple questions though, because I want to do this transition when I finally stall out on SS (which I should within the next month, and I want to get into oly lifting). Any and all advice appreciated.

    1). Can you by chance create a list of cues that would fix common mistakes in the C&J and Snatch? I plan to start the Pendlay progressions when I go back to school in 3 weeks (no platform or bumper plates at my summer gym), but nobody I’ve met knows how to oly lift correctly. So if I had a list I could give to my friends for things to watch out for when I’m learning, that would be incredibly helpful.

    2) Can I do weighted GHR’s instead of RDL’s for hamstring strength? I feel my form is better on GHR’s and have an easier time making sure my hamstrings and glutes get the work instead of my back.

    3) I wanted to do TM after SS failing, is it possible to incorporate the lifts into TM and still get progress? I don’t have the ebook, and I will buy it if needed, but I’d hate to buy it and then never apply the concepts because I can’t incorporate the oly lifts into it and still continue progression.

    4) Where do I get awesome shorts like I always see you wear?

    • Regarding #3, yes, it is possible to mesh O-lifting with TM, but there are a few different ways of going about it. The short version is this: Absolutely buy the TM e-book*.

      The slightly longer version – only slightly because this is Justin’s material – is this: There are nuances involved that depend on your goals (strength-development focus vs O-lift focus), and Justin covers them in-depth in the book. You can incorporate O-lifts (or rather, their derivatives) into TM, or you can incorporate TM into an O-lifting program. At the high school where I teach and coach, our O-lifting program looks a lot like the program Justin describes in his book. As a result, it still has a healthy dose of strength emphasis in it, which is something our athletes need (especially since they are all multi-sport athletes, and O-lifting is not their main sport).

      The book is solid, and I’d definitely recommend it. Any book that starts with a picture of AC and a chainsaw – well, you know it’s going to be good.

      *I’m referring to the TM E-Book Part 1. I imagine Part 2 is also good – I simply haven’t read it yet.

      • Thanks for the response here. I don’t have anything to add. I’ll point out that there is not any Olympic weightlifting stuff in the second book. Everything meggersp talks about is in the first book.

  8. Cool post Justin Im pretty chuffed with myself, I have just knocked a little program up myself to transition over to O-lifting and came up with almost the same thing, so I’ve learnt a bit from you over the years. I had my strength days first on monday and thursday followed by O-lifting days. And on the oly days i rowed the first session and deadlifted the second. I’ll give this a go though, I did my first week and found myself moving slow after the strength days. My deadlift is 50% of my best clean (220kg – 110kg) and I think I can still make easy enough progress on pulling them once a week, Thoughts?

  9. for some background, i’m 20, 5’8″ 195lbs with 15%bf. ive been lifting since high school, and it was always for football performance, so it was mostly the power lifts and just power cleans, with football conditioning. after high school i started learning the oly lifts. i’ve been doing them for about a year now, still not the best mechanics and deffinately not with a lot of weight, but i really want to focus on them because i like them so much. ive checked out the pendlay outline for a beginner template and i made my own up. could you tell me how dumb or smart it is?
    mon- snatch 5×3@80% 1rm, high pulls and hang cleans 5×2 (not with significant weight, just to reinforce mechanics) high bar squat 3×5. (recently switched from low bar about a month ago when i decided to focus on oly lifts) pull ups
    tues- clean and jerk 5×3@80% 1rm. high snatch pulls and hang snatches 5×2, rdls 3×8, sprints
    wed-bench 3×5, bent over bb rows 3×5, db bench 3×5, db rows 3×5, push ups, lower back and ab complex
    thurs- snatch 2,2,1 @90% 1rm. high bar squat 3×5, high pulls and hang snatches, press 3×5 (was doing 3×3 with ascending sets, but neglecting presses for a while has left me weak on them and im gonna just do an LP with them till i hit a wall) chins, if i have time ill do a bb complex
    fri- c and j 2,2,1 @90% 1rm, high snatch pull and hang snatches, deads 1×5, dips, sled pulls

    looking at it, it seems like a lot. maybe it is. i havent been able to actually do this program for longer than two weeks uninterrupted due to travel and vacation, but it hasnt been too much to handle for the time ive been able to do it. i feel like i can do this template, but if it seems like im gonna drive my dick into the ground just let me know.

    • I think it’s hillarious that you cite your body fat… anyways for your lifting scheme, if you are new to oly I would drop the high pull and hang stuff and just focus on the rep schedmes justin advocated and really only do the full lifts to work on reinforcing the patterns. Also, if you have low barred for a year or more (as I had been doing) the biggest thing will probably be maintaining an upright torso and back during the squats and in the catch portions of your snatch and clean. Your hips are going to want to rise first and that is going to result in the weight moving forward and getting crapped up. I made the mistake of not focusing on this upright torso seriously and continuing to use my powerlifting 3 inch wide belt to help me grind squats out with a low bar ish style and that really impedded my oly ability.

  10. Justin,

    I want to start SS linear progression in order to supplement my jiu jitsu training. My plan is to get my conditioning in on the mats for now and focus on just the progression in the weight room. I know recovery is a major factor in getting results on SS, but I can’t sacrifice my jiu jitsu training either (I can try to limit the intensity as best I can but that’s partially up to how my instructor runs class). So my question is more about when to lift. If BJJ training is at a fixed time every evening, is it better to lift as close to before it as I can (and have the rest of the day to recover) or to try and lift in the mornings and split the day up (effectively giving me 2 recovery periods)? I’m assuming lifting after jiu jitsu would be the worst option. Thanks.

