Olympic Weightlifting: Exercise Selection

Olympic Weightlifting Exercise Selection

Exercise selection for Olympic weightlifting is one of the more challenging aspects of coaching. When taking in a group of beginners, regardless of age, you must ensure that they’re challenged technically and physically, whilst improving their capacity to set and achieve goals. This will obviously require the athlete (you or your students) to begin living a life more attune with success and achievement from a fitness perspective. This means the athlete in question will need to give the sport a certain level of dedication – the lifts are particularly taxing on the body given their primarily compound nature, so an athlete specific olympic weightlifting program is essential. You can read more on how to program for olympic weightlifting here.

To establish the correct weightlifting exercise selection, we must know the athlete’s current ability, sporting background, cardiovascular capacity and technical proficiency. When working with large groups of beginners, picking exercises is a relatively simple task usually involving a form of:

  • Squat variation
  • Olympic Lift technique work
  • Olympic Lift variation
  • Hypertrophy
  • Plyometrics – including version of the box jump
  • Circuit Training

For a beginner session and weightlifter, the above would be sufficient enough the drill the technique and improve their overall strength. The skill is working out how much each lifter requires to progress and how to make them keep coming back. They must be tired enough at the end of each session and beginners need to try using the weights in each session so that it doesn’t become a repetitive set of lifts with a weightless barbell, or even worse, a wooden bar. Don’t be that coach…

A key consideration when planning your / your athlete’s exercise selection is their background and current athletic state. If you or they come from a powerlifting or bodybuilding background for example, their muscles should be well developed and they should have at least a reasonable level of strength. They’re also likely to understand what to eat, how to recover and what it would take to succeed in this type of sport.

Conversely, coming from a powerlifting / bodybuilding background is likely to mean the chest will be over developed and a lack of flexibility will be the initial hampering factors. As you diagnose this problem for yourself or your athlete, your exercise selection will begin to flesh out parts of your Olympic lifting program.

An athlete with a powerlifting or bodybuilding background should have a greater focus on:

  • Overhead Squat
  • Footwork specific drills
  • Snatch Balance
  • Jerk Balance
  • Hang & Low Hang positions

If you were to come from a more technical background, such as gymnastics or ice skating, the individual in question would arguably have no trouble mastering the footwork, hand positioning and more technical elements of the lift; their sticking point would most likely be strength and hypertrophy based, which is a simpler fix. However they can easily become too advanced for their connective structures and ligaments to handle. In lieu of this strength becomes more important for them than technique.

An athlete with a more technical background should have a greater focus on:

  • Strength and Bodybuilding exercises
  • Posterior chain development
  • Isometric Holds

Olympic Weightlifting Exercises for Beginners

This is quite a long list, but it’s important to remember that overall strength development is optimally achieved by incorporating a wide range of exercises. In doing so not only can you establish where the individual’s strengths are, but also where their weak points lie. When you know this you can begin individualising their olympic weightlifting program.

Weightlifting Exercises

  1. Snatch
  2. Clean & Jerk
  3. Clean
  4. Hang Snatch
  5. Hang Clean
  6. Low Hang Snatch
  7. Low Hang Clean
  8. High Hang Snatch
  9. High Hang Clean
  10. Power Snatch
  11. Power Clean
  12. Hang Power Snatch
  13. Hang Power Clean
  14. Jerk from Blocks
  15. Push Jerk
  16. Power Jerk
  17. Split Jerk
  18. Snatch Pull
  19. Clean Pull
  20. Snatch Grip Deadlift
  21. Clean Grip Deadlift

Strength Building Exercises

  1. Back Squat
  2. Front Squat
  3. Deadlift
  4. Bench Press
  5. Overhead Press
  6. Romanian Deadlift
  7. Snatch Grip Overhead Press
  8. Deficit Deadlift
  9. Paused Squat(s)
  10. Lunges

Olympic Weightlifting Technique Improvements

  1. Overhead Squat
  2. Paused Overhead Squat
  3. Snatch Balance
  4. Jerk Balance
  5. Jerk Recovery
  6. Jerk Lockout
  7. Flat footed Snatch Grip Deadlift
  8. Flat footed Clean Grip Deadlift
  9. Sots Press


  1. Box Jumps
  2. Weighted jump variations
  3. Pull-ups
  4. Weighted Pull-ups
  5. Explosive Push-ups
  6. Abdominal work

So this range of 50 or so exercises is more than sufficient for a beginner (class 3 lifter) to progress into a intermediate (class 2) lifter. In order to find out the best mix of these exercises for the individual, it’s important to try each and every one, as an athlete is only as good as the weakest portion of his lift. As the individual progresses, traditionally the number of exercises will diminish.

