Weight classes in Olympic weightlifting (competition and training)
7 min read
December 26, 2022
Fil was at the Welsh Senior Weightlifting competition this past weekend. Aside from winning the competition (low quality flex), one of the main take-aways was that people need to think about weight classes in Olympic Weightlifting more seriously.
I wanted to touch down on the topic because it seems like so many people - especially new lifters and newer competitive weightlifters - need to think about their weight class slightly differently.
We're going to split this into two parts:
- Weight classes in training
- Weight classes in competition
As you might imagine, that's because your bodyweight categories may fluctuate between sessions, competitive seasons, and goal. Let's start with the bodyweight categories and their rough heights.
In the 1980s, Soviet lifters were dominating weightlifting competition. They were up there with the Bulgarians as the "big 2" for the top spots in the world, with the Soviet-influenced Germans winning some "outside" medals on good days.
There's no point denying it; Soviet and Bulgarian lifters were drawing from the same coaching and training philosophy. They were, also, relying on the studies that came out in the Olympic weightlifting world through the now-famous Soviet sport science program under guys like Vorobeyev, Kurachenkov, Pilipovsky, Tumanyan, and Martirosov)
One key piece of research on weight classes (or weight categories) was the relationship between height, body weight, and body composition:]
To this day, you'll find different weight classes and heights discussed in studies from nations with a real Weightlifting development system. The UK doesn't really have one, so it's good to try and learn from countries that take weightlifting competition more seriously
(Even if that comes at the cost of them regularly doping their athletes to high heaven. Swings and roundabouts.)
Choosing Weight Class - Or Not?
Weight categories are semi-flexible: you can choose which weight classes you're going to compete in, but you can't choose weight classes you're going to be good in.
You can lose weight or put on muscle and focus on weight gain. But you've still got to account for your height first and foremost: your height scales your potential. It also leads us right into the simplest - but most complex - lesson for today's article:
Shorter guys are better at lifting big weights in any weight class, as long as they don't end up getting fat.
Being shorter means more muscle per kilo of total bodyweight, and a lot of the more recent studies back this up (Ford et al, 2000). Bone and fat needs to take up less total weight, especially in those "mid-range" weight classes like the 83s and 96s. You see a wide range of different bodies in these classes and it can be a huge advantage or drawback.
Obviously, it's important to choose the right weight class, since you can't choose your height. This is where we run into the main challenge and dilemma of weight classes for Olympic weightlifting: competition vs training weights.
Training 'Weight Class': Body Composition and Weight Out Of Competition
Training weight is the weight you maintain between weightlifting competitions: you put on extra mass, especially water and fat mass, to allow for better recovery between training sessions, as a way to improve recovery resources and keep energy levels high.
You want to weigh as much as is reasonably possible for your weight class, since you will still need to lose weight to make your category. This means around 5% extra bodyweight is typical for 'training weight' (such as 100kg lifters around 105-6kg in training).
Competitive weightlifters will take every advantage they can get. This often means making their respective weight classes for about 45 seconds on the day of the competition before bulking back up and putting on water weight.
In reality, most '100kg' athletes lift at 105 on the day. Similarly, Fil's "102kg" is more like 106kg by the time warm-ups are finished and the lifting starts.
So let's get a bit more specific about weight classes, performance, and more. We want to look at things you can do, what you should do, and how you make the two play nicely together - which is sometimes harder than it sounds.
What Are The Weight Classes For Olympic Weightlifting?
First, the basics. There are currently five weight divisions for men and women alike at the 2024 Paris Olympics. The men's Olympic weightlifting competition body weight classes are:
- under 61kg
- under 73kg
- under 89kg
- under 102kg
- 102kg+ (the super-heavyweights or, lovingly, 'supers')
You also get some weight classes that aren't contested at the Olympic games (because the international weightlifting federation's reputation is garbage right now): -55kg, -67kg, -81kg, -96kg, -109kg.
The women's Olympic weightlifting competition body weight classes are:
- under 49kg
- under 59kg
- under 71kg
- under 81kg
- 81kg+ (again, the supers)
For women, the classes that are contested at continental and world championships - but not the Olympic games - are: -41kg, -55kg, -64kg, -76kg, and -87kg.
Here's an important note: if you're not an Olympic games level athlete, or international representative for your country, don't worry. You don't need to be in an Olympic games contested class until you're actually - you know - good enough to qualify in the next 2-5 years.
You'd like to think so, but don't. Just stay in your lane and get better for now.
Cutting weight vs lifting more: The qualification total conundrum.
To become the best weightlifter possible, you need years under your belt, and I don't mean 2 years - more like 10. Longevity is the name of the game and cutting weight to achieve qualification totals now, is a silly one to play.
The two ideas - of cutting weight and lifting more tin - compete. You can do both, for a while, but you need to dedicate time to each as you improve. Weightlifting training programs happen in phases, and your weight is going to fluctuate.
You want more energy availability during high-volume, gut-busting squatting blocks. You want to ease down to your weight class to compete. It's clearly a bit more nuanced than 'eat everything, lift everything' - but not much more
Whilst cutting weight to qualify for events with numbers you already have is appealing. Consider this. What happens next?
Actually improving your lifting, getting bigger, stronger and more technically proficient - earning those championship spots - takes time. We’re assuming that's ultimately what you want right?
Going all in to qualify for those competitions now, starving yourself, water cutting and in general being miserable about your weightlifting might get you to the competition. But everything comes at the cost of something.