    • As someone who has a pretty limited schedule due to kids, life, etc., I tried to fit in lifting after BJJ for a few weeks, and it was horrible.
      The results were not pretty, and any gains were non-existant.
      Grappling involves so much pushing and pulling from odd angles that by the time I got to lifting I was completely wrecked.
      Conversely, when I was training pretty hardcore for two tournaments back in the spring, I did lift and do conditioning before BJJ a good bit, and it did not seem to affect my BJJ too much.
      But I guess like everything else, it depends on the person and the intensity at which you’re training both.

      This is just my take on it, for what it’s worth…

      • I’ve done CF and my own programming with BJJ before and gotten pretty good results. I’ve taken some time off from doing either at a high or consistent level and will be restarting as soon as I finish traveling for work, I’ve never done a true SS style linear progression though and I’m just trying to figure out how I can, as Rip say, Do The Program and still train jiu jitsu. I don’t have any major tournaments until March or so next year so this is essentially an off season training plan I’m trying to develop.

  11. Love this post. I’m older a woman and a novice. Oly lifting makes me feel like superwoman. I’ve always been big on form and technique so despite my weights being pretty light I find this type of lifting exciting and challenging. Every session I have I feel like I’m learning something new or trying to perfect cues and tips I’ve read and heard. I liked running but it got boring and painful, I liked Crossfit but was becoming injury prone and disappointed. It’s the perfect mix of flexibility and strength for me.

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  13. I can totally vouch for the injury comment on this. I started the Pendley program mid June and was lifting 3 times a week. Heavy volume on snatch and c&j. I did PR my snatch but started to have horrible wrist pain. When I say horrible, doing pushups was brutal. Now I’m pretty much back where I started. Which isn’t bad…Justin said it best…”your not going to the olymipcs”. I’m gonig to start this template and stick with it as soon as I’m healed up.

  14. Is it going to be possible for me to mess around with learning to snatch and clean and jerk if I’ve only got iron plates and a hard floor at a globo gym? I do cleans all the time, but not set after set after set, so I just set the weight dow instead of dropping it. I guess I can sort of answer my own question, but my question is if I can never drop the barbell, should I even mess with learning this stuff or just stick to the slow lifts? My training goal is to be bigger, stronger and healthier–basically your definition of “fit.”

    • You could work the lighter load positioning style stuff. See Pendlay’s progressions for what those “positions” are. But, not, I wouldn’t recommend getting any solid, heavy work on the lifts in your situation.

      I’ve seen Brent snatch 225 lbs with iron plates. I also saw him drop those on the floor. He had several years of Oly lifting experience before doing this, though.

  15. Anyone,

    I feel like my googling skills are failing me. Where can I find a good resource for finding local weightlifting meets? Everything that turns up on my searches is powerlifting.

  16. Hi, First time posting, love the site. I’m nearly 40 and interesting in learning oly lifting. I’m concerned about injuring myself due to being clueless on technique and having very little lifting experience. Does anyone have any recommendations for oly lifting coaching in the Boston area? I know they cover some of this in cross-fit but I’m hesitant to pay money to some 22 year old kid who got a crossfit certificate 6 months ago – ideally looking for a few sessions with someone with at least a decade of lifting and competing experience. Also, any ballpark sense for what a reasonable rate is for this type of coaching on a per session basis?
    many thanks

  17. Great Article.

    I switched to Justins Weightlifting Template for beginners a while ago.

    Just wanted to give some feedback that this template works very well for me. I added some core work after monday and thursday and also incorporated conditioning workouts on Saturdays (Sprints, BB Complex) and whenever i feel like on Tuesday and Friday (short KB Cycles or sprints on the rower).

  18. Hi Justin,
    Under Rep Schemes, Snatch/C&J:
    1) What does “working up to five singles on each of the lifts” mean? like do a few sets of five, then do five singles or just go for it after the Pendlay Progression? Also, same question for the heavier lift of three to five singles after the baby phase is over.

    2) For the Medium lift, do 6 to 10 reps for how many sets?

    Thanks!

    • I was just about to ask the same. Maybe it’s doing like sets of three adding weight each set until you only can do one and then do that weight 4 more times.

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  20. Hey Justin,

    You’ve changed your beginner Olympic lifting program a bit since the first version (RDLs instead of deadlifts, adding in front squats, etc.). Would you mind writing a bit about how you’d modify the standard SS model of training knowing what you know now?

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  22. Hi Justin, new to the site as well as olympic lifting. I read another one of your articles discussing the potential use of the low bar back squat in the early stages of olympic training to gain overall strength. Would it be beneficial to do a low bar back squat in place of either the front squat or high bar back squat? Also, Rippetoe mentions in his book that squatting 3-4 times a week is key to gaining strength. Will I be squatting enough with this routine to make significant strides? Lastly, I was wondering about the use of RDL vs a traditional deadlift. Is there any benefit to alternating between the two or should I just stick with the RDLs?

    Thanks for your help.

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  27. On the 3×5 days it’s three sets of 5 across and not just three sets of 5 total right? Just did my first week of this and man I forgot how much I missed the Olympic lifts.

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