Beginner Olympic Weightlifting Program You Should Start Now

James Cunningham, BSc, CPT
Published by James Cunningham, BSc, CPT | Staff Writer & Senior Coach
Last updated: January 27, 2024
FACT CHECKED by Benedict Ang, CPT, PN1-NC
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Olympic weightlifting, a longstanding sport in the Olympics, has evolved through the years.

The sport offers numerous advantages, such as acquiring a new skill, enhancing muscle strength, setting and pursuing goals, and participating in an enjoyable and inclusive atmosphere.

Drawing from my background in sport and exercise science and performance psychology, I've observed the critical importance of strength, speed, and technical proficiency in Olympic weightlifting.

So, if you're a beginner weightlifter yearning for the thrill of competition, follow this beginner Olympic weightlifting program that has helped several of my clients.

Quick Summary

  • Beginner Olympic weightlifting programs focus on foundational exercises like clean and jerk, snatch, and various squats to build strength and technique.
  • Mastering compound exercises is crucial, as each contributes uniquely to enhancing strength, flexibility, and technical proficiency in Olympic weightlifting.
  • A 2021 study from the Sports Journal highlights that fatigue significantly impacts form and performance in weightlifting, underscoring the importance of managing training intensity and rest.
  • Personally, I find Olympic weightlifting to be a technically demanding yet rewarding journey, fostering not just physical strength but also discipline and mental resilience.

12 Olympic Weightlifting Exercises for Beginners

A person doing olympic weightlifting

Here are some basic strength exercises you can include in your Olympic weightlifting program.

1. Clean and Jerk

The clean-and-jerk is a renowned Olympic lift and a primary training benchmark. It demands a high level of flexibility, coordination, and precise timing to descend under the bar swiftly.

Here's how to perform it in good form:

  1. Stand in front of the barbell with a hip-wide stance, angling your toes and knees outward.
  2. Bend at the hips and grab the bar with a slightly wider-than-shoulder-width grip.
  3. Squat down until your shoulders are slightly above the barbell, maintaining proper posture.
  4. Brace your core and drive with your legs, forcefully extending your hips and knees.
  5. Shrug and pull yourself under the barbell, catching it in the front rack position.
  6. Perform a powerful front squat and stand tall.
  7. Dip down slightly and drive the barbell up using the triple extension (extending the ankle, knee, and hip).
  8. Split into a half-lunge position and quickly transition to a shoulder-width stance.
  9. Straighten your arms and hold the barbell overhead briefly before returning to the starting position.

Related: Benefits of the Clean and Jerk For Full-Body Strength

2. The Snatch

A person doing the snatch

The snatch benefits all athletes, not just weightlifters. It strengthens the posterior chain and improves snatch mechanics and grip strength.

Variations of the snatch include the power snatch, snatch and clean, and snatch press.

Here are the steps to perform it: 

  1. Approach the barbell for the snatch and use a grip approximately 1.5 times wider than your clean grip.
  2. Assume a deadlift position with your chest held high, maintaining proper posture.
  3. Execute the initial pull by extending your hips, knees, and ankles.
  4. Once the bar reaches knee height, employ triple extension (extending the ankle, knee, and hip) and a shrug to propel the bar forward.
  5. Project the bar upward, allowing your elbows to reach your ears.
  6. Swiftly pull yourself under the bar and descend into a squat position.
  7. Catch the bar overhead and perform an overhead squat to complete the movement.

3. Hang Snatch

The hang snatch engages various muscle groups, including the core, shoulders, and legs. It is an effective warm-up exercise for advanced weightlifting movements like the power clean and snatch pull.

Follow these steps to perform a hand snatch:

  1. Begin standing, feet hip-width apart, in front of a loaded barbell.
  2. Grasp the barbell with a snatch grip (hands wider than shoulder width) and hold it in the hang position.
  3. Push your feet into the floor and shrug your shoulders, generating explosive upward force to lift the bar overhead.
  4. Catch the barbell in a full squat position, maintaining stability.
  5. Stand up from the squat position and lower the barbell.