In this case its losing out on productive strength building time. Is that a price you’re willing to pay?
For most athletes - and especially those without a sporting background in another discipline - it's usually most important to gain muscle for a long while. This is because:
- Olympic weightlifting is a strength sport - build muscle and get stronger
- Extra calories make training more productive and bearable
- Cutting weight to fit a weight class can be deleterious to health
- Higher bodyweight relative to height (within reason) tends to improve total lifting quality
- Athletes who weigh more are less likely to get injured - which is pretty important
- It's easier to lose weight when you have more muscle mass - which is kinda nice.
Sometimes it's important to oversimplify, and here's my attempt at that: you can always cut down later on, but you're also quite likely to regret not getting big and strong early on.
You only really need to get strong once, as you can typically maintain and build strength while cutting down after you've built more muscle and strength. It's better to squat 300 and get chubby, then cut down and squat 270, than never getting off the ground because you were fixating on weight divisions and sinclair points like a loser.
Worry about getting strong, staying healthy, and lifting better. You can worry about weight divisions later, when you're lifting enough to put you on a podium somewhere.
Also, remember this you’re not getting any stronger during competition prep phases, you’re just maximising use of the strength you already have. Similarly, you ain’t getting any bigger or stronger in a huge calorie deficit.
A few kilos off your bodyweight now might score you a qualification or even a medal but, sooner or later, your competitors with bigger and stronger legs will be head and shoulders above you and you'll be playing catch up.
Build the qualities you need later now, and worry about optimising your weight class when you're at a level where that - not strength or technique - is the biggest factor between a win or loss.
How does that sit in your long-term development plan? Let's see...
The long term plan - out-lasting the opposition.
Strategic planning of your weightlifting career puts you ahead of the game.
Competition cycles, strength phases, rest, all need scheduling in to get the most out of them. We’ve spoken about the dangers of not planning ahead elsewhere. Nutrition and choosing bodyweight categories is no different.
A good coach will be having these discussions with you.
Bouncing around weight categories, cutting weight one month and ‘massing’ the next has a net zero benefit. You need months if not years to acclimatise to a new higher or lower weight class.
Our blanket advice for newer lifters? Always up, never down. The benefits simply outweigh those of the alternative.
Sensible Chad - Hadn’t achieved the qualification total yet so didn’t bother attempting to qualify for the championships this year. Enjoyed a year of flexible dieting, building strength in the compound lifts with a decreased chance of injury. Progressed well, surpassed the qualification total by end of year and is now in medal contention when he does go.
Vs. Lifetime Intermediate- Hadn’t hit the qualification total yet so cut two weight categories instead. Maxed out off program for 2 months because he ‘knew he could hit it’ and he eventually did but he also injured himself in the process. Made no meaningful gains in the compound lifts as he was too busy sending it. Went 2 for 6 at the championship. Didn’t qualify the following year because standards increased.
Cutting weight to become more ‘competitive’ is a decision for you and you coach to make - Once, and only once, you’ve actually achieved some qualification totals.
If you’re cutting weight AND hoping to increase your total? Good luck. Even if it works in the short term, it's probably not a reliable plan, and typically only works for relative newcomers to the sport. Weightlifters don’t get to be weak.
It’s easy to spot who’ll be around in 2-3 year time and who won’t. If you’re serious about the sport and getting to the highest level, you have to plan ahead, your nutrition included. Don’t get caught on the hamster wheel chasing clout.
You’ll be out of the sport before you know it.
So what weight class should you be in?
As a beginner: you're in whatever weight class the scale says - you don't need to focus on weight classes. Learn the sport, build technique, get strong. Prepare for what's to come - and have fun at comps without sucking the joy out of your life with numbers. That'll come later.
As an intermediate: go up, not down, unless you're really overweight for your frame. More bodyweight is good if it's contractile mass or, at least, water weight. If you're just getting fat, reel things in and focus on quality of weight gain, not just quantity. Start thinking about the range of classes that guys/gals your height succeed in and start slowly getting there.
As an advanced lifter: talk to your coach. Don't have a coach? get one. We will be your coach if you throw us some groccery money - that's fine, too. If we were your coach, we'd say: 'get into the class that is the most you could weigh, realistically, at a bodyfat of around 12%'.
We want you to be fed, fuelled, and training hard while still providing a good force-to-weight ratio on the platform. Train high, compete at whatever weight class you can make without sacrificing your total to the cruel weight loss gods - weight cutting sucks and you only want to do it when you're:
- Already muscular
- In contention for medals or a serious qualification
- About to snipe that Olympics selection from another athlete
- Non-functionally heavy ('fluffy' is our kind term, we've all been there)
- Definitely able to perform well in different weight classes
- Wildly tall or short for a class based on the Russian stats (they're good guidelines)
The final ranking in most competitions just doesn't matter. When you're a competitive Olympic lifter at a level that is at least national, but typically international, you have to start asking the hard questions about weight and body composition.
For most people, it's a question of maximising strength and muscle. It makes cutting down easier, drives up results (the important stuff), and it's easy to reverse later on as you lift more weight and become increasingly competitive.
It's just like anything else: start with thee most impactful things, and work your way down to the minutiae. Focus on maintaining a good training weight for your height and goals, remember that slow weight gain is the best way to get stronger reliably, and work on honing you craft.
Get a coach, and they'll let you know when your body weight needs to be the main focus of nutrition and training. Don't try to weigh in 7kg under your training weight - emaciated - to win a local open. It's bad for your training, your health, and your reputation as that lifter.