For example, if an athlete has a weak posterior chain, their RDL’s and deadlift variation lockout will be weak. If the individual has a weak press, obviously their bench press and overhead press will be weak and this would result in the athlete being more susceptible to injury. If they struggle with box jumps in comparison to their peers, it’s likely they haven’t developed their fast twitch fibres and will struggle with the power variations of the olympic lifts. Remember – any exercise you hate, you likely hate it because you’re not very good at it. If this is the case, be self-critical and work on your weak points.

So, from the above we then have to work out how to factor all of these lifts into the micro and meso cycles. I tend to run a variation of the Conjugate method which you can read more about in my complete guide to Westside Barbell here. This incorporate a lots of max effort and speed work on your max effort and dynamic effort days, which will be far too taxing for a beginner or someone not at all used to weightlifting.

You need to take into account annual volume, (which is traditionally set up to around 9,000 reps per year for a class three lifter), the number of lifts in the 90% and above rep range, the monthly, weekly and even daily volume. All of this will help prevent burnout when done correctly and allow the athlete to improve their overall physical strength and recovery capabilities.

If we are working with a yearly volume of up to 9,000 repetitions / athlete and on the basis of a 40 week year (to allow for deloads and holidays) then we would need to hit somewhere around 1,000 repetitions a ‘working’ month. This equals around 225-275 per week and on the basis of a 4 day ‘lifting’ week, somewhere around 55-70 repetitions / session. The optimal training load varies depends on what program you’re following. Generally speed reps around the 55-70% mark are ideal and strength training above 80%. If we are to follow Prilepin’s chart (below), you can see the ideal rep range and number of sets for the weight.

If we are working on a 4 day per week basis as a beginner or as Bob Takano classifies it in his book as ‘a class 3 lifter*,’ then it would look something like the following:

Day 1 

– Squat variation

– Olympic Lift x 1

– Strengthening movement x 2

– Abdominals

Day 2

– Squat variation

– Olympic Lift x 1

– Olympic Technique x 2

– Plyometrics

– Circuit Training

Day 3

– Olympic Lift x 1

– Strength Builder x 2

– Olympic Technique x 1

– Additional Hypertrophy

– Abdominals

Day 4

– Squat Variation

– Olympic Lift x 1

– Strength Builder x 1

– Plyometrics

– Abdominals

Typically for a beginner/intermediate amateur athlete you want the focus to be on speed, technique and strength. Overloading the individual with technical lifts and compound lifts that are overly taxing will be detrimental to long-term development, so one main Olympic lift and 1-2 strength builders is more than sufficient.

Taking this into account, it’s important to incorporate bodybuilding style movements for overall strength building, plyometrics for explosive power production, circuits for improved capacity in the long-term and obviously the main lifts (and variations of) themselves.

Then you just decide how to manage your daily, weekly and monthly volume to fit into your annual volume to keep improving – long-term volume and intensity are key (read more about periodisation here). If we’re working on the basis of 55-70 repetitions per session, with a base understanding that the initial phase of your programming will be more volume intensive, then we’re beginning to understand how to structure exercises and sessions.

So, happy lifting and use the below as a week 1 day 1 example of how many sets and reps to use, ensuring you increase or decrease the volume (weight or reps) where appropriate – competitions or athlete ability.

Squat variation: 4 x 3 @ 70-80%

Olympic lift: 4 x 3 @ 60-70%

Strength builder 1: 3 x 8-10 @ 50%

Strength Builder 2: 3 x 8-10 @ 50%


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