4. Split Jerk

A person doing split jerk workouts

The split jerk is a widely used jerk variation in weightlifting competitions. It involves receiving the bar in a lunge position, providing stability, and allowing for a deep catch.

Here’s how to perform this exercise: 

  1. Begin in the starting position with the bar on the front of your shoulders.
  2. Brace your core and slightly bend your knees.
  3. Push the bar upward by forcefully extending your legs.
  4. Catch the bar with straight arms in a lunge position.
  5. Step back with your front foot and then forward with your back foot.
  6. Control the bar above your head while standing with your feet together.
  7. Lower the bar back down to the front of your shoulders.

5. Front Squats

In my experience as a personal coach, I've found front squats to be more beneficial for beginners than back squats, especially for those with limited mobility.

They enable a deeper squat for individuals with limited mobility and assist in maintaining proper posture with an upright torso.

Here are the steps to perform front squats:

  1. Begin in the front rack position with the bar.
  2. Position your feet shoulder-width apart, slightly turned out.
  3. Engage your core and maintain a straight back.
  4. Shift your hips back and bend your knees deeply.
  5. Aim to have your hip crease lower than your knees while keeping your upper body vertical and maintaining the natural curve of your lower back.
  6. Keep the bar parallel to the floor throughout the movement.
  7. To rise back up, use the power of your legs while staying as upright as possible.

6. Back Squats

A person doing weight back squats

From my professional perspective, back squats are fundamental for beginners to build core strength.

While it primarily targets leg strength, it is combined with the front squat in weightlifting training.

To perform back squats:

  1. Set the barbell on a rack just below shoulder height.
  2. Position yourself under the bar, allowing it to rest across the top of your back.
  3. Grab the bar with a wide grip, wider than shoulder-width apart.
  4. Lift your chest and squeeze your shoulder blades together to maintain a straight back.
  5. Lift the bar off the rack and take a step back.
  6. Sit back into your hips while keeping your back straight and chest up, squatting until your hips are below your knees.
  7. From the bottom of the squat, push your feet into the ground and thrust your hips forward to return to a standing position.

7. Overhead Squats

The overhead squat targets the entire body, improving strength, flexibility, and mobility. It improves shoulder and abdominal stability, translating to better performance in the snatch or overhead press exercises.

Here's how to perform this movement:

  1. Place a barbell across your shoulders, wider than shoulder-width apart.
  2. Rotate your shoulders outward, lower your hips while keeping your chest high, and push the barbell overhead.
  3. Squat and perform an overhead press, extending your wrists and keeping a stable back and fully stretched arms.
  4. Pause at the top, maintaining chest height and extended elbows.
  5. Slowly lower into a squat until your legs are parallel to the floor, and pause at the bottom.
  6. Push your feet into the ground, extend your hips and knees, and stand tall to complete the movement.

Learn More: Squat Variations That Will Skyrocket Your Leg Gains

8. Romanian Deadlift

A person doing Romanian deadlifts

The Romanian deadlift is a recommended starting point for learning the Olympic deadlift technique.

It allows for eccentric loading (loading the muscles when they’re stretched), where control and strength are higher, making it easier to execute correctly.

Here's how to do Romanian deadlifts: 

  1. Stand with feet hip-distance apart, knees slightly bent, and a barbell in front of you.
  2. Hold the barbell with an overhand grip at hip level.
  3. Retract your shoulders and maintain a straight spine.
  4. Hinge your hips back, gradually lowering the bar towards your feet.
  5. Drive your hips forward to stand up, bringing the barbell in front of your thighs.

9. Push Press

This full-body exercise builds shoulder strength, power, and stability. It is often included in training after mastering the overhead press, benefiting weightlifters and athletes involved in jumping sports.

To do this exercise:

  1. Stand with feet hip-distance apart and place the barbell across your chest at shoulder height.
  2. Grip the bar slightly wider than shoulder-width with palms facing forward.
  3. Push through the feet and quickly straighten the legs for momentum.
  4. Fully extend the hips and press the barbell up.
  5. Move your head slightly back to allow space for the bar to pass.
  6. Reverse the movement and return the bar to the starting position.

