It’s tough to hit the gym when you’ve got a full to-do list including lunch plans and a full Netflix queue. Even tougher? Stepping within 10 feet of a barbell when you haven’t the slightest clue what to do with it.
The good news? Olympic lifting doesn’t have to feel as intimidating as a first date, and it’s not just for The Rock wannabes. Both men and women notice an increase in their resting metabolic rate with weight lifting, and incorporating it into your routine can also help you lose more weight than cardio alone.
“Lifting can feel scary because it’s a new challenge,” says Austin Lopez, certified strength and conditioning specialist and trainer at San Francisco’s DIAKADI. “But in general, lifting heavy is some of the most effective work you can do. It burns more calories, stimulates more muscle growth, and when done right, Olympic lifting makes all lifting more explosive, which can lead to a lean, more sculpted physique.”
Form is king. Babies crawl before they learn to walk; weight lifters need to practice before throwing around a heavy barbell. “There’s so much mechanically involved when doing a lift like a power clean, for example,” Pridgett says. “When you’re lifting lighter weight that feels familiar, it’s easier to just muscle through. As you start to increase weight, however, it’s crucial that your form is on point so that you can move it and not get hurt.”
It’s also important to understand that the best form stems from practices that don’t necessarily involve a barbell. In order to build the range of motion (ROM) necessary for strong Olympic weightlifting movements, doing a series of resistance band exercises to increase flexibility in your shoulders and hips can be highly effective. Once you’re warm, start practicing the basics of Olympic lifts with a wooden dowel (available in most gyms and CrossFit boxes). “I always make sure everyone starts with something like a wooden dowel or PVC pipe until the technique is solid,” Lopez says.
One of the biggest mistakes newbies make on the bar is overloading. For beginners, the answer is none. Lopez suggests starting the below set of moves with the barbell alone (standard weights are 45 pounds for men and 35 pounds for women). “Some of the exercises are pretty challenging with just the bar weight (like the overhead ones),” says Lopez. “When you feel comfortable and someone [a professional or trainer in the gym] can cosign that you have great form, 5-pound intermittent plates are a good starting rate of increase.”
Get to Schemin’
Olympic lifting rep schemes are different from your standard set of bicep curls. To start, Lopez recommends lighter weight at higher repetition such as 10 to 15 reps. “Once the technique is warmed up and solid, it is OK to increase the weight slightly and drop down to the 6 to 10 rep range.”
If you’ve heard people at the gym talking about working their “1 rep max” (the maximum amount of weight you can perform the movement without failing)—shut it out. That person, at least for now, is not you. “There is no need to be doing 1 and 2 rep max lifts this early on,” Lopez says. “Technique is key to these movements, both short and long term. Focus there, first.”
Got it? Good. Check out the 6 basic moves below to get started.
1. Hang Clean
A. Start with feet slightly wider than hip-width distance apart, holding the dowel or bar with palms facing body. Get down in a quarter squat position. With vertical shins and a neutral spine, move upward to a standing position while pulling the barbell up.B. Drive the barbell up toward the shoulders with hips and legs. As you come in for the catch, squat slightly and bring the barbell to your shoulders in a rack position (palms facing up). Be sure to keep elbows lifted so they don’t touch your thighs.C. Finish the movement by standing up with the weight.Trainer notes: “The faster you can flip your elbows underneath the bar, the better. Make sure to brace your abs as the weight comes onto the shoulders.”
2. Power Clean
A. Start with feet at hip-width distance, holding dowel or bar to ankles (or barbell resting on the floor) with palms facing body.B. With vertical shins and a neutral spine, use momentum (like a small hop) to stand while pulling the barbell up toward shoulders using the hips and legs.C. As you come in for the catch, flip elbows underneath bar (but keep them lifted so they don’t touch legs) and squat slightly. Bring the bar to your shoulders (rack position) with a neutral grip (palms facing up).D. Finish the movement by standing up with the weight.Trainer notes: “Again, your mind may be on the movement but don’t forget to focus on your abs here. Bracing your core, especially as you bring the barbell up past the knees, will help you keep an upright position.”
3. Push Press
A. Start with the bar or dowel resting across your clavicle—get it in there nice and close. Grip the bar with palms facing up and away from the body, and hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Position the bar in the heel of the palm. Wrap thumbs around the bar and over the fingers.B. With shoulders back and down, and core tight, fix eyes forward. Take a deep breath in and dip your knees slightly.C. Exhale as you drive the bar over your head. You should land in a quarter squat with the barbell overhead, elbows locked out.D. Finish the movement by standing straight up with the weight.Trainer notes: “When you’re dipping down, make sure you’re not going into more than a quarter squat. Make sure to fully extend your elbows at the top, harnessing some triceps and shoulder strength to supplement the power coming from your legs.”
4. Clean and Press
A. Start with feet slightly wider than hip-width distance holding the bar or dowel with palms facing body. Send hips back to lower to a quarter squat position.B. With vertical shins and a neutral spine, drive the bar up toward shoulders using hips and legs, keeping elbows lifted and shrugging shoulders. As you come in for the catch, squat slightly and bring the bar to shoulders to a rack position with a neutral grip (palms facing up).C. After a brief pause, dip slightly by bending knees and drive bar upward until overhead.D. With bar stable overhead, engage core and lock out elbows.Trainer notes: “When you are catching it, you need to have a tight core but soft joints (even back down into the quarter squat) to absorb the weight. Then stand back up.”
5. Hex Bar Deadlift
A. Stand inside of hex bar with feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, toes pointing straight ahead or slightly outward. Send hips back to squat down, hands gripping the bar outside of legs. Use a hook grip: When you place your hands on the bar, wrap your first two fingers over your thumb, sandwiched between your fingers and the bar. Keep head up, eyes looking forward, chest out, and back flat.B. Exhale as you use glutes and hamstrings to straighten legs and lift the bar; drive through the heels, not the toes, and bring the weight up above knees. Finish by thrusting the hips into alignment with the feet and squeezing glutes.Trainer notes: “This movement is a really great way to train hip extension and core bracing, as long as you’re executing it properly. Make sure to drive through the hips, instead of the lower back.”
A. Start with your feet at hip-width distance, hands wider than shoulders holding dowel or bar (on ground or at ankles) with a hook grip, palms facing body.B. With vertical shins and a neutral spine, forcefully drive the bar up using momentum from hips and legs. Make sure to keep the bar as close to the body as possible; don’t move it in an arcing motion. As you come in for the catch, squat fully with bar overhead, stabilizing through the core, and lock out your elbows.C. With bar stable overhead, press through heels and use glutes to stand up straight, elbows, hips, and knees locked out.Trainer notes: “This is an explosive movement from [start to finish]. It also requires you to keep the bar close to the body until you drop underneath it. The drop needs to be quick as you go with high elbows (like a high pull row) to full extension above your head.” Lopez suggests starting with weights that weigh even less than the bar (like a PVC pipe, for example). This exercise is overhead so you’ll risk injury if you don’t have proper form with weight.