With so much research on the benefits of strength training, stationary bikes are steadily losing company to stainless steel. And while an increase in the number of people strength training is a great thing, it’s time to introduce some nuance to the conversation.
Strength training is a broad term that encompasses a wide variety of modalities, sports, movement patterns, and equipment. Here, we define what exactly qualifies as strength training and explain the differences between two different competitive strength-training sports: powerlifting and Olympic lifting.
Strength Training, Defined
Just as cardio and cardiovascular training are umbrella terms for any kind of aerobic exercise that involves increasing your heart rate, strength training is an umbrella term, too. Strength training, in short, is any kind of exercise that involves contracting and relaxing your muscles, explains strength and conditioning coach Reda Elmardi, R.D., C.S.C.S., founder of The Gym Goat.
Furthermore, just as there are a variety of activities that qualify as cardiovascular training— running, swimming, jump roping, and rowing, for example— there are a variety of activities that qualify as strength training.
Some strength training exclusively utilizes bodyweight resistance exercises like pushups, burpees, air squats, and planks. (Bootcamp classes, TRX workouts, and pilates commonly fall into this category.) Other strength-training regimes, however, incorporate equipment such as barbells, weight plates, dumbbells, kettlebells, medicine balls, sandbags, and other weighted gizmo and gadgets. (CrossFit and bodybuilding, for example, use these tools.)
Two other activities that fall under the strength-training umbrella and utilize strength equipment? Powerlifting and Olympic lifting.
Powerlifting and Olympic Lifting Are Strength Sports
Powerlifting and Olympic lifting are two types of strength training that also happen to be competitive sports—and the two are often confused for one another and misunderstood. While both require the use of a barbell and weight plates, they are as different from one another as soccer and lacrosse.
Olympic lifting—named such because it’s the only strength sport with Olympic presence—tests an athlete’s ability to move a barbell explosively and with impressive precision. The sport encompasses just two lifts, dubbed “the Olympic lifts”: the snatch and the clean and jerk. Both of these barbell movements require a hearty combination of raw strength, explosiveness, and technique, according to certified strength and conditioning coach Jake Harcoff, C.S.C.S., C.I.S.S.N., head coach and owner of AIM Athletic.
Powerlifting, meanwhile, is a brute strength sport that tests athletes on three core movements known collectively as ‘the power lifts’: the squat, deadlift, and bench press (in that order). If you’ve spent any time watching people lift at your local gym or box, odds are you’ve seen someone do a power lift. As Harcoff says, “Many people who strength train use power lifts in their training, even if they would not recognize that they’re actually training a specific sport.”
At both Olympic lifting and powerlifting meets—these sports’ take on a game or match—athletes compete against other athletes of similar weights to see who can lift the most amount of weight total, explains Elmardi.
In both sports, you get to attempt one rep of each of the movements three different times. In the case of powerlifting, that means nine total attempts to achieve the highest total possible weight lifted across all three movements. In Olympic lifting, that means getting your hands on the barbell a total of six times over the duration of the meet.
Powerlifting Isn’t Just For Competitors
Yes, powerlifting lifting may be a competitive sport. But just as someone might enjoy lacing up even if they never have a desire to run an official 5K or marathon race, you can try your hand at these three barbell movements even if you never want to put on a singlet (akin to a weightlifter’s leotard) and hit the competition floor. Actually, trainers say that average exercisers should give these lifts a whirl.
Assuming your current mobility and health allow you to execute the movements safely and with sound form, Harcoff says that anyone can benefit from incorporating the power lifts. “Deadlifting, benching, and squatting all have a high metabolic cost, which means they burn a lot of calories,” he says. Long term, that means incorporating the movements can help you meet your weight-loss goals and/or maintain a healthy weight.
The movements also excel at building muscle mass, which helps injury-proof your body—especially as you age. “They also do a good job of loading the skeleton axially to promote increased bone density,” Harcoff adds. For people with a family history of osteoporosis, he says, this is especially noteworthy.
Olympic Lifting Should Be Done With Supervision
No doubt, the two Olympic lifts also have the power to help people meet their weight loss, strength, and health goals, according to Harcoff. However, because Olympic lifts are more technical and require greater mobility, flexibility, and explosiveness than power lifts, they are not the best fit for the general population.
“If your goal is simply to improve body composition, build muscle, or improve your cardiovascular system, there are many other more direct styles of training that are less intensive technically and safer,” he says. Sticking to other forms of strength training—including compound lifts, power lifts, bodybuilding style movements, and even bodyweight classics—will be adequate.
Still, taking the time to develop the mobility and movement patterns that the Olympic lifts require may be worth it for some people—particularly those who do other speed and power sports like football, short-distance running, rugby, and more. Because the Olympic lifts require a tremendous amount of explosiveness, mastering them has a carry-over benefit for athletes who need to be explosive on the field or court, Elmardi explains.
As it goes, the American Sports & Fitness Association suggests that people who are interested in Olympic lifting hire a personal trainer who specializes in Olympic lifting to set them on the right track. To be clear, if you don’t have the financial means (or patience) to work with a trainer to learn how to Olympic lift, Harcoff recommends skipping it; the potential injury risk isn’t worth it.
How To Figure Out Which Type Of Strength Training To Try
“Everyone should be strength training in some capacity,” says Harcoff. Why? Because “time and time again, strength has been proven to be a fundamental determinant of your overall health and longevity,” he says.
Strength training is especially important for older adults, since after the age of 30, humans naturally begin to lose muscle mass at a rate of about three to five percent per decade. “The best thing older people can do to slow down the loss of muscle loss is to strength train,” he says.
Still, the type(s) of strength training you try is up to you! “The number-one thing you need to do to determine the best kind of strength work for you is to figure out what your goal is,” says Harcoff. Whether you want to become a competitive weightlifter, compete in powerlifting, get better at a specific sport, or simply look different, the best style of training for you will be the style that most effectively helps you reach your goals.
Once you identify your goals, Harcoff and Elmardi suggest calling on a fitness professional to help you develop a fitness regime that takes your goals, age, training age, time constraints, and lifestyle factors into account. This program may end up incorporating the Olympic and/or power lifts…or it may not!
“If you have any pre-existing injuries, be sure to mention them to the expert,” notes Elmardi. “Even if they may seem minor, they could still cause problems down the road if you don’t properly tend to them.”
Finally, start the program created for you with intention. No matter which strength exercises you add in, you want to learn to do them with proper form—and that stands even if you aren’t squatting, deadlifting, bench pressing, cleaning, jerking, or snatching with a barbell. “Start with light weights, low reps, and short sets—and get eyes on your form,” says Elmardi. Once you’ve mastered your movement patterns with lower weight, add weight and increase the number of repetitions, he says.
The Bottom Line
Strength training of any kind can truly change your life. “Over time, you’ll see great changes in just how much you’re able to lift at the gym,” says Elmardi. And out of the gym, you’ll also notice benefits such as reduced stress, improved confidence, greater ease during day-to-day movements, and more, he says.
If power and/or Olympic lifts end up being part of your regime, great! But if they don’t, that’s OK, too. The fact that you strength train at all is what matters most.