10. Snatch Press

A person doing the snatch press

The snatch press strengthens the shoulder muscles, enhancing stability for Olympic weightlifting.

It also promotes a stable overhead position crucial for snatch and jerk movements, fostering the mind-body connection necessary for optimal barbell placement.

To perform the snatch press:

  1. Position the barbell on a chest-high rack or muscle snatch it onto your back.
  2. Duck under the bar and place it across your upper back and traps.
  3. Lift the bar off the rack, stepping back with your feet shoulder-width apart.
  4. Press the barbell upward, fully extending your arms overhead.
  5. Pause briefly at the top, then lower the barbell slowly back to the starting position.

11. Push Jerk

In this dynamic exercise, the hips and knees forcefully extend to propel the barbell from the shoulders. It requires throwing the bar upward and catching it with extended elbows.

Follow these steps to perform this movement:

  1. Position a bar on your shoulders with a grip slightly wider than shoulder-width apart and elbows down.
  2. Begin in front of the bar with a slight dip, bending the hips and knees while keeping your torso straight.
  3. Extend your hips and bring the bar upward without pausing at the bottom of the dip.
  4. Simultaneously press yourself under the bar as it moves upward.
  5. Catch the bar in a partial overhead squat with arms fully extended.
  6. Stand up to lock the bar directly overhead to complete one rep.

12. Snatch Pull

A person doing snatch pulls

Based on my expertise in performance psychology, I advocate for the snatch pull as a key exercise to develop strength, speed, control, and balance, essential elements in snatch training.

Advanced athletes use heavier weights to strengthen the snatch, but you can do it with lighter weights for technique refinement and balance training.

To perform this exercise: 

  1. Using a wide snatch grip, position the barbell on the floor near your shins.
  2. Lower your hips, keeping your back straight, head forward, chest up, and shoulders slightly in front of the bar.
  3. Start the first pull by driving through your heels while extending your knees.
  4. Move the weight with control as it rises above your knees.
  5. Transition to the second pull, where acceleration occurs. Extend your hips explosively as the bar reaches mid-thigh, mimicking a jumping motion.
  6. Use a burst of speed to propel the bar upward, extending your hips, knees, and ankles.
  7. At the end of the second pull, achieve full extension while leaning slightly back.
A person working out with olympic weights

From my experience, I emphasize that beginners in Olympic weightlifting should primarily focus on skill acquisition through consistent practice, a principle I've applied in my coaching.

"Olympic lifting is very technical and to be good requires a lot of practice."

- Tom Hamilton, Powerlifter

However, weightlifting training sessions can be physically demanding, and fatigue can compromise your form even with lighter weights, as stated in a 2021 study from the Sports Journal [1].

Therefore, psychological aspects and mental preparation are crucial in Olympic weightlifting.

Also, to overcome this challenge, employ a training program that involves multiple sets of low to moderate repetitions with shorter rest periods.

For instance:

  • Perform 6 sets of 4 reps, resting for 90 seconds between each set.
  • Perform 8 sets of 3 reps, allowing 90 seconds of rest between sets.
  • Perform 10 sets of 1 rep, resting for 60 seconds between each set.

What Weights Should Beginners Use?

Close up shot of weights

Beginners should start with just the barbell (standard weight: 45 pounds for men, 35 pounds for women).

Gradually increase the training volume with 5-pound intermittent plates once you have mastered the proper form and received confirmation from a professional trainer.

The training volume for a beginner weightlifting program should be manageable so that you can focus on good technique.

“Although I compete, I first learned the lifts for developing power for other sports. It's essentially jumping with weights, so it improves not only strength but speed and rate of force development."

