The origins of weightlifting as a sport are primal, with the main goal the ability to lift more weight than an opponent. The competitive sport of weightlifting is a separate discipline from the athletic training that is defined by the umbrella term weight training. Weight training is used by athletes to build muscle mass, strength, and endurance; to improve performance in a particular sport; or to generally enhance overall fitness.
In weightlifting, as in boxing and wrestling, there is a well-defined correlation between the size of the athlete and the amount of weight that the athlete is capable of lifting. Competitive weightlifting is a sport in which the competition is organized into weight categories, with defined limits that are confirmed by a weigh-in of each athlete prior to competition.
Weightlifting competitions were known to have occurred in both the ancient Olympics as well as the traditional Scottish Highland Games. Weightlifting has been a part of the modern Olympic Games since 1896. Women's weightlifting, using similar principles in the determination of weight categories, became an Olympic sport in 2000. The eight categories used in Olympic men's weightlifting begin at 123 lb (56 kg), continuing to the heaviest category for competitors weighing more than 231 lb (105 kg). The women's categories range from 105 lb (48 kg) to those competitors heavier than 165 lb (75 kg).
Olympic weightlifting includes two different forms of competition at each of the weight categories, the snatch and the clean and jerk. All Olympic weightlifting is conducted using a bar that is loaded with the requisite weight to be attempted in the lift. Each event has a prescribed technique that the athlete must apply; each technique serves as proof that weightlifting is far more than an exercise in simple brute strength.
Successful lifters in the snatch event will endeavor to generate maximum muscle power with their hands grasping the bar, the back held erect, and legs bent in a low, crouched position in front of the bar. With a movement that coordinates the entire musculoskeletal structure, athletes first generate maximum possible force with pushing their feet and calf muscles into the floor to act as a counterbalance to the lift of the bar upward. Lifters then bring the bar approximately level to the thighs, at which point they lift the weight with a powerful coordinated thrust to move the bar above the head. At this position, the bar is thrown slightly upward, to permit the lifters to place their body directly under the bar; when the bar is judged to have been held in a steady position, the lift is deemed legal.
The clean and jerk is a two-step maneuver. The clean portion of the lift refers to the lifting of the bar from the ground. The bar is lifted into a position where the athlete may then crouch with the bar approximately across the chest in a pronounced squat position, with the weight of the bar directly above the lifter's hips. The jerk sequence requires the lifter to forcefully drive the legs and hips upward, and with a coordinated exertion of the arms, the bar is lifted above the head. The closer to a perpendicular body position the lifter can maintain, the more efficient the action of the muscles employed on the bar.
A form of competitive weightlifting outside the Olympic format is power lifting. Power lifting is comprised of the individual disciplines of the bench press (the traditional technique of lifting a weighted bar while lying on a training bench), the squat (a maneuver similar to the first part of the clean and jerk event), and the dead lift, the lifting of a weighted bar off the floor.
As with many strength disciplines, such as the shot put or the hammer throw, the successful weightlifter is the athlete who can harness great muscular strength with efficient technique. As weightlifting requires all muscle groups to work in a coordinated effort, the weight training required to support competitive weightlifting must develop all muscle groups. No sport places greater importance on the development of core strength, the ability of the abdominal, lumbar (lower back), and groin tissues to stabilize the body during a lift, particularly as the weights are moved forcefully upward in both the snatch and the clean and jerk. Significant portions of weightlifting training are devoted to the stretching, flexibility, and development of these core strength structures.
As weightlifting requires explosive movement in the execution of all lifts, especially in the legs and hips, plyometrics training is also an important tool. Unlike the plyometrics that would be employede by a basketball player or a long jumper, the weightlifter seeks to develop the fast-twitch muscles fibers to move the bar upward once positioned.
In the 1970s and 1980s, weightlifting was perceived by many observers as a sport much corrupted by anabolic steroid use. As a strength sport, there is no question that anabolic steroids could create a significant competitive advantage for a user. Weight-lifters are now subjected to the same types of performance-enhancing substance testing as all other athletes. As a sport where adherence to weight categories is required, weightlifters must also comply with the prohibitions concerning the diuretics that are listed on the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) Prohibited List; diuretics mask anabolic steroid use, and they are an illegal method by which to lose weight in advance of competition to meet a required weight limit. Whether the sport has been entirely made clean of the use of anabolic agents is unclear. At the 2006 Commonwealth Games, the world's second largest sports festival after the Olympics, a large cache of doping paraphernalia was found; its use was attributed to the members of the Australian weight-lifting team.