- Alex Adams, Strength & Conditioning Coach

Sample 4-Day Beginner Olympic Weightlifting Program

A person doing Olympic weightlifting

Here is a sample 4-day beginner Olympic weightlifting program:

Day 1:

  • Clean and jerk: 4 sets of 5 reps with 60–70% of your one-rep maximum (1RM)
  • Power clean: 3 sets of 8 reps with 50–60% 1RM
  • Front squat: 4 sets of 6 reps with 60–70% 1RM
  • Push press: 3 sets of 8 reps with 50–60% 1RM
  • Romanian deadlift: 3 sets of 8 reps with 50–60% 1RM

Day 2:

  • Snatch: 4 sets of 5 reps with 60–70% 1RM
  • Hang snatch: 3 sets of 8 reps with 50–60% 1RM
  • Back squat: 4 sets of 6 reps with 60–70% 1RM
  • Push jerk: 3 sets of 8 reps with 50–60% 1RM
  • Snatch pull: 3 sets of 8 reps with 50–60% 1RM

Day 3:

A person lifting olympic weights
  • Power clean: 4 sets of 5 reps with 60–70% 1RM
  • Back squat: 4 sets of 6 reps with 60–70% 1RM
  • Push press: 3 sets of 8 reps with 50–60% 1RM
  • Hang snatch: 3 sets of 8 reps with 50–60% 1RM

Day 4:

  • Snatch: 4 sets of 5 reps with 60–70% 1RM
  • Clean and jerk: 4 sets of 5 reps with 60–70% 1RM
  • Split jerk: 3 sets of 8 reps with 50–60% 1RM
  • Romanian deadlift: 3 sets of 8 reps with 50–60% 1RM
  • Overhead squat: 3 sets of 8 reps with 50–60% 1RM

Benefits of Olympic Weightlifting

A person lifting Olympic weights

Drawing from both my academic knowledge and practical coaching experience, I've identified several benefits of Olympic weightlifting applicable to all skill levels:

  • Body composition: The Olympic movements engage multiple muscle groups, promoting calorie burn, lean tissue growth, increased strength, and decreased body fat.
  • Muscular power and strength: Olympic weightlifting emphasizes fast movements, enhancing muscular power and preventing declines that can lead to falls and injuries, particularly in older adults, as per a PLOS One Journal study [2].
  • Improve bone density: The high forces exerted during Olympic lifts stimulate the body to strengthen bones and improve density [3].
  • Coordination: According to Clinical Interventions in Aging journal research, precise coordination, rhythm, and timing in Olympic lifts improve body awareness and coordination, benefiting daily activities and cognitive abilities [4].
  • Range of motion: Contrary to the misconception that heavy lifting causes stiffness, Olympic lifts require a full range of motion, promoting flexibility and mobility in critical joints.
  • Work capacity: Programming the lifts with shorter rest periods enhances work capacity, enabling faster recovery and adaptation to high-intensity training, as shown in the study from the Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Medicine [5].


What Muscle Should Be Strong for Olympic Weightlifting?

For Olympic weightlifting, your glutes and quadriceps must be strong. These muscles produce force during mobility exercises required to stand up with the barbell during the lifting process, particularly after the catch phase.

How Long Should I Exercise as a Beginner Weightlifter?

As a beginner weightlifter, you should limit your training sessions to a maximum of 90 minutes. This timeframe includes 10-minute warm-ups to prepare your body for the workout and 5 minutes for a brief post-session stretching routine.


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About The Author

James Cunningham, BSc, CPT
Staff Writer & Senior Coach
James Cunningham, BSc, CPT holds a BSc degree in Sport & Exercise Science from University of Hertfordshire. He's a Health & Performance Coach from London that brings a unique blend of academic knowledge of health supplements and practical exercise experience to the table for his readers.
Learn more about our editorial policy
Benedict Ang, CPT, PN1-NC
Staff Writer & Senior Coach
Benedict Ang, CPT, PN1-NC is an ex-National Soccer player turned MMA and Kickboxing champion, with ACE CPT and PN1-NC certifications. His advice is rooted in education and experience, ensuring that readers receive scientific and battle-tested insights. His mission is to empower his clients and readers to realize their potential and become the best versions of themselves.
Learn more about our editorial policy
Dr. Harshi Dhingra, MBBS, MD is a published peer-reviewed author and renowned physician from India with over a decade of experience. With her MBBS from Bharati Vidyapeeth and an MD from Rajiv Gandhi University, she actively ensures the accuracy of online dietary supplement and medical information by reviewing and fact-checking health publications.
Learn more about our editorial